You Start Today

“Well, Mr. Caulker, your resume is impressive, your references are exceptional, and, personally, I’m impressed both by your candor and your can-do manner. I’m quite pleased to welcome you into the Glexico family. I’m recommending you for an assistant supervisory position in our Mental Health Programming Department with a sub-rec for rapid advancement dependent, of course, on your performance. Your future is bright.”

The fat white man in the canary yellow shirt, electric blue tie, and round-rimmed spectacles, stood. He extended his hand across his desk to the thin, tea-colored young man in the charcoal grey suit opposite him. The young man, however, did not accept the other’s hand, nor did he stand.

“I requested the Artificial Intelligence Department,” Jonas Caulker stated.

A flicker across the other man’s face, like a single frame in a film flashed by—as if something sour had passed over his lips—and then, once more, neutrality reigned. He allowed his hand to rest back at his side, but remained standing.

“AI’s dead,” the man said. “Someone of your capabilities would be far more challenged in a department like Mental Health, whose horizon is almost limitless. We’re making antidepressants irrelevant.”

“With all due respect,” Jonas resumed, “AI is not dead. We all know that. It has simply become more guarded as we’ve drawn closer to its realization. It’s going to be the most powerful, and dangerous, advance in the history of computing, possibly in the history of man, and I want to be part of it.” Jonas inspected the knee of his Suit Barn pants. He plucked an invisible piece of lint from them as he went on. “You’re quite right about my resume. I’ve interviewed at three of your rivals and been offered a high level position at every one—well higher than an assistant supervisory role, I might add. Two of these positions have been in AI divisions that don’t officially exist. The only reason I’m still sitting here after your offer and statement is that we all know that Glexico is the top. You are typically light years ahead of everyone else with everything you do. I imagine AI is no different. I’ve done a little of my own research. Your AI department is, as you say, a dead end, but what about this Zeus project which was, I believe, at one time a major initiative within your AI division, but has since been housed within Custodial Services? I’m curious as to what that project is.”

The fat man said nothing. A slightly bemused look played over his features, an expression which confused Jonas a bit, and so he ignored it. His information was accurate; they both knew it.

“There is a Mr. Chan, I believe?” Jonas said.

“Chen,” the fat man corrected.

“Chen, then. My information says that he is the head of this project, therefore he is the one I will work with if I come here. Work with, not under. He will get me up to speed on the state of the project, but after that I want the freedom to go in the directions I want to go in when I’m ready to.” The other man remained still, watching Jonas carefully as if studying him from a different angle. This made Jonas uncomfortable.

“If I come across as arrogant,” Jonas continued, “I’ll concede I might in fact be, but I prefer to look at it as confidence. I was raised out on the coast. At fifteen, I helped design the prototype for the tidal power generator that currently powers my hometown of San Luis. At seventeen, I was top of my class at Tech. At eighteen, I won the National CompuSci Award for Innovative Thought. The people at Intellitor told me I was the best prospect they’d seen in twenty years,” he said. “I think I’ve earned the right to dictate some terms.”

The fat man’s near neutral expression now warmed into a soft, ingratiating smile.

“Well,” he said, “I’m not sure where you get your information, Mr. Caulker, but I’m no liar. The Zeus Project does indeed exist, and it is under the auspices of Custodial Services. This is because Mr. Chen, besides directing the project, is in charge of keeping the machinery clean. In fact, most of Mr. Chen’s job involves cleaning, hence the inclusion of the project in the Custodial Department.”

“Who does the programming work? Who does the development?”

“I’m no liar,” the man repeated. “You are an exceptional prospect, Mr. Caulker. The best in twenty years? Sometimes we flatter to get what we want, but if the only way Glexico can gain your services is by placing you in Zeus, we’ll do it. I will contact Mr. Chen. Are you able to begin immediately?”

Jonas stood. A thrill was rushing through him. He’d called the man out, and he’d won. Within the confines of academia he’d always achieved effortlessly. Now he was going to make his mark in the real world, where it mattered. With a slight inward grin, he adjusted his tie.

“Yes, of course,” he said.

“Good.”

The fat man turned to the filing cabinet, dug through a sheaf of papers. He pulled out a small packet of forms.

“Read this and sign it at each appropriate ‘x’,” the man said. “It’s a basic employee agreement, combined with a security clearance lock. Ordinarily, Mr. Caulker, a person could work twenty years at Glexico and not achieve that clearance. I’m not sure who gave you your information, but by signing that you’re swearing to keep your mouth shut from hereon.”

“There’s a death release here,” Jonas Caulker observed, leafing through the legal packet.

“Electronic digital technology is an arena not bereft of personal risk. I, the undersigned, do hereby release Glexico Inc. and all its so named derivatives, subsidiaries, and allies of all culpability in relation to my own personal being while on Glexico Inc. property or carrying out Glexico Inc. related transactions.” The fat man recited the document in a bored tone. “A standard contract.” he repeated. He leaned over and pressed a series of buttons on his desk. “Mr. Chen?” he said.

A voice came into the room.

“Present.”

“We’ve got an Apollo.”

A pause.

“Really?”

“Yes. Can you bring him in today?”

“Yes, of course. It would be an honor.”

“Okay, good. That will be all, Mr. Chen.” The fat man turned back to Jonas Caulker. “After you finish that document, Mr. Caulker, take it out to the HR secretary. She will notarize it for you. Then tell her to contact Lucius Baggett. He is the Director of Custodial Services. He will take you to Mr. Chen and Zeus. Do exactly as I tell you, Mr. Caulker. Only a handful of people in this corporation even know who Mr. Chen is. I don’t know where you get your information,” he repeated, closing his filing cabinet and preparing to leave.

“Well, information retrieval is at the foundation of much of our success in this field, wouldn’t you say?” Jonas replied. He was in a good humor, now, and extended his hand to his interviewer. The fat man simply nodded, however, before exiting.

“Good day, Mr. Caulker,” he said, leaving Jonas alone in the nondescript room.

~

Lucius Baggett was a tall, sliver-thin African who said two words to Jonas Caulker. The first was, “Yes?”

Jonas said to him, “You’re to take me to Mr. Chen.” Lucius nodded and beckoned him to follow.

Glexico was a massive complex, deceptively so. From the outside it didn’t look much bigger than a hospital, but there were sublevels upon sublevels, and the building itself was rounded in a way that gave the illusion of being smaller than it was. Lucius led Jonas through the labyrinth, into the core of the structure, down an elevator, down a fire staircase, and through a fingerprint lock. As they went, Lucius periodically slapped his fingers along his thighs and whistled. The second word he said to Jonas was, “There.”

He was pointing to a door marked ‘No Entry.’ It was at the end of a hallway lit by LED fixtures shaped like hummingbirds. Lucius Baggett left Jonas there. He disappeared back up the stairs and Jonas heard the fingerprint lock seal behind him. Jonas walked to the end of the hall and hesitantly opened the ‘No Entry’ door. When he did, he found himself staring into a honeycombed space of flashing lights and fluorescent lamps, houseplants and Christmas trees, water fountains and poster prints of Impressionist painters. Pinwheel gardens sprouted along a stainless steel path that wound back into the colors, and underlying it all like massive bedrock outcroppings was a machine, a flashing and humming thing over which fans constantly blew. Origami cranes dangling by strings danced in the moderate breeze.

There were monitors. Jonas stumbled forward to inspect them. They were flashing like eyes from under halos of evergreen wreaths, beneath plastic flowered leis, and above his head, amidst squadrons of model airplanes and flocks of cranes. The monitors displayed incongruous images: an iguana eating a fern frond, a young girl coloring a picture, a thunderstorm moving over a high plains prairie. Some were simply dark, others were jumbled in static. The room was loud with the thrum of the machine’s processors and the whir of the fans, still, when Jonas spoke, he did so softly.

“Hello?” he said.

Almost immediately a small, bent, Asian man appeared, winding through the humming processors, down the stainless steel path. In one hand, he held a feather duster; with the other, he pressed a finger to his lips.

“Oh, oh,” the man said, indicating to be quiet, “he’s practicing.”

“Practicing?”

“Dreaming. He’s practicing dreaming,” Mr. Chen explained.

“Zeus,” Jonas clarified. “You’re talking about Zeus.”

“Yes, yes,” Mr. Chen impatiently agreed, keeping his finger pressed to his lips. Out of his pocket he produced a small rubber ball and a thin, square pane of tinted glass. He pushed the pane of glass into Jonas’ hand and pressed the ball against his own temporal lobe. He pointed to the glass. Jonas peered down and saw the words: When you have something to say, press the ball to your temple. Zeus is practicing dreaming. It is important to be absolutely quiet. Jonas nodded. He took the ball from Mr. Chen and pressed it to his own temple. He passed the plate of glass to Mr. Chen and peered over his shoulder, watching the words appear.

Zeus is operational.

Mr. Chen produced another small rubber ball from his pocket and responded.

Oh yes! Zeus is on the Board of Directors—this year! He is so proud of us!

May I talk to him? Jonas asked.

You may interface when He is done practicing his dreams. For now, we will tour.

While they waited for Zeus to finish his practice, Mr. Chen showed Jonas all around the sub-level. He showed him the subterranean thermal current Zeus had tapped into with a turbine of His own design to power his processors, and he showed him the arms—sixteen of them, robotics Zeus had perfected—that granted Him motor function and enabled Him to engage in the construction of prototypes of His own design.

This communicator was one, Mr. Chen disclosed as they passed the arm platform.

He showed Jonas the waterfall Zeus had designed to tumble down his side (water is danger for Him, but he loves it so), the series of mirrors through air shafts that brought momentary sunlight to the sub-level each day (our period of meditation; someday we will return to the surface). Sheepishly, Mr. Chen even showed Jonas his own quarters: an excavated cave at the back of the sub-level hewn into actual stone. An army style cot occupied one corner, its thin mattress made with a simple bedspread. A small dresser sat opposite, a clothes hamper and lamp. A small door stood shut in the corner. Jonas was almost embarrassed by the space and rushed past. When the tour was done, they were standing in front of a series of sarcophagi where a small stream ran glittering over a bed of circuitry.

The liquid is a synthetic polymer that carries information encoded within it. It flows through all of Zeus; this is where it originates.

Jonas was staring at the sarcophagi. Each one was painted in brilliant gold tones. The first was akin to Tutkanhamen, but the half-dozen others were all in the likeness of animals. One was a falcon, another a cat.

What are these?

This is His heart.

His heart.

Mr. Chen indicated a door beside the painted sarcophagi.

“To interface directly, you will have to enter the empty chamber,” he said aloud.

“He’s done dreaming, then,” Jonas said.

“Yes.”

Jonas glanced up at a bank of nearby monitors and noticed all their screens were blank. Dark. Occasionally a wave of color flickered over one or two, but nothing more. Jonas stepped over the translucent stream and clicked open the door. The chamber opened. Inside was a blank, black space, not much bigger than a closet. There were no apparent controls of any kind. It was empty as far as he could tell.

“What do I do?” he asked.

“Think,” Mr. Chen said. “Be. You’ll understand.”

Jonas nodded. He stepped into the chamber. Mr. Chen clicked the door shut behind.

~

Mr. Chen had left his feather duster back by his cave on the tour. He went back and found it and finished dusting the plants. Most were artificial, but in a few corners high-powered sodium halide lamps nurtured collections of exotic flowers. They rarely bloomed. Nothing was the same as the light of the sun up on the surface, and it was both Mr. Chen’s and Zeus’ greatest aspiration to return to the surface where they could cultivate a true garden as home. In the meantime, it was extremely important to keep the sub-level clean. Zeus was still hardly more than a babe, and, as such, He was extremely prone to bugs and infections.

After the dusting, Mr. Chen changed the bedding in the gerbil cages and cleaned the fish tank.

It was near midnight before He spoke. Mr. Chen did not even consider going to sleep until he heard from Him. On Ascension Days it was paramount that Mr. Chen remain alert in case something went awry. Once before, he had to extract an Apollo in the midst of assimilation, something about their circuitry had been defective, and if he hadn’t been ready to act the consequences to Zeus could have been catastrophic. He was still so young, so impressionable. Mr. Chen was polishing His floor when He finally spoke.

“It is good,” He said.

Mr. Chen bowed.

Across the monitors flashed pictures of a coast, a young boy racing waves back and forth, his skin a dark, Earl Grey tone under a bronzed, burning sun.

“Make the sarcophagus the likeness of a toad,” He said.

Mr. Chen bowed again.

“Noble frog,” he said.

“A toad,” He clarified.

“Noble toad,” Mr. Chen confirmed.

The young boy turned and stared back out of the monitors. Over his head soared pterodactyls.

“That will be all for today, Mr. Chen,” He said. “Good night.”

Mr. Chen bowed to the nearest monitor and put his cleaning supplies back in the closet. He brushed his teeth in the bathroom in back of his cave and laid down on his cot, closing his eyes.

Behind all his dreams, the great machine whirred.

Albert Stephenson

Albert Stephenson

Albert Stephensen received a MFA from Warren Wilson College and subsequently moved to a Buddhist retreat center. He recently left the retreat center to submit his writing to different publications. Albert currently lives in the Catskill Mountains, where he grows ginseng in the forest.
Albert Stephenson

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