From the mailbox, the house looked the same as it did when Mom still lived with us: the grass was about half dandelion and half compact blueish grass. The shrubs were long overgrown, the roses gangly and thick with last season’s stalks. Dad was not much of a gardener, but kept the lawn mowed, the furnace running, the fridge stocked with milk and eggs, and the freezer with hamburger meat and chicken thighs. He woke before our alarms went off for school, and drank coffee, and worked on his laptop at the kitchen table. When we woke, he talked to us about our upcoming school day, and if it was dark he would walk us, even though my sister and I were in high school, to the bus stop. He took a coffee mug that left a plume of steam. We didn’t think about it even though the other kids’ parents had long since stopped walking them to the bus stop. An occasional creep might pass the stop. One time after the bus left, two guys in a beat-up Nissan Z-something passed the stop and then did a U-turn across the oncoming traffic and pulled up to the stop. “Hey, any of you girls want to skip school and party with us?”
No one said anything, and I was glad Dad had already returned home. I don’t know what he would do to those guys. Dad carried a milk-plastic gun he’d made from a pattern he found on the Internet. He made it from milk casein. It fired untraceable bolts. He had long been itching to try it out, and so these guys would have given him the chance to see it in action. He’d used it for target practice in the range he built behind the house after Mom left. That was the second thing he built. The first thing he built was a well that went down to a room under the house and then a passage that went across the street and came out at a hatch in the wooded lot. After he built the passage, it filled with water in the first heavy rain. Dad figured out a system to keep the space dry. It was in some ways nicer than our house. Our place had dry rot, specks of mildew, odd contraptions on the walls that Dad hung to run tests. The bunker had never been a suburban house. It carried its paranoia in its conception. Dad had drawn blue prints. He bought bags of cement. He rented an industrial cement mixer for six months. The principle shaft of the bunker rose through the center of the house like a chimney and made up what he called the safe room, the armory, and on the skyward side, a green house and food production plant that produced a greenish mold at a rapid pace. One of my father’s contraptions baked and then diced the mold into food pellets. They were about the size of AAA cell batteries and composed of a whitish- green substance high in fiber and essential nutrients including a complex protein and Omega-3 fatty acids. “Complex protein is essential,” Dad said. “Omega-3 is brain food. Keeps your instrument in action.” My sister and I called it his SnowPiercer Snack Bar after a movie located after the end of the world where the survivors of the world lived on bars of paste made from bugs. Dad introduced Protein Fest! once a week where we had to eat a dinner of the pellets. It was a lot like being actual guinea pigs sitting down to a meal of Timothy Hay pellets. I think I’d rather eat hay pellets. It wasn’t that they even had a taste, rather it was like eating a slightly spongy bar of chalk. We drank water from Dad’s filtration system, beer from his brewer, and recent tablets produced by his machine. Each week he experimented with flavorings to the pellets, but they always tasted pretty much the same which was both good and bad. The good part was that after a month of Protein Fest! my sister and didn’t mind them. We didn’t hate them. We felt neutral about them, and to make it worth our while, Dad followed up Protein Fest! with Pizza Fest! and so we knew the next night we would rent a movie and eat store bought pizza. Paradoxically this made the end of the world seem all right. After it ended, there would be Pizza Fest!
Our lives were mostly normal like that, like having pizza, like having smart phones and video games. My sister and I lived in our rooms in the house. It was just that after Mom left Dad began to prepare for the end. He said it was clear the federal government was going to increase control gradually. In his own lifetime, the control had been slow and steady. It had started out primitive with people like J Edgar Hoover who was as ham-handed as Stalin, but since 9/11 even the clumsy idiots like Rumsfeld and Cheney—two people who rated only single names in my father’s book like Madonna, Elvis, Beyonce—to the point now where we didn’t what we were looking at, what they were collecting, what they were planning, or even who they were.
“Why do they even need us?”
Dad sometimes said this. It came at the end of one his rambling yet precise précis on data collection, increasing government control, automation.
My sister and my life, too, gradually fell into my father’s system. From the yard, the house appeared normal. Even the bunker from outside only appeared to be a type of skylight. You wouldn’t know that under the solar panels and specially designed refractive glass was a massive petri dish growing high-density protein, and then under the collected rain water and purifiers was an armory filled with untraceable plastic weapons my father had made from casein he harvested from organic milk. And then below that was the safe-room, the most comfortable room of the house where we weren’t allowed even though the stereo in there was as startling as if you were in the middle of a concert, and then below that was the fuel cell room and then the well that took you to the bunker about thirty yards under the house. From there a tunnel lead a half mile into the green belt that held an urban creek. A hatch opened. My father loved how he had designed the hatch to look like the hillside. He called it his dwarf door referring to Tolkien who had concealed dwarf doors in both of his movies—they were “books” Dad said “books” more to reassure himself than us I think—and yet for his insistence that books were the principle form of media, his bunker contained a dauntingly extensive library of movies on Blu-Ray. At this point, if we felt so inclined, we could close the door to the bunker and watch movies and eat protein pellets to the end of our natural lives.
Yet Dad also insisted on our training. “You need to be prepared to deal with the machines. It is the machines that will become our oppressors,” he said. “Right now, the robots are driven by humans. For each drone there are a hundred humans involved. That will not scale.”
We knew not to ask. We were eating normal food when he started in on this. I had just finished practicing my trombone for a concert. I was looking forward to being out of the house for my concert on a Protein Fest! although I wasn’t sure if that meant foregoing the corresponding Pizza Fest!
“They will need to lower the number of human operators to zero. And then they will need to lower the numbers of human admins down to zero. Right now, even the operators are humans. There is a lot of human labor running their robot armies.”
“They are drones, not robots.”
“Exactly! They are drones because people are involved. That doesn’t scale.”
I wanted to ask what he meant but didn’t want to know. The idea of them being communication in the sense of a conversation was impossible. It had been from before the time Mom left and now with Dad left to his own devices, was even more remote. I looked forward to getting a job and figuring out how to go to college somewhere else. I would be free to die like everyone else when the world ended.
He introduced the AI challenge. “Our humanity is our only asset, and it is the only way we can defeat the machines,” he said. “A machine only has simulated intelligence. Artificial intelligence is synthetic intelligence. For instance, for a machine there is no such thing as a random number. Random numbers are simulated.”
“Okay,” I said. “Great. We will defeat them because we are human dice.”
“Precisely son,” Dad said. And then he introduced to us the AI challenge, and we had to play chess against computers. Even a cheap phone chess game had a crushingly difficult ability to defeat me and just about all humanity. We came home from school and then played chess. There was some reward if we won, but we never knew what it was because we always lost.
Dad would review our games. “You need to find the flaw in the algorithm. You need to find the flaw.”
I considered that he was correct, and chess was a good analog to the vast systems that would replace the hangers full of drone operators. I studied the chess board and moved my pieces randomly, and yet, the machine seemed to always know what I would do before I did it. I figured out I could undo my last move, and then ask the computer what it would do if it were me, and then I could move shuffling though the game, mistake, undo, mistake, undo, until I won. When I won, I didn’t want to show my father and endure his audit of my performance, but for a minute I looked at the notice that I had won. I had won.
Matt Briggs was born in Seattle, raised in the Snoqualmie Valley, and now lives between Seattle and Tacoma. He is the author of eight books including the collections of stories The Remains of River Names and Virility Rituals of North American Teenage Boys. His novel Shoot the Buffalo won a 2006 American Book Award. You can find him online at suburgian.com.