To say that Peter Drake was in a hurry to get to his basement lab on the campus of Tri-State University in Paterson, New Jersey was an understatement. The handsome, thirty-eight-year-old professor of Computer Science practically jumped from his Nissan Altima and sprinted across the warm grass that led to the side door of the long two-story building nicknamed Hal 9000. The summer session had not yet begun, and the campus was relatively empty save for a few grad students whose projects didn't conform to an academic calendar. Drake ran his hand through brown wavy hair – a feeble attempt to look presentable for his lab assistant and lover, Carla Daniels – and disappeared down concrete steps and into the basement corridor of Hal, where steam pipes and electric conduits ran in long parallel lines right below the ceiling.
Alex Peet, a grad student assigned to Drake for the past two semesters, approached his mentor from the opposite direction.
"Everything ready?" asked Drake.
"Great. Thanks, Alex. Is Carla here?"
"Not yet," said the tall, gangly Peet, who avoided the appellation of geek only because he had, at the prompting of Carla Daniels, thrown away his pocket protector and started wearing Levi's instead of Sears casual wear. "Said she had to some errands to run."
"No problem," said Drake, never breaking stride.
The professor entered his inner sanctum, after swiping a card and punching in an alphanumeric code on the wall pad next to the lab's windowless door. The room was almost completely dark except for a bluish glow coming from what appeared to be a small stage at the far left of the spacious lab, which housed banks of desktop computers, a mainframe, and Drake's glass-enclosed office.
Drake stepped up onto the slightly elevated stage and sat in a straight-back wooden chair. Overhead lights now came on, illuminating a dark blue curtain that provided a semicircular backdrop for the smooth metallic floor of the stage, twelve feet in diameter. A man was sitting at a table near Drake. He wore a maroon felt hat and a long black robe.
"Good morning, Michel," said Drake.
"Good morning, professor. It is good to see you again." The mysterious figure stroked a long, pointed beard. His eyes were dark, penetrating.
Drake smiled. He was probably the only person on the planet to ever engage in regular conversation with Michel Nostradamus. Indeed, only six people knew that the sixteenth century prophet lived at Tri-State University.
Commander Dan Boyle was director of Project Insight. This morning he was visiting the various cubicles where his staff worked, one person to a room. The members of his team were completely silent until Boyle showed up, which was standard protocol on the fourth underground level at Langley where Insight was conducted. One by one, Boyle opened the door to the various cubicles, collecting crude drawings accompanied by a few scribbled lines at the bottom of the sheet.
"I believe it's one of the higher floors of a bombed-out hotel in Kirkuk," said a man in his early thirties, handing the director his latest sketch. Venetian blinds in the window, a withered plant in the corner, and a raggedy sofa – dark brown I think – with wooden chairs nearby. There are a series of low, white buildings on either side of the hotel itself. In the corner, there's a table with clocks, batteries, cell phones, wiring, and dynamite."
Boyle smiled before moving on. "Nice work. Take a break, Charlie. Don't use up all the gray matter at once."
The director moved to the next cubicle.
"Seems to be a small stone house," stated a young, very attractive woman handing Boyle her own picture. "I know that's pretty general given the region. Corrugated roof and a backyard with a lot of animals, probably goats, penned in by a fence constructed of simple rocks piled one on another. A large cache of weapons – very large – buried inside the home. I'm seeing a rug covering some kind of wooden trap door."
Boyle was a sixty-one-year-old man who had worked for The Company since the days of the Cold War. He'd been one of the first recruits in the remote viewing experiments conducted by both the United States and the Soviet Union. Few people knew that the program had been gone through several incarnations over the decades since Dan Boyle sat in his own cubicle in 1969 trying to visualize the whereabouts of Soviet airfields and missile silos. Many in the CIA had believed remote viewing to be an utter and complete failure. The success during the Cold War was estimated to be thirty-seven percent, and most of the crewcuts with a high degree of clearance deemed the results to be dumb luck, the product of pure chance. Some of the deputy directors of the agency over the years had disagreed. They didn't care how results were obtained – only that they were. "I don't care if you use divining rods or Ouija boards," proclaimed one of these directors in the early 1980s – just give me data I can use.
The entire remote viewing program would have probably been scrapped nevertheless were it not for the keen interest The Company developed in Near Death Experiences in the mid-eighties. At the time, over eight million Americans had reported going into the light and coming back after life reviews, reunions with deceased relatives, and encounters with beings of light.
And almost every last near-death experiencer, upon recovery from whatever injury had triggered the phenomenon, displayed amazing psychic abilities that had been tested and retested by physicians and psychologists who were secretly employed by the CIA. The studies were unequivocal in their findings. People were able to "see" things in remote places, know of events before they happened – even read people's minds. Additionally, their test scores on paranormal inventories and tests were off the chart. There was renewed interest at Langley in remote viewing and paranormal powers in general. Project Insight had been formed in 1987, and Dan Boyle, former "silo hunter" had been named director of the program. Boyle had tested high in ESP in the late sixties, and he was more than familiar with NDEs since his own Dad, Frank Boyle, had suffered a nearly fatal heart attack and returned to tell his son a tale of things about his family's past – things only deceased Boyles would have known. No one, for example, had known that Dan's Aunt Fritzie had had an abortion in the 1930s, not even Dan's father. A little research had proven Frank's claim to be true. Indeed, Frank began to exhibit unusual behavior in several areas, including the ability to know what Dan was about to say before the younger Boyle's tongue could articulate what his brain was thinking.
Dan had remained a believer and was the logical choice to lead a program that not everyone on the agency was aware of. Project Insight didn't officially exist. Dan Boyle's digs where his psychics did their thing was thought to be a division of the CIA's cryptography division. Since 9-11, information was sought to help identify the location of insurgents. (The search for WMDs had turned up nothing.) Some team members were assigned to visualizing North Korea and Iran.
Boyle completed his rounds and approached a room that was accessible through keypad access only. This was the very dark, well-furnished room where Thomas Harding meditated. Harding was Insight's resident prodigy. He himself had nearly drowned and had undergone an NDE. Harding's abilities had convinced Boyle to the middle-aged man's mind wander wherever it went.
For the past two weeks, Harding had sketched only one thing: a mushroom cloud that was indistinguishable from the kind that had spread ugly blossoms over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Boyle entered Harding's inner sanctum and gazed at the man's latest sketch. Another mushroom. Harding himself was slumped over a desk, his head resting on folded hands. He was asleep. The assignment was taking a toll on the former Army lieutenant.
Boyle closed the door quietly and went back to his office to analyze the other pictures he'd collected.
"Damn," he muttered. "What exactly is Harding seeing inside that rewired head of his?"
Peter Drake sat patiently, looking at the fabled seer. "Run quatrain diagnostic," Peter said casually. He did this every time he began a session to ensure that the program was functioning properly.
Nostradamus closed his eyes and recited the following:The young lion will overtake the older lion
"Thank you, Michel," said Peter, holding a Bic pen over a yellow legal pad. "So what can you tell me today based on world events since our last conversation? Use normal conversational mode."
Nostradamus appeared to gaze into the distance, his eyes unfocused. "There will be an earthquake in Colombia, though not a serious one. There have been tremors there."
"Yes?" Peter scribbled the prediction quickly in blue ink, looking from his page to the prophet.
"Yes. There will also be heavy casualties in Iraq based on a rising number of insurgents and a lack of confidence in the new government." He paused. "The price of gasoline will fall briefly, then climb by the end of the month." Another pause. "Two more category four hurricanes will hit the American mainland based on the temperature of ocean currents in the mid-Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico."
"I see. Can you convert the last prediction regarding storms into quatrain mode for me?"
"Of course.Swirling columns of water stir the ocean,
"Freeze program," Peter ordered.
Nostradamus now sat immoveable as Peter moved to a nearby table and poured a cup of coffee, reviewing Carla Daniels latest stats on the computer's most recent operations.
* * *
Peter Drake was first a foremost a mathematician, having taken is doctorate from Johns Hopkins. His abiding passion, however, was attempting to refine probability statistics and Chaos Theory into accurate forecast models for world events. He had become absorbed by this field as the result of a butterfly.
Chaos theory, somewhat misnamed, is about finding the underlying order in a seemingly random and dynamic system, such as weather patterns. The area was made famous by meteorologist Edward Lorenz, who was running computer calculations to produce a weather forecast. He typed in three digits (.506) to run his model and received a meteorological prediction. When he typed in a six-digit command (.506127) – in other words, more information – he received a far different model instead of a slight variation on the original. His conclusion was that slight changes in models can produce radically different results in weather forecasting. This conclusion came to be known as the Butterfly Effect. Theoretically, the flapping a butterfly's wings (or a bird's according to other models), could slightly change wind currents on an otherwise mild day. The change in wind currents would then start a domino effect, with each successive change causing greater and greater alterations in resulting weather patterns. It was possible, according to Lorenz's simulated computer runs, for a butterfly's movement in the southern hemisphere to cause a tornado in the American Midwest (or elsewhere), thousands of miles away.
The bottom line was that the more refined and specific the information fed to a computer, the greater its capacity to produce a scientific model or a system, such as a weather forecast. Peter had delved in the research of Lorenz and others while a grad student at Johns Hopkins and decided that he wanted to be able to forecast far more than the weather. Why not predict economic and political trends? Or population and demographics? Indeed, Peter reasoned that any system that was dynamic – be it educational, religious, military, sexual, medical – contained trends that could be predicted. The ability to have such fantastic precision in forecasting went far beyond any sociological formulas that dealt in gross generalities of "what might be expected from unpredictable mankind using a limited number of surveys and variables. A refined computer program could predict viral mutations, disease outbreaks, deadly weather systems, military coups, unemployment statistics, inflation, interest rates, the availability of fossil fuels, the rate of global warming – the sky was the limit.
Peter's fellow grad students had years earlier proclaimed their friend to have a God complex as they discussed the notion over pitchers of beer. Years later, Peter was convinced that such accurate predictions could save lives, anticipate famine, and even prevent war itself. Years of fruitless endeavor could be avoided in research, diplomacy, and a thousand other endeavors if men only had access to the reliable information, information that would not negate free will, but offer men sensible choices to offset action based on greed, ignorance, and intuition. The Nostradamus Project was years away from real-world application, and Peter himself conceded that after much testing, he would probably have to approach the United Nations with his programming, not any particular government. In the matter of future practical application, Peter consulted on regular basis with a rather unique advisor at his own university who could be counted on for his discretion and secrecy. Indeed, only five people in the world besides himself knew of Project Nostradamus: Tri-state's chancellor, budget director, Professor Gerald Bennington, and Peter's two assistants, Carla Daniels and Alex Peet.
It had been necessary to let the university's budget director know of the program because of its extremely high cost. A normal computer could never hope to store enough data and perform the amazing number of rapid calculations to give the predictions a margin error or three percent or less. This had left one option: a holographic computer.
Peter was well-versed in basic hologram technology. In fact, the principle of a hologram, even one as simple as making a 3D baseball card, was relatively simple. A laser beam is split into two beams. The first beam bounces off an object and then intersects with the second, the reference beam, on a photographic plate. The result is a holographic image. In a holographic computer, the reference beam is bounced off a mirror and subsequently hits, not a processor chip, but a thin storage crystal made of lithium niobate. The object beam passes through a page of data, which contains thousands of light and dark spots representing the familiar bits of binary computer data – the 0s and 1s that PC technology is built on. When the two beams intersect, creating an interference pattern, the binary information is recorded and transformed on the crystal. The crystals are capable of holding immense amounts of information. A single crystal, for example, can hold anywhere between 100,000 and 300,000 average length novels, or the equivalent of the total number of books shelved at a small-town library. With the use of a thousand crystals, the storage capacity of Peter's holographic computer, nicknamed the Crystal Wizard, was virtually unlimited.
To begin with, Carla and Alex had downloaded every bit of encyclopedic knowledge available on CD Rom. They had then downloaded more specific information on as many disciplines as possible – mathematics, history, language, biology, physics, chemistry, to name just a few. The next phase had been the most challenging: purchasing as much on current events from news services that offered downloads or CDs of the stories they covered. The news stories covered every area of contemporary human life that was worthy of news, from trivia to global politics. Trends in medicine, cyclones in the Midwest, NASA launches, election results – anything fit for internet or hard copy publication was fed to Crystal Wizard. There were naturally gaps in information since it was impossible to find out everything that happened in the world every day, but the information was formidable by anyone's standards, including the Library of Congress or the government's various intelligence agencies. As a precaution, Carla and Alex both entered significant events manually at one of Wizard's many terminals if Peter considered breaking news to be especially significant. This redundancy factor took time but was deemed essential. To try to plug in the gaps, Alex's ongoing mission, besides monitoring the actual functions of the holographic wonder and performing routine maintenance as necessary, was to scavenge PC stores and outlets to look for any and everything on CD that could be added to the enormous crystal databank, stored in a cube, termed Camelot, that measured twenty-five on a side. It was protected by steel plates and was accessed only through a door that resembled that on a bank vault.
This was naturally all cutting edge technology, but Peter wanted to take it one step further. Given the complexities of the models he would be running to ascertain minute changes within predictive models for any given area of culture, he wanted an interface that would be able to talk to him directly. While he could have given the computer an impersonal voice rather easily, he had the technology, thanks to Crystal Wizard, to project a human figure onto the circular stage in his lab. The hologram of Nostradamus was aimed from overhead projectors at the very heavy stage constructed of steel and titanium. The massive weight was needed to keep the light beams coherent or stabilize. Small vibrations seriously distorted the hologram, and Peter had added optical stabilizers to further keep the images as intact and realistic as possible. There was occasional interference, almost like the static and blips on old rabbit ear television screens, but the images remained surprisingly coherent despite some areas that were semi-transparent.
Creating a figure for Wizard to project would have been difficult. A composite face and body could be generated, but it would have no personality. Peter had known it would be far easier to feed his brainchild data on a real individual, and Nostradamus had been Peter's logical choice for an interface, for the prophet had primarily been in the business of predictions. Carla had advised against it on the grounds that too many biases might exist based on known information on the enigmatic sixteenth century figure. He was certainly predisposed to what Carla called a doom and gloom mentality, and she feared that all predictions would be filtered through his rather apocalyptic mindset.
Peter disagreed, citing that Nostradamus was a compassionate individual, an astrologer and doctor who had studied at France's most famous school of medicine, Mont Pellier. Though it was recently asserted that Michel de Nostradame (as his name was pronounced in French) never finished his formal medical training, Peter had researched the man thoroughly and found that there was absolutely no dispute that Nostradamus had treated victims of the Black Plague that decimated most of Europe's population. He refused to engage in the practice of bleeding his patients with leeches, and administered many different herbal potions, including vitamin C made from rose petals. His cure rate was so phenomenal that he was consulted by Catherine de Medici. His prediction that her husband, King Henry II, would die in a joust, was correct, as were his prophecies that she would outlive her three sons' consecutive successions to the throne.
But there were other reasons that Peter made the decision to program Nostradamus into Wizard. He was relentless in his pursuit of truth, and narrowly escaped the Inquisition, not only because his predilection for predictions left him open to charges of witchcraft, but also because he supported the Copernican view that the earth orbited the sun. As far as the predictions themselves, Peter remained highly skeptical. Nostradamus had allegedly predicted the Great Fire of London, the French Revolution, the rise of Napoleon, World War II, spaceflight, the assassination of John Kennedy, and so much more. The prophecies were published in quatrains, or four-line verses, in groups of one hundred, called centuries. The quatrains were enigmatic in the extreme and open to the broadest of interpretations, especially since Nostradamus intentionally encrypted his predictions by rearranging the letters in proper names to avoid direct reference to an individual. If the letters in "Pau nay loron" are rearranged, they become "Naypauloron," or Napoleon. He also used symbols, puns, anagrams, and metaphor heavily – again to stay out of trouble – and intentionally wrote his predictions out of chronological sequence. He admitted to these obfuscations in a letter to his son Caesar that served as a preface to The Centuries, writing that men of good intelligence would be able to penetrate the veil of mystery in which he had shrouded his predictions.
The allure of Nostradamus had been too great for Peter. His ability to disguise large amounts of historical data in cunning riddles and anagrams might be enable Wizard's program to better decode the complex and ever-growing database that Carla and Alex were building. Using the personality of Nostradamus would be like having his very own CIA cryptographer to analyze the vast data streams optically scanned onto the crystal pages inside Camelot. Perhaps more importantly, he believed that his goals were quite compatible with those of Nostradamus, who sought to alleviate mankind's suffering in both his medical practice and his predictions. He'd been concerned, as was Peter Drake, twenty-first century scientist, about man's ability to survive his own dubious ingenuities.
In the long run, he would welcome Nostradamus' insights stemming from his personality. Despite great technological advances – maybe even because of them – the world, as Peter saw it – was flirting with suicide.
Dozens of portraits and etchings of the seer had been fed to the Crystal Wizard, as well as every biographical detail about his life. Finally, every prediction, with accompanying interpretations made over the years by those who studied the prophet, had been downloaded so that the super-computer Wizard was capable of running in both conversational and quatrain modes, and if his twenty-first century predictions seemed to be nothing more than a rewording of his sixteenth century prophecies, then the margin of error for any given prediction would go up accordingly, rendering the data less reliable from a purely mathematical perspective. Everything Nostradamus said while sitting or standing on Peter's stage would be measured against every prophecy made in The Centuries in a nanosecond owing to Wizard's incredible computing speed.
Peter had run many simulations and diagnostics over the past year, and only in the past three months had he solicited regular predictions based on world events from his long-deceased French colleague. So far, he had made many predictions that Carla had deemed rather obvious given past trends that the computer was drawing on. That gasoline prices would rise, for example, was not a risky prediction. Increased insurgent action in Iraq? Not exactly unexpected. As far as killer hurricanes were concerned, Katrina, Rita, and over twenty other storms in 2005 had allowed meteorologists to make the same predictions as the Crystal Wizard. Peter could imagine exactly what Carla would say when she read the read-out from his most recent run: I could have told you all this for the price of a diamond engagement ring.
Still, he knew Carla was intrigued by the project, their romantic connection notwithstanding. She'd done her doctoral work on fractal geometry and Chaos Theory at Stanford, and the two had met at a seminar at Boulder, Colorado shortly after Peter's divorce. He had extended the offer to her to become his assistant, and romance had followed soon thereafter. "You're my rebound romance," Peter had warned her. "It feels right to me," she had replied. "I'm a big girl. I'll take my chances."
* * *
Peter finished his coffee and walked back toward the stage. Something was very wrong.
Nostradamus sat up straighter and addressed Peter. "I'm glad you have returned, professor," said the holographic figure. "I have troubling news."
Peter was certain he had left the program in freeze mode when before pouring his coffee, but he hid his consternation and smiled affably at Nostradamus. "Tell me what's bothering you," he said sympathetically.
"There is going to be a sharp and sudden resurgence in the Hanju Virus.
Hanju had decimated large population centers of the world a few years earlier before herd immunity had been achieved.
Peter nodded very slightly. "How do you know this?"
"Small vermin crawl everywhere, even into the bodies of men. The cry of disease is heard in the streets. Death follows those who do not know the cure."
"Thank you, Michel. That will be all for now." Peter went to the nearest terminal and sent the prophet back into the storage cube and its latticework of crystal sheets. Normally he felt a little sad each time he discontinued the hologram, for he had come to an even greater respect for the man who Crystal Wizard presented as empathetic to the woes of mankind. Carla had been partially right. His personality was definitely shaded toward an intelligent man who uttered his predictions in somber tones of grave concern, even resignation at times.
Today, Peter was alarmed rather than sad. Two anomalies had occurred in the computer program. First, the hologram had somehow become reanimated despite Peter's unequivocal command to "Freeze program." Second, Nostradamus had rendered his last predictions in quatrain mode, even though conversational protocols had been engaged and quatrain speech had been turned off before Peter had walked away from the stage.
Peter had a luncheon engagement with a colleague from the Foreign Language Department, but he would return in the early afternoon to run a full diagnostic sequence to see why Crystal Wizard was defying its programming. Computer glitches occurred in all computers, but the more sophisticated the program, the harder it was to track down the little cyber demons that could cause a program to malfunction. With a network and database as large as Crystal Wizard's, the task would be formidable.
And what, though Peter, if Nostradamus was correct. What if the Hanju Virus was going to mutate and start a new pandemic? The issue of what to do if the program predicted something quite serious had been discussed with Gerald Bennington before, but always in a theoretical context. Crystal Wizard, however, had just kicked theory in the ass.
The issue was now very real.
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