Dark Hunger


Chapter 5


"Fair. Not really exercising that much."

"Uh-huh. Do you have a job yet?"

"No."

"Prospects?"

"Not really. No."

"Jack," she said. "You have to see a lawyer."

"Maybe in a while."

"Jack. What's the matter with you? This is what you've told me. Your wife is acting cold and angry toward you. She's lying to you. She's acting strange with the kids. She doesn't seem to care about her family. She's angry and absent a lot. It's getting worse. You think she's involved with someone else. Last night, she doesn't even show up or call. And you're just going to let this go without doing anything?"

"I don't know what to do."

"I told you. See a lawyer."

"You think so?"

"You're damn right I think so."

"I don't know ..."

She sighed, a long exasperated hiss. "Jack. Look. I know you're a little passive at times, but-"

"I'm not passive," I said. And I added, "I hate it when you shrink me."

"Your wife is screwing around on you, you think she's building a case to take the kids away from you, and you're just letting it happen. I'd say that's passive."

"What am I supposed to do?"

"I told you." Another exasperated sigh. "Okay. I'm taking a couple of days and coming up to see you."

"Ellen-"

"Don't argue. I'm coming. You can tell Julia I'm going to help out with the kids. I'll be up there this afternoon."

"But-"

"Don't argue."

And she got off the phone.

* * *

I'm not passive. I'm thoughtful. Ellen's very energetic, her personality's perfect for a psychologist, because she loves to tell people what to do. Frankly, I think she's pushy. And she thinks I'm passive.

This is Ellen's idea about me. That I went to Stanford in the late seventies, and studied population biology-a purely academic field, with no practical application, no jobs except in universities. In those days population biology was being revolutionized by field studies of animals, and by advances in genetic screening. Both required computer analysis, using advanced mathematical algorithms. I couldn't find the kind of programs I needed for my research, so I began to write them myself. And I slid sideways into computer science-another geeky, purely academic field.

But my graduation just happened to coincide with the rise of Silicon Valley and the personal-computer explosion. Low-number employees at startup companies were making a fortune in the eighties, and I did pretty well at the first one I worked for. I met Julia, and we got married, had kids. Everything was smooth. We were both doing great, just by showing up for work. I got hired away by another company; more perks, bigger options. I just rode the advancing wave into the nineties. By then I wasn't programming anymore, I was supervising software development. And things just fell into place for me, without any real effort on my part. I just fell into my life. I never had to prove myself.

That's Ellen's idea of me. My idea is different. The companies of Silicon Valley are the most intensely competitive in the history of the planet. Everybody works a hundred hours a week. Everybody is racing against milestones. Everybody is cutting development cycles. The cycles were originally three years to a new product, a new version. Then it was two years. Then eighteen months. Now it was twelve months-a new version every year. If you figure beta debugging to golden master takes four months, then you have only eight months to do the actual work. Eight months to revise ten million lines of code, and make sure it all works right. In short, Silicon Valley is no place for a passive person, and I'm not one. I hustled my ass off every minute of every day. I had to prove myself every day-or I'd be gone. That was my idea about myself. I was sure I was right.

Ellen was right about one part, though. A strong streak of luck ran through my career. Because my original field of study had been biology, I had an advantage when computer programs began to explicitly mimic biological systems. In fact, there were programmers who shuttled back and forth between computer simulation and studies of animal groups in the wild, applying the lessons of one to the other.

But further, I had worked in population biology-the study of groups of living organisms. And computer science had evolved in the direction of massively parallel networked structures-the programming of populations of intelligent agents. A special kind of thinking was required to handle populations of agents, and I had been trained in that thinking for years. So I was admirably suited to the trends of my field, and I made excellent progress as the fields emerged. I had been in the right place at the right time.

That much was true.

Agent-based programs that modeled biological populations were increasingly important in the real world. Like my own programs that mimicked ant foraging to control big communications networks. Or programs that mimicked division of labor among termite colonies to control thermostats in a skyscraper. And closely related were the programs that mimicked genetic selection, used for a wide range of applications. In one program, witnesses to a crime were shown nine faces and asked to choose which was most like the criminal, even if none really were; the program then showed them nine more faces, and asked them to choose again; and from many repeated generations the program slowly evolved a highly accurate composite picture of the face, far more accurate than any police artist could make. Witnesses never had to say what exactly they were responding to in each face; they just chose, and the program evolved.

And then there were the biotech companies, which had found they could not successfully engineer new proteins because the proteins tended to fold up weirdly. So now they used genetic selection to "evolve" the new proteins instead. All these procedures had become standard practice in a matter of just a few years. And they were increasingly powerful, increasingly important.

So, yes, I had been in the right place at the right time. But I wasn't passive, I was lucky. I hadn't showered or shaved yet. I went in the bathroom, stripped off my T-shirt, and stared at myself in the mirror. I was startled to see how soft I looked around the gut. I hadn't realized. Of course I was forty, and the fact was, I hadn't been exercising as much lately. Not because I was depressed. I was busy with the kids, and tired a lot of the time. I just didn't feel like exercising, that was all.

I stared at my own reflection, and wondered if Ellen was right.

There's one problem with all psychological knowledge-nobody can apply it to themselves. People can be incredibly astute about the shortcomings of their friends, spouses, children. But they have no insight into themselves at all. The same people who are coldly clear-eyed about the world around them have nothing but fantasies about themselves. Psychological knowledge doesn't work if you look in a mirror. This bizarre fact is, as far as I know, unexplained. Personally, I always thought there was a clue from computer programming, in a procedure called recursion. Recursion means making the program loop back on itself, to use its own information to do things over and over until it gets a result. You use recursion for certain data-sorting algorithms and things like that. But it's got to be done carefully, or you risk having the machine fall into what is called an infinite regress. It's the programming equivalent of those funhouse mirrors that reflect mirrors, and mirrors, ever smaller and smaller, stretching away to infinity. The program keeps going, repeating and repeating, but nothing happens. The machine hangs.

I always figured something similar must happen when people turn their psychological insight-apparatus on themselves. The brain hangs. The thought process goes and goes, but it doesn't get anywhere. It must be something like that, because we know that people can think about themselves indefinitely. Some people think of little else. Yet people never seem to change as a result of their intensive introspection. They never understand themselves better. It's very rare to find genuine self-knowledge.

It's almost as if you need someone else to tell you who you are, or to hold up the mirror for you. Which, if you think about it, is very weird.

Or maybe it's not.

There's an old question in artificial intelligence about whether a program can ever be aware of itself. Most programmers will say it was impossible. People have tried to do it, and failed. But there's a more fundamental version of the question, a philosophical question about whether any machine can understand its own workings. Some people say that's impossible, too. The machine can't know itself for the same reason you can't bite your own teeth. And it certainly seems to be impossible: the human brain is the most complicated structure in the known universe, but brains still know very little about themselves. For the last thirty years, such questions have been fun to kick around with a beer on Friday afternoons after work. They were never taken seriously. But lately these philosophical questions have taken on new importance because there has been rapid progress in reproducing certain brain functions. Not the entire brain, just certain functions. For example, before I was fired, my development team was using multi-agent processing to enable computers to learn, to recognize patterns in data, to understand natural languages, to prioritize and switch tasks. What was important about the programs was that the machines literally learned. They got better at their jobs with experience. Which is more than some human beings can claim. The phone rang. It was Ellen. "Did you call your lawyer?"

"Not yet. For Christ's sake."

"I'm on the 2:10 to San Jose. I'll see you around five at your house."

"Listen, Ellen, it really isn't necessary-"

"I know that. I'm just getting out of town. I need a break. See you soon, Jack." And she hung up.

So now she was handling me.

In any case, I figured there was no point in calling a lawyer today. I had too much to do. The dry cleaning had to be picked up, so I did that. There was a Starbucks across the street, and I went over to get a latte to take with me.

And there was Gary Marder, my attorney, with a very young blonde in low-cut jeans and crop top that left her belly exposed. They were nuzzling each other in the checkout line. She didn't look much older than a college student. I was embarrassed and was turning to leave when Gary saw me, and waved.

"Hey, Jack."

"Hi, Gary."

He held out his hand, and I shook it. He said, "Say hello to Melissa."

I said, "Hi, Melissa."

"Oh hi." She seemed vaguely annoyed at this interruption, although I couldn't be sure. She had that vacant look some young girls get around men. It occurred to me that she couldn't be more than six years older than Nicole. What was she doing with a guy like Gary? "So. How's it going, Jack?" Gary said, slipping his arm around Melissa's bare waist.

"Okay," I said. "Pretty good."

"Yeah? That's good." But he was frowning at me.

"Well, uh, yeah ..." I stood there, hesitating, feeling foolish in front of the girl. She clearly wanted me to leave. But I was thinking of what Ellen would say: You ran into your lawyer and you didn't even ask him?

So I said, "Gary, could I speak to you for a minute?"

"Of course." He gave the girl money to pay for the coffee, and we stepped to one side of the room.

I lowered my voice. "Listen, Gary," I said, "I think I need to see a divorce lawyer."

"Because what?"

"Because I think Julia is having an affair."

"You think? Or you know for a fact?"

"No. I don't know for sure."

"So you just suspect it?"

"Yes."

Gary sighed. He gave me a look.

I said, "And there's other things going on, too. She's starting to say that I am turning the kids against her."

"Alienation of affection," he said, nodding. "Legal cliche du jour. She makes these statements when?"

"When we have fights."

Another sigh. "Jack, couples say all kinds of shit when they fight. It doesn't necessarily mean anything."

"I think it does. I'm worried it does."

"This is upsetting you?"

"Yes."

"Have you seen a marriage counselor?"

"No."

"See one."

"Why?"

"Two reasons. First, because you should. You've been married to Julia a long time, and as far as I know it's been mostly good. And second, because you'll start to establish a record of trying to save the marriage, which contradicts a claim of alienation of affection."

"Yes, but-"

"If you're right that she is starting to build a case, then you have to be extremely careful, my friend. Alienation of affection is a tough argument to defend against. The kids are pissed at Mom, and she says you're behind it. How can you prove it's not true? You can't. Plus you've been home a lot, so it's easier to imagine that it might be true. The court will see you as dissatisfied, and possibly resentful of your working spouse." He held up his hand. "I know, I know none of that's true, Jack, but it's an easy argument to make, that's my point. And her attorney will make it. In your resentment, you turned the kids against her."

"That's bullshit."

"Of course. I know that." He slapped me on the shoulder. "So see a good counselor. If you need names, call my office and Barbara'll give you a couple of reputable ones." I called Julia to tell her that Ellen was coming up for a few days. Of course, I didn't reach Julia, just her voice mail. I left a longish message, explaining what was happening. Then I went to do the shopping because with Ellen staying over, we'd need some extra supplies. I was rolling my cart down the supermarket aisle when I got a call from the hospital. It was the beardless ER doctor again. He was calling to check on Amanda and I said her bruises were almost gone.

"That's good," he said. "Glad to hear it."

I said, "What about the MRI?"

The doctor said the MRI results were not relevant, because the machine had malfunctioned and had never examined Amanda. "In fact, we're worried about all the readings for the last few weeks," he said. "Because apparently the machine was slowly breaking down."

"How do you mean?"

"It was being corroded or something. All the memory chips were turning to powder."

I felt a chill, remembering Eric's MP3 player. "Why would that happen?" I said. "The best guess is it's been corroded by some gas that escaped from the wall lines, probably during the night. Like chlorine gas, that'd do it. Except the thing is, only the memory chips were damaged. The other chips were fine."

Things were getting stranger by the minute. And they got stranger still a few minutes later, when Julia called all cheerful and upbeat, to announce that she was coming home in the afternoon and would be there in plenty of time for dinner.

"It'll be great to see Ellen," she said. "Why is she coming?"

"I think she just wanted to get out of town."

"Well, it'll be great for you to have her around for a few days. Some grown-up company."

"You bet," I said.

I waited for her to explain why she hadn't come home. But all she said was, "Hey, I got to run, Jack, I'll talk to you later-"

"Julia," I said. "Wait a minute."

"What?"

I hesitated, wondering how to put it. I said, "I was worried about you last night."

"You were? Why?"

"When you didn't come home."

"Honey, I called you. I got stuck out at the plant. Didn't you check your messages?"

"Yes ..."

"And you didn't have a message from me?"

"No. I didn't."

"Well, I don't know what happened. I left you a message, Jack. I called the house first and got Maria, but she couldn't, you know, it was too complicated ... So then I called your cell and I left you a message that I was stuck at the plant until today."

"Well, I didn't get it," I said, trying not to sound like I was pouting. "Sorry about that, honey, but check your service. Anyway listen, I really have to go. See you tonight, okay? Kiss kiss."

And she hung up.

I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket and checked it. There was no message. I checked the phone log. There were no calls last night.

Julia hadn't called me. No one had called me.

I began to feel a sinking sensation, that descent into depression again. I felt tired, I couldn't move. I stared at the produce on the supermarket shelves. I couldn't remember why I was there.

I had just about decided to leave the supermarket when my cell phone rang in my hand. I flipped it open. It was Tim Bergman, the guy who had taken over my job at MediaTronics. "Are you sitting down?" he said.

"No. Why?"

"I've got some pretty strange news. Brace yourself."

"Okay ..."

"Don wants to call you."

Don Gross was the head of the company, the guy who had fired me. "What for?"

"He wants to hire you back."

"He wants what?"

"Yeah. I know. It's crazy. To hire you back."

"Why?" I said.

"We're having some problems with distributed systems that we've sold to customers."

"Which ones?"

"Well, PREDPREY."

"That's one of the old ones," I said. "Who sold that?" PREDPREY was a system we'd designed over a year ago. Like most of our programs, it had been based on biological models. PREDPREY was a goal-seeking program based on predator/prey dynamics. But it was extremely simple in its structure.

"Well, Xymos wanted something very simple," Tim said.

"You sold PREDPREY to Xymos?"

"Right. Licensed, actually. With a contract to support it. That's driving us crazy."

"Why?"

"It isn't working right, apparently. Goal seeking has gone haywire. A lot of the time, the program seems to lose its goal."

"I'm not surprised," I said, "because we didn't specify reinforcers." Reinforcers were program weights that sustained the goals. The reason you needed them was that since the networked agents could learn, they might learn in a way that caused them to drift away from the goal. You needed a way to store the original goal so it didn't get lost. The fact was you could easily come to think of agent programs as children. The programs forgot things, lost things, dropped things. It was all emergent behavior. It wasn't programmed, but it was the outcome of programming. And apparently it was happening to Xymos.

"Well," Tim said, "Don figures you were running the team when the program was originally written, so you're the guy to fix it. Plus, your wife is high up in Xymos management, so your joining the team will reassure their top people."

I wasn't sure that was true, but I didn't say anything.

"Anyway, that's the situation," Tim continued. "I'm calling you to ask if Don should call you. Because he doesn't want to get rejected."

I felt a burst of anger. He doesn't want to get rejected. "Tim," I said. "I can't go back to work there."

"Oh, you wouldn't be here. You'd be up at the Xymos fab plant."

"Oh yes? How would that work?"

"Don would hire you as an off-site consultant. Something like that."

"Uh-huh," I said, in my best noncommittal tone. Everything about this proposal sounded like a bad idea. The last thing I wanted to do was go back to work for that son of a bitch Don. And it was always a bad idea to return to a company after you'd been fired-for any reason, under any arrangement. Everybody knew that.

But on the other hand, if I agreed to work as a consultant, it would get rid of my shelf-life problem. And it would get me out of the house. It would accomplish a lot of things. After a pause, I said, "Listen, Tim, let me think about it."

"You want to call me back?"

"Okay. Yes."

"When will you call?" he said.

The tension in his voice was clear. I said, "You've got some urgency about this ..."

"Yeah, well, some. Like I said, that contract's driving us crazy. We have five programmers from the original team practically living out at that Xymos plant. And they're not getting anywhere on this problem. So if you're not going to help us, we have to look elsewhere, right away."

"Okay, I'll call you tomorrow," I said.

"Tomorrow morning?" he said, hinting.

"Okay," I said. "Yes, tomorrow morning."

Tim's call should have made me feel better about things, but it didn't. I took the baby to the park, and pushed her in the swing for a while. Amanda liked being pushed in the swing. She could do it for twenty or thirty minutes at a time, and always cried when I took her out. Later I sat on the concrete curb of the sandbox while she crawled around, and pulled herself up to standing on the concrete turtles and other playthings. One of the older toddlers knocked her over, but she didn't cry; she just got back up. She seemed to like being around the older kids. I watched her, and thought about going back to work.

"Of course you told them yes," Ellen said to me. We were in the kitchen. She had just arrived, her black suitcase unpacked in the corner. Ellen looked exactly the same, still rail-thin, energetic, blond, hyper. My sister never seemed to age. She was drinking a cup of tea from teabags that she had brought with her. Special organic oolong tea from a special shop in San Francisco. That hadn't changed, either-Ellen had always been fussy about food, even as a kid. As an adult, she traveled around with her own teas, her own salad dressings, her own vitamins neatly arranged in little glassine packs.

"No, I didn't," I said. "I didn't tell them yes. I said I'd think about it."

"Think about it? Are you kidding? Jack, you have to go back to work. You know you do." She stared at me, appraising. "You're depressed."

"I'm not."

"You should have some of this tea," she said. "All that coffee is bad for your nerves."

"Tea has more caffeine than coffee."

"Jack. You have to go back to work."

"I know that, Ellen."

"And if it's a consulting job ... wouldn't that be perfect? Solve all your problems?"

"I don't know," I said.

"Really? What don't you know."

"I don't know if I'm getting the full story," I said. "I mean, if Xymos is having all this trouble, how come Julia hasn't said anything about it to me?"

Ellen shook her head. "It sounds like Julia isn't saying much of anything to you these days." She stared at me. "So why didn't you accept right away?"

"I need to check around first."

"Check what, Jack?" Her tone conveyed disbelief. Ellen was acting like I had a psychological problem that needed to be fixed. My sister was starting to get to me, and we'd only been together a few minutes. My older sister, treating me like I was a kid again. I stood up. "Listen, Ellen," I said. "I've spent my life in this business, and I know how it works. There's two possible reasons Don wants me back. The first is the company's in a jam and they think I can help."

"That's what they said."

"Right. That's what they said. But the other possibility is that they've made an incredible mess of things and by now it can't be fixed-and they know it."

"So they want somebody to blame?"

"Right. They want a donkey to pin the tail on."

She frowned. I saw her hesitate. "Do you really think so?"

"I don't know, that's the point," I said. "But I have to find out."

"Which you will do by ..."

"By making some calls. Maybe paying a surprise visit to the fab building tomorrow."

"Okay. That sounds right to me."

"I'm glad I have your approval." I couldn't keep the irritation out of my voice.

"Jack," she said. She got up and hugged me. "I'm just worried about you, that's all."

"I appreciate that," I said. "But you're not helping me."

"Okay. Then what can I do to help you?"

"Watch the kids, while I make some calls."

I figured I would first call Ricky Morse, the guy I'd seen in the supermarket buying Huggies. I had a long relationship with Ricky; he worked at Xymos and he was casual enough about information that he might tell me what was really going on there. The only problem was that Ricky was based in the Valley, and he'd already told me that the action was all at the fab building. But he was a place for me to start.

I called his office, but the receptionist said, "I'm sorry, Mr. Morse is not in the office."

"When is he expected back?"

"I really couldn't say. Do you want voice mail?"

I left Ricky a voice-mail message. Then I called his home number. His wife answered. Mary was getting her Ph.D. in French history; I imagined her studying, bouncing the baby, with a book open on her lap. I said, "How are you, Mary?"

"I'm fine, Jack."

"How's the baby? Ricky tells me you never get diaper rash. I'm jealous." I tried to sound casual. Just a social call.

Mary laughed. "She's a good baby, and we didn't have colic, thank God. But Ricky hasn't been around for the rashes," she said. "We've had some."

I said, "Actually, I'm looking for Ricky. Is he there?"

"No, Jack. He's been gone all week. He's out at that fab plant in Nevada."

"Oh, right." I remembered now that Ricky had mentioned that, when we had met in the supermarket.

"Have you been out to that plant?" Mary said. I thought I detected an uneasy tone.

"No, I haven't, but-"

"Julia is there a lot, isn't she? What does she say about it?" Definitely worried.

"Well, not much. I gather they have new technology that's very hush-hush. Why?"

She hesitated. "Maybe it's my imagination ..."

"What is?"

"Well, sometimes when Ricky calls, he sounds kind of weird to me."

"How?"

"I'm sure he's distracted and working hard, but he says some strange things. He doesn't always make a lot of sense. And he seems evasive. Like he's, I don't know, hiding something."

"Hiding something ..."

She gave a self-deprecating laugh. "I even thought maybe he's having an affair. You know, that woman Mae Chang is out there, and he always liked her. She's so pretty." Mae Chang used to work in my division at MediaTronics. "I hadn't heard she was at the fab plant."

"Yes. I think a lot of the people who used to work for you are there, now."

"Well," I said. "I don't think Ricky is having an affair, Mary. It's just not like him. And it's not like Mae."

"It's the quiet ones you have to watch out for," she said, apparently referring to Mae. "And I'm still nursing, so I haven't lost my weight yet, I mean, my thighs are as big as sides of beef."

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