Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Chapter 15, Part 1

Wherein Sterling continues to be indoctrinated into the mysteries of the Arcane and reenacts a modern version of the 4 Yorkshiremen sketch. The usual warning apply.

“Wow, that’s really interesting and surprisingly depressing at the same time,” said Stirling.

Dimitri shrugged. “That’s life, you’re born, you run up enough credit debt to irritate your children, and you die.”

“Whatever, Moneybags,” said Sam. “You’re loaded.”

Dimitri didn’t argue, but wandered over to the glowing crucible and squinted at it. “What’s your efficiency at now?” he asked after a moment.

“We’re capturing around ninety-two percent,” said Sam with a proud smile. “Your runework on the inside gave us another three percent, I lose another five with the thermal-thaumaturgeical step up, but I’d barely be able to fry an egg on the loss,” said Sam, looking at the crucible with pride.

Sam rolled up a sleeve, reached out a hand, and, without being visibly singed, plucked the glowing lid off the pot to examine the symbols that formed a radiant orange webwork on the underside. Blue flame swirled off the charcoal as the air forced its way up through the crucible.

Stirling raised his eyebrows, “You’re the guy who gets volunteered to work the barbecue at picnics, aren’t you?”

“And to take the baking from the oven,” added Sam, smiling. He brushed a few of the glowing briquettes out of the way to look more closely at the side of the crucible where more symbols were etched into the ceramic. “This all looks fine,” he said finally. “They should last for at least another month before we need to begin work on the next one.”

“Standard rates apply,” said Dimitri. “You’re not pretty enough to get me to work for free.”
“No problem.”

“Oh hey! Since you’ve got the lid off, do that thing with your violin!” urged Dimitri.

Sam began to look flustered. “I haven’t tuned it, the E string is sounding flat. I think I need to restring it before I play again.”

“Come on, one quick song, you can give the strings one last send off.”

Sam looked between the two of them looking for a sign of weakening.

“Come on, do it. One song, he’s new, give him a show.”

Sam’s face was a mixture of uncomfortable irritation as he looked at Dimitri. “Fine, give me a second.”

From under a nearby table covered with kettles and coffee paraphernalia, he took a scuffed black violin case and shot Dimitri a look. “You know I hate playing for an audience.”

He carefully lifted out a violin and bow. He gave the bow a quick swipe of rosin and let it arc across the strings. The fire from the crucible twitched as the bow touched the strings. Sam grinned sheepishly at Stirling and turned a tuning peg, plucking the string a few times as he did. The neck and sides of the violin were inscribed with sigils similar to the ones on the inside of the crucible.

“Dude, wait until you see this. It’s crazy.” Dimitri sat back on the couch and spread out. Stirling sat on the arm.

Sam took a phone from his pocket and started a metronome app. It began ticking away at a lively Allegro. He began tapping a foot in time, then he put the bow to the strings and was off.

It was a quick song, a modern take on a classical theme, but that wasn’t what interested Stirling. As Sam began to play, a heat haze immediately began forming around the instrument. The sigils carved into the violin began to kindle and glow like hot coals. At the same time, the wire strings began to glow like the heating coil in a toaster, the colour spreading up and down the strings from where the bow slid over them. Despite this, Sam’s fingers appeared to be undamaged.

Under the sound of the violin, Stirling began to hear a deep bass accompaniment. He turned to look at the crucible as air rushed in time to the music and blue flames pulsed from the top of the clay vessel. As Sam played, the crucible changed single notes on the violin into chords and roared in time with the beat.

Flames began to emerge from the symbols on the violin, enveloping Sam’s head and hands in dancing blue and flickering yellow light. His thin hair began to float around his head in the heat of the updraft. Through the flames, Stirling could see Sam’s eyes were closed as his fingers dragged across the strings, sparks spitting out behind them as they went.

Slowly the flames began to sway with the music, spreading out in looping ribbons and spirals as Sam played. Images insinuated themselves into the flames only to fade away a moment later as the music moved on.

Stirling had seen doing magic for years, but this kind of magic was something he’d never even considered. It wasn’t just magic to achieve a result, it was magic as art. If his magic was painted a wall with a roller brush, the display in front of him was the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He’d always thought of magic as just the stream running the turbine, it was energy, nothing but a source of power. This opened new possibilities he’d never even considered.

The song only lasted a few minutes and soon it wound down, the flames disappeared and the markings on the violin began to dull.

“Holy shit! You need a demo tape or a Youtube channel or something! That was amazing!”


A short, stocky woman in her forties yawned hugely as she marched into the room. She wore faded jeans, an old Invader Zim t-shirt, rectangular glasses, and had shoulder-length hair the colour of lava. “I heard you playing, so I decided to get on shift early,” she said past the end of the yawn.

“Dimitri!” she exclaimed, seeing him sitting on the couch for the first time. She rushed at him and put her arms around his head giving him a fierce hug. “I’ve missed you, where have you been?!” She stood back and gave his head a light smack, “Why didn’t you text me back, you shit!?”

“Ow! Crazy bitch!” he said, rubbing his head. “I needed to take some time off for a personal project.”

“I’ll crazy bitch you! Not sure if you’ve noticed, since it’s only been news since the summer, but people have been disappearing. Answer your texts, asshole. We were worried.”

“So, who’s the new guy?” she asked eyeing Stirling. “Mysterious, pale, and good-looking? I like him already.”

“Here we go,” said Dimitri in a low voice.

“Are you independently rich?” said Sue. “Because if you are, I should let you know I’m ready to quit this dead-end job any time so you can take me away from all of this.”

“Rich? Have you ever heard the expression, ‘dirt poor?’


“Well in my house, I only get to bring out the dirt on the really special occasions.”

“Oh, the luxury!” she gushed. “When I was a little girl we only got dirt for Christmas.”

“You had Christmas?!” Stirling asked in disbelief. “Every December I was beaten with an old rubber hose and fed on a diet of expired mayonnaise packets. My parents said they wanted to fatten me up since we couldn’t afford a real turkey. To this day, I crap my pants when I hear the word, ‘Hellmans’"

Dimitri choked and began coughing. Sam pounded him on the back with a grin.

“You may have met your match, Sue,” said Dimitri.

Sue looked at Dimitri shrewdly. “Would the reason for your recent absence be named James?” she asked, with a knowing twinkle in her eye.

“No, it’s not James. Stop fishing, I’ll let you see him when he’s ready, not before.”

“James?” Stirling asked.

“Know what AI is?” Sam asked Stirling, who nodded. “Just take away the “Artificial” part. James is an Intelligence.”

“Or he will be if Dimitri ever lets anyone see him,” added Sue.

Dimitri scowled at her and settled back into his seat to begin swiping at the screen of his phone.

“So this James is an Intelligence?” Stirling prompted, flopping onto the couch next to him and looking at the screen of his phone. “I thought we already had AIs. We have Siri, Cortana, right?”

Dimitri grimaced but didn’t look up from the screen of his phone. “What we have are programs that follow a narrow range of instructions. They’re not intelligent. Sure they can answer questions, and they’re better at it than they use to be, but they don’t understand or show any initiative. A dog is way more intelligent. The AIs you’re talking about are just an electronic Rube Goldberg machine. They’re all bullshit.” Dimitri began typing on his screen.

Stirling jogged his elbow causing his thumb to swipe across the keyboard. “Wow, that’s fascinating. Tell me more.”

Dimitri sighed, locked the phone’s screen, and began an explanation delivered so blandly that Stirling was sure that he must have already spoken the exact same speech dozens of times.

“People have been trying to make AIs for years and years. In the sixties they thought the breakthrough would happen in the nineties, in the nineties they thought it would be in the teens. They were all fuckwits. A traditional AI needs hardware with way more horsepower than anything that’s out there. Right now the very best computers barely have enough processing power to simulate the intelligence of algae. Even the tricked ones rely on mundane hardware manufacturers and there’s an upper limit to what you can do with that stuff."

"None of this even takes into account that the software to run an AI would not only be mind-bogglingly difficult to write but would also be impossibly huge. Imagine taking everything you’ve ever learned and trying to write it all down in a way a computer can access it. Then there’s the power requirements, space, cooling, et cetera, etcetera. So, instead of writing a big, bad-ass program, I wrote one that hooked up an existing intelligence to a network of distributed computers.”

“So what kind of intelligence did you use?” Stirling had visions of brains floating in bell jars with wires poking out of them and labelled, “Abby Normal.”

“A ghost I found floating around inside the servers of an online RPG.”

“So you found the ghost in the machine?”

“One of them, there are more geeks than the San Diego Comic-Con in most MMORPG server rooms.” He looked up at Stirling, “Some hard-core gamer eats a bad chimichanga and raids his last, where do you think he’s going to haunt? He’s going to go off and frolic with the elves, orcs, and fairies, or some other such shit in the server of an online RPG. League of Legends, World of Warcraft, Eve, some place like that.”

“I got in touch with James on a Rift server and wrote a program for him that split him up and spread him out over a few hundred thousand machines. Hackers have been using the idea for years to spam email or run DdoS attacks. Just put a little program on an assload of computers and skim off a few million CPU cycles per second from each of them. It doesn’t slow the computer all that noticeably, and it gives James enough computing power to do some impressive stuff.”


“What makes it even cooler is that the more machines that have James’ software the smarter he gets.” Dimitri continued, finally warming up to the subject. “Ghosts are just copies, really crappy copies of the original person that made them. They lose a lot of what they were when they die. Most of them aren’t smart enough to put together a bread sandwich. Before I plugged him in James, was barely able to write, ‘noob, pwned’ or, ‘butthurt.’” He cocked an eyebrow at Stirling. “That might be something you already know though.”

“And now?”

“And now HAL 9000 is his little bitch.”

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