You know, entropy is associated...with disorder. And in an analogous way, information is associated with disorder, which seems paradoxical. But when you think about it, a bit of information is a surprise. If you already knew what the message contained, there would be no new information in it. - James Gleick Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity. - W. B. Yeats, The Second Coming
The assault on Simon’s house began at 4:17 AM the next morning. Operating on a minimal “need-to-know” basis, SWAT and FBI agents waited by every door and window, without knowing who the people in the house were or why they were being raided.. Special Agent Norris knew though, and he was in charge of the op. Norris gave a curt nod to Colby, who was holding the battering ram, giving him the silent okay to take the door.
Norris was edgy; the whole operation had a bad taste, a different bad taste than the usual meth busts and human trafficking rings he was used to raiding. He pulled his sidearm from its holster, checking his footing, and readied himself.
Colby positioned himself in front of the door, his feet spread wide as he swung the 20 kilogram ram back and then lunged forward with it, aiming for the just above the doorknob.
And the front door just opened. Colby half-fell through it, and went down on one knee, the ram clunking on the foyer linoleum. He looked left and saw a little old woman there, a cigarette dangling from her lips. “Morning,” she said. “Gettin’ an early start today?” She shook her head and called out: “Simon! Come along! Weird shit is happening out here!”
And then the old woman did something that neither Norris nor Colby had ever seen during a raid, despite nearly two decades of experience between them. She flashed them, flipping her night shirt above her head, and cackling merrily as she did so. Then she flipped them off (they had seen that before, they would later agree), and smoothing her blouse in place, went to the kitchen to start coffee.
Simon and Michael came to the front door together, tousled with sleep, but dressed and outwardly calm. “That’s them,” Norris said, referring to his iPhone which displayed Simon’s driver’s license photo alongside a clip taken from the Infomercial of the night before, showing Michael’s smiling face. He pointed at Simon and Michael. “Take ’em.”
The SWAT team moved through the door in a compressed, tense action that expressed both an economy of motion and an absolutely-not-fucking-around attitude. A female agent, weapon drawn and pointed at the floor, backed Simon’s mother away from the kitchen over to the couch. Michael and Simon were handcuffed, and then, just before the black bag went over his head, Simon looked at this mother and said “It’ll be all right, Mom.”
She nodded back and smiled, plucking the butt from her lips. “I know Si. Godspeed.”
From the hallway, Colby shook his head. “Clean. No one else is here.” He approached Norris and jerked his thumb at Simon’s mother, alone on the couch. In a low voice, he asked Norris. “What about her?”
“She’s got Alzheimer’s. She stays,” Norris stated without looking at her, then as Colby came close, he added in an even lower voice: “She flashed us! That’s a new one.”
Colby nodded grimly.
The bag was over Simon’s head now, smelling of nylon and sweat, and he was led out the front door into the achingly cold, sweet air. Simon shivered involuntarily.
“Simon?” Michael said, his voice fading with ever-increasing distance. “Simon?”
“I’m here Michael,” Simon said, and felt something hard jab into his ribs.
“Shut up. No talking. Move,” a voice, testosterone-laced with command, said in Simon’s right ear.
From the living room window, she watched the Fuzz take her boy away. And Michael. And Michael. It was awful, she thought. Ugly. Small. Malicious. Just as bad as Michael had said it would be. It’s like giving birth, Michael told her late the night before, Simon dozing on the couch nearby. It’s painful and it’s bloody and messy, and most of all, it’s very, very dangerous, but in the end you will see what it’s all been for. A True Purpose.
“Hmmph,” she said, and stamped out her cigarette, then rose and shuffled off back to bed. “See you soon, boys,” she said to no one at all.
But she would never see either of them ever again.
Not on Earth.
“Houston, we’d like an analysis of that video now please,” Rod said. “Acknowledge.”
Davis, looking especially haggard, grunted and said: “Uh, it is our scientific opinion that we have no damn idea what happened in that video, Rod.”
“That’s comforting, Houston,” Rod replied.
Davis went ahead with it. “The official position is now this: Stow it. Wrap it in plastic , label it appropriately and lock it away somewhere. No one is to touch it.” Davis rubbed his eyes with his palms vigorously.
“Stow it?” The Mission Commander repeated, his voice cracking. “Gene, we already stowed it in the locker in the lab. The locker’s key-coded; only I have the combo. Trust me: It’s secure.”
“Fine,” Davis replied, exhausted. “Copy that.”
A moment of static.
“Uh, Flight, other than ‘stow it,’ what were the other potential courses of action?” Rod said mirthlessly. “There had to be more than just that. I mean, you guys took almost twenty-four hours to get back to us up here.”
Davis sighed. “We were nearly evenly split between three alternatives: About one-third of us said lock it up; another third said zap it out of the Node 1 air lock, and the final third of us recommended drinking it.”
“I have to admit, I prefer the ‘toss it into space’ option myself, Flight.” Rod said.
Davis nodded. “Roger that. But this thing appeared out of nowhere smack-dab in the middle of our space station. Inquiring minds down here in Houston – and in D.C. – would like to know more — a lot more — and so the booze must come back.”
“But keep it under lock and key until then, copy?”
When they took the hood off, Simon was seated on a folding chair in a small, window-less room. A single fluorescent light hung from overhead. Something about the arrangement seemed rushed, thrown together quickly. Outside, the distinctive mechanical growls and whines of jet engines rose and fell live waves of monkish prayer. Must be the airport, Simon thought. Maybe the national guard–
“Water?” A voice said from behind his right ear, and a hand appeared on his left shoulder, holding an open water bottle.
“My hands are tied,” Simon said, his wrists burning like fire from the police cuff-links he’d been wearing for the last hour.
“Just tilt your head forward. That’s it.” Simon leaned forward until the lip of the bottle clicked against his front teeth. He drink greedily. He was very thirsty. “That’s good. Now, ease back slow. Don’t spill. Good.”
Simon took a few deep breaths, seeking calm. It wasn’t easy. “Who are you?”
“I’m the one who will be asking you questions,” the voice said.
Simon made a disinterested face. “Okay. Fine by me. I’ve got nothing to hide. What do you want to know?”
“That’s good, Simon. More water?” The voice rose behind him as the Interrogator stood up.
“Not just now, thanks,” Simon answered over his head. “How about taking off these cuffs? They’re cutting up my wrists.”
“Not just now,” the voice answered sweetly. “First question: Ready? What’s up witht the magic trick?”
“Wha…?” Simon said, honestly confused.
Genuine frustration. “Where did you get the fucking machine?”
Simon’s brow wrinkled and then he nodded. “Oh! The c-machine? From Michael. You guys grabbed him and me at the same time. Where is he, by the way. Is he all right?”
“Oh, he’s fine. He’s just very busy. Like you are. So let’s stay focused, all right?”
“All right,” Simon said tersely. “I got it from the other man you have in custody, a man I know as Michael Profit.”
“And where did Mr. Profit get the machine?”
“I watched him dig it out of a hole in the ground.” The Interrogator stayed behind Simon. Doesn’t want me to see his face, Simon thought. That’s interesting.
The voice was incredulous now. “A hole?”
“Yes. A hole.”
“Where was this hole?”
“Next to the Interstate 89 Exit 9 Northbound entrance ramp. About seven miles from where I live.”
“How did it get down there?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
Simon shook his head.
“You need to respond verbally and your replies need to be fulsome, Simon,” the voice corrected, sounding more and more like Simon’s Freshman Algebra 1 teacher, Mr. Wiggin, who had terrified him. “I can’t stress that last part enough.”
“I don’t know,” Simon answered carefully, still seeing no reason to lie. “But I believe that Michael came out of the same hole earlier that day, having been buried there with the c-machine a very long time ago. He was covered with mud and dirt when I first saw him, so I’m pretty sure he was down in that hole too.” It seemed a long, tiresome speech.
“Why? By who?”
“Again, I’m just supposing, but by the Eschaton, of course,” Simon said.
“This, uh, mysterious ‘god’ Mr. Profit spoke about in your amusing little infomercial,” the voice said, the word infomercial sounding like a snarl. The left hand held out a smartphone, the Annunciation glowing on its screen. “Didn’t you two suspect that the Federal Government might not be just a little curious about how you managed to hack every global cell carrier to send a fraudulent, sacrilegious text? We have a rash of drug overdoses related to these vile machines, so please understand that certain powerful people are a little upset. Law and order are at risk. When that happens, those in power call someone like me. To find out what’s really going on. So let me be clear with you, Simon: You are fucking around with powers you do not understand. I am ready to banish you from the world, my friend!”
The left hand took the phone away and the right hand extended a pistol, a well-oiled and maintained 1911 .45, glinting just in the lower corner of Simon’s peripheral vision.
“Those powers you mentioned : Uh, were you referring to Jesus or Verizon or the President?”
A whisper, close in his right ear. “Yes.”
Simon wondered dimly if he were insane.
“And magic trick? Really? Did you even watch the fucking commercial?” Simon spat, and laughed out loud.
That’s when the hammer blows to one side of his face and then the other began, delivered – he would realize much, much later – with a Manhattan yellow pages phone directory. An old one, well-used.
Washington, D.C. 11:23 AM
The Secretary of State removed a cup of tea decorated with the pretty blue-and-white pattern of the White House china from the c-machine. He placed it in front the President, who eyed it with obvious suspicion and then gingerly pushed it away from in front of him. After a moment’s thought, the President leaned forward and peered into the still-open maw of the c-machine seated on the conference room table in front of him. He put his hand inside it slowly, flinched and then moved it around the inside experimentally, peering in with squinted eyes the entire time.
Colonel McAllister, standing at the podium and waiting impatiently for the President to complete his inspection, considered not for the first time that the Commander in Chief rather resembled a curious, obese orangutan.
“It’s not even warm inside,” the President said softly, mystified, then shot a glance at the tea cup, as if he had caught it in a lie. “But the tea’s hot!” Pointing at the wisp of steam rising from the just-printed coffee. “Well, I’ll be damned!”
“A microwave oven doesn’t get hot, but it will boil water, Mr. President. We assume a similar mechanism is at work here, we just have not yet identified it.”
The President banged one corner of the c-machine on the table, then lifted it again and looked quizzically the corner. “Nothing,” he said, then noted the large ding in the conference table. “What kind of plastic is this? It’s plastic, right?”
“Mr. President,” McAllister said. “What it is made of isn’t the issue at hand. This device is a major problem for us. If you—”
Still pawing the c-machine, the President overrode McAllister: “How does it work? Do we have people – the right people – looking into that? Who made it? These two hicks on the TV last night? Why? What can it make?” The questions, which occurred in rapid fire in his brain, left his lips in verbal spurts; he had learned long ago not to censor himself. Most everything he thought, which seemed obvious to him, turned out to be viewed as brilliant by his public, so why hold back?
McAllister’s military discipline was all that kept him from slapping the old man across the face. He looked around the table at everyone that was there: The generals and admirals, the Secretaries of Defense and State, the Vice-President, the Old Man himself and both the Presidential and Vice-Presidential Chiefs of Staff, hovering behind their charges like Tom Hagens. The U.S. Attorney General skulked in one corner. He saw expressions of both embarrassment and frustration on some of their faces.
But not enough of them. McAllister would have to humor the old goat.
“Well, sir. Since you very astutely ask: It can make nearly anything.”
“Anything? If I asked to print me out a diamond the size of a grapefruit, it would do that?”
McAllister handed over a manila folder stuffed with printed hard copy. The President took it, flipped it open and scanned the first page, his brow furrowing comically as he read. “This reads like stereo instructions. Who wrote this?”
“It’s the operating instruction manual for the c-machine. A little girl in Texas figured out how to print it out. And, yes, the language is very technical. In fact, some of it…the folks at the NSA are having a look, but we can’t make much of it yet. We showed Appendix A at the back there to few theoretical physicists,” the President obligingly flipped to the back and saw page after page of complex mathematical equations. “The NSA couldn’t interpret this math, so we sent it to experts from MIT and Stanford. They’re still chewing on it., but they said it may be a new kind of physics.”
“Uh huh,” the President said glumly. “That’s not very helpful.”
McAllister dove back in: “However, we can see that it has certain built-in operational parameters, prohibiting certain types of items from being printed: Biological and Chemical Weapons, Nukes, weapons of mass destruction along those lines.” And he pointed the list of items out to the President with his finger.
The President said: “Prohibited output includes: Homo Ophiocordyceps unilateralis. What the fuck does that mean?”
McAllister shook his head. Already bored, the President pressed on. “But it’ll print a knife, or a gun?”
“Yes, Sir.” McAllister waited. He is so slow!
The President wrinkled again his brow as the thought circled around his head and then hit home. “Jesus! If this box can make weapons, then it can make money! If it can print anything, it’ll collapse–”
“–Everything, Mr. President. You’re quite right; you picked up on the nature of the threat right away,” McAllister said in a tone he hoped sounded congratulatory and not snide.
“We have to contain this right now, gentlemen. So, go and collect ’em all up! They’re illegal in the U.S. as of this minute, right now! We list ’em as … what? Hazardous munitions!” The President pointed at the Attorney General, who blanched like a palmetto bug trapped by a sudden flick of a light switch.
“Mr. President, people invent new technology every day.” The A.G. averred. “There’s nothing illegal about-”
“This isn’t new technology,” the President interrupted. “This is pure black magic!”
(“Yes, Mr. President, it is,” the Vice-President whispered.)
Fresh wind in his sails, the President stood up: “–I have worked my guts out every day of my life, and I have achieved unparalleled success! I’m now the most powerful man in the world! I will not see that historic achievement eclipsed or this great nation fall into chaos! This thing is evil, gentlemen!”
“It’s the mark of the Beast, Mr. President,” the Vice-President added solemnly, a little louder. “A Pandora’s box. Look at the last 24 hours–”
“Yeah, that’s good!” The President was nodding energetically. “I like that. That’s a good angle. Let’s work that with the media. By this time tomorrow, I want these damn thing banned. People will have twenty-four hours to turn them in–”
“Turn them in to whom exactly, Mr. President?” McAllister said. “Who do we trust to collect and watch over these things? The police?”
“Well,” the President said, a little flustered at being asked such an unimportant and detailed question. “I’m not sure who, but we obviously need to do som–”
McAllister’s patience broke and he cut the President off. “Look: Anyone who has access to one of these things, anyone who has figured out what it can do, isn’t going to just give it back! They’re going to claim they don’t have one and hide it! It’s pretty easy to hide a black box this size!” He gestured with both hands. “Now you’ve to go to door-to-door. Nation-wide. You’ve got, who?…let’s say the National Guard knocking on doors and searching homes.”
“With no warrants and no cause,” the AG said softly. The President glared him violently, and he turned partly away, chastened.
“Extraordinary circumstances. It’s clearly necessary! I say so,” the President, tight-lipped and with his chin characteristically raised to show his indignation. McAllister saw several heads nod in silent agreement, including the Vice President’s.
“The Constitution simply doesn’t work that way, Mr. President,” the AG said, . “We can’t suspend the Rule of Law because of a disruptive technology.” The President glared back while he thought of an appropriate insult. “And if we did somehow manage to collect every one of these in the USA, what about the rest of the world? This isn’t solely a US situation.”
The c-machine, untouched since the Secretary of State had produced the tea, issued a soft chime and began rather unceremoniously to divide in two. All eyes went to the table, and conversation stopped for the three minutes and fifty-eight seconds it took for the reproductive cycle to complete.
And now there were two.
“Holy fucking Christ,” the President exclaimed in a hushed voice. “How often does that happen?”
“Every twelve-to-twenty-four hours, Mr. President,” McAllister answered.
The President, slumped in his chair, stared sullenly at McAllister for several very long seconds and then said. “You’re right. We gotta big problem. Huge. The two assholes who made this. Are they–?”
“We have them in custody now,” McAllister. “They are undergoing active interrogation.”
“Since when?” the AG asked.
“Early this morning,” McAllister said, checking his watch unconsciously. “About six hours now, give or take.”
“A little town in Vermont.” McAllister shrugged, unable to attach any significance to this fact. “But they’re being transported to D.C. later today, for a more thorough debriefing.”
“Good,” the President answered, buttoning his jacket over his paunch as a gesture of punctuation. “Get me answers. Tell me how to….to turn these things off.” He made a frustrated gesture of futility to the twin c-machines. “I’ll address the nation tonight.”
He nodded at his Communications Director, who shrugged and said: “Yes sir, but respectfully, don’t you want to wait to see what comes out of the interrogations before–”
“No. We have to get out in front of this thing. Of course, I’ll want a follow-up briefing again tomorrow morning. With answers.”
“It’s a good news/bad news situation,” Michael said to the voice of the Interrogator behind and above him. “Which would you like to hear first?”
“You’re funny,” the Interrogator said, extending the water bottle with his left hand. “OK, I’ll bite: What’s the good news? Water?”
“No, thank you,” Michael said calmly, staring straight ahead. “The good news is this: There is a God and He is coming”
“Well, that is good news,” the Interrogator said, his voice sweet with contempt. “And the bad news?”
“The bad news, Lieutenant Benjamin Christopher Miller, is that it isn’t the God you were expecting.”
Two hushed voices behind him; the air in the room changed, felt heavy, as if laden with electric charge. “How do you know that name?” Miller said, his voice a little higher pitched now.
“I know quite a bit about you, and about your companion here…uh, Sargent Barnes, is it?” Michael said, his voice light and even, two notches above contempt.
“Oh, fuck this shit,” the second voice said.
“So you can see, there’s really no point in hiding your faces,” Michael said in a matter-of-fact voice. “I know who you are, and not just you two, but also the two majors and the CIA analyst in the next room, waiting for your report. I’ve always known.”
“Let’s pull this fucker’s fingernails out,” Barnes said, his voice gruff and harsh.
“I wouldn’t recommend doing anything like that,” Michael said calmly. “The Eschaton is no doubt already pretty pissed off. It didn’t have to be this way, you know. I mean, you could have just asked us–“
“Are you fucking threatening us?” Miller shouted, feeling hot rage wash over him. He picked up his favorite weapon, his Manhattan phone book. “Is that the way you think this is going to go? Buddy, you are sadly mistaken.”
“I’m not mistaken, Lieutenant, but before you hit me with that phone book, you may want to hear the latest medical news about your wife.”
Miller dropped the phone book. “My wife?”
“Yes,” Michael answered. “Your wife Erica. Erica has been very sick for a while now. Breast cancer, yes? Two round of radiation and chemo, and then they took the left breast–”
“And she’s been clean ever since,” Miller said, dropping out of character and walking into Michael’s field of view. “For two years now.” He extended two fingers to emphasize his point.
“I’m sorry to tell you that you’re mistaken. Her cancer has returned, and it has reached her lymphatic system. It’s very aggressive, this cancer. She is dying.”
“That’s it,” Miller said. “I’m just going to shoot you in the face. Barnes, bring me a sidearm.” Strictly speaking, this was off-script, but since the interview was always meant to end this way anyway, Miller thought this would save time. He needed to call his wife.
Barnes left the room, all eyes.
“I can save your wife’s life, Lieutenant. No one else can, but I can. Kill me and your wife is dead.” Michael said this plainly, without emphasizing any particular word.
Michael heard loud voices outside the door. He smiled to himself.
Miller was staring into Michael’s calm, gentle eyes. “Kill me if you want, Lieutenant. It will change nothing, and your wife will be dead before winter comes. It’s your choice.”
“You’re just bullshitting me, asshole. No one can know that. The lab results don’t come back for at least another week.”
“But the results are in fact online in the Electronic Medical Record system at–”
“More hacker shit,” Miller said, and shook his head. “Global text messages; magic boxes. Wonderful. So, if you aren’t lying your ass off, and let’s be clear here: I think you definitely are, how are you going to save my wife’s life, from in here? With us? Hmm? Magic beans?”
Michael cocked his head to one said. “No, of course not. Not with magic beans. With magic words.”
Barnes came back in, carrying Miller’s pistol. Miller reached out and took it, cocked the hammer. Didn’t point it. “What magic words?” He asked, looking down at Michael Profit, his mind suddenly consumed with painting the man’s brains all over the wall. “Huh?” He pointed the gun at Michael. “What fucking magic words?”
Michael smiled. “Take the Elixir,” he said, and closed his eyes.