by William Highsmith
The elevator halted between floors, its indicator lights blinking too stupidly for a showcase smart building. Bob Torrent winced and dialed his office on his cell phone, but there was no cell signal. Even the elevator’s emergency telephone line was dead.
Bob pounded the door, then sat down. He started to work on a presentation for an upcoming meeting, but his laptop wouldn’t power up. This was a bad sign because his company manufactured the laptop. He stared at the blank screen, trying to connect the two failures.
A couple hours later, the elevator car lurched in spasms. It stopped and two burly hands forced the doors open. Bob jumped two feet down to floor level.
“Thanks, Brad. I was about to make a puddle in the corner. By the way, most everything in that elevator is broken.”
The maintenance man smiled half-heartedly. “You were safer in there. Most everything is broken everywhere. Take a look outside.”
Outside, police officers were managing accidents in two intersections. That was a little unusual, but not unprecedented in Washington, DC. But Bob had never seen traffic lights stuck on green in both directions.
Cable television was dead in Bob’s office, but broadcast radio was working, reporting an odd assortment of failures: trains, air traffic control, building management systems, and ground traffic control.
Bob peeked at QPC #1 on his bureau, the first quantum PC off Strategic Computing Labs’ production line. The screen mocked its creator with “Internal error, code 0x10003aff.”
When CEO Sal James entered, his face confirmed Bob’s suspicion. SCL was the world’s majority supplier of quantum computers, from microcontrollers to supercomputers. Suddenly, that was no longer a bragging right. It was a disaster.
The morning sun illuminated a Metrorail schedule board a quarter-mile from Bob Torrent’s condominium. He couldn’t read the lettering, but could tell Metrorail was running today. This wouldn’t be a bicycle day. Since the quantum crash, Bob was more fit than he had been twenty years before at MIT.
Bob arrived at the station forty-five minutes early for the 8:10 cross-town. The crowd was still fighting for seats on the 6:15, which had not yet arrived. When the board showed 6:15 Crystal City: Canceled, he decided it would be a bicycle day after all.
Bob pedaled around protesters as he approached Strategic Computing Labs Foundation, established to help mitigate the quantum crash. He laced through the crowd unnoticed in his jeans and pizza-delivery shirt. He paused in the lobby to watch a news story of a Washington Beltway professor from George Washington University.
“Twenty years ago, shares of any company that could spell ‘quantum computer’ topped the investment charts. Now, you couldn’t trade them for a bucket of spit.”
“Geez,” muttered Bob, as he went upstairs. He found Sal resting between the fourth and fifth floors.
“It’s tough getting old, huh?” said Bob.
“If you could trust elevators....” Sal flexed his left knee. “I used to be able to straighten that one.”
“Some trains are running now. Maybe elevators are next.”
“If that’s a hint, it won’t work.”
“Getting the airlines back in the air is more important?” In Bob’s circle, that amounted to wry humor. “We could hijack the conference room on this floor.”
Sal’s face showed obvious relief. “That would be lovely.”
“Public safety?” said Sal. “Rafael?”
“Push-to-talk radio service should be online in a week, but there is no inter-service voice networking, except for fire and police supervisors.” Rafael glanced over his glasses nervously at Sal. “Seventy percent of the EMT crews are active.”
“That’s real progress, Rafael. How about mobile Internet access for my police and sheriffs?”
“Well, uh, maybe a month?” Rafael cringed. “No, two months.”
“The correct answer is one month.” Sal quickly wrote one of his patented check marks in his notebook, which made his statement an irrevocable contract. “Critical infrastructure? Meredith?”
“Power distribution...is an issue,” said Meredith. She glanced at Rafael, but he looked away.
“Power distribution is not an issue,” said Sal. “If it were an issue we’d all be out of work. Is it really an issue, Meredith?”
“Well, I guess not. Or soon won’t be. I’ll need—”
“Done. Hedley, make sure Meredith has everything she needs by Thursday. Meredith, make sure I am happy a month after that, okay?” Sal checkmarked his notebook twice.
Hedley saluted. “Yes, sir, the unstated task will suffer no unseen problems, because—”
“Fine, Hedley. How about power generation, Meredith?”
“Power gen equipment is grossly outdated, so it works great.”
“Wonderful. Water management?”
“Wastewater management is an issue with the tropical weather season in the South fast approaching. I’ve run out of warm bodies—”
Sal stretched his arms out in mock outrage towards ponytailed Hedley. “Why doesn’t Meredith have more warm bodies, Hedley? Did you hear the passion in her voice? I’m in tears here.”
“Sal, my friend, was it not you who stole hers last month for Transportation?” Hedley crossed his Birkenstocked feet on the conference table for emphasis.
“Hedley, it is not your job to make me out a fool; that’s my job. It is your job to get temps for Meredith.”
“No, do not steal them back from Transportation. Find some fresh ones.”
“Bob, you saw how I suffered climbing the stairs to this conference room,” said Sal. “You will not rub salt in my wounds, will you? Now, give me your spaceborne computing platform report.”
“There are no new issues—”
“—but all the old ones have worsened.”
“Bob, you are a jackass.”
Bob and Sal took a chance on the elevator lottery and won. Life would not be worth living if the press learned that the nation’s director of strategic computing had succumbed to his own monster: quantum computers in the embedded systems. Sal didn’t mind that the lights, heating, and air conditioning were wonky. But misbehaving elevators were unforgivable.
“You didn’t answer my question, Bob. What about my spaceborne computing platform?” Sal thumped his notebook. “See, no check marks in weeks.”
“I’m comparing the quality of the spacecraft’s conventional telemetry link to its quantum broadband link. It’s a measure of, um, quantum misbehavior. It’s not an ideal test, but taxi service to the platform is—”
“Dead in the water.”
Bob noticed the news feed video screen. “Look, it’s that guy again, that jackass from GWU.”
“Oh, him,” said Sal. “He prances around at every news service in town that will give him ten seconds to trash us.”
“He trashes well. Hey, who’s that guy in the back?” Bob planted a finger on the screen on a figure in a ball cap, trench coat and sunglasses. “See his sign? ’Are Zeilenger bit spaces clumpy?’”
“What if they are?” said Sal. “Whatever they are.”
“Um, if quantum bit spaces are clumpy then we’re screwed. Our quantum microprocessors assume bit spaces are nice and regular. Get him for me, Sal.”
“Yeah. That’s why he’s hanging on the news hog’s coattails.” Bob peeked out the window. “Never mind, crowd’s gone. It’s a ten-minute bike ride. See ya.”
Bob pedaled to the Library of Congress. The crowd had thinned, and he saw a likely figure with a sign at a street corner. The trench-coated quantum protester had an unexpectedly feminine and attractive face.
“Hi, I saw you on TV and biked here quick-like-a-bunny. I liked your quantum protest sign a lot.”
She smiled and handed him her card. “And you are...a physicist, right?”
“Bob Torrent, chief scientist at the labs, uh, Strategic Computing Labs Foundation.”
“I know you. You’re an MIT brat, too. I’ve read a stack of your papers.”
Bob looked at her card and laughed. “Miss Marcia Quan, Physicist. That’s all it says.”
“If I had a life it would say more, Dr. Torrent—”
“Oh, puh-lease. Call me Bob.”
Bob invited Marcia to a coffee shop to reminisce about MIT. Marcia had recently finished her doctoral program and was doing some post-doctoral work and teaching.
“Okay, Marcia, tell me why I care about clumpy Zeilenger bit spaces.”
“They broke your little computers, I think,” she said. “I researched the idea that bit spaces are non-uniformly distributed. At the time, that was a mathematical curiosity, like what if some exotic particle had negative mass? But when I squeezed some of the little buggers between germanium slices, they decohered as expected, but inconsistently.”
“So that’s how my quantum computers became fuzzy computers. Quantum states are no longer predictable. There can be areas with less....”
“Information potential is the best term I’ve come up with,” said Marcia.
Bob sighed. “A lovely project, even though you’ve shot me through the heart.”
“Thank you,” said Marcia. She emitted a snort that she covered with two fingers. “That means a lot to me...coming from you.”
“So, how far apart are your clumps? Centimeters? Light years?”
“Millions of miles, I guess, since your computers ran fine for twenty years.”
“Good point. And, we don’t have a clue when or if they will end. Marcia, how would you like to investigate the scope of the clumpiness for a while?”
“That sounds fun.”
Bob thumbed the entry system to the network control center and ushered in Marcia.
“I got visited by several gray-suited gentlemen, but didn’t get asked out once.”
“Ah, a security interview...the only possible explanation for your lack of being hit on.”
“Neckties, white shirts, polished shoes...everything I find frightening.”
“Sorry, this is a secondary facility, but we can move spacecraft here.”
Bob demonstrated the ground-to-ship telemetry links and quantum broadband links for the spaceborne computing platform, the SCP. It relayed experimental data among research and military spacecraft and surface stations.
Bob showed Marcia his experiment to compare the SCP’s traditional radio link with its quantum radio link.
Marcia’s face lit up with the possibilities. “Oh, you’ve found a clean way to compare old technology to new.”
“My bag of tricks includes polar-orbit satellites, equatorial spacecraft, planetary explorers, and a deep-space probe or two.”
“And with surface ships and airships,” said Marcia, “we could map the pockets of resistance in your quantum rebellion.”
“I especially liked the we in that statement.”
Marcia fought off a smile. “What, we physicists? Or we boys and girls?”
“We boy physicists and girl physicists,” said Bob.
Marcia cataloged every thirty-second window during which a spacecraft had a line of sight with another craft. Bob identified which of Marcia’s candidates were useful, considering the crafts’ missions, power systems and the safety of modifying their software. Bob spent the next few weeks with domain experts developing scripts on a simulator to support the experiments.
Bob and Marcia met later and began a data-gathering marathon.
“You’ve heard about winter brownouts in the northeast sector,” said Meredith, poking Sal’s chest. “Some of your cannibalized equipment was substandard. Riots tend to discourage temps, so turnover is high. Training costs are killing me.”
“Hedley, find some training and conflict resolution consultants for Meredith,” said Sal.
Bob stood up to leave.
“Where are you going, Torrent?” said Sal.
“Please, stay a minute longer. I’ve got some unpleasantness.”
“Oh...sure.” Bob made a quick call and sat down. The faces in the room turned sullen.
“Speaking of Congress—”
“Who was speaking of Congress?” said Hedley.
“Guys, Congress slashed my budget. I have to cut one program. No one thinks twice about the year it takes to resurface a mile of roadway, but when the entire infrastructure needs an overhaul, they must have it now.”
“What are you cutting?” said Hedley.
“Transportation. I have a gut feeling that we’d lose that to the feds, anyway, just as we lost Energy. Harold—”
“Yes.” Harold tensed up in his chair.
“I’ve got some bad news...you’re going to have to work with Meredith.”
Harold blinked for a second. “No!” he said. Relief unfolded in his face.
“That’s not funny,” said Meredith. “Well, I could use the help. Water, power and electric is a lot...for a girl,” she said with a smile.
“Thanks, Meredith. You’ve been an inspiration. I was going to offer Bob’s Girl Scout a job, but that’s obviously out the window.”
“We need more spacecraft,” said Bob.
“I was hoping work wouldn’t be mentioned tonight. When do you suppose the movie projector will start working?”
“You’d know better than anyone on the planet, Marcia. It’s probably the broadband feed that failed.” Bob took his pen from his pocket and nervously drummed the armrest of his theater seat.
“We need more samples to prop up our report. If feels thin.”
“We’ve run out of craft to bounce signals off,” said Marcia. “We crudely measured the migration and size of quantum holes. It is what it is.”
“We have nor’easters of increasingly low information potential passing through our space-time coming generally from the center of the galaxy.”
“It is like weather, isn’t it?” said Bob.
She leaned against his shoulder. “Heavy quantum precipitation will fall on the polar regions with drought conditions prevalent along the equator for the next six months—”
“I love it when you talk physics.”
“The Northern Hemisphere will have partly cloudy quantum weather for two years. As with all weather predictions more than six days out, caution is advised.”
“That’s it then, microscopic as it is,” said Bob. “Beats what we had before.” Bob raised the armrest between them.
Marcia then shot up from her seat. “What an idiot!”
“What?” Bob’s face turned red. “I’m sorry. I thought it would be more comfortable—”
“No, silly. What you said...I just had a quantum epiphany. We did great macroscopic measurements, but we need to do microscopic ones. Suppose the clumps are clumpy?”
Bob scratched his chin.
“Suppose our large clumps are composed of bazillions of microscopic clumps.”
“Okay, how is that effectively different?”
“Maybe we could do something about it.”
“Bob, have you logged any billable hours this month?” said Sal. He flashed a twisted smile in Marcia’s direction.
Bob snorted. “We’re busy doing the work of the empire, Sal. You’d be impressed if we charged you what we were worth this month.”
“All I’m getting out of this so far is free beer and bad puns,” said Marcia.
Bob turned red again. “Oh, and this woman here, Miss...?”
“Miss Quan is helping, too, a little.”
“Then I’ll buy her lunch and a nice hat,” said Sal.
“Sal, I got your naïve memo about saving semiconductor foundries,” said Bob. “Why fight that losing battle when we can change the rules?”
“I’m waiting to be impressed,” said Sal.
“This woman and I have assessed the present quantum storm as we call it. Here’s your report.” Bob tossed a printed report into Sal’s lap. “I know you won’t believe it unless it’s written on a dead tree. In short, we think the present misbehavior of quantum computers is a natural phenomenon, not a design flaw of the computer.”
“You’re blaming God? Does He give refunds?” said Sal.
“Think of it as passing rain.”
“And when will the sun shine again?” said Sal.
“Best guesstimation: two years.”
Sal sighed. “Couldn’t it be two weeks or twenty years? Must it end at the same time as the Quantum Retreat Program?”
“When will the next storm arrive?”
“The present one is the only storm we’ve noticed since the first experimental qubit was lit up in a lab. We could have had hundreds of tiny storms—”
“I get it. You’re clueless,” said Sal.
“That is where the weather analogy weakens,” said Marcia. “Earth weather is a closed system, if you include the effects of the sun and nearby objects. The quantum storm is not closed, unless you consider the entire universe—”
“Let’s not,” said Sal. “God, physicists are annoying. Is this a pathetic plea for research funds, Bob?”
“It’s not pathetic. It’s strategic. Marcia and I are going to fix it.” Bob crossed his arms emphatically.
“Of course you are,” said Sal with a laugh. “Marcia, please don’t take my oafish grumbling for lack of appreciation. Your help on this is greatly appreciated.”
“This is part of his people-skills act,” said Bob. “Next, he’ll ingratiate himself on you by telling you what a slug he is and how indispensable you are.”
“Weren’t you listing, Torrent? I already told her what a slug I am. Now you’ve ruined my spiel. Marcia, thanks a hell of a lot.”
“It’s been lovely.” Marcia let a nervous sigh escape.
Bob gathered Marcia under his arm. “Don’t underestimate us, Sal.”
“Really? If you’ve got something, spill it,” said Sal. “We need some good news.”
Bob squeezed Marcia. “We believe—”
“Not yet,” said Marcia. “We need more time.”
Bob was revising his “Quantum Information Potential Assessment” report by adding references to Marcia’s earlier work. He received a call from Marcia, who told him to turn on the TV. Bob’s stomach wrenched.
An industrial accident had disabled one of only three factories that produced special resins needed by semiconductor foundries around the world. One of the other two had closed indefinitely for review since it used similar processes.
“Are you ready to talk, Marcia? This baby’s going to pop any minute.”
“Critical Infrastructure?” said Sal. “Meredith...never mind. It’s reboot time. Our schedule is kaput until we assess the damage to our plans. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised to come in some morning to find the doors padlocked.”
A group gasp filled the room. Sal rarely spoke so negatively.
“Twenty-twenty hindsight informs us that we should have heeded the 1993 accident at one of these same resin factories. That episode crippled the electronics industry and fanned a recession.”
Hedley stood up. “How bad will it get?”
“Dreadful. The economy’s worse now than in 1993.”
“¡Madre de Dios!” said Rafael, kicking the empty Energy chair across the room.
“The quantum semiconductor industry is shutting down while the conventional semiconductor market is starting back up. Now, the fuel of that shift has been sucked dry. But our mission has not changed: to return our infrastructure to...uh, excuse me?”
All eyes turned towards the door.
Four District of Columbia police officers, some suits, and a congressman entered the conference room.
“Sorry Sal,” said Congressman Bennett. “Nothing I could do about it. I wanted to be here so you’d know I still support you.”
Sal knew the drill. No one could remove papers from their offices. The Strategic Computing Labs Foundation program was over.
“Sal, Congressman, I have a very strong recovery program to pitch to you,” said Bob. “This is the worst possible time to do this.”
“It’s already done,” said the congressman, plainly. “All work products remain property of the federal government, according to your employment contracts.”
Bob convinced Sal and the group to meet in a nearby hotel lobby.
“Okay, guys, that was painful,” said Bob. “Maybe it doesn’t matter.”
“Sure,” said Hedley. “You’ve got no kids.”
“Hear me out, Hedley. You might want to sit down, Sal.”
“I’ll hate it that much?”
Sal sat down and the others smiled for a moment.
“Here’s the deal: Sal, I need your yacht.”
Sal laughed nervously. “Um, okay, but could I hear a bit more?”
“Of course. My plan was to scuttle this group before someone did it for us, so—”
“That’s easy to say now,” said Sal. “Makes you look like a genius.”
“No...it’s true,” said Marcia.
“I wanted to leave you and Hedley in place,” said Bob, “a profile small enough to go under the radar. You’d keep the organization alive for a year and a half. You know...baffle them with bullshit...send them more reports than they could absorb—”
“That’s what I do now...did,” said Sal.
“I know that, but you weren’t supposed to admit it in front of the kids.” Bob eyed the others. “Your real job will be to run our new semiconductor company. In a year’s time, we’ll produce a new generation of quantum microcomputers that can retrofit up to forty percent of the existing products, and will be the only choice for new product development.”
“Jesus, Moses, and Mohammed,” said Sal. “Is that all?”
“No. While we organize, you’ll contact foundries and set up a distribution channel. You’ll also grease the path for us to wow the world with our ability to unbreak things. Even with the year on hiatus, we’ll take years off the original schedule you had, Sal.”
“And the yacht?”
“Seed money. There isn’t one dime of venture capital now, especially for quantum computing.” Bob breathed deeply. “I’ll throw in my condo...and Marcia’s, too.”
Marcia slapped him on the arm. “The hell you will.”
“Your stuff is that good?” said Sal.
“That’s why I keep Marcia around,” said Bob. “She figured out that quantum clumpiness is of a microscopic scale and then designed a semiconductor geometry that would compensate for the non-uniformity.”
“That’s why I keep Bob around,” said Marcia. “I wouldn’t have a clue how to exploit the technology in the real world.”
“I assume you’re preparing patent applications,” said Sal.
“Whose names are in the inventors’ field?” said Sal.
Bob smiled. “The intellectual property is Marcia’s alone. She’s been consulting with me, for fun.”
Sal hobbled around the room for a while. “You’re adequate scientists, but you’re both complete Nimrods if you attempt this.”
Bob’s face went slack. “But...Sal?”
“Why work so bloody hard when you’re doomed to fail? Kids these days....” Sal clucked his tongue at them until their crestfallen faces stabilized. “You kids haven’t a clue what it would take to pull this off.”
Bob slumped in his chair.
“Fortunately, you have me,” said Sal. “If you’re right about your secret sauce, I can license it in five or six months to companies with resources to do this properly. Large companies with people and money. Serious money. And worker bees staring at idle production lines. That is what it takes, kids. Major resources. Not the chump change a yacht and a condo will raise.”
“How the hell do you think Strategic Computing Labs took off?” said Sal. “Because you had a great idea on a sheet of paper?”
“We had you?”
“That’s right, pal. Now, after I do it again, we can all re-form our little group as a self-funded leisure hobby. We’ll meet once a month on the yacht. The rest of the time we’ll manage our relationships with our license partners. None of us will suffer, believe me.”
“Including us?” said Hedley.
Sal put his hand over his heart. “Hedley, that really hurt. Of course, all of us. We’ll be busier than ever. What do you think, kids?”
“Sweet!” said Bob.
“That’s why we all keep you around, Sal,” said Marcia.
“Um, your secret sauce won’t stop working if the quantum storm goes away, will it?”