Ken was tired, despondent and none too sober. He’d learnt only a few hours before that the Phoenix Project of which he was the lead scientist was about to be scrapped, that funding would not be renewed by Congress for the current fiscal year to the intelligence agency for which he worked. He saw the last 15 years of his life, years in which he’d been entirely absorbed in working on this most carefully guarded project and which had borne success beyond his most optimistic hopes, rush by him in a swirling haze. His life’s work was dissolving before his eyes like an early morning mist burnt away by the unforgiving rising sun of a new day (and a new Washington administration unfriendly to risky, high-priced covert projects).
The Phoenix project had been his life. He had conceived it while an undergraduate student at MIT and it had taken on a life of its own until it became his raison d’être. He used his considerable powers of persuasion, and political connections (being the son of a senior senator certainly had not hindered his efforts, and he had not been shy about enlisting his father as an ally from the start), to convince the intelligence agency that his project was both possible and of unparalleled value as an intelligence tool, and much too dangerous to be developed by private industry. All three assertions were undeniably true. Unfortunately for Dr. Kenneth Leyans, having cast his lot with the government, he was now precluded from pursuing his project through the private sector despite the fact that the cost of further research and development from this point on would be relatively modest. The pointed success he had achieved, to date would make many technology companies and most foreign governments literally kill to get their hands on his work, and would make him not only an instant billionaire, but a guaranteed Nobel laureate.
Simply put, the Phoenix project represented quantum leaps in computer technology and nanotechnology that allowed for a symbiotic melding between humans and computers. Dr. Leyans had succeeded in creating a device which could read and store any person’s complete memories from birth and download them into a computer’s memory, where they would be stored and could be enhanced, manipulated, and made to interact with the downloaded personalities of real people as well as thousands of computer-enhanced virtual persons having true artificial intelligence and indistinguishable from real people. Any person interfacing with the system can be made to relive his past from any given point with such accuracy as to make it indistinguishable from reality. Any past experience could now be relived in minutest detail. But the system was far more than a virtual memory generator. A subject interacting with the system still kept the free will to change past events by making different decisions from those made in his or her past, as did the real and virtual personalities downloaded into or created by the system, thereby affecting a change in all that followed from that moment in time onward. Decisions great and small that define our lives and its intrinsic quality could now be revised. Doors closed by past choices, destinations forever unreachable in life after taking the wrong fork in the road leading to the wrong career, the wrong friendship, the wrong mate, could all be potentially corrected and result in a new, changed reality indistinguishable from real life.
At a fundamental level, we are little more than the sum of our life’s choices. With the benefit of hindsight we can judge the wisdom of our decisions and congratulate ourselves for our successes or lick the wounds of our failures. If we are wise, we learn from both. But no amount of introspection can alter the course of events that flow from crucial decisions made. Words spoken in anger cannot be taken back. A bullet fired from a gun cannot be recalled. A priceless crystal vase once dropped and shattered cannot be reassembled. Life offers no rewind button and the detritus we leave in our wake as the remnants of our broken dreams, broken words, broken hearts, and broken souls is all too often beyond repair.
But the Phoenix Project had the potential to change that. The system’s many applications would include entertainment and it would add a powerful new tool for the treatment of mental illness. But it is the value to any government as an intelligence tool that Dr. Leyans had stressed when seeking government funding of his research: It would provide a valuable training and debriefing tool for agents and for the military, allowing subjects to re-live previous assignments or computer generated new ones; the entire memories of captured terrorists, enemy agents or dangerous criminals could be read into the computer and examined or changed by it so as to yield important information which could not be withheld. Agents’ reactions to specific events, such as interrogation under torture, could be examined so as to best determine their likely reactions in the field. It might even be possible to re-program captured foreign agents, terrorists, and other enemies of the state at will so that they could be used to sow misinformation, gather intelligence, and otherwise disrupt the plans of enemy states--something not yet achieved by the system, but certainly within its theoretical limits and a possibility well worth exploring.
Unfortunately, not every bug had yet been satisfactorily worked out. The system’s Achilles heel, and the trigger for the withdrawal of funding, was that the link between the system and a subject once established could not be safely severed. Such attempts invariably led to one of two unacceptable results: death or madness. A person’s memories could be downloaded safely into the system without any ill effects; all that was required was the massive storage and processing power of a network of linked supercomputers and the wearing of a helmet with hypersensitive sensor receptors able to intercept and translate normal brain waves into data downloadable to the network. The average download time for a subject was a mere 10-12 hours of connect time under sedation. But for the system to directly interface with the brain in an active manner, setting up the parameters of the memories to be relived or hypothetical present setting to be infused, a more complicated procedure was required. In order to facilitate the symbiotic linkup to the Phoenix Project, an esoteric mixture of biochemical and nanotechnology agents needs to be consumed within four hours of the linkup. The biochemical agents strengthen the brain’s normal electrochemical reactions and enhance the body’s circulatory system, while the nanotechnology agents are carried through the blood to the brain, where they attach to individual neurons and act as miniature receptors to translate and convey impulses from the computer directly to the brain. The combination of the biochemical and nanotechnology agents makes it possible for a subject to receive data directly from the system safely. Unfortunately, once the link is disturbed, dire consequences result for reasons that Dr. Leyans and his team did not yet understand.
Convinced that the failure of the tests on the chimpanzee and gorilla subjects was related to the creatures’ inability to cope with the stress of the procedure due to their limited mental capacity and their inability to comprehend what was happening to them, three volunteers from the Phoenix Projects took it upon themselves to perform unauthorized tests on humans. Without the knowledge or consent of Dr. Leyans, three volunteers agreed to simultaneously interface with the system. They knew they would only get one shot at it and, aware of the high risk to themselves but confident in the success they would achieve, they wanted to have multiple positive results to strengthen the argument for further human trials well aware that the covert agency providing the funding was growing increasingly impatient and demanded more positive results, threatening to cut funding if these were not forthcoming. Of the three test volunteers, two men died upon the severance of the symbiotic link between the subject and the system, and the third, a woman, suffered severe psychosis requiring her to be institutionalized; the well-meaning volunteers in a single act confirmed the failed results on the simian test subjects and simultaneously dealt a death blow to the project.
Ken had been torn between the grief and guilt he felt for his colleagues and the frustration and anger at the untimely demise of the project so close to achieving complete success. The linkup had been successful in all three cases; he had the complete record of their brain responses to their trips back in time into their own past, and all seemed normal until the link was severed and the attempt was made to bring them out of their virtual reality. The new generation mainframes which he had developed contained voluminous amounts of data on each of the psychic “voyages” undertaken by the project volunteers. While it would take years of close scrutiny to fully analyze such data and to yield conclusive results, there was little doubt from the preliminary findings that the experiments had been successful, other than for the recurring fatal flaw.
Yet, despite these unquestionable triumphs, the Senate Oversight Committee had decided to scrap the project. The computer equipment would certainly be put to some use, and he was assured of getting credit for that part of the project; but the Phoenix Project was effectively dead. All research relating to it would be branded top secret and filed away beyond the reach of espionage or the Freedom of Information Act.
But all was not lost. His father’s warning had bought him a grace period of perhaps a day, or at least the better part of it. No guards were likely to storm his lab at 2:00 A.M., at any rate. Ken smiled; there was something to be said for red tape, after all.
There was nothing for him to do at the moment but wait. He’d called his best friend over an hour ago, and knew that he would soon be arriving. He had not given him any specifics over the phone, but had told him that he needed to see him immediately on an urgent matter. He smiled again faintly, conjuring a vision of poor Dan rushing out of the house in his pajamas, making the four-hour trip down from Albany to the Suffolk County facilities in what he knew would be record time. He felt some guilt about putting his friend through that; but it was necessary, and he knew the other would understand.
Ken sipped slowly from his large snifter--brandy, real Napoleon; he kept two bottles in the lab for important occasions, such as the celebration of new breakthroughs with his team (champagne, he felt, was better suited for World Series winners and New Year’s Eve parties); he certainly was not in a celebratory mood, but what the hell, crossroads counted, too.
A loud buzzer erupted in the lab, destroying the hypnotic humming of the computers. He arose slowly, self-consciously trying not to stagger perceptibly, and walked towards the intercom to be greeted by an emotionless voice.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, Dr. Leyans, but there is a man here by the name of Daniel Lantz who claims you’ve sent for him.”
“That’s right, Sergeant, I have. Please escort him in.”
“Sir, he lacks appropriate clearance. I cannot allow him into the compound.”
“I’m clearing him now, Sergeant,” Ken retorted, not trying to hide his annoyance. “Let him in at once.”
“But sir,” the Sergeant began, “I have strict orders that no one is to be admitted without proper clearance without the express authorization of General Worthing.” The man was insistent, but a tone of nervous annoyance was also detectable in his voice. Waking the general at 02:15 hours was not something he cared to do; neither did he wish to incur the ire of the head of a project as important as this must be, judging by all the extensive security surrounding it--security and secrecy unlike anything he’d seen in his twenty five years of service.
“Sergeant,” Ken interrupted impatiently, “I am the head of this project, not General Worthing. His sole responsibility is the same as yours, to ensure my safety and to secure my project. Mr. Lantz has information I need immediately that is crucial to that which is your duty to guard. If you delay me for one more minute, I promise you that both you and General Worthing can kiss your careers good-bye. Am I making myself perfectly clear?”
“Yes sir,” came the somewhat muffled response.
“Please escort Mr. Lantz to the lab immediately.” With that, Ken turned towards the locked vault-like steel doors and punched in the access code to open them. He felt a little ashamed of his heavy-handed treatment of Sergeant Ellis, a man he had grown to know and like; but he simply did not have time to be diplomatic or overly concerned over a man’s hurt feelings, not when his life depended on what would happen within the next few hours.
A minute later, the heavy steel door slowly opened outwards. Two military men guarding the door snapped to attention on the outside as Dr. Leyans walked out to meet his friend. Shortly thereafter, he saw Dan being escorted by a somber Sergeant.
“Thank you, Sergeant,” Ken said with a thin smile, “And don’t worry, the surveillance tape of our conversation is on the record and I take full responsibility for Mr. Lantz’s presence here.”
“That you do, sir” the Sergeant retorted, stiffly doing an about-face, and heading away at a brisk pace.
“Thanks for coming, Dan,” Ken began, turning to his friend and giving him a quick embrace. “I’m sorry to put you through this; you’ll get a full explanation in a minute.” With that, Ken signaled his friend to precede him inside. After both men had entered, Ken again punched in a code and the door slid shut, closing with a final clanging sound which sent a slight shiver down Dan’s spine.
“What the hell is this all about?” Dan demanded no sooner than the door was sealed, nervous anticipation and concern clearly detectable in his tone.
“That is a long and complicated story. But I’ll try to keep it brief. Please, come in and make yourself comfortable; this will take a while.” Both men moved towards a table in the corner of the expansive laboratory. As they walked, the immensity of the place with its myriad electronic equipment began to sink in for Dan. He let out an unconscious, low whistle. “God, what is this place?” he asked with a tone that clearly showed a mixture of surprise, curiosity, and awe. He recognized some of the equipment immediately, namely mainframes and the ubiquitous video display terminals. Yet, most of the electronic paraphernalia was completely foreign to him. For the most part it consisted of monolithic metal structures with LED readouts and flashing lights; the enormous lab was well lit, almost painfully so, with white halogen light bouncing off the myriad chrome counter tops and milk-white high gloss laminated cabinet surfaces. The facility was spotless, anesthetized to the point of completely eradicating all odors; only the faint scent of ozone could be sensed, barely perceptible. Even the sounds seemed clean--merely white noise, a soothing hum at an almost subliminal level. The general effect, after the initial disorientation caused mostly by an almost oppressive sense of immenseness, made Dan uneasy in a way he could not have explained were he even fully aware of it.
“This, dear friend, is the end result of my life’s work. You know what I have been working on for the past 15 years, but only in a superficial way. Until a few hours ago, this place stood for hope, a self-made vehicle for redemption. Now ...” Ken’s voice trailed off to a nearly inaudible whimper.” Now, it is a tomb.”
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