The next flight landed safely. Fei was not impressed. At least not unduly impressed. This was sort of routine work and she was supposed to be good at it anyways. That others were impressed was besides the point for her. She had long learnt the optimal extent of importance to be attached to such impressions or lack thereof. This time it was the sudden systemic failure of ATC tower. Apparently the system just stood still while the world around it moved as usual. Fie had seen this before at least in theory. The usual cure of a simulated crash through some flight sim program seemed to have worked yet again.
What made her curious however was the aftermath of the exercise. She realized that she had actually bypassed the problem and not solved it. It was indeed akin to shock treatment of patient in coma. The symptoms disappeared and the system got on track in terms of its functions. That did not still tell the story of how the coma set in in the first place. The more she thought of it, the more this question ate her head. Why did the ATC system stand still? As a systems engineer in aerospace engineering, she pretty much knew for sure that ATC was one area people never cut corners in. The optimization in ATC was simply ruthlessly approaching perfection to the extent possible. The direct costs of system improvement were a rather tiny fraction of the potential loss it could inflict. Nobody really cared two hoots about the cost when it came to increasing the reliability of the system. While that was true of most things related to air travel, ATC in some sense was the pinnacle. That was the area where the systems were probably the best available to mankind.
On this backdrop she was rather uncomfortable attributing the system failure to hanging of the sort seen in desktops all the time. There was something rather inexplicable in the failure of the ATC which made it significantly different from the most common types of failures. She could not put her finger on it but the nagging still remained.
She was planning to go for this boring conference in a couple of days on behalf of her employer. The conference was titled "Reliability Enhancement of Hypercritical Systems". Clearly at first go, this did not sound half as exciting as her earlier plans for the weekend which involved lot more action on various fronts! What the hell, she thought, now that I am going there, why not make the most of it anyway and pester some cute researchers on what they think of this problem of hers (the ATC, not the lack of action on various fronts!)
At the conference (which turned out to be many times more boring than she had anticipated), she came across this not so cute (and not a hunk in the remotest sense) researcher who was doing some work on what he called "Total and sudden system collapse with no irreversible effects in hypercritical systems". If someone could do research on something more specific, Fie thought, she would personally go and touch the feet of that person! Anyways, this researcher (not cute, not hunky) was very interested in Fie's problem. Fie first attributed this to her ample assets but after a brief interaction figured out that the researcher was from IIT Bombay and not from IIT Delhi. This reassured her a bit and she took up the topic of her question for further discussion with the non-cute-non-hunky researcher.
"I have come across some really similar cases. The failure of latest Korean satellite was caused by a similar inexplicable stoppage of system. Of course, there was noone to shock the system out of its slumber there."
"Is it? That is interesting. Have you thought of any way of explaining it? You know, like other hypercritical systems, people are happy to know the cure without the cause. But I have an uneasy feeling that the problem is far deeper than we can think."
"Exactly my thoughts, too! I have collected good amount of data on such failures. Let me give you a summary I have prepared. Why don't we meet post dinner to discuss our thoughts?"
Nice try, Fie thought, of hitting on me so subtly! She thought she would try it out anyway. There could be some grain of genuine interest in discussion "post-dinner". In any case, like a typical IIT Bombay guy, he was very sensible and charming and would not be a bad date! Considering the limited downside and a possibility of learning something quite interesting, she made up her mind.
"Of course. Say ten pm coffee shop?"
".." (as in, "Ok")
She had clearly underestimated the depth of research the good natured and sensible but not so cute and not so hunky guy had done. The recurrent theme of the research across various events was one of "slippage". Somehow the systems seemed to be slipping out of their functions. She did not like the tone of exclusivity the research had though. With due interest and attention, even usual systems can be shown to exhibit similar trends, she conjectured. The acme of the research was however the bold speculation that human minds are similar systems in terms of complexity and are liable to stoppages of the same type. Hmmm! That was something she had never thought along the lines of. For her, the systems she maintained were mechanical. There was no life in them. There were the systems and the flights and reliability and math and then there were weekends, sex, religion and charity. What was lifeless was so thoroughly deterministic according to her that it could never mimic life, nor could life ever mimic the coldblooded framework of the material world. If human mind starts failing like systems collapsing suddenly, the boundary was clearly blurring somewhere. But more of that later, she insisted to herself.
When they actually reassembled at night for post dinner coffee, she told him of her thoughts. He looked amused.
"Of course, even smaller and less critical systems can possess similar events. So long as they are equally complex," he said.
"But what of the human mind also potentially being subject to such a failure?"
"Oh that is a tangent really. More of that later. First tell me, do you think the system failure is something to do with the systems or to do with the world around?"
"If I understood you correctly, you are asking if the systems fail due to internal malfunction or just fall prey to something around them going wrong. My guess, for no valid reason, is the latter. Not because these systems are far too well tested but more so because the type of failure is very unique and difficult to explain through internal malfunction. And of course the supreme reason that the systems tend to come back on track with no trace of internal malfunction."
"Yes. That is where I stand too. Let me come to the point. Anything said or speculated about the potential cause of failure of this type is likely to remain just that - speculation. Here is my plan to undertake some practical research in the area. My colleagues at the institute also experienced a similar systems failure in their neuromedicine lab. They were performing some live study of neurosis on a patient using those electrodes wound around his head. In the middle of the experiment, the data analysis system just stopped functioning and the patient stopped responding to any stimulus. My friends paniced and halted the experiment and restarted the system. Only later did they realize that the patiet's heart beat and other bodily functions were normal. But despite that, they are going slow on those experiments now. Apparently, there is too much processing power required and the other departments are also complaining."
"Sounds interesting. What do you propose to do though?"
"Oh, I was counting on a fellow experimenter. I am planning to undertake the experiment on myself, actually more like ourselves, if you agree. We will put those electrodes on us and my friends will perform the exact same series of activities. We will see first hand what such systems failures are!"
"You are out of your mind!" Fie nearly screamed. "You want me to believe that I would agree to get damaged permanently by electrodes around my head for the great cause of pushing the frontiers of human knowledge? I am no researcher. And maybe because of that I have a life! I have nothing more than an academic interest in such matters. So please don't stretch it."
There was not much left to discuss. Our decent guy was not very politically correct so he quickly wound up the meet. Fie came back to her room very disturbed. She was sure she did not want to risk anything as crucial as her sanity for some general insignificant curiosity. But that was an explanation that she gave him. Unfortunately, she was not quite good at deceiving herself into accepting what she told others as excuses. As a matter of fact, she was in two minds. It at once sounded rash and interesting. If it worked, there was a possibility of really "arriving in life" in her own eyes, but if it failed and failed in a bad way, she was pretty much over for the rest of her life. As rational human being, she should have stayed away from it. But then mostly due to the same reason she made up her mind in favour of it. "If everything were rational, nothing would move!", she recalled someone quoting. With the new found determination of playing with her sanity, she called the non-dude.
The laboratory at the institute was nothing like she had imagined. It was rustic in a very interesting way. That would otherwise amused her but now she was looking for some reassurance and that was nowhere in sight. To add to the effect, the non-dude was fiddling with instruments like he would with those of a very old car. His friends - two guys and one guyish girl (like most other IIT women, she noticed) inspired little confidence. They were thorough and swift and confident but did not look very polished. Academic institute's laboratories were a far cry from the corporate labs, she grimly commented to herself.
"Ok, here goes!", non-dude was suddenly bubbling with new-found energy.
Fie had seen such excitement in men at some entirely different occasions. She wondered if the non-dude ever was involved in such "different" occasions and whether he would suddenly shout out, "and hence the causal connection should be the other way round" in the middle of it. She giggled at the thought. Others did not seem too perturbed by that though. There was some reassuring serenity about the spartan look of the lab and its operating researchers. She began to feel at home.
But only till non-dude held the electrodes like he would hold a knife in front of a scapegoat.
"Should we begin?"
"Errr...yeah, sure.. why not.." Fie was gathering all the courage she could.
"You idiot! You will scare the poor girl holding electrodes like that. Let me help you", this was the guyish girl. Her voice and actions both soothed Fie a bit.
The experimenters repeated the same sequence of activities they had performed on the previous occasion. Both Fie and non-dude had several electrodes wrapped around their heads and had their eyes closed. Experimenters were shouting numbers at each other.
Fie heard few abuses (most of them coming from the girl) also. Things seemed to be going fine. The whole thing was turning out to be neither a breathstopping realization nor an utter disaster. Fie was starting to get a wee bit disappointed. She was praying for something to start happening, either ways - good or bad!
That did not take too long. There were clearly signs that something was amiss. She realized that she was not hearing anything anymore. Not even the quiet background noise of the air conditioner in the lab.
She shouted, "Guys, can't hear you. Can I open my eyes, is everything all right?"
No reaction. Hmm, this is going somewhere after all huh? she mused.
"Guys (louder this time), I said can I open my eyes?"
She suddenly realized that even if "guys" were shouting at her, she won't be able to hear it anyway! Brilliant analysis, now what do I do?
... open my eyes anyway, should I? or just be patient and watch for longer? what's the point in being panicky? I am still sane, or at least I feel sane... What is insanity like? does the insane person know so? not now, will sure think of this once I get out of this..
Her thoughts kept her occupied for a while. Soon her patience ran out. After a final warning call to the "guys", she opened her eyes.
Ok, let us say, tried to open her eyes. As it turned out, she could not. Of course, what's the fun if she could. Now she was in good trouble. This was the point at which she was justified in panicing! Which she did. While that did not help much, she tried the best she could do. Shout and cry for help. Suddenly she realized that she was not tied down or anything. There were just a few electrodes about her head. Her hands, legs and all her body was free.
Then let me just lift my hand and remove these stupid electrodes... that was so obvious.. I feel so stupid... Anyway, everyone is going to have a good laugh once I remove these and see them.. so embarrassing, wish I had not shouted!
But as the reader might correctly guess, her hands did not move. However, as the reader might fail to guess, she also realized that she did not feel she had any. Legs, no response.. any other mobile body part, nopes... so after all, I am in coma or something? This must be what it feels like. Oh my God, what have done to myself, walked into this coma all by myself. And that by my own free will.. (ok, another essay to write on free will.. but not now.. not now).. I had sensed that the whole idea was a bad one.. this researcher looked dubious right since the beginning... it is correct to say that if everything were rational, nothing would move, but ironically for my limbs, if I had been even slightly more rational, they would be happily moving now.. and what's better maybe moving inside a nice comfortable bath tub!
Anyway, that she was thinking while cursing herself helped her stay confused for a further while. Eventually she realized that she was pretty much stuck in the middle of nowhere for god knows how long. What a waste of a way to finish one's life, she sighed (mentally, that is!), if indeed this was the end!
Of course the mentally better equipped readers would have figured out by now that this was anything but the end of her life and there was more to come. If this was a movie on TV, this would have been time for another break!
As it turned out, she felt a something shaking her (later she realised that this was funny and illogical since she was not feeling her body anyway). With a sudden jolt, she felt she suddenly knew lot more than she did a moment ago. She searched her mind to figure out what it was. The thoughts she felt were new to her mind and memory were as follows.
"Hi, sorry to intrude thus. How are you feeling? Am Tiq (the non-dude). You must be feeling a bit disoriented (yeah, right!). I do too. I think we are stuck out of normal temporal evolution of the universe around us (hmmm, that explains it, my dear!! why don't you start talking english for a change, you are goddamned half dead now). Try a bit, you can also communicate with me. I think we are moving in time but very very slowly vis-a-vis rest of the universe (even better!). Our bodies are anyway too slow to respond to us. We need to work through our minds. Just see if you can push and speak to me as I have spoken to you. Feel your way around and touch anything you lay your hands (figuratively) on. Bye!"
Fie had no clue what non-dude (if it indeed was him and not a figment of her imagination) was talking about. Something assured her that it was indeed something or someone outside her for the simple reason that she was not inclined to think along these lines even in the best or worst mental state. That of course was only a judgment! But then there was not much else to bank upon. If it was him, she thought, he wants me to speak to him the way he spoke to me - through mind?
... let me try "pushing" and "feeling around".. hmm, this seems going "someplace".. hello, anyone there!... let us push the other way.. what's that? that must be him..
"hi, is it you?" (Fie thought, anything when asked if its "you" would respond affirmatively if it could communicate...but she was counting on non-dude getting the general drift of her question...)
There ensued a "thought exchange" driven conversation which went thus:
"Yeah, it's me.. so you learnt how to do this huh.. good! Now tell me, how do you feel?"
"Considering that feeling is pretty much ALL I can do, I feel quite sad and limited!"
"Of course! I totally understand.. this is not easy for me either. But I am feeling perfectly fine otherwise, you know something like being only my mind!"
"Come to think of it, you are right! If I ignore the minor loss of my body, I think I am with you on this one!"
"Don't be sarcastic! Is there anything else you can do anyway?"
"Thanks for the encouragement. But I take your point. Small request though, can we take postpone intellectual discussion till we get "outside" and try and figure out ways to get out in the meantime?"
"That's sensible actually! hmmm, what can we do... if we just wait, I think our mind will become dysfunctional with overactivity of processing and information and that would probably mean we will die.. or else maybe we will just stop functioning mentally if the coma of our bodies is complete!.. our friends would never find out since they are infinitely slower than us and by our time, they are almost paused.. can you think of any other possibility?"
"Actually, yes. What if we try and push around and "locate" in some sense some switch?"
"What sort of switch can you operate mentally? And what is the use if we are not to move in time anyway?"
"You said we are moving slowly but have not entirely stopped... if we can switch the system off in some way, we may "evolve" out of this!"
"Granting that we can, what kind of switch do you plan to locate?"
"You tell me!"
"I think this may work. It is abominably crazy but what the hell!"
"Ok, what is it anyway?" this was Fie (actually, Fie's mind)
"The plan is as follows. We will scout around for the logical circuitry of logic gates inside the computers of the system. The physical substance is of course out of bound for us, but if we could mess with the logical elements of it, there might be a way to shut the system down."
"You are essentially saying that we make the system go mad and hence self terminate in a logical or "softwary" sense?"
"Great idea... where do we begin?"
"Let us try and "stay" together and keep talking as we 'move'"
"Sounds good, take a left.. !"
"Stop fooling around!.. Ok keep pushing some way you want and keep speaking to me .. I will try and trace you.."
They stumbled around a bit. It was a new experience for Fie and for Tiq (Let us stop calling him non-dude since he had done some really dudelike activities this evening; for starters calming a distressed woman (actually only her mind) and thinking out of the box to generate solutions for crisis management, if this does not make him a dude, nothing else could). They were indeed roaming around with only their minds in the "space" of systems. The rules of the game were of course significantly different. For one, there was no distance 'between' objects. Everything and everyone were just right there. Fie and Tiq did not have to roam around much in a spatial sense. They just had to realize that they need to sort through the nearly infinite array of logical systems they found themselves with.
It would be hard to describe their adventure in the exact sense since not much of their activities can be translated in our usual language. So let us stick to analogies. They pushed they way around and tried to sense things, actually entities in the logic space. They themselves were equivalent to two complex systems interacting and evolving continuously. Time in the material universe was infinitely slower than theirs, but at least they had time, else they would simply be rendered ineffective - like being frozen alive with all senses operating but no possibility of actively doing anything.
"Tiq, what are we looking for?"
"Anything we can mess with"
"Tiq, what are we looking for?"
"Oh I am sorry. I mean things like gate logic, software programs, sequence of logical steps etc"
"Hmmmm. How do we figure out?"
As it turned out, Tiq and Fie learnt their way around quite quickly. While most other systems they came across were inert, some were dynamic and showed some action. They felt like roaming around in the machinery room of a ship with some general stuff lying around and some moving equipment making hissing sounds. They came across this fascinating and intricate web of causalities which changed very rapidly. They also came across several structures which seemed very rigid and changed little. There were still more which were linked to both the structures and the dynamic systems. If one were to draw a picture, it was similar to and engine room with pistons, cylinders, transmission rods, controls and all that.
"Fie, I think we are hovering around the main program of the system. Look here, I mean feel here, this is so intricate and complex. It is so dynamic. Should we try and destroy this someway?"
"If you say so! How should we?"
"I have an idea, let me locate the loops and remove the loop finishing element. That may put the system in infinite loop and it will hang!"
"You mean you want to do the equivalent of changing 'WHILE i > 4' to 'WHILE 5>4'?"
"Yes, something like that but more complex."
Unfortunately, Tiq could not locate the loop. He tried to generally assault the system in anywhich way he could. After a bit there was something of the sort of a mini-explosion in the space they were in and both Tiq and Fie received a quick succession of shocks; similar to the ones they used to communicate with each other.
Of course, someone had spoken to them.
"You morons! What are you up to? I came here to save you guys and you are attacking me? This is Miti."
Tiq recovered first.
"Miti, what are you doing here? How the hell you even knew something was wrong? Is your time not infinitely slower than ours?"
"Tiq, who is Miti? What is she doing here", that was Fie
"One at a time, fellows! Fie, I am Tiq's friend helping you guys out. We met outside, remember? Tiq, I anyway knew something had to go wrong and was on standby. The moment the signals from electrodes started to weaken, I got in. Thankfully just in time. Otherwise it would be too late for you guys anyway."
Tiq thought at length and then came up with a brilliant problem.
"How does that change anything? Now there are three of us stuck!"
"You clearly could use some brains! I have written the program for the operating system of the machine. I essentially have brought you the map of the jungle in which you are lost."
"Ok, so which way it out", Fie was focusing on the essentials.
"I am transferring the system architecture to you guys and also the proposed way out. Tiq, as you are thinking, making some loop infinite is probably a good way out of here."
What followed next was not much of a glorious happening. They eventually located the loop they were looking to extend to infinity so that the system hung due to lack of RAM. That worked and the system stopped functioning. In due course of time, they came out unscathed. However, the small time system took to come to a halt was fairly long for our fellows and they managed to scout around quite a bit. Very soon in their adventures both Miti and Fie had ruled out getting into a relationship with Tiq or with each other (in fact to add insult to injury, Miti even commented on how she found Fie a better match than Tiq). However, they became good friends due to vast exchange of ideas, thoughts, fantasies (again, Tiq was brutally left out of the last part) since exchanging them was so much more easier in logic space!
Needless to say, they were a far different people when they got into governing their material bodies!!!