READ The Power Trip


J. Cafesin

A sharp jolt wakes me. I open my eyes, my heart beating hard and fast, but I stay in bed while the room shakes, the walls creak and groan. Bolting in only my boxers to huddle in the bedroom threshold seems a bit extreme. The rash of quakes that began a decade ago don’t register much beyond 3.5. Or haven’t yet. The house settles as the moving earth quiets, along with my racing heart.

I can hear her in the kitchen, the fridge opening and closing, the crinkle of acrylate as she pulls bread from the package. She’s making my lunch, like she has every school day for the past 11 yrs. I don’t have the heart to go tell her I don’t need it, and won’t eat it on my first day at college.

I get up, and dress in jeans and a black t-shirt, clip the six flexlegs of my old iBand around my wrist trying to look California casual. I examine myself in the mirror as I slip on my rimless optiglasses. Not smartglasses, like most everyone has now. I tell myself I don’t care. My Univiz5’s are fine for vision correction, and I don’t need the distraction of one more connected device. My hair is unruly, even though I had it cut short just weeks ago. My thin build is gangly. I straighten, throw back my shoulders, but I still look lame, like a geek trying to look cool. I sigh, grab my laplet, fold it shut and slip it in my backpack.

Muted sunlight through the kitchen window lights up my mom standing at the counter folding the top of the sourdough roll over the pile of sliced turkey. “Hey, baby.” She manages a smile. “You feel it? 3.1 this morning.” She’s referring to the earthquake.

Yeah. Woke me up, which is good since I fell back asleep after I shut off my alarm. Hard to get to sleep last night, thinking about today.”

You’ll be fine, I’m absolutely sure of it. Stanford is the real deal, with kids just like you. You won’t be the odd one out anymore. You’ll find your niche there. Guaranteed,” she says. “I’m so proud of you, Ian.” She moves to hug me.

I let her, but I feel weird about it. I’m not a little kid anymore, even though in her embrace I feel safe, and a bit less nervous. “Thanks, mom,” I practically whisper as I return her hug, then pull back and notice the pile of pancakes on the plate, along with the glass of orange juice, and bowl of sliced strawberries on the table. “What is all this? And why haven’t you left for work already?”

Just thought it’d be nice for you to start off with a good breakfast on this auspicious day. I told Nelson I’d be in a little late. Not every day a mom sends her 16 year old off to college.” She stands there beaming at me, her hazel eyes behind her ancient optiglasses twinkling with rare lightness. Good thing the dynamic lenses adjust to changing vision.

The kitchen lights blink, then go out and stay off, as does every other appliance in the house. The perpetual electronic hum goes silent.

Damn it.” Mom’s lightness vanishes with the power as I sit to eat. “I’m absolutely sure we’re current with PGE,” she says, pressing a sequence on her smartband. A holopage of a power bill comes up between us, but even reading the translucent image backwards I can see it’s been paid in full.

ALERT. ALERT!” in white letters scroll over a red banner in the middle of the PGE page. “Due to the power demand exceeding supply, PGE has implemented a load shedding Stage 1 ROLLING BLACKOUT for the MILLBREA and BURLINGAME areas until NOON today. ALERT! ALERT!…”.

This is absurd,” my mom says with disdain as she hastily swipes her smartband. The holopage disappears. “I’m telling you, there is no reason for these blackouts, other than limiting supply to increase rates, and make a few top-tier execs even richer.” She personifies efficiency as she rants, her petite frame moving fluidly from one end of the kitchen to the other gathering the components of my lunch—a small bag of chips from the cupboard, a couple of her homemade brownies, then puts them, along with the sandwich, in a casein bag.

I dutifully eat my breakfast, even though I don’t feel particularly hungry. “Thanks for breakfast, mom. These are fantastic.” It’s the truth. My mom is a great cook, a trained pastry chef, in fact, though she never managed to launch her catering startup, and her cookbook didn’t really sell very well either. She’s been an IT Administrator at TRON Robotics for as long as I can remember. And since my dad checked out, she’s always had some sort of night job working from home, mostly online sales to make ends meet, which is why she’s so tired all the time.

I really do have to go now, baby. It’s already past 8:00, and without signals, traffic’s gonna be a mess,” she says as she gathers her long auburn hair into a ponytail and fastens it high up in a skrunchy yellow hair tie. She looks so young with her hair up like that, like she’s just barely out of her teens, though she’s 42 now. “Don’t forget to take your lunch. I put $20 in your Mobi, just in case. And remember you’re on BART until the California station, and then the S-Line tram—”

I got it, mom. I don’t need micromanaging. Go to work. I’m good.”

She stares at me, assessing if she believes me or not, then comes over and kisses the top of my head. “Have a wonderful first day, Rocket.” She flashes me a smile at the nickname she gave me when I was five, though she’d long since dropped the word Science. “And don’t take crap from anyone.” Her expression softens to her tender mom look. “I love you, Ian. And I’m so very proud.”

You’ve said.” I smile at her frown. “I love you too, mom. And thanks for breakfast, and lunch.”

My pleasure, sweetie. See ya tonight. Can’t wait to hear about your first day.” And she’s out the front door. She’ll likely have to sit in gridlock traffic, at least through the blackout areas for the next hour or more, which she’d have missed had she left her normal time this morning instead of attending to me. This makes me feel even more guilty as I throw away the rest of breakfast, and the sack lunch into the trashasher. I’m glad the appliance will turn it to dust so she’ll never know I flamed her gracious efforts.

I scroll through Chatter on my iBand as I walk to the BART station. The earthquake is trending because it opened a sink hole which took out several beach front homes. Residents of Pacifica are screaming for Chervon and PGE to stop offshore fracking.

A flash of white light momentarily blinds me, followed by a piercing sting, like from a bee, that bores into the top of my head. I take out my earbuds and shake my head violently to get it off me.

Ian Michael Wheaton,” the synthetic voice booms. Flashing blue and red lights of the police drone are suddenly a foot above and two feet in front of me. “Mills High School has reported you as a minor truant, in violation of California Education Code, 601.2. You are to report immediately to your school administration office, or have a parent or guardian contact the San Mateo Unified School District to clarify the reason for your absence this morning.”

Shit,” I whisper, hoping it didn’t hear me. I’ve never been stopped before, but know enough not to run away. “I am not truant. I graduated Mills last June. They obviously haven’t updated their records for the new school year yet. Please check the SMUSD records for my status.” I sigh, shake my head only slightly. I suppose I should feel more afraid, but it’s not like they’re arbitrarily shooting people anymore.

Please stand by,” the drone announces. I stand in the hazy daylight feeling like an idiot as cars slow to ogle me. The few others walking give me a wide birth, some crossing the street to avoid their faces being captured on the drone’s camera, or their eyes scanned like mine were. Besides knowing most everything about me, any exaggerated movement will trigger the drone to unleash a strong enough shock to incapacitate me until real police arrive. The electric bee sting earlier was merely to get my attention, since most everyone is plugged in these days. “You are clear to proceed, Ian Wheaton,” the drone says in the same asexual, mechanical tone.

Thank you,” I say, but I feel like flipping it off, since it never apologized for stopping me. It takes off in a shot, probably in pursuit of annoying someone else.

I make it to Stanford without getting stopped again. Figured I’d be the youngest in all my classes, and it turns out I’m probably right, though it’s hard to tell, especially with me. I’m tall for my age, and have a bit of facial hair already, hinting at a mustache and beard. I choose not to shave to exaggerate my years, so I doubt anyone marks me for a kid.

Talk to a guy named Vijay in both my Math41 and CSAI class. Brown skin, brown, short cropped hair, and dark eyes behind last year’s Lunar4 smartglasses. We walk over to Bytes cafe together at break, where I follow his lead and ironically buy a turkey sandwich on sourdough with the $20 credit my mom gave me this morning. We talk about the projects we’re developing, like most every other Stanford student hoping to create the next big thing.

It isn’t totally working yet,” Vijay admits, in a thick Indian accent as we sit at the last available table outside. “But it is learning. I hacked into InstaPins and I’m getting a ton of data from their feeds. My ‘Therapist,’” he grins, “that’s what I call it, can now detect mood changes in real time from user updates.”

Cool. So, what are you hoping to do with your Therapist?”

Sell it to advertisers, of course. Depressed? Buy our energy drink and feel better! Feeling empty? You like shopping? Have we got a sale for you!” He flashes a goofy smile. “People buy into all kinds of crap if you can get behind what they feel, then play on their fears, promise to fulfill their desires, hopes and dreams.”

Harsh, dude.” I can’t help shaking my head. “Be even better if instead of just predicting what people want, you come up with a way of getting them to actually do what you want. Guarantee your advertisers that the Therapist can get some arbitrarily large set of users to buy, try, or even buy into whatever you tell them.” I’m teasing, irked that Vijay, like so many of my contemporaries, is developing advanced technology to sell more crap.

Vijay laughs. “Right. Like mind control. Good luck with that.” His eyes drift to an attractive redhead walking towards us, totally absorbed in dialoging with someone through her smartglasses.

I’m kinda working on something similar to what you’re doing, I mean with AI,” I say. “I call it Drew, after Andrew Martin, the positronic robot in the old movie Bicentennial Man.”

You’re building an RPA?”

No. I’m coding a biological neural network that simulates brain activity.” I pause, to let that sink in as the redhead passes without even glancing our way.

Like the Human Brain Project?”

Yeah, sort of. The Euro Consortium is focused on modeling an adult brain. Drew is learning from first principal, growing like a child’s brain does. I figure, if we can watch the synaptic development from infancy forward, it’ll teach us how the brain works, what makes us tick.”

So what do ya want to do with Drew once it’s up and running?” Vijay is still angling for ways of making my software profitable.

Well, once it’s fully functioning, it’ll show us what neural connections lead to destructive thought patterns, from addiction to depression. Then we can reprogram genetically flawed or environmentally damaged paths of connectivity.” I savor the last bite of my sandwich.

You mean like fix crazy people?” Vijay gets up to throw his trash away. I follow his lead.

Kinda.” Vijay’s characterization that dysfunctional behavior rendered one ‘crazy,’ though typical, is still annoying. “Once Drew finds the synaptic patterns that result in a mental disorder, we’ll be able to go in there and reroute, or recreate healthier pathways.”

Vijay’s looks at me, and his thick brows narrow, like he’s trying to figure me out. “Better watch out that Drew doesn’t start fixing brains at the whim of its users, on people who don’t need synaptic rewiring. Noble as what you’re trying to do sounds, even with the best intentions, that kinda power sounds corruptible to me,” he says before we part ways.

Unlike playing with people’s emotions to get them to buy shit they probably don’t need, I thought to say of his Therapist, but only after I’m in my CS221 class.

Chapter 2

Coming soon…

Please contact J. Cafesin for the complete manuscript of The Power

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