Sci-fi short about quantum computing, DNA, the origin of life and more...
“What?” said Novak Markov, staring at Max as if he had spoken Chinese. A purple vein rose from his temple.
“Look man, that’s all it says, I swear!”
“Let me see!” Novak wrenched Max’s swivel chair away from the desk. Plastic wheels clacked over ceramic floor tiles, disturbing the meditative hum of the deserted MIT computer lab.
Max held both of his hands in the air at shoulder height, palms bared. He regarded the Ukrainian geneticist with an expression that bordered on amusement, despite the gravity of the situation. “Be my guest,” he said, gesturing at the console with his fingertips. He held his breath; with any luck, his night-long ordeal was coming to an end.
Novak shuffled closer and leaned over the keyboard. The smell of rancid sweat hung about him like a veil, overpowering the typical lab aromas of coffee and whiteboard ink. His eyes raked back and forth over the lines of code on the screen. The rusted pistol in his left hand remained leveled at the bridge of the grad student’s bifocals.
“It’s at the bottom there,” said Max, dropping an index finger to show him. “Next to: ‘Linguistic Analysis Output’.”
“599,” repeated Novak. He sponged his forehead with a grubby sleeve. “But this… this is not language, this is nothing.” His shoulders slumped. “Why would it be nothing?”
“Chin up, man” said Max, unable to resist. “At least it wasn’t 42, right..?”
Click. Novak cocked the pistol and raised it to chest height. “Run program again,” he said.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” said Max. “You have your answer, just like we discussed. You said you’d let me go!”
Markov gave no sign he had heard. “Run it again.”
Max sighed; he may as well argue with the computer. Even with Feynman’s quantum registers and machine learning capabilities, it could take another hour to re-run the program. Still, he thought with a wry smile, at least this would be solid grounds for a deadline extension.
There was no way his thesis was getting finished tonight.
He wheeled back over to the keyboard. With practiced ease, he navigated to Genesis.exe, the algorithm located on the beaten-up USB drive jutting from the side of the monitor. Novak’s immaculate code filled the screen. Max bashed the shortcut to the interface script he had thrown together earlier in the night. Turning to face his captor with an eyebrow raised, he rested a finger on the enter key.
The finger fell.
The rhythmic throb of the cooling pump filled the lab as Feynman awoke and set about his work, devouring binary voltages and spitting out qubits encoded in spinning clouds of quantum probability.
The two sat without speaking as the experimental machine worked away, Novak scratching under his collar like a dog with fleas.
Max had never coped well with extended silences. “This algorithm of yours, Genesis,” he said, “It’s one tidy piece of code. If you really wrote it yourself, I’m impressed.”
Novak eyed him with suspicion through a thick hedge of unkempt eyebrows.
Max continued, “You know, I referenced a few of your papers in my thesis. In some ways, the whole field of DNA Storage owes its existence to your work on dynamic nanomechanics. Without someone to highlight the potential of this technology, I think it’s a safe bet that Feynman would never have been built.” Max frowned. “If not for you, I’d probably be working a nine-to-five at some failing Valley start-up by now.” He shook his head. “You were brilliant. What happened, man?”
Novak’s already pale skin had turned a sickly shade of grey. A bead of perspiration dangled from the tip of his nose. He pulled at a tuft of hair on his chin, and said, “Genetic variation from one human to another is less than one part in two hundred. If blueprints of houses were this way, you would say that all houses were same, no?”
Max gave a sideways nod.
“Between humans and chimpanzees, this number is two parts in one hundred. Houses are still pretty much same. Maybe have drapes instead of blinds.”
“I’m familiar with the basics,” said Max, shooting a glance at the ink-covered thesis titled “A Technique for Long Term Storage of Data in DNA Sequencing” that lay unbound on his desk. It was a working title, a placeholder until he and his supervisor could agree on something better. Apparently, “The Max Cronin Technique™” was off the table.
“Good,” said Novak. “Then you know you share sixty percent of genetic material with fruit fly. Twenty-five percent with grain of rice. And three and half billion years ago,” he paused to wipe spittle from the corner of his mouth. “Tiny piece of Max was wriggling around in primordial goo.”
“So what?” said Max. “I saw enough of Genesis to know that it’s a search algorithm - a good one. What are you hoping to find in this… primordial DNA?”
For a man that looked like he was falling apart, Novak was fast. In an instant his nose was an inch from Max’s, his stench enveloping them both in a pungent cocoon.
“A message,” he said, as one corner of his mouth twitched upward into a grin.
Novak raised one wild eyebrow and tilted his head to the side. His bloodshot eyes drifted toward the suspended ceiling.
The coolant pump cut out; Feynman had finished his work; the lab fell silent once more.
Novak’s gaze snapped earthward, his pupils dilated as he stared at Max. Almost in a whisper, he said, “Read it to me.”
Max returned to the console, once again accessing the output stack and opening the topmost file. He scrolled to the bottom, his eyelids narrowing in confusion as they reached the line that began with the words: ‘Linguistic Analysis Output’.
“What does it say?” said Novak, leaning closer.
“’223’,” said Max. “It just says ‘223’.”
Markov hung his head. “This is nothing,” he said, his voice trembling. “My family, my career, gone… for nothing!”
Squeezing his eyelids together, he raised the pistol to his own temple with a shaking hand.
“Hang on a second,” said Max.
Novak froze, his finger resting on the trigger.
Max glanced at his watch, it was nearly five AM; the cleaners would be here soon, no sense in forcing them to scrub brains off the wall. “Look,” he said. “We ran the same search algorithm on the same strand of DNA twice in a row, and we got two different answers, correct?”
Novak gave the faintest of nods.
“That must mean there’s a mistake. A glitch in the code. I don’t know if it’s in mine or yours, but there has to be one, right? If I’m correct, and we find it, we could run the search again. See if we can’t get a real answer for you.”
Novak slumped against a filing cabinet, the pistol dropped to his side and hung loose from his fingers. “Tak,” he said, nodding as he gazed downward in sullen contemplation. With his free hand he continued to claw at his neck. Flakes of dry skin peeled loose and fell like tiny snowflakes to the floor.
Max massaged an irritation his own neck as he turned back to the monitor. Strange how these things could be contagious.
He found a potential bug in approximately thirty seconds. It was his fault, of course, the interface program had been written at gunpoint, he hadn’t been thinking straight. He swapped a 16-bit integer for a 32. It was plausible that that was causing an overflow glitch, given the amount of data in question. He compiled the code and tapped the enter key.
The coolant pump roared back into life.
Max caught sight of his own reflection in a window across the lab. His skin was ashen, and his eyes had the same sunken look as Novak’s. Perhaps that was to be expected, it had been almost twenty-four hours since he had last slept.
He raked a few fingernails over an itch on his chin, and said, “Panspermia.”
Novak looked up from the floor with a frown.
Max continued, “You think life on Earth was seeded by aliens, right? Panspermia. That’s why you’re here. You’re looking for a message from them, stored inside primordial DNA.”
“They laugh at me, you know,” said Novak, nodding. “At every conference they tell me I am crazy. Now I don’t get invited, even to ones they name after me.” He clenched his jaw, his face twisting into a caricature of steely resolve. “But it must be there. Is only way that makes sense. Why create life only to abandon it to the cosmos?”
Max regarded the other man for a moment. It was clear that the compulsive streak that had once made Novak such an effective scientist had now consumed him, like a predatory wasp hollowing out a caterpillar. The man was a husk, running on fumes, driven by obsession. Max recalled now that Novak had been an orphan. His expression softened; was that pity he felt? “So, these creators of yours,” he said. “You think they left instructions or something, like the Ten Commandments? Or blueprints for some technology we could use to contact them..?”
“I don’t know,” Novak said, shaking his head and glancing downward. “But there has to be something. They must want to meet their children…” His words grew faint as a fit of coughing overcame him.
Max undid the top two buttons of his shirt as he pondered the reply; was it his imagination, or was the lab heating up? “What if we’re just an experiment in a petri dish to them?” he said. “A kind of glimpse into their own origins. Surely they wouldn’t want competition out there. Don’t you think, if we were to contact them, there’s a risk they might come back and, you know… snuff us out?”
A persistent haze had gathered at the edge of Max’s mind. It was an effort just to focus. He really needed some sleep. “Or,” he said. “What if intelligence is just a by-product of some other process? These creators of yours, maybe they spawn life on planets as a way of terraforming them. Without single-celled organisms, earth would still be a poisonous ball of rock. What if we’re nothing more than thieves, sitting here sucking up oxygen that was… meant for someone else?”
The pump spluttered to a halt.
Both men jostled for space in front of the screen as the output file loaded.
By the time Max had read the answer, Novak’s fist was already buried in the center of the wireless keyboard. “43!” he roared as he flung it across the room. A stream of Ukrainian curse words flew after it. Novak raised the pistol and fired twice into the screen. Max fell to the ground, covering his face as shards of glass rained down.
Max opened his eyes. The other man was on the floor, slumped against the filing cabinet with his chin resting on his collarbone. Blood dripped from his nose and pooled in the folds of his sweat-stained shirt. If Novak’s chest hadn’t been rising and falling, Max would have taken him for dead. The coolant pump hummed away in the background.
Max tried to stand, but his legs refused to support his weight. The lab spun around him. He checked his watch; 5.45 AM. Where the hell were the cleaners? He crawled to the wall and levered himself into a sitting position; squeezing his eyes shut. Breathe Max.
Lightning split the clouds in his mind. His eyes snapped open. “Hey… Novak” he said, slurring his words like a drunk. “Those numbers: 599, 223, 43. You notice anything… unusual about them?”
Markov’s head lolled to one side, he gave Max a blank stare. “Primes,” he said at last. “Is descending sequence of prime numbers.” He gasped for breath.
Max coughed and wiped his nose on his sleeve. “Sagan called primes ‘The Universal Language’. Thought we could use them to speak with ET.” He held his arm out in front of him, it was smeared with blood; his own. “These… creators, maybe they thought the same about us?” he said. “But why… why hide a countdown in our DNA..?”
“Look,” said Novak. His eyes, now a jaundiced shade of yellow, were trained upon the remnants of the computer monitor. “Is still running.”
Max followed the other man’s gaze. “It’s… looping,” he said. “Must be jammed.”
The two thieves sat without speaking, the sound of their increasingly labored breathing lost to the stop-start drone of the coolant pump. In the bottom left-hand corner of the shattered screen a single sentence flickered in and out of existence:
‘Linguistic Analysis Output: 11’
‘Linguistic Analysis Output: 11’
‘Linguistic Analysis Output: 11’
‘Linguistic Analysis Output: 7’
‘Linguistic Analysis Output: 7’
‘Linguistic Analysis Output: 5’
‘Linguistic Analysis Output: 3’
‘Linguistic Analysis Output: 2’