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Chapter 48

Argus Consulting

Washington D.C.

Ordinarily Russell clocked out at five, unless he was immersed in a particular problem, but he and Elisabeth were both instructed to stay at the office the day of the raid on Ugransky Air Force Base.

When the time of the operation came and went without either Jorgenson or Candito sending them notice that the item was in the company’s custody Russell only wished he had been surprised. So much had been wrong with the plan that it was hardly worth bothering with a guess about what why there wasn’t any news yet.

The team could have been wiped out on the ground or driven off, or it could have been shot down after takeoff, or forced to land inside Russia due to damage the aircraft took during their attack, and probably captured. Any number of things was not just plausible, but likely, as a result of the rushed planning and limited force at their disposal.

As the hours continued to wear on Russell wondered if his boss wasn’t in denial about how badly things had gone, but then after two in the afternoon he got a call. It was from Jorgenson, not his secretary, and he didn’t even bother to identify himself.

“The object has been retrieved,” he said simply.

Russell just nodded in response. His part in this was done for now; Jorgenson had already informed him that the examination of the item itself would not be conducted in-house, and anyway, it had to get to the States first. So Russell went home and caught a few hours’ sleep, then had a quick shower before returning to the office.

The next few days passed quietly, without any updates, and Russell took it on himself to ask Jorgenson what had turned up. He was taciturn enough to make Russell suspect they’d got nothing but a lump of metal for all their troubles, and Russell said so.

“We haven’t proven that,” Jorgenson said, rising to that piece of bait. “It may well be that the device is simply inert for now. But I had my suspicions, and still have them.”

“And our bosses?”

“They know the score.”

“And so far it has us running in the red. At this rate, we’re probably going to keep doing so indefinitely. They can’t be happy about that.”

“Let’s just say they’re not too preoccupied with the quarterly earnings report.”

“What are they preoccupied with, then?”

Jorgenson looked away from the ellipton for the first time during this exchange. “Are you sure you want to ask me this?”

Russell thought about that. “No.”

“I’ll tell you anyway, just so this doesn’t keep coming up.”

Jorgenson told Russell a story about a man he met in Dayton, Ohio, fifteen years earlier. Just turned up in a coffee shop where he was having a snack.

The man talked about revolutionary technology possibilities and the life cycles of civilizations, and how those arcs were looking like they might cross disastrously in the coming decades. But also about the incredibly bright and wonderful things that might happen if they navigated those menacing rocks and shoals.

Jorgenson admitted that he wasn’t very impressed with the man at first. Yes, he’d gone from flying turboprop-driven fighters in the war to riding in a Concorde just the year before. He’d watched nuclear energy and space rockets leap out of Buck Rogers comic strips and into the headlines.

But he’d also seen the things that hadn’t happened, the projects launched with high hopes and great fanfare that never amounted to a damn thing. Where were the fusion reactors, the flying cars, the cure for the common cold (let alone cancer)? Besides, in his line of work, he had constantly been reminded of how primitive human technology remained, how very, very far it was from what other cultures had achieved in this universe.

And while Jorgenson wasn’t happy about seventies-era America, wasn’t happy about the anti-war movement and Black Power and the Back to the Earth talk, he didn’t truck with predictions of the Fall of Rome redux either.

It didn’t help that all this was coming from a bunch of guys he’d never heard of who talked like they were going to sort it all out themselves, and on making their first impression just showed him they had a fetish for cloak and dagger shenanigans.

But “Mr. Stillson” surprised him, with word-pictures of artificial intelligences endlessly bootstrapping their way to godhood, and how the trend lines pointed in these directions. (Look at the dizzying speed with which computers grow more powerful! And guess what? Those guys at Bletchley Park saw all this coming. Irving John Good says –) Suddenly what he was saying seemed surprisingly logical, and in spite of himself, Jorgenson was intrigued.

“That was why you left when you did,” Russell said. “You weren’t retiring, you just changed jobs.”

“Same as you did.”

“And so that’s what you’ve been doing ever since?”

“Yeah. They figured someone who’d dealt with artifacts from much more advanced civilizations might have some insight into this trajectory.”

The silence hung heavily in the room for a full minute. “Do you really believe all this?” Russell asked Jorgenson at the end of it.

“The kinds of things we were talking about then are standard pop science stuff now, like in these books by Hans Moravec and Ray Kurzweil. Granted, that doesn’t prove anything, but it may mean something that a lot of people are thinking along these lines.”

Russell knew and liked computers, but they didn’t have the kind of hold on the imagination that, for instance, airframes and jet engines had had on his back when he’d been an engineering student. In aerospace he’d dealt with big, physical things that moved really fast, while a computer just sat there, adding and subtracting.

Maybe the computer geeks had intuited something of what Jorgenson was talking about.

“And so . . . what do you think about it?”

“I think we’re living in a world where the growth of our civilization’s complexity is fast outpacing our resources for sustaining it, our intellectual resources included,” Jorgenson said. “You see how incredibly specialized research has become. Morons keep saying that Albert Einstein invented the atomic bomb, but he didn’t, nor could he have. A century earlier a barely literate amateur could invent something that would change the world, but it took most of the leading lights of physics, gathered from all over the world, backed by a small percentage of a superpower’s Gross Domestic Product, to produce a little bit of enriched uranium and make it go critical.

“It’s only gone further since then. Any particular piece of cutting-edge work you can name, there’s maybe eight or ten people in the whole world who actually understand it. How long before that figure drops down to zero?

“Meanwhile, high schools are graduating illiterates. They can’t even read the warning label on a box of over-the-counter medication, or fill out a simple job application, or program their VCR. You think they can properly function in the world we have now? What about ten years from now, when we’ve moved that much further along this path? Twenty?

“It’s not going to get better, just worse as the gap between where they need to be and where they are keeps getting wider. And if we don’t have smarter-than-human intelligence picking up the slack in a big way, and soon, we’re going to be looking at one hell of a hard crash.”

Russell didn’t have anything with which to counter that claim. Instead he found himself thinking of Jorgenson’s talk about Argus’s ultimate mission, and especially his talk of immortality. Contrary to the cliché, Russell had never thought he was immortal, even as a very young man. He’d always known that life was fragile, and that knowledge had kept him from being reckless – or even reckless enough, he supposed now. But the idea of living forever hadn’t had much purchase on his imagination then.

That changed as he got older, and especially as the losses and disappointments piled up. The death of his father, his divorce, the realization that his life wasn’t going to be what he hoped for . . . it all hit him within the space of a year and a half and then he found himself unable to stop thinking about what it would be like to have it all to do over again. And do it over better, do it over right, seizing every opportunity he’d passed on, and those he’d never been given the chance to pass on, enjoying all the things that had been out of his reach.

Russell pictured Jorgenson as he would have been while listening to Stillson’s pitch, middle-aged, twice-divorced, the Agency in which he’d spent almost all of his adult life under siege. Did it all come down to that? He didn’t know. But he expected to live long enough to find out if this was all just a crazy dream.

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