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Clandestine Games: Junior Recruit
Sunday, October 15, 5:47 a.m.
The USS Black Cat
Fifty miles off the coast of Djibouti, Africa
Mark Johnson was still waking up when the light indicating a message had been intercepted flashed red. The resulting jolt to his 220-pound frame was stronger than the effect of the black coffee he drank religiously each morning. The USS Black Cat, a submarine built for stealth and solo operation, was conducting counter-terrorism surveillance under the orders of the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA). It had been two weeks since any encrypted message from an unidentified source had been detected. Adrenaline jump-started his human circuitry and chased any remaining drowsiness from the 25-year-old black man’s mind.
His eyes focused on the terminal screen as the words came across in real time. The encryption was military grade, and a ghost protocol was in play. He would be lucky to capture a coherent sentence given the scrambling and the speed of transmission. Jesus, what is this? He executed a counter-protocol program that might protect the data integrity. There was a delay. He sat the coffee mug precariously on the right arm of his chair as he focused his full attention on the transmission.
“Loading…..” in a small white box mocked his efforts. “Come on, damn it!” he said out loud to no one. The next few seconds would determine whether he would salvage anything of value from this message.
His fingers flew across the keyboard like a virtuoso pianist. He stopped two maintenance programs, shut down the wifi and prayed this would free up enough of the CPU to do its job.
“Executing…” flashed on the screen, and the thumping of his heart softened a bit. He waited.
Arabic words danced on the screen, wooed in by Mark Johnson’s melodious improvised code that augmented the system’s already-powerful AI. Though machine learning enabled the AI to get smarter every day, it was a virtual AI arms race. Human intervention still sometimes made the difference. He memorized the message in case there was a hard drive failure, then sat back and breathed a sigh of relief, catching the wobbling coffee mug before it could crash to the metal deck. He took a long pull set it down safely on the desk. Not wanting to waste a minute more, he typed up the report and transmitted it to Langley, VA, to the only person authorized to read transcripts like these.
Translated: 15 October 06:03
Manual intervention needed once again. Please have the machine learning model updated with this new data to train it. I barely got it. Here is what we were able to gather post translation from Arabic to English:
“...Affirmative, message received. A recruit is in play… Identity unknown, asset suspected to be exceptional like the others. Age range 19–23. Initiate Game Protocol…”
Mark knew where this was headed. He felt his stomach churn with a mixture of excitement and dread. His agency wasn’t the only one playing games with the lives of America’s most promising young minds.
Monday, 9:00 a.m.
Richard Bachman sipped his espresso as he read the transcript for the fifth time. He smiled as he thought about the events that led up to this transmission. There were only three people in the world who knew about the operation it referred to. Now there would be more. After thirteen years, the biggest gamble of his career was about to play out. He picked up a pair of dice on his desk. Throwing the red cubes with white spots was a nervous habit of his. He compulsively tossed them against the glass paperweight that served as a backstop. Snake eyes.
He made a sound that was a cross between a snicker and sigh of frustration. It had been two years since he had thrown dice for money. The habit had been too costly and threatened to derail his otherwise meteoric rise through the agency. He was only one step away from being the highest ranking intelligence officer of the most powerful nation in the world. Once a gambler, always a gambler. Richard Bachman hadn’t kicked the habit; he’d merely raised the stakes.
He fired off a one-line email to the Director of the CIA: “The Game has begun—it’s time.”
Monday, October 30, 9:10 a.m.
Building 420: Philosophy of Science Midterm
Beads of sweat glistened like pearls as the sunlight cascaded down Cassidy Hutchins’ face. Twenty minutes remained before the professor would require exam books up front. If only she hadn’t lingered so long at Sigma Chi last night, she would have heard the alarm and started the exam with everyone else.
“How did the Kuhn Cycle challenge the then-current conception of science?” Cassidy closed her eyes and shut out the frat boy from her mind. She then pushed through. This is what she called it when she was somehow able to go beyond conscious thought directly into the storehouse of her subconscious. It was tough for her to describe what it felt like and impossible to tell others how she did it. The closest analogy she could formulate was this: the moment a new idea floods into your mind, it seems to pop from nowhere to somewhere, passing through some imperceivable membrane. People describe the experience as an “ah ha” moment. Pushing through was similar, only Cassidy could do it in reverse and on demand.
“The Kuhn Cycle is a simple cycle of progress described by Thomas Kuhn in 1962 in his seminal work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In Structure Kuhn challenged the world’s current conception of science, which was that it was a steady progression of the accumulation of new ideas. In a brilliant series of reviews of past principal scientific advances, Kuhn showed this viewpoint was wrong. Science advanced the most by occasional revolutionary explosions of new knowledge, each revolution triggered by the introduction of new ways of thought so different from the status quo that they must be called new paradigms.”
The words poured through the rift between her subconscious mind to her conscious one. She lifted a few words from the mental textbook, rephrased them in her style, and had the answer on the page just a few minutes later.
Her love of philosophy was not measured in the time spent studying but in how she applied it to her life. Thomas Kuhn, famous for popularizing the terms “paradigm” and “paradigm shift,” was her current lover as he provided her curious intellect something to chew on during the dull cracks of time found in everyday life. What paradigm are we caught up in that we don’t even realize? she often wondered. As fish don’t know it’s water they swim in, what subconscious beliefs limit our thinking and our way of being without our knowledge?
“Apply the Kuhn Cycle to a modern body of knowledge and draw the logical conclusions of an exposed falsehood.” The portal still open, the term “punctuated equilibrium” wafted through, waiting to be grabbed by her conscious mind. She looked up at the clock: ten minutes left.
“The broad paradigm of evolution was a body of knowledge worth challenging. How could such a diverse range of species gradually evolve through natural selection? Punctuated equilibrium, an unproven addendum to the theory, proposes that in rare instances, evolution is not gradual. There is a sudden break from the typical genetic mutation pattern such that two distinct species are formed suddenly as opposed to gradually. Even more aggressive is the theory of quantum evolution where entire families and classes of organisms can develop instantaneously without graduation.”
She drew a model and labeled it with gradualism on the left side, punctuated equilibrium in the middle and quantum evolution on the far right. She then created a Venn diagram of the three paradigms to create a fourth utterly new paradigm at the intersection of the three. “All three paradigms presuppose virtually unlimited time for natural selection to happen,” she wrote.
Time. Unlimited time. A thought came to her that made her pulse quicken. Einstein’s theory of relativity links time and space. But according to quantum theory, time, space and consciousness are intertwined because when a conscious observer is present, light must choose whether to act like a particle or a wave because it’s forced to represent itself in time. Thus, how could unlimited time exist without a consciousness to observe its passing? Doesn’t quantum theory essentially say that consciousness and time are somehow linked, like space and time? For any of the theories involving the passage of time to be true, consciousness must have been ever-present. If ever-present, then that means a fundamentally different understanding of what constitutes reality. “In conclusion,” she wrote furiously, “quarks, strings, atoms, molecules and their derivatives are not the primary building blocks of the universe. Consciousness is.”
“Drop your pencils. Bring your exam books up.” When no one moved, the professor added, “Now, please.”
She was relieved to hear those words. Her over-amped brain had had enough of focused attention. It was already taking her back to the couch where she had finally gotten to talk to the guy at the party who was charming, conflicted, and not quite like the other frat boys she had met.