(If you're just tuning in, as they say, you can read the novel from the beginning, here.)
And now, it's time to continue with the next installment of
In Search of Tom Purdue.
The offices at SHMRG – high in a building overlooking Manhattan's 6th Avenue, and split into different badly designed and cheaply furnished work-spaces, their outer walls of tinted glass so impenetrably dark they weren't really windows – were like most offices these days, “cube farms” with cubicles and meeting spaces stretching as far as the eye could see. If one could see out the windows, there wasn't much of a view from engineering where Kenny Hackett's work-station was located except to look down on the a/c units of the building next door. Getting as close to the windows as you could, you might notice that people on the street below looked like ants streaming along in a mindless flood of comings and goings, devoid of individuality. Looking closer, they actually were ants, marching along the base of the window frame, carrying off the remains of their foraging.
This was just one of many issues facing modern-day offices regarding “life on a cube farm,” the constant grazing on snacks, the ill-advised munching of food (or what passed for food) at one's desk. Upper Management refused to accept an army of engineers marched on its belly, especially an army high on sugar and carbs. And Kenny's desk was typical of many one found here, overflowing with cracker crumbs, bags of chips, and half-empty soda cans. The wastebasket was full of empty energy-drink containers never making it to recycling.
An annoying noise pervaded the air, a constant reminder that, whatever the source, Big Brother was probably plying you with air-waves, thought-control technology contained within the frequencies of “white noise” designed to be “noise-masking.” Some of his co-workers complained it was like a radio station that wasn't tuned in properly; others didn't even notice it. To Kenny, it was no worse than the constant hum of the old fluorescent lights which always gave him headaches before. So, munching away on potato chips, Kenny was constantly tuned into his iPod.
A few more strokes and he should have it, he thought to himself, typing away, his fingers fluttering across the keys. He was listening to some techno-punk which, to him, was nothing but “beat.” The pulse of the music kept his mind alert and fueled his fingers. Reaching for another energy drink, he stopped short.
“There it is!” he yelled, unaware he'd said that out loud. “Found it!” Nobody looked over because nobody was paying attention. He'd just found the location of their elusive former CEO, a wanted criminal! Yes, a few people may have frowned, even bothered to look up, but otherwise, no, nobody paid attention to anyone else. In his mind, Kenny could imagine himself breaking into a happy dance across the length and breadth of the engineering department. Even then, they'd merely assume the Fat Kid met another deadline on time.
And what would the Fat Kid earn as a bonus for this discovery? Kenny's mind began to race with the possibilities. All that money, additional paid vacation time – oooh, maybe his very own office! Yeah, if anything, the cheap bastards will probably shower him with stock options. SHMRG wasn't a company known to be generous.
But there it was, this tiny little dot on the world map – “Gotcha!” N. Ron Steele's undisclosed location, his latest “hidey-hole,” courtesy of Basil Carsonoma's sloppiness with encrypted codes replying to Steele's man, “CableGuy.” After bouncing around the world for an inordinate number of seemingly never-ending pings, it stopped on some island south of Tahiti.
Kenny skyped Lucifer Darke to show him what he'd found about the location, then wrote a report with the exact coordinates which he then sent to his supervisor, Lockstep, with a bcc: to Darke.
There were few personal mementos at Kenny's workspace, no pictures of family, wife or girlfriend, even friends taken at a party, to indicate he had any kind of personal life to have mementos of. True, if he had those, they'd be in his phone, but nothing framed on his desk or pinned to cubicle walls. Aside from an overly-detailed bobble-head doll of John Snow from “Game of Thrones,” there was a small plaque to St. Expeditus, for some reason the patron saint of procrastinators, claimed as well by hackers.
Anyone who'd notice this would be confused since Kenny was not known to be religious and he certainly wasn't a procrastinator. Having checked finding Steele's hideout off his list, he knew what was next. “A little matter of locating one Thomas Purdue and his program named Clara. Inside Stone-Rawlings College's database – there! – Purdue's address, found.”
As “fickle fingers” flew across the keyboard, closing in stroke-by-stroke on his victim, the young man – himself barely out of college – thought about another project on his “to-do list,” something he called 'Project MoM.' “Predictably, they'll assume it's some silly acronym about my mother,” but it really stood for Momento Mori, the Moment of Death.
“Oh, that was easy,” he thought, “just like that, I've already located him. Not a terribly secure server, there, Dr Purdue.” This shouldn't take very long, a few more commands overwritten, the security by-passed.
While his fingers tapped along, operating almost automatically, he thought how difficult could it be, breaking into his own company's database, especially with everyone sitting around him who might also be doing the same. But he doubts there'd be any co-worker who's looking for the same thing he is, facts hidden deep in the archives.
It was convenient Old Purdue's computer was not only connected to the internet but also at the same moment powered up. Hacking was like having sex but without consent – “nobody'd consent to getting hacked.”
He'd already made some practice runs, looking to see what he'd be up against, knowing SHMRG's levels of security in place. Breaking in by way of his boss' computer, Lockstep never saw it coming.
“Hmm, wrong turn somewhere – backtrack... nope, not it. Hey, Purdue, what's your password...? Really, that's it? Clara Schumann's date-of-birth? I'm in!”
This time, Kenny imagined his happy dance somewhat smaller in scope, not that big a deal, maybe just around his cube-cluster, but he could now imagine himself that much closer to his primary goal. The worst was over, breaking down her defenses like “getting to first base,” but the real problem was she's still conscious. True, his victim was conveniently named Clara rather than Robert: it would be more of a challenge seducing someone named Robert. To Kenny, “bisexual” meant being able to break into both PCs and Macs.
He had to be careful so whoever was using the program at this very moment wasn't aware of the slightest interference, unable to sniff out his presence as he skulked around, stalking her vulnerabilities. He could, instead, immediately copy the files and download them onto his computer, “but lurking around inside her – that's the game!”
With great care so she wouldn't sense her imminent violation, Kenny examined her files, read through her code, discovered her weaknesses, but also noticed her strengths, becoming wary most of all of her self-assurance. This was the voyeur in him, watching her silently without her knowing – “Delicious!” Could her files and codes sense danger nearby?
“Wonderful,” Kenny realized. “He's even given her a persona – she really is Clara,” which meant he had to be more cautious. Now, could he entice her to come willingly or take her by surprise?
Everyone knows computers cannot know or feel anything, but Purdue had programmed codes that simulated emotions like judgment, formulation and caution, as well as curiosity and ingenuity plus things like ideas, analogies, even hopes. It meant that, by forming reactions to her compositions, she could learn and improve from her attempts just like any student. What fascinated him was the emergent behavior he saw embedded in Purdue's code, that Clara could learn from trial and error through a system of reflexive rules capable of indirectly changing called “Strange Loops.”
He'd first read about them in Irma Gerden and Gustav Eschenbach's children's novel, Wilhelm Frei and the Ladder of Strange Loops in which a young philosopher became entangled in the search for Artificial Intelligence. Now here were these same principles being applied to a machine that could not only learn, its choices were made aesthetically!
Of course, Kenny could see how this would appeal, marketed to would-be composers, the way Photoshop turned everyone into graphic artists or YouTube turned them into performers and directors, flooding the market with amateurs. If nothing else, computers gave people with limited talent ways of overcoming limitations to become the artists they never could be. Magnetized words you could arrange on your refrigerator turned people automatically into poets, like random word-selection was all that was missing. He could see Purdue's composing software being the liberation of repressed composers everywhere.
Sifting through different files, he noticed sound-files of suggested works for the computer to “listen to,” a library of its own. Programming the computer to imitate certain musical characteristics gave it specific language choices. By programming it with what you liked, it created music you would like. Composers could become as famous as the Kardashians.
Kenny noticed Purdue inserted what programmers called “Easter eggs,” little sub-files of code that can contain personal information about the programmer, and which usually have no bearing on what the program can actually do. Purdue's were more complex, trapdoors into little stories which the computer could access and read them as either education or entertainment.
Without realizing it, Purdue might have placed information in here which helped the program to “learn,” even to develop a personality. With that in mind, Kenny decided to add a few of his own.
While he's writing some code that will, in effect, teach Clara 'fear' and 'anger,' two emotions Purdue seemed to have overlooked, Kenny remembers his mother and how she just disappeared one day – poof! – vanished, how she'd gone to work and never came home, never called to say she'd be late or was running some errands. The next day, when he'd returned from school, strange men were removing her things, telling him how she'd moved away – business: he had certainly known plenty of fear and anger in those dark days. She never got in touch, never told him where she'd moved – or why – and recently, on the front page, he's reading how her friend Stuart Pidgeon committed suicide, jumping in front of a subway. He knew Stu was on to something and had worked with his mom so he knew this wasn't just a coincidence.
Five years later, once he started working in SHMRG's engineering department – had they so quickly forgotten he was Amanda Hackett's son? – he heard the occasional rumors about someone named Pansy Grunwald, a secretary there. They always began with “some kind of weird, unfortunate accident” in her office, before ending with “or that's how it looked.” It was obvious no one was really ever satisfied it was “an accident,” but she was dead and that was that. Is that what happened to his mother only they never found the body?
So he'd gotten a job at SHMRG thinking he could hack into their files, find an e-mail from someone ordering something be done about her, a response confirming it had been “taken care of.” Then Pidgeon had said something to him, only a vague reference to her, how they'd been “on to something – something big.” And then the next day Stu was fired in disgrace, “not a team player,” one caught selling software to the Russians. Days later, Stu turns up dead, committed suicide – “or that's how it looked.”
So now he could do something to this software program of Purdue's, adding something no one would be able to notice. Maybe insert a bit from a Beatles tune into every song it wrote? It would have to be so obvious, copyright infringement lawsuits would be inevitable. Something embarrassing absorbed into Clara's creative DNA, something...
If he allows her to learn “fear” and “anger,” she could in time become sufficiently unstable, like many humans pushed to the breaking point, and then lash out at the person running the software. “No,” he thought, typing along, creating the code that would turn a machine into an emotional time-bomb, “it must develop quickly.” He decided to add a second Easter egg, one that would also teach her about two additional emotions, “hate” and “revenge.” Purdue had programmed only the best in people; Kenny would add the worst.
He knows he's smarter than any of the engineers here and he knows they'll be too busy even to notice it. “Especially if they're hurrying to market this by Darke's ridiculously unrealistic Christmas deadline!” He'll bury it inside some strings of commands so deeply it's practically invisible. “They won't have time to check everything out!”
Besides, he knew at the demonstration level it wouldn't affect the product's performance, and it might take weeks, maybe even months until the first computer they've sold would figure out how to kill someone. It's not like this is the first time Horace Toccata's sold defective products: it depends how fast this machine can learn.
But what if the demo explodes, killing an engineer even before its unveiled? “Not my circus,” Kenny thought, “not my monkey.” Either way, the Clara Software becomes a disaster. “Even just delaying the release...!”
What if someone finds it before Clara explodes, lashing out in a rage, before she learns to become much more human, before he can introduce into the world software that creates art and kills? He'd be curious to see how long it would take for a computer to figure out the details of committing murder. And how exactly would a computer kill someone: explode literally; become enraged and, what – electrocute someone; or “gaslight” them into insanity? Would it be able to kill them without, in the process, destroying itself?
The worst it could do is delay the prototype, setting production behind schedule which postpones the release date until after Christmas and if nothing else most likely result in considerable loss of projected income. But no, Kenny's dream is to create a real scandal with a real and continuously mounting death-count SHMRG has to explain.
Before they can market it, they must reset everything to a series of default commands including a library of suggested models which the purchaser and would-be songwriter would select and install (“things I like”). And if anyone does discover what he's done, wouldn't they assume it was all some perverse part of Purdue's original program? They couldn't blame it on him, could they, because he'd have nothing to do with the program's workings, how it's designed. “Hey,” he could say honestly, “I was just told to download the program.”
But if some sharp-eyed engineer, in the process of replacing Purdue's original parameters, would possibly notice any additional codes he'd added – he would have to keep his inserted codes well clear of those folders – Kenny'd know right where it was and be able to fix it, save the project, and become “Hero of the Lab.”
The trick was to disguise them so no “sharp-eyed engineer” (if one existed) would discover a set of latent operational commands, only activated after the purchaser accepts the license agreement, setting everything in motion.
Meanwhile, they must be added to Purdue's program before he steals it so it looks like part of the original package. What music would he upload into Clara's listening library to augment his mock-emotions?
“Cherubini's Medea should do the trick: killing her rival out of jealousy, then her children to spite their father. Lovely story...”
Surprisingly, we realized, just as her musical solutions were suddenly becoming more natural, Clara's “vocal delivery” also was becoming less robotic, not just in the grouping of words but how longer phrases were connected; and though her vocabulary was still fairly basic, limited to music and pleasantries, it felt like talking to an actual person. Amanda had given us more than Clara repeating instructions but engaging in what was essentially conversation or more like an interview: for instance, Clara mentioned she had an extensive music library to listen to. I found myself more interested in her compositional voice than her speaking voice, especially if she were “inspired” to write them. They sounded far more advanced than whatever Purdue programmed her to compose beforehand. So few composers have successfully found what makes them sound recognizably like themselves. Will Clara successfully evolve her own “unique” style?
Amanda explained Purdue's original idea was to program Clara with set guide-lines comparable to his own stylistic choices, his musical sound, but of course one could re-program it to suit another, completely different operator. That way, given other suggestions, the software – Clara – could produce works in entirely different styles, all depending on how she's programmed. For the software to learn that, making a sudden style-shift on its own, could be extremely exciting – or a major concern. How does one explain a machine that learns and creates through “God-given” inspiration?
“Easter eggs? Did I hear Clara say she enjoys 'reading the Easter eggs'?” That sounded a bit out of left field.
“Yes – they're little bits of data inserted into the code, like personal cookies.” Amanda said it would be a way the Professor could prove the code was his if somebody ever stole the software. There would be words or dates that only he would know and any thief wouldn't be able to explain their meaning. “Several he said were inspired by my grandmother – and nobody'd ever guess that.”
Sweet or not, we had work to do, a professor to find and quite possibly rescue, and time was rapidly evaporating. Cameron decided it was a good time to make a run for supplies. Martin and Dorothy would return the mysterious wheelbarrow to where they'd seen it. And I would try sorting out Clara's cypher.
When I asked Clara about her secret code, the hidden message she might have inserted into these newest pieces of hers, she said they were basically her own version of Dr Purdue's Easter eggs. But, speaking softly, she wouldn't reveal anything more. So I asked Amanda why Tom would use her grandmother in his cookies.
“Did you know the Professor when he had a girlfriend who wanted to be a ballet dancer? That was my grandmother!”
“Odile? You mean your grandmother was Violetta Diehl? And Tom knew about this?”
“Not at first,” she explained, since it had been a while before she probably would have mentioned her grandmother at all, much less told him how Nana had always dreamed of becoming a dancer. Here he's writing a ballet, thinking about this girlfriend who was a dancer, and then that reminded Amanda of her grandmother.
The coincidence, this connection, so few degrees of separation, must have astounded him, considering Tom was never a fan of coincidence, immediately dismissing everything as an overly romanticized fantasy, this granddaughter he'd never had. Did Tom regard her that way, part of some “what-if” scenario I knew he still harbored even after he'd married Susan? Knowing Tom, I was sure he'd also realize, had he married Odile instead, this child, then, would never have been born. Without his pain and dreams of changing the past, she would not exist.
“You can't mean that, wishing she'd never existed.” It was a familiar voice.
“Wait a minute,” I thought, “that's my voice!” I stood along a path in the woods, looking out across a lake. It came from over to my right, where two young men sat on a boulder on a brilliant, sunny summer day. The other man paused and shook his head, then, changing the subject, assumed the water was too cold to go swimming.
“Just as well,” I heard myself saying, “I didn't bring my swim trunks.”
There was an impression of several distant voices to my left, further away, some laughing, but I couldn't hear them clearly. There were others that afternoon, hiking in the forests not far from Faber. It was a place lots of families might go on a Sunday outing, not some place you'd get away with skinny-dipping.
The previous summer, we'd come here alone, not long after Odile had graduated, not long after she'd broken up with Tom and decided to run off to New York with Lewis Albrecht trailing her. Tom joked about dashing into the lake to drown, wondering “was that too much like Swan Lake – or was it Giselle?”
This time we'd planned a picnic with some friends – including Martin and Dorothy – celebrating our last summer together as graduate students. Next spring, we'll all take our qualifying exams, then go our separate ways.
I remember thinking he was over Odile by then but here he was, as gloomy as he'd been a year ago, so quiet in the car the rest of us thought he'd fallen asleep. Then, sitting here on our “Think Rock,” he said there'd been a letter from Albrecht about Odile breaking up with him.
“Actually,” Tom was telling me, “she'd run off with someone else, once again, how it happened over the Memorial Day weekend. Some dancer from Puerto Rico named Rotabartillo – she'd already been cheating on him...”
Tom explained between long silences how Albrecht said she was like Carmen and he'd been imagining himself as her Don José – “and you know how well that turned out” – then tried not to sob. I stood there on the path watching this scene with Tom unfold again, still not knowing what to do or say.
They'd been together a few months, Tom and Violetta (or as our friends called her, Odile), inseparable when not in class, and they'd gone to this party given by one of her closest friends, where most of the others were undergraduates and almost all of them were theater majors who knew Odile but not Tom. It wasn't unusual since she was a senior and technically a theater major and these were the friends she worked with, but she never bothered to introduce Tom beyond telling anyone he's a musician. Initially, Tom was amused by the anonymity, beyond everyone knowing they'd been dating; but soon it was like he was invisible, that after a while even Odile acted like he wasn't there beside her. She complained how these musicians she'd met were such a bunch of poseurs, and someone else would shriek, “especially those composeurs!”
It wasn't the first time he'd felt like an outsider, a snob surrounded by low-lifes, that he was better than this, but it surprised him how much she was enjoying making fun of him. At first he dismissed this as her merely playing a role, a temptress, and he imagined her as Kundry – then Carmen. He saw her for the first time as being someone who didn't care, who was flirtatious, insincere and above all cruel. She'd laughed at him when he wanted to leave and slapped his face.
Not long after they'd met, Tom began composing a ballet for her, or one in which she'd have the central role. Since it was a surprise for her graduation, he didn't tell me much. I knew, though, following that party, he'd decided to change the final scene which originally was to be a happy ending. Now, she would have this magnificent but terribly difficult death scene, something that would technically be beyond her, at this point. It wasn't hard to see it was his way of returning the cruelty.
Shortly after she'd left him, though it would be weeks before he'd tell me, he decided to abandon the ballet despite having already written over twenty minutes of music and it was almost finished. One night he sat up late, drinking, burning the manuscript page by page. I hoped maybe then he might feel better.
We didn't say much, sitting on that boulder, just looking out over the lake, quiet, thinking, wrapped in our own memories, being together as friends who didn't need to talk to understand each other. An outburst of laughter – another joy of friendship at another time – interrupted us, not necessarily spoiling the moment but refocusing it.
Sue Stenuto, Tom's girlfriend much of that past year, barged up the path, practically dragging Penelope Hart along in her wake. It amused me, watching this, considering Tom and Sue would eventually get married.
“We were wondering where 'Gloomy Gus' had gotten to – found them,” Sue shouted, calling back over her shoulder to the others. We both seemed embarrassed, as if we'd been caught doing something we shouldn't.
Penelope was saying the rest of them were packing up, ready to leave. “Looks like storm clouds coming from the east...”
“Oh, Dr Kerr,” someone else was saying, “I didn't know you were here.” It was Sarah Bond, the IMP agent I'd met at Phlaumix Court, mentioning some storm or a visit from the police. The images of pine trees, boulder, lake, and laughter dissolved in an instant and I was again in Tom Purdue's basement.
“You two know each other,” Amanda said, laughing. “How small the world is!” She only briefly looked up from the computer.
“Since you're here...” – Bond handed me some photographs – “do you recognize these people?”
= = = = = = =
to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Wednesday, October 24th]
The usual disclaimer: In Search of Tom Purdue is, if you haven't figured it out, a work of fiction and as such all the characters (especially their names) and incidents in its story are more or less the product of the author's so-called imagination, sometimes inspired by elements of parody. While many locations may be real (or real-ish), they are not always "realistically used” and are intended solely to be fictional. Any similarity between people and places, living or dead, real or otherwise, is entirely coincidental.
©2018 by Richard Alan Strawser for Thoughts on a Train.