||Modified image of Judith Shea's "Post-Balzac" from The Hirshhorn Sculpture Gardens, Washington, DC. Photo by Brian Nelson.
|Chapter 2: Longbow
|Naval Research Laboratory, Washington D.C.
|Phase 1 deadline: 19 months, 16 days
We knew from the outset that we were out to make history. We knew how important it was to the nation and to the world, and that made it a little frightening. But we also knew that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to push science to a new frontier, and if we could win the race, we would likely determine the direction of the world for decades to come.
—Bill Hopkins, May 30th, 2016
Twenty-five days later Eric began working on the Self-Replication Project, code-named Longbow, at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, DC. It was a small 30 acre campus nestled in the South West corner of the District, bordered by the Potomac River to the west, Bollings Air Force base to the north, and Interstate 295 to the south and east.
At first sight, Eric could see that the place was in the midst of a radical transformation. There could be no doubt about the backing from the Pentagon. Fueled by massive funding, the lab was experiencing bulging, almost monstrous growth as what must have originally been a quaint college-like campus was being converted into a state-of-the-art research complex. Each and every building seemed to be changing before his eyes. Silver ducts and thick tendrils of rainbow wires reached out from one building to the next and seemed to grow thicker everyday; antenna and great satellite dishes sprouted from the rooftops; and new buildings and annexes grew off of the old structures at such a rate that the campus’s original red brick was difficult to see. The buildings were growing downward too, as the basements and sublevels were being pushed deeper and deeper into the earth, where it was cool and safe—and where possible contaminants could more easily be contained. Like elaborate root systems, a simple two story building could have as many as seven sublevels.
The pace of change was so frenetic that Eric was soon convinced that many things were happening of their own accord—overnight or while he wasn’t looking. Some mornings he would see a new annex and swear that it hadn’t been there the day before. It was as if the place were a living thing: A creature with a skin of concrete, a skeleton of steel, and veins of fiber optics; a creature that was growing and consuming all the source material it could consume—brick, mortar, electricity, thermocyclers, mainframes, syncatrons, and men and women; a creature/machine moving inexorably toward it’s goal: self-replication.
The race was on. Bill Hopkins had made the deadline for phase 1, for replication, in just over 19 months, something that many thought impossible. Yet in research labs across the world, dozens of teams were pushing toward the same goal, and there were reports that some of these labs were already ahead of them; might even reach replication in a little as a year. While many of these labs were funded by private companies, most were government ventures. Germany, Japan, Sweden and particularly Russia and China were pouring massive resources into self-replication. The United States was not the only one who had realized what was a stake here. Whoever figured out replication first would instantly shoot decades ahead of everyone else as the new systems would take over the work of the human engineers and scientists.
Because there was so much at stake, the military presence was everywhere. Marines patrolled the grounds, checked your garbage, did magnetic sweeps on cars, and confiscated laptops, plasti-sheets, and handhelds. As you left the gate each night there was a billboard of a pretty girl with her finger to her lips, reminding you with a ‘shhhh’ that you didn’t talk about work off base. No, this was not like Stanford, Eric thought. And that seemed important. Don’t forget who you work for, he told himself.
He was assigned to Jack Behrmann, the sagacious Nanotech Chief. For a techie, Jack was ancient, pre-Cambrian, Methuselah. In a field dominated by the young; by people who typically burned out their genius by 40, Jack was an anomaly, an unlikely survivor from an era when things were done with compasses and slide rules. He must be over fifty! Eric thought.
The father of nanotech had a bushy gray beard and a big bald head. In fact, he looked a bit like Darwin, albeit a very big Darwin. Jack was over six and a half feet tall. But it was a comforting big, not intimidating. With his size and his big bellowed Teddy Roosevelt laugh, Jack had an air of welcome about him. Warm and generous. He seemed aware that his experience and position brought with it a responsibility to help others. Whenever you need anything, anything, just let me know.
Eric had been in awe of Jack long before they met, but now his awe only increased. There was no let down. When Eric spent two very frustrating days on a catenae problem and got stuck, he went to Jack for help. Eric began to explain the problem in detail, but then Jack suddenly smiled and held up a finger for quiet.
Eric fell silent.
A problem. Nothing seemed to make Jack happier than a mystery, a puzzle. He leaned back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest—the chair yawned under his weight. A problem. How wonderful. “Let me guess,” he finally said. “You found out you were getting an inflated figure so you compensated with Waffensoffer’s theorem, switched vectors, but kept getting zero.”
Eric nodded, amazed. Two days work. What had taken Eric two days, tapping away on his computer, had just taken Jack twenty seconds to do in his head. Jack, reading Eric’s expression, pointed to his shiny crown and said, “You didn’t think this was just to throw a glare, did you?”
In Eric’s eyes, Jack was preternatural, what Eric aspired to be: respected, sought after, a giver of knowledge. Jack was like a wizard. Old and wise he seemed to hold lifetimes of knowledge.
Unfortunately, it was becoming increasingly clear to Eric that he would never be a Jack Berhmann. It was all too complex for him. Like the catenae problem, he was spending days trying to understand what everyone else seemed to think was elementary. Everything about this place was foreign. It was as if he had suddenly awoken in Japan and didn’t know a word of Japanese; half the time he was guessing, thinking a symbol meant one thing because it looked familiar—and he was usually wrong. I am way out of my league here, he thought.
This lab had so many top minds—not only in nanotech, genetics and A.I., but also in physics, mathematics, software design and infrastructure. National Academy. I twas overwhelming. Way out of my league. And if the science was overwhelming enough, there was all the military jargon, it was everywhere—NAVDAF, TRAMANS, NAVSEA, LWOP. Eric got memos on a weekly basis that were completely illegible. He was inept; they had mad a mistake in hiring him. He knew it. And sooner or later Berhmann would realize his mistake, and send him packing.
Most demoralizing were Tuesday Talks—the weekly meetings of the forty-five Nanotech team members.
They were working on carbon lattice sheets and energy coupling (to ensure the most efficient nanosite design). The equations were very complex. Week after week Eric would sit and listen to them discuss the latest problems, yet he was the only one who didn’t contribute to the discussion. God, what’s wrong with me.
Olex Velichko, the Genetics Chief, would sit and stare fixedly at him during every meeting. Olex was a lanky Ukrainian with a thin goatee that gave him the diabolical look of a Spanish Conquistador. It seemed to Eric that every time a question was posed to the group, Olex would narrow his gaze on Eric with an expectant look as if to say, well, why don’t you say something?
Olex seemed to take a disliking to Eric from the start and he seemed to know just by looking at him that he wasn’t NRL material. His office was next to Eric’s and for the first few weeks Eric had said hello and see you tomorrow as Olex came and went each day, but soon gave up because Olex never gave him the slightest acknowledgement.
He asked Jack if perhaps he had offended him. Jack had chuckled at this. “Oh, no, probably not,” Jack had said. “You see, the only thing in the world Olex cares about is his science, genetics. He doesn’t let anything else distract him. That’s what makes him so good at it. Don’t worry, he’ll talk to you. But you probably won’t like what he has to say.”
Eric gave him a quizzical look.
"He’ll talk to you when he wants to see how smart you are,” Jack said. “See, Olex always tests the NUBs.” NUB, Jack explained, was the acronym Olex used to refer to anyone beneath him, and since he had declared himself too smart for Mensa, this was just about everyone. “He heard it from one of the Marines,” Jack said. “New Useless Body, NUB.”
Olex was indeed obsessed with his work. Eric could hear him in his office. Whenever his phone rang he would usually curse under his breath, “Proklyat’e,” then—never bothering to pick up the receiver—he would punch on the speakerphone. “GO!” he would shout. This, he had learned, was the most efficient way of inducing the caller to speak.
The person on the line, usually one of his NUB assistants, would sputter nervously. Shortly, Olex would cut him off, “Shut it!” then succinctly tell him what he had done wrong: “Use the [unknown genetic term] R.E. with [unknown genetic term] H.T. before the [unknown genetic term] marker.” Click. “Svoloch!” He fit right in with the military personnel because in order to save on syllables he loved to make up acronyms. R.E., restrictive enzyme. H.T., haplotypes.
His economy of language was fascinating. He didn’t say as soon as possible, he said, now. He didn’t say purchase, he said buy. He didn’t say position, he said, job. He didn’t say penitentiary or even prison, he said jail. And he never said hello, goodbye, excuse me or I’m sorry at all.
Perhaps it was cultural, Eric thought. Maybe all Ukrainians were like him, and that the language had no cordialities or euphemism, everyone just walked around saying exactly what they wanted in the fewest syllables possible. But Lily, who had several friends from the Ukraine, assured him that they didn’t talk like Olex.
Eric told himself that when Olex decided to test him/interrogate him, he would ignore him, just like Olex ignored everyone else. It happened one day when he was in the lunch room. He had been eating with Jane, a genetics post-doc that he had just met. Jane was a no-nonsense tomboy, an army brat from Alabama. Pickup truck and Wrangler jeans. Smart and tall with short blonde hair, she was pretty, but didn’t seem to know it. Eric liked her immediately and (because he didn’t seem to have any friends at the lab) very much wanted to impress her. As they were talking, Olex marched in, grabbed a brown lunch bag from the refrigerator, then gave them a sideways glance. Jane was talking about her time in Auburn, but Olex cut her off mid-sentence : “NUB,” he said, addressing Eric, “talk on parity in artificial intelligence.”
Eric looked up at Olex. His conquistador goatee giving him a particularly diabolical look. The gauntlet had been thrown. If Eric said nothing, it would appear that he didn’t know, that Olex was right about him, that he was unworthy. Yet, for once, he knew the right answer. He had a chance to show Olex (and Jane too), to prove that he was worthy.
For fifteen minutes they volleyed back and forth: the processing speed of the brain (20 million billion calculations per second), neural connection speeds (one hundred meters per second), the biggest problem facing molecular computers (their own heat cooked them). Eric was nailing the answers one after the other. He just might make it.
“How long will A.I. machines stay as smart as humans?”
“The big bang,” Eric said. “Machine memory is externalized, so if the machine has access to the web, then it will only be as dumb as humans for a few seconds.”
Olex didn’t acknowledge the correct response—no nod or grunt—he merely went to the next question. “You can make a robot. It is better than you in every way and it can replicate itself. Do you make it?”
Eric hesitated. There were two schools of thought here. One held that such robots would run amok. Others believed that not only was it desirable (every tool ever made was intended to save labor, hence a robot smarter than man was the ultimate labor saving device), but that it was also inevitable and should not be resisted. He looked at Jane for guidance. She was smiling an encouraging smile. She wanted him to win
All the NUBs hated Olex, so to witness a new hire show him up would make NRL history.
Olex had followed his gaze. “She can’t help. She’s just as dumb.” Jane set her jaw in obvious fury. “Prick,” she said under her breathe, but, Olex did not seem to hear. Olex raised his eyebrows at Eric. Well, do you make the robot?
“Sure,” Eric said. “I’ll stay at home and it can do my work for me.”
“You’re stupid,” Olex said as casually as one might tell a friend he has something stuck between his teeth. “You have no mind for the interplay of species.”
He was about to protest but Olex cut him off. “Nature doesn’t care about silicon or skin, she only cares about efficiency. The more efficient animal will always dominate (or eat) the other. While your creation may be of use to you, you will be about as useful to your creation as a dog is to a tiger.” Then he walked out.
Eric turned red. He had fallen for it. Olex had cast him as the pathetic neophyte—a needy child—and Eric had played right into it. Hey, I’m doing the best I can, he wanted to say, but that would only solidify Olex’s conviction in Eric’s inferiority. He stayed quiet.
His attempt at redemption had failed. Eric shook his head. “I guess I failed that test.”
“Ah, don’t let him bother you,” Jane said. “Remember that’s what he wants, to get under your skin. Besides, he didn’t give you the test because he wanted you to ace it.”
He nodded. “I guess you’re right,” he said, but he was disappointed in himself. You shouldn’t have fallen for it, he said to himself. NUB.
That was the only time in his first four months that Olex had addressed him. But in Tuesday Talks Olex continued to stare him down every time there was a question put to the group. Eric could feel his Ukrainian eyes sending combinations of monosyllabic words across the room at him. “Bill should not have hired you.” “You are a waste of funds.” “I hope they get rid of you.” And the accusation that seemed to seep from Olex’s pores, that trailed like a suffix on everything he said was the single word, impostor.
* * *
“I hate these purgings.” Jack said taking a gulp of cold coffee. He cringed as he swallowed, looked into the mug with disgust, then pushed it as far away from him as possible.
“They gotta be done,” Bill Hopkins said. “If people don’t contribute, we have to let ‘em go. You know how Bartlett is about wasting money.”
They were sitting in “the Brig,” the biocontainment room 50 feet below the surface. It was a quarantine area cum emergency hospital. This was where anyone who might have exposed themselves to a hot agent in the Level Four lab, “the Vault,” was confined. (In addition to using level four agents like Marburg and Ebola Zaire to model synthetic RNA devices, Nanotechs and geneticists sometimes created devices that evolved hot.) If you screwed up and exposed yourself, you were quarantined in the Brig. Once quarantined, doctors and nurses would come and examine you in pressurized suits. They would do all they could, which wasn’t much because if you really got infected by a level four agent, you were a goner.
They had a saying. “Don’t worry when you’re working in the Vault. If you mess up, you’ll only have the rest of your life to think about it.”
Jack had heard horror stories about the people who had been put into the brig. It was a terrifying prospect because once inside the only thing to do in there was sit and wait. Sit and wait for symptoms to develop—your overeducated brain imagining how the life form inside you was replicating. Sit and wait while your family was notified. Sit and wait for doctors and nurses to come and stare down at you through their plastic faceplates, their eyes full of pity and horror. And, finally, sit and wait while your body became a bulging vessel of biohazardous material.
Jack knew that people who went into the brig and survived were never quite the same. The solitude and the fear and the hypochondria did something to you that didn’t go away.
But Bill loved the brig for one simple reason: It was the only place on base he could go and not be interrupted. He would spend whole days down there when he needed to, and no one would bother him, even if they knew where he was. The place spooked everybody else. So at least once a month Jack would come with him and they would pile up their papers on the operating table and hold marathon work sessions.
They cheated, of course, by coming in through the medical access corridor. But even though this was quicker, they still had to pass through three prep chambers to get inside. In the first chamber you were bombarded by ultraviolet light, which broke down viruses. Your ears popped when you entered this area because of the negative air pressure meant to keep agents inside. The next chamber was the chemical shower (which they sidestepped) and the last chamber, the dressing room, was filled with yellow and red pressure suits for the doctors and nurses. When you entered this last room the suits always shift with the changing air pressure, creaking against the metal hangers like a group of condemned men. Even though he knew it was coming, Jack always felt a tingle of fear run up his spine whenever they did that.
Each of these chambers had the biohazard triskelion etched on the door —three crescents around a circle. Caution Biohazard. On the final door it read, DO NOT ENTER WITHOUT WEARING VENTILATED SUIT.
Of course they weren’t wearing ventilated suits, either. Bill got around that, too.
“Wolinski …what about Wolinski ?” Jack said.
“Jessica said he’s not gonna make it,” Bill answered. “She sent him out to C-lab in February and he’s still treading water.”
“I’ll give him his notice on Monday, ” Jack said. The monthly purgings were common knowledge and no employee wanted to get called into his or her team leader’s office on the last day of the month. You were more than likely to come out with your severance check in one hand and a cardboard box in the other.
“What about young Doctor Hill?” Bill asked. “I had high hopes for him after seeing his Stanford work, but it doesn’t sound like he’s been able to get up and running.” Then he added, “Olex certainly doesn’t like him.”
“If we kept people on the basis of what Olex thought,” Jack said, “we’d only have one employee—Olex. No, I want to keep him. I think he is just a little sporadic. Remember he’s only 26-years-old. It’s tough for these kids to be creative on demand. I suspect when Eric gets an idea it will more than make up for his down time. To be perfectly honest, he reminds me of another pretty inconsistent guy I know that a lot of foolish people around here like to call a genius.”
Bill laughed. “Doctor Behrmann, are you suggesting that I am not exceptional all of the time?” Jack smiled and raised an eyebrow. “Very good,” Bill continued, “Hill stays. You know I am glad that you are growing fond of. God knows if he has half the brain his father had, he should make an incredible molecular chemist.”
“Yeah,” Jack agreed. “You know he never talks about him. Not once has he mentioned him. In fact, he’s never mentioned anyone in his family.”
“Can you blame him?” Bill said. “I think he prefers that people don’t make the connection. A suicide like that, when the person is so well known, becomes a very public event.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Jack said. “It’s such a shame he died, I heard that he was brilliant.”
“Oh, Monty was one of the smartest men I’ve ever met, an incredible mind.”
“Another reason why Eric probably doesn’t talk about it,” Jack said. “He doesn’t want to feel like he’s in his dad’s shadow.”
“Do me a favor and don’t go pressing him about it. The family really disintegrated after he died. A lot of pointing fingers about what pushed him over the edge.”
“Of course,” Jack said “Eric must have been in high school,” Jack said. “It would have been quite a blow.”
Bill nodded and seemed about to say more, but stopped. “Let’s get on with it, shall we,” he said, suddenly focused on the work. “Next on the list is Schneider, Brian Schneider.”
Jack looked at his friend for a moment, he knew there was something Bill wasn’t telling him, but decided not to push it. They still had sixty employees to go. It was going to be a long night. He reached for his mug of cold coffee—it looked like a child’s toy teacup in his huge hands—and forced himself to drink.