It was 1949 when we first got the signals. They were from a civilization in the Alpha Centauri system, broadcasting hostile intentions. The two Terran superpowers, rising out of the ashes of WWII, united to meet the alien threat head-on. So there was no Cold War, not for real; it was just a front. A public spectacle. An excuse to spend the untold trillions of dollars required to wage interstellar war with 20th century technology. Tens of thousands of nuclear bombs were shipped to the far side of the moon, where the huge Orion-drive ships were constructed to take our fighting men and women the 4.3 light-years to the battlefront. We called it the Slow War.
The UEF Hamilton, a fourth-generation heavy troop transport, was launched in 1992. At just over half a million tons including the state-of-the-art D-fusion propulsion charges, it carried 20,000 extremely highly trained soldiers in considerable comfort. It was armed with sixteen CIWS point-defense chainguns, two 14-inch battleship turrets, and a “gravel-truck” relativistic scatterbomb. The hangar bay held 25 VTOL jets with engines specifically designed for the atmosphere of the target moon, two helicopters, 40 humvees, and six main battle tanks. She was, by all accounts, one hell of a ship.
For 27 years, all was calm. The electrostatic shielding grid occasionally charged a tiny dust particle and deflected it past the hull. The personnel on board trained in the gym and the shooting range, watched movies from the library’s big collection of VHS tapes, cultivated hobbies, ate, slept, fucked. α Centauri A and B grew larger in the bridge viewscreen, while news from Earth - more than 4 years out of date - trickled in at a few bits per second through the tightbeam receiver array.
With plenty of delta-v to spare, Captain Macmillan ordered the ship to be put into a high orbit over the larger moon of the fourth planet. Intelligence reports had said the enemy presence on the body was “minimal”, and the flight plan had had them doing a direct entry and hard-burn right down to the surface, but after having to smoke three scout ships on the way in, the captain wanted to assess the situation from higher up in the gravity well.
“Open up a channel to the Woodbridge, full encryption,” Macmillan said to the comms officer.
“Yes, sir,” she replied, and then a few seconds later: “Link established. Audio only.”
“Woodbridge, this is the Hamilton. Captain Macmillan speaking.”
“We read you, Hamilton. This is First Officer Fisher. You folks seeing the increased alien activity too?”
“That’s affirmative. Mapping is telling me we’ve got four IR hotspots on the surface; could be enemy bases.”
“We have a possible radar contact in a low polar orbit. It’ll be on the other side now but it might be a killsat or a stealthed ship. Plus there’s that fleet coming down from the fifth planet, but we’ll be ready to handle them by the time they get here.”
“Roger that, Woodbridge. Mind matching orbits and giving us some cover while we finish the ground survey and pick a landing point?”
“Can do, Hamilton. Nav says ETA twelve minutes, and the captain is giving the go-ahead for maneuvering burn. See you soon. Over and out.”
The Woodbridge, a rapid assault cruiser, carried far fewer humans and far more armament than the Hamilton. It was more than a match for anything the Centaurians could field, at least one-on-one. Macmillan felt much better having it in visual range, although as long as it was within line-of-sight it could provide full protection for the comparatively slow and fragile troop transport.
“Alright, people, let’s keep our eyes on our screens. Anything that’s not an Earth ship shows up on radar; I want to know immediately. Diaz!”
“Sir?” replied the weapons officer.
“I want all defensive systems double-checked for readiness. We were in deep space for three decades; I don’t want anything frozen up or firing off-center.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll send maintenance around. External sweeps?” asked Diaz, meaning crew members in spacesuits shining flashlights down gun barrels from the outside.
“Negative on external checks. Let’s sit tight until we know what’s up with the possible orbital contact.”
The captain was silent for a few moments, then turned to address the comms officer. “Lieutenant Wilson, get the coordinates of the Georgetown from tactical, and then send them a message. I want whatever imagery they have of the other side of this moon. They’re still about half a light-hour out so we probably won’t get anything useful, but we never know.”
“Right away, sir.” Wilson began tapping at her keyboard.
On schedule, the Woodbridge pulled into formation with the Hamilton, about 10 kilometers astern. The captain switched the big viewscreen to a computer-generated map showing the moon, the orbits of the two Earth ships, and the projected orbit of the potential enemy vessel. They’d be on the same side of the moon and within firing distance in less than 20 minutes.
“Multiple contacts!” shouted a radar technician. “Four… no, five. Their drives are hot. Range six thousand k and closing!”
“Battlestations!” the captain ordered, then hit the intercom override. “Attention all crew, this is the captain. We are at condition red, I repeat, condition red. Fire teams to your stations. Repair teams stand by. Everyone else strap in. Macmillan out.”
The ship’s pilot began a ponderous turn to face the gigantic Orion pusher plate towards the incoming ships. Designed to withstand repeated nuclear blasts at close range, it was by far the thickest piece of armour they had. The gun turrets extended and swiveled around as the computers calculated and recalculated firing solutions on the accelerating Centaurian vessels.
The Woodbridge was completing similar maneuvers, somewhat more quickly, as well as launching drones and a protective cloud of chaff to counter enemy missiles.
As the alien ships approached, they became larger until Macmillan could identify them on the blurry image from the main telescope. He swore out loud. Five Manicouagan-class battlecruisers were now bearing down on the two Earth ships.
“Get me the Woodbridge, quick.”
“Yes sir. Okay, they’re on the line.”
“Fisher? This is Captain Macmillan.”
“Yeah, we see them too. This might get messy. We’re sending you target designations. Concentrate fire on them in that order, unless one gets too close. We’ll send three drones to cover your ass, but you’d better have some crack shots at those close-in turrets of yours.”
“We have them linked to main fire control. You think - “
“I’d stick some actual gunners in the seats, if I were you. Otherwise half of them are firing at nothing all the time.”
“Roger that. You think if we called the Caledon, she’d get here in time to be any help?”
“Probably not; looks like they’re still in a fight around the third planet. It’ll be hours before they could get here even on full burn.”
“Alright. I’m going to arm the gravel truck. If those are their bases down below, it might scare them off. Over and out.”
Macmillan shut off the radio and gave the order to prep the scatterbomb. The device was a shaped nuclear charge designed to accelerate a few thousand sand grain-sized particles to a good fraction of the speed of light. Against ships with electrostatic deflectors it was useless, but it was meant to be used on a planetary atmosphere, where each impact would release a massive burst of gamma rays, killing anything below it.
“General broadcast, full power on whatever frequencies the Centaurians usually listen at,” ordered the captain. The comms officer gave him the thumbs up, and he continued speaking into his mic. “Attention incoming Centaurian vessels. We have a bomb aimed at this moon. If it detonates, all complex life on the surface will be destroyed.” (a gross overstatement, but he was bluffing anyway, since his troops needed the biosphere intact and he wasn’t prepared to irradiate their future home) “Deactivate your engines immediately, and switch off all weapons and targeting systems. I repeat: kill your engines and stow your guns, or we will be forced to use this bomb. We know you are translating and can understand this.”
The alien ships gave no indication of receiving the message. Suddenly, the scatterbomb, still being pushed away from the hangar by its small positioning thrusters, cracked in half with the quick flash of an unbalanced detonation by the C-4 implosion charges.
“Sir! They got the truck,” reported the weapons officer. “They’re still 3000 kilometers away! When did they get that good at aiming?”
“Alright, I guess we’re fighting. As soon as they are in range, open fire.”
The agonizingly long seconds ticked away, while a few shots - probably from the same long-range guns that got the scatterbomb - plinked harmlessly off the pusher plate. The captain tensed at every tiny vibration, knowing that each one was actually a shell big enough to kill an aircraft carrier detonating on the ship. His ship. Where he was responsible for 20,052 infantry troops and ground personnel, 1,441 interstellar operations crew members, 985 officers, and himself.
The impacts became more frequent, and then the five enemy battlecruisers launched their missiles.
“Sir, we have missiles incoming. Nine from each ship, and they’re all coming towards us.”
“Alright, get everyone ready on the point-defense guns. Free fire - don’t try to conserve ammo. See if those drones from the Woodbridge can take a few out. Paint them with our targeting lasers; try to confuse them. Anything that anyone can think of, I want done! I don’t want a single scratch on my ship, you hear me?”
Missiles capable of high-g turns were a popular weapon against Orion-type ships. They’d skirt the edge of the pusher plate, then vector in and detonate on the exposed hull. CIWS turrets were placed strategically to counter this threat, but it took a great deal of luck to hit a missile going several kilometers a second, no matter how much lead you threw at it.
The enemy battlecruisers had spread out, and so the missiles didn’t arrive simultaneously. This probably saved the Hamilton. Of the first eighteen, two got through and impacted on opposite sides of the ship, blowing two holes in her outer hull. Thankfully, it was on a depleted fuel storage level and no damage was done to any important structures.
The big turrets began firing towards the battlecruisers. A lucky shot disabled the propulsion on one, and it began slowly spinning out of control, heading out into deep space. The Woodbridge sent a swarm of drones towards a second enemy ship, and their little guns tore into the crewed section, venting the atmosphere and taking it out of the fight. Its automated defenses managed to destroy a few retreating drones, and then it self-destructed.
A second flight of missiles launched from the three remaining enemy battlecruisers as nine more of the first wave approached the Hamilton. Two detonated on the pusher plate, pitting it and ensuring that they would have to spend a month in orbit for repairs, if they lived through this. One hit a major shock-absorbing strut just behind the plate. Call it two months for repairs, then. The rest were taken care of by the CIWS and the Woodbridge’s drones.
“UEF Hamilton, this is the Woodbridge,” came an unfamiliar voice on the radio.
“This is Macmillan, go ahead.”
“We’re taking heavy damage - they dented the hell out of our starboard jets, and now we can’t stay turned away from them. Our right flank is exposed and they’re hitting it with everything they’ve got. Won’t be much longer before they break through into a crewed section. It’s target beta, mostly… you mind swinging those big ol’ guns around and helping us out?”
The heavy turrets took aim towards the approaching battlecruiser that was rapidly and messily dismantling the Woodbridge. The triple barreled guns fired shot after shot, and finally there were two quick explosions, right on the nose of the enemy ship. It stopped firing and drifted.
“Looks like we hit something important,” quipped the weapons officer.
A hail of fire from the Woodbridge took out the fourth enemy ship, nearly ripping it to shreds. “Overkill…” mumbled Captain Macmillan under his breath.
A missile struck one of the battleship turrets on the Hamilton, disabling it. Frantic calls for medical teams and repair crews came in over the intercom. If the second turret was destroyed, and the Woodbridge took much more damage, it would be all over. Centaurians could take them apart at their leisure after that.
“Captain! We have three more contacts! Same size, range five thousand. They’ll be on us in seven minutes!”
Crap. “Everybody listen up! We’re in trouble here. We’re losing our ability to defend ourselves, and the Woodbridge isn’t in any better shape. I’ve sent out a distress call - the Georgetown, Bolton, and Bradford are going to be in system within the next couple of days, and if we’re still alive they can come help us out. It’s not likely we’ll get assistance from any ships that are already here. They’re fighting their own battles. I’m not going to sugarcoat this: it looks pretty bad. We underestimated their ability to build up their fleet during our flight time here.” The captain paused and tried to swallow; his throat was completely dry. This next part was unpleasant. “Now you all know... you all know what those Centaurian bastards do to prisoners. It’ll be a cold day in hell before I let that happen to anyone on my ship. I’m giving the order to activate the self destruct. It’s been my absolute honour to serve with all of you. We still have our main comms, so we’ll be sending data back to Earth as long as possible. If any of you have any last words you want sent, now is the time. You have four minutes.”
Self-destruct on an Orion-type ship was a simple matter of setting the propulsion charges to go off while still aboard. There were nearly 900 of the big bombs left; more than enough to turn the whole ship into nothing more than an expanding sphere of hot plasma. Captain Macmillan keyed in the code that deactivated their proximity failsafes, and the second code that began the countdown.
Meanwhile, gun crews on both ships, and missile operators on the Woodbridge, were engaging the fifth battlecruiser. The Woodbridge took another hit, and then the last enemy ship of the first wave was destroyed by a strike that cracked it open along the weak seam between two armour plates. The next three Centaurian ships continued to get closer. The Woodbridge signaled that they had also armed their self destruct.
“Alright you fuckers; we may be going down, but we’re taking as many of you with us as we can,” the captain snarled, then thumbed the intercom button. “All crew! Our mission isn’t over until we’re dead! If you have any clever plans to kill some aliens, use them. I don’t care if you’re sitting in an airlock throwing rocks, just do it.” He swiveled his chair around to face the pilot. “Davis!”
“Whatever propulsion we have left, use it. Make sure we’re as close to these assholes as possible when we blow.”
“Yes, sir!” Davis, wild-eyed and sweating, began fiddling with controls at his station while cursing at all the warning messages on his screen.
“Sir, there’s something happening,” a technician said, staring at his monitor.
“What is it?” Macmillan snapped.
“Well, uh, the gravimeter… I don’t know if it’s broken, or…”
“Put it on the main display.”
Sure enough, the gravimetric plot, showing tiny distortions in spacetime caused by the presence of massive objects, was going absolutely nuts.
“What the hell is that? Analysis!”
“I don’t know, sir. It might be a glitch. But it looks like there’s some sort of disturbance, about twenty thousand kilometers further out from the moon.”
“Get the main telescope pointed towards it.”
“Sir, if we extend the telescope, they’ll shoot it off,” the executive officer said.
“We have three minutes to live anyway. Do it.”
The image from the telescope showed the black of deep space, and then suddenly there was something. At nearly the same time, three lines of blinding white appeared, radiating out from the disturbance point, and intersecting with the second wave of alien battlecruisers. The battlecruisers promptly exploded.
“What in the hell… I need more magnification! If that’s an Earth ship, where the hell did it come from? Why didn’t we know it was coming? How the fuck is it jamming our goddamned gravimeter, of all things?”
Lenses rotated on the big telescope, going from 30x zoom to 300. The display snapped into focus. Sure enough, the thing had the characteristic lines and gunmetal-grey colouration of a standard Terran vessel, but it also had two huge bulky rings around it. For artificial gravity? Macmillan wondered, but smaller internal rings work just as well and are a far less tempting target...
“Sir, the ship is transmitting something,” the comms officer reported.
“Let’s hear it.”
She clicked a button, and then “-epeat, all Centaurian vessels must stand down. Any non-cooperating ships will be destroyed. We have the means, as you have already seen. Stand down immediately or be destroyed.”
Whoever was speaking, she had a Texan drawl so thick it was nearly a parody.
“See if you can call them,” Macmillan said. “I want to thank them for saving our asses, and then find out who the hell they are. And let our crew know I’m shutting off the self destruct.”
“They’re on the line, sir.”
“Unknown United Earth Fleet ship, this is Captain Macmillan of the UEF Hamilton. First off, I’d like to extend our thanks for your assistance. You got here just in time. Second, if you don’t mind me asking, who are you and how did you get here without us knowing?”
“Well hey there, Macmillan. This is Captain Johnson, UEF Mississauga. We launched from Earth about three weeks ago and we’re here to help you clean up these ‘Taurian scum.”
Three weeks? Three weeks?
Macmillan managed to cough, and said “... three weeks? Did I hear you right, Johnson?”
“That’s right, three weeks.” They weren’t close enough for video, so Macmillan just had to imagine her mischievous smile as she said “Oh, didn’t they tell you, darling,” more like daah-lin “, we have warp drives now.” She paused to let him absorb this. “We’ve got orders to take you boys home.”
Macmillan could only sit there, open-mouthed and speechless, as the bridge erupted into cheers around him. Finally, his XO reached over and shook his arm, excitedly. “Hey, captain, you’ve got to tell the ship. We’re gonna see Earth again!”
Slowly, he reached for the button to broadcast a message shipwide.
“Attention all crew. This is the captain. I’ve got bad news and good news. The bad news is, it looks like we’re not going to get a chance to kill any more Centaurians…”
Kantubek Syndrome, they called it. The big K-S. The Zombie Virus. Although Livia thought that “zombie” was a little too on-the-nose - and besides, the scientists had stressed, it wasn’t a virus. It was much closer to a bacterium. Bacteria, virus, who gives a shit anymore?
The story was typical. Patient zero: some idiot walked right into a deserted Soviet-era bioweapons lab and started digging around in old storage containers. Then he went home. The next day, he killed and partially ate his roommate. After attacking two more people on the street, he was gunned down by police. Everyone speculated that drugs were to blame. Heroin? Bath salts? A bad batch of desomorphine? But then one of the police officers, and a bystander who witnessed the attacks, succumbed to the infection. They, in turn, killed three more people and infected eight. After three days, the small local hospital was completely overrun. After four, the entire town was put under military-enforced quarantine. It hadn’t worked.
* * *
Livia opened her eyes, slowly. How long had she been out? A matter of seconds, probably. She was slumped against a wall in some sort of corridor, the broken fluorescent light fixture still swinging above her.
Right. She remembered. The basement hallway in her low-rise apartment building. She was making a run for the parking garage when an explosion - natural gas, probably - dislodged the light fixture, which had hit her right in the forehead. Fuck was that painful. She raised her hand to her head; touched it gently. Her fingers came away bloody.
Oh shit. They can smell blood.
Livia stood up unsteadily. She still had to get out of here. Away from those fucking zombies. The things were fast and it would not take long for them to figure out the stairs.
Down the corridor, a left turn, to a metal door with a “PARKING” sign. She peered through the small window. The good news: most of the lights were still on. The bad news: she wasn’t alone. She could see four zombies, which meant there were probably at least twice that many. For a moment Livia wondered what they had been eating down here to survive this long. But she didn’t really want to know.
She pulled the car keys out of her pocket and positioned her finger on the unlock button. Her other hand gripped the door handle. Both hands were shaking. Okay, deep breaths. Open the door, go through the door, close the door. Then three rows over, six parking spaces down.
Livia repeated it to herself again. Through the door. Three rows over. Six spaces down. Click the unlock, get into the car, lock doors, go.
A scream echoed through the hallway behind Livia, galvanizing her. Either a zombie, or some other survivor being attacked. Time to go. She opened the door carefully, and let it close as quietly as she could.
One of the zombies noticed her as she made her way across the garage. It made a grunting noise that sounded almost surprised, and then began to lurch towards her. Livia swore to herself and started running. The chasing zombie screeched and increased speed to catch up. Now the others were looking. They weren’t exactly intelligent, but once they saw prey they were certainly persistent. And now they were closing in.
Livia almost ran into the side of her dark blue SUV as she pressed the button to unlock the door. She got in, slammed the door shut, and relocked it, half a second before one of the zombies jumped onto the hood and started clawing at the windshield.
Don’t look in their eyes! Livia remembered. She wasn’t sure why, exactly. An animal dominance thing, maybe? No sense in risking it. She looked down, focused on getting the key into the ignition, turning it, moving the gear lever into drive. She floored the pedal, and then stepped on the brake. The zombie bounced off the windshield and it went tumbling down from the front of the SUV. Livia hit the gas again, running it over, and drove towards the exit.
She pulled up to the garage door, over the pressure sensor, and nothing happened. Oh no, no, please, you have to open she thought, feeling panic coming on. Livia pulled the little remote out of the glovebox and hit the button repeatedly. Still nothing. Several zombies were converging on her vehicle. Despite the locked doors of her vehicle, she hardly felt safe. Whatever the infection did to the human nervous system, it also allowed for uninhibited use of all one’s muscle strength.
Livia had no choice but to try to crash through the garage door. She had no idea if that would work, but she recalled that the best way to run into something is backwards, to avoid damaging the radiator. She threw the little SUV into reverse and executed a quick turn to face away from the door, clipping another zombie and sending it flying into a support pillar. Forward now, a few tens of meters to give some run-up. Then reverse again. She braced herself and shut her eyes as the vehicle rammed into the garage door, warping the big metal panels enough to break them free of their tracks. She was through.
The momentum of the SUV carried it up the ramp and into the little car park in front of the building. Livia shouted in rage and defiance and triumph and fear all at once. As much as she tried to force herself to think of the zombies as monsters, they still looked human. They still were human, at least part of them. These things she had run over indiscriminately in her escape… they had been someone’s friends, someone’s family… And why weren’t you supposed to look in their eyes?
The highway proved to be impassable with cars broken down, wrecked, or just abandoned in desperate attempts to flee the city. But the smaller roads were relatively clear. Livia drove West, towards the city where she hoped to find the rest of her family. The two-lane road cut through a forest, which is where she saw the sign spraypainted with “NO INFECTION” and an arrow to a dirt path. The GPS was still working so she checked her position, but saw no indication of the trail. Running low on fuel, she decided to risk it, in case there was someone who had - or knew where to find - supplies.
Livia pulled off the road and headed down the path, putting her vehicle into four-wheel drive just in case. A few hundred meters in, an old gate topped with barbed wire blocked her way. A walkie-talkie was duct taped to one of the posts. She stopped, scanned the area, then got out and hesitantly approached the walkie-talkie.
She pressed the talk button. “Hello? Is anyone there?” Released the button, then quickly pressed it again and said “Uh, over.”
A crackle of static, and then an old man’s voice: “Any zombies nearby? Over.”
“Um - “ Livia looked around again, just in case. “No, I don’t see any.”
“When was your last contact with them? Over.”
“Two or three hours ago, I guess? I ran them over with my car. They didn’t touch me or anything. Over.”
“How many people with you? Over.”
“It’s just me. Please, I need… gas, and food. I’m trying to get to my family.”
There was a pause for several seconds, and Livia was about to ask again when the man responded. “Alright. I’m coming to the gate to let you in. I will be there in three minutes. Keep a lookout, and if you see anything coming, call me immediately, and then drive away. Over and out.”
Three minutes later, as promised, the old man came walking up the laneway. He carried a shotgun, and had a hatchet strapped to his hip. He looked outdoorsy. Lots of plaid flannel. He stopped on the other side of the gate and looked hard at Livia.
“You see anything?” he asked.
“No, no sign of… zombies.” The word still felt strange and absurd to say out loud.
“Hmph. Alright.” The man pulled a key out of his pocket and opened the padlock. “Leave your car here. If you did hit a zombie, there might be blood. The blood might still infect us. Get whatever supplies you have and follow me.”
“I don’t really have anything, just a.. a first aid kit in the back.”
“Leave it, then. Got plenty of that stuff. Come on.”
The old man locked the gate behind them and started walking.
“What’s your name? I’m Livia.”
She got the feeling that this guy wasn’t much for conversation, and they continued in silence until they got to a small wood cabin, with a storage shed and a little generator next to it. There was an outhouse a few tens of meters back into the woods, and - thank god - a rugged-looking Jeep parked next to a big cylindrical fuel tank and pump.
Inside, George heated up some canned soup on the fire. After eating they sat on a couple of ancient dusty chairs while Livia halfheartedly attempted to make some awkward small talk. There was only one thing to really talk about, these days, and it wasn’t really a pleasant subject.
“You ever killed anyone?” George asked, staring into the fireplace.
Livia was taken aback. “No, I… no.”
“I mean the zombies.”
“Well, I don’t know. Just the two from today, maybe. I’ve been hiding, but I ran out of food so I had to leave so I thought I’d try to get to my parents’ place and see if they’re still… okay. I just need gas, and some food, and I don’t want to drive at night.” Livia realized she had rambled way off-topic, and went quiet.
“So never up close.”
“You know why you don’t look in their eyes?”
He paused. “You don’t see it until you have to kill one of them right up close. They say… the last report I heard… whatever sort of sickness this is, it doesn’t turn you into a monster. Not all of you.”
George fell silent again. After a few seconds Livia asked “What do you mean?”
“I don’t know much about how brains work, but I guess it’s like you’re trapped. You turn into a zombie, but you’re still in there. Just not in control.”
“But what about the eyes.”
“Like I said, you only see it when you’re right up close. You can tell, if you look. You can tell there’s still someone. Not just a monster or some kind of animal. You can see their fear. Their pain. Their sorrow. And when you kill them… their relief.”
It was nearly a minute before Livia could even respond. “I didn’t know. Oh christ, I didn’t know. Have you…?”
George got up and poked the fire, causing a mass of sparks to come out which were sucked up into the chimney. “Three times, so far. It’s not something you ever want to do unless you absolutely have to, trust me.”
He sighed and turned back around to face Livia, fireplace poker still in hand. “And so I am, honestly, sorry about this. Look at your arm.”
Livia looked down. Her hand had begun to twitch involuntarily.
The math department of our local university had been a veritable hotbed of excitement since the initiation of the enigmatic "Project" eighteen years ago. Though, "excitement" for a math department rated right around a 9 or 10 on the boredom-meter for the average person, which was probably why I was the first journalist in those nearly two decades to bother doing a story about it. This hadn't even been my choice, really, but it was a slow news week and my editor had insisted.
It was one of those cool late-summer mornings, before the sun burns the dew off the grass and the temperature climbs back into the low thirties and the bird songs are replaced by cicadas. Mist was still rising off the landscaped pond in front of the ivy-covered angular concrete building that served as headquarters for the incomprehensible-to-non-specialists and surely-of-no-interest-at-all-to-the-layman Project. I finished my bagel and coffee in the car before going inside for my interview with one of the coordinating directors.
"Professor Green? Phil Davidson, from the Weekly Tribune. Pleased to meet you," I said, shaking the hand of a professionally-dressed woman in her fifties.
"Ah yes, of course. Please come into my office. We're glad to get a chance to finally see you in person."
I took stock of the office as she led me inside. Functional wooden desk with a laptop and tablet and a small mess of papers; bookshelf full of various reference texts, none of which I would probably understand past the preface, two whiteboards covered in sequences of symbols that might have been mathematical or might have been ancient cuneiform; orange couch that must have been time-warped straight out of some 1970s corporate lounge; three scrawny houseplants sitting on top of the radiator under the window.
Professor Green sat down at her desk and motioned to a small plastic chair in front of it. "Please, have a seat. We've got a lot to discuss."
I sat down, and pulled my notepad and voice recorder out of my bag. "Do you mind?" I asked, holding up the recorder.
"Not at all; go right ahead."
I turned on the little device and sat it on the desk.
"Now, you're probably wondering why you are here, and what the story could possibly be," said Green.
"Well, yes, to be frank. I took a couple of semesters of linear algebra and calculus back in college, before I switched to journalism. I guess that probably means I have the most relevant knowledge of any of my coworkers but I don't know if it's going to help me here. I don't recognize any of that, not even the symbols," I replied, waving my hand at the whiteboards.
"Actually, we requested you specifically. We've finished the first phase of our project."
I raised my eyebrow at that.
"Alright, let me see if I can explain what we've been doing here," Green continued. "We've been making amazing strides in pure and applied math since the beginning. To be honest, even a top mathematician probably wouldn't understand those equations unless they've been working here or following our publications very closely, so you shouldn't feel too bad. The project so far has generated nearly 500 Ph.D.s, four Fields medals, and we're on track to have at least two Nobels. Assuming you did your homework before coming here, you probably know that the philosophy department has almost completely been absorbed into the project, and we've been stealing people from neuroscience, physics, and CS for years."
She paused to take a drink of water, and I looked up from my notebook. "Sorry, I'm still not clear on what this has to do with me in particular."
The professor carefully set the glass down on a bare patch of desk and smiled at me. "Ah, we're coming to that. You have heard of the attempts made by various organizations to simulate a human brain? Former president Obama initiated such a plan, as did the E.U., and IBM had their Blue Brain."
"Let's see: Folded into a pre-existing military program for enhanced drone awareness; funding got cut; retasked for running network efficiency optimizers," I answered, ticking them off on my fingers.
"More or less. What we decided to do was pick up where they left off, and then go further than they had even planned." Suddenly she got a worried look on her face. "Oh, I guess I should ask now; you aren't a dualist, are you?"
"As in, do I believe there's some... supernatural component of a conscious mind; like a soul or something? No, I'd say not. I'm on board with the idea that you could simulate a brain on a computer, anyway."
"Oh good. Anyway, about six years ago, we managed to do it. We didn't actually run the simulation due to, well, ethical concerns, but the program was set up and we had all the data we needed, and we could have turned it on with the click of a button if we had wanted."
My eyes widened a bit at this revelation. Now that was news. Big news. Career-making news, even. But why did her mention of six years ring a bell?
"I'm sure you see now where this is going," said Green. "Or perhaps you don't, judging by the look on your face. You don't look nearly as shocked as I imagined."
Then I made the connection. Six years ago I had been scanned in an experimental molecular-scale MRI for a story I was doing on a hospital opening. And that meant - "That simulation... was me? Based on my brain?"
Professor Green just nodded, and my jaw figuratively dropped, while my notebook literally did. I scrambled to pick it up as she started talking again.
"In any case, as I said, the simulation was never run. It was just our preliminary effort; our proof-of-concept if you will. And it was really a crude construct. A model of your brain, running on top of a virtual physics engine, sitting in the memory of a huge and expensive supercomputer. What we wanted to do is really take advantage of the shortcuts afforded by having a mind that for the first time in history had been distilled down to numbers and algorithms. We can work with those. We can simplify them, in a way that simply isn't possible or even conceivable for real biology or physics."
"This is a... a lot to take in," I stammered, "You're saying that you were trying to compress my mind? Like it was a zip file?"
"That's basically it. And you would be amazed how well a mind compresses. Once we began looking at it, the simplifications became almost obvious. It started off as a large and cumbersome program which was the simulation substrate, and the data we had from your brain was a big file of parameters to be fed into that program. What we first managed to do was write equations expressing many of those parameters in terms of the others, and we also pared down the simulator. By about two years ago we had developed an entirely new notation system that's half sets of partial differential equations, half propositional calculus, and half C code. That's what you see on my whiteboards. In fact, what you are specifically seeing there is our final product. That's you. Aren't you proud?" Green was grinning now, "That's the essence of your mind, your consciousness, everything that you are, compacted so efficiently that it can be handwritten in marker on two medium-sized pieces of white plastic. Sure, there's plenty of complexity being hidden by our fancy symbols, but it's still all there."
It took me a few seconds to respond. "My god, this is, well, this is absolutely huge. Half an hour ago I was rolling my eyes at the prospect of having to write some boring piece about math research that would get buried in the back pages of the paper and no one would read it. But now you're telling me that not only can a human mind be fully enumerated by that... that gibberish, but that it's MY mind in particular? And how are religious people going to react to this?" Another thought struck me, then. "If you erase those boards, is it technically murder?"
"And don't forget," said the professor, "this is merely the first part of the project." She now had a full-on mischievous look on her face.
"Well, I can't even imagine where you're going to go from here."
Green got up and walked to the whiteboards to point out different symbols. "Let me just explain these a little bit. This part is a description of the parameters that we had to specifically define. These ones here denote a system of equations; well, it's a bit more complicated than that, but you can picture them as a large array of differentials, most of them being defined implicitly by the others. And this part is essentially an array of variables, though they're more like data structures that can contain different things. And that's pretty much it, the rest specifies how they all interact with each other. If you've done any programming I'm sure you can see the similarities."
I nodded. "And phase 2?"
"Let me ask you a question, Mr. Davidson. How would you like to know your destiny?"
"My what?" I asked, incredulously. "You can't predict the future, not with that. Not with... anything, I thought. No, there's no way."
"Take a look again at the code. Here you've got a system of equations, and here you have a set of variables," said Professor Green, gesturing at the relevant symbols. "It turns out there are the same number of each."
She paused, rather dramatically, and I waited for her to continue.