Kurt signalled Nathan to sit down. “Remember those folks I was with the other day? They want me to program a game engine that will simulate a quantum world. And, normally, you know, it’s childsplay to simulate, ‘cuz you’re just manipulating pixels to act quantum. But I’ve been thinking. A classical computer program isn’t good enough for what they want to do.” He toyed with his Ecig. “I’ve actually been looking for an excuse to build a quantum computer, really just so I can design a quantum programming language. If I were to sit down and whip one up, I’d beat absolutely everyone to the punch. Hah. With a videogame.” He took a drink of cold coffee and wiped his lips with a finger. His mustache held drips at both ends. “That’d show them. Not a banking application, not encryption, not military. Gaming.”
Kurt whipped out a notebook and showed Nathan his schematics. Nathan didn’t understand a thing. “With current technology, you’d need shitloads of money and a kickass lab. It’s a lot like those folks’ chances of making a hit game with no budget. I can’t build a quantum computer in the back of a van, you know,” he said. Nathan looked disappointed.
“For one thing, you need a cryostat, which means your business end has to be encased in liquid helium inside a thermos bottle, inside another thermos bottle, and cryocooled to within 1 millikelvin of absolute zero. And that would be…what?” He paused, gesturing with his Estick for Nathan to answer.
“Um…” Nathan felt stupid. He aced high school physics, but on the spot he was brainless. “I know this.”
“Just shy of minus 460F,” Kurt continued after taking a final drag and putting his Ebutt back into his pocket. “At that temperature, everything stops moving except for quantum particles. That’s where you manipulate whatever you’ve chosen as your qubit until it reaches a state of superposition and you can measure it. For instance, a laser-to-mechanical oscillator that turns light to vibration and back so fast it’s in two places at once. But you have to keep the whole thing supercold or you’ll lose your superconducting state, and your qubits will decohere.
“If it warms up even a little bit, the coolant evaporates and your vessel explodes.”
Nathan looked dubious. “A quantum computer sounds like a lot of trouble.”
“Yes, but.” He pulled his Efag back out of his pocket and puffed on it some more. “We need it. Because we can’t get much smaller with the current circuitry, but mainly because we’ve got substantially more complex problems we want to solve, and we’ve reached the limits of how much we can do with just ones and zeros.” He put his Enail back into his pocket and started fumbling for his cigarettes. “Duality was fine when we thought the world existed separately from us – out there – following its own unvarying rules and never minding us humans. But duality is a habit that limits you to binary opposites. Like beauty is good and ugly is bad.” Kurt noticed a figure skulking behind the trash bins. “So someone who looks like that,” he indicated the lurker, “is judged at first sight as disreputable and probably criminal, definitely a drug addict and probably a pervert.”
Nathan turned around to see. “Oh, that’s Caroline,” he said. “She hangs out here, like you do.”
“Huh. She looks like a cop.” He put his pack away and fished in his shirt pocket for his Egasper.
“She’s okay.” Nathan waved at her and Kurt nodded politely. Caroline scowled and moved away.
Kurt returned to the subject. “With quantum computing, you’re not limited to binary opposites. It’s not black or white, it’s both black and white, and technicolor, too. Calculations run in parallel, simultaneously instead of one at a time. You can ask different kinds of questions, and there’s a greater range of answers.
“So how are you going to do it?”
“I haven’t quite decided.” He took a few puffs and exhaled steam as Nathan looked on in awe. “I know a dozen people who are working on quantum computers, and each one approaches it differently. One’s using quantum optical fields in curved spacetime. Another’s trying to make fluorescent DNAzymes in liquid.”
Nathan pictured swirling baths of green soup. “That’d be cool.”
“Real magic, I know, right? Or you could use molecular switches made out of sticky nanoplates that assemble themselves. Most of the guys are working with silicon transistors because it’s what we’ve already got, but I don’t think it’s going to work in the long run. Personally, I’m going for a total rethink.” He sat back and vaped contentedly.
“What kind of quantum computer will you make?”
Kurt took a drag of his EstowG. “I’m interested in wetware.”
“In what? That sounds kind of zombie.”
“Well, sort of. After all, neural nets are synthetic brains. Neurons in the brain show lots of quantum effects – wavefunction collapse at the presynaptic axons, proteins that act like qubits. They’re looking at the electrical resonance between the thalamus and cortex as the root of consciousness, modulated by neurotransmitters.” He leaned closer. “To tell you the truth, the consciousness aspect is my main interest in quantum computing.”
Nathan shuffled his feet under the table. “I guess,” he said doubtfully.
“Neural nets are the shit,” Kurt said. “You grow them. They make copies of themselves. They self-install, they customize, they correct themselves. They learn. Neurons only fire a thousand times a second, but millions of them fire at once, so they’re massively parallel. Classical computers separate the calculator from the numbers, but everything is jammed together in your brain. The main problem is thermal noise – heat, which causes decoherence. And at the moment,” he sighed, reaching for his cigarette pack once more, “the best way around decoherence is to cool everything to absolute zero.”
“Decoherence is bad,” Nathan summed up.
“It’s the bane of my existence. It’d be easy to make a quantum computer if the macro world didn’t keep getting in the way.”
“So you’re going to grow Frankenstein’s brain on ice. Can I watch?”
Kurt laughed. “It won’t look like a brain. It won’t even be visible until it’s embedded on a chip and assembled onto a component.” He turned to the schematic and smoothed it with his hand, and they bent over Kurt’s quantum computer diagram again: a tangle of lines, squiggles and numbered labels, with notes scribbled all around the margins. Kurt put names to the squiggles, but Nathan didn’t understand it any better than before. “Don’t worry, experts say that’s a good sign,” Kurt said soothingly.
All the quantum inventors Kurt knew were jealous and snippy, and loved to trash each other’s ideas and ridicule each other’s mentors. Nobody discussed the particulars of their work, or told the truth about how things were going, or even hinted about anything patentable. Nobody worked to a standard, nobody collaborated. And the hype was nauseating. Like Edison’s big box discount approach over Tesla’s geekier, more advanced vision – the team with the steampunk star wars look would win, while Kurt built a computer in his van. Out of trash.
“The more I think about it, the more I wonder if I couldn’t build it in the back of my van.” He was thinking aloud while Nathan looked on with a slack jaw. “If I didn’t need all the cryonics, if I could make a room temperature superconducting magnet, room temperature superconducting wires, room temperature qubits…The key is isolation, of course, shielding it from heat so it doesn’t decouple.” He drifted off in thought. “What if I made a virtual cryostat from graphene and a high magnetic field?”
Nathan nodded his approval speculatively. “Sure thing. Graphene?”
“Another form of carbon. It’s a layer of graphite one atom thick. That’s basically just two dimensions,” he gestured at the surface of the table top. “It does some interesting tricks. You can make balls, and ribbons, and tubes.”
“If it’s two dimensional, wouldn’t it be flat?”
“No, planar surfaces are only a convention. It comes from drawing everything out on a piece of paper.” He shrugged dismissively. “Classical thinking, definitely. I want a topological computer.” He could see it. “Superconducting graphene ribbons with semiconducting edges. Quantum knots. Plectonemous and toroidal supercoils…” Nathan coughed politely. Kurt put it into words. “I could make a braid, and join it in a ring, and put a mobius twist into it. And it’d curl up, which under the right circumstances would create a compact field around itself and keep decoherence at bay.”
“Okay,” Nathan said. He’d played with mobius strips. “It’s a ribbon that doesn’t start and doesn’t end, and it’s only got one side, and there’s only one edge.”
“Right. And if the ribbon is made of qubits, then once you twist it, you’ve got an infinite quantum loop, which means infinite qubits in an even tinier fucking space, because a mobius strip has no volume and no dimensions.”
Nathan tried to imagine something smaller than invisibility. “How many molecules would it take to make a mobius strip?”
“Huh. I guess I’d have to make one before I could count it.” He was starting to need a smoke really bad, and got up to leave.
Nathan headed back toward his table. It was time to be getting home. “What are you going to put it in?” he asked.
Kurt edged toward the door, fishing his smogs out of his pocket and holding them at the ready. “It’ll need some sort of shell that’s shielded from just about everything, I guess.” He fumbled for his lighter.
“But how will it communicate with the outside?” Nathan asked as he sat back down in front of his books.
“Oh, scalar waves will go right thru the most efficient shield,” he said offhand. “I’ll put an oscillator-receiver on the outside of the shell, and link that up to everything else.” He shrugged. “Anyway, a miracle will happen,” he said, and headed off to the subway with a wave of his notebook.
Caroline came up carrying a box of STBXfood. “Was he bothering you, kid?” she asked with a mean look at Kurt’s back. “Because if he’s trying to sell you drugs, or come on to you…” She opened the box and poked her food with a finger, frowning. “You just let me know and I’ll take care of him. By the way, that was a load of bullshit from start to finish, what he was saying. I didn’t understand a goddamned word.”
Caroline ate her food and talked while Nathan tried to concentrate on his homework; voicing dark, detail-free stories of her life in law enforcement, relieved by monotonous anecdotes of failed relationships and abuse. In the few weeks Nathan had known her, he’d found her bitter and self-absorbed. She loved to whine about her love life. And the devil in her wanted to shock him with her swaggering tales of butch lesbian conquests. But Nathan was okay with whatever sexuality she wanted, just as long as she kept away from him.
Kurt went home to his van and built his computer. Started to build his computer. Came smack up against the lack of materials and supplies with which to build his computer. But he wasn’t daunted. Kurt had contacts all over the place.
He was always getting to gawk at prototypes in fancy funded labs, sometimes received samples of new materials, and every once in a while got hold of a nifty instrument nobody needed anymore. So when he was ready to build his quantum computer, he called up his friends to see about access to their labs and maybe a couple of spare parts. Most of them were apologetic; one said something snippy about the last time. So Kurt did a quick inventory of parts and labor and decided he could damn well build a quantum computer himself, with things he probably had around the van.
In fact, the back of his van was the kind of DIY physics lab a geek would drool over, with handbuilt multimeters and oscilloscopes, a bench power supply, a dc power supply, function generators, pulse generators, and an entire range of lasers. He also had a nearby storage unit filled with everything from old PCs, microwaves, TVs, CD and DVD players to smoke detectors, camera lenses and optical filters.
Kurt’s van was also full of food wrappers and printer paper and well-thumbed manuals, with a gun under the driver’s seat and a stash of pharmaceuticals in the glove compartment, and it all had to be cleaned up, because the first thing he needed to do was shield his van from prying eyes and electromagnetic interference. As a metal box on insulating tires, his van was a natural faraday cage anyway, but Kurt was a firm believer in the efficacy of tinfoil hats and shielding paint.
Then he needed a DIY scanning electron microscope, because even a starter desktop unit cost twenty times the trade-in value of his van. Once these simple tasks were accomplished, he parked in a quiet, secure location with wifi, hooked into the electrical grid, put up his privacy shade, and settled down to create his masterpiece.
First he made a supply of DIY exfoliated graphene, using scotch tape to peel layers of graphite off of a chunk, samples which were enriched with both Kurtskin and vangrunge. Then he sat and debated which of several substrates to use, and where he might obtain a smidgen. This proved to be some trouble, so he sat thinking in front of his computer screen, bathing his face in radiation which btw he was convinced kept his skin looking fresh and youthful. And probably increased his baldness, but oh well. The answer continued to elude him. There were so many choices and so few cooperative sources. He smoked a few cigarettes and thought. He ate a bag of corn chips and cruised the internet, waiting for inspiration. He smoked some more. He tossed a coin. He took a walk to the corner store for more cigarettes. He pondered into the night.
Finally he gave up and decided to get some sleep. So he got out and watered the wall one last time, turned everything off, locked his door, put his seat down, and settled in behind the wheel of his van with a pillow and blanket. Then he unlocked the glove compartment and rummaged thru his stash, considering his evening soporific.
He started with two zolpidems and a tramadol. Then he smoked some weed, then popped an oxycodone and closed his eyes. Kurt was an experienced and responsible pharmaceutical user. He took antianxiety drugs when he had to go out in public, because he was an isolator, antidepressants because he couldn’t get going without them, sleeping pills because he was insomniac. He did psychostimulants when he speed-coded a project, took antipsychotics when he needed to control the shaking, and smoked a blunt whenever he needed to level it all out. He had a standing order for anything psychedelic, and was a big fan of mixing meds in the spirit of scientific inquiry.
This is not to make Kurt sound like a drug addict. Kurt was studying the role of chemicals on consciousness, using himself as the subject, and always searching for the perfect high. He was an armchair expert on neuromodulators like dopamine, acetylcholine, and serotonin. He had mindguard installed on his Bluetooth, and wore funny underwear to eliminate psychotronic radiation. He had a mystical attitude toward quantum mechanics that the system discouraged. As a DIY electrical engineer and programmer, he taught himself on his Commodore 64, and dropped out of Tech after a fight with the head of the department over some point of orthodoxy Kurt just couldn’t stomach. Years and years and years ago.
Kurt was asleep. He slept soundly for about an hour, and then, istill asleep, he got up from the driver’s seat and went back to his computer desk, neatly avoiding the sharp things and hard obstacles, obliviously stepping on soft squishy articles and trash. In his sleep, he sat down, flipped on the computer, lit a cigarette and got to work. Fast asleep, he was sitting at his kick-ass computer, typing as fast as he could think. In his sleep, Kurt was feeling good, his mind was being its brilliant self and he was cruising along feeling how good it was to be really smart. How righteous it felt to just snatch ideas out of the air and transform them into reality with a few stabs of his fingers. Like a boss. In his dream, he inhabited a cloudlike mental/computer space where the kernel of his quantum computer formed, with only a little bit of help, into a massive tangle of purposeful connections and chunks of functionality, a beautiful, symmetrical organism that rolled up into a perfectly reflective egg
Kurt knew he was sleeping. He turned over in his reclined driver’s seat and smelled the nastiness of his overflowing console ashtray. But he never minded that, because he was also sitting in his chair in the middle of his dream computer lab, using only the eloquence of his coding, programmagically creating a vessel which suddenly appeared when he hit enter, and spun slowly, gleaming on the desk between his keyboard and the monitor, right next to his bottomless pot o’coffee.
The egg was about eight inches tall, tho Kurt could never be sure of the scale. It shimmered softly. It didn’t actually touch the table, but hovered a tiny way above it, pointy end up, wobbling slightly as it turned. Kurt leaned in to examine it and saw himself reflected back from thousands of tiny nubs, like kernels of corn on a cob. How aerodynamic, he thought. He reached for his dream cigarettes and sat back in his chair. What’s it for? he wondered.
He let it sit there, spinning slowly, wondering what to do next. He dozed for a moment, the cigarette in his hand slowly moving toward his leg as he fell back to sleep.
In his sleep, Kurt sat in front of his computer, in his pimped out office chair, staring at the gleaming egg silhouetted against his monitor. Kurt’s dream computer was DIY state of the fucking art, and his van was an Airstream decked out like NORAD, and was parked in Yosemite, under a tree, in the light of the full moon. Nicola Tesla was sitting on the banquette talking to Wilhelm Reich. They wore rumpled suits and were speaking animatedly in German. They turned to Kurt and paused for a moment, watching him doze. They bet on whether he would burn himself. Tesla got up and put on a kettle for some coffee while Reich rummaged thru the cabinets for something to add to it. Kurt’s dream Airstream was well stocked. The pair made a mess of the kitchen area.
They were talking about fabricating on a nanometer scale. Reich wanted to strip a regular silicon transistor down atom by atom. Tesla wanted to scale up, one atom on top of another. Where they speaking in English now? Kurt stirred, sprawled in his task chair. He smelled the coffee. He heard Tesla suggesting pre-programmed building blocks that would self-assemble, and Reich argued for growing it from seed with cell division and dendritic growth. Kurt wanted to join the conversation, but was only able to rouse himself for coffee.
Tesla brought him a mug that reeked of whisky and tasted like chocolate pudding. Kurt slugged it down while they leaned over his shoulders to peer at his shining egg. “Good,” they both said, then had different suggestions for his next step, and started arguing again. Kurt got up for more coffee and sat at the banquette to roll a spliff.
They worked all night. Actually it was over the course of several weeks, but thru the miracle of modern medicine, it all went by in a single burst of effort that Kurt hardly noticed. His dream Airstream had a pantry full of coffee and ramen noodles, a fully stocked bar, and a machine that dispensed cigarettes, weed, and pharmaceuticals. With Tesla and Reich around he didn’t have to get up except to medicate and pee.
Reich worked with him on the bioengineering portion, while Tesla played solitaire at the banquette. With a hit of acid just coming on, Kurt’s hands – normally a little pudgy – expanded into big heavy slabs, while his knife started to bend and ripple as he used it.
“You oaf,” Reich berated as Kurt cut himself and bled all over the graphene he was prepping.
“That’s perhaps not all bad,” Reich mused as he went thru the pantry again. “Happy accidents, you know.”
Kurt sucked his bloody thumb and reminded them that he never picked a substrate to deposit the graphene onto.
“How about this?” Reich asked as he stood up in the kitchen, wearing a package of ramen noodles on his head like a hat.
“Ramen for the substrate? Starch?” Tesla wondered.
“MSG?” Kurt guessed. “Don’t we want something rigid?”
“Nonsense. That’s two dimensional thinking. We’ll just take a twist of dried noodle, like so, two of them, twist them together, and you’ve got a double helix.” Reich held the broken pieces of ramen in his palm and turned to Kurt. “Is your finger still bleeding? Open that cut up and squeeze a few drops on this. The protein will bind the energetic essence of your blood to the helix, then we’ll twist it down and mush it hard, into paste.”
“Bloody paste.” Kurt was dubious.
“Of course,” Reich sniffed. “Ramen retains its helical structure and its matrix of embodied life essence even when broken down into its component molecules.” He lapsed into German to explain it to Tesla, which was good, because Kurt’s brain wasn’t doing rational very well at the moment, and didn’t need to be burdened by details. And I’m afraid that if Kurt missed out on it, then so did I, and we’re just going to have to conjecture a little blob of magical realism here.
They smoothed the graphene down on the kitchen counter and smeared mushy orange ramen over it. All sorts of crud came unstuck from the counter and mixed with the slurry.
It was visibly riddled with contaminants. “We have to throw it away,” Kurt said, embarrassed to be picking hairs out of it.
“No don’t,” Tesla said. “We can make use of the different properties.” He pointed to objects in the hardening sludge. “This bit here is semiconducting. This is ferromagnetic.”
Reich leaned over and had a close look, then motioned Kurt down beside him. “Here’s how you alter the conductivity,” he said. “Breathe out slowly.” Kurt’s breath fogged and floated over the solution in waves and tendrils. “You’re adding oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen to the mixture.” The breeze created lines and fernlike spiraling ribbons on the surface. “Those are insulating lines you’re etching into the substrate,” Reich said. “The dendrites are semiconducting.”
Kurt poured himself more coffee, did up some designer ketamine, and rolled another joint. Tesla was sweeping the floor, which made Kurt feel a little guilty about the mess, but then Reich scooped up a handful of dust out of the pile and dumped it on the cooled sludge. Tesla lightly folded and kneaded the mixture a few times, and Reich explained that they were layering semiconducting graphene with insulating graphene to make an orgone accumulator. Kurt was impressed at how easy it was.
Reich took the floury doughlike mixture and flattened it with his hands, bending down to peer closely at it. He twisted specks of contaminant off and separated them. There were a lot of them, and they were plumper and more hydrated than when they’d first gone into the slurry. “Graphane, graphone,” he named the bits as he sorted them. “Graphyne, graphoon.’ They were in shapes now, triangles, rhombuses. He pointed to the piles of blocks in turn. “Insulating on the counter, conducting next to the stove, magnets on the floor, superconductors on the table, semiconductors on top of the microwave.” The piles were tiny little dust motes. But the scale kept changing, and Kurt could see them as clearly as if each one was the size of his hand.
They did a lot of work with Kurt’s handmade scanning electron microscope, using tweezers to work a small piece of graphene into position under the lens. With a tiny pair of nano hands, Kurt tore off strips until he had a long, thin ribbon of graphene. His physical dexterity fading fast, he had a hell of a time taking one end and joining it to the other with a mobius twist.
When he was finished, Tesla clapped him on the back and congratulated him on his first real act of genius – making the seed of his quantum computer. So they had a little party with brandy and cigars and blow all around.
They looked at the mobius strip. “That’s the qubit?” Kurt asked, not entirely remembering.
“Certainly,” Tesla replied. “Actually, it’s a qubit array, since each molecule of graphene contains either a flux qubit or storage.”
“Say what?” Kurt was starting to get a little fuzzy.
“You’ll see. Now, we’re going to wrap it up in a buckyball. You can build a generating chamber, can’t you?”
“Maybe I need a little nap first.”
“No need, I’ll build it. Why don’t you freshen up a little?”
Kurt took a shower, then made microwave popcorn, popped a pilsner, and got out the bong and the good weed.
In twenty minutes they had a jar full of buckyballs that smelled like artificial butter. They’d used the mobius strip as a seed inside the generating chamber, and when they opened the jar and scraped the smudge on the inside, they had about a gram of C60 fullerene with mobius qubits trapped inside. Like magic.
Reich mumbled around a mouthful of popcorn. “So, it’s getting late. What’s next?”
“Uh, we need to embed it onto a chip,” Kurt said, seeing Tesla nodding off at the banquette.
Reich came over. “Here’s how you grow transistors. Give me one of your hairs.” Kurt plucked a hair from his chest – there weren’t that many on his head. Reich went over to the banquette table and dragged the hair thru the pile of semiconducting powder. Then he gave the hair back to Kurt, who put it under the microscope. Reich showed him where to position the scalpel. “Tiny slivers,” he advised. “Thinner.” When he was satisfied, Kurt picked up a cross section with a tweezer, and put it under the microscope. “OK that’s ten thousand transistors,” Reich said.
“Yeah, that’s a metaphor, right?” Kurt retorted. Onscreen, the crossectioned hair broke up into thousands of pieces and grew legs, crawling offscreen. “That’s pretty illustrative,” Kurt mused as Reich gathered them into a test tube.
Tesla moved in next to Kurt. His breath smelled like stale cigarettes. “Here’s how you make an integrated circuit.” He put a piece of treated graphene under the microscope. “Hold your thumb in the middle.” Kurt objected that he couldn’t fit his thumb under the eyepiece of the microscope, but there was his thumb onscreen, measuring roughly 10nm at the nail, while it still felt the normal size on the end of his hand. He wiggled his thumb. It wiggled onscreen. “Hold still,” Tesla snapped. Kurt’s nanoscale thumb hovered over the graphene, almost touching it. His thumb throbbed, the cut oozed over an enormous area. A faint electrical corona grew visible on the graphene and began casting sparks. It looked like lightning onscreen.
Kurt pulled back to 10,000x magnification. There was a glowing ring around his thumb at the gap between it and the graphene. “Just hold it there, and we’ll coax these little fuckers onto the surface,” Tesla said, as Reich bent over with the test tube and flicked a few specks out onto the graphene. Onscreen, a shower of invisible transistors rained down, and like ants in search of food, marched across the surface toward Kurt’s thumb, leaving little glowing tracers. Their movement slowed and stopped as they packed themselves in and took root in the graphene.
Then Reich came over with the mobius buckyball smudge, and Kurt selected a single ball and placed it in the center of the still-glowing ring. “And there you have it,” Reich said proudly. “A quantum integrated circuit.”
Kurt removed the chip from the microscope with tweezers. An invisible glint shone at the tip. “This is pretty cool for a prototype,” he said. “But I’m wondering how we’ll do it on a production scale.”
“Don’t worry,” Tesla assured him, “we’ve already thought of that. We’ll clone them.” He waved at the far end of the Airstream, which was now the size of an Amazon warehouse, with thousands of workstations and millions of qubits performing billions of actions.
“Bits of Kurt on every chip,” Reich said merrily.
Kurt thought that was hilarious. “Cloned Kurt sandwiches.” He was giggling now.
Tesla walked over to Kurt’s computer and grabbed the egg that was still floating, gleaming and slowly spinning in front of the monitor. He brought it over to where Kurt was sitting holding the quantum chip. “Here’s your home,” he told the chip, introducing it to the egg. “Now put yourself around that,” he told the egg. Ripples appeared on the surface of the shell, and the chip passed thru into the center.
“Just like that, huh?” Kurt said caustically. “If only I’d known before. How simple.” Tesla and Reich both nodded impatiently, and Kurt felt stupid.
Tesla pressed the point. “Okay, now we need to shield it. How simple. Let’s review our options?” He raised an eyebrow at Kurt, who remained silent. “We’ll use an optical coating, of course.” Kurt steamed. “Let’s see, dissipative, reflective, dichroic, I think.” He reached into his vest pocket and withdrew a small vial that he began to shake.
Kurt balked. “No please, just tell me what this is a metaphor for so I can cut thru all this bullshit.”
Tesla put the vial back in his pocket. “Okay, fine.”
Reich looked disappointed. “We still need to coat it.” He went to the counter and took a bit of the doughy stuff, balled it up and gave it to Kurt. “Here, gob this up in your mouth for a minute. Nice and gooey. Okay,” he held out his palm. “Spit it out.” He went over to the stove and rolled it in the conducting powder, then smeared it over the egg. “Right. Then we heat set it.”
“Can we do that here?” Kurt was perplexed. “Don’t we need an anealing oven?” He followed Tesla’s eyes. “The microwave, duh.”
Kurt set the timer and pushed the button, watching anxiously thru the door, then impulsively canceled it and pulled out the dish, peering at its diminishing smallness for signs that he’d overcooked it. It spun slowly, gleaming richly in the light of the open microwave door. “Okay, it’s shielded. Now what?”
“Now we power it,” Reich said.
“Where are we going to fit a battery?” He looked at Tesla, who only winked. “Oh yeah. We’ll make it a wireless transmitter. It’ll resonate with the earth’s frequency and get its energy from that. That’s how it will communicate with the peripherals, too. We’ll wrap it with a coil made from a ferromagnetic graphene nanotube, and that’ll generate a scalar wave to cancel out the interference, and the resulting superconducting magnet will act as a diode.”
Tesla beamed. “You will go down in history!” he exclaimed.
“You will go down in flames,” Reich added.
“What the fuck,” Kurt shrugged.
They gave each other high fives. Tesla handed Kurt his hip flask. Reich offered him another line.
The rest was easy. They embedded the quantum egg onto a standard chip, set onto a standard motherboard, linked to standard devices, and wifi enabled. Then they all turned in for a few winks. Kurt crawled into his king-sized waterbed and fell back to sleep, and dreamed about the whole night all over again.
When he woke up, he was cold and cramped in the front seat of his grimy, filthy van, parked in a basement garage, cars pulling in all around him and slamming their doors. He tried to go back to sleep. The egg was shining, floating in the dream space inside his mind, pulsing with his own brainwaves. He stood in front of it and said, “Open sesame,” and it opened up and let him in, enveloping him like a living suit, making him physically infinite, indeterminate, fuzzy.
When he woke up for real, the inside of his van was trashed, there was green vomit in the wastebasket, he had bruises on his leg and scratches on his arms. There were a couple of dozen ramen noodle packages on the floor of the van, stamped flat and torn open. His tools had hardened doughy fingerprints all over them. His computer screen showed a videogame with a message saying, “Banned for Teamkilling.” He stared at the screen for a long time, drinking cold coffee and smoking cigarettes, eating two provigils and an adderall. He had no idea what he’d done. His tremendous, earthshaking revolution in quantum computing was a complete accident, a product of a lost month of hacks and fabrications.
He got to work programming an operating system to translate quantum into something a regular computer could work with. Alone in his messy van, sitting in the back on a broken swivel chair in front of a bank of computers and screens, surrounded by cables and computer junk, trash, cigarette butts, plastic coffee cups, fast food wrappers, and a big half-empty pee-jar, he did what he did best, lit by garish monitor-light, oblivious to the world outside.
He was in the flow the moment he began creating the game engine. The hours passed, and he slapped the code down as fast as it came to him, and it was a thing of beauty. The program just flowed out of his fingers and went where it needed to go as if it were predestined. No mistakes, no debugging, no rewriting. His best work ever.
Then he encrypted it so nobody else could mess with his quantum kernel.
Kurt texted the others to meet him at the foodcourt, and left his van for the first time in weeks. Standing at the counter choosing his bargain lunch, he saw Nathan eyeing the cellphone velcroed to his wrist.
“Oh wow, what’s that?” Nathan looked at Kurt’s face hopefully. “Did you make…? No, you couldn’t have.”
Kurt raised his arm and showed off his new quantum computer. “Not available in stores.”
During the night, he’d finished debugging the operating system, adapted it for his android phone and wrote a basic app to show that it worked. Nathan’s admiration made him feel very pleased with himself. Yes, he was a genius.
Josh and Anomia were waiting for him with half-drunk cups of coffee. Fairy and Snake came in arguing a few minutes later, having both gone to the other food court by mistake.
They weren’t quiet as impressed as Nathan.
Kurt was supposed to be coming up with a software engine, and they were annoyed when he showed them a klugy wristphone that didn’t actually do anything.
“What do you want from a quantum computer?” Kurt demanded, a bit put out. “I could crack all your passwords,” he offered. They looked dubious. “Look how fast a search works,” he said, getting the results the moment he hit enter. “I’ve written an algorithm. You can tell it the problem you’re trying to solve and it’ll design and implement a search for you.”
“You mean like Siri,” Snake said, his lip curling.
“Well, if you want spectacular, there’s always instant communication and teleportation,” Kurt said sarcastically. They brightened up. He looked away. “I’d need to construct a receiver. There would be difficulties” They looked disappointed. “But really, what I’ve done is perfect for exactly what you want it for. A quantum computer is best at doing quantum simulations.”
“You’re saying it can really simulate a quantum world?” Anomia asked. “Like, players really would be able to alter game reality with their minds?”
“Yeah,” he said after thinking for a moment. “No reason why not, and convincingly, too.” He shrugged and went back to his lunch. “With processing power to spare.”
Anomia sat back, happy, tapping her empty cup against the table. “So we’re really making a game where you immerse yourself in a quantum world, and get used to it, and pretty soon you’re using the same techniques at home, and school, and work. The whole world will change.”
Snake and Fairy looked at each other, Fairy to catch Snake scoffing, and Snake to catch Fairy getting teary.
“Where’s the actual chip?” Josh asked. Kurt showed them a little piece of black tape on the back of his phone. “I could have left it back in the van, ‘cuz it’s wireless, but I wanted to show you. The quantum part is actually too small to be described.” He indicated a slight lump under the tape, and lifted one edge. “You can see the integrated circuit it’s on, sort of.”
They bent over to peer at it. “It’s a speck,” Snake observed.
“Take a picture with your phone and zoom way in.”
They did. “It’s a pixelated speck.”
Kurt smoothed the tape down with the back of his thumb. “I wasn’t sure at first, because of course the mobius loop is an infinite sheet of carbon molecules.”
“Duh,” Snake mouthed.
“But I finally counted them, sort of, in one state, and came up with five hundred qubits, which by the way would use up ten terabytes of normal, classical computer storage.”
Kurt needed a smoke, so they all trooped out to emphysema alley, where Fairy bummed a cigarette from Kurt, Josh lit up a little guiltily, Snake looked superior, and Anomia looked pissed off at Josh.
Kurt recounted what he remembered about his endless fabrication and programming sessions, and the antics with Reich and Tesla. Fairy got breathless about Reich, and Josh swooned over Tesla. Anomia was cold and wanted to go back in. Snake made hallucination jokes.
“So how do qubits work?” Fairy asked.
Anomia sighed. “Oh, look it up.”
Kurt said, “I’m still figuring out how to train them.”
“Train the qubits?” Josh asked.
Snake laughed. “Sparky the Wonder Qubit.”
Kurt lit another cigarette off the stub. “It’s a neural system. It learns.” Fairy nudged him until he offered her a second one. “You should see the machine language I’ve developed. It’s very paradoxical. Like poetry.” He nodded at Snake, “You probably wouldn’t get it.” Snake drew himself up and flipped his hair. “I’m trying to process a huge number number of complex variables at once,” he continued, “and organize it so that everything flows smoothly thru the system. It’s all trial and error – the wrong rules will kill the buzz entirely. Because it’s Bayesian.” He looked down at Fairy. “The operating system has only a few simple and comprehensive ground rules, and they are very adaptable.” She beamed at him.
“You should patent it,” Snake suggested.
Kurt was dismissive. “I couldn’t possibly document it well enough to fill out a patent application.”
“What will you call it?” Fairy asked, cuddling close to him for warmth.
“Hmm, a name. They’ve built neural networks before. They always name them, for some reason. There was the Perceptron in 1958, the Orgasmatron in ’73, the Cognitron in ’75. In 1980 they built the Neocognitron, and the multilayer Perceptron in ’86. I don’t know, maybe this time we should call it the Groktron.”
Snake made a face.
“Whatever.” Kurt smiled down at Fairy. “Why don’t you name it?” he said graciously as they went back inside.
She batted her eyes at him. “Too bad Orgasmatron is taken,” she mused.
“So, what’s next?” Snake said, eager to shut Fairy down.
Kurt turned to him. “I figure you could all use individual quantum computers, rather than trying to network thru a server. It’ll give me an opportunity to tinker. A personal quantum device should make your work easier.” He drew out a much-folded piece of paper with notations scribbled all over it, and tapped at a complex circuit diagram. “It reads your mind, kind of. Minds. Anyway, it’s all drag and drop and tools I borrowed from the gimp. Intelligible design. You basically describe or draw what you want, or find a reference, and the programming happens automatically.”
They were stunned.
“And it’s cheap. With my invention, you can make your indie videogame, and it won’t take a hundred people and cost ten million bucks the way it does these days. It’ll just take you guys, right here, and about a thousand dollars. Most of that spent on coffee, no doubt.” He checked the time and got up, feeling a little allergic. He hated talking to people and wanted to be back home in his van, right now, where he could relax, pop a Xanax, and get back to work. And he needed a cigarette. He walked over and dumped his trash in the bin.
“How’re we gonna come up with a dime?” Josh whined.
“I’ll get a job as a stripper,” Anomia suggested jokingly. Josh and Snake looked expectantly at her. “Not,” she bristled.
Kurt turned back and said, “You don’t have to worry about money. A quantum computer can handle something like bank rounding errors in its sleep.”
Snake stared at him. “Could we ask it to figure out the stock market and recommend a few things? Could it do that?”
Kurt shrugged and left for the subway. “Maybe I’ll write an app.”
Anomia and Fairy started to gush, so Snake became the voice of reason. “Perhaps you didn’t notice, but Kurt’s really into this woo shit. I hate to pop your bubble because you’re depending on him for miracles and all. I think he’s just another metaphysical flake who sounds good but doesn’t know what he’s doing.” He spread his hands persuasively. “Else he’d be making the big bucks in a government funded lab.”
The girls defended Kurt, and even Josh thought his physics was sound, but Snake pointed out a dozen basic fallacies and departures from standard quantum physics. “Orgone – please. Tesla fields. Totally unsubstantiated. And what did he show us that was at all quantummagical? Nothing. A search algorithm. Wow.” This dampened their enthusiasm. “We’ll just have to see what he comes up with. A quantum PDfuckingA, huh? Well, I’m sure we can make it sound great, no matter how eyerolling it actually turns out to be.”
Going home on the subway, Nathan sat in back of two men who were worriedly consulting their phones and talking in hushed tones.
“Just the one blip about 12 hours ago?” asked one, a black guy with a shaved head. Nathan was reminded of Curly.
“And nothing since,” the other one responded, an old guy with gray frizzy hair Nathan decided to call Larry. The old guy cracked a knuckle. “The grid lit up like Christmas, then went out altogether, and then right back to normal.”
They were both dressed in tan windbreakers and khaki pants with topsiders. Curly checked another site. “Nope, not a solar storm. There’s a couple of sunspots but they’re quiet, and not pointing in our direction anyway. Plus the satellites are unaffected, and our phones still work. What about earthquakes?”
Larry checked and shook his head. “The usual range of fours and fives around the Ring of Fire, twos in Iceland and the Mediterranean.” He checked something else. “Looks like the rest of the world isn’t directly affected. Probably the outages around the Great Lakes are just cascading effects.”
“I mean earthquakes here, in this time zone.”
“Oh, only a bunch of fracking-related twos and threes from Maine to Texas, nothing unusual.”
They kept shaking their heads in wonder and peering at each other’s phones. “Look at that signature. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Like a billion lightbulbs. They can’t find a source.” Larry cracked another knuckle. “This guy here’s saying it was like the earth got a shock of static electricity.”
Curly sighed with exasperation. “What could it be? Cyberattack?”
They traded puzzled looks, then went back to their phones.
“Huh. We don’t have anything capable…?” Larry asked.
“Not even close.”
“That’s what I thought. And them?”
Curly snorted. “Not unless they’re space aliens. Everybody’s looking at this, it’d be obvious if it was planned.”
“But it’s not the sun.” Larry bent his head to check as a new message dinged. “Fuck.”
“What?” Curly kept his attention on his phone.
“I’m being reassigned.”
They looked at each other. “When?” Curly asked.
“Effective the middle of the goddamned night, apparently.”
Curly got a message. “Fuck. Me too.”
They dialed presets on their phones and got off at the next stop. Nathan watched them gesturing as the train pulled out of the station.
He was way late getting home, and arrived with his head full of dreams. He loved the kind of world where a guy like Kurt could make an insanely powerful nanocomputer at home, and just wear it on his wrist. Something you could never buy. something custom made, that nobody else in the world had.
It was so different from the world Nathan lived in, where everything came from Walmart and Ikea and Target, and before that from some factory in Asia where little kids were chained to their machines and beaten for lunch. Everything – cheaply made, easily broken, never as advertised. Nathan wanted to live in a world where things were custom made, and people did things differently, worked things out for themselves, made their own decisions. That’s why Dad was so hard to take, because he forced everybody to do everything his way. The stupid way.
Nathan was fascinated by Kurt’s prototype, and covered a sheet of paper with scribbled notes all the way home. He was still pulling it out of his pocket and adding thoughts when he walked thru the front door into the living room.
Dad snatched it out of his hand. “What’s this bullshit? Math?” He pointed to a sentence. “What’s this? Does this say quasiparticle? Haha.” He turned the page all around to examine the notes. “Infinite sheets of superconducting qubits? You must be kidding me. Orgone? Flux/charge transistor? Online electronics course?” He crumpled the paper and tossed it back. “Your handwriting really sucks, you know. It looks like you were running when you wrote this.”
“I’ll take a calligraphy class,” Nathan offered as he edged toward his room.
“Get me a beer. Smartass. Not pansy handwriting,” he explained. “Just legible. My writing’s not great, either,” he confessed as he popped the top. “I guess you must get it from me. Why don’t you print instead of trying to write, like I do? Then everybody could read it.”
“Like I want you reading my stuff,” Nathan mumbled from his room. He barely had his backpack off his shoulders when Dad came barging in. “I heard that.” He reached out and grabbed Nathan’s hair and yanked his head back. “If I want to know what you’re reading, you’re damn well going to show me.”
Nathan stood there wincing, his shoulders hunched to protect his neck, waiting for Dad to let go. He noticed that he was tall enough to look Dad in the eye. Dad smelled of beer, sour sweat, and orange hand cleaner.
“It’s my house, you’re my kid, it’s my money, my food, my car,” he said, shaking Nathan with every beat. “You got nothing that don’t come from me. I’m in charge of what you can do, who you can talk to, what you read, and where you go. And I’ve started to think you’re doing something behind my back, without checking with me first. Isn’t there something you’d like to confess before I beat it out of you?” He let go Nathan’s hair and whapped him on the back of the head, chuckling. “Haha just kidding,” he said playfully.
Nathan backed away, rubbing his head. “Well, I know I’ve been late getting home a lot,” he started, looking at his feet and shuffling awkwardly.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” Dad said with satisfaction.
“It’s because,” he looked at Dad, “‘cuz I’ve gone out for sports.” He shrugged and folded his arms.
Dad bobbed with happiness. “That’s my boy.” He put his arm around Nathan and walked him back to the living room. “Wait. What coach in his right mind would have you?” He stopped and looked his son over. “You surely didn’t go out for football, did you? Or basketball?”
Nathan shook his head.
“Nah, they wouldn’t let you. Baseball?” he asked hopefully.
“No?” Nathan said. Dad would insist on showing up for games.
Dad would challenge him to a match and try to teach him something. Dad’s beer breath, his hairy arms, his bulging stomach, being pinned; it made him shudder. “Uh, soccer,” he said.
Dad frowned. “What? That’s almost funny. You’re so puny you have to play with the girls.”
“Your sister played when you were little. Soccer’s for sissies. Nobody plays that game.”
“It’s more popular than…,” Nathan started to say football, but Mom cut him off.
“Actually, dear, some of the world’s most macho sex symbols are soccer players,” she said.
Dad frowned and eyed Nathan suspiciously. “Go get your dinner. And get me a beer while you’re in there. Faggot,” he said to Nathan’s back.
“He’s such a bully,” Nathan complained as he reheated his pot pie. Mom had followed him into the kitchen and was loading the dishwasher. “We can’t just let him win all the time, Mom. Nothing’ll ever change if we don’t make him stop.” He poured himself a glass of milk. “He’s so mean, and he’s wrong, and you still let him have his way.”
“We just have to put up with it,” Mom said sympathetically. “He may be wrong, but he’s the head of the family, and he needs to do as he thinks best.”
“But he’s wrong,” he protested. “He treats you badly. We don’t have to put up with it. It’s not like it’s okay for him to be wrong. Aren’t we supposed to do what’s right no matter what?”
“Not if it goes against your father.”
“So it’s not no matter what, then.” They looked at each other for a moment.
“No. You’re right. But we have to excuse his maybe slightly abusive actions, because he’s only trying to do what’s right for us.”
Nathan made a noise. “No, he’s suiting himself. He doesn’t care about us. We’re his servants.”
“Your father loves you, in his way. Call it crazy wisdom. You have to trust him.”
“Well, no I don’t, either. He’s abusive.”
“He knows best, you know.”
“Didn’t we agree that he doesn’t?”
She shrugged and patted his shoulder. “Let’s go sit down and let you eat.”
Dad was cruising thru the channels with his remote and passed a sports channel down in the foreign part of the cable spectrum. He watched long enough to get the gist of professional soccer, and after that called Nathan a Mexican faggot. Nathan accepted this meekly because Dad hadn’t actually forbidden him to play, and that meant he could disguise his work as something Dad wasn’t the least bit interested in.
Dad left the TV on Fox News and went to the bathroom. Nathan sat and ate while Mom and Sis had a quick, fierce argument about the new speeding ticket Sis brought home. Nathan tried to ignore them, but heard Sis threaten Mom if Dad found out. Then Dad was back and they shut up.
The news graphic showed a satellite picture of the eastern US with the words “LIGHTS OUT” in big red letters splashed across the top. The anchor appeared, a chirpy young woman with pink hair, one corner of her mouth turned up in a slight smirk. “Our top story tonight. They’re calling it the Big Glitch.” She turned grim. “The lights flickered out over the entire eastern third of the country last night, in an incident experts are calling a transient electrical surge, possibly the result of a solar storm. The storm interrupted the electrical supply of hundreds of millions of electronic systems in the most populated and interconnected part of the country” The anchor did a sincere face. “At a press conference this morning, the president’s spokesman assured the country that everything will be okay.”
The video showed an official standing at a podium answering inaudible questions with prepared talking points. “There was never any danger of radiation…No, at this time, the event is not thought to be the result of a terrorist attack…Most devices successfully reactivated or rebooted or restarted after the event…It only lasted a fraction of a second…I’m afraid it will take weeks to assess the extent of the damages…Undoubtedly. Billions, yes. And possibly months to recover.”
The anchor was back on, reading from her pages. “Among the local stories we’re tracking, the power is still out in Midtown after a substation exploded. There have been numerous reports of crashed computer systems, lost or canceled financial transactions, traffic accidents due to non-working signals, and hospitals having to manually restart vital life support systems when their backup generators failed. There was a frightening near miss at JFK airport after radar tracking equipment malfunctioned, and over Atlanta, the crew of a cargo flight experienced a frantic few seconds as they restarted their engines in midair. We’ll be covering these stories and more at eleven.” She looked at the camera and smiled brightly. “Next up, will naughty children ever learn? Stay tuned.”
They cut to an ad and Dad made Nathan get him a beer. He dawdled, putting things into the dishwasher while Dad yelled at him to hurry back for what promised to be a teaching moment.
The news graphic showed a ten-year old boy in handcuffs and an execution hood, with the words BAD BOY in big red letters splashed over the top. The anchor looked harsh but loving. “Today, the president signed a controversial new bill confirming parents’ absolute right of authority over their children. The ‘Papa Bear’ law provides the death penalty for rebellious children, and is modeled on Deuteronomy 21:18-21. Critics decry it as neolithic and morally backward, but supporters hail it as a powerful incentive to get kids to respect authority.”
Dad leaned over and slapped Nathan’s leg. “Well,” he said triumphantly, “there it is, in black and white. Disobey and die.” He drained his beer. “I’ve been trying to get it thru your head. It’s serious. The foundation of civilization is obedience and discipline at home.” He drew himself up. “Because, dammit, I not only have the right, but the duty to teach you to respect your betters, and if you disobey me I will not hesitate to make an example out of you. In fact, you can be the first. You can stand as a lesson to all children about the importance of family discipline.”
Sis looked superior, an angelic sneer on her face. Nathan felt like saluting his father, but didn’t dare. He got him another beer without being asked, and slipped away to the kitchen, where Mom was organizing the bills.
“Mom, if you need it, you can have the rest of my paycheck. For, like, Sis’s traffic ticket.”
“No, sweetie, you’re doing enough already.”
Sis swaggered into the kitchen for a coke, leaving her dishes in the living room, as usual. They started in on each other in low voices, Mom disapproving of something Sis wanted to do, and Sis being darkly threatening without actually referring to anything specific. Mom just sat there while Sis stood over her and told her she was stupid and disgusting, someone who made dinner and dragged Dad down.
“You need to pay my fine,” Sis insisted. “It’s your fault, I wouldn’t haven’t gotten stopped if the car wasn’t ugly and beat up because you got rearended that time. It’s a wonder they let you keep it on the road. No wonder I get hassled all the time.”
Mom didn’t look up. “The ticket said you were speeding. 80 in a 45 mile zone.”
“I wasn’t speeding,” she said vehemently. She wasn’t racing everyone else simply because the road was too crowded. Instead, she was gunning it right up to the back of people’s bumpers, and then lurching out around them when there was an inch to spare, viciously swerving to teach the other driver a lesson.
“Well, we can’t pay it.” Mom gestured at the pile of unpaid bills.
“Well, I can’t pay it either. And you’re responsible for me, so you have to do it. So there.”
Mom put the bills down and looked at her. “Honey, this is serious. If you can’t stop speeding, you’re going to lose your license, and we really can’t afford the fines you’re bringing home. You’re going to have to get a job after school or something if you want to keep getting speeding tickets.”
“I promise. Tomorrow. You’ll pay my fine, right?”
Mom turned back to the bills. “I think you should go to court and stand in front of the judge yourself.”
Sis made a face. “Don’t be cruel. Why do you want me to suffer? You can pay it online.”
Mom hesitated. Guilt alternated with anger. It stopped her every time. She was obsessively worried about Sis even tho her behavior was outrageous, because soon her daughter would be trying the same thing on people who wouldn’t tolerate it and there would be hell to pay. Sis had such potential, but she deliberately ruined every opportunity she was given. She was smart, uniquely intelligent, vivacious. But all she wanted to do with her abilities was skate whenever possible.
“By the way,” Mom wondered. “Where are those expensive jeans you begged me to get you? I haven’t seen them on you in a while.”
“I lost them,” Sis said casually. “They were stolen.” Actually, they got tossed on a bonfire after somebody puked on them. And she didn’t give a fuck because cool girls wouldn’t be caught dead in A&F. “I really need you to take me out and get me another pair, now,” she said. “They were my best pants, I urgently need another pair.” She looked anxious. “I’m doing a photo shoot at school. Tomorrow.”
Mom paid over a hundred dollars in cash for prebeatup scrap denim. And had to deal with a mall, loud music and sullen teenaged cashiers. “I’m sorry they’re gone, sweetie, why don’t I look for another pair at the thrift store?” Tho she wasn’t sure they’d sell jeans with that many holes in them.
Sis looked at Mom as if she lived under a rock. “What a toadlike thing to do,” she said angrily. “You can’t get me used clothes. Gross.”
“It’s just that if you want me to pay your fine, we have to find the money someplace, and right now we don’t have a spare penny.”
“We could have meatless dinners once in a while,” Nathan suggested. Sis turned to glare at him. “We could stop buying soft drinks and junk food.” He was getting enthusiastic, picking thru the bills. “We could stop getting cable. Wow, that’s a hundred and fifty dollars a month.
“No we can’t, everything’s on cable now,” Sis protested. “There’s no such thing as regular TV anymore.”
Nathan looked at the penalty minutes on the phone bill. “We could stop talking on the phone so much and having to pay fifty cents a minute.”
Sis stuck out her tongue. “No, idiot, we need to get unlimited minutes.”
“We could always do the dishes by hand and save lots of water,” Nathan said. Sis eyed him disdainfully. “We could take fewer showers, and not flush the toilet as often.”
“Eww,” Sis shrieked, and punched him in the shoulder. Her cry brought Dad into the kitchen to get another beer. She told him in despairing tones how Nathan hated her and Mom treated her like a servant, complaining that she was being punished over a pair of jeans, begging him to come to her rescue and make everything better.
He put his arms around her and glared at them over her head. “Don’t get depressed, sweetie,” he soothed. “I’m sure Mom just doesn’t understand how much those pants mean to you.”
“They want me to live like a serf,” she wailed. “We can’t take showers, everything’s got to be washed by hand, we can’t eat meat, and we can only wear rags. We can’t even have a TV. I can’t live like this.” She started to sob. “They want to stop buying beer and cokes.”
Dad was alarmed. He noticed the bills spread out on the table. “Have you spent too much again this month?” he accused.
“It’s not that, dear,” Mom said mildly. “We’ve been discussing ways of saving money by cutting back.”
“Why would we cut back if we weren’t in trouble?”
“To live within our means?” Nathan suggested.
“Why should we do that when we can put it on a credit card?” Sis demanded scornfully.
“Because it’s better for the earth,” Nathan said.
Dad chuckled. “Well, hell, boy – get me a beer since you’re by the fridge – if you’re so environmental and all, you can be responsible for doing all the dishes by hand, every night.” He checked with Sis, who nodded enthusiastically. “From now on, since the washer’s already loaded.
Dad winked at her and gave her his car keys so she could go to a friend’s house and cram for a test. “We’ll get you another pair of pants, don’t worry,” he burped, downing his beer.
Nathan escaped to his room. He’d hoped to have enough time alone with Mom to talk about his work and discuss their costume plans for Dragoncon. Even giving Mom half of his pay every week, he’d already saved up enough money for his ticket, and now he was saving to get Mom’s so they could go together. But tonight was obviously a bad time.
Getting a fresh beer, Dad sat down at the kitchen table next to Mom. It was their monthly ritual. Mom wrote out all the bills, and he signed all the checks. He did enough recordkeeping and number crunching at work, and it gave him a big pain in the ass, so it was Mom’s job. And he had to treat her like an employee because tho Mom was smart enough, for a girl, she didn’t understand finance, and constantly went over budget. She had a woman’s brain and couldn’t help spending money. So he watched her, looking for wrongness to correct, anxiously waiting for her to fuck up and, realizing her incompetence, look to him to fix it. “What’s the bad news this month?” he asked with choleric humor.
She looked at him sideways. “The credit card is maxed out,” she said casually.
He shrugged. “Get an extension.”
“I called,” she sighed. “They said no.”
He snatched up the check register and looked at the calculations. “It’s short. Again.” He put it down and looked at her, waiting for an explanation, his fingers squeezing the sides of his beer can.
“Well, there were some purchases on your debit card that I guess maybe you forgot to write down,” she explained.
He took a drink and brought the can down hard on the table. “They show up on the statement, don’t they?” he said dismissively.
She grimaced. “Yes, dear, a month later. By that time we’ve sent out the regular bills, and they hit the bank when there’s no money in it.”
“That’s your fault.” He sat back and drained his beer.
She paused. “But it’s because the card got used without anyone recording it in the checkbook, so it seemed like there was money there when there really wasn’t.”
He reared back. “Are you accusing me?” he asked in a raised voice.
“No, dear,” she said quickly. “I’m just saying…”
“I don’t want to hear it,” he said, staring at his beer.
“It might be Sis. Some of these merchants are at the mall…”
Dad crushed the can and threw it into the corner. “You know, it’s hilariously funny that you overdraw our bank account with impulse buys and bad accounting, and then have the nerve to blame me for it. Or worse, my daughter, who never did a thing to you.”
There followed a restrained discussion of the relative merits of maintaining the current standard of living as opposed to the idea of curtailing consumption and unnecessary expenditures. Nathan couldn’t help but hear it from his room. Voices were raised, the table was thumped a bunch, things were slung around the room, and someone got slapped.
Dad stopped by Nathan’s room on the way to the bathroom. Nathan was reading up on circuit diagrams. “What’s this? Is this that demonic writing shit? What’s it called, sigils. I saw it on some show. You a satanist, boy?”
“No, Dad, it’s electronics,” he explained.
“You planning on being an electrician, Nuthin? Or maybe a cable guy, huh? I’m not sure I want you growing up to be a cable guy. I think maybe you need to come and work for me.”
“Dad, I’m kind of tired, okay?” Nathan said, closing his laptop and yawning.
“Huh. Whatever, I gotta pee anyway. Here’s a bedtime story for you, okay?” Dad said. “Once upon a time, there was a good kid, and a bad kid. We’ll call them Goofus and Gander. Is that right?” he called out to his wife in the kitchen.
“Yes dear, it was Gander,” she called back.
“Gandalf?” he wondered. “No, it was Gander. Gambler. Something. Anyway, the good kid did what he was told. He showed respect for adults and knew his place, and he didn’t go around asking for things. He just worked hard and looked forward to his reward in heaven. Now, the bad kid, he thought for himself, and did what he wanted, and didn’t pay attention to what anybody told him. Anyway, shit happened, and the bad kid ended up really really scared and then died in agony because he was too smart to follow orders. The end.”
“Wow, Dad, that’s quite a story.”
“Think about it, why don’t you.” He continued down the hall, unzipping as he walked.
Nathan snuck into the kitchen. “Mom, are you okay?”
She looked up from the checkbook. “I’m fine, son.”
“I heard him slap you.” He looked anxiously at her. “Did he hit you?”
She chuckled bitterly. “No, he punched the wall.”
“Did he break it this time?”
“He might have hurt his hand, I don’t know. Hurry back to bed now,” she said, as Dad flushed the toilet and came back for round two, in which Mom soothed the savage beast.
She had better things to do, but tried to think of it as quality time with her husband, time out from her busy day in order to pay a lot of attention to him and let him make all the decisions, because it made him feel better, even tho she risked getting pushed around. She let him decide which bills to pay and which ones to put on the long finger. She trotted out all the frugal purchases she’d made, and complemented him on his good taste, wisdom and beneficence. She did it to salve his poor ego, which suffered so much at work. It was good for him to be the head of the family, to feel like he had some control over his pathetic life of servitude.
Mom didn’t suffer from the insecurity that ate at him, and considered it part of her role to placate him, dance around and manipulate him, keep him from working himself up and getting out of control. It wore her out, tho. At this point in their marriage she couldn’t say she felt much affection for him. It was rather like dealing with a surly older dog that liked to pee in the house. She walked around on eggshells, waiting for something to set him off and explaining every little move so he didn’t get the wrong idea.
Dad got set off a lot these days, now that there was an ominous silence coming from corporate. He jumped thru all the hoops, got his reports in on time, and made a show of cost cutting and efficiency improvements, proud of the money he saved making his crew work thru lunch. But where was his raise, where was that attaboy, where was the official notice of his many contributions?
His boss wasn’t returning his calls.
Kurt spent several more weeks not answering his phone or emails while he created the game engine and level editor. He modified a bunch of android tablets to run them. He created the first quantum internet so his new quantum computers could talk to each other. He also spent time tweaking his quantum computer. He got to know the quantum kernel like the back of his hand. He did a lot of psychedelics, dissociatives, and deliriants. As well as the usual regimen. He neglected to eat.
He had Tesla and Reich over for a party. His dream Airstream took a lot of abuse when they drove it down to Cuernavaca. He had some trouble with an alien reptilian portal that opened up in the sand next to his van, and built an orgone generator app for his phone to neutralize it. After that his mood grew lighter, and he slept better and didn’t make as much of a mess when he sleep-programmed.
Someone else, Snake maybe, would have marketed it. But Kurt just moved on to something challenging.