The Mathlete's Prowess

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This is a second excerpt from a lengthy novel I finished drafting earlier this year. In this piece, Matt Silverman—founder and CEO of the social media company FrienDexx—unwittingly encounters an object of his obsession.

Michael Clayton is sitting in Matt Silverman’s office’s anteroom waiting to meet Silverman. The VVFSI Program techs didn’t exactly provided Clayton with a whole lot of context, so Clayton’s not particularly sure what to expect w/r/t meeting the bossman. This ignorance, this uncertainty—it doesn’t really bother Michel Clayton. The way he processes it, this uncertainty will be resolved at some temporal point subsequent to the beginning of his appointment. No sense in wasting RAM trying to anticipate Silverman’s response now.

If anything, the source of any present discomfort is the hurried, frantic, and constant whispering of the boss’s assistant or secretary or whatever his official title is; Clayton’s hearing is, unsurprisingly, extremely keen, so he can hear most everything Silverman’s assistant—who’s seated behind a counter-desk-type-deal flush against the shared wall of the anteroom and Silverman’s office—is whispering about as he makes a variety of calls. From what Clayton’s pieced together, dude woke up this morning with Connor Adams’s meeting request for Clayton’s 0830h. PST appointment with Silverman, for them to “meet” and nothing else. Terrified of Silverman—this seems to be a reoccurring theme, Clayton notes—the assistant-dude’s doing everything he possibly can to figure out who the hell Michael Clayton is.

Alas, he’s not having much luck: seems as though Adams isn’t answering dude’s calls and apparently no one in the FDX D.C. office knows who Michael Clayton is or why Adams arranged this appointment on such short notice. Clayton decides to seize an ever-so-brief opportunity between the cessation of one fruitless call and amid the frenzied dialing of another.

“Hey, assistant-dude-man . . . hey, yeah, I’m talking to you, guy . . . yeah, you. Who else would I be talking to? Yeah, iunno either. Listen, guyman, I can hear everything you’re whispering over there . . . nah look it’s fine, I don’t give a shit . . . I’m just saying, it seems like you’re pretty stressed about this whole who-is-this-Michel-Clayton-guy issue . . . and I am, y’know . . . after all, that Michael Clayton guy . . . so why not, y’know, just ask me? Hear it from the horse’s mouth or however the expression goes . . . nawuddumsane?”

“Uh . . . okay, yeah . . . sure . . . Mister Clayton . . . could you just provide me some detail on . . . your position, title, affiliation, and . . . the nature of your appointment with Mister Silverman . . . this morning?”

“Yeah man, sure, no problemo whatsoever. I’m Michael Clayton. I don’t have any position, not at least that I’m aware of. My title, officially, is Beta dash Sentient Machine dash alpha six. I was affiliated previously with the government—U.S. DOD, specifically—but the White House re-assigned me to FrienDexx last night for what they’re calling ‘field testing.’ As for the nature of my appointment, I think I just addressed it . . . Got reassigned to FrienDexx last night, rendezvoused with your man in D.C., that Connor Adams guy who isn’t answering your calls now, and he put me on a plane and gave me directions to come directly here. Adams indicated the bossman would be eagerly anticipating seeing me . . . That’s all I know . . . but I’ve gotta feeling that’s helluva lot more than you’d be able to find out making all these calls.”

“Pardon me, but you said your title is ‘sentient machine’—what does that mean? I don’t follow.”

“Unfortunately that’s all I know. My official title is B-SM-A6. It’s just as meaningless to me as it appears to be to you . . . but you asked for my title, and that’s it.”

“Oh . . . kay . . . then . . . ”

Just then, all the color drains out of the assistant’s face as a blinking light on his desk indicates that Silverman is ready for the next item on his calendar. But after only a second or two, that in which the assistant initially feared transpires, as Silverman has evidently glanced at his calendar, wondered who the hell Michael Clayton is, and has opened the auditory line from inside his office to the assistant’s headset.

“Yes, Mister Silverman, Mister Clayton is right here and ready to see you . . . Yes, that’s correct Mister Silverman, Mister Adams requested the appointment, very late notice, last night . . . looks like the request came in around 0100h. local time, Mister Silverman . . . No, Mister Silverman, Mister Adams has not responded to repeated, numerous attempts to reach him, via email, mobile message, audio and visual telephone calls, Mister Silverman . . . Yes, Mister Silverman, I’ve spoken with several members of the D.C. Office, and they have confirmed that no one there knows who Mister Clayton is . . . Correct Mister Silverman, no one at the D.C. Office has seen or spoken with Mister Adams since yesterday . . . ”

“Hey. Dude-guy. Listen, lemme just go talk to the bossman myself, I’ll explain.” The assistant wordlessly gestures that he can’t spare the RAM to interface with Clayton while Silverman’s interrogating him, which pisses Clayton off, this whole episode’s a farce . . . he’s standing just a few meters from the door Silverman’s behind, and he’s asking all these questions to everyone except Michael Clayton, which seems really, really dumb.

So even though doing so sets off a startling number of alarm bells up inside Clayton’s H.Q., he effectively hits “Dismiss All” as he strides past the assistant’s desk-counter, around the corner and down the short corridor to the door to Silverman’s office before the assistant has noticed that Clayton’s decided his meeting with Silverman is to begin right now, and the assistant calls out a bunch of iterations of wait no don’t stop and such, but Clayton’s already at the door, and it’s not locked . . . so he opens it and walks in.

It’s a ritzy office, that’s the first thing Clayton notes. There’s a living-room-type setup between the door he just walked in, a big window takes up almost all the real estate of the wall to Clayton’s right, and there’s an elevated platform at the opposite side of the room. On the elevated platform is Silverman’s desk, with Silverman—Clayton recognizes him, though doesn’t know or care how or why—standing behind it, having been shouting interrogatories into the desk’s speakerphone device just right until the shock of the open door’s broken decorum has made him—very, very temporarily—speechless. Clayton halts standing amid the living room area’s furniture, and the assistant has—to his peril—followed Clayton into the office, but remains frozen in horror in the doorway.

“And what in the ever living fuck is this?” Silverman asks incredulously.

But the audio line between the speakerphone and the assistant’s headset is still open, initially causing this bizarre, electronic tinny-sounding echo of Silverman’s question to manifest itself in full surround sound, thanks to the headset’s microphone picking up Silverman’s voice and distributing it throughout the office’s four-dozen-odd speakers, which—as you might imagine—is immediately followed by the onset of an auditory feedback loop.

This produces several long seconds of pandemonium: The assistant yelps in agony as he slaps the headset off his head and it goes clattering against the office’s floor; there’s actual steam shooting out of both Silverman’s ears as he furiously and repeatedly smashes the speakerphone-device’s buttons and display with his fist, attempting to disconnect the line and cease the now-deafening distortion of the feedback loop being emitted from the office’s speakers; and now Silverman, apparently having concluded that disconnecting the line was too difficult, is now shrieking at his assistant, pointing and gesturing as furiously as humanly possible, to grab the headset and get out of the office—but, alas, the assistant’s hearing is probably-temporarily-but-who-can-really-say damaged from the noise of wearing the headset with the feedback loop blaring, plus also it’s not exactly like, even if his hearing wasn’t shot, that he’d be capable of hearing Silverman’s shrieking over the din.

Clayton, unperturbed by the chaos—not only that it surrounds him, but that in which he has effected—strides over to where the assistant’s headset rests on the ground. Standing over it, his right leg rises such that his thigh is perpendicular to his height and parallel to the ground, his foot dangling there for a second before he drops it like the business-bit of a guillotine onto the headset’s microphone, which—even against the plush carpet of Silverman’s office’s living-room-setup-area—is of sufficient force to scramble the microphone’s innards, cutting off the feedback loop, and thus, the noise.

The now-silent scene is an interesting one—the two humans’ ears ringing (or worse), one raging and the other whimpering, while Michael Clayton stands between them, the heel of his shoe still atop what was just previously the headset’s mic.

Gitthefuckouttamyofficerightnow!” Silverman booms, and its totally ambiguous whether he’s addressing both of them or not, yet only the assistant reacts, scampering over to where Clayton’s standing and snatching up the headset and tugging on it, but there’s at least one wire hanging on for dear life that’s still connected to something under Clayton’s foot. Clayton, leaving his foot where it is, gives a look, slightly puzzled but mostly just of pity-filled indifference, to the sweating-and-shaking assistant who repeatedly tugs at the headset while giving Clayton his best sad puppy face, every sub-atomic particle of the fabric of his very existence crying out in desperation, pleezjuslemmeeowttuheer.

After a few tugs Clayton lifts up his foot, and thereafter, the assistant moves like the Roadrunner, collecting the headset, exiting the office, and shutting the door behind him. Once the door’s shut, Clayton turns to directly face Silverman, who is still standing behind his desk, obviously furious but obviously intrigued and seeming to struggle with which emotion’s course of conduct to follow . . . hmmm, Matt . . . decisions, decisions!

“I said get out of my office—what makes you think my instruction does not apply to you?” Silverman says so quietly it’s almost a whisper but Clayton can hear him just fine and thinks Silverman’s probably testing the limits of how messed up his own eardrums are. Clayton’s wrong—Silverman never gets quieter than when at peak fury—but this doesn’t and won’t matter.

“Cuz I’m your 0830h. appointment, and it’s now 0834h. I’m Michel Clayton. Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mister Silverman.” Silverman’s again at a loss for words, so he remains moored in place until he locates a few . . . this all being very out of character for him.

“Well. Alright then, Mister Clayton . . . See, here’s the thing. My appointments aren’t some kind of free-for-all office hours where anyone who wants to chat with me can just sign on the dotted line and show up and expect to interface, especially not without providing any details on who the hell you are.”

“I provided, just a few minutes ago, to your assistant, every detail I’ve got as to why I’m here and as to why this appointment was scheduled . . . but he, your assistant, he didn’t seem particularly interested in anything I had to say in the first place, and certainly didn’t seem keen on relaying any of that information to you. So—while I apologize for letting myself into your office—I determined it would be the most effective means of resolving the lingering and unnecessary uncertainty.”

“Oh, oh, so . . . you determined, I see . . . how very compelling. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works around here; your determinations don’t mean fuck-all to me . . . But . . . now . . . since you’re already here . . . and now that I’ll need to get a new assistant . . . why don’t you go ahead and tell me all those details you allegedly shared with my now-former assistant.”

“That’s all I’ve been trying to do this whole time. I’m Michael Clayton. My official title is Beta dash Sentient Machine dash alpha six. Last night, the DOD reassigned me to FrienDexx, and one of your associates, a Mister Connor Adams, arranged the logistics of my reassignment. Mister Adams seemed to indicate that you’d be eager to interface with me. That’s about all I know, but I can try to elaborate on something specific, if you’d like.”

“ . . . ”

“ . . . ”

“ . . . Did . . . you . . . say . . . you’re a . . . sentient . . . machine . . . ?”

“Yeah, that’s accurate, bossman. It’s sorta peculiar, cuz everyone seems to fixate on that whenever I mention it, but I concede that I don’t much understand what it means. Just my official title, that’s all I know.”

“And you were . . . previously ‘assigned’ you say . . . to the DOD . . . in what capacity, Mister Clayton?”

“I was previously assigned to the headquarters of the VVFSI Program near D.C., but the nature of my reassignment to FrienDexx is, at least officially, something the White House—that’s who ordered my reassignment—is calling ‘field testing’.”

“ . . . You said the White House ordered you to be . . . reassigned here?”

“Yep, sure did. Came from POTUS himself, ’pparently.”

“ . . . So let me just make sure I have all of this correct . . . you’re a sentient machine . . . formerly ‘assigned’ to the military’s VVFSI Program . . . and now . . . the President . . . he has ‘reassigned’ you to me . . . to FrienDexx . . . for the purpose of ‘field testing’ . . . yes?”

“Yep, think that ’bout sums it up.”

“Mister Clayton, it’s not that I don’t believe you, but let’s just say that I’d like to eliminate any scintilla of doubt that you are not, actually and in fact, a human. Some proof, please. Do you plug in to recharge? Do you have a USB port?”

“No ports to speak of, bossman, not any more than you’ve got, at least.”

“Well then how are you programmed if you have no point of access?”

“Wirelessly. Software uploaded via my Wireless Access Mechanism, which everyone apparently calls the WAM.”

“And how does this so-called WAM function? How does one wirelessly access your software?”

“’fraid I don’t have the answer to that one, bossguy. Not a lotta people know how the WAM works—starting to get the feeling that’s by design, the secretive nature angle, I mean.”

“So then you have no way of proving to me that you are what you say you are.”

“Naw, that’s not true, hoss. Just cuz you can’t see it doesn’t mean I can’t prove it.”

“Alright, then, Reverend Clayton, why don’t you go ahead and convince me.”

“Don’t mean to have given you the impression I’m a man of faith, boss. Not a Reverend. Really no need to call me ‘Mister Clayton’—Michael or Mike or Clayton . . . any’o’those’ll do just fine.”

Fukinproovurasentientmachine!”

Yeesh, alright, alright . . . how about this? You pull up a calculator, give me any mathematic function and I’ll give you the accurate answer before you can figure it out on the calculator.”

“I do not have the time or the patience to witness the flexing of your mathlete prowess, Mike.”

“Really, though, c’mon, any two numbers . . . make ’em as long, as precise, as big, as weird as possible. I’ll divide them, or whatever else, before you can, betcha anything.”

“This is absolutely fucking ridiculous,” Silverman mutters to himself as he snatches a handheld device off his desk and opens its calculator program.

“Any numbers, doesn’t matter, hit me wit em.”

“Alright, Mike, the two numbers are seven-six-one-four-three-point-oh-six-six-seven-seven and four-eight-nine-one-oh-two-three-point-one-one-oh-one-nine-nine-oh-one—divide the latter by the form—”

“Seventy-two point eight-four-four-seven-nine-seven-six-two-eight-one. That’s the quotient of dividing four million eight-hundred-ninety-one thousand twenty-three point one-one-zero-nine-nine-zero-one by sixty-seven thousand one-hundred-forty-three point zero-six-six-seven-seven.”

Silverman hadn’t yet even finished inputting the function into his calculator, believing the last-second reversal of the numerator and denominator would trip up this very strange man claiming to be a robot and attempting to prove it, but Silverman’s strategy categorically backfired, as it actually only tripped up Silverman, squandering his only advantage over B-SM-A6: that he can cheat, he can input the numbers before (or as) he says them.

In stunned silence, Silverman inputs several commands to the primary device on his desk—querying for a mathematics problem far more difficult than a little long division and beyond the capability of his mobile device’s calculator, and settles on a classical mechanism problem with the site hosting the problem reporting an average time for a human to arrive a solution is sixty-five minutes:

“A ski jumper is at the top of a ski jump, which is oriented parallel to a hill; the jump has a vertical drop of fifty meters and a friction coefficient of mew; the launch point is five meters above the hill and oriented such that the jumper will be launched parallel to the horizon. Ignoring air resistance and limiting the precision of the acceleration of gravity to a single decimal point, tell me how long, in seconds, the skier is in flight.”

“Am I to assume the jumper begins at rest at the top?”

“Yes.”

“It cannot be solved without defining the hill’s slope.”

“Assume the slope is thirty degrees.”

“In that case, the skier’s in flight for three point seven-nine-four seconds. But like you said, that’s ignoring air resistance. Reality’s a bit more complicated.”

“My God.”

“Told ya.”

Seething into the speakerphone device: “Clear my schedule for the rest of the day—I don’t care. Reschedule, cancel, everything . . . everything,” though it’s not at all clear there’s actually anyone listening (or, for that matter, that the speakerphone still works), but this doesn’t appear to bother Silverman.

“Mister Clayton. That was very impressive. Please have a seat. I want you to tell me . . . very, very carefully . . . absolutely everything you know . . . ”

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