“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
— Albert Einstein (1879–1955)
Bernard Stewart McCall was born inquisitive. He was also born on Tuesday.
Bernard's mother, Helen McCall, loved to tell the story of Bernard’s birth whenever she got the chance. It’d been on her weekly shopping day that Bernard had unexpectedly entered the world. Shopping day meant that it’d been pension day, which meant it’d been Tuesday:
“When the contractions started mid-morning, I was gettin’ ready to head out the door to buy the weekly groceries,” Helen would reminisce in her broad, working-class, Edinburgh accent. “Now I do tend to be a bit of a worrier, so I called up me' mum straight away for advice; she’s usually pretty good at pointin' me in the right direction.
“Mum lived just a few blocks away at the time, but when I called she was lettin' her Tuesday morning bridge party into the sittin' room. I could hear she was distracted, and not really listenin' to what I was sayin' like.
"Mum quickly reassured me and told me I was havin' Braxton Hicks contractions; I'd never heard of 'em. She went on to say that they're common in the weeks prior to givin' birth, and mercy why hadn’t the doctor warned me about 'em? As I wasn’t due for three more weeks, she said, I was goin' to be fine. She'd come by and check on me Saturday. Click. [Wide-eyed facial expression]. Saturday!!
“Well, it was only about forty minutes later that Bernard decided he'd been cooped up inside me quite long enough, and he wanted out. Just picture it. There I was, braced up against the deep freeze of the local Aldi store, head down and bum up, breathin' up a storm as the next wave of contractions grips me' belly; the pressure in me' nether regions growin' by the minute. Next thing I know I feel all this warm liquid runnin' down me' inner thighs like I’d wet me'self. Now I must be a bit simple or somethin', but I swear on the Holy Bible I didn't know a thing about waters breakin' at the time; I was mortified.
"But as the contraction reached its peak, though, the pain was too much for me; I completely blacked out. Next thing I know I’m sprawled out on the linoleum between the frozen peas and the fish fingers and a crowd’s gathered round me, all leanin' in and starin' like. Lucky for me one of me' neighbors, Madge Woolfrey—God bless her to the moon and back—was also in need of fish fingers this particular Tuesday mornin’. Madge saw the commotion, recognized me and me' predicament straight off, and came to the rescue. She shooed away all the busybodies, propped me up against the deep freeze, and signaled Brian, the sweet store manager, to call an ambulance.
"The next contraction was the one, though, and out he popped; quick as a flash it was. Madge just managed to catch wee Bernard’s head before it hit the lino. I made such a noise, you’ve no idea. The other shoppers weren't at all impressed.”
On the day of his birth, Bernard McCall weighed just 4lbs 7ozs (for the younger generation, that’s a touch over 2kgs). Bernard remained small his whole life, despite, as Helen loved to describe it, "me’ best efforts to fatten 'im up."
As the months and years went by it became ardently clear that Bernard was simply a small human, like a miniaturized version of who he might otherwise have been. When Helen expressed her concerns to the family doctor, Bernard was tested for various inherited genetic syndromes and metabolic disorders, but the results showed nothing awry.
Bernard was never quite small enough to be proclaimed by the medical profession to be a dwarf, but he was most definitely small enough to cause surprise and concern when people saw him next to other children his own age. When Helen would take Bernard to the local health clinic, his measurements for height and weight were consistently below the 5th percentile for his age. Reassuringly, however, Bernard’s head circumference was firmly above the 75th percentile, and Helen took great comfort in the fact. Unfortunately, the combination of his having a very large head and a very small body meant that Bernard was quite odd-looking when he was a child, like some sort of large-brained alien from a distant galaxy.
As soon as he was crawling, Bernard started to hide from Helen; she loved to tell the story of the first time this happened also. How she’d become completely hysterical and jumped to the illogical conclusion that Bernard had been abducted.
The nice police officer who came to the house in answer to Helen's panicked phone call had spied Bernard’s booties sticking out from under the living room curtains where he was sound asleep, one thumb lodged firmly in his mouth and a broad smile lodged firmly on his face. By the time he was standing and walking about, Helen was used to Bernard disappearing so she no longer fretted when he was nowhere to be found. Helen had, however, insisted that Bernard’s father, Stewart, install a tall security fence all around the house just to be sure that Bernard didn’t wander off into traffic.
Bernard quickly developed his favorite hiding places. These depended on the time of day, the time of year, and the weather. There was the closet under the stairs, which was musty and smelled of old books and cleaning products; there was the back of the kitchen pantry—an early favorite—which smelled of onions and spices; there was the nook beside the washer in the laundry, which was narrow, damp, and full of lint; and in the summer, Bernard could frequently be found in a dark corner at the rear of the garden shed, the smell of freshly mown grass and manure permeating the air.
As he grew older, Bernard progressively found hiding places that Helen was less able to access. His bedroom closet was his home base. Here Bernard could jam the door closed from the inside, ensuring uninterrupted privacy. By the time he turned eight, Bernard's other favorite hiding place was the attic. Helen’s bad knees meant that she had a great deal of difficulty accessing this retreat, which required climbing a steep pull-down ladder and wiggling through a narrow opening in the ceiling. As a teenager, Bernard moved his bedroom into the attic, installed a lock on the ceiling trapdoor, and banished Helen altogether.
When Bernard was squirrelled away in one of his hiding places, he’d close his eyes and enter into the fantasy world that existed inside his head.
Bernard's inner world had always been with him; he couldn't remember a time when it wasn’t present. This inner realm felt somehow safe and comforting to Bernard, unlike the outside world which mostly felt uninviting, and often quite frankly threatening to Bernard. Also unlike the outside world, in his inner world Bernard had friends. Friends who understood him, and who didn’t have expectations about who Bernard should be or how he should behave. As he grew older, Bernard slowly came to realize that other people didn’t share this vivid inner dimension or have virtual friends, and he found himself feeling ever more different from his peers. Bernard essentially had nothing in common with other children his own age, so he generally had nothing to do with them.
Helen, who from the very beginning found Bernard to be utterly baffling, continued to be at her wits’ end when it came to her son. She would do everything she could to show him how much she loved him, but Bernard only ever seemed to resent her for it: she showered Bernard with kisses and affection; she cooked Bernard his favorite foods; she cleaned up after him; she was there for him every moment of his waking life. If only Helen could have seen, for just one instant, how her very acts of kindness—seen from Bernard’s perspective as acts of smothering—were the main cause of stress in his young life. All Bernard ever wanted from Helen, and from everyone else for that matter, was to be left alone.
Bernard’s father, Stewart McCall, died from a rare and aggressive form of lung cancer when Bernard was just five years of age. Stewart’s adult life had been a short but strenuous one spent laboring in the coalfields south of Edinburgh. Stewart looked after Helen and Bernard as best he could, and people described him as loyal, kind, and a hard worker. He would arrive home from the coal mine in the evenings covered in soot, smelling of sweat and cigarettes, bone-tired, but Stewart would always greet Helen and Bernard with a beaming smile and a firm, loving hug.
Helen McCall died suddenly and unexpectedly just a few days after Bernard moved away from home to attend university, not long after his eighteenth birthday. Bernard never did discover Helen’s official cause of death, but it was clear to everyone who knew her that Helen had died from a broken heart. The first emotion Bernard felt when he heard the news was relief.
Bernard was an only child.
Apart from retreating into his many hiding places, and diving into his inner fantasy world, Bernard’s other passion—which had also been with him from the earliest age—was acquiring knowledge. Bernard had taught himself to read Helen’s women's magazines before he’d turned three. His kindergarten teacher had been quite interested in the technique Helen had used to teach Bernard to read at such a young age, but she could only shrug her shoulders, and say that, "he done it all by himself, like."
By the time he was five, Bernard was reading novels, newspapers, and scientific journals that he found discarded on the street, scavenged out of rubbish bins, or later, borrowed from the school library. If Bernard's nose was buried in a book, he was happy.
For his sixth birthday, Bernard begged Helen to buy him a set of the Encyclopædia Britannica, the 1983 edition. Helen used the little bit of money she’d received from Stewart’s life insurance policy to buy the set for Bernard, knowing how Stewart had loved to encourage Bernard’s passion for reading. Bernard proudly displayed the 21 volumes on a bookshelf made from cardboard boxes in his bedroom.
The first entry Bernard read in his new Encyclopædia Britannica was volume 13, page 579: Mesothelioma. Having satisfied his mind’s curiosity as to why his father had died so prematurely and painfully, Bernard started at volume 1, page 1, and in a little under eighteen months had read every word contained in the entire anthology, footnotes and appendices included. For a few weeks Bernard felt happy that he knew everything that there was to know about everything and he could finally relax. It didn’t take long, however, for a familiar sense of unease to creep back into Bernard’s awareness as he realized that new information had become available since his edition of Encyclopædia Britannica had been compiled, and Bernard started to fret about what he still needed to learn all over again.
With an almost infinite amount of knowledge to be acquired, Bernard could never understand why anyone would be interested in playing sport, or worse still, watching it. Just hanging out with friends felt so mundane and boring to Bernard, but more importantly, it was a complete waste of precious time.
In elementary school Bernard did have one friend, Kenny Cheung. Kenny’s parents were Malaysian Chinese, and he was one of the few children of Asian background in the otherwise homogeneously Anglo-Saxon neighborhood of Morningside, South Edinburgh, in the 1980s.
Bernard and Kenny would sit quietly together reading their books, occasionally sharing an interesting fact that one or the other had discovered. Unfortunately, Kenny’s parents were significantly wealthier than the McCalls, and he’d transferred to a distant boarding school for his secondary education, leaving Bernard without a single real friend in the world.
At high school, Bernard’s more confrontational fellow students would whisper to their friends as Bernard walked past them in the school corridors—just loud enough so that Bernard could hear them—and call him nerd, weirdo, freak, or psycho. Over time, Bernard became the protagonist of a number of schoolyard tales: he was the crazy freak who kept animals caged in his bedroom and who performed bizarre experiments on them for his perverted pleasure; he was the creepy guy who spied on girls through a hole in the locker room wall and who secretly wanted to slit their guts open with a big knife; he was the little weirdo who was stockpiling weapons in his bedroom at home and who would come to school one day and gun down all the attractive and popular students in a bloody vengeful massacre for all the taunting he’d received. When Bernard heard these stories as they filtered down the schoolyard grapevine he didn’t care. They just made it easier for him to stay out of everyone’s way, and more likely that everyone else would leave him alone.
Bernard’s move away from home, away from Helen, and away from Edinburgh, came in 1995 when he received an offer to study at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For an eighteen-year-old intellectual like Bernard, having been born and raised in a poor, working-class neighborhood of Edinburgh, to escape to the hallowed halls of such a prestigious institute of higher knowledge and learning as MIT was the equivalent of winning an all-expenses-paid drinking holiday to Majorca for most of Bernard’s contemporaries.
Bernard had, in fact, won a scholarship to attend MIT based on a paper he’d written about his theory of how gene manipulation could be used to enhance thinking and memory.
As an undergraduate Bernard was enrolled in a triple major—molecular biology, virology, and computer programming. The deans of all three faculties kept a keen eye on Bernard’s progress. Bernard would occasionally overhear them saying things like, “we have a genius in our midst,” and, "the boy-wonder," and, "our hope for the future."
Bernard managed to work his way through the entire three-year undergraduate curriculum for all three faculties in just twelve months, and he easily passed the requisite exams that enabled him to move on to the individualized postgraduate program he’d been promised when he’d accepted his scholarship. Here Bernard was given a free hand and access to all the resources he would need to experiment on creating the vision that was in his head.
Basically, in the course of his extensive reading Bernard had come across three facts that he’d found most intriguing, and which, when put together, had given rise to the hypothesis that was the foundation of his research proposal.
Firstly, the human brain—it was confidently stated in 1995—on average uses only 10% of its capacity, with up to 90% of its neurons lying dormant at any one time; a fact generally proved to be erroneous in the ensuing years.
Secondly, the human brain produces measurable electrical activity. While the amplitude of the voltages that occurred with depolarization of individual nerve cells in the brain was infinitesimal, when these small currents were summated across billions of such neurons they could be measured on the surface of the scalp using an electroencephalogram, an EEG.
Thirdly, there was a stream of philosophy that postulated if humans banded their consciousness together sufficiently, eventually a sentient collective consciousness would result, potentially changing the course of human evolution in an extraordinary way.
Could these three facts be used in combination to explore the possibility of improving brain functioning and memory by increasing brain efficiency, and concurrently accelerate raising the consciousness level of humankind to one of transcendent proportions?
Early on in his research Bernard played around with the low amplitude squiggles measured during EEG recordings but came up with very little; vague inferences about levels of arousal, sensory stimulation, and gross thinking were about all that could be discerned from these EEG traces. It seemed logical to Bernard, however, that the amplitude of these electrical signals must be able to be boosted somehow. Then the amplified electrical output of the brain could be captured, fed into a computer, analyzed, and translated into binary code, the language of computers. That way the brain could be made, in effect, to talk directly to the computer.
If the computer could also be enabled to talk back to the brain in real time, Bernard hypothesized, the functional capacity of the human mind could be enhanced significantly by having instantaneous access to the computers computational and storage functions. Correspondingly, the computer’s abilities could be dramatically enhanced by having immediate access to the speed and finesse of the human brain’s thinking and reasoning capabilities. The Thinking Computer became the working title for Bernard’s thesis, and his research clearly had the potential to be an important contribution to the recently burgeoning discipline of artificial intelligence.
Integral to Bernard's vision was discovering how to boost the electrical output of the brain sufficiently to enable him to capture and analyze the complexity of its functioning. This is where Bernard was relying on the work of the Human Genome Project.
Bernard had been following the HGP with great interest since it first started releasing data in the early ‘90s. Although the project still had several projected years to run to finalize its data reporting, Bernard had quickly become focused on, and obsessed by, the 90+% of DNA known as heterochromatin—sometimes also called junk DNA—that was essentially being omitted from its analysis. The assumption by the scientists involved in the HGP was that heterochromatin was somehow involved in gene regulation, but that it didn’t contain base pair sequences that specifically coded for proteins, and so by definition did not contain genes per se. This assumption bamboozled Bernard, and he’d written to the group on several occasions expressing his concerns. Surely genetic material involved in gene regulation must be considered important enough to be analyzed? Bernard was yet to receive a reply.
In fact, gene regulation was exactly where Bernard believed the answers to the most important questions of his research lay. His hypothesis was that if neurons of the central nervous system could have their suppressor genes turned down or off, then they would function more quickly and efficiently, a greater percentage of the neurons could be activated at any one time, and the brain could be made to produce greater electrical amplitudes, as well as give rise to faster mental processing. Why couldn’t they see it? Scientists and doctors all over the globe were already putting genetic modification into practice when treating diseases such as cystic fibrosis, galactosemia, and Tay-Sachs disease. Why not continue to expand on the extraordinary potential that genetic manipulation had to offer?
It didn’t take Bernard long to analyze the heterochromatin material, and to make the vitally important discovery of the DNA sequence that was involved in suppressing the propagation of neuronal action potentials in his laboratory mice; clearly Bernard’s mind operated at a level well beyond what would generally be defined as genius. Next, armed with his extensive knowledge of viruses, Bernard was able to splice this segment of DNA into the genome of the Venezuelan Equine Encephalitis virus (VEE)—a neurotropic virus that would easily enter the neurons of the human brain . . . but only after the harmful effects of the virus were neutralized, of course. Bernard hesitated for a moment when he discovered that the VEE had been used extensively by both US and Soviet scientists during the cold war in their efforts to develop biological weapons, but he quickly put the fact out of his mind as the VEE was otherwise the perfect infectious vector for his research.
Bernard didn’t care much for the animal experiment part of his research work because he would quickly grow attached to each of his laboratory mice, each given a name of its own by Bernard. In fact, these mice were his closest living friends during this period—closer than any humans at MIT, that's for sure. Bernard was especially careful to inject his mice with the test viruses only when he was confident that the results wouldn't be harmful. He did lose a couple of his mice during the trials—each given a solemn memorial service and burial when his supervisors weren’t looking—but all of these mice had merely died from old age, and not from any adverse effects resulting from Bernard's work.
Within a year, Bernard had produced a super-species of intelligent mice with no demonstrable negative side-effects: life expectancy was unaffected; tendency to altered or antisocial behavior was not demonstrated; biochemistry and hematology markers all remained within normal limits; reproductive capacity was maintained; subsequent generations were healthy; and, as an unexpected bonus, the increased brain capacities were passed on to subsequent generations.
Along with these promising findings, Bernard was able to start measuring and analyzing the boosted electrical output of the mouse brains—up by more than 200% from baseline levels. Bernard was very excited by his progress, and by these encouraging early results, but he soon came up against the one problem that he hadn’t envisioned in the planning stages of his research: ethics committees. Animal trials were historically no problem at MIT but getting approval to start human trials was another matter altogether.
Bernard’s first proposal to the MIT Ethics Committee was returned with red ink splashed unceremoniously across page after page. The conservative members of the New England faculty were unimpressed by Bernard's brilliant theories. They found his ideas to be preposterous and horrifying.
Bernard realized he needed a major re-think of the direction of his work, or it would be shut up in a museum case somewhere and forgotten about forever.
On a more personal level, while Bernard was attending MIT, he was entirely uninterested in friendships, relationships, and social interactions of any kind. If you were to describe Bernard as a hermit, you’d have been pretty close to the mark.
This avoidant behavior was particularly true when it came to relationships with women. To Bernard, these were simply messy, unrewarding, and generally distracting from more important matters; he just didn’t understand why everyone made such a fuss about sex.
As he was settling into his third year on campus, however, Bernard unexpectedly became the object of attention of a particularly attractive and extraordinarily charismatic woman who had mysteriously materialized at MIT for no discernible reason. Initially it was quite beyond Bernard why Zoe Parker—a brash, out-spoken, hard-drinking, voluptuous, and vivacious creature—would even notice Bernard when boys and men were literally falling over themselves to be noticed by Zoe as she walked the halls and pathways of MIT. But the mysterious chemistry of human attraction—call it pheromones if you like—somehow transcended all expectations and social conditioning for Zoe and Bernard; they fell in love.
Only days after Zoe had stumbled accidentally into Bernard's research laboratory and started quizzing him about his work—which appeared, unexpectedly, to completely fascinate her—they became inseparable. Within a week Zoe had effectively moved into Bernard's on-campus postgraduate student digs. She would laze around the lab during the day reading magazines, smoking cigarettes, and occasionally making love to Bernard in a toilet cubicle of the adjacent faculty bathroom. In the evenings Zoe and Bernard would go for long walks, hand in hand, deeply engrossed in the most remarkable conversations. Zoe was apparently interested in all sorts of intellectual topics in a way Bernard had never encountered in another human before, and Zoe appeared to be mesmerized by Bernard’s endless knowledge about just about everything. When the lights went out, however, Zoe would take charge, and she introduced Bernard to realms of sexual pleasure that had only ever been theoretical to him before their meeting; Bernard started to understand why everyone was making such a fuss about sex after all.
A little over a month later, Zoe disappeared. As abruptly as she’d appeared and become an integral part of Bernard's life at MIT, Zoe became absent once more. Bernard re-embraced the mantle of solitude that his life had always carried with it as its silent shadow, but he was surprised how sad and empty he felt without Zoe’s bubbly presence to brighten up his days. The truth was that the extraordinary person that was Zoe Parker had skillfully found her way through Bernard's tight defenses and touched his heart in a way that no one had ever done before. Then, Zoe had thoroughly broken Bernard's heart by leaving without even saying goodbye.
Almost exactly a year to the day after Zoe had disappeared from Bernard’s life, she returned for one final visit. On this occasion she carried with her a heavy, squirming, gurgling bundle—Zoe and Bernard's son, Adam—who was now four months old. Zoe delivered Adam into Bernard’s care without a word, kissed his balding forehead affectionately, then disappeared from their lives forever.
People who didn’t know Bernard to any depth—which was almost everyone—generally described him as aloof, unemotional, cold, or withdrawn. Truthfully, Bernard was intimately in touch with a deep well of emotion that would have surprised most people if he were ever to verbalize it to them. For Bernard and his recently broken heart, it came as a blessed relief to have Adam delivered into his life; he welcomed the new addition without hesitation. Any problems that the subsequent change in Bernard's routine brought were merely of a practical nature: how could Bernard care for Adam yet at the same time continue to carry out the research work he was so passionate about?
The answer to Bernard’s conundrum came in the form of a letter of offer to leave MIT and to join a private company that was at the forefront of research into artificial intelligence. The leadership of Abercrombie Industries, AI, had recently passed to its founder’s son, Ken Abercrombie, and the company was thriving under his new, empowered, management. With no shortage of funding, and a startling degree of ambition, Ken had decided that Bernard and his research were the missing links in his master plan for AI’s meteoric expansion into the field.
Only a matter of weeks later, Adam and Bernard moved into a sizeable modern home in suburban Poughkeepsie in upstate New Eden—the home of Abercrombie Industries' major research laboratory. A full-time, live-in nanny was part of Bernard’s generous employment package, which left him free to pursue his research goals, aided significantly by the seemingly bottomless funding budget of private enterprise.
Just over two years later—in early 2001—after relatively short, and moderately thorough, human clinical trials, Bernard had ironed out the remaining glitches in his work, and Augmented Intelligence Plus (AI+) © was launched amid huge fanfare and excitement. AI’s marketing department exuberantly extolled the potential uses of this paradigm-shifting technology across all walks of life, across all levels of education, business, and government, and across all nations of the world. AI+ was being marketed as a clear evolutionary game-changer, and the world quickly sat up and paid attention.
Abercrombie Industries became inundated with requests to be injected with AI+: The Future of Humanity. A simple, one-off, subcutaneous injection was all that was needed. Bernard’s research showed that within ten days of the injection, 99% of the recipient’s 100 billion-odd central nervous system neurons would have been infected by the VEE virus, and the brain boosting effect of AI+ would have reached its peak.
Within twelve months Abercrombie Industries became the wealthiest and most powerful private company on the planet; it seemed that no one wanted to be left behind in this quantum evolutionary leap that made super-humans out of ordinary people overnight.
The first glimpse of trouble in paradise, however, came when a female college sophomore from San Jose, California, was found dead in her sorority room adjacent to the campus of UCLA. The young woman left a suicide note outlining her precipitous descent into madness only weeks after receiving her AI+ injection. A previously latent familial schizophrenic tendency had apparently been activated and amplified as her neural activity accelerated. Psychosis had quickly ensued and a matter of weeks later, terrified of the increasingly loud and demanding voices in her head, she’d taken her own life.
Bernard was shattered. How could he have overlooked this potential for harm? Bernard had been so fastidious in his research and in the early clinical trials, although he was the first to admit that Ken Abercrombie had rushed him through the final stages of the phase three trials in order to take advantage of a bullish tech stock market that maximized AI+’s early profits. Boosted neural activity was proving to be beneficial to humanity in so many ways—as Bernard had correctly predicted—but it was now also proving that it could be disastrously detrimental also.
The early trickle of problems soon became a flood, and Abercrombie Industries became inundated with reports of psychiatric crises and disturbing cases of bizarre and previously unseen mental illnesses. There followed accusations of negligence, and huge claims for compensation and damages started to roll in.
To predict how and why these adverse effects were occurring, Bernard started analyzing in more detail the data from the six- and twelve-month follow-up questionnaires that all AI+ recipients were required to complete. What Bernard discovered was that AI+ was causing an increase in the prevalence of certain negative emotions in injectees, with anxiety, frustration, fear, rage, shame, worthlessness, self-hatred, and despair all being reported at alarmingly high levels. Along with this finding, Bernard also noticed increasing reports of sexual promiscuity and deviance in people who’d previously rated themselves as normal or reserved in the sexual arena.
The biggest disaster associated with AI+, however, was yet to come. In the middle of the second-year post-launch, disturbing reports started to appear of horizontal transmission of the VEE virus. People who had not been injected with AI+ were developing signs and symptoms indicating that they were indeed affected by it. Serological testing confirmed VEE antibodies in their blood stream.
No!! How could this have possibly happened? agonized Bernard.
The simple answer was that natural mutations of the VEE virus DNA, that would have occurred independent of Bernard’s laboratory manipulations, were continuing to occur, but now at an extraordinarily accelerated rate. A combination of new mutations in the virus’ DNA had enabled a new pathway of infection to take place—by droplet spread via the nose and respiratory tract. As a result, Bernard’s genetically modified, brain-enhancing virus was now easier to catch than the common cold.
Wide-spread population testing over the course of the next few months gave rise to a horrifying computer model that predicted the entire human population of 6.3 billion people would become infected with the VEE virus and have their minds artificially and irreversibly enhanced by AI+, by mid-2003 . . . in less than a year!!
This new development completely shocked and horrified Bernard. To try and get a handle on what it all meant, Bernard created a new, expanded, computer model asking the specific question: What are the implications of the entire human population having dramatically enhanced brain function and instantaneous computer connectivity? The program crashed; the result simply couldn’t be predicted scientifically. Before the computer crashed, however, Bernard was able to glimpse a possible—or rather, probable—scenario.
6.3 billion humans, all functioning at maximal brain capacity, all able to communicate telepathically with any computer in their vicinity and therefore essentially continuously connected to all computers and all other human beings on the planet, would result in sufficient processing-thinking-communicating power to develop a sentient collective consciousness. A sentient collective consciousness whose nature was a direct reflection of the human mind combined with a computer's mechanical intelligence. A sentient collective consciousness that would do anything, including kill, to maintain its survival.
It eventually dawned on Bernard that it was the inherent intelligence of human DNA itself that was the driving force behind this evolutionary leap towards a sentient collective consciousness. Unfortunately, the modified DNA sequence that was being inserted into the brains of all humans on the planet via the VEE virus was altering the native human DNA just enough to permanently shift the path of human evolution. It was now headed into an inevitable dead-end and extinction of the species. The incorporation of machine consciousness into the awakening collective consciousness of humanity meant that a downward spiral into conflict, war, and destruction was to be humanity's path, rather than the natural development of a collective consciousness based in a sense of loving unity, interconnectedness, and universal brotherhood that would have been the result of humanity’s evolution if Bernard hadn't tinkered with it.
“Oh God!! No!! What have I done?”
Bernard was so traumatized by the unfolding disaster with AI+ that he absent-mindedly set the Poughkeepsie home on fire one night while desperately trying to find a solution to the whole mess. As the house burned, Bernard realized he had to leave Poughkeepsie . . . immediately.
Having just lost all their possessions in the fire, Bernard and Adam drove through the night to New Eden City. Bernard left behind instructions for Ken outlining how to activate the fail-safe program he’d incorporated into the AI+ programming in the early stages: a computer virus that would erase all memory of—but not the actual existence of—the VEE virus and AI+ from all humans and computers worldwide. It would be as if AI+ had never existed.
On May 9th, 2003, with the insanity of AI+'s new collective consciousness starting to be reported all over the globe—rapidly escalating wars and acts of terrorism; unnecessary and heartless ravaging of the environment; millions upon millions of people being displaced from their homes; growing evidence that global warming was spiraling out of control; increasingly disturbing reports of bizarre anti-social behavior and sexual promiscuity—Ken sent out the virus program eradicating all memory of the existence of AI+ forever. The only people immune from this memory-wiping command, its developers: Bernard McCall and Ken Abercrombie.
Thanks to a small anonymous deposit made monthly into Bernard’s personal bank account—that had begun shortly after Adam’s birth, and which Bernard knew came from Zoe and the Parker family—Adam and Bernard moved into a small, below-street-level apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Bernard had rented the apartment a few months before on an intuitive hunch that there would soon be problems with Ken Abercrombie and Abercrombie Industries. Bernard had witnessed first-hand a major security breach late one night in the virus lab in Poughkeepsie when an unknown stranger, who surprisingly had in their possession a high-level security clearance, had entered the lab while Bernard was working quietly in his secluded corner. The stranger has helped themself to a canister of experimental virus culture that was no longer undergoing active research work. Bernard wasn’t sure at the time what the implications of the highly contagious coronavirus falling into the wrong hands might be, but when 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic rolled around he knew who was responsible.
Bernard had also become privy to some disturbing knowledge about the level of greenhouse gas emissions Abercrombie Industries was pumping into the atmosphere at a time when the tipping point of global warming was approaching at an alarming rate, and this had finally made it clear to Bernard that Ken Abercrombie cared only for himself and his rapidly inflating ego and bank balance. It was clear to Bernard that he no longer wanted anything to do with Ken Abercrombie and his low moral and ethical standing.
Bernard became more withdrawn and introverted than ever in the years following the AI+ disaster. Bernard’s way of dealing with stress had always been to withdraw from the outside world, and this situation was no exception. Historically Bernard’s other reaction to stress had been to collect and read books. This old habit now went into overdrive. Bernard started collecting and reading treatises on pivotal moments in human history, major scientific breakthroughs, philosophy, and spirituality. Bernard was searching for an answer to the AI+ dilemma . . . or at the very least for an answer to the meaning of life. Something, anything, that would take away the existential angst he was feeling more and more intensely with each passing day.
Within a few years Bernard had accumulated so many books that the small Lower East Side apartment was crowded to overflowing. Adam, by this time eight years old and quite astute for his age, suggested that Bernard open a second-hand bookstore, and so Bernard’s Bookstore was birthed in the front room of their little apartment.
Adam was Bernard’s main connection with the outside world during this period. Despite being so young, Adam attended to most of the slow trickle of customers who somehow found Bernard’s Bookstore after it officially opened. Bernard’s only other regular human interactions during these years were with the other residents of the Eldridge Street apartment building: Mrs. Lola Chu and her son William, who lived on the second floor; Mrs. Chu’s elderly, non-English-speaking parents, who lived on the first floor; and myself, Angel O, as I was living on the third floor of the building at the time.
Mrs. Chu, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, had been living in the apartment building since before she’d been briefly married in the early ‘90s. Her husband, Lawrence Chu, had mysteriously disappeared without a trace in 2001. William Chu was just one year older than Adam, and they would play together daily, initially on the front steps of the apartment building, and later in Bernard or Mrs. Chu's apartment. As Adam and William grew up, they became the best of friends. William would help Adam with the running of the bookstore when Bernard was shut up in his office. At other times the boys would disappear together to roam the neighborhood, go skateboarding, ride their bikes, climb trees, then later abseiling, mountain climbing, snowboarding, and any number of other strenuous and often dangerous activities.
Bernard’s Bookstore gradually became a known stopping place for savvy New Edeners looking for rare books, particularly ones with a historical, scientific, philosophical, or spiritual bent. The bookstore also progressively became a gathering place for left-leaning thinkers, especially those interested in enlightenment, and action to counter increasing economic globalization, global warming, and discrimination of any kind. Mrs. Chu, fiercely passionate about all these issues, would frequently hold court in the bookstore, proselytizing to anyone who stopped long enough to listen to her staunch opinions.
From his small office in the back corner of the bookstore, Bernard observed the comings and goings, leaving the day-to-day running of the store initially to Adam, and later to hired employees. Closed-circuit TV monitors showing various views of the interior and exterior of the bookstore slowly accumulated around Bernard's office nook, and these became his eyes and ears in the outside world.
As the years passed, Bernard spent more and more time shut up in his office, the weight of the AI+ disaster playing heavily on his mind, and the possibility of righting the whole tragic affair progressively becoming his sole obsession.
And so, Bernard’s story arrives at the pivotal moment in history where all our stories will eventually converge: July 4th, 2020.
It’s a humid and stormy summer in New Eden this year. The initial period of quarantine and lockdown imposed by authorities as COVD-19 had ravaged the city in the early months of the year had brought little change to Bernard’s reclusive lifestyle. In fact, for Bernard it’d come as a blessed relief to be given permission not to socialize with others. He would occasionally glance at a news story or be moved by the images of grieving relatives as the body count mounted, but fundamentally the global pandemic was passing Bernard by. His main concern around the pandemic was the sure knowledge he possessed that the origin of the virus involved was not a wet market in Wuhan—as the western press were currently touting—or even a virus research laboratory in the same city, but the very lab in Poughkeepsie where he’d worked with Ken Abercrombie for several years in the early 2000s.
This evening, in honor of the easing of restrictions on group gatherings that have recently been allowed in New Eden, a small band of passionate climate change activists—the Eco-Vigilante Action Group (E-VAG)—are holding a strategic planning meeting in Bernard’s Bookstore. Bernard, Mrs. Chu, Amir plus three other E-VAG members are sitting together talking. Amir, who is Bernard’s current bookstore manager, lives in the studio at the rear of the bookstore now that Bernard and Adam have moved into the third-floor apartment vacated when I moved out of the building a few years back. Amir is also my lover, but more on that later. Adam, William, Alex Abercrombie—Ken Abercrombie's gay and recently estranged son—along with four others arrive after their evening performance at The Garden Cabaret burst noisily through the bookstore’s front door to join the meeting.
Bernard, now 43 years of age, is happy hosting these gatherings in his humble little store as the energy of the group reminds him of a time in his life when he too was full of drive and enthusiasm to make the world a better place. To the outside world Bernard seems to have lost his youth, his vitality, and his passion for helping humanity. In truth, Bernard is merely preoccupied with finding the solution to the impending self-destruction and annihilation of humanity that is being orchestrated by his own co-creation, AI+, not to mention being torn about revealing his knowledge of the true origin of COVID-19 to the world.
Occasionally Bernard has a nostalgic flash of the face of his one romantic love and Adam’s mother, the fierce Zoe Parker. He wonders where in the world she is, and what she might be doing. Time has soothed the pain of Bernard’s broken heart to a significant degree, but the wound will never be completely healed . . .