Chop Wood Carry Water S1:E1

“The pathway” was what he called it.

Except it wasn’t actually a path, or even a way, for that matter. It connected nothing. It led nowhere. It was a parcel of flat earth, sixty meters long and just less than ninety meters wide. It lay at a 33° angle to the design hub, and from our window on DT12, you could see just the furthest corner of it. From the right position, you could make out, through our window, a small, scalene triangle of incongruous, soft, living green, where it ran into the pale, violet-metal edge of the grading canopy on one side, and the footings of the Tekhenu Tower on the other. He would stand in that exact spot, by the window, for long periods of time, nearly motionless.

‘The pathway,’ along with the knowledge of it, what it had once been, and what it continued to be, was known only to him. He was its eternal custodian, Kelvin Joule, aka “DJ Nano,” the last of the Sevens, Autonomous Creator of the three most successful, and still thriving planetary reclamation systems – including the free-floating self-sustaining state of Nylontia5G, and his crowning achievement, his final deployed sequence, the SunWindSea linkage.

To every other unit, ‘the pathway’ remained a vague mystery, and a fact of life. It was simply something that was always there, always had been, for as long as any of us could recall. It predated even the last two QuestAR managers, the longest-tenured adaptability engineering staff in situ, and they were gone long before I was tasked.

For a long period of time, I hadn’t even been aware of its existence. Perhaps because it had no connection to my own workflow, which consisted, in my first term, of analyzing minor energy fluctuations and entropy anomalies in the aforementioned SWSL. Or perhaps because, for quite a long time, I simply didn’t understand what he was talking about when he mentioned it, which was often.

I was ‘a little slow on the uptake’ because the pathway served no purpose to SWSL, which was all I cared about. It served no purpose to anything else, either, I eventually discovered. For as long as I worked in DT12, ‘the pathway’ was continually scheduled for demolition or assimilation into ongoing construction, or about to be conveyed for alternate use, and yet somehow, it managed to remain right where it was, stubbornly, a flat rectangle of landscape without meaning to any of us. Except, that is, Kelvin Joule, and so it remained.

“Look,” he would say, positioning me in the spot, pointing down at his continually threatened, constantly problem-causing, personal pet project. “That’s the pathway. We have to protect it.”

The first time he allowed me into his office, I stood in the doorway for eleven and a half minutes, cataloguing. I had never witnessed anything like what I saw in his inner sanctum, and I grasped why so few colleagues had ever been granted the privilege. On every surface in the room was something drawn, written, assembled or sculpted. Every artifact was stacked, stored, pinned, mag-leved, or dangling within his reach. I had never before seen so many artifacts, so many testaments to an annihilated age, so many…things.

One of them in particular, drew my attention. Hanging directly above and behind his desk was a rectangular block of clear lucite, encased inside of which was an archaic, yellowed and torn sheet of paper. I moved closer to get a better look. He paused at some calculation he was making on an ancient handheld device, and watched me with curiosity. The yellowed page had evidently not been uniformly straight at the moment it was forever fixed in its poly methyl methacrylate tomb, so it appeared like something out of an old photograph, a gently waving flag with one corner ripped off. I leaned forward to see what was written on it. The word

‘PROVERBS’ was visible at the very top, in block letters. It had been written over with ink so many times that it was still legible. Everything else on the paper had long since vanished, evidently long before its entombment, with the exception of one sentence, about half way down the page, which had been similarly preserved with heavy, repeated pen strokes. It read:

“Artificial intelligence is no match for natural stupidity.” 

He started to speak, but the sound of a low, thrumming klaxon filled the room. Before I knew what was happening, Kelvin propelled himself out of his seat, and was out the door.

“Tally ho!” he called out, waving me to follow him. “The bastards are up to it again!”

I raced down the hallway after him. Kelvin had somehow arranged to always have a lift ready at his personal disposal, and I barely made it inside after him, before the doors suctioned shut.

Moments later, I was thundering after him across the quad. His springy, old fashioned myoelectric prostheses twanged in rhythm against the stone ahead of me. He reached the pathway and took in the scene. A swarm of gardening nanites had risen up from whatever task they’d been occupied with, and had formed a shifting, humming cloud-wall at the limit of their green world, holding at bay a row of tooling hexapods which had evidently come to claim part of their domain for some department or other. The sound of the impatient hexapods’ scissoring arms, and the clatter of their tiny feet on the stone embankment gave the whole thing a feeling of madness.

Kelvin was hammering pneumatic fingers into his old hand-held device, shouting all the while. “It’s outrageous! The calumny! The betrayal of all that is holy!” I moved around to get a better view of Kelvin as he tapped his head-com and spoke in a more measured fashion. “As per the terms of our last agreement 683 stroke 7 dot ACH–”

I never heard the end of that sentence. The world shifted, and I looked down to find that my right tread had started to sink into the sucking, muddy earth of ‘the pathway.’ Before I could counterbalance, a wave of nanites broke formation into the hexapod army, and one of the larger hexapods whirled toward me. There was a metallic flash. I looked down and saw my lower torso tumble forward into the mud, as my top half dropped down square on the stone embankment, looking up at Kelvin. He smiled at me like the incompetent companion that I clearly was, and then…




Copyright 2017 R. W. Frost and Mechanical Design 101

Graphics:  Sara McCarthy Designs 2017