The delta counter decremented to zero and Zachary Emilio Fuentes swore in frustration. He slapped the side of the cryo-cooled cabinet and stalked away to pace in the open end of the lab.
Lydia Marchand raised an eyebrow, but that was the extent of her acknowledgement concerning Zef’s behavior. It had become far too common of late. Instead, she wrote a dispassionate note in the project log and made the pronouncement out loud. “Time 2048, day 4 of iteration F761. Population stagnation achieved. Change in number of unique or new elements has been marginal with a declining population growth and low pressure on system boundaries. The little buggers are all worn out. What do you want to do, boss? Give ‘em more time?”
Zef scoffed and he glared at her. “More time? Hell no. I can’t believe I wasted this much time. Suspend the bots, sift through the digital debris to see if there’s anything we can use – not that I think we’ll find crap all – and wipe the whole processor array. I want genesis ready to go again by morning for the next iteration. I’m going to tweak some of the boundary conditions and see if we can recover anything from these runs.”
Lydia stood from her workstation and walked over to him. She stopped his pacing by standing directly in his path, the rock upon which his angry wave broke. She caught his gaze. “Or, Zef, we could not do that. It’s before nine. I’m sure if I call over, I can get the hospital to extend visiting hours. Go there.”
He gave her a none-too-friendly smile. “Lydia, I already have a mother to guilt trip me. I don’t need a second one.”
She frowned and her eyes held nothing but pity. “You may not need two moms to harangue you, but you’re about to be down to zero dads. You can’t turn back the clock on that one if you have regrets later.”
“The only regret I have is telling you he was there in the first place. Suspend the software bots. Sift for unique elements. Prep the quantum array for a fresh population. I’ll have the calculations for the new initial and boundary conditions by the time you’re done. Do it fast enough and you may even get to go home before we press ‘Go’ on the next iteration.”
Zef stalked out without waiting for an acknowledgement. He left the lab and almost crashed into Dr. Orrin Usher, the founder of Iterative Innovation Incorporated, Zef’s boss, and the head researcher emeritus. The jovial man had been about to enter the lab, but stepped back from the near-collision with alacrity. He gripped Zef’s shoulders to steady them both and smiled upon his protégé.
“My dear Zachary, you seem in a rush. Headed off campus? Important things?”
“No, just headed back to my office.” Zef narrowed his eyes in suspicion. “Why? What has Lydia told you?”
“Told me? Well, nothing that I’m aware of. No confidences betrayed. I merely didn’t want to interrupt if you had something in particular to do. But, if you have the time . . . ?”
Zef sighed in relief. “No, Dr. Usher, I’ve got nothing going on at the moment. We just killed iteration F761. Lydia’s going through the bones for anything worth carrying over into the next iteration and we’ll be back up and running by morning with 762.”
Usher gestured grandly with one arm and they proceeded down III’s corridor, toward the other labs and away from Zef’s office. While they proceeded at the old man’s slow, measured pace, Usher spoke. “761? That’s more than twice the number of population iterations as the next most advanced lab. You are a tireless machine, Zachary, but a wondrous one. You have discovered some amazing things, sifting through the ruins of the digital populations you’ve engineered. A digital archeologist no less astounding than Indiana Jones! Still, this latest simulation was less than a week old. And to go stagnant already? It’s troubling. Very troubling.”
Iterative Innovation Incorporated took one of the most promising possibilities of the dot-com renaissance in the second decade of the 21st century – crowdsourcing – and coupled it with the emerging technology of quantum computing and the old dream of artificial intelligence. Looking to innovate? Either do it the old way and wait for necessity, opportunity, or random luck to produce that unpredictable something that would spawn new ways of thinking and new lines of products – or do it their way and build a vast population of fuzzy logic, semi-intelligent software agents “living” uncontrolled and undirected on a network of supercooled quantum processing elements.
Give the population a virtual environment with stresses, boundaries, and limited resources, set up rules for risk, reward, and growth, sprinkle in a few starter concepts, code, or data to build from, and just let them go. The bot population would grow, develop, and react to the stresses inherent in its environment and simulate in days what would take a population of humans decades or centuries to accomplish. Keep it going until it either destroys itself or grows stagnant, producing nothing further new or of note – all of which could be determined mathematically through the delta counter – then end the simulation and go through the environment to see what they left behind. Gather the best bits and feed it back into the initial conditions for the next iteration of the bot populace and see what fell out again, and again, and again: iterative innovation. III had produced new algorithms, code, and efficient software that had never even been imagined before. But they had also discovered concatenations of words, hues, symbols, and tone that had led to new songs, poetry, prose, and works that had struck the art community as profoundly as Pollock, Angelou, or West.
And Zef had been their shining star, until his populations began stagnating prematurely.
Zef shrugged. “I’ll get back on track, sir. I’m not sure why we’ve hit a wall, but I’ll produce quality again, even if I have to throw out the last 500 runs and start from scratch.”
Dr. Usher looked on Zef with fatherly pride and concern – not that Zef himself would recognize such a foreign expression. He clapped the younger scientist upon the shoulder and said, “No worries, Zachary. And that may not be necessary. That’s why I grabbed you. Perhaps all you might need is a new perspective.”
They entered another lab, functionally identical to Zef and Lydia’s, though the layout differed in random and personal ways. The supercooled quantum processor array dominated the center of the space rather than being placed against one wall like Zef had it. Same pair of workstations, though, and where Zef maintained a significant open space in which to pace, this lab’s periphery was filled with dry-erase boards charting growth rates, population evolution, and a dozen other parameters. A woman in a pink Oxford shirt and well-worn jeans stood up when they entered. She strode forward, hand extended. Zef took it and shook quickly with only a trace of bewilderment.
Usher beamed with anticipation. “I wish I could mark this day. Great things are sure to come! Dr. Diane Olsen, this is Dr. Zachary Fuentes. Zachary, Diane. Oh! Should I perhaps sing a little ditty about Zach and Diane?”
Zef looked confused and Dr. Olsen just shook her head, saying, “Dr. U, don’t quit your day job. You’ll never make the stand-up circuit with a repertoire of bad/dad-jokes.” She turned to focus on Zef. “Dr. Fuentes, it’s an honor to make your acquaintance. Your work is an inspiration.”
Zef smiled. “Thank you. I apologize and don’t mean to come off as a selfish prick, but you have me at a disadvantage. I’m not familiar with your work, Dr. Olsen.”
She waved it off. “A selfish prick at a place literally named ‘I – I – I’? Never crossed my mind. And, by all means, I’m just Diane.” She smiled in seemingly good humor.
If Zef remained confused as to why he was there, their meeting was convivial enough to make him not worry about his lack of understanding. “Please, call me Zef. Our employer here is the only one who ever uses my actual name.”
Dr. Usher took that as his cue and addressed the pair. “I wanted you to meet because I think you both have a problem, and sometimes two problems lead to a single solution. Zachary, who has been our best innovator, has had issue of late with premature population stagnation. Diane, who is new here, has found a charming method of reinvigorating a bot populace after stagnation, but her methods are resource intensive and have yet to yield the grand leaps of innovation your iterations have produced. Sharing notes might be fruitful, yes? I’ll leave you to it!”
Usher left them without further preamble, as was his way. They stared at each other awkwardly, two shy academics at a cotillion of discovery, until Diane took the initiative and gestured to the first of her many whiteboards. She went through her research approach, whiteboard by whiteboard, using abstruse mathematical language that would have been impenetrable to any outside observer. Zef followed along just fine, however, going from interested, to excited, to deeply unsettled – though he had no idea why.
Three quarters of the way around the lab, Zef stopped her in mid-acronym. He approached the quiet bulk of her populations’ processor array as one might approach a bomb. “Let me see if I understand what you’re doing different here. Instead of setting up initial conditions, defining system boundaries, and altering rules of development for each generation of software bots, and –you know – iterating like it says in the company’s name, you’ve just been managing the same population of bots you started with . . . how long ago?”
Diane beamed proudly. “Three months. Technically, though, this is batch O002. I ended my first population of bots when they stagnated after two and a half weeks, and I sifted for unique elements to seed the next generation, just like they taught us. But it was so hard on me. I mean, these aren’t just software agents. They’re quantum mechanical software agents. There are a number of theories of consciousness that say our perception, free will, and sense of self is due to quantum mechanical processes in between neurons. And while the bots aren’t anywhere as complex as human minds, they react and change and live. They aren’t just software following programs. They’re in a sense alive. When I iterated that first batch, it felt like I was killing my own children. So I vowed to find a different way.”
Zef allowed his confusion to show on his face. “Despite them still going stagnant?”
She nodded. “Absolutely. This second batch went stagnant two weeks after initiation, but I had my plan in place by then. If they were my children, then I was their mom. Do Mom and Dad throw you out or kill you when you stop developing?”
Zef gave her a tight smile he was certain she would not understand. “I suppose it depends upon who your parents are.”
“Well, mine didn’t. Instead they gave me room to grow, and they guided me, encouraged me. They pointed out my mistakes without condemning me for them. They praised my good works and showed me the avenues I should pursue in future. So I did for my batch population what my folks did for me. I expanded their environment, and performed ‘in situ data weighting’. That’s what it’ll say in the publications, but really, its shepherding or simply good parenting. As a responsible ‘Mom’, I input negative reinforcement for those bot actions that were blind alleys or failed, and I input resource rewards for activity around the good, novel, or unique artifacts present in the system. And wouldn’t you know it, population stagnation reversed itself. They began to grow and develop again. Instead of clearing things out and starting fresh with the goods of the previous generation, I allowed the bots to recover and continue to grow their unique elements organically.”
Zef turned away from Diane and the processor array and tried to pace his frustration off, but there were too damned many whiteboards blocking his path. He barely refrained from knocking the tripod-mounted easels aside. He could not understand why, but all Diane’s talk of nurturing parents and re-invigorated progeny enraged him to a level of anger well beyond what his project frustrations should engender.
Hands clenched at his side, he stalked back to her. “But they stagnated again after that?”
Diane shrugged. “Of course, and – granted – much sooner than a fresh generation might have. I’ve been hitting a stagnation point every three to four days on average. But they’re also more focused after a refresh than a brand new iteration of the population would be. They ramp up to producing novel elements much faster, though they do peter out again sooner. I guess you can’t get something for nothing. What do you think? Could my parental style of nurturing help you past your stagnation hump?”
Zef wanted to hit something. His anger suffused him to such a degree that everything faded away except for Diane and her damned humming processor array, but he honestly had no idea why. Was it Diane and her off-kilter approach to iterative innovation, or was it his own failures?
Or was it something that lay in a direction he had no desire to proceed toward?
He stalked to her processor array and circled it like a panther zeroing in on its prey. Zef needed to do something, to say something before he lashed out physically as the only form of relief. “I don’t think I’m going to use your . . . in situ data weighting, Dr. Olsen. You see, it’s not iteration, its evolution. That’s why your innovation rate is so low while your resource cost is so high. You’ve staved off stagnation, but you aren’t clearing out the environment. Your ever-growing population is choked off by the debris of the past. If this was a forest, it would be one filled with old wood, dry grass, and kindling, only growing in fits and starts, ready to explode at the slightest spark.”
Zef carefully laid a hand on her processor. It hummed beneath his palm, hot and cold warring across his fingers. “Dr. Usher was wrong. Your methods can’t help me, but I can help you.”
Diane looked uneasy. “How is that?”
“You’re wrong, you see. The bots aren’t your children, they’re your creations. You aren’t their mother, you’re their god. And while you’ve been a benevolent, merciful god, your creations have grown fat and idle and complacent. What they need . . . is an angry god.”
With that, Zef reached over and flipped the safety power interrupt on the processor array. The machine suddenly went dark.
Diane cried out. “What the fuck!?” Quantum mechanical software functions were continuity dependent. Any interruption in power was apocalyptic and ended them in their last state. Her carefully shepherded population was dead.
She rushed up to the processor, shoved Zef out of the way, and fruitlessly flipped the power back on. While her composure melted down before him, Zef said, “Iterate. Sift the environment for nuggets to carry over, wipe it all, and refresh with new parameters.”
Diane turned on him, enraged. “Get the hell out of my lab, you bastard!”
Zef shrugged and backed toward the exit. His emotions were a tumult. He still did not understand what about her approach had set him off or what had made him lash out upon her project, but he was beginning to understand what was weighing on him so. “I’m leaving, but I’m no bastard. I had – have – parents. Yours taught you patience and nurturing and optimism. Mine taught me that whining and sentiment are worthless, that what matter are results and your legacy . . . tough love in its harshest sense.”
“Leave!!” she screamed.
He did, not knowing whether to feel guilty or pleased with himself for what he had done. Mostly, though, he felt empty, unfinished. Zef strode down the labyrinthine corridors of III with purpose. He passed by his and Lydia’s lab without a word for his associate as she toiled to set up for the next run. He also passed by his office and Dr. Usher’s as well without stopping. Zef left the building entirely, walked to his car, and drove away into the night.
Zef allowed the cool autumn wind spawned by his headlong flight to buffet him through the open driver’s window, blowing any and all coherent thoughts from his head. He knew if he allowed himself to dwell on where he was heading, he would find an excuse to turn around, to continue down the path of stagnation that had stymied him for months now.
Without realizing it, he had been doing the same thing Diane Olsen had been doing, but he had been doing it in his own life rather than some virtual simulation.
Iterate. Sift the debris to find anything of value. Let go of the past. Start fresh again.
Zef did not come back into his own head until he found himself in the hospital intensive care unit’s waiting room. Parking and walking into the hospital itself had proceeded as if by autopilot. There were a half-dozen people sitting in the room, in various states of slumber, fretting, despondency, or simply numb waiting. Only two of them were known to him, and they saw him immediately.
His father’s brother – Emilio, for whom he had been named – rose up and came to him, his immense strides eating the distance faster than Zef was prepared for. The great bear of a man caught him up in a breath-defying embrace, lifting him off his feet before standing him back up, stumbling. A wide grin split Emilio’s sun-darkened, pock-marked face and rattled off greetings and questions in rapid-fire Spanish that Zef could not follow in the least. Emilio had always been the odd man out in their family: earthy, warm, friendly, out-going. He worked with his hands, but worked just as fervently and passionately as his parents did in their colder, more isolated academic pursuits. Growing up, Emilio had been like the sun peeking through the dark clouds of Zef’s upbringing. That he was grinning and excited on this darkest of days was essentially Emilio.
Then the storm clouds rolled back in and blotted out the sun once more. Zef’s mother – Rebecca Constance Fuentes – appeared at his uncle’s side. “Zachary. I’m certain I’ve lost a wager in some other reality where I’m a betting woman. I would have given better than even odds you would not bother showing.”
Zef smiled tightly. “Mother. It’s comforting to see you’re not letting this situation rattle your . . . composure.”
“Lamentation and sentimentality are needless strains in such a trying time. You know this.”
She sniffed. “Regardless, visiting hours are over. You’ve done your duty by making an appearance. I appreciate it and respect the gesture, but it’s unnecessary for you to stay here. I wouldn’t myself, but . . . there are norms to be maintained.”
Annoyance heated Zef’s face. “I know it’s after hours, Mom, but I want to try seeing him anyways.”
Her face became a frozen mask, tensing such that no errant emotion might seep to the surface. “Your father has been comatose for over a week and the elements of his living will are in effect. He wouldn’t know you were there, even if you got in. His body is . . . s-shutting d-down, miho.” Her voice cracked at that last part, but she visibly forced herself back under control.
They stared at one another, neither giving way, but it was Uncle Emilio who broke the stalemate. “Joder! You wanna see your papa, boy? You gonna see your damned papa.”
Emilio rousted the ICU nurse and explained the situation in that passionate, overwhelmingly charming style of his. And before his mother could issue a word of protest over the impropriety of it all, Zef was ushered into the ward by himself.
His father lay still atop a bed in a private room there in the ICU. He had been hooked up to a number of beeping machines and monitors, but he breathed on his own, albeit raggedly. The stroke which had struck him down had come mid-lecture, and the right side of his mouth was open slightly, as if his last point was frozen there, just waiting to be delivered to eager, desperate collegians. The opposite side of his face appeared slack, dead already and dragging the rest of him with it.
The infinitely variable, inventive, and innovative quantum machine that was Rodrigo Esteban Vincente Fuentes was running down, approaching its ultimate stagnation point, and there was nothing Zef or anyone could do to stave off that end.
Zef approached with caution, as if he might earn yet another disappointed rebuke from the old man, the last in a lifelong string of such censures. Rodrigo Fuentes had been a driven man, utterly unsentimental, and unwilling to suffer any fool gladly – even if that fool was his only son. All that had mattered to him was success, recognition, and a legacy of respect from his peers, neighbors, and the whole world besides. Outwardly, he had cared about Zef’s development and accomplishments only as to how they reflected upon Rodrigo himself. Inwardly, Zef had never been certain.
Zef took a deep breath. Iterate. End the failing universe, pick out any diamonds from the dross, let everything else go, and restart fresh, taking with you only those things that you wanted to bring.
He carefully slid his right hand into his father’s. The old man’s skin was cool to the touch and papery dry. Zef squeezed his hand, licked suddenly dry lips, and talked to his father for the last time. “Dad, it’s me, Zef. Or Zachary, as y’all prefer. Been a long time, sir. I almost didn’t come. I almost didn’t see the necessity of it, though others did. But now I see that I’ve been carrying things with me that have been holding me back, causing me to stumble. I have to let those things go. I have to let you go, and carry forward only what will propel me further.
“There were a lot of times I hated you and Mom, growing up. I never seemed to measure up in your eyes. It got so bad that I turned from you both and – consciously at least – I rejected everything you taught me and how you wanted me to be. But I’ve realized now, I’ve just become you in a different skin. And I realize now I’m proud of who I am and what I’ve done.”
Tears stung Zef’s eyes and he blinked the stupid, sentimental, wonderful things away. “I wanted you to know, I’m going to carry forward the drive and focus you gifted me with . . . but when you go, I’m going to let go of a lot of things as well. I’m going to give up the callousness, the coldness, and the lack of contentment with who I am. I hope you’ll be okay with that. I hope you’ll be proud of me even if I go a bit more Emilio than Rodrigo. I’m your legacy now . . . and I think it’s a good legacy. Goodbye, Dad. I love you.”
His father, of course, said nothing, much as he had refrained during his whole life, but Zef felt him squeeze his hand back, ever so lightly. Then Rodrigo grew still, the monitors toned, and Zef’s mother and uncle appeared alongside a coterie of ICU staff. They worked without hurrying, but none of them minded.
Zef smiled – refreshed, lighter. The iteration had ended.
Commence the next iteration.
During the day, Thomas A. Mays is a career US Navy officer and all-around Serious Person. At night, when the moon is full, he taps out science fiction with a feverish madness that would likely get him cashiered if his Uncle Sam knew about it. He is the author of numerous short stories in online magazines, and he has published a well-received collection of his military sci-fi shorts, REMO. His debut military SF novel / space opera A Sword Into Darkness, is available on Amazon or your favorite online book retailer. Helpful links can be found on Tom’s blog, The Improbable Author, at: http://improbableauthor.com/. You can reach him on Twitter @improbablauthor.