Chapter 15: Nonlinear Feedback
It took Susan less than an hour to learn her job—which was converting the head designer’s handwritten instructions into punched tape. She used a nice little tape puncher with about a dozen keys. Her new friend Tilda worked next to her, showing her the ropes.
Their overseer was a bland, doughy woman named Dora. Dora wore colorless Army-issue spectacles and a hair bun. Three hard-featured younger women filled out the roster. Susan was the only new hire on this shift.
After Susan had converted her first page of written code into rows of holes on a small spool of paper tape, Tilda smiled and told her to feed the tape into a reader beside her desk. The reader scanned through the tape, one row of holes at a time, then initiated a frantic burst of activity among some other machines—well-worn metal devices that created subsidiary rolls of punched tape on their own, spooling the tapes to and fro according to some hidden logic.
“Dora says the feds used machines like this for the last census,” Tilda told Susan. “I always think of falling dominos. One thing leads to another.”
“I like it a lot in here,” said Susan, savoring the aural filigree of clicks and clacks, the tapping of the solenoids, the hum of the rollers. She felt proud for having initiated this cascade. “I wish I’d brought my audio recorder.”
“You’re a musician?” exclaimed Tilda. “Sister! I play fiddle in a western band—Diamonds And Spades. We do weddings, funerals, and shitkicker BBQs.”
“I’m more a composer than a performer,” said Susan. “Not that I write out notes and clefs and all that razzamatazz. I do—acousmatics? Means I tape tasty noises and paste them up.”
“This isn’t a coffee klatch, girls,” said Dora, suddenly looming over them. “Punch more tape.”
“Sure thing, boss,” said Tilda. “But tell Polly here what’s going on. Polly punched her first spool of tape, and fed it into the reader, and the whole room went batshit. Why for? Huh? Huh? Huh?”
Dora solemnly scanned over Susan’s tape. “This tape told the tabulators and the unit record machines to create a tape that’s a ten-thousand-line model of a hollow ball,” she said. “A spherical shell.” And now she widened her bulging eyes, as if to look more commanding. “Back to work! No lollygagging.”
“I’m, ah, also wondering if the MANIAC can make music,” ventured Susan.
“I’m sure Dr. Ulam can answer that,” said Dora. “When he has time to talk to you. For now please don’t bother him. Dr. Ulam is brilliant, but he’s very distractible.”
“Not that he ever talks to us anyway,” put in Tilda. “He liked to go into the machine room. Warms his hands at the holy vacuum tubes.”
Dora strode across the room to ride herd on the other three. “Pick up the pace, girls. Mankind’s future is in your hands!” The young women met this with jeers and giggles. One of them made a jacking-off gesture. Quietly Susan folded and pocketed the hand-written sheet of instructions that she’d just encoded.
Over in the MANIAC’s room, Alan’s job was slow-paced—until it wasn’t. He was to sit on a stool behind the MANIAC cabinets not doing much of anything until one of the two engineers running the machine would yell something like “Failure in sector Yankee-Foxtrot.”
And then Alan would have to find and replace the bad tube. The MANIAC wasn’t more than ten feet long—and the rear panels on the cabinets were open. He had easy access to the innards. But the thing had over two thousand tubes, and even with the sector advice, Alan would have to decide among at least four or five possible culprits.
The guys running the machine were engineers whom Turing might ordinarily have befriended—one of them was Joe, who’d been helping with the job test yesterday. But they weren’t interested in talking to Alan. He was a pawn, a tool, an inferior. Alan remembered his own inability to properly see the low-ranking techs when he’d been in power at Manchester.
Time dragged as the late afternoon shift wore into night. Alan would have liked to be scheming about how he might meet Ulam and find out the details of the big anti-skug project being set into motion here. But, more so than Susan, Alan was cautious, even paranoid, about thinking his natural thoughts. He kept worrying that Hosty’s skugsniffer might direct his attention inward to the occupants of the lab—and ferret Alan out. Not that there were any signs of that.
Staring blankly at the gently glowing thermionic tubes, awaiting the next circuit failure, Alan drifted into the trance of an invisible man. And that’s when he saw Vassar again.
In the snowstorm on the mesa, Vassar had been a fluttering rhombus, vague at the edges of Alan’s field of perception. But now the ghost was center stage. He resembled a meter-wide manta ray, with lambent wings of the same brightness and tint as the filaments of the vacuum tubes. The long cord of the ray’s tail led deep into the guts of the MANIAC.
“Wake up, spaceman,” teeped Vassar. “I’m back. Can you get me in touch with Susan?”
“Failure in Sector Romeo-Zulu!” called one of the engineers just then, and Alan sprang to work. When he had a moment to think again, Vassar was gone. Perhaps Vassar had by now found Susan on his own.
Alan’s and Susan’s shifts were over at 9 pm. The LANL security was quick to herd them and the other workers out the gates. The two caught a ride to the sketchy, meager core of Los Alamos.
Once they were alone, Alan told Susan about seeing Vassar. Susan hadn’t seen Vassar herself, but she told Alan what she’d heard about Ulam. They grabbed some sopaipillas and chili verde at the Big Bow Wow. Alan was very interested in the instruction sheet that Susan had bagged—he claimed he could reconstruct the system’s whole programming language from these few lines.
“I’ve a knack for these things,” he told Susan. “Like a paleontologist modeling a brontosaurus from a tail bone.”
After their meal, they headed back to the granny cottage, bringing some take-out food for Bill Burroughs, in case he was awake.
Bill was more than awake—he was fully wired, snapping his limbs like a marionette, going full bore on his memoir. He’d set up a typewriter on the kitchen table. His output pages were scattered across the table and the floor.
“I’m a soft machine,” exulted Bill. “A meat teletype from Atlantis.”
Alan found it sexy to see his boyfriend writing. He went over and gave Bill a reckless kiss on the mouth. Delicious. “How far along are you, dear?”
“Jumping around,” said Bill, teeping his pleasure at Alan’s attentions. “One hard pop per page. Right now we’re skugging hicks at nowhere airstrips.”
“And—are you finding your inner skug of use?” asked Alan. He was still trying to decide whether his parasites actually provided a true creative boost.
“The inner light,” said Bill in a sardonic tone. He stretched his hands upward as if towards a blazing sun, then ran trembling fingers across his face. “Wearing the Happy Cloak!” Now he paused and shook his head. “Why do amateurs always think that artists depend on drugs, or demonic possession, or biocomputational implants? It’s all me, Alan, straight or high. But I will grant that my skugs are quite encouraging. It views my chronicle as a gospel. Exodus perhaps, or the Book of Revelation.”
“Have you seen Vassar here?” interrupted Susan. “Alan saw him at LANL.”
“I was writing about his ghost today,” said Bill, pointing at some pages that had ended up in the far corner of the kitchen. “In my deathless prose, your man burns more brightly than ever before. Be a dear and put my pages into some kind of order.”
“Kiss my ass,” said Susan amiably.
“We’re ready to bunk down,” said Alan. “And, Bill, if you’d care to join me for a tussle, I’d be more than—”
“No time!” cried Burroughs, leaning over his typewriter like a race-car driver at the wheel. “Further communications incoming.”
“I envy you,” said Alan. “I’m feeling dull as dog meat.” He set the bag of food from the Big Bow Wow beside Bill’s typewriter. “Burnt offerings for the high scribe.”
“You’re kind,” said Bill, looking up, his eyes frank and mild. “I like that.”
Alan felt a pulse of teep harmony. “I’ll sit with you for a bit before bed.”
“But not too long,” cautioned Bill. “I don’t want any sense that you’re silently petitioning for preferential treatment in my Akashic records.”
Alan laughed and got himself a glass of juice.
Alone in her bed, Susan was lulled by the nested rhythms of the typewriter keys, the ding of the bell, the thunk of the carriage return, and the ratcheting swoop when Bill scrolled in a fresh sheet of paper.
All the while, she stayed focused on the idea of Vassar—summoning him, on the verge of of sleep. And then he was before her: a large, translucent manta ray. His tail led to the socket in the wall. His voice in her head was clearer than before, more energetic.
“Why did you leave me?” teeped Susan. “I thought maybe you’d gone up to heaven. Or that you’d—fallen apart.”
“I’ve been hanging with one of those local cliff dwellers. The ghost of an ancient Tewa Indian. I call him Xurt. He looks like a raven, but with some feathers falling out. He’s been dead for five centuries in those caves. He’s hungry and he’s pissed off. We’re helping each other. I want to get even with Dick Hosty. And he wants to stop those war-pigs from building a monster bomb in his canyon.”
“The army calls it a V-bomb. Project Utopia. Xurt and I found a way to follow the war-pigs’ info trails into their sty.”
“You mean the Los Alamos Labs? Where Alan and I are working?”
“Xurt and I made a nest in their giant computer. I’m like Aladdin in his cave. I’m branching out from there, drawing energy from the circuits of all Los Alamos. The computer, the phone systems, even the power lines. Xurt digs the hook-ups. He wants to haunt the whole lab.” Vassar flexed the winged delta of his body. “Me, I’m setting the stage for the takedown.”
“If Alan has the guts to help me, Dick Hosty is going to die.” Vassar flickered and was gone. And the weary Susan was asleep.
Bill wrote all night, alone in the kitchen. At dawn he gathered up his pages to shuffle and reshuffle them. Gradually a stable configuration emerged. On a whim he wrote The Apocalypse According to Willy Lee across the top of the first page.
Bill felt drained and shaky, as if seeing the world through a layer of plate glass. Finishing any project was horrible—like driving off a cliff at a hundred miles per hour. First came the abrupt come-down, and then the immediate worry that the work wasn’t as good as it had seemed while he was in medias res.
This come-down was particularly harsh. Bill was was seeing blurs in his perception, like trails and smears when he turned his head. Even the modest sounds of Alan waking up and showering had an unpleasant boom and drag. Should he load up on those soothing endorphins from the Man within? No—that was starting to feel like being given brainwash meds in a psych ward.
Alan strode into the kitchen, chipper in his boyish body and, truth be told, too British to bear. “You look all in, Bill,” he fluted. “Is the masterpiece done?”
“You sound like a magnetic tape that’s being dragged at irregular speeds past the read-head,” said Bill irritably. “Horrible.”
“I suspect you’ve overdosed on your endogenous neurotransmitters,” said Alan, his kind face filled with concern. “You need a nice lie-down, Bill.”
“Don’t try to nurse me!” Bill felt a sudden and deep revulsion with his current status. He’d been mutated by a slug and he’d fallen into a sexual relationship with the parasite’s designer. He’d followed the stooge back to small-town America, and now this new lover was playing footsie with the government pigs.
“Perhaps you’d feel better if you phoned your family in Florida?” said the maddening Turing. “You mother and little Billy would love to hear from you.”
“Fuck that sound,” spat Bill. And then he felt ashamed of his coldness. His voice cracked. “Why can’t writing be enough? Why are you physically coming on to me?”
Now Susan was awake too, standing in the door of her room. Susan, Alan and Bill. Three zombies.
“I want out of here!” yelled Bill. He snatched up the phone and dialed Allen Ginsberg’s number in San Francisco. Thanks god he knew it by heart. The phone rang for quite some time, and finally Ginsberg answered, sleepy but alert. It was maybe 4 am out there.
“Make this good,” intoned Ginsberg, right there in the moment. “I’m having a drunken night in my house with a boy.”
“It’s Bill. You have to rescue me.” While saying this, Burroughs shot a hostile look at Turing and Susan. Teaching them a lesson. He felt spiteful as a toad. “I’m in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Imprisoned by religious fanatics.”
“Cultists?” asked Ginsberg, mildly interested. “Any Peyote?”
“No, man, these are mutants. They implanted a new organ in me.”
“Are you high?”
“I’ve been up all night writing a memoir, Allen. Get me out of here today. I’m behind enemy lines.”
“Long road, Bill. Los Alamos where they build the bombs?”
“New bomb on the way. The V-bomb.”
“I’d dig seeing a test,” said Ginsberg. “Intolerable light and radiance, and afterwards the grey world is a ghost, with the juice sizzled away. Maybe I can ask Neal to drive me out. He’s on a tear. Entangled with a madwoman. He needs a break.”
“Cassady? That motor-mouth Okie? Don’t drive, Allen, take a plane. I’ll pay. I’m fat with kale. Gangland deals in Mexico.”
“Neal’s not an Okie, Bill. That’s just an accent he finds amusing. You’re so jealous of Neal. Open your heart.”
“All right, I’ll pay Neal’s ticket too, Mother Superior. Anyway, I’m young now. Irresistible. You lowlifes rent a car in Santa Fe. I’m in Los Alamos in the granny cottage behind the house of Sue Stook the vet’s. She has a statue of horse out front. If you pass the Big Bow Wow, you’ve gone too far.”
“Smallville,” said Ginsberg. “The town where Hiroshima was born! Strange ancient America.”
“I want out of here, Allen. Before they inculcate me into the Higher Mysteries. They’ll trepan my skull, shave my balls, play the thigh-bone trumpets and drag me up the ziggurat. Maybe you bring me a dime bag of junk?”
“We’ll chant, Bill. It’ll fry your hot dog for fair. I’ve learned to overlap the short and the long breaths.” A boy’s voice interrupted Ginsberg, and he ended the call in laughter. “We’re riding to the rescue, Captain Burroughs.”
With Bill as agitated as he was, Susan and Turing left the house early. They stopped by the Big Bow Wow.
“I saw Vassar last night,” Susan announced. “You and I didn’t really get a chance to talk or teep yet today. Thanks to that wacko Burroughs.”
“He’s gone spare,” said Alan. “I fear I’m not enough for him. I’m a boring wonk. Not a writer.” Alan sighed and shook his head, crestfallen. “So what did Vassar tell you?”
“You’re not boring, Alan. You’re the archenemy. Give yourself some credit.”
“Archenemy?” said Alan, slightly puzzled. “Oh, you mean my skugs. I’ve started taking them for granted, rather.”
“World leaders definitely view you as the archenemy,” insisted Susan. “Anyway. The main thing Vassar told me is that LANL is building a bomb against the skugs in that canyon between here and the mesa where Ricky Red Dog lives. The V-bomb. Project Utopia.”
“Those lights we saw when we where lost in the storm,” mused Alan. “That was the bomb site. Why V-bomb? And how would Burroughs know?”
“Not sure about that,” said Susan. “At first I thought Burroughs had teeped the name from me. But there’s that vision he had when he was dead in Mexico. He saw something in heaven?”
“God knows all,” intoned Turing. “Very strange if any of that religious bosh proves out to be true.” As so many times before, he thought of his lost love Christopher Morcom. Safe in heaven dead? Waiting for him? For now, Alan himself was wearing Chris’s face.
“You better make your move on Ulam today,” said Susan, showing him the designer’s handwritten instructions again. “Make a plan, Alan. We can’t just be reacting to events. We have to get Hosty.”
“Dora said this was the code for a spherical shell?” asked Alan, looking at the instructions.
“Her very words,” said Susan, mopping up syrup with her last bit of French toast. She signaled the waitress for seconds.
“Presumably the shell is the shape of the charge they’re going to use in this new bomb,” said Alan. “This V-bomb. They’re simulating the explosion on the MANIAC. Trying to predict how it’ll behave. And if these particular handwritten instructions do all that…” His voice trailed off and he was quiet for a few minutes.
The clattering, humdrum diner faded away. Alan was where he most liked to be, in the land of pure abstractions. And now the answers came into his head. He understood how the computational patterns were tethered to the little knobs of the symbols. With wry amusement, he saw a simple way to throw a monkey-wrench into the MANIAC.
With his pen moving as rapidly and evenly as a mechanical plotter, Alan inscribed twelve lines of code on the back-side of Susan’s sheet of instructions. He read them over one, twice, three times. No margin for error.
“So you want me to punch these onto a tape?” asked Susan, in tight teep synch with him now.
“Right. And this first line ensures that when you feed the code into the reader, the signals go directly over to the MANIAC. Without printing out any intermediary tapes.”
“And then what?” asked Susan.
“I meet Ulam,” said Alan.
Sure enough, around three in the afternoon, the MANIAC went into a frenzy. Its lights flashed with rising intensity; its tape spools whined at a frenetic speed. So viciously crafted was Alan’s logic knot that Joe the engineer had to cut off the computer’s main power switch.
Five minutes later, Stan Ulam appeared. Like the other men, he wore a jacket and tie. He was nearly bald, with thoughtful wrinkles, a large nose, and a slight smile.
“What’s up, Joe? Why has the shit hit the fan?” Although Ulam had a noticeable Polish accent, he made the most of the American idioms he knew.
“A problem with the program, Stan,” said the skinny engineer at the controls. “I can’t quite nail it down. I fetched a copy of the program tape.”
Alan piped up from his stool beside the tube cabinets. “An endless loop, I’ll wager. A jump to a previous program point. An infinitely nested recursion.”
“Advice from the peanut gallery?” said Ulam, mildly amused. “Who do you think you are, Mr. Tube Tech?”
“I’m, ah, Peter Pfaff. I don’t have any formal degrees, but mathematics and computer science are hobbies of mine.”
“Computer science,” said Ulam, as if the phrase left a bad taste in his mouth. “A discipline that explicitly calls itself a science is a pretender. Social science. Political science. Military science. And car science for the grease monkeys in the garage.”
“Ah, but remember Turing’s use of the Halting Problem to solve Hilbert’s Entscheidungsproblem,” said Alan smoothly. “That’s science about computers, Dr. Ulam.”
“Your tube tech is speaking always this way?” said Ulam, turning to the two engineers at the controls. He held his hands stretched out to his sides like a comedian delivering a punch line.
“He only started here yesterday, Dr. Ulam,” said Joe, who was rapidly flipping through the MANIAC’s program tapes. “He never said anything at all so far.”
“There’s the glitch!” cried in the other engineer, who was looking at the paper tape over Joe’s shoulder “A bad jump and an endless loop.” He scowled at Alan. “Suspicious.”
“I made a simple deduction,” said Alan shrugging his shoulders. “I can’t help being clever.”
“Fix the program tape and restart the run,” Ulam told the engineers after a moment’s deliberation. “And call in a replacement for this tube tech. He’s off the job. And tell Dora to fire whoever it was who punched the bad tape. We are not needing practical jokers.” Ulam turned his intent gaze full upon Alan. His eyes were gray-green. “I want to talk to you in private. Come.”
Alan followed Ulam down a hall, not sure what was in store. The two of them took a seat on a couch at a bend of the passage, and Ulam asked Alan an escalating series of questions about maps in operator space, nonlinear wave equations, and the practical implementation of cellular automata upon computing machines. He seemed greatly to enjoy Alan’s answers, and when he was done, he beamed and patted Alan on the knee.
“I am hoping you’re not so intractable a spy that we have to execute you,” said Ulam. “I’m deeply in need of an intelligent person to talk with. No such individuals are working at LANL just now. Come, we’ll let the security men pick your bones.”
Alan had been through the security office for his clearance to be a tube tech. This time, however, he had to offer up his fingerprints, pose for two photos, and submit a blood test. Once more the agents scrutinized the Peter Pfaff ID that he’d grown from his stomach skin. So far as Alan knew, the real Peter and Polly Pfaff had finished their Bandelier day-trip and had moved on to gnarlier slopes by now. Good to have them out of the way. As before, Alan told the security he and Polly were lodging in the Cowboy Motel—and nobody checked. The security office wasn’t very well organized.
Meanwhile the FBI and the CIA sent background information on Peter Pfaff over the teletype—fortunately with no photos attached. Alan was still wearing Christopher Morcom’s face. Above all, Alan was grateful that they didn’t wheel in the skugsniffer. Apparently the security staff didn’t want the skugsniffer inside the secure zones of the lab.
“Can you rush the approval?” Ulam asked the security agent. “I would need Pfaff today and tomorrow.”
“Says here he’s been a folk singer,” said the fat agent, tapping his finger on one of the print-outs. “Questionable.”
“As you know, I’m chief scientist on Project Utopia,” said Ulam. “Crash priority. This colorful character’s input could be a key for keeping the project on time. I am taking my inspiration where I find it.”
“We’ll give him a temporary clearance,” said the security chief, unimpressed. “He’ll have to apply for an extension in three days.” With a flurry of paper-stamping, the man put together a new identity card.
“You are passing now to the inner sanctum,” said Ulam, hurrying Alan along. “We have a better cafeteria. Classified food. And now for my office. You can be yourself in here and talk freely. They are sweeping the place for bugs every week. Even the skugsniffer isn’t nosing in here.”
In Ulam’s lair, shelves of math and physics books filled one wall, with scores of journal reprints mixed in. A massively boxed cathode ray tube sat in a corner above a bank of switches and dials. A heavy wooden table held a fascinating collection of mechanical devices that Ulam must have cobbled together himself, very rough and handmade. A blackboard was bedecked with arcane formulae and odd diagrams. Alan’s idea of paradise.
Ulam picked up a gimmick the size of a shoebox, with a piston on one side and a pair of wooden mousetrap-style levers linked to eccentrically mounted gears.
“Can you make a wild guess what this is?” asked Ulam puckishly.
“A mockup for the initiator cascade of the hydrogen bomb,” said Alan after a moment’s hesitation. Ulam waggled his expressive eyebrows, impressed by Alan’s acumen.
And this was the moment when Alan’s inner skug could wait no more. A tendril shot out from his finger and into Ulam’s belly as if to skug him.
But the finger could find no purchase in Ulam’s flesh. The long extension shriveled to a wisp and dropped away, leaving as a stub—Alan’s original finger.
“I am vaccinated,” said Ulam. “Naturally. Like all of the higher-ups. I was of course suspecting you to be a skugger. Smelling a rat, no?”
Alan looked frantically around the windowless office. The only way out was through the door. Ulam would sound an alarm and the guards would be firing at him. As a skugger he was relatively immune to bullets—but if they had a flame-thrower, he was done for. If only he could make it outdoors, he’d change his form and find a way to slip away, perhaps as a snake beneath the snow. But—how odd—Ulam was simply standing there smiling at him.
“Aren’t you going to do anything?” Alan had to ask.
“Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer,” said Ulam. “Machiavelli. Who better to advise me on project Utopia than a skugger? If you can play along with me, Mr. Pfaff, there may be an opportunity to tell your fellows the details of our plan to exterminate all skuggers.”
“Why would you help us?” asked Alan, bewildered. “Why would you create a security leak?”
“I know the situation from both sides,” said Ulam moving his hanFds up and down like the pans of a scale. “Approximately my entire family was dying in the Holocaust. Exterminated for being Jews. Safe in America, I fight our enemies by working on the atomic bomb and the hydrogen bomb. I helped create the instant holocaust of Hiroshima—and the potential for much worse. I am the exterminated and the exterminator. Both sides.” He dropped his hands.
“I’m—I’m glad you’re willing to talk,” said Alan, damping down the wild skug-chatter in his head. “I should tell you that I’m not Peter Pfaff. I’m Alan Turing.”
“In wonderland!” exclaimed Ulam, his eyes keen. “If true. You and I were once exchanging letters, yes? About what?”
“About Turing machines and the van Kampen characteristic of a continuous group,” said Alan readily. “Fifteen years ago. I pointed out a flaw in your reasoning.”
“Most excellent,” said Ulam, shaking Alan’s hand. “And I was thinking Turing is dead. A suicide, they were saying.”
“The British security’s lie,” said Alan. “The filthy MI5. They wanted to exterminate me for being homosexual.”
“It never stops,” said Ulam. “Persecution upon persecution.”
“I used a biocomputational technique to elude them,” said Alan, still proud of his maneuver. “And this led to my skugs.”
“You the father of the skugs!” exclaimed Ulam. “And I the father of the H-bomb. An apocalyptic partnership. Do you feel you can you work with me, Alan? Is your skug symbiote granting you sufficient free will?”
“My skug is eager to win your confidence,” said Alan. “As am I. But of course you can’t fully trust me.”
“Understood from the start,” said Ulam. “A risk worth taking. You have an unparalleled record in merging mathematics and practical technology. I am knowing of your classified work on breaking the German Enigma code.”
“So set the score even and tell me about Project Utopia,” said Turing hungrily. “The V-bomb in the canyon,”
“Not quite yet,” said Ulam, perhaps surprised that Alan knew even this much. “I need to weigh the risks and benefits. For today—let’s tinker. To warm up. And tomorrow we get to work. First play—then pounce. One day is enough for any job.”
“Fine,” said Alan. “But there’s one more thing. That woman whom you told them to fire. She works as Polly Pfaff in the tape punching room. Posing as my wife. Everything I know, I share with her. Bring her in here with us. I’m concerned about what Dora and your security might do to her. Let her play with us too.”
“She is another mathematician?”
“She composes electronic music.”
“Aha. We are fiddling while Rome burns.”
Ulam picked up a telephone with an elaborate hood over the mouthpiece that kept Alan from hearing what he was saying. The hood was wired to a black box on the floor. It was an electronic sound-cancellation device—Turing himself had built one for the British Navy. You could block a sound by emitting a counter-sound that was precisely out of synch. You needed the hood to send the counter-sound into the room rather than into the mouthpiece with the message-sound.
After a few minutes Ulam set down his hush-phone. “The security chief is flipping his wig. He was very eager to offer this woman to the Grand Inquisitor.”
“Dick Hosty!” exclaimed Alan, his stomach tight. “Please tell me Polly’s safe!”
“She’s on her way here. Frog-marched by two agents who’ll stand guard outside my office. Just in case you two are going bananas.” Ulam pulled a lever on his H-bomb model and the piston snapped up. “Boom!”
Ulam took a liking to Susan, and the three of them had a wonderful afternoon together. For today, Ulam didn’t seem interested in working on whatever it was he was supposed to be doing for Project Utopia. Alan knew the feeling. Sometimes it was best to let subterranean rivers do the preliminary excavation.
Ulam’s cathode ray display was directly wired to the MANIAC, and he was able to route programs to the big machine from the controls on his console, displaying the outputs as slowly moving dots and lines on his screen.
At first the patterns reminded Alan of oil slicks or—come to think of it—the patterns he’d seen in those Christmas-tree lights during his tube tech test in the auditorium. But soon they switched to something else. Orderly-looking waves that unexpectedly pushed up their peaks, took on lumpy, unnatural shapes, and occasionally exploded into chaotic fuzz.
“Nonlinear feedback,” explained Ulam. “Normally a spring is pulling back in proportion to how far you’ve pulled it. It’s linear. But what if it is pulling back in proportion to the third power of its displacement? It’s cubic then, nonlinear. It’s not well known that I was using nonlinear wave equations to design the hydrogen bomb. And now, for Project Utopia, I take a step beyond. Instead of reasonable exponents like three, I am looking at crazy exponents. Like negative seven, or pi, or the square root of minus one.”
“And these exotic nonlinear waves have to do with V-bomb?” said Alan.
“I call these waves V-rays,” said Ulam. “Return tomorrow for our exciting conclusion. But for today, our Mata Hari here has been asking me for—how did put it, my dear?”
“Vile vibrations,” said Susan.
“Yes,” said Ulam. “In the key of V.” He rooted through a cabinet of equipment and managed to wire a speaker to the back of his cathode ray display. Immediately the room was filled with radically ugly sounds. “Vile,” said Ulam, nodding his head to the irregular rhythms. “And I think voluptuous in some way.”
“Can we tape-record this?” Susan asked.
“Why not?” said Ulam. “We are all going bananas. Perhaps in two days the world ends.” He used his hush-phone to call for a reel to reel tape recorder. The security men may have thought it was for documenting confessions from the two questionable employees. In any case, the machine appeared at Ulam’s office door within minutes. Laughing and joking as if they didn’t have a care in the world, Susan and Ulam taped a half-hour’s worth of increasingly gnarly material.
Near the end, Ulam ran a wire from the speaker inputs back into the inputs that led to MANIAC. The sounds grew wondrously dire. And then—like some eldritch jack-in-the-box—Vassar’s glowing manta ray peeped out at Alan and Susan from the back of the cathode ray cabinet.
“Nonlinear feedback,” said Ulam, oblivious of the watchful ghost. He glanced at his watch, weary from the long day’s diversions. “It’s seven in the evening. You two can go.”
“Can I take the reel to reel recorder?” asked Susan boldly. “I have a lot of acousmatic tapes that I want to play.”
“An enterprising woman,” said Ulam. He thought for a moment. “I don’t see that security will object. Although they may want to be sure there’s nothing hidden inside the machine.”
“Can I take this new tape too?” said Susan. “The one we just made? I’m imagining a piece called The Dance Of Two To The Pi.”
“You say dance?” said Ulam. “Not death? I’m hoping you’re right. You can try to take the tape. But good luck getting it past security.” Ulam clicked his heels and offered a mock salute, pretending to be an agent.
“Oh, smuggling something small is easy for a skugger,” said Susan. She pulled up her sweater and pressed the reel against her bare belly. The reel sank in like a coin into dough. “This is how I saved my old tapes at the Gormly ambush,” she remarked, her voice tightening. “But let’s not get into that. We’d better go.”
“I thought you’d have some scientific questions for me,” Alan plaintively reminded Ulam on his way out. “I did offer to help you.”
“Come alone tomorrow,” said Ulam. “Tomorrow is the work day. The big showdown.”
Alan and Susan pumped up their Peter and Polly personalities, and walked down the hall, Susan carrying the tape machine. The security office carefully vetted the machine. And the two guards stuck close to them until they’d reached the front entrance. It was snowing again. A white ambulance was waiting there in the dark with—Dick Hosty at the wheel, wearing a pistol in a shoulder holster
“Ya’ll need a ride into town?” he called. “Dick Hosty’s the name. You’re Peter and Polly Pfaff, lest I’m mistaken. Heard you just lost your job, Polly. Rough deal. Hop on in. It’s started to snow again.”
A low chatter of police talk emanated from a squawk-box on the dash, and a microphone hung near Hosty. The back of the ambulance was filled by a great dark cylinder. Alan didn’t dare let himself think about that. He only hoped that Susan was keeping her guard up as well.
“Thanks, Dick,” said Alan, squeezing into the middle of the bench-style front seat, his voice folksy. “Come on, Polly. He can drop us at the Big Bow Wow.” Alan looked around the ambulance as if in awe. “You get many emergencies out here, Dick?”
“Aw, I don’t use this ambulance for no life-saving, Pete. I got a sick friend in back I like to haul around.”
“Real sorry to hear that,” said Susan, her voice wavering. Alan could feel the tension in her frame. “Your friend’s in an iron lung?”
“Sump’n like that,” said Hosty, pulling onto the road. The headlights carved snow-speckled cones in the night. “Makes some people feel funny when my friend’s around. Right, Roland?”
An extra speaker in the dash crackled. A voice from the cylinder in back. “Right, Dick. I find traitors for you.”
“But Peter and Polly Pfaff here are okay?” asked Hosty, glancing over at them, his face hard and mean.
“AOK, Dick,” said the speaker. “I don’t teep a thing.”
“You sure?” said Hosty, jabbing a jerry-rigged red button on the dash. Alan heard a slight crackling sound behind him, and the speaker emitted a yelp. Hosty had sent an electric shock into the captive skugger.
“Don’t do that, Dick,” begged the skugsniffer. “It hurts more than you know. I promise I’d never hold out on you. If I sniff any skuggers, you’re going to hear about it.”
“Alright then,” said Hosty. “Just makin’ sure.” The ambulance fish-tailed a little as Hosty accelerated towards town. The cop chatter on the squawk-box continued.
“I’m very, very upset that LANL fired me,” said Susan, having a little trouble with her voice. “Peter and I are practically broke. All I did was goof up on one tape-punch, and bam! That Dora’s a bitch. At least my Peter’s still working.”
“Kicked him upstairs, what I heard,” said Hosty in a cozening tone. “Working as a special assistant to Dr. Ulam.”
“Lord knows why,” said Alan, playing the bedazzled rube. “He’s an odd duck, that Dr. Ulam. All I did was mention that math’s a hobby of mine, and he was all over me like a cheap suit. I guess he’s lonely and needs somebody to listen to him. I’m glad to help. Seems like it’s a mighty important project he’s on.”
They reached the sparsely lit center of Los Alamos, little more than a wide place in the road. “You can drop us off by the Bow Wow, Mr. Hosty,” said Susan. “Right here. Now.”
Frozen-faced, the two of them went into the diner, got some take-out food and walked a half-mile further down the highway to Sue Stook’s granny cottage, Alan carrying the reel-to-reel machine, Susan carrying the food, both of them watching their footing in the accumulating snow. They played Peter and Polly Pfaff all the way, talking about Nordic skis. Alan was afraid to say how glad they he was that Hosty and his skugsniffer had headed straight back to LANL from the Big Bow Wow. And Susan didn’t dare vent her hatred of Hosty.
They snapped out of their Pfaff routine when a huge Cadillac pulled up behind them in the cottage’s driveway. Two-tone of course—turquoise on the bottom, cream on top—and with a front grill like a hall of mirrors. The horn was stutter-beeping hello.
“Oh my god,” said Susan, glad for the distraction. “They actually came. Things are going to change.”
“Looks like a couple of natives here with old Bill Burroughs,” whooped the driver, hopping out. “Nine hours door to door, Ginzy. Thanks to the aeroplane.”
“Feeling a little woozy,” said the passenger, levering himself out of the humpbacked whale. “But otherwise a delightful drive from Albuquerque, Neal. Hello all. I’m Allen Ginsberg.” The steady snow crowned his long hair with a halo. “The chains were beating on our fenders, Neal. The owner warned you about that. I hope we don’t get billed.”
“Bill Burroughs is paying!” said the driver, staring at the cottage. “He’s rich, even if he won’t admit it.” No lights shone within. “Where’s the buffet with the roast turkey? Is our boy on the nod?” Dressed only in jeans and a T-shirt, the handsome man sprang over to Susan, grinning and holding out his hand like a salesman. “Neal Cassady, and pleased to unseat you.”
“Susan Green. And this is Alan Turing. We’re undercover spies.” She held up the Big Bow Wow bags. “You can share our food.”
“Mormons?” said Neal.
“How so?” said Turing.
“Bill said he was imprisoned by religious fanatics,” said Ginsberg. “Not that I always believe what Bill says when the flat horrible reality of morn closes in after a night of spectacles.” He smiled. He had a warm aura.
“We were debating on the plane whether Bill’s captors were from the Apocryphal Satanists, the Voodoo Vindaloo, or the Shekinah Glory Uncircumcised,” said Neal.
“It’s something else entirely,” said Turing. “Maybe I’ll try and recruit you when we’re inside. But no worries, we’re not raving maniacs, and membership is, where possible, voluntary. Do let’s get in out of the snow. It’s shaping up for a storm.”
“We had a blizzard in Colorado one year it got so deep the horses on my girlfriend’s uncle’s sister-in-law’s farm could barely stick their snoots above the powder,” said Neal. “The frosty snoot-bumps looked like puffball mushrooms.”
“Wonderful image,” said Ginsberg, gazing lovingly at Cassady. Now he turned his attention to the granny cottage. “These houses seem so primitive, with their poor television antennae tacked on to the patched up chimneys. Is Bill really here?”
“He’s probably asleep,” said Alan. “He was typing all last night. A memoir about our trip to Mexico this week. We saw Joan’s ghost down there.”
Seemingly unimpressed, Ginsberg leaned back his head to stare up into the sky. “Spirits as multifarious as snowflakes. Ubiquitous. Every two the same. Eddies in the aether without end.”
“This Joan ghost wasn’t aethereal at all,” said Susan. “You’re missing the point. We reconstituted her from a bone and a skug, and then she shot Bill in the side of his head with a pistol.” Cheerfully jingling her keys, Susan unlocked the cottage door.
“And Bill survived because he’s a skugger,” added Turing, stamping his feet and snapping on the kitchen light. He studied Ginsberg and Cassady. “I assume that Californians know about skugs and skuggers?”
“On radio/TV/newspaper around the clock,” said Ginsberg. “Hot flash for the nation who eats her own vomit. New pariahs! The queers, the commies, the Blacks, the dope fiends, the jazz musicians, the mad, the abstract painters, the unions, the Beat poets...and now the skuggers.”
“Go, Ginzy!” exclaimed Neal. “Unzip the zap. So Bill’s a telepathic, shapeshifting semi-human slug? Bad-ass old bookworm that he is.” He thumped the kitchen table and raised his voice. “We’re here to rescue you, Burroughs! Extrude those slimy stalk eyes, my man! And hand me your works and your wallet. This is for your own good.”
Bill appeared in his bedroom doorway, squinting against the light and coughing. “Like I’m running a halfway house for recidivist criminals.” He peered at the dark windows. “Slept away the day. I like being out of synch with the clone world.”
“It’s an objective correlative for your unparalleled alienation,” said Ginsberg, embracing his friend. “Dear Bill. Back from Tangier and his oriental fountain of youth, twenty years younger. A fairy tale. What mad narratives unspool amid you skuggers? Whence, whither and yon?”
Pleased with the attention, Burroughs kissed Ginsberg on the mouth for so long a time that Turing grew uncomfortable and then jealous. Cassady looked over at Turing and waggled his eyebrows.
“Disencumber yourself of those Bow Wow vittles, Susan,” Neal told Susan, and took a seat at the kitchen table. “We’ll gobble and snarf. Later I’ll run out for more, skidding my monster Caddy down the street. You can come along if you like. I’m legendary for taking young ladies for rides, you understand. This turquoise DeVille is ordinarily rented only for weddings.” Neal mimed a leer. “A mobile bower. There’s a four hundred BTU heater to drive off the morbid chills from the pinched-ass Great Plains.”
“You sound exactly like my husband used to,” said Susan, strangely giddy. She was setting out the Big Bow Wow food, also some cold-cuts and beer from the fridge. Careless about revealing herself to be a skugger, she made her arms long and snaky to quickly move things around. “My husband’s name was Vassar Lafia. Sorry, Neal, but I’ll be in the market for a different style of man this time around.” She bent her arm into corkscrew curve and chucked Neal under the chin. “Not that I utterly rule you out. I like the raw confidence and the wavy hair. And I’m known for breaking my resolutions.”
“Is being a skugger a good high?” asked Neal as he began devouring a hamburger.
“Kind of,” said Susan, inflating the size of her left hand and studying it. “I’ve been thinking about this particular question. Being a skugger speeds up your vibration rate. The world is One and Many, I’m sure you’ll agree. Normally I would vibrate at about thirty pulses per second, oscillating between the One and and the Many, that is, oscillating between viewing myself as merged into the cosmic reality, and viewing myself as a little ant who fights her way alone. My informed estimate is that being a skugger has kicked my natural vibe rate from thirty up to fifty cycles per second. I know about vibrations because I’m a musician.” As punctuation, Susan snatched Neal’s hamburger from his hand and set it on his plate before he could even see it happen.
“Gawrsh,” said Neal, pretending to be a hick chewing the air. “Sign me up for your cult and I’ll be your pageboy, Lady Green.”
“Fascinating physical arcana,” said Ginsberg, who’d been pondering Susan’s words. “This notion of a personal vibration level—it’s runs through all the secret mystery teachings. The minstrel is the god, the god is the minstrel, the song is the song.”
“Feller says de Broglie’s matter waves explain the duality,” put in Burroughs, clearing his throat. He fixed himself a bourbon and joined them at the table. “Our essence lies in certain giant hereditary molecules. The gene codes. If you regard these molecules as matter waves, you have a precise meaning for your personal vibration. Your insect buzz is the quantum-mechanical frequency of your genome.”
“Flabbergasting erudition,” said Ginsberg, enjoying Bill’s words. “The wise man with his myrrh. Alert the tedious dullards at the Guggenheim Foundation. A new star gleams! Were you hitting musty, foxed stacks of science journals in a bookish Tangier detox, Bill?”
“I teeped all this from my new lover,” said Bill, looking directly at Alan for the first time since their quarrel this morning. “It’s as if Turing has built an extra room onto my head. I’m afraid I’ve been rather ungracious to him today. I was wrung out from my long night of writing.”
“If you love me, why did you kiss Ginsberg in front of me?” demanded Alan.
“I saw the opportunity,” said Bill with a shrug. “I’m taking advantage of looking young. I’ve always been greedy for sensation. You know this, Alan. And please don’t sulk. Sit next to me, dear. Have I told you that you look lovely today? Youthful and world-weary at the same time. Your Christopher Morcom look.”
“Meanwhile,” interrupted Susan, drawing out the word for jokey emphasis. “Was Bill saying that a normal person’s actual genetic molecule actually vibrates at something like thirty cycles per second?”
“I can’t be bothered to calculate that for you,” said Burroughs, insouciantly swirling his drink. “Ask Turing.”
“No need to get into the niggling minutiae, Susan,” said Alan, loath to spoil the fun. “But thirty and fifty trillion might be closer to the quantum-mechanical molecular vibration rates. Let’s suppose that one’s psychic perceptions chunk the oscillations by the trillion. So we’re both right.”
“I relish the literal specificity of thirty,” said Ginsberg. “What does thirty cycles per second sound like, Susan?”
“Well, fifty is basically speaker hum,” said Susan. “An annoying buzz. Thirty is deeper, almost granular.” She opened her mouth with her chin drawn back and let out a deep awww sound. “Thirty is mellow.” Susan took another deep breath and continued the awww.
Ginsberg chanted along like a monk, his voice smooth and deep. “One Many One Many One Many One Many One…”
Turing was distracted from all this by the clamor of his inner skug. It wanted him to make some new recruits. Now! The skug was like a vampire hungry for blood.
So Alan focused on Cassady. “Are you serious about wanting to be a skugger, Neal? I can set you up immediately.” Without Alan even willing it, his finger grew out like a vine to twirl in the air before Neal’s chest. “Do it now?” importuned Alan.
“Bring on the rush,” said Neal, leaning back his head with a reckless air. “Dial my vibrations to fifty, Doctor T.”
“Don’t do it, Neal,” rasped Bill, interposing his hand. “It’s slavery. The skugs are parasites. Like tapeworms. Imagine a ruthless street preacher who lives in your spine and uses you for kicks. Although there is the one big up side that you can change your shape.”
“Maybe worth trying,” said Ginsberg, thoughtfully combing out his full beard with his fingers. “And the skug kicks become your kicks. A karma yoga. Anyway, Bill, you’re a skugger, for good or ill—and you managed to write a substantial memoir fragment, was it last night? Would you say that it’s crafted at the same egregiously apostolic level as your Tangier routines?”
“The Apocalypse According To Willy Lee,” said Bill. “I hardly remember what I wrote.”
“Auspicious sign,” said Ginsberg. “Read it to the group after dinner?” He tugged one of the Big Bow Wow bags towards himself. “This food is communal, I trust?”
“Skug or no skug?” Alan asked Neal, still wanting to make his new convert.
“Go,” answered the handsomely profiled Neal, and Alan sent his finger forward.
Things calmed down a bit after that. Neal liked being a skugger. Appetite redoubled, he raced out to the Big Bow Wow, bringing back great staggering armfuls of food.
“Hup, hoop!” said Neal, eating his final Bow Wow Burger. “The mighty loaves and the wee fishes. “You should turn skugger too, Ginzy. Don’t falter on the shoreline. The ark of the new goof is come.”
“I find it more interesting to continue as before,” said Ginsberg equably. “I’m an ongoing thought experiment in the history of poesy.” He yawned. “Where do we sleep? There’s only the two bedrooms?”
“I suppose I could fit Neal in,” said Susan demurely. It was like she’d decided to take a break from her grief.
“Far be it from me to disturb you two or, for that matter, Turing and Burroughs, the young mutant lovers,” said Ginsberg, making himself pitiful. “I suppose it’s the sofa for old Allen. The cheese ripens alone. Slumped on a mound of rags. The match girl in the driving snow.”
“Oh come in with us,” said Bill.
“We’ll find a way,” agreed Alan. “We’re highly flexible.”
“I have some new acousmatics to play for you guys,” said Susan, yawning as well. “Nonlinear feedback. I smuggled out a tape from the lab. But I’m beat.”
“Me too,” said Burroughs. He gave Alan a smile. “Even though I’ve only been up for two hours. I might tinker on the memoir later in the night. And present it tomorrow.”
Susan stole a shy look at Neal. “Will all of you still be here tomorrow?”
“Do stay on, Bill,” put in Turing.
“I’m in no rush to split,” said Ginsberg. “It would be worthwhile to see a nuclear blast, the better to stand as witness to history. When’s the next pop coming up?”
“I think day after tomorrow,” said Turing. “They’re calling it the V-bomb. I’ll know more tomorrow.”
“They plan to set it off in a canyon near here,” added Susan. “Where the cliff dwellers lived.”
“Maaaa,” said Neal in his best Okie voice. “I wanna to see them Wild West fahrworks.”