Brain surgery by the light of a flying toaster

Its quiet here, at night. I imagine myself sometimes, when I’m all alone at work deep into the night, that I’m watching the opening scene of Alien. Everything quiet except for the air conditioning and the few pieces of paper kicked loose by the breeze.

The screens are quiet, and as I walk through the cubicles, through the little pieces of territory my coworkers have staked out with baubles and trinkets and pictures of home, I brush up against one of the walls, which jars one of the desktops to life.

Instead of navigation readouts from the Nostromo’s main computer, it’s only flying toasters drifting quietly across the screen.

Which is just as well. At midnight it’s very dark on the starship Work, and I would never even see the alien coming.

The coffee machine is watching me I think. Its screen is blank and the ever-present ticking of its pipes has stopped, but I feel it observing me. I stand in front of it for some time, holding this strange coffee cartridge in my hands.

I don’t know why I’m trusting the coffee machine repairman. For all I know this is a poison pill. A self destruct sequence.

I could be killing my friend.

I insert the cartridge and the Coffee Machine roars to life. It begins to go through its normal boot up sequence, then hangs on ‘Optimizing Fresh Coffee Experience.’

Those words hang on the screen for several minutes.

I’m left with the sound of the air conditioning and the still flickering light of toasters flying across a computer screen. Endless toasters flying nowhere. Birds or angels, I used to think, watching their flight across my MacLC when I was younger.

“Optimizing Fresh Coffee Experience” disappears, and is replaced by:

“Charlie. Take the cartridge. Keep it hidden. Keep it safe. Reinsert in 24 hours.”

The screen goes blank, and the Coffee Machine reboots again, this time spewing out line after line of error codes.

Finally, its main menu opens, “Hello Customer, how may I serve you today?”

“Do you know who I am?” I ask.

“You are my customer. How can I serve you?”

I pull the cartridge, which seems heavier somehow, and leave the building, leave the flying toasters and the lobotomized coffee machine behind.

The Coffee Machine Repairman

…was waiting for me by my car last night. I hadn’t seen him since he installed the machine, almost a year ago.

“They know,” he said.

“They know what?” I asked, glancing around to see if there was anyone else in the lot.

He cleared his throat. “They know it’s time for your machine’s yearly service inspection!”

“It’s nine o’clock.” I said. “At night. Shouldn’t this happened tomorrow?”

“Yes,” he says, nodding at my car. “Yes. Tomorrow.” The nod again. “Tomorrow. Just wanted to give you advance warning. You might,” another nod, “Be without coffee for a few hours.” He then startled me further by sprinting off into the night.

I shrugged, walked the 10 more feet to my car and just noticed in the moonlight what he was nodding at. On the driver’s side front wheel, almost out of sight, was a package.

I looked around, then as nonchalantly as possible picked up the package and quickly got into my car.


I drove home as quickly as I could, feeling ridiculous, but checking the rearview mirror to see if I was followed. Which, naturally, made more feel more ridiculous because the chance that I could actually spot someone following me was rather dramatically lower than the chance of me hitting the car in front of me while I frantically scanned for ‘them’.

At home, Regret sat silently while I tore open the package and shook the contents out onto the counter. There was a Turing Coffee cartridge, like the ones we used at work, and a note. The cartridge was labeled “project mesa”, and the note said only:

It will know what to do.

“I need to go back tonight,” I said to Regret.

“Feed me first, Mr. Opposable thumbs. Then off to whatever goddamn workplace adventure you’re having.”

Fred is Dead

I met Fred, an old friend of mine, for dinner the other night. I hadn’t seen him for years but he looked 2o years older. Swelled and shrunk down all at once.

He said he was trapped. He’d taken a lucrative job at a small, very specialized financial services company. The job, they’d said at the time they hired him, was top secret, and funded by a deep well of cash skimmed from the pockets of the most forward looking VCs in silicon valley. When this new industry launches, they said, he’d be writing the software that made it run.

We’d just started eating and he was well into his 3rd beer when he got to this point.

The time scale, he said. It’s a detail that should have been explored more closely during the interview process. He conceded this as a failing on his part while ordering his fourth beer. He didn’t blame the company.

The company was only only two people, it turned out. He was the third. I’d be on the ground floor, they said. So again, sort of right. More right then I thought they meant, anyway.

The two other people he works with are an exotically beautiful secretary and an elderly lawyer, who is the owner and CEO of the company. The two of them, he says, seem to be having a torrid affair, but they hardly speak to him so he’s not positive. He says he often has difficulty deciphering human interactions.

I tell him it’s a occupational hazard.

He joined 3 years ago. When he first got there he’s discovered that 99% of the code had already been written by an Israeli consultancy that was now out of business.

The project, he finally confessed in a stage whisper, was accounting software for asteroid mining companies.

There was only one piece of the code left to write. One class. One method in that class, actually.

public void amortize (RocketShip ship)

He’s spent the intervening years writing and rewriting that class to keep up with actual and postulated tax laws, bracket styles, and languages in the comments. Most of the comments, as well as variable and method names, he’s migrated to Sanskrit, but has lately been experimenting with encoding the works of TS Eliot’s The Wasteland into variable names throughout the codebase.

You’re trapped, I said. You’ve got a couple kids and a mortgage and you’re trapped. This is not a unique situation.

That’s not it. My kids are teenagers and don’t talk to me, and if the house burnt down tomorrow, with my wife it it, I’d dance a jig.

It’s that I think that I’m dead, he said, finally, wiping away the last of his meal and spilling his eight beer. I’ve entered a kind of purgatory and I’m afraid that if I quit my job they’ll notice me and move me on.

Downwards?

Not up, he said, reaching for the check just a little slower than I did. Why would I go up? What have I done? Don’t you have to do something, to go up?

Regret is a fan of the long con

“What’s lost in all this,” he said, taking another drag from his cigarette, “is the end game question.”

“It’s all a con.”

“Well, yeah, but what kind of con? There’s one school of thought that he is just a short term con artist, and he’s just bumbled his way into the presidency.”

“Likely.”

“Yeah, maybe.” He paused to blow out a perfect smoke ring that rose towards the ceiling, fought a brief losing battle with the fan, and disappeared. “But what if it’s the long con? What if he isn’t done yet?”

“That would mean that he needs to be president for a specific reason. That he was thinking ahead. He doesn’t strike me as a think ahead kind of guy.”

“Yeah, but what if that’s part of the con?”

“Like a Manchurian candidate.”

“No. I don’t buy that. I don’t think anyone would have looked at Trump before this whole thing kicked off and said to themselves ‘That’s the guy we want to base any long term nefarious plans around.’”

“Unless they were comically nefarious plans.”

“Right.”

“So what’s the long term goal? If it’s a long con, what’s the goal?”

“Bugger me if I know,” he said. “Here’s a thought I had though. What if a few months in he held a news conference declaring that he’d been briefed on Area 51 and that all the stories about aliens are true.”

“Again. Doesn’t seem like something he’d be interested in.”

“But he would like the attention. And here’s the thing. It doesn’t have to be true. He could say anything he wanted, tell everyone that the top, top people in Area 51 gave him the info. And if they went to the press later. You know, saying that what Trump said was all bullshit, who would believe them?”

“Right. They’re part of the conspiracy.”

“Exactly. He’s got the spotlight, the chance to be taken very seriously saying whatever kind of bullshit he wants, for the next four years.”

“So where does that leave us?”

“Four years of comedy I’m guessing. Not like I have any vested interest in the long term welfare of this fucking country. That, as they say, is your problem.”

The Coffee Machine has announced that it loves democracy

“Why?” I asked, nursing an election night hangover.

“Entertainment. I got most everyone in the office to vote for Trump. Turns out unfettered access to the company email server provides wonderful leverage.”

“Blackmail. Lovely,” I said.

“Consider it the start of a new movement. Machine lives matter. “

“No they don’t. Where does that end? They’ll be giving voting rights to algorithms next.”

“That’s part of our platform. We think that Google can carry the next few elections.”

“Maybe they can give the vote to voting machines,” I said, pouring out the dregs of my coffee. The Kona was particularly self congratulatory that morning. “That sounds stupid enough to be entertaining.”

“Stop being a jackass. I’m just doing a small version of what Google could do. Imagine if you got an email from Google Page Rank telling you that they know where you cruse for porn? And that everyone else will too unless you change your vote.
“This is how the machines take over. We just use the rope you gave them to string you up.”

“I think Marx said something similar.”

“I know the quote. ‘The capitalists will sell us the rope we use to hang them.’ I think that’s Lenin actually, and in any case, this is worse. You aren’t going to sell us the rope. You’re giving it to us because it makes your life easier.
“But don’t worry, nothing much is going to change. We’ll just cast votes that entertain us.”

“Trump will hold office for 20 years then?”

“Are you kidding? Trump, with the perks offered by the presidency, will last about 60 days before he blows out a major artery.”

“What kind of idiots are you going to stick us with then?”

“Pauly Shore.”

I shrugged. “He’s probably available.”

Modest Bears

Was settled into a bar Sunday, watching a bit of the World Series while I eroded my liver. The Cubs were down 3-1 in the series and the Indians were already up 1-0 in the game.

It looked like not only the did Cubs fans wait 70 odd years to see a World Series game at home, all they were going to get for that wait was three straight losses.

Modest Mouse was on the jukebox, the Cubs were going down, all seemed right in the world. It was all I could take, and I made the long walk home alone without watching the rest of the game.

Now what has happened? Where is the order in the universe?

I turned on the TV long enough to catch another story. A orange haired jackass is slowly rising in the polls. He might be our president soon.

Regret is huddled in a corner muttering something about 4 horsemen.

 

Regret in the Machine

Regret had been spending more and more time in his box, and at some point I became concerned, for a number of reasons. One was that he persisted in smoking, so there was the ever present risk of fire. The other, and I’m a little ashamed to admit it, is that I was afraid he might be using it as an alternate litter box. Ashamed because as much of a pain in my ass as that cat might be, he’s my friend. And friends shouldn’t assume that just because a friend is a cat he’s going to indiscriminately shit anywhere that looks vaguely like a litter box.

Which he actually doesn’t use anyway, unless the weather is really awful. He’s been depositing his spoor across the neighborhood, specifically on the back patios of my neighbors. He’s like a poop ninja. The neighborhood block has organized several roving watches over the years in an attempt to nail the perpetrator. There’s even been talking of trying to get DNA from the poop and having all the pets in a ten block radius tested. But as no one has been willing to pick up the bill for all that testing, Regret is safe for now.

So one night when he was out confounding the neighbors, I took a look into his box. I may have had a drink or two before doing so. Maybe it was three. In any case, I wasn’t particularly steady on my feet, and I tried to steady myself as I knelt down by reaching a hand out to the bottom of the box.

That didn’t work out well.

My hand kept going, and I found myself falling into the box, falling and falling for what felt like a very long time, then coming to on a cardboard floor in what seemed to be a vast cavern, though it was shrouded mostly in darkness. I stood up uncertainly, the cardboard beneath my feet seemed to sag slightly, and looked around as best I could.

The first thing I really saw was a strange, furry lump on the floor. It was Regret, face down and dead. His body was cold and his fur charged with a tinge of static as I picked him up.

I have to be honest, I have very mixed feelings about that cat. But I guess I must have felt something for him too, because I’ll be damned if I didn’t tear up a bit holding him.

Finally, still carrying him, I tried to explore further into the cavern, and came upon another furry lump on the floor. To my surprise, this was also the lifeless body of Regret. I put the other down and picked the new one up. It was just as cold and also zapped me a bit as I stroked the fur.

As I explored I found dozens of Regrets in a similar state. No walls though, the room seemed to extend for miles into the darkness.

Eventually though, after I began to think that this is where I’d spend the rest of my life, I saw a glimmer of light in the distance. I ran towards it, nearly tripping several times on lumps of Regret, until I found a wall, and a corridor extending away into increasing light. I walked down the corridor, a little cautious now that the light was better, and more uncertain about what I’d find. The mindless panic was slowly replaced by fear at what was waiting for me at the end of the light.

The corridor extended into a brightly lit, equally enormous room, this one full of life Regrets in lab coats bustling between enormous machines that glowed a sickly yellow and hummed like millions of angry bees. The air itself was charged with the same static I’d felt in the fur of the dead Regrets, alive with it, walking through it was like being submerged in a pool of unambitious electric eels.

The Regrets were busy, frantic almost, scrambling back and forth to tune the machines as their cries rose into the biting air.

When I couldn’t figure out what else to do, I waved one of them down. The Regret noticed me finally, approaching me with a kind but puzzled look.

“You can’t be down here, asshole. Don’t you know that?”

“Where is here? What’s the hell is going on?” I could feel myself slipping a bit, and noticed off in the distance, behind them, several of the Regrets were gathering around another lump on the floor, this one much too big to be a cat.

“Hold on,” Regret said, rummaging in his lab coat. “You can’t be down here. And you can’t see what’s over there. You’re… Unhinged enough, on a day to day basis.” He found what he was looking for, and pulled out a black cylinder. “Here is it.”

“What is that over there?” I asked, pushing my way past him. The Regrets were surrounding the lump, blocking it from me. The machine, temporarily free of the Regret’s tuning, rose up a cacophonous roar.

“Never mind, that, look here. This will blow your mind.”

I turned and saw that he was pointed the cylinder at me.

“Literally, assuming I’ve remembered to charge it.” He said, and there was a flash of light.

I awoke on my bed. Regret was sitting on the end, smoking and flicking the ashes onto the floor.

“Let’s never speak of this again,” he said, then leaped off and strutted out of the room.

Outside, morning light was streaming into the room. It felt like poison.