Jay Campbell‘s “Push Patterns” is a science fictional fantasy of math and plenty.
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by Jay Campbell
Late afternoon, the calls started pouring into my home line instead. My cell had run out of juice hours ago, just as my gratitude for the attention was turning into annoyance at the constant interruptions. I was scant hours from a working proof of concept. I was tired of repeating the small bits I could tell the reporters, the venture capitalists, the Department of Energy “consultants.” I wasn’t ready, and the world wasn’t ready. I squeezed the prong on the phone jack, ready to unplug the thing for some peace and quiet, and mumbled something excusatory.
“We absolutely respect that,” he said, “and if you don’t want to talk to me, or the Post, or anybody else, that’s your prerogative. You’re entitled to your privacy. Lockheed has promised to let us know what they figure out from Wolfram’s notes and we’ll be there to report it then.”
“Wolfram’s notes. The unpublished book, and a third machine.”
It was at this moment I realized that for this past year I had been carrying the burden akin to that of some obscure Greek hero, a keymaster to Pandora’s box. I had just been relieved of the decision to open the lock, but instead of comfort I felt robbed.
So then, for better or worse, I told Vince McGallin of the Washington Post everything I knew about Crackpot Wolfram’s Perpetual Motion Machine of 1905. Vince knew more than me about the success of the skeptics in discrediting Wolfram’s theories and demonstrations, and of the tinkerer’s descent into poverty, sickness and subsequent death. I soon felt worse for Wolfram than myself; at least I would get my fifteen minutes while still alive.
Vince and I talked four solid hours before he broke to start turning this mess into a front page article. I was hoarse but amped, so I worked through the evening and into the night. During the call, the render server had finished its computation of the new Pattern; this print-out’s design was going to fold in on itself nine times, two more passes of the fractal loop than last time. If my math was in the right ballpark I should be able to run the whole darn house off the electrical output. I lost half an hour panning and zooming and staring into the curves within curves a-shimmer in optical illusion on my monitor. Like a dinosaur footprint gleaned from a cracked boulder, no human had ever seen this pattern.
I botched the first print. I bumped the table and spent the next ten wide-eyed minutes waiting for the 2400 DPI printer to push out fraction after fraction of a millimeter of paper, until I could see with naked eye a hairline gap in the conductive ink. I aborted the print job, checked my ink levels, started the new print and backed away slowly.
As long as our call was, Vince’s deadline had cut it short. I had only begun to pass on my partial understanding of how overlapping magnetic fields somehow deflected at least one flavor of faster-than-light particle, and how that could give you Push. Wolfram’s skeptics had been on the wrong track, accusing him of harnessing plain old light pressure to make the apparatus in the sealed glass case spin. It wasn’t until my uncle forklifted it out of the now-closed Mad Scientist wing of the Museum of Invention that anybody noticed that the thing worked in the dark.
Wolfram’s generator plate face was hand-carved. Vince said it had taken a watchmaker 18 months to chisel the pattern out of a cardboard-thin slice of rare earth magnet. I had only worked out a 2-deep nesting of the Wolfram Pattern, as I called it, on graph paper before my hand cramped up. This artisan had gone 5 deep, the curves and corners of themes repeating within themes to the point of microscopy.
Forty years later, I was using off the shelf hardware, academic software and a quick ink hack to produce Patterns orders of magnitude more complex, in hours. When my print was done, I peeled the wax paper backing off and stuck it to the face plate on the generator’s driver arm, jutting out a meter with a matching counterbalance on the other side of the main coil. I glued the hard wire leads to the dots on my freshly-printed Pattern and hit the On switch without ceremony. A 9 volt whisper of electricity pulsed through the Pattern, creating a billion trillion overlapping magnetic fields.
The demonstration machine of Wolfram’s that my uncle had salvaged for my birthday produced enough kinetic power to accelerate a gram of mass at 28 millimeters an hour. I expected — well, hoped — that this model would give much more impressive results, but I was still unprepared for the force of the generator arm as it swung around and cracked across my left arm like a baseball bat.
After the initial one second turn-up, the software toggled the voltage to the Pattern to fire one microsecond out of every second, but it still wobbled like an off-balance washing machine trying to wring out a supersized wad of wet jeans. I typed one-handed, bringing it down an order of magnitude — I maybe should have only printed an 8 deep Pattern for this class of generator. It settled down to a calming twice-per-second schwoop and I plunked down to gaze at its self-propelled glory.
Except all I could think about was what a defense contractor like Lockheed could do with a 20-deep Pattern.
I was confused when they jolted me awake, a flurry of flashlights and barked commands. It was still dark when they drug my half-dressed, handcuffed self to the plain car outside for our proverbial ride downtown. Flak jackets gave way to fatigues then dress uniforms and suits as a string of captors asked the same questions over and over.
Like any healthy paranoid, I had contingency plans. A week later, an otherwise unused mailbox got a piece of spam, and its un-reset vacation filter decided to use the next rule, forwarding a completely different document to a variety of mailing lists. I found out it worked when one of the lab types, generally less disciplined than the rest of the cadre, piped up in an interrogation with “Hey, he made Slashdot” before being shushed. I didn’t feel the expected encouragement. This was only going to get me into more trouble.
I was a limp fish of a prisoner. Denied a lawyer or a phone call, my only leverage was complete cooperation. So I talked. For six months I spent my time in a private cell or around a table with the good cops and the bad cops and the scientists with no discernible individual personality. I talked myself hoarse and drew diagrams till my hand cramped, sent every night back to my hole, bare of even pen and paper.
I didn’t talk about Lockheed until an unknown entity purchased a 19-deep Wolfram Pattern from a pair of Indian engineering students and used it to blow the U.S.S. Hornet out of the Atlantic into downtown Manhattan. This was my doing, they said, and try as they might, they couldn’t stop the destruction and mayhem spreading across the globe.
I broke, that evening, and blubbered a wandering memoir to the prison’s Catholic priest, the only civilian allowed to talk with me. I wept at the death I played my part in, I raged at the machine that kept the poor in place, I pled for hope for the future, and, as was his duty, he didn’t say so much.
After that, neither did I. Nobody asked any more questions and I didn’t strike up any conversations. They put me on suicide watch when the priest left, but the idea hadn’t even occurred to me then. Months later, in yet another hole of a cell, I wished now and then that I had been quicker on the draw. I also wished for a nice steak, but a steak would only be in the works when government accountants decided I was cheaper to fry than jail for life.
Beyond that, I didn’t daydream much at all. I didn’t keep a calendar, had no diary or diversions, and with technology being such a harsh mistress of late I rarely felt like thinking. I became a machine to process the food they gave me, to incrementally wear out the clothing they issued, to carve the exercise path a notch deeper for two hours a week.
It was a toothache that roused me.
“Ow!” I said. It was the oddest thing. I bit down again.
“OW!!” That hurt. The thing that struck me was, I cared. I didn’t know how many months I had been here, or how many I had left, or what the last thing was I had cared about. But this pain, I wanted it to stop. I really did. I clamped my jaw again, rejoicing in the feeling of wanting something.
And so began my recovery. I must have whacked out my body chemistry because I found myself cloaked in a mild euphoria, my simple life laid out before me for inspection. I found other things I wanted. I wanted to get out of here. It would seem obvious to anyone on the street that I might want out, but I myself had forgotten about the possibility. I also wanted that steak, and to go to the beach, and to drive really fast on a windy mountain road. I wanted to see a girl. I wanted to be fit, smart and capable.
I started a calendar, calling this day one. I started a lot of things, like a set of push-ups and sit-ups every hour, and a vegetable garden in the exercise pen spawned from salad tomato and cucumber seeds from Sunday lunch. One day I was going to be able to talk to somebody, and through them I was going to make a better mark on the world.
On day 143 I was outside in the pen doing my home-grown tai chi dance with the waving plants, working my thigh muscles while flexing the joints in my spine to extend my bend, when someone inside yelled out about the radio, the sky, and getting the prisoner inside.
“Prisoner Klein,” the guard barked as he strode over to grab my shirt, “return to your cell immediately,” making it so with his bald 300 pounds of mass. I twisted in his grasp to look skyward, a blur of blue, until I fixed on the one cloud in the heavens: a 2-deep Wolfram Push pattern, being drawn by a dozen skywriting pilots in tandem.
Another guard frowned and listened intently to his earpiece while Shanks the Boar fumbled with my door key. A dozen uniforms ran down the hall toward the outside toting heavy black rifles, and Shanks pulled me into my cell. Something here was different too. A length of chain was looped around my window bars. Shanks turned to see what I was looking at and the chain snapped taut. It was a good old-fashioned prison break.
The window shot from view with the crack of busted cement and a scream of tortured steel and a man’s top half popped through the brand new hole, hands outstretched through the whirling dust. I almost had time to thank the stars for not letting my mind rot as I spun to punch Shanks square in the mouth with both fists. I almost had time to be proud of the sight of Shanks falling on his bum outside my cell as I spun back around to leap toward the barless window. And I almost had time to wonder who this guy was before he yanked me out the window and a mile into the air.
Had this been an amusement park ride, I wouldn’t have summoned the nerve to get on board. As it was, I clung back at the fabric of his jacket, terrified of falling, terrified of not getting away. In retrospect it must have been less than ten minutes later when a speck of dirt ahead zoomed in to form the open side of a jet aircraft suspended silently in the air. In we floated, slowing to inches a second, to touch down light as ballerinas to the carpeted deck.
“The team is drawing away the anti-aircraft fire, but we should get on our way quickly,” the man said. Yikes. He beckoned me to a remarkably comfortable aisle seat. The few others on board sat down almost in tandem as the next ride started, pushing us back into our seats at twice the force of gravity.
“I am Hito,” he yelled above the thunder of the wind. “We will slow down in a moment, and be in Japan in a few hours.” On cue the pressure eased up but the clouds kept zipping by outside. “You must have many questions.”
“Do you have any steak?”
Hito’s laugh exposed his young age, otherwise masked by Eastern discipline and an easy attitude of respect. “Dinner is on its way. We expected you to be hungry.” Hito and company had great timing and, while it wasn’t steak, great food. I gulped down dishes recognizable and not as Hito filled me in.
“What day is this?” I asked, starting with the basics.
“Friday, the twentieth.”
I drew a blank. “What month?”
“October,” he said quietly.
So not quite a year. Still, I had a whole lot of catching up to do. This aircraft was proof that the Pattern was being used for more than war. I asked how they found me.
I had a priest to thank. Not god, but the prison priest who took what I said to the Family in Japan, a twelve-syllable name created to bond together a massive and highly motivated group of humanitarian punks, using Wolfram’s technology and a creed of human rights to reshape the world with guerilla peacemongering. These guys were Greenpeace meets Knightrider. And their creed?
“You wrote most of it, Mister Klein,” he said. “Your privacy was violated, and your body and spirit punished, but your words have inspired a great movement. You gave us the chance to use the power of the Wolfram Pattern for the good of all man, not just nations.”
This fellow was a true believer. I shied away from zealots of all flavors and if I weren’t a recently freed con blasting eastward at Mach something, I might be inclined to argue with him. I shifted the conversation. “This plane is Pushed.”
I didn’t know the pop word for the tech Wolfram and I put out, but Hito understood what I meant. “Yes. We could have kept up initial thrust a few seconds longer but this aircraft is not structurally sound enough to handle the speed.”
I got the feeling a lot of conventional problems were going to be turned around backward. Hito had me thinking that a basic power shift, from the rich to the motivated, might be unfolding out there.
Hito started talking politics again. “When you have had time to recuperate, several global networks are interested in interviewing you. Our hope is that you will use this exposure to spread your thoughts on raising the standard of living for all people, as your essays say. As the creator of the Pattern,” he talked over my objection to that title, “your words will carry great weight.”
“You broke me out of jail to be on talk shows and spread your word?” I realized I might sound bitter, so I gave Hito the best grin I could summon. “Have you got a newspaper?” I needed some sort of grounding, a backdrop to understand the roles of the lead players.
He dug in the seat pocket and handed me a pad of sorts, a handheld computer with internet access. I didn’t know whether it was a symbol of technology advancing in my absence or another example of the Japanese having all the cool toys first, but it impressed me. In a moment I had news translated from a thousand sources telling me the world’s opinion of the Push Pattern.
And for the second time in two decades, I wept. Food distribution was a snap now; for the first time in a century several farming industries were scrambling to keep up with demand. The Family’s mass transportation division delivered free to third world countries, its rescue teams mounted superhuman efforts in times of crisis, and every single global health indicator graph was on an upswing.
They didn’t bother to call themselves a sovereign nation. They were beyond the laws of conventional society, and stooped to local procedure only to prevent a fuss. The Family’s fleet, all Pattern-powered and comprised of everything from boxcars to retired supertankers to floating cargo nets stuffed with crates, gave proper respect to port authorities and filled out the appropriate forms as best as they could, given their shady legality.
Governments weren’t always amenable, however, and every month the fleet would swoop into an uncooperative country to drop food and more directly to the people. The Family never stole, never attacked, never cheated. Page after page of success story flowed from the screen to fill in the gaps of my cracked soul.
“You should get some rest, Mister Klein,” Hito said after a couple hours. I waved him away, unable to put down this book of current events.
China had halted new forest cutting, relying instead on timber Pushed through the air from valleys scheduled to be flooded by an impending dam project. The EU was seeing a mass conversion from petrol to Push engines, and their methods were spreading quickly to the rest of the globe. India promised to convert all nuclear and fossil fuel power plants into Push generators within five years.
America was in the dark. Push technology had been illegal from day zero, and it seemed to be the only significant area in the world not directly affected by it. The nation’s economy was straining under the burden of shifting international needs. The only thing keeping the financial mess afloat was the cheap oil that nobody else needed much of anymore. Citizens drove their pollutive automobiles from debt-ridden household to artificially-sustained workplace and worked their anxieties out through great television.
The Russians had reclaimed a token lead in the space race by putting a base on the moon, ostensibly for low-gravity health research. A year earlier and military applications would have been on the top of everyone’s suspicion list, but it turned out that after Manhattan, acts of mass destruction were limited to fringe groups knocking down each others historically important buildings until nearly everyone exclaimed, “In the name of all our Gods, enough!”
All in all, things were better. Politicians lied and armies killed and hate bred hate, but destitution was being redefined. A grass roots cooperation between the individual people of the globe was springing up, enabled by cheap mass transit, free communication and the encouragement spawned from their repeated successes. Village by village, region by region, they defeated drought and hunger and left a wake of hope and industry.
Hito insisted on breaking into my newshounding. “We are nearing Tokyo, Mister Klein,” he said, and I realized from his tone that something was expected of me now.
“What do I do?” I asked bluntly.
“I had hoped you could rest before we arrive. I have not been able to tell you, you are flying into a press conference of sorts. The world was made aware of your afreement — your…”
“My jailbreak,” I grinned. It was a little relieving to see this multi-talented young man stumble.
“Your liberation, yes — one hour ago. We did not announce our plans, but word got out and we acknowledged our escort of your person to Tokyo. Nothing is expected of you, except everyone assumes you have something to say. Your writings and your speech through Priest Richards have kept this great movement on track.”
“The priest from your prison.” Hito paused. “He was killed shortly after his own book was published, weeks after his meeting with you.”
This was so much to absorb, and I felt unprepared for the spotlight as we started to descend. Hito talked about who we would be meeting but I missed every name as I tried to reconcile these two different people I had become, the prisoner and the preacher.
A new roar started to grow, and Hito waved dramatically toward the window like a father pointing to a pile of Christmas presents. I looked out and realized we weren’t descending to land. The land had come up to meet us. Or at least parts of it had; countless lights hovered around what appeared to be a fully intact suspension bridge, ironically now suspended itself at some fantastic height and employed as a meeting grounds. The dots of light zoomed in to form a vast crowd of people and strange contraptions flitting about that were never meant to leave terra firma. Busses, train cars, and bathtubs; a large oak tree, horizontal, leaving a silhouette like a sailing ship of old; a complete mobile home park, welded together into a brick, every window spilling out half a dozen waving hands.
The noise was unbelievable. I had been to monster rock concerts more contained than this bunch. I felt even weirder as I saw hundreds of signs and banners and tshirts and flags bearing colorful variations of the Pattern, and weirdest yet when I recognized hundreds more as my own face.
We landed on the bridge with the force of an elevator hitting floor one. Hito led me to the door as the captain unsealed it, unfolding to let in the deafening orchestra of cheers. I stepped to the doorway and boggled at the crowd and the cameras. My hands clamped to the doorframe, I thought about the bad kind of attention the priest and I had gotten. What ominous forces might be cloaked in this crowd?
I stood there frozen, knowing this was the decision events had been building to. Alone in my cell I had affirmed to work toward the day where I could make a difference, but I hadn’t expected such an opportunity to be handed to me. Did I have the guts to follow through? Or could I tell everyone to go home, that greed wins in the end?
Hito mistook my dilemma for patience and put his hand up to calm the crowd. Very few could see us yet, but eventually the shushing spread so completely I could hear my own breath through distant loudspeakers. We were already on the air, a bug dance of miniature cameras streaming our arrival out to the net.
It was at that artificial moment, this constructed turning point, I got angry at the fear inside me. There was still so much to do, and these people were all too happy to attack the rest of the problems in the world, at the minimal expense of a word of encouragement.
I dropped my hands, took Hito’s arm, and strode down the stairs to the awaiting raised podium. The airship lifted away with a slight creak, leaving me surrounded by… my people. I loved them back with all my heart.
I told them so, with a shout. “My people, my precious family, friends of peace all over the world — I love you — Thank you!”
I should have planned this speech, I thought, because that was just corny. The crowd didn’t care, though, filling the sky with noise and waving about. Still, they deserved more than jingoism.
“Anybody else out there,” I said, restarting as the crowd hushed for me one last time.
I leaned on the podium, suddenly aware of exactly what I wanted to say. A projection of me on a 30 meter sheet half the event away showed my expression as stern.
“If you would keep a people impoverished to serve your own ends, I am your enemy.”
Everyone stayed quiet, listening, except for quick whispered translations rippling through the crowd. I watched the expanding circles of nods intersect like wavelets in a duck pond.
“I aim not to defeat you, but to render you obsolete, reduced to a line item in some library historical index.”
I pulled in a final breath of condemnation, not really knowing what had finally rattled loose inside me.
“So come at us with your furious denouncements and your twisted abuse of the power granted to you by the very people you exploit. It is once again their time. Our time.” I shouted, “Our time!”
It’s easy to be brave when you’re surrounded by friends. I roared, and the upper world roared with me. I answered Hito’s look with a nod, and he took over the podium, the first of a dozen speakers to keep the crowd electrified. A pair of translators battled over the best phrasing to use in explaining to me the stream of news and calls to action broadcast from that podium till dawn started to break.
The rosy sky reminded me to be exhausted. They whisked me up to what they called the Family hotel, (a ground-style casino predictably perched on a tall column of air,) and a familiar voice bellowed out, “Klein!”
It was Vince, from the Post. Laughter and back-clapping ensued, and we staggered like drunks to the lobby couches.
“Things went wonky that night,” he said, and I knew which night. “They shut down the paper for 48 hours while they pawed through absolutely every scrap of material we had, to quash the Wolfram piece. Fat lot of good it did ’em!”
He knew my story to date, and filled me in on his resignation, move to Europe and involvement with the Family. “Hey, you look tired — I know I am — but I wanted to ask you…”
“What’s up, man?” I would have given a kidney.
“I’m with a team going to Belgium tomorrow, finalizing a deal to shoot NATO’s nuclear waste into the sun. Wanna come?”
I let a gaggle of short women bustle me off to my room for some sleep, hoping Vince had understood my flailing hoots as an emphatic “Yes.”
[ IMPORTANT NOTICE: This story is NOT covered by the Creative Commons License that covers the majority of content on Futurismic; copyright remains with the author, and any redistribution is a breach thereof. Thanks. ]