“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
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 was given the opportunity. It had been on her weekly shopping day that Bernard had unexpectedly entered the world. Shopping day meant it had been pension day, which meant it had been Tuesday:
“When the contractions started mid-morning, I was getting 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. At the time mum lived just a few blocks away, 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 quite common in the weeks prior to givin' birth, mercy why hadn’t the doctor told me about 'em? As I wasn’t due for three more weeks, she said, I was goin' to be just 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 against the deep freeze of the local supermarket, head down and bum up, breathin' up a storm as the next wave of contractions grips me' belly. The pressure in me' nether parts was growin' by the minute. Next thing I know I feel this warm liquid runnin' down me' inner thighs, like I’ve 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.
"As the contraction peaked, though, the pain was too much for me—I completely blacked out. Next thing I know I’m sprawled out on the lino between the frozen peas and the fish fingers, and a crowd has gathered around me, all leanin' in and starin' like. Luckily for me me' neighbour, Madge Woolfrey—God bless her to the moon and back—was also in need of fish fingers that particular Tuesday mornin’. Madge saw the commotion, recognized me and me' predicament immediately, and came to the rescue. She shooed away all the busybodies, propped me up against the deep freeze, and signalled the store manager, Brian, 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 clear that Bernard was simply a small human being, like a miniaturized version of who he might have been. When Helen expressed her concern 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 defined as a dwarf by the medical profession, but he was most definitely small enough to cause surprise and concern when people saw him next to other children of his own age. When Helen took Bernard to the local health clinic for his routine check-ups, the nurses would frown and look suspiciously in her direction. Bernard’s measurements for height and weight were consistently below the 5th percentile for his age. Reassuringly, however, his head circumference was firmly above the 75th percentile, and Helen took great comfort in the fact. Unfortunately, the combination of having a 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 too. How she had become completely hysterical, and had 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, his thumb firmly in his mouth, and a big smile on his face. By the time he was standing and walking about, Helen no longer fretted when Bernard was nowhere to be found. She had, however, insisted that Bernard’s father, Stewart, install a tall security fence all around the house just to be sure that he didn’t wander off into traffic.
Bernard quickly developed his favourite hiding places. These depended on the time of day, 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 favourite, which smelled of onions and spices; 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 he could jam the door closed from the inside, ensuring uninterrupted privacy. By the time he turned eight, Bernard's other favourite hiding place was the attic. Helen’s bad knees meant that she had a great deal of difficulty accessing this particular retreat, which required climbing a steep pull-down ladder, and wriggling through a narrow opening in the ceiling. As a teenager, Bernard moved his bedroom into the attic, installed a lock on the door, and banished Helen altogether.
When Bernard was secreted away in one of his hiding places, he would close his eyes and enter into the fantasy world that existed inside his head. Bernard's inner world always seemed to have been with him; he couldn't ever remember it not being there. This inner realm was safe and comforting to Bernard, unlike the outside world, which mostly felt uninviting, and often quite frankly threatening. Also unlike the outside world, Bernard had friends in his inner world. Friends who understood him, and who didn’t have expectations about who he should be, or how he should behave. As time went on Bernard came to realize that other people didn’t share this vivid inner dimension, or have virtual friends, and he started to feel more and more different from his peers; Bernard really had nothing in common with other children his own age, so he generally had nothing to do with them.
Helen found Bernard to be utterly baffling. She would do everything that she could to show him how much she loved him, but he only ever seemed to resent her for it. She showered him with kisses and affection; she cooked his favourite 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 Bernard 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 labouring in the coalfields south of Edinburgh. He looked after Helen and Bernard as best he could; people described Stewart as a kind man, loyal, 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 weeks after Bernard moved away from home to attend university not long after his 18th 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 life passion—which had also been with him from as early on as he could remember—was acquiring knowledge. Bernard had taught himself to read Helen’s women's magazines before he turned three. His kindergarten teacher was quite interested in the technique that 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."
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 had received from Stewart’s life insurance policy to buy the set for him, knowing how Stewart had loved to encourage Bernard’s passion for reading. He proudly displayed the 21 volumes on a bookshelf made out of cardboard boxes in his bedroom.
The first entry Bernard read was volume 13, page 579: Mesothelioma. After satisfying his curiosity as to why his father had died so prematurely and painfully, Bernard started at volume 1, page 1, and in a little under 18 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 start creeping back into his awareness as he realized that new information had become available since his edition of the 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 Chinese, and he was one of the few children of Asian background in the otherwise homogeneously Anglo-Saxon neighbourhood of Morningside, South Edinburgh, in the 1980s. Kenny was extremely bright and, like Bernard, he loved to read. The two boys would sit quietly together reading their books, occasionally sharing an interesting fact that one or other had discovered. Unfortunately Kenny’s parents were significantly wealthier than the McCalls, and he 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 he walked past them in the school corridors—deliberately loud enough so that Bernard could hear them—and call him names such as nerd, weirdo, freak, or psycho. Over time Bernard became the protagonist of a number of schoolyard stories: he was the crazy freak who kept animals caged in his bedroom, and 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 wanting to slit their guts open with a big knife; he was the little weirdo who was stockpiling weapons at home, and who would come to school one day and gun down all the beautiful and popular students in a bloody vengeful massacre for all the taunting he had 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 18-year-old intellectual like Bernard, having been born and raised in a poor working-class neighbourhood 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 his contemporaries.
Bernard had, in fact, won a scholarship to attend MIT based on a paper he had 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, computer programming, and virology. The deans of all three faculties kept a keen eye on Bernard’s progress. He kept hearing them say things like “we have a genius in our midst,” and "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 post-graduate program he had been promised when he had 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 two facts that he found most intriguing, and which, 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—used only 10% of its capacity, with 90% of its neurons lying dormant at any one time (a fact generally proved to be erroneous in the years to come).
Secondly, the human brain produces measurable electrical activity. While the amplitude of the voltages that occurred with depolarization of nerve cells in the brain was extremely low, when these small currents were summated they could be measured on the surface of the scalp using an electroencephalogram, an EEG.
Could these two facts be used in combination to explore the possibility of improving brain functioning and memory by increasing brain efficiency?
Early on in his research Bernard played around with the low amplitude squiggles measured by EEG recordings, and 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, analysed, 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 a similar way, Bernard hypothesized, the functional capacity of the human mind could be enhanced significantly by having instantaneous access to the computers computational, memory, 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 tag-line for Bernard’s thesis.
* * *
Integral to Bernard's vision was discovering how to boost the electrical output of the brain sufficiently so as to be able to capture and analyse the complexity of its functioning. This is where he 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 1990s. Although the project still had a number of projected years to run, Bernard was focused on, and obsessed by, the 8-10% of DNA known as heterochromatin that was being omitted from its analysis. The assumption by the scientists involved in the HGP was that heterochromatin was somehow involved in gene regulation and/or suppression, but that it did not specifically code for proteins, and so by definition did not contain genes per se. This assumption bamboozled Bernard, and he had written to the group on a number of occasions expressing his concern . . . he was yet to receive a reply. Surely genetic material involved in gene regulation has to be considered important enough to analyse?
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, 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 were already putting genetic modification into practice when treating diseases such as cystic fibrosis, galactosemia, and Tay-Sachs disease. Why not expand on the extraordinary potential that genetic manipulation had to offer?
It didn’t take Bernard long to analyse 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. 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 brain . . . after the harmful effects of the virus were first neutralized, of course. Bernard did hesitate for a moment when he discovered that this particular virus 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 this 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 work because he quickly grew attached to his laboratory mice. In fact, the mice were his closest living friends at the time—closer than any humans at MIT, that's for sure. Bernard was especially careful to inject the mice with the test viruses only when he was absolutely 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 in actuality all of these mice had 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 behaviour was not demonstrated; biochemistry and haematology 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 of mice.
Along with these promising findings Bernard was able to start measuring and analysing 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 preposterous. Bernard 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 called him a hermit you would be pretty close to the mark. This avoidant behaviour 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 him, 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 laboratory and starting 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 apartment. She would laze around the research lab during the day reading magazines, smoking cigarettes, and occasionally making love to Bernard in a toilet cubicle of the nearby 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 sort of intellectual topics in a way that Bernard had never encountered in another human being before, and she was mesmerized by his 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 such a large percentage of the population was obsessed with sex after all.
A little over a month later, Zoe disappeared. Just as abruptly as she had 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 to brighten up his days. The truth was that the extraordinary person that was Zoe Parker had somehow reached through Bernard's tight armour and touched his heart in a way that no one had ever done before. Then, Zoe had thoroughly broken Bernard's tender heart by leaving without even saying goodbye.
Almost a year to the day after Zoe had disappeared from Bernard’s life she returned for one final visit. This time she carried with her a heavy, squirming, gurgling bundle. Zoe and Bernard's son, Adam, was now four months old. Zoe delivered Adam into Bernard’s care, and disappeared from their lives forever.
* * *
People who didn’t know Bernard to any depth—which was almost everyone—generally described him as unemotional, cold, withdrawn, and aloof. In reality, however, Bernard was intimately in touch with a deep well of emotion that would have surprised most people if he had ever verbalised 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 he care for Adam, yet at the same time still continue to carry out the research work he was so passionate about?
The answer to this 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 burgeoning new field of artificial intelligence.
Only a matter of weeks later, Adam and Bernard moved into a sizeable modern home in suburban Poughkeepsie, upstate New Eden: the home of Abercrombie Industries' major research laboratory. A full-time live-in nanny was part of the employment package, which left Bernard 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 somewhat 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.
Abercrombie Industries quickly 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 four weeks 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 12 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 Santa Rosa, California, was found dead in her sorority room adjacent to the campus of the University of California, Berkley. She 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 quickly ensued, and a matter of weeks later, terrified of the increasingly loud and demanding voices in her head, she had taken her own life.
Bernard was shattered. How could he have overlooked this potential for harm? He had been so fastidious in his research and in the 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 market 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 it could be disastrously detrimental.
The early trickle of problems soon became a flood, and AI was 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 role in.
In order to predict how and why these adverse effects were arising, Bernard starting analysing the data from the 6- and 12-month follow-up questionnaires in more detail. What Bernard discovered was that AI+ was causing an increase in the prevalence of certain negative emotions in injectees. Anger, fear, shame, despair, worthlessness, and meaninglessness were all being reported at alarmingly high levels in the follow up surveys. Along with this finding, Bernard also noticed increasing reports of sexual promiscuity and deviance in people who had 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. Serology testing confirmed VEE antibodies in their blood stream. How could this have happened?
The simple answer was that natural mutation of the VEE virus DNA that would have been expected to occur independent of Bernard’s laboratory manipulation, was 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; Bernard’s genetically modified virus was now as easy to catch as 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 by the VEE virus—and their minds irreversibly affected 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 meant, Bernard created a new, expanded, computer model. 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 human beings on the planet, could result in sufficient thinking-processing-communicating power to develop a sentient collective consciousness! A sentient collective consciousness whose nature was a direct reflection of the human mind when combined with a computer's mechanical intelligence. A sentient collective consciousness that would do anything, including kill, to maintain its survival.
What Bernard couldn’t see at the time—but which became abundantly clear to him subsequently—was that it was the inherent intelligence of the human DNA itself that was the driving force behind this evolutionary step in humanity towards a sentient collective consciousness. Unfortunately, Bernard's modified DNA sequence, that had been inserted via the VEE virus, had altered the native human DNA just enough to permanently shift the path of human evolution. It was now headed into an inevitable dead-end, and towards 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 intended development of a collective consciousness based in a sense of loving unity, interconnectedness, and universal brotherhood that would have been the result of humanities natural 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 their home on fire one night while desperately trying to find a solution to it all. As the house burned, Bernard realised he had to leave Poughkeepsie . . . immediately. With just one bag containing some clothes and a few essentials, he took Adam and they fled to New Eden City. Bernard left behind instructions for Ken Abercrombie outlining how to activate the fail-safe program he had incorporated into the AI+ programming in the early stages: a computer virus that would erase all memory of—but not the existence of—the VEE virus and AI+ from all humans and computers worldwide. It would be as if AI+ never existed.
On March 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 spiralling out of control; increasingly disturbing reports of bizarre anti-social behaviour 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 his 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, ground floor apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He had rented the apartment a few months before on an intuitive hunch that there were going to be problems with Ken Abercrombie and Abercrombie Industries.
Bernard became more withdrawn and introverted than ever in the years following the AI+ disaster. His 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 also. He started collecting and reading treatises on pivotal moments in human history and scientific research, 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 pain he was feeling more and more intensely with each passing day. Within a few years Bernard had accumulated so many books that their small 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 LES apartment.
Adam was Bernard’s main connection with the outside world during this period. Despite being so young, Adam also attended to the slow trickle of customers who somehow found the 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 Chu and her son William, who lived on the second floor; Mrs Chu’s elderly parents, who lived on the first floor; and myself, Angel O, who lived on the third floor.
Mrs Chu, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, had been living in the apartment building since before she was married in the early 1990s. Her husband, Lawrence Chu, had mysteriously disappeared without a trace in 2001. William was just one year older than Adam, and they would play together every day, initially on the front steps of the apartment building, and later in Bernard's Bookstore 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, and other times the boys would disappear together to roam the neighbourhood, go skateboarding or 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 stopping place for savvy New Yorker’s looking for rare books, particularly ones with a philosophical or spiritual bent. The bookstore also 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 of 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 they became his eyes and ears to 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 time that all of this is leading up to: July 2020.
It is a stormy and humid July in New Eden City. A small band of passionate activists—the Eco-Vigilante Action Group (E-VAG)—are holding a strategic planning meeting in Bernard’s Bookstore. Bernard, Mrs Chu, and Amir—Bernard’s new part-time assistant who lives in the studio at the rear of the bookstore now that Bernard and Adam have moved into the third-floor apartment vacated after I moved out of the building a year ago—are sitting together talking. Five other members of E-VAG are also present and engaged in casual conversation. Adam, William, Alex Abercrombie—Ken Abercrombie's gay and recently estranged son—and I arrive after our evening performance at The Garden Cabaret.
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 and vitality, and his passion for helping humanity, but the truth is he is mostly just preoccupied with thinking about finding the solution to his life's great failure. He’s excited however, because he thinks he may have found the answer . . . after all these years. He’s yet to test his hypothesis, or tell anyone else about it.
Occasionally Bernard has a nostalgic flash of the face of his one romantic love, the fierce Zoe Parker, and 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 . . .