COF by Ian McKinley


(Ian McKinley)


Chapter 1 - Understory


I was sitting in the tub, watching the sun sink slowly into the tropical sea leading up to its usual, but still surprising, final rush for the horizon. It looked so beautiful that I felt a typical rush of guilt as I recognized how lucky I was, not only a part of the small fraction of humanity that had survived the apocalypse, but one of the very few who lived in luxury. It clearly wasn't my fault that billions had died, but how many thousands, millions had died due to my actions or, maybe, my inaction. I had helped some, an extremely small number, who probably considered me some kind of saint. To a lot more, I was probably more of a demonic, murdering bastard from hell.

How would history view me, I wondered, assuming of course that we would survive as a species long enough for anyone to really care. Although I tried to communicate confidence that we should be OK now, with death rates dropping and birth rates soaring, I knew that the way that we had fucked-up the environment over the last century could come back and bite us at any time. Was extinction really on the cards or was this just the inevitable pessimism associated with advancing years and awareness of my own mortality? Only time would tell.




A discrete cough brought me back to the present, reminding me that I was supposed to be narrating my autobiography. A raven-haired girl - either Sue or Sophie, I could never tell them apart - was taking my dictation down on an antiquated solar-powered word processor. It was one of those things made to be sold in the third world for a hundred bucks US in the '10s or thereabouts. Of course, between the start of design and final production, hyperinflation had turned this into about ten thou; but it was still about a hundred turn-of-the-century US, if you calculated it in Mars Bars or some other real commodity.

Sue, or Sophie, was staring at me questioningly and I realized that musing on the source of her tool had caused the restart of my monologue to die stillborn. Happened a lot these days; old age certainly does not come alone, rejuv or no rejuv. "Sorry, where was I?"

"Rice cooker," she replied, her dark eyes flashing as they caught the last direct rays of the vanishing sun.

"Ah, yes, the rice cooker hypothesis." I switched to auto dictate mode and forced my mind back to the story of the collapse of civilization as we used to know it. I'm not sure that I really believe it, but it's such a great yarn that it deserves to be true. How many ends of the world have there been? It's such a common theme in books, vids and the old online games that you'd have thought that all options had been covered. Asteroids, plagues, wars, invasions of aliens. There were even Krakens, killer tomatoes, birds and demons in TV sets. But nobody considered the humble rice cooker as the vector of the apocalypse.

Well, true, it wasn't the cooker directly. Just that, according to documents unearthed during post-mortem work now going on in Japan, this seems to be the way that al-Qaeda inserted their virus into the global internet. Now, you have to remember that, by the early '40s, this Islamic terrorist group had been fairly well forgotten. Old fogies like myself remembered the early 9-11 and LPG attacks. However, after the US backed out of the Middle East, the collapse of the dollar caused more chaos than a bunch of mad ragheads in caves could dream of and Arab terrorism returned to being a much more domestic activity.

It was inevitable that some opening for hackers would exist. Security was always a big issue for communication in the various inter-, intra- and domestic micro-nets that evolved into the U, the universal ethernet. Nevertheless, despite gigabucks, anything that can be designed, can be designed around. For every white hat, there is an equal and opposite black hat. For decades this was the way that a large fraction of the rather incestuous communities of IT cops and robbers spent their time.

However the hack was actually done, the smart thing about the particular virus used was its combination of high speed of propagation and long incubation time. It was so small that it could spread undetected through the entire U within its nine month gestation period: achieving effectively 100% infection of every electronically interlinked piece of equipment. In 2041 that was simply everything more sophisticated than a soupspoon. Maybe even smarter, however, was its target: the Gödelization routine that was the basis of all memory units. Of course, you don't get these now; today it's back to the stone age of simple magnetic and optical digital storage. But, for quantum computers, Gödelization was really the cat's pajamas.

It was a couple of Indian mathematicians who came up with a practical manner of using QCs to both factorize truly huge numbers and break them down into a minimum-sized exponential expansion. Something to do with minimizing entropy. Or was it maximizing entropy? Whatever, it was number theory at its most obtuse. Gödelization, on the other hand, is just a simple way of coding information as numbers, the only problem being that the resulting numbers rapidly become mind-bogglingly gigantic and hence the back calculation to decode them is extremely laborious.

Combine Gödelization with a bit of quantum-level mathematical legerdemain, however, and you have the tool that revolutionized 21st century computing. The Exabytes of information in a major library could rapidly be converted into a gigantic number that was, in turn, reduced to a minute data string. Moore's Law was kind of forgotten about then as, in effect, both processing speeds and storage capacities were so large that they could be considered near as dammit infinite. This was a bit like invention of the transistor, only with more immediate applications. QCs could carry out calculations at gobsmacking speeds and the Gödelization trick made information storage and retrieval trivial. The math professors shared a Fields Medal, while the geek who patented the resulting software package became the richest man on Earth.

"Um... , Cof. This bloody thing keeps buggering about with Gödelization, putting wee dots over the o." Sue-Sophie was clearly unhappy.

"Just ignore it: it's an umlaut. We don't have them since the Germanic tongues joined ancient Greek and Sanskrit as dead languages. Along with French and all their bloody accents; just shows that there's some progress in the world, when you think about this at least! That toy you're using predates this giant leap for mankind. Anyway, where was I?"

"The virus targeted the Gödelization routines."

"Right, OK, here we go. The problem with the subroutines involved was that they had been bootstrapped by QC artificial intelligences... " It's all a bit mystical when you try to put quantum operating procedures down in plain text. The process that R&W came up with - the Indian guys were Rama and a bloke with a name about half a paragraph long, starting with W and ending in -sing - inherently allowed for the process to be self-improving as, apparently, whenever a quantum calculation had been done once, it never needed to be repeated. Incidentally, this little aside in their work proved unambiguously that no higher intelligences exist in our particular neck of the universe. Although this formally applied only to those using quantum computers within our light cone, the gutter press interpreted this as demonstrating that God did not exist, resulting in Rama being assassinated by a rabid Christian who took this badly and W-whatever disappearing into isolation in a military barracks somewhere in the foothills of Tibet.

Bootstrapping, the idea of lifting yourself by your own bootstraps, is nowhere better applicable than in QC. Advanced quantum computers need electromagnetic fields that preserve qubits for long enough to allow a calculation to be performed: fields so complex that they can only be practically maintained by advanced QCs. Basically, all you have to do is construct the first prototype and then it's a self-propagating process. Well, self-propagating with a bit of basic nanotech and given sufficient energy and raw materials. But with the huge number-crunching capacity available, muon-catalyzed fusion and directed transmutation become practical and hence you can build intelligence into just about everything.

Of course, just because you can, doesn't mean you have to. There's no physical law that makes you do it; just the Law of Commercial Drive. This is probably the most powerful force for good - or, more often evil - since the mid-20th Century. Take the telephone. This was once something that was very useful because it allowed you to talk to somebody when it was so urgent, or you were so lazy, that a letter wouldn't do. This was changed a little when a generation grew up with the things; then letters were a kind of emergency option when you couldn't get someone to answer the phone or you were marooned on a middle-of-bugger-all desert island. But technology then allowed mobile phones to do more things: act as calculators, diaries, cameras, music and video recorders, access the U. After a bit, commercial pressure built up to use all technology possible to cram more options into the smallest size Handy. It could, literally, sonic your teeth, holographically analyze your painful big toe and guarantee your girlfriend an orgasm. Oh, yes, and also allow you to talk to people. More than 99% of the services provided by this workhorse of the '20s and '30s were things that people at the beginning of the century hadn't even dreamt that they could ever want.

So this is where it comes to the rice cooker. You still remember that? You probably could have constructed a form of mobile phone that could zap rice with tailored microwaves, but purist Japanese would certainly not accept a substitute for a nice, big, solid rice cooker. Of course, like all other bigger service items such as air conditioners, hot tubs and toasters, the Drive ensured that all possible intelligence was built in, along with full two-way communication capacity. You never knew when you might need to reprogram your rice cooker because you were going to be a bit late home or had changed your mind about that curry and were going to have home-made sushi instead; the rice cooker could then liaise with the fridge and the U food-provider to sort out all the logistical details involved.

So, by default, every piece of equipment that could possibly be interlinked, was interlinked - and the linkages were often simply left to themselves to grow and mesh as was needed, under the directions of the ever-present QC controllers.

So the stage was set for a life of luxury for everyone on this somewhat shagged-out old planet. Of course, getting as far as 2040 with the huge population wave breaking at that time was, in itself, an amazing tribute to the power of the developing technology. Despite runaway global warming, exploitive mining of all major groundwater resources, pollution of land, air and water and population spread to even the most unsuitable locations, for decade after decade we managed to totter on the brink of multiple catastrophes. There were, indeed, some close misses, but disasters were contained and the final collapse never came. The support infrastructure provided by the directed efforts of unlimited computer power always managed to haul the coals from the fire. Everyone, or almost everyone, became complacent. Why not? The QC-driven artificial intelligences could solve any problem they were presented with. So why worry?

Another girl entered the spacious onsen and sat behind my hard-working secretary, A blonde: Helga or Heidi. Heidi, it was; a rusty relay in my cortex tripped and reminded me of her confused expression when I had laughed after she informed me that her brother was called Peter. One of my masseuse team. She was starting to work on Sue/Sophie's neck, evidently a very pleasant experience if the low moan was anything to go by.

Noting my distraction, the moan changed into a muttered "... and the Survivalists weren't in much better shape." Even with her eyes closed, the black-haired girl radiated amusement in the way she could read my questions before I had even get around to framing them myself.

"Yes, the Survivalists and a lot of other groups of varying degrees of nuttiness did their best to stay out of this joined-up world and retreated to their backwoods fortresses with their over-dimensioned arsenals and under-dimensioned libraries." Nevertheless, in general these weren't the types to stick to flintlocks when the latest smart rifles could shoot round corners, penetrate DU armor and had hundred shot magazines. Also, if you're living out in the boonies, you need a car: which meant a rather smart piece of kit after hydrocarbons were phased out as fuels in the early '30s.

Of course, there were some pastoralists who really did opt out - the Amish and a range of other God-bothers come to mind - but they were few and far between. They had to be. The option of opting out of all technology more sophisticated than a horse-drawn cart or plough was available only to very small communities that were privileged enough to have access to the large areas of land needed to support their low-tech lifestyles. With global populations heading for ten billion, there simply wasn't enough space to have very many of these.

And then there was me. I wasn't the only one, of course, but there weren't a lot of folk wealthy enough to live their hobby of freezing time in the year 2025. Well, actually, I suppose there were plenty of people rich enough; it's probably fairer to say that there weren't many people weird enough to do such a thing. That's when I picked up my nickname - Cof. The Crazy Old Fool, that's what my neighbors called me. Actually, that was the polite ones. Crazy Old Fuck was probably more common, especially amongst the younger generation.

Heidi let out a very un-ladylike snort and broke into my monologue. "You're joking, Cof, aren't you? That's not really where your name comes from, is it?"

"Dead fucking right it is! In the early days, I must confess, I was a bit pissed off when I first picked up on the name they called me behind my back. Anyway, with time, I kind of took to it. Especially after the way things turned out. Anyway, it was a hell of a lot better than being called Herman."

Another snort and a giggle from my secretary. "Mmm, maybe you're right." The tall blond looked thoughtful. "Cof's definitely a slicker name than Herman. And we probably all agree that you're pretty crazy, like a fox. Yep - Crazy Old Fox - that'd just about sum it up."

Smart as shit, all these girls. They knew exactly how to play me: no sycophancy, but just enough casual banter, with the odd hidden stroke to my ego, to keep me amused.

"Yes, well, whatever. The key thing was that, by the mid '20s, I was rolling in dosh. It was all a bit of a fluke, really, because I started off as a lowly materials scientist, developing piezo-electric organometallic polymers for use in data gloves: you know for those old clunky virtual reality systems. I had produced a fantastic tactile membrane, which was not only incredibly sensitive, but also registered and simulated the sensations associated with contact with fluids. Unfortunately, this was just when QCs were bringing in immersion holograms and tactile force fields, so the entire project went belly up and, after a decade and a half of work, I was shown the door; with the patents covering my polymer work in place of a gold watch. The stroke of luck, though, was that I was living with my sister, who was completely addicted to masturbation."

Heidi's snort was even louder. "Come on, Cof, you're making this up! You can't tell us that you got mega-rich because your young sister liked to jack-off!"

"Just listen, wench, and you might learn something! Anyway, she's my older sister, even if a bit better preserved than I am." We were, I suppose, a very strange family. Our parents were both career managers, who seemed to have decided together that a nuclear family with one of each would be a good thing to have. It fit in with the house in London, the flat in New York and the Villa in Tuscany. We had au pairs and housekeepers who looked after us and occasional visits from the Old Dears, when they could conveniently fit it into their busy schedules. So we grew up very close, with my sister, Andrea, taking the lead role throughout, even though she was less than two years older. We separated to go to University; I had seven years at Edinburgh while she spent nine at Heidelberg. However, after we graduated, she suggested getting a flat together in Oxford. We lived together there for about fifteen years.

"Masturbation!" My amanuensis called me back to the present from the beginning of a stroll down a long and winding memory lane.

"Yes, yes, I was coming to that. We grew up very close together..." As children we bathed together, slept together and went through puberty together. We had some very strange au pairs but one, in particular - Margit her name was - had a major influence on us. She was completely casual about clothing; I guess her family was solid German FKK. When working she wore short skirts and loose blouses, but never knickers or bras. When in her room after work, she never wore anything, even when we came to visit her, as we did with great regularity. I guess Andrea was about eleven or twelve when Margit taught her how to masturbate properly and gave her free access to a drawer full of sex toys.

Yes, my sis took to wanking like a dog to water. I think she also took to Margit, although it wasn't for another decade or so before she finally gave up experimenting with boys and decided that she was 100% lesbian. At this time, remember it was at the end of last century, it wasn't easy for young girls to get their hands on porn. So, although younger, I got pressurized into purchasing the porn mags and vids that my sister craved. Not a problem for me, though, I quickly grew keen on those things, almost as much as she was.

"But this was, what, when you were in your teens?"

"Yes, but this is all background so that you can understand that, when we shared the flat, we didn't have the most conventional brother-sister relationship."

"What, you were shagging your sister?"

"'Course I wasn't. Apart from anything else, she's fucking lesbian to the core, as I told you. We just were very casual and relaxed about nudity and sex. She had her girlfriends stay regularly and I had mine. She was always flirting with my girls and, I must confess, I chanced my arm a couple of times with some of her bi pals. Yes, well, it might have ended up with three or more in a bed on a couple of drunken occasions, but I never had sex with my sister."

It did get a little bit strained when Andrea finally found her perfect girlfriend, the one she wanted to spend her life with. I thought it was finally time for us to set up on our own, but her partner, Tina, was a commercial pilot and actually spent more time overnighting around the world than she did in the UK. So we had a two-phase life; I was gooseberry to the two lovebirds when Tina was at home and it was back to normal with Andrea masturbating to old lesbo sex videos when Tina was travelling the globe. That was the thing about my sister, she considered onanism to be a social thing. Thought it was really sad to be wanking alone, when you could be doing it along with others.

"Maybe something to do with the influence of your au pair, Margaret was it?" Heidi was clearly fascinated.

"Margit," I corrected, automatically. "You could be right; I've never really thought about it. It was just the way she always was."

"Yes, but I still don't see... "

"For Christ's sake, I'm getting there, woman. If you'd stop bloody interrupting I'd be able to tell the fuckin' story."

The blond rolled her eyes and mimed the process of zipping her lips closed.

"Right, well, I really felt it was time to go, but didn't have the heart to leave my sister on her lonesome. I first rigged up a two-way vid link, so the girls could share a lesbo vid and also see each other on a split screen, but it still didn't have the intimacy that my sister wanted. Then I got fired ... "

It was serendipitous, I suppose. I had patents to a material with no applications and a sister who was desperate for closer contact with her lover. It only took a couple of hours of programing to set up a prototype for interactive pressure transfer between two sheets of polymer and five minutes to talk Andrea into giving it a try. It was successful beyond my wildest dreams: now when Andrea touched herself, Tina could feel every sensation - and vice versa. As soon as one of them became moist, the other could feel it directly. According to my sister, the realism of the contact was unbelievable and, although planned to help them when Tina was abroad, this quickly became a major component of their love life together, as they experimented with a wider and wider range of sex toys.

My first version resembled a very tight pair of diaphanous panties, but, for Christmas, I treated them to body-suits of the same material. Probably the best present I have ever given anyone: I don't think they emerged from their bedroom until the evening of Boxing Day. Just then I realized that I might have a commercial product on my hands. I contacted the biggest producer of marital aids, as they were then called, and the rest is history.

"You invented all those things, yourself?"

"Well, initially it was just the pants and body suits, focused on the female market. I admit that I was rather naive; I hadn't realized that self-abuse had such a huge customer base. But my commercial partner certainly did. Although the firm was based in Sydney, Australia, they assigned a product development agent to work with me as soon as we had agreed a contract. She was an Ozzie called Kelly and didn't at all look the part of a sex toy specialist."

Actually, she looked like somebody's mum. Dumpy and homely. I'm not at all what you would call a shy person, but I confess I had problems at first even discussing our products with her. It just shows how wrong impressions can be. She was born for the job, being the possessor of one of the dirtiest minds that I have ever encountered. I had thought my sister had pretty wide experience of sex toys, but this was nothing compared to Kelly. The company she worked for had a massive catalogue and she appeared to have tried them all.

It was an extremely productive collaboration. She dreamed up the specifications and I did the actual design and programing. The most fascinating work I've ever done. Until then I had no idea of what people got kicks out of doing to themselves - and how keen they and others were to share the experience. It was easy enough to couple suits and toys to vid or holo links, the critical thing was that I had the patents on the magic polymer. Within a year, Kelly had her own design team and I was back to fundamental materials science: building in temperature functionality and improving textural sensitivity and mechanical performance. This was cutting edge stuff, a film as thick as a few coats of paint that could transmit the full sensations of being reamed by a twelve-inch todger.

"The very thought brings tears to my eyes," Heidi grimaced theatrically.

"So you've tried it yourself?"

The silence was broken by a giggle from my secretary. "You walked into that Heid. Folk rarely admit to it, but I guess everyone has tried some alternative options in secret at one time or another."

"Yes, I suppose that was something contributing to the huge success of the toys. In private you could try anything at all that you had ever dreamt of. It was the logical end product of an evolution that started with Paleolithic Venuses and dildos carved from wood or stone and took off with the first internet porn sites. Of course, it also helped that, by the '20s, the population explosion was really pushing demand on resources to breaking point and any option that could satisfy the natural human imperative for sexual gratification without risk of producing children was strongly supported by national governments, even if such support was tacit in most cases."

"But surely contraception is an easier solution to that problem."

"Certainly in a lot of developed countries but, even in some of these, there were religious taboos that limited application back then. But the real problem was what was called the third world in those days - Africa, Central America, Central Asia - where population growth rates were highest. Not only were there cultural blocks to acceptance of chemical contraception, the actions of some of the bloody aid agencies very seriously fucked things up."

"There was some mega riot somewhere: in Africa?"

Heidi had clearly forgotten that she was supposed to be staying quiet but, as my faithful scribe was taking it all down, this was probably as good a way of getting my story documented as any other.

"Yes, in the old Republic of South Africa. Some fuckwits in a US-sponsored charity decided that adding a contraceptive into local drinking water would be the best way to solve the problem of population growth. They couldn't have screwed up things better if fucking-up scientific population control had been their original intention. Not only was the action uncovered only after water had been contaminated in five major cities, but the contraceptive effect was racially selective for blacks and Asians and caused irreversible loss of reproductive capacity for both men and women."

The term mega riot hardly covered the response of the affected population and their neighbors: it was closer to civil war. Although the US link was exposed and resulted in the bombing of embassies and consulates throughout the African continent, blame was extended also to Europeans and the local white populations. The final death toll will never be known, but it was certainly many tens of thousands in Africa - and almost fifteen thousand in Washington DC as a result of weaponized cholera released into a reservoir in a revenge attack by black African terrorists. Typically, most of those who died in the States were poor blacks living in sordid ghettos, rather than the white fatcats and politicos who had been targeted.

"Contraception... " Sue/Sophie reminded me.

"Yes, well, as you can imagine, all this fuss led to a great reluctance to use chemicals that were predominantly produced by Western megacorps and might be part of a plot to sterilize the populations of less developed countries. It was a bit of a global catastrophe but, for me, one with a silver lining. The kit we were selling was not only perceived as safe but also, due to its rapid initial spread through Europe, the States, Japan and Australasia, seen as an indicator of development and cultural sophistication. I remember in 2030, the year that the population hit nine billion, we estimated that our total sales had topped five hundred million. That's when I decided that I was rich enough to stop working and sold out."

"You sold out? That's crazy! That stuff must have been selling like hotcakes. There's even a fair amount of pre-QC kit that some of the staff here have, but they hoard it like gold dust. You must have lost a fortune."

"Well, I did sell my share of the company plus the patents for a small fortune. No, I should be honest here; it wasn't really a small fortune, it was actually a fucking huge one. Certainly it was unspendably huge for me. Remember, only a decade earlier I had been an unemployed boffin sharing a flat with my sister. But, after I hit fifty, I decided that there were other things I wanted to do with my life. Earning megabucks was too distracting, so I just took a bulk sum and decided to turn dosh into tangibles."

"So you guessed that things were about to go belly-up?" my secretary enquired. Unlike Heidi, she had clearly remembered the initial thread that had led to my diversion into the sex toy business.

"I hadn't the foggiest idea, to be honest. Well, predictions of the collapse of civilization were produced on a regular basis but, as a last minute solution always seemed to emerge, the rantings of global catastrophe Cassandras weren't taken too seriously. I suppose I expected that some kind of local disaster was inevitable, but not anything like what actually happened."

"If there is anything that explains my decision to set up this estate, it's probably that I'm basically an antisocial hedonist... "

"... with an inordinate fondness for young ladies!"

"... yes, indeed, with a desire to be pampered by beautiful women. And, thinking of this, it's about time I got out of this tub before I look like a prune... "

"... you mean, more like a prune!"

I clambered from the bath and posed in profile. "That's the only problem with the toys I produced, too much self-abuse and you go blind. If you weren't being regularly rogered by huge virtual dongs, you'd realize that your employer is a veritable Adonis."

Heidi smirked as she looked me up and down and then turned to pat down a thick towel on the massage table. "Not too bad, for someone of your advanced years," she conceded.

"Not bad? Not bad? I'll have you know this is the best kit that money can buy. I got this rejuv in 2035, when the technology got really nailed down. The entire shooting match is biological age thirty, and will be for decades yet."

"Shame about the brain though," Sue added. Based on that comment, it must be Sue, I concluded; blunt as baseball bat, that I certainly remembered about her.

"Yes, that was a bit of a miscalculation." I clambered onto the massive massage table and made myself comfortable, face down, while a huge towel was draped over my body. Heidi then turned up the lower edge and started to apply pressure to points on the souls of my feet.

A miscalculation, but also maybe a stroke of luck in my misfortune. Gluck im Ungluck, as they said when German still existed. There was no way that I had been going to let anybody bugger around with my brain until the procedures were mature and proven to be without long-term side effects. Early cortical rejuvenation was entirely biochemical and, to be honest, was a bit hit and miss. Some brain functions were certainly improved, but loss of blocks of memory was a common result. Then came the brain implants. These were much better targeted and, if anything, improved memory retention; but I just didn't like any invasive technique that involves a bunch of glorified mechanics guddling about within my skull. Finally, in 2040, biomechanical tuning using a combination of nanomachines and external EM control fields emerged. After swithering for months, I finally booked in for the three weeks of treatment required. It would have taken place in March 2041. The rice cooker time bomb went off on February 20th. So I was just too late for brain rejuv. Who knows if this technology will ever be recovered but, in any case, it probably won't be until it's too late for me. On the other hand, if Gödelization had been lost in the middle of treatment, I certainly would have been one of the billion or so people who died immediately as a result of this hack attack.