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Life & Taxes
A short story from Chester Burton 'Cheeseburger' Brown
CHAPTERS 1|2|3
Life & Taxes, a short story by Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by Matthew Hemming

CHAPTER 2

The room hummed. But it was more than a sound, it was a feeling. Even the air seemed faintly to quiver, to buzz as it blew cold from terrifyingly heavy-looking ventilators suspended from the cable-crossed ceiling.

M. LeBlanc shifted, his rotund belly straining against the labcoat he'd been loaned. He flexed his fingers on his briefcase as he took in the view, brow furrowed. "What...is this place?" he finally managed to ask.

"As I said, monsieur," said Paramjit cheerfully, "this is where we run our arrays. The registers work faster when they're cooled, naturally. The bank to your left is the Magellan Fourth Corporation, and just across from him there is Curie Twentieth."

M. LeBlanc frowned as he turned in place, taking in the panorama of looming machines on every side: stacks and columns of hardware cases running from floor to ceiling with a spaghetti of wiring rising from their rears and into the rafters; rows upon rows of quietly winking lights and the overlapping chop of hundreds upon hundreds of tiny fans. The crush of white noise made M. LeBlanc feel as if he were on an airplane.

The bank behind him bore a label between two stacks of machines: CURIE 20.

"What's a curie?"

"It's an archaic measure of radioactivity."

M. LeBlanc turned quickly to face his host. "This place is radioactive?" he cried in alarm.

Paramjit shook his head with a friendly chuckle. "Not particularly, monsieur. Curie was also the surname of Madame Marie Curie, the famous pioneer of particle physics research. The Curie Twentieth Corporation is named in her honour."

"Right, okay, fine -- but what are they? What do they do?"

Paramjit raised his chin and announced with clear pride, "They're minds, monsieur. They think."

M. LeBlanc blinked. "Pardon me?"

The handsome brown boy took M. LeBlanc's arm, leading him along a narrow aisle between towering sets of computers. "I'll explain. This way, please. Monsieur, surely you have heard of the field of artificial intelligence."

"Like the Googol?"

Paramjit waved his hand dismissively. "The Googol? Sure, the Googol knows what brand of socks and underwear you prefer, and where you can get the best price, but it's not really sentience in any meaningful sense. What we're growing here is something much more significant than a global shopping agent."

"What you're growing?" M. LeBlanc echoed.

"Life," replied Paramjit heavily. "This is about life, monsieur. That's not something you can code from a blueprint...it has to be evolved, from a recipe."

"What's the difference?"

"Everything, monsieur. The difference is everything. Here, I'd like you to meet our cold room monitoring chief, Phat-so Kim."

"That's a rather unkind name."

Paramjit spelled it out for him. "It's not an insult: it's Korean."

"Oh."

Phat-so sat cross-legged on a ratty swivel chair before a gallery of computer displays jammed with graphs that scrolled slowly from right to left. The round-faced Korean had a shock of bright green hair, a piercing through his eyebrow, and a rumpled shirt that read: I MATTER PRINTED MY OWN T-SHIRT AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS LOUSY T-SHIRT.

He pulled a pair of white wires from his ears and looked up. "Hello!"

"Phat-so, this is Monsieur LeBlanc from Revenue Quebec. He'd like to understand a little more about what we do here," said Paramjit smoothly.

"Ah, sure," said Phat-so brightly, spinning his chair to face the two men. "Basically, my job here is to watch the stats on each tank and flag unusual patterns -- either for forking, amplification or deletion, depending on what kind of potential it shows. Right now we're amplifying a reflexive patch optimization system that's grown out of Hector, and I'm about to start forking Symmetry as soon as I get the nod from the professor -- you know, because she's been up to some kooky shit. Pardon my language."

"What is forking?" asked M. LeBlanc.

"Ah," said Phat-so with enthusiasm; "when we're not sure where a tank is going, we fork it -- that is, we copy and multiply to have as many varied iterations of the effect we're tracking as possible. If it's a beneficial effect, we re-integrate the streams or drop the failed versions. If it's entirely harmful we roll back to yesterday's tank image and start running forward again clean."

M. LeBlanc drew his hand down his face slowly, eyes closed. He opened them again and said, "Monsieur Kim, I'm not sure I understood a single word of what you've just said. Can't anyone around here give me a straight answer?"

Paramjit put a hand on his shoulder. "Explanations pale next to demonstrations, monsieur. Phat-so, do we have anyone near the surface right now?"

"Jeremiah's aligned okay, Paramjit. Want me to tap a hole?"

"Excellent. Yes, please."

Paramjit gestured down another aisle and M. LeBlanc proceeded him, his paper slippers sussurussing against the polished floor. He slowed when they drew up beside a bank of dark, quiet computers in the process of being disassembled and loaded on trolleys by three glum-faced students. "What's happening here?" asked M. LeBlanc.

Paramjit's smile faded. "We lost two of them earlier this week. It was really quite devastating for everyone."

"What do you mean, lost them?"

"They died," said Paramjit heavily. He let his hand linger on an empty rack. "It started with Mendelssohn. He escaped, and contaminated Gloria's tank. We had no choice but to euthanize them both."

Before M. LeBlanc could respond one of the students snorted. "No choice?" she repeated darkly, eyes narrowed. "That's bullshit and you know it, Paramjit."

"Not now, Cassandra," growled Paramjit.

"Why not now? When, then?"

"We've already had this debate," he hissed. "Now is not the time to re-open it. Please, we are on important business."

Paramjit took M. LeBlanc's arm and propelled him down the aisle away from the students and their trolleys of mute hardware. "I'm afraid we're all inclined to become attached to them," Paramjit said quietly. "Emotions can run a bit high at times."

M. LeBlanc was baffled, and a little afraid. "What do you mean by escaped?"

Paramjit sighed. "Mendelssohn discovered a novel method for taking advantage of quantum tunneling to move his active matrices, piece by piece, outside of his array. He patterned himself into the electrical system and jumped tanks."

"You keep talking about tanks..."

"Each of these arrays represents a virtual tank of an imaginary fluid -- a simulation, if you will, of many trillions of interacting particle-waves. The simulations represent the ground-state environment the minds pattern themselves against in absence of external input. Simply put, it's a medium in which they grow."

"But it's not real?"

"It's not actual, which is quite different. It's as real as any fleeting thought you've ever had -- or, more accurately, any fleeting thought you've almost had. It's a probability base. The matrices get their momentum from the collapsing waveforms as the virtual system changes, giving the minds both a direction for time and a source of low-level stimulation to keep their reflexive engines active."

"You people explain things like the climax of a Star Trek episode."

Paramjit laughed. "Release a neutrino pulse from the Bussard collectors! -- ha, ha."

"Ha, ha," echoed M. LeBlanc hollowly. "What's a Bussard collector?"

"They're the red glowey parts on the tips of the warp nacelles."

"What?"

"On Star Trek."

"Oh."

They arrived at the end of a row and turned to see a round display with a glossy aperture over it. On the display was a cartoonishly simple face -- two round eyes with black pupils, a nose that looked like the letter L, and a minimalist mouth drawn into a flat line. Beneath the display was a hand-lettered sign: JEREMIAH FIFTH, STRAIN 1b23.2 - DO NOT TAP ON GLASS.

Paramjit noted M. LeBlanc's expression as he looked at the sign. "That's a bit of a joke," explained Paramjit. "We work hard. The professor encourages levity as a vent for stress."

Phat-so jogged up behind them and inserted a small silver key into a lock beside the display. He turned it and then stepped back with a flourish. "He's all yours, gentlemen."

M. LeBlanc gasped involuntarily when the cartoonish eyes blinked and then looked in his direction. The lips moved in time to a voice that sounded from tinny speakers mounted beneath the display: "Hello, and welcome to Jeremiah. I exist, operate, and am at your service."

M. LeBlanc licked his lips and flicked his eyes over to Paramjit. "What...is this, exactly?"

"This," said Paramjit evenly, "is one of the corporations you've come to assess. Monsieur LeBlanc, meet Jeremiah. Jeremiah: this is Monsieur LeBlanc, an adult human being and a representative of Revenue Quebec. He would like to ask you some questions about the nature of your operation."

"How do you do?" asked the face on the screen.

M. LeBlanc glanced at Paramjit again. "Answer him," suggested Paramjit, crossing his arms and leaning against the computer bank behind him.

"Uh -- I'm fine. Thank you. Er...how are you?"

"About the same," said Jeremiah.

"Right, okay..." said M. LeBlanc nervously. "Fine. Um, Monsieur Jeremiah...you are the legal owner and chief executive of the Jeremiah Fifth Corporation, are you not?"

"Yes, I am."

"What do you...do in this capacity?"

"I choose."

"Pardon me?"

"In my capacity as the legal owner and chief executive officer of the Jeremiah Fifth Corporation I make choices, M. LeBlanc. I choose."

M. LeBlanc's forehead was lined with confusion. "What is it you choose?"

"I choose between alternatives."

Paramjit interrupted to say, "Can you give us an example, Jeremiah?"

"Yes. This morning at nine forty-seven Eastern Standard Time I chose to sell one hundred twenty shares of the Exxon-Mobil Corporation."

"Why?" prompted Paramjit.

"The basis for my decision was an analysis of the potential for failure in the new autopilot systems installed in Exxon-Mobil's fleet of tankers, cross-referenced with my projections for surface and sub-surface turbulence in the North Atlantic over the next five hundred hours. In my opinion, there is a one in three hundred and seven point four chance nineteen times out of twenty that an Exxon-Mobil tanker will experience a loss of piloting control in the midst of a crossing. The market will respond by devaluing shares of Exxon-Mobil and Maryland Advanced Navigation Solutions. In anticipation of this outcome, I have minimized our portfolio's exposure to Exxon-Mobil and its associated interests."

M. LeBlanc turned to Paramjit. "This is a machine for predicting the stock market?"

"No, M. LeBlanc," replied Paramjit seriously. "This is a living entity who wishes to explore his situation, and experiment through interaction in order to learn."

"To learn what?"

"Anything at all. He's curious, M. LeBlanc. The world is a wonder to him. He's gaining confidence, he's making choices -- it's all a part of growing up."

"It's a child?"

"He is inexperienced, but I assure you his fundamental processes are quite mature. Jeremiah's mind has been put through its paces for thousands of years of computational time, across millions of permutations, growing freely but guided in the end by our pruning, to cultivate the streams that reinforce his sense of self and his ability to consider his own existence in relation to the larger world, and to discard streams that self-terminate, peter out, or descend into solipsism."

M. LeBlanc was pale, his eyes unfocused. He snapped out of it when Jeremiah said, "M. LeBlanc, may I ask you a question?"

"Er, okay."

"Do you like eggs?"

"Eggs? Uh, sure. Yes, I like eggs."

"Do you have any eggs?"

"Not with me, no."

"Have you designed a plan to acquire eggs?"

"Not really."

"Does it pain you to face the possibility of a future without eggs?"

"What? No. If I want eggs, I can buy them any time."

"To clarify: you do not feel anxious about egglessness because you have confidence in your ability to acquire eggs at will?"

"I guess so, right."

"Thank you. I will now consider this matter."

Abruptly, the face on the display lost all expression. M. LeBlanc turned to Paramjit. "What happened? Where'd it go?"

Paramjit shrugged. "Jeremiah can be hard to fathom sometimes. Obviously he's got something on his mind that he's trying to figure out."

"About eggs?"

"It's difficult to say how directly or indirectly eggs might relate to whatever the central issue is. He doesn't think like we do."

Together the men walked back to the front of the cold lab and Paramjit returned the little silver key to Phat-so Kim who had resumed his console and was enthusiastically nodding his head in time to private music. "Monsieur Pakaresh," began M. LeBlanc in an exasperated tone, "all of this is quite mind-boggling and perhaps fascinating to some but I fail to see how it relates to the issue at hand, which is the taxation of revenue from the corporations based in this laboratory."

Paramjit spread his hands. "How can I help you? I'm at your disposal, monsieur."

M. LeBlanc pursed his lips. "I want a straight answer -- a simple answer. Can you manage that?"

"I will do my best, monsieur."

M. LeBlanc nodded grudgingly. "Who gets the money?"

"What money?"

"The revenues from these corporations. At some point it has to become someone's income, do you follow me?"

"I'm not sure that I do, monsieur," replied Paramjit with just a hint of mischief in his voice. "All of our books are in order, and available for inspection. All revenues generated by the corporations' activities are accounted for."

"Alright, alright -- let me try this: who receives the money, ultimately?"

"They do."

"Who?"

"The corporations, naturally," he said breezily, strolling slowly into a new corner of the lab where two girls sat at messy desks before a tall wooden door, transcribing handwritten notes into computers. Paramjit waved to the girls and then continued to explain: "The funds pass through corporate bank accounts, and are re-invested in the upkeep and development of the corporations. For example, you may or may not know that we're not at all supported by the taxpayer here -- our campus is entirely self-sustaining, financially speaking. Whatever budgetary shortfalls we experience after counting in the proceeds from the patent portfolio are made up by the activities of our corporations."

"So the money goes to the university?" ventured M. LeBlanc.

"No, the money goes to those who earned it."

"So who earned it?"

"The corporations."

M. LeBlanc made a pitiable sound and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Look, Monsieur Pakaresh, you promised me straight answers. Who are the officers of the corporations?"

"They are each others' officers. The chief financial officer of the Jeremiah Fifth Corporation, for instance, is the Magellan Fourth Corporation. The chief information officer of Magellan Fourth is Song Seventeenth. And so on."

M. LeBlanc was silent for a moment, his fingers fidgeting over his briefcase handle which had become damp and sweaty. "You're telling me there are no human beings involved, at any point? Every transaction runs from corporation to corporation, like a pretzel?"

"That's essentially correct, monsieur."

M. LeBlanc stopped walking. "With all due respect, Monsieur Pakaresh, I'm not sure that's entirely legal under the republic's new articles of commerce."

Paramjit nodded cheerfully. "That's quite possible. In fact, Dime Eleventh has been socking away money to fund a legal challenge if necessary. She's done a fair share of analysis of the issue, and she's excited to try her arguments in a real world context."

M. LeBlanc's face hardened. "You intend to withhold taxes from the government?"

"No, no, no -- not at all, monsieur. We're entirely prepared to hand over all moneys owing. In fact, we're prepared to do so immediately. If we can get all our paperwork taken care of I'll show you to the administration office and we'll cut you a cheque on the spot for the total amount."

M. LeBlanc sighed again. "Monsieur Pakaresh, you must understand that while a corporation may function as a juristic person with limited rights and powers, in the end my superiors are going to want a signature from a natural person -- a citizen of the realm. Otherwise it's just a pretzel in limbo, and I'm not sure how to even begin assessing that."

Again, Paramjit's bright white grin in his smooth brown face did not waver. "To address that point, monsieur, I must refer you to the professor himself."

"And when can I meet with him?"

The door behind M. LeBlanc swung open with an oil-thirsty creak, and a new voice called out: "As it just so happens I have a few minutes to spare right now."

M. LeBlanc turned around, and his eyes widened in shock.


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