Simon Bisson (sbisson) wrote,
Simon Bisson

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Fiction snippet: Raptor

A long section of an unfinished older work: a tale of eco-activism, nifty aircraft, artificial intelligence and the California mountains.


I float on the  edge of the angry sky, skating the lines of wind, as they draw their strange attractors in the sky.  Call me Raptor, for I hunt, for I kill.

The metal and mylar bird stood in the hangar at Groom Lake AFB, dwarfing the black Stealths that snuggled beneath her wings, shining beneath the forced day of the fluorescent lights.  The flight crew swarmed over the aircraft, tuning solar panels, examining the actuators of the fly-by-light systems, digging deep into the digital hearts of the many computers.  Almost time for her to fly free at last.

The black bird soared.  Sally looked up, watching her thesis make its maiden flight into the Sierran sky: "The Hand Reared Bird: Evaluating the Success of Californian Condor Re-breeding Programs", Sally Freis, UCB.  The condor banked, just the feathers moving as it instinctively sought the mountain thermals.  The High Sierra was baking brown gold in the heat of the hottest summer for half a century, and Sally would have preferred to have been on the beach at Santa Cruz.  However, she had promised Dr. Charpentier that she would attend A3's release.
        The official records would refer to the dominant female condor of the 199_ brood as A3, but she would always think of her as Alice: Alice Condor in her freeflight cage, Alice who ate mice from her hands, Alice who so yearned for the skies.  It was good to watch her fly free at last.  Sally remembered the man from the National Geographic who had come to take photographs of her feeding the fledgling Alice only a year or so ago. He had made her use best quality steak, rather than the regular rodents.  Sally had had to clean up the mess, after Alice had returned the gift.  At least the photographer had left by the time she had attempted to re-invent projectile vomiting with her expensive meal.
        Dr. Charpentier looked over at Sally, "So another one takes to the skies, ready to dodge the bullets and avoid the poisons."  He had always been a pessimist, not the man of convictions that most people expected to be running an environmental rescue mission.
        "She is the twelfth this year," Sally was more optimistic, a member of the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, regularly voting for Green candidates and policies in the local elections.  "We haven't lost one yet, and with the satellite tracking data from the released birds, we have vital information that will improve next year's work."
        "Next year...  That's what worries me the most.  Despite our work here, we're unlikely to get any funding from our usual sources.  The cutbacks..."
        The economists called it just a minor blip, but the recession had hit hard at any research projects that weren't vital to economic growth.  Stanford and Livermore had all the money, defence dollars pouring into nanomachines and neural networks, funding squeezed out of super-black programmes.  The Pentagon didn't think that reintroducing the California Condor was as good an idea as artificially intelligent missiles.

Pathfinder was the first of her kind, an aircraft designed to cruise for days high in the atmosphere, waiting for her prey.  Her task, to watch for tactical ballistic missiles and when they left the ground, to destroy them.  Someone once said that there were three ways to stop an attack by ballistic missiles: the best way was to destroy them whilst they were still on the ground, the worst was as to shoot at them as they fell out of sky at you, and the other way, the only other way was to kill them as they boosted for the sky.
        The Pentagon had learnt its lesson after Desert Storm, hiding its disappointment in Patriot with a stream of bullish press releases.  Congress always liked to believe that the taxpayer's money was well spent.  Special forces troops could hunt missiles on the ground, but were useless at stopping pre-emptive attacks.  Terminal defence was too expensive in dollars and lives, and Star Wars discredited, so black money was found to fund a high-altitude aircraft that could provide boost phase ballistic missile defense for the continental USA.
        Alan Steinmetz built aircraft, Steve Kilreagh computers.  Together they built Pathfinder.  They'd wanted to send a robot aircraft around the world, but the Pentagon had other plans for them.  It wanted a long duration airborne early warning and missile intercept platform, and had the dollars to prove it.
        The first thing Alan did, when he saw the contract from the government, was to buy the largest computer aided design system he could find: mechanical drawing, stress and fluid dynamics, aerodynamic modelling.  Alan's team made Pathfinder fly a hundred times around the digital world before the first carbon fibre and kevlar spar came out of the moulds.
        Steve's job was harder.  The software that was to fly Alan's aircraft was to be hundreds of times more complex than the programs that controlled an Airbus A380 or a 777.  So much more complex that Steve had to pack the power of several super-computers into a space not much larger than a laptop PC.  Pathfinder would think for herself.
        "Fuzzy states?  That's not in the specs.  Look at your task list.  You should be writing missile launch control software.  This is go and no go stuff.  Leave the fuzzy neural stuff to the AI teams!  C'mon guys, the 'plane is ready, and we're at least a year behind!  Get coding."  The programming team was rapidly running away from Steve's vision, following the well beaten track of the big military software project.  Thousands of lines of undebuggable code, a hole ready to suck in the government dollars.  At this rate all that Alan's bird would ever do would be to take off, fly around in a circle, and land.
        The Pentagon review team weren't happy.  "Remember the Spruce Goose," they said, "Remember the Sergeant York."  The military wanted results, and they wanted them yesterday.  Alan knew that it was up to him to save Pathfinder, Steve's plane had to fly, it was their dream...

Sally looked through the sheaves of funding requests.  Charpentier had been working hard, trying everyone for grants, everyone from ARPA to the National Geographic.  A few thousand dollars had come in as fees from a BBC wildlife team, but it wasn't enough to run the centre for more than a couple of months.  The eggs in the incubator would never see the welcoming skies.

Alan watched cable on Mondays, rented a video on Tuesdays, ABC Wednesdays, PBS Thursday, NBC Friday, and left the weekends free for whatever might happen.  It was a ritual, he knew it was, but it helped him relax and drift off after a day with his planes.  Today was Thursday, and he was slumped loose on the sofa in his apartment, staring vacantly at the Sony.  A pair of British documentaries, science and animals.  He watched robot insects scurry across a room, behaving like cockroaches, computers pretending to be an array of neurons.  Then a condor swooped over the phosphors, black against the clear blue of high mountain sky, soaring high, king of the winds.
Steve spent most evenings at his keyboard, can of Jolt and pizza to hand.  He was a Real Programmer, even though he owned half the company. He only wore a suit when he was meeting money, preferring surfer in summer and mountaineer in winter.  Tonight he was playing, MUDding, crawling through a multi user dungeon that filled a computer somewhere in Chicago, fighting his way past student geeks as he searched for the password that would let him change this imaginary world.  The phone buzzed twice.
        "Steve?  Alan here."  The phone crackled and hummed, buzzing distortion through his partner's voice.  "I think I've cracked the control system problem.  I'll meet you at the Golden Parrot in half an hour for a beer."
        The phone dropped before Steve could say a word.  Alan was like that, quick and to the point, giving no chance for refusal.  He wasn't easy to work with, but as Steve had known Alan since kindergarten, the software engineer was used to his friend's abrupt manner.  Above all, it was the sky that mattered.

Sally put her salad down, and turned off the television.  Her one room apartment was spartan, an unfolded futon lay by the window, covered in a rumpled quilt.  Sally was sitting at her desk, remembering the bird she had just watched fly across her television.  The roar of the jet fighter that screamed low overhead made her furious.  There were her dollars, the many more dollars than the project needed, dollars tied up in military steel and plastic.  Her plate flew across the room, following the sound of the aircraft, to shatter on the wall.

The Golden Parrot was a student hangout, an all-night bar on the edge of the technology campus.  Alan always drank here, basking in the adulation of the student engineers.  He was the man who built the first supersonic turboprop, the holder of the world long distance sailplane soaring record, the man who made his millions selling high-tech aircraft kits around the world.  They almost worshipped him, when he came down from the heavens to join them, it was if Robert de Niro drank with the drama students or Spielberg with the film production class.
        Alan had a bottle of Mexican beer in his hand, pouring a shot down his throat, when Steve walked in.  He bit hard on the lime, squeezing the juice into his mouth.
        "Another for my friend."
        The barmaid turned to reach for another brown bottle, but as she did, Steve caught a glimpse of the label on Alan's bottle.  "Oh no, not that rat poison.  You'd better make it a Kirin."
        The chilled glass arrived almost instantly, condensation dripping down onto the bar.  Steve picked up the glass, smiled, and took a long drink.
        "I nearly got you that time."  Alan was grinning.
        "No Alan, there is no way ever that you are getting me to drink that chili beer of yours..."  Steve picked up the bottle and peered through the dark glass.  Lurking at the bottom was a yellowing jalapeno.  He'd only drunk this stuff once, at a party at Caltech, back when he and Alan regularly tried to attempt everything at least once.  It had been like drinking iced fire, the capsicins burning his mouth long after the beer had left.
        "So what's the rush?  You knew that I was mudding, and I had nearly made it to the passwords..."  Steve relaxed, nursing the cold beer.
        "I was watching the television."
        "You always watch television."
        "No.  Listen," Alan picked up a battered copy of Scientific American.  "Here."  He turned to a picture of a robot cockroach scurrying across a laboratory.  "The latest in expert systems, neural networks that mimic insect behaviour."
        Steve raised a hand.  "Whoa!  What's that got to do with Pathfinder?"
        "Everything."  Another magazine hit the bar, National Geographic.  A Californian Condor in full flight filled the cover, black and white against the yellow magazine.
        "Bugs and birds?"
        "Your control software...  Imagine it, a neural analogue of a condor flying, being Pathfinder.  We can model everything we need, the responses of the aircraft, the solar panels, the batteries, and then, then we translate them.  Feed these signals into our digital bird brain, let it see them as its muscles, its need for food.  We can make our sensor systems its eyes, tweak its desires with the guidance system and the targeting..."
        "Slow down, let me take this in."  Steve picked up the Scientific American.  He flipped through the article, pulling in keywords, hunting for names.  "I'll need to do a literature search to check this out in detail.  It seems promising though."  Another sip of the beer.  "What brought all this up?"
        "An overdose of Nova."  Alan flipped slowly through the National Geographic, past pictures of Egyptian dams and smoking Polish factories.  "Television."
        "So it has its uses?"
        "Must do, mustn't it..."
        "Another beer?"

Dr. Charpentier was looking through a sheaf of abstracts.  Being asked to referee conference papers was a hazard of having tenure.  That, and teaching freshmen Zoology 101.  The Fifth Annual Conference of Animal Preservation Groups was to be held on Jersey in six months, but even though he was on the conference committee, Charpentier held out little hope of being able to travel across the Atlantic.  Money, money, and less money.  The Californian Condor Project had the best record of any of the re-release programmes, but there didn't seem to be any funding available.
        "A Mr. Steinmetz to see you."  His secretary's head followed her voice round the door.
        "Did he have an appointment?  I don't remember the name..."
        "No, but he said it was urgent."
        "Well, I suppose you'd better show him in."
        A sweat shirted man carrying a briefcase walked in to the office, and silently dropped into a chair, balancing his case on his knees.  He hadn't shaved that morning, salt and pepper stubble standing out against a suntanned face.  The briefcase was battered, a faded small sticker in one corner showing a sailplane, 'Born to Fly'.
        "Dr. Charpentier, I'm Alan Steinmetz, of Steinmetz-Kilreagh Aviation.  We'd like to make you a proposal."
        Charpentier stayed silent, hoping that this was what he needed, remembering who Alan was, seeing the carbon fibre shape of one of Alan's aircraft slip across his mind's eye, the long wings shifting into the shape of a condor.
        "We understand that the Californian Condor Project will have to close in the next two months, so I, I mean we, wish to guarantee funding for the next five years. Five years at a million dollars a year."
        Charpentier's mouth dropped.  It was so much more than his wildest dreams.  New flight aviaries, new incubators, more staff and students, more satellite tracking time, more condors in the Sierran sky.  "So, where's the catch?"
        "No catches, no twists.  All we want is access to your behavioral data, that and any simulation studies you've done.  Apart from that, everything goes on as before."
        "No interference?"

The frisbees collided and fell tumbling out the sky, active fliers turned into lumps of inert plastic.  Charpentier swore quietly.  He and Sally had been ahead on points, but now Alan's dog had the frisbees in his mouth, and he was heading south down the beach at a fast run, with Steve and one of Charpentier's graduate students in hot pursuit.  The barbecue was being held to celebrate the rebirth of the Californian Condor Project.  Charpentier had invited Alan and Steve, driven by a diplomatic instinct instilled with his Napoleonic heritage.  It seemed to be a success, the two engineers had fitted in well with the condor breeders, exchanging practical jokes with the students, and flirting with the post-graduates.  Sally was sat over by the rocks, sharing a bottle of red wine with Alan whilst they waited for the recovery of the frisbees.  Charpentier grinned, glad to see that the sponsors and the team fitted together so well.
        The dog was finally corralled by a strategic flanking maneuver, one straight from the repertoire of the LA Lakers, with a wall of several students backing up Steve as he dived to grab the dog's legs.  The two disappeared in a flurry of sand, a wrestling match between man and dog.  The sand fell back into place, and Steve stood up holding the frisbees, the dog running around his feet, yipping for his toys.

"It's no good.  The data won't fit the model."  Steve glared at his workstation's screen.  "I can't generate a neural net from this information.  I need more data."
        It had been a hard task, trying to convert Charpentier's data into control software for Pathfinder.  A task made harder without a map of a condor's nervous system.
        "Can't you try to get to work?"  Alan was looking worried, he needed to have the plane flying by the end of next summer, before Congress got wind of the dollars that had dissapeared into California, into his company.
        "I don't think so.  I need to know more about how a condor acts.  Can we get Charpentier to fit some sort of nervous system monitor onto one of his birds?"
        "I'll have a word with him, though I think we'll need to design the rig."

"Alice is doing well.  I think she might even breed this season."  Sally was looking at a plot of the flight patterns of the tagged birds, A3's routes gently mingling with those of G6, a male released three broods ago.  He hadn't bred yet, even though his gene line was one that the team wanted to succeed.  "She seems to have begun to share territory."
        "That's good.  In fact, that's excellent."  Charpentier leant over Sally's shoulder, looking at the map.  He pointed at a knot of flight patterns before asking, "Is that her roost?"
        "I think so, though I'd need to get out there with a camera to prove it."
        "Well then, take the Jeep and a tracker with you tomorrow, and see if it is."
        Charpentier was becoming impatient.  He'd just had a phone call fom Steve, a call in which Steve had insisted that Charpentier had to fit the monitoring equipment that he was about to provide to one of theyounger birds.  Sally's tracking of A3 might just be the break he'd needed.  If Sally could give him a route to A3's roost site he could send out a couple of post-grads to tranquillise the bird, and whilst it slept, fit the monitor.

The Jeep rattled up the mountain track. Alan clung to the seat as the car bounced over yet another pothole.  Sally drove far too fast for the pilot.
        "Slow down."
        "I'm only doing 20"
        "It feels like Mach 3"
        Sally braked hard, slipping the car round a hair pin bend.  The mountainside loomed above them, pines and sun-burnt grass dropping down to the rock strewn river bed far below.
        Steve gasped, "I've watched too many cop shows."
        The steering wheel spun in Sally's hands, as she turned to take an affectionate glance at Steve.  "Why?"
        "I keep imagining the car bouncing down that..."  He waved a hand in the direction of the valley floor.  "Bouncing and burning."
        "Don't worry about that.  You've got better things to worry about"
        "So what should I be worrying about?"
        "This."  As she spoke, Sally pulled the Jeep off the dirt track, turning off the engine.  She pointed up at the peak that loomed above them.  "It's time to go up."  She reached over the seat back, pulling the packs onto her lap.  "I think this one's yours."
        Alan was not the outdoor type.  He liked the mountains, but thought of them more in terms of the winds and thermals, the potentials for soaring.  So, when Sally had invited him along for a walk in the Sierras he rushed out to the nearest hiking shop, to kit himself out with the very latest in high fashion mountain gear.  The fluorescent yellow back-pack seemed to be the most expensive, as did the matching map case and compass.  He already had the hiking boots, he wore them every day.
        Sally led him up the side of the ridge, a steep slope that pulled at his calves, trying to drag him back down to the waiting car.  By the time the slope had levelled to a gentle rise Steve was regretting ever having left his air-conditioned office.  He gulped down a mouthful of water, trying to protect himself from the Californian drought.
        "Not too much now, you'll need it later."  Steve looked up from his bottle, to see Sally heading away from him, a long steady stride taking her up yet another ridge.
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