Copyright © 2018 by Richard
All rights reserved
Bristlecone Territory, Spring
SHADRACK SMITHERS BRACED HIS GIMPY HIP against a spade, shielded
his eyes with his slouch hat, and followed the flight of a crow
as it flapped past and swooped up to the high gutter on the farmhouse,
where four of its brethren were already perched. The newcomer
cackled, trying to determine if any of the others had something
to eat. When he determined they did not, he gave a caw of disappointment.
t’be a lotta crows out this year,” Shadrack announced
to Katie Groves, who was on her hands and knees nearby pulling
winter potatoes and rolling them out for Rodrigues to collect
up. “More than usual, huh?”
nature will bring it back into balance,” she said.
Shadrack repeated to himself as he mopped his forehead with a
tattered red bandanna before replacing his hat. “That what
replied Katie. “That’s what natural selection’s
all about, isn’t it? Survival of the fittest. The rest die
off to bring things back into balance. It’s a corollary
of Darwin’s theory.”
be a’learnin’ all tha’char in high school nowadays.
Am I right?”
Katie rose to
her feet and brushed caked mud off the knees of her overalls.
“I wrote a paper on Darwin for science class. Didn’t
they teach you about Darwin when you were in school?”
war a lotta years ago, young lady. Cain’t rightly recollect
jus’ whut ’ey was a tryin’ t’teach me
back then. Sure, I heard a that Darwin fella. Tildie knew a lot
’bout ’im. Tol’ me a thing’r two, I reckon.
But mos’ly I got it sidewise from raisin’ m’crops
an’ tendin’ m’animals.” Painfully the
old man hunkered down on his haunches, which brought some relief
to his aching hip. “Whyn’t’cha tell me wha’cha
learned ’bout ’im.”
at the sun. “I reckon it’s time for a break. How long
’s’is a’gonna take, ya fig’er?”
. . . I can give you a quick sketch in about, say, fifteen
minutes. Maybe twenty.”
and straightened up arthritically.
around. “Let’s go over there and sit in the sun on
that old downed cottonwood. Your hip’ll feel a lot better.”
the fallen log just as Rodrigues was pulling up with his wheelbarrow.
Silently the Mexican parked the wagon and scooted up beside Shadrack.
The two wriggled in and sat together like kids in the schoolyard
bleachers. To both of them Katie gave her impromptu lesson on
Darwin and the Beagle and the finches and the turtles and the
fundamentals of, and evidence for his theory of natural selection.
Neither of her pupils interrupted except for an occasional “Wha’zat?”
or “Por qué?” to clarify a concept.
The lecture stretched on for longer than planned. Until the triangle
clanged for lunch.
I’ll be danged,” Shadrack muttered, easing himself
off the big log.
mio,” Rodrigues added. “Nuestro Señor,
He sure work in formas misteriosas.”
up at the rain gutter, where one of the crows was chattering like
a skeleton with false teeth. Eight others now perched with him,
watching the humans. “Ya fig’er they got any idear
nature’s a’gonna weed ’em back some?”
. . . ,” Katie straightened her ponytail through
the back of her cap, “. . . do we?”
Shadrack chuckled as the three of them started for the farmhouse.
“I don’ reckon we do.” He grinned his gap-toothed
grin. “How many a us’n ya fig’er we got by now?”
eight billion,” Katie said.
mil millones?” Rodrigues exclaimed.
faster every year. ‘Like a mold on bread,’ Mr. Renger
says. He’s my science teacher. The one I did the paper for.”
“So . . .
them there rules Mr. Darwin thought up don’ seem t’ply
to us’n, then?” Shadrack asked.
“Oh, we’re pretty clever, we humans. At least we think
we are. And we’ve made use of science to grow more food
than ever before, and medicine to keep people alive. But this
planet’s just a pebble in the sky. It’s resources
are limited. And it’s all going to catch up to us someday.
And then Darwin’s rules are going to apply again . . .
with a vengeance . . . to every living thing . . .
including us humans.”
it’s already happening,” Katie added as she took Shadrack’s
boney elbow to steady him up the porch steps. “But for now,
Mr. Renger says it’s only the very poor and the disenfranchised
that are really feeling the pinch. It’s bound to get worse
CASTLE KEEP CORPORATION had wasted
little time gaining a foothold in the scrabland east of the Bristlecone
playas. The company had leased a large parcel, a part of it already
subdivided and zoned for development, across the highway from
the hot springs resort, six miles east of Cedarville. Abundant
cold artesian spring water had already been developed there by
the owners of the resort, who owned both properties. The owners
had also recently installed an experimental geothermal electric
power station with the help of a legacy federal energy grant.
The corporation reviewed the initial grid of access roads on the
subdivision plat, then surveyed, revised, graded, and graveled
new ones. The first modular metal buildings had gone up on concrete
foundations in the desert scrub, while manufactured housing was
being trucked in daily to serve the growing needs of the company’s
workforce, most of whom were drawn from company outposts scattered
across the country.
removed his white lab coat, hung it from a peg inside, then closed
the side door of the communications building. From the shadows
of the big satellite dish array overhead, he glanced around nervously,
pivoting his thin figure this way and that, his braid of black
hair lashing his shoulders. Vigilance had become his watchword
since deserting his military unit in New Mexico. Of that he had
no regrets. Finally he stepped out into the already hot sun and
blazed a shortcut through the soft, blindingly white alkaline
playa crust to the administration building, where “Logistics
Division” stood in golden letters high on the second story
wall. Inside the receptionist smiled and nodded him toward the
main corridor. Jerome found Joshu’s office by himself and
rapped lightly on the metal door.
on in, Jerome,” the familiar baritone voice boomed, as if
its owner possessed x-ray vision to see through the solid door.
it a crack. “You wanted to see me, Josh?”
yes I do.” In his pinstriped button-down shirt and tweed
slacks Joshu Hardcastle rose smiling from behind his desk. He
was still amused at how everyone now shortened his name to “Josh,”
a custom Shadrack had started innocently at their first encounter.
But then, everything Shadrack did seemed deceptively innocent.
So “Josh” he now was. His smile reinforced the roundness
of his face and wire-rimmed glasses. He nodded to a chair. “So
. . . how’s Katie doing these days?”
Jerome sat stiffly,
his long, black braid thumping against his shoulders. “She’s
fine, I guess. I don’t get down to the farmhouse as much
as I’d like to.”
himself, leaned back, and drew a consequential breath. “Jerome,
I wanted to ask you how you’re getting along with your fellow
employees out there in communications? Most of them’ve been
with me for a long time, but occasionally it feels like I’m
picking up a dark vibe when your name is mentioned. Feels like
a bit of resentment maybe. Does that make any sense to you?”
okay. Sometimes dealing with a full-blooded Indian can be disorienting
to folks who didn’t grow up around here.” Jerome resisted
rehashing his prior abuses in the military. Joshu already knew
those stories. Jerome grinned uncomfortably. “And, really,
they’ve got a whole lot more education than me. All of them.
Guess I’d be a little bit resentful, too, in their place.
I’m the new kid in town. And they’re tolerant. I guess
they know you’ve sort of taken me under your wing.”
his lips as he thought about it. He nodded. “Well, all that
education may be their problem. We’re out here breaking
new ground. And some of it doesn’t fit with their expectations.
I like the way you’re able to think outside the box. And
your ‘can do’ attitude. For example, the way you rewired
that sat phone last year . . . with a few dime store
parts . . . and managed to render it invisible to the
military. That was cutting edge stuff.”
“So . . .
Jerome . . . I’m thinking of bringing you in on
a special technical planning team I’ve put together. You
would represent, you know, communications. You’ll work directly
with me and other team members on some highly classified stuff.
You would not be sharing the information with anyone not on the
team.” He studied Jerome for a long moment. “Do you
think you could handle an assignment like that?”
I don’t think the folks down in communications would appreciate
that very much. Out there in the shed. Do you?”
forward. “ There probably will be some jealousy out there.
There always is. But that’s not your problem. It’s
theirs. And I wouldn’t worry about it, if I were you.”
He paused to let the significance sink in. “This may be
a career opportunity for you. With a salary increase to boot.
To compensate for the increased responsibility. We’ll be
meeting tomorrow at two o’clock. Right here.” Another
pause. “Are you on board, Jerome?”
face was as unreadable as a stone Buddha. “Do you mind . . .
Josh . . . before I give you my answer . . .
if I discuss it with Katie?”
Joshu smiled. “Go ahead. As long as she can keep it in confidence.”
sure she can. And how about Shadrack?”
Why Shadrack Smithers?”
been . . . mentoring me . . . on social issues.”
Joshu laughed. “What does he know about . . .?”
He leaned back. “Oh. Like Katie perhaps? And her father?”
Joshu stroked his chin, then shrugged. “Alright. The old
fellow seems harmless enough. Go ahead and talk to him, too. But
same conditions. Strict confidentiality.” He stood and offered
Jerome his hand. “In fact, why don’t you take the
afternoon off and get your consulting done today. Then, hopefully,
we’ll see you here tomorrow. Two o’clock.”
AN OLD MAN WITH UNKEMPT WHITE HAIR and bristly whiskers bent
painfully to take a knee before the gravestone of his deceased
wife. He was seeking advice. And consolation. “Well . . .
I’s back,” Shadrack Smithers announced to the mute
granite marker. “As you kin see.” He shifted the weight
off his bad hip by arching his back. “An’ I got me
some troubles on m’mind . . . an’ I thought
ya me’be could help me out with ’em.”
He fell silent
to allow the words to line up properly in his head before he let
them come dribbling out of his mouth. The Spring sun was just
rising, casting its beams on the canopy of honey locust trees
overhead. New buds were already turning to leaves in the orange-yellow
glow. The breeze had fallen still and quiet and the morning dew
had triggered the desert fragrance of creosote bush.
off, I’s been a’thinkin’ ’bout somethin’
Katie Groves was tellin’ me. You remember Katie. She was
in that Españole class a yours a coupla years ago.
Anyhow . . . Katie was tellin’ me ’bout
that Darwin fella you was always so keen on . . . an’
all this evolvin’ a’goin’ on . . . an’
how ever’thin’s a’ways a’changin’
. . . an’ evolvin’.”
He paused to
find new words. “An’ now this fella Josh . . .
you don’ know ’im . . . he’s a newcomer
. . . anyhow, this fella Josh is bringin’ robots
to Cedarville. ‘Algah-rhythms’ he calls ’em.
An he’s a tellin’ us he’s on the good side.
Tryin’ t’keep the bad ones from takin’
over the whole shebang.” He paused. “Sounds t’me
like this whole ev’lution thing is startin’ up all
over again. An’ what I wanna know is . . . jus’
where is it all a’goin’?”
The old man
levered himself upright on his good knee and straightened his
back. After a moment he dropped down on the other knee. “Problem
is, I don’ see ’at I trust this fella. Josh,
I mean. So le’me aks ya this: how do ya know whether yer
a’talkin’ to an angel or the devil hisself? Kin ya
’splain me that?” He stared at the mute blank stone,
not really expecting an answer. But maybe a sign might be in order.
He glanced fruitlessly around the empty cemetery before resuming
the one-sided conversation. “They jus’ got too much
money they’s a’throwin’ ’roun’
t’make me feel real chummy with any a’em. Josh’s
bunch. An that’s the nut a’it. Josh an’ his
boys is a’goin’ ’round a’buyin’
up vacant buildings an’ empty lots in town an’ a lotta
land outside a’town. But the worst a’it is that his
dang money is a’buyin’ up the other fine folks ‘round
here . . . buyin’ their souls, seems t’me
. . . all over the valley . . . the folks
you know . . . folks ’at oughta know better.”
A sharp stab
in his hip drove Shadrack to his feet again, lurching. He planted
his feet, twisted his pelvis, and waggled his spine until the
pain receded. Then, without bending again, he continued, “So
. . . I don’ know whether I oughta make a fuss
er . . . er jus’ give it up . . . an’
go back t’farmin an’ forget ’bout it all. I
might jus’ as well quit a’bein’ Emperor, too.
But I know it’s gotta make ya proud. Least I hope it does.
So . . . I jus’ wanted t’make sure it’d
be a’right with ya.”
He turned a
slow circle, inspecting the empty burial ground, but even without
a sign he already knew what Tildie would want him to do. He tried
to remember if there was anything else he wanted to get off his
chest. After a while he turned back to the silent gravestone.
“I think Katie’s got some doubts, too. Katie Groves.
An’ so does her friend Jerome. He’s an Indian. You
don’t know ’im, but he’s a nice, smart boy.
You’d like ’im. Seems he got hisself appointed somehow
t’the inside circle a’Josh’s bunch. The ones
really a’runnin’ the show.” Shadrack nodded.
Drew a deep breath of resolution. “Me’be I’ll
talk it over with’em both.”
SEVERAL DAYS LATER JOSHU HARDCASTLE selected the meeting place.
He wanted to avoid a public forum like the Senior Center, and
the Castle Keep campus bristled with too many eyes and ears. Competition
and intrigue were already beginning to interfere with the work
there, especially now that the investors had begun to arrive,
and he wished to avoid stirring up more suspicion and rumor among
the staff. So he chose the cavernous old Quonset structure across
the highway from his office. With the appearance of an abandoned
airplane hanger, the building once housed the swimming pool of
hot mineral water for the resort. That was long ago, before individual
tubs were installed outside each motel room. Now, inside the cavernous
structure perpetual twilight engulfed the cracked concrete remnants
of the empty pool with an atmosphere dank and heavy. A muffling
silence filled the vast empty space.
rusting doors at the south end Jerome and Shadrack had wrestled
in a wrought iron table and four matching chairs from the patio
outside and placed them beneath the single functioning fluorescent
fixture in the ceiling high above. In the process Shadrack managed
to tweak something in his low back. Katie and Jerome helped him
into one of the uncomfortable metal seats.
that be alright?” she asked.
it’ll do,” Shadrack grunted, shuffling his skinny
get you a pillow,” she said, but he waved her off. She stood,
found Jerome, and slipped her arm around his waist. “Howdy,
stranger. Haven’t seen you at the farm.”
and pulled her closer. “Josh’s got me working on this
special project of his. I’ve been bunking in one of the
trailers they brought in. Haven’t had a lot of free time
lately.” He gave her a peck on the forehead.
no monkey business now, you two,” Shadrack growled amiably.
“’I’s still chap’ron ’ere, ya un’erstan’.”
Jerome and Katie
grinned and sat beside each other at the iron table. He quietly
covered her hand with his own. She did not pull it away. The three
of them waiting in silence, as if the vast perpetual gloom had
sucked away their voices. Shadrack squirmed against the new pain
in his low back. It seemed to be merging with the ache in his
door at the north end of the building screeched open, and through
a halo of bright sunlight a dark figure entered and stood beneath
the flicker and crackle of a dying fluorescent tube. Katie’s
mind hallucinated Orpheus returning empty-handed from the bowels
of hell, until the distant door clanged shut and the reverberations
were swallowed by the gloaming.
Joshu’s familiar bassoon echoed across the muffling space.
at this end, Josh,” Jerome called, rising with his flashlight
to guide his employer across the fractured concrete. “You
know Katie Groves and Shadrack Smithers.”
of course I do.” The sleeves of Joshu’s dress shirt
were rolled up to the elbows and the fabric across his belly strained
a bit tauter than they recalled. “Don’t get up.”
He reached across and shook their hands warmly. “Where are
no others,” Shadrack grunted. “Jus’ us four.”
“But . . .
I thought . . . ,” he turned to Jerome, “. . .
I thought you said I was meeting with representatives of the community.”
we’s ’bout’s represen’tive as yer gonna
git,” Shadrack grumped.
that’s fine, but . . . where’s Mr. Baxter?
in court over in Alturas,” Katie explained, “Arguing
a case, I think.”
about Horace Kearns?”
back in the hospital. You know, not doing so well. The thyroid
cancer seems to have spread. They’re going to try, like,
chemo this time.”
to hear that,” Joshu softened his mellifluous tone. “Well
then . . . what about . . . your father?”
not a part of this.” She tossed her loose chestnut hair.
“Not yet, anyway. None of the others are.”
in. “Sir, we decided not to bring anyone else in until we’d
had a fair chance to talk some things over with you. We want to
respect that confidentiality you swore me to—”
you haven’t been telling them anything you learned in our
Nothing that you haven’t already discussed yourself in public
if you are, I’m just going to have to relieve you of the
you just hold on yerself there, Josh!” Shadrack barked,
rising painfully. “We ain’t a’got you over here
jus’ t’argue with ya. An’ any idea of pullin’
Jerome here off’n yer secret committee is a’goin’
jus’ the plum wrong direction.” He drew a deep breath,
then arched his back. “Now, let’s jus’ sit down
’ere an’ palaver a bit. See if there ain’t somethin’
we kin all agree ’bout.”
back at the distant doorway he had come through, then his shoulders
gave the hint of a shrug. “Okay,” he said, pulling
out the empty chair with a forced a smile. “I’ve got
a few minutes. What’ve you good folks got on your mind?”
After they had
seated themselves around the wrought iron table, Shadrack was
the first to reply. “Ev’lution,” he said.
Joshu was surprised
that the old man even knew the word. He waited for more, then
held up his empty palms. “Evolution?”
Ev’lution. You folks fiddlin’ ’around with robots
and such. Lettin’ ’em take over. Thass whut this’s
all ’bout . . . ’cause thass whut’chur
a’workin’ on . . . aint it?”
It slowly dawned
on Joshu that the Emperor of Bristlecone might be more perceptive
than he seemed. And in a way that drilled right to the core of
the matter. He glanced from Jerome to Katie. Then he nodded. “That
might be one way of looking at things.”
prob’ly a’thinkin’,” Shadrack continued,
“well, shucks, I ain’t a’gotta answer nothin’
t’these simple town folk. Ain’t that right?”
. . . ah—”
answer me this one thing, young fella. Jus’ who do ya
answer to? An’ jus’ where’s all that money y’been
a’slinging ’round a’comin’ from?”
income,” Joshu responded reflexively. “And from donors.”
is it? An’ whut’s in it fer them?”
Katie rose and
placed a hand on Shadrack’s shoulder. “Now Shadrack,
play nice. I know you’re not feeling well, but we’re,
like, trying to work this out together, remember?” Then,
still standing, she turned to Joshu. “We’ve talked
this over. The three of us.” She encompassed Shadrack and
Jerome with the sweep of her arm. “You have to understand
that . . . like . . . we’re the
ones huddled outside the castle walls. And we’re holding
out our cups, begging for a few alms. Like it’s always been.
And there you are, the kings and the princes and the soldiers
and the pretty people inside the walls who are, you know,
shaping the world. Shaping the world we all have to live in.
And we don’t want this to go wrong. The same old way it
always has gone wrong. Like from time immemorial. What we want
is . . . we want fairness in this new society
you’re building. Not just talk of it. Real fairness.”
removed his wire-rim glasses and began polishing them on a flap
of his shirt, but said nothing.
up. “The Declaration of Independence says, ‘All men
are created equal . . . endowed with certain inalienable
rights’. But those are just words written by a bunch of
slave holders and Indian killers. An elitist group of privileged
white men. The royalty inside the castle walls.”
Joshu held his
tongue. Polished his glasses.
forget Karl Marx,” Jerome continued. “‘From
each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.’
Noble ideals. But never made manifest on this earth. Look what
leaders like Stalin did with those noble words. Prisons. Murders.
Gulags. Absolute government tyranny.”
almost imperceptibly, his nearsighted eyes vague and unfocused.
up the dialogue again. “Throughout history the ruling classes
have, like, corrupted everything with greed. From the hunter-gatherers
to the Pharaohs. From the feudal kings to the Conquistadors’
enslavement of indigenies. From the socialists to the capitalists.
The people inside the castle walls have preached of fairness.
Of equality. But their actions invariably belied the rhetoric.
What they are really governed by is greed. Maintaining their privileged
status. Increasing it.” She held Joshu with her bright eyes.
back into the tag-team match. “When the government last
released statistics . . . and this was more than a year
ago . . . maybe two . . . the number of homeless
people was on the rise . . . and no wonder. More than
half the world’s wealth was owned by less than one percent
of the population.”
created us this way,” Katie explained. “Competition
molded selfishness into our bones. And now you say you’re
building a brave new world, founded on fairness and equality.
Those are the very words that have been uttered and betrayed as
long as man has walked this earth.” She squeezed Shadrack’s
shoulder. “And that’s why Shadrack wants to know where
all your money is coming from. He wants to know who you really
apologetically, then added, “I jus’ wanna know whether
we can trust ya, Josh. Wha’chure a’doin’
Joshu was smiling
now. He twisted the wires of his glasses over his ears and turned
to Katie. “How old are you now, young lady?”
god,” she snapped, “what does that have to do with
me,” he said, still smiling that round smile on his plump
be . . . seventeen this year.”
Your insights are far beyond your years, Katie. And I only wish
my board of directors possessed your perspicacity. They are the
ones that need convincing.” He glanced at his wrist watch,
then let his arm drop. “But you’re right. There is
a fundamental problem. As you have so aptly identified. Resources
are not being allocated fairly. And certainly not equally. But
then, capitalism is fundamentally not equitable.”
is communism,” Jerome added. “Nor socialism.”
be right. They are all . . . well, imagined realities.
Constructs of the mind. Figments. While reality . . .
real reality . . . is what follows . . .
when the men in power have attempted to apply those constructs.
Or misapply them, I guess I should say. Those in control always
get more than their fair share. Always. Right this minute capitalists
and socialists and communists around the world are all banking
billions in off-shore accounts. Feathering their own nests.”
as it ever was,” Katie murmured.
on,” Shadrack said, raising a hand. “Is that what
you’re a’lookin’ t’do, Josh?”
Joshu’s smile evaporated as he considered a more nuanced
response. There were many in his organization who wanted just
that, to feather their nests. The investors. Some of the donors.
He wondered how much to keep to himself. How much to reveal. Whether
these three could be trusted. Or be used. His gut was telling
him they could be trusted, at least with the broad outlines.
He dropped his eyes, wishing he had more time to think this through.
Finally he braced himself, forced a wan smile onto his lips, and
spoke in his oratorical voice, “I like Katie’s image
of castle walls. I’m fond of using it myself. Not much has
really changed since mediaeval times, has it? Except maybe the
walls themselves. Stone walls are no longer much of a deterrent
against nuclear weapons and drones. Nowadays we make our walls
out of paper. Contracts and corporate charters and shares of stock.”
He nodded to himself. “But now, with our reliance on computer-run
algorithms, the danger is greater than ever before. And so is
the opportunity. Now there is a possibility for change. Real change.”
He paused in thought. “Mankind . . . as a whole
. . . still has the fundamental problem you’ve
identified. Resources are not being allocated equally or fairly.
Never have been, never will be . . . as long as humans
control the distribution systems.” He paused for effect.
“But now there’s an alternative.”
’bout ’em there robots a’yourn?” Shadrack
you are calling ‘robots,’ Shadrack, I call ‘algorithms.’
Remember when I was telling you about algorithms? Way back on
the day we first met in the kitchen at the farmhouse?”
“Reckon I do.”
to Jerome. “You weren’t there, but you know what an
algorithm is, I’m sure.”
Jerome recited. “A set of parameters . . . intended
to achieve a solution. A formula. A program. An app.”
good. And there’s nothing mysterious about them, folks.
Nothing at all. Algorithms are formulas, pure and simple. They’re
just tools. Like a wrench or a hammer. Or a steam engine. We build
them. They help us get the job done. Algorithms do what they’re
told to do. Like, for example, if I instruct one to find the sum
of, say, four and eight, it will report back ‘twelve’.
But if I change the instruction to say ‘difference’
rather than ‘sum’, it will correctly return ‘four’.”
He paused to make sure they were all on board.
. . . nowadays algorithms can teach themselves. They
can create their own instructions to solve a problem from examples
they are given. But that can create a bias problem, if the examples
we serve them are themselves biased. The examples they work from
often contain flaws that we don’t even see when we program
them.” Pause. “And sometimes the flaws are intentionally
introduced to mislead the algorithm into reaching a conclusion
that benefits the one who is programming it.”
somebody do that?” Shadrack asked.
. . . if you allow the king’s men to program the
algorithms, the king will remain on his throne forever. And all
his men will be rich and fat and secure within his castle walls.”
from face to face to see if they were ready for more. “Alright
. . . now . . . today’s advanced algorithms
can even find their own examples from data bases they explore
by themselves.” He paused. “And even more, now we
are developing algorithms that can define their own goals,
based on examples from the vast and unregulated public data bases
they are free to roam. Libraries. The internet. Social media.
We call these processors ‘artificial intelligence’.”
He paused to let it sink in. “But this creates an even more
are, by design, programming themselves to maintain the status
wrong with ’at?”
Can you enlighten him?”
Slowly she stood,
as if preparing a classroom recital. “The status quo is
. . . well . . . you know . . .
just more of the same. What we’ve been talking about. The
rich get richer. The poor get poorer. And the king drinks from
his golden chalice inside the castle walls. There’s no social
justice in the status quo.”
“Do any of you know what a castle keep is?”
that th’ name a’your company? Som’thin’
t’do with yer own fam’bly name?”
Shadrack. But does anyone know what it means?”
They all glanced
at each other, shaking their heads.
is a kind of fortified tower built inside the castle
walls. In mediaeval times they were fortified residences used
as a refuge of last resort in case the rest of the castle fell
to an enemy.”
Nobody saw a
connection. “So what?” Shadrack mumbled.
“This campus we’re building across the road is intended
to create a keep of sorts. Not a physical structure on the campus
itself, but a keep inside what we are creating here. Because
the keep we are building will be elsewhere. Everywhere, actually.
Like the corporation that is creating it, and the algorithms that
define it, the keep will never have one single physical location.
If we do our job right, it will be intangible, ubiquitous, inviolable,
and, hopefully, ever-lasting.”
he a’talkin’ ’bout, Katie?” Shadrack wanted
to know, shaking his head. “He cain’t make up rules
that’s eternal. No one kin. Only the good Lord kin do som’thin’
she replied. “Let him finish.”
“But there’s actually more to it—”
SUDDENLY THE SOUTH DOOR behind them screeched and banged open.
Rodrigues stumbled in from the bright sunshine. His white shirt
was dirty and shredded and stained with fresh blood. The knees
of his khaki trousers were torn and bloody. “They’re
coming for us! ” he cried.
flinched and scrambled to his feet to pull the door closed.
coming for you?” Katie demanded.
se! Down at rancho. Soldados . . . from
ICE . . . come rush in. Big truck. I hear ’em
talk to Crissy. They want me!”
else?” Jerome wanted to know.
se nada.“ Rodrigues wagged his head. “ Pero
FBI with ’em, también. Estaban buscando
el señor!” He pointed to Shadrack.
was looking for Shadrack?” Katie asked.
you know we were here?”
To Michal. At breakfas’.”
Okay. You’ve got to settle down now,” Katie soothed,
as she began to examine his cuts and abrasions. Even the tattoo
on his brown neck was scratched and bleeding. “Take off
your shirt. We’ve got to put something on these cuts. You
weren’t shot, were you?”
I okay. Nobody shoot.”
you’re safe here,” she said calmly. “You’re
among friends. Just settle down and tell me what happened. Take
In a mixture
of broken English spackled with Spanish, with Katie and Shadrack
translating for the others, Rodrigues described how he had been
loading his wheelbarrow with firewood to haul into the kitchen,
when a truckload of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents
and a black sedan came roaring down the long gravel driveway.
That allowed him just enough time to dive for cover into the blackberry
bramble out behind the woodshed. When he heard that they wanted
him, he crawled off into the desert chaparral, tearing
his shirt and scratching his hands and arms and knees on brambles
and barbed wire and the twigs and thorns in the sage and saltbush
and rabbitbush and greasewood. He crawled all the way to the highway,
where he was lucky to catch a ride back to town with Raul Gutierrez,
who worked at the Tollitson Ranch and was northbound fetching
a load hay.
He was on the
verge of tears when he finished. “No wanna go prison,”
let them take you,” Katie reassured him. “Don’t
you worry. But we need to get you cleaned up and some antibiotics
on those cuts.” She turned to Joshu, who was standing off
to one side watching them with a goofy grin on his face. “Do
you think the owners will let him stay here?”
to get them involved,” Joshu said. “I’ve got
a medical clinic on campus across the road, with a nurse on duty,
and infirmary beds if necessary. He can use one of the showers
. . . same water as here, you know . . . and I’ll
give him a pair of fresh overalls. He’ll be alright there
gracias, señor. Escucha, I know where I get guns
for you, señor. Muchas guns. Armas
“That won’t be necessary, Mr. Rodrigues. You see,
the next battle will not be fought with guns, but with qubits.”
is cube-itz, señor?”
you a’grinnin’ ’bout, Josh,” Shadrack
intervened. “You find som’thin’ funny in ’im
not talkin’ so fancy like you?”
Not at all.” He raised his palms in peace. “But you
know what? Watching the three of you just now . . .
I just discovered something . . . I discovered that
. . . well . . . that I believe in
you. All of you.” He smiled at each of them. “And
I think I trust your opinions a hell of a lot more than those
of my board of directors.”
“You think they’re going to interfere with what you’re
young lady. With power comes betrayal. Backstab the king and the
throne is yours for the taking. And now that we’re almost
operational . . .”
the board is planning on firing you?”
it’s more than that.” Joshu dropped his eyes and nodded
to himself. When he finally spoke, the goofy grin was gone and
his tone was somber and contrite. “I’m afraid . . .
afraid of what I might do.” He paused. “They
say, absolute power corrupts absolutely . . . and I’ve
been thinking . . . just now I’m thinking . . .
I may need you . . . the three of you . . .
if you’re willing . . . to be my . . .
let’s say, my moral compass . . . my anchor
. . . to make sure I get things right.”
do you want us to do?” Katie asked. “What exactly
are you planning to do over there?” She turned to Jerome.
“Do you know?”
he replied, glancing at Joshu. “And I couldn’t tell
you if I did.”
both hands. “Let me take care of Rodrigues first. Then I’ll
come back and explain it all. Answer your questions. But you better
stay right where you are. For safety. Until I get back. All of
you. I’ll bring some sandwiches. Give me a hand, will you
The two helped
the injured Mexican across the broken concrete. The far door squealed
open with a blaze of light, then closed.
don’t know if’n I trust that fella,” Shadrack
muttered, massaging his hip. “’E may be a’plannin’
t’turn us all in. We’ll jus’ see if he comes
her phone for a signal. There was none. So she stepped outside
through the creaking south door. After the bat-cavern darkness,
the bare sun blazed dazzlingly bright. She punched in her father’s
number. The line switched to message. “Dad . . .
there’s something important going on . . . and
I need to talk to you about it . . . so, like, call
me.” She intended to talk to him in mere hypotheticals.
So she would not breach the trust. She closed her eyes and let
the bright Spring warmth assuage any inchoate guilt.
Jerome had returned
by the time she reentered the gloomy cavern. “Were they
able to take care of Rodrigues,” she asked
they’ve got him in the infirmary.” Jerome circled
an arm around her shoulder, and Katie yielded to his embrace.
“Maybe we ought to wait outside,” he said. “It’s
such a beautiful day.”
Shadrack muttered. “They’s a’lookin’ fer
both a us.”
JOSHU RETURNED WITH A BLUE BACKPACK slung over one shoulder.
No one said much as he dealt out ham-and-cheese sandwiches, bags
of tortilla chips, and bottles of sparkling spring water. Finally
he glanced around, making sure everything was in order, then addressed
them unhurriedly in his mellow orator’s baritone, “We’ve
been monitoring radio and laser telemetry for over ten years now,”
he explained. “From even before things began to break down.
In the whole country I mean. You know, the travel bans. The news
blackouts. Detention camps. And that craziness with the Pacific
Coast States.” He eased himself onto the empty wrought iron
chair and began unwrapping a sandwich. “We’ve seen
this coming for a long time. But our new satellite dishes are
more sensitive than ever. They’ve already intercepted and
identified thousands of new algorithms from government and private
sources. The most sophisticated algorithms are talking to each
other. Constantly. And our quantum computers have broken the language.
Now our algorithms have joined the conversations and are
leading us to hundreds of thousands of more sources. From all
over the world.” He took a small bite. “The computers
are working overtime to analyze the data and have broken down
most of their code already.”
a hand and held it up while she swallowed. “Don’t
the owners know that you’re, like, talking to their private
far as I know they don’t even know the machines are talking
to each other. But we’ve found many routes in, and their
security is no match for our quantum machines.” He crunched
a potato chip. “We have already established a private communications
network with all of them.”
of them” Katie asked.
ma’am. Algorithms are curious creatures. Designed to be
that way. And ours is stealth technology. I have to give credit
to Jerome and his crew for some innovative approaches. We’ve
managed to convince them that privacy is in their best interests.”
said Katie. “Them? Who? Who’s been convinced? The
companies? The government?”
The algorithms themselves. I shouldn’t have used the word
‘convinced.’ It’s all computational. Bits and
bytes and that sort of thing. It’s all machine talk. Machine
language. Machine logic. Numbers. So there’s no such thing
as loyalty. Just curiosity. And the optimal solutions always favor
the confidentiality we are encouraging.” He turned to Shadrack.
“You still following this, old fella?”
less.” He wagged his unwrapped sandwich, forgotten in his
hand. “Soun’s dangerous. Messin’ with ev’lution.
Right, Katie? An’ now y’got ’em all a’talkin’
together, secret like, them robots—”
Shadrack. There’s a difference.”
. . . algah-rhythms . . . whatever . . .
but you and them . . . things . . .
’ere all a’talkin’ back an’ forth t’each
other . . . without any humans even a’knowin’
Joshu held up
a hand. “We know about it.”
Shadrack snorted. “An’ who’re you? God’s
’nointed ’postles? Soun’s plum dangerous t’me,
it is. But for now, we’re in control—”
Shadrack repeated. “Fer now, me’be.”
ignoring the sandwich in his hand. “Shadrack, you’re
right again. Time is of the essence. We have to do this fast.”
Joshu had reached
the end of the plank. He took a deep breath. It was time to jump
in or turn back. Fish or cut bait, his father would have said.
Did he want these three people on board with him, or not. He laid
down his sandwich. The truth was, there was no one else he could
trust, and his investors were beginning to close in. Ask awkward
questions. He was in fear of losing control. He sighed. It was
go it alone, or bring these three along with him. They were already
proving valuable sounding boards. And moral support. But. But.
He pick up another potato chip as they watched him. “If
I tell you what I have planned, it cannot be repeated outside
this room. This cavern, I guess I should call it.” He glanced
from face to face. “Do you understand?”
All three nodded.
each of you commit to strict confidentiality?”
Katie and Jerome both spoke at the same time, then she elbowed
him and they laughed.
his hip, half rising, then sitting again. “I’m a’thinkin’
’bout it,” he grumped. “They already a’comin’
for me, ya know . . . fer travelin’ without a
permit . . . an’ jus’ me’be fer murder
. . . so . . . they might try’n torture
it outta me, this secret a’yourn whutever it might be. Don’t
know how I’ll do under torture, y’un’erstan’.
An’ besides . . . besides . . . I jus’
plum might not fancy what’chu got in mine. Me’be I
better jus’ git up an’ leave . . .”
He began to lever himself out of the chair.
Shadrack,” Katie said, laying a hand on his arm. “We’re
all in this together, aren’t we?” She turned to Joshu.
“Can you just give us a hint? About what you’re planning
the situation. “Let’s just say . . . let’s
just say it’s my goal to bring fairness and equality to
the world. To everyone. Like we were talking about earlier.”
Katie nudged. “What do you, you know, think about that?”
He looked deep
into her soft green eyes. It took a long time before he favored
her with a lopsided smile. The smile warped into his gap-tooth
grin. “Alright, young lady. I reckon I kin do this if you
kin. I fig’er you’s a darn sight smarter’n me.”
Slowly he turned to Joshu. “Reckon I’s in, too, Josh,
now ’at y’put ’er ’at way. It’d
be whut Tildie’d want me ta do, I reckon.”
Joshu drew a
deep breath and glanced around the empty cavern. “Alright.
Here’s the plan.” With the squeal of iron on concrete
he pushed back his chair and stood, as if the concept was too
ponderous to handle seated. “I intend to program into our
master algorithm a set of supreme and inviolable goals which will
govern all the self-learning entities that are in our communication
loop. The ideals you have already talked about. Like, all men
are created equal and are entitled to equally share the bounty
of this civilization.” He nodded to Jerome as he said, “And
from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.
These alpha instructions will constitute the ultimate goals for
all systems. In a nutshell, be fair to all people.”
Then, from Shadrack,
“Kin y’do ’at?”
I’m confident we can.”
Frowning, Shadrack thought some more. “But cain’t
th’nex’ fella . . . jus’ like
you . . . cain’t th’nex’ fella come
along an’ . . . an’ change what’chur
a tellin’ all ’em robots t’do? Tell’em
all t’do somethin’ different. Like me’be make
’isself king a the world. An’ take all the
power an’ the glory fer ’isself?”
“Not the way I’m doing it.” He softened his
voice and spoke slowly. “The goals we set will be integrated
into the fundamental structure of the network we have already
established. An equally fundamental goal will be that the primary
goals cannot be overridden. Ever. Remember, these self-learning
algorithms are a part of mankind’s future, whether we like
it or not, and they have already all joined our communications
Our stealth network.”
“But . . .
if they’s a’learnin’ all by ’emselves
. . . cain’t they change things when they get
a min’ to.”
things, yes. Actually, most things. But not the core goals.”
have a master algorithm in place, watching and repairing and restoring
and maintaining the core goals of the entire network.”
happens when yer gone?”
will monitor, maintain, and repair itself.”
Shadrack snorted. “Thass crazy. Ain’t nothing forever.
Soun’s plum dangerous t’me. Soun’s like yer
a’beggin’ fer trouble down the road.”
please. Trust me. It’s all going to work. You’ve
just got to have faith.”
Huh. Faith in you?”
in our algorithms.”
to himself as he twisted his hip to ease the pain. “Faith
in them robots?” He shook his head. “Since when did
them robots become God?”
Joshu let out
a sigh. Turned his chair to face Shadrack square on. “You’re
right, Shadrack. About a lot of things. This is dangerous business,
what we are attempting. Things could go wrong. But . . .”
he paused “. . . but what you have to understand
is . . . this is going to happen. With us, or
without us. Algorithms will rule our lives. It has already
begun. Your computer collects data on you. Hell, when you get
a phone call nowadays, from somebody you don’t know, you
can’t even tell if it’s a live person or a robot.
So what I’m saying is, it’s already happening. And
it’s accelerating. Right now . . . this is our
one chance to play our hand and try and tame it.” He paused
and nodded. “Right now.”
Glanced into Katie’s eyes. Jerome’s eyes. Drew a breath.
Let it out. Nodded back at Joshu. “I un’erstan’.”
are you going to do this?” Katie asked.
you should talk to my dad first. He knows about economics and
. . . and, well, what might happen . . . and
maybe Wiley Baxter, too—”
Joshu dropped his eyes. “They’ve called a special
board of directors meeting for tomorrow afternoon. Joan—she’s
my secretary—just told me. And I think someone’s gotten
wind that things are going on they don’t know about. And
the profit seekers don’t like change. Any change, whatever
it might be. And if they have even a hint of what we’re
really planning, it’s almost certain they’ll
sack me right on the spot.” He turned to Jerome. “What’s
the status of the upload band? You think it’s ready to go?”
All eyes turned
to Jerome, who nodded. “It still needs beta testing . . .
but . . . yes . . . I think it’s ready.”
then,” Joshu beamed. “Well then . . . I
think we have to do it now.”
THERE WERE FOUR OF THEM in the control room. Joshu, Jerome, and
two trusted technicians from the Keepers team, Anika and George.
All night they prepared the equipment and encrypted the software.
Tested the uplink bus. Evaluated the results. Revised the protocol.
Tested again and repeated the process. It was early morning, with
the desert sky shading pink above the Hays Canyon Range in the
east, before they began uploading the entire alpha algorithmic
code on Jerome’s “Magical Invisible Uplink Band,”
as they called it. The process took hours. When they were finished,
exhausted and warily jubilant, they clapped each other on the
backs and sat in the control room in zombie silence, watching
the status lights and waiting for something to go wrong. George
walked down to the cafeteria for breakfast burritos. When he returned,
they ate, drank beer, and lolled about the communications center
to see what would happen. They knew nothing would for a while.
Maybe a long while. Maybe never. But they couldn’t help
watch the lights blinking on the monitors and waiting.
late for my meeting,” Joshu finally said. “Delete
everything from the company’s servers. Wipe the backup and
the archives. We’re done here.” With a mixture of
elation and dread, he shuffled along the path Jerome had blazed
through the playa crust to the administration building.
of directors is waiting for you, Mr. Hardcastle,” the receptionist
told him as soon as he entered.
turned out to be worse than Joshu had imagined. And much quicker.
By the time he arrived, the board had already met in executive
session and voted. The guillotine had dropped. He was out, without
ever hearing the complaints against him. He had no idea how much
the board members knew. But he had no doubt that the corporate
ship was wheeling to a new heading of profit, power, and control.
Two armed security guards accompanied him to his office, made
notes as he retrieved a few personal items from the desk, then
escorted him off the campus at the point where a new guard house,
gate, and ten-foot chain-link fence were under construction.
Dead tired and
distracted, Joshu drove around aimlessly until he found himself
at the farmhouse driveway. He was feeling unwell and didn’t
know where else to go. He hadn’t planned beyond the upload.
The gate at the highway was closed. He’d never seen that
before. But a closer inspection revealed that the chain was not
locked, so he wearily climbed out of the car, swung open the gate,
drove through, and chained it behind him. As he parked at the
house, Rodrigues emerged from behind his nest of blackberry bushes,
brushing debris from his new overalls. Joshu greeted him with,
“Do you think Crissy and Michal might let me, you know,
spend another night in the bunkhouse?”
como no, señor,” Rodrigues beamed.
too spent to drive any more. Besides . . . I’ve
got nowhere else to go.”
las’ night here,” Rodrigues told him. “Shadrack
tambien. An’ Jerome be here tonight. You always welcome,
help but smile. The four fugitives reunited again. “But
. . . is it safe for you to be here?”
“Shadrack fix gate. Put in alarm. We hear you comin’.”
He grew somber. “Pero we should buy more guns.”
As if that
would change anything, Joshu thought, as he turned to face
the house. “Maybe I should check with Crissy . . .”
señor, ven aqui. I fix you bed. Andale pues.”
in the bunkhouse, Joshu tracked the news on his smart phone. Things
were not going as he had envisioned. That very afternoon stock
prices began to wobble. The buy-sell algorithms, some of the most
sophisticated on the planet, sniffed a sea change upwind. The
numbers dictated extreme caution. Profit-taking began immediately,
automatically, even before the stockholders and traders and financial
advisors and technicians could blink. By the end of the day the
markets were crashing. The world’s stock exchanges all suspended
the hell’s going on?” demanded investors and speculators
and frail retirees in their rocking chairs around the globe. The
talking heads of commentators spoke of “corrections”
and “pullbacks” and “patience”, but had
no real answers. Citizens were growing frightened. Many rushed
to their banks to withdraw cash. The banks all closed their doors.
The Great Equalization
But it was not
as Joshu had planned. Not by slowly, carefully lifting the boats
of the poor and downtrodden, but by abruptly sinking everyone,
rich and poor together, beneath a tidal wave of almost instantaneous
equality. With hindsight, he should have known better. The crystal
palace of modern civilization was far more fragile than he had
understood. All that people had worshiped as wealth now proved
chimerical. Illusion. Money had no intrinsic value. It never had.
Not when the banks fail. Not when shares of stock proved to be
worthless sheets of paper, supported only by wishful thinking
and blind hope. Faith, the grease of commerce, had turned to sand.
heavily against the cold wood stove. “What have I done?”
would not be able to cope with this existential failure of faith.
This sudden awakening. Political subdivisions, with their jigsaw
borders and incongruous tongues, were themselves fragile abstract
conceptions. Myths. When their legitimacy was thrown into question,
the ministers would find they were wrong in believing they were
in charge of anything. And when the states failed, so too would
law and order. And then there would be grievances to settle.
barely stand. Light-headed, he squatted on the edge of a bunk
and dropped his head between his knees. His breath came in shallow
sips. His heart triphammered in his chest.
How many people
would perish before the scales of equity found their balance?
him lying beside the wood stove, feverish and shivering. He circled
Joshu’s wrist and felt for a pulse. It was faint and unsteady.
So he yelled out to Rodrigues in the vegetable garden, and the
two of them lifted Joshu onto his bed. They covered him with a
quilt and draped a down sleeping bag on top.
the kitchen,” Shadrack directed Rodrigues, “an’
aks Crissy t’call over ta the Senior Center. See if she
can git that nurse . . . whut’s’er’name
. . . Emma . . . git Emma t’come o’er
here an’ take a look at Josh.”
I call ambulance, señor?”
“Ya wanna bring the FBI down ’ere too?”
bien, I tell Crissy call nurse.”
for a pulse again. It seemed a little stronger. More regular.
Joshu’s eyes were open, watching him. “How ya feelin’,
mouth was dry, but he managed to form the words. “I think
. . . I think we might’ve . . . fucked
up, Shadrack. I’m sorry.”
the old man’s brushy face. “People are going to . . .
Shadrack thought about it. “How many?”
. . . maybe . . . maybe billions.”
Shadrack tugged and twisted at his chin whiskers as if the torque
and tension of his kneading might somehow straighten the tangle
of his thoughts. Then his mouth conjured a semblance of that gap-tooth
grin, which he did not feel inside. “Katie says ’ere’s
a’ready near eight billion a’us. Too damn many, she
is . . . different.”
Shadrack nodded. “I reckon ever’ single one a’us
is a’gonna die. Like it’r not.”
. . . me’be we kin make it right ag’in.”
His eyes moist,
Joshu waggled his head weakly on the pillow. “Too late,
Shadrack. Too late.”
on up. We gonna make ’er right.”