We walked by the canal at Nyhavn harbor, Copenhagen, looking for a good place to eat. The sun had nearly set in the distance, and neon drones covered the street in red, blue, and green light.
“I am going to call it MORIARTY,” proclaimed Valerija, her auburn hair glowing in the multicolored light.
“Like the bad guy from Sherlock Holmes?” I asked.
She beamed at me, and I basked in her smile. “Precisely! Now, Sherlock Holmes claims that the professor based his career on a brilliant treatise upon the Binomial Theorem. This was most likely a misunderstanding on the part of the great detective. After all, who has anything new to say about the Binomial Theorem at this late date?”
I nodded and tried to look like I had any idea what she was talking about. There was no doubt that Valerija was the brains of our outfit.
“The Binomial Theorem, however, also contains the binomial coefficient, which determines the many ways of selecting a subset of objects from a larger set. It is likely that Mr. Holmes misunderstood, and that the Professor’s expertise was, in fact, in the field of combinatorics. What skill could be more useful for a Napoleon of Crime than knowing how to select the exact right subset of events deserving of his undivided attention?”
This time, I understood a little bit. “Ah, so that’s why you are using that name for our selection algorithm.”
She grabbed my tie and pulled me closer. “See, you are not as dumb as you look. Why, some of your code is even passable. Using our software, clients will be able to efficiently determine the optimal selection of tasks to maximize their profits. You have already made the initial license sales. With my brains and your charisma, we will be unbeatable!”
I kissed her, so I wouldn’t have to speak. All those orders had been cancelled. One by one, clients had called to say that they had changed their minds. Soon, I would have to tell her that I had contributed essentially nothing to the project. At least I could let her enjoy her dinner.
We stopped by an ethnic food stall manned by a five-foot-tall Betelgeusian. The blue trunk of the Betelgeusian stuffed indeterminate meat into hotdog buns.
It looked at me with its round yellow eyes set in a blue face and waved its trunk. “Good evening, sir,” it said in heavily accented English. “Would you like to try? Only five Euro.”
I looked at the meat sizzling on the grille; at the indeterminate expression of the Betelgeusian. The smell was somewhere between sausage and fried chicken.
Valerija slapped my shoulder. “Don’t be so rude, honey. They don’t bite.”
“Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t know there were Betelgeusians in this neighborhood. Was it really a good idea to accept so many refugees, so suddenly?”
“Two thousand? Out of billions. You know their sun exploded, right?”
“Right, but we can’t fit an entire planetful of refugees on Earth. The Stellar Conglomerate needs to distribute the burden.”
She shook her head and tsked.
“This seafood restaurant looks nice,” I said, desperate to change the topic. Valerija loved seafood. She agreed, and we went inside.
The baked lemon sole melted on my tongue.
After we had eaten, I took a few moments to enjoy the aftertaste, and then told Valerija the truth about our order pipeline.
She frowned and swallowed the last of her salmon. “That’s weird. I thought those were in the bag?”
“Me too! None of them would tell what the problem was. Just ‘Hello, Mr. Storm. I am afraid we will have to cancel this contract. Goodbye. *click*'” My impression of Uptight Customer Voice made her laugh.
She fed me a dessert biscuit to make me feel better. “Don’t worry too much, honey. With your sales skills, I am sure we will be able to replace them soon enough.”
I ate some more biscuits and felt my mood improve. “You’re right, as always. First thing tomorrow, I will go see those jerks and make them reconsider.”
First thing next morning, as I was walking along the sidewalk, a black Cadillac pulled up next to me. It was so dark that the sunlight seemed to dim. The front window slid into the door, revealing a woman with steel-grey hair, wearing a black suit. A bald, broad-shouldered man sat next to her. Their eyes had the telltale glint of recording implant.
“Kristian Storm,” she stated. “Get in the back.”
I knew better than to argue with Global Security.
The tinted windows hid the city from view, so I had no way of knowing how much time had passed when the car came to a stop. The car door opened, and the air in the parking garage smelled faintly of car exhaust and cigarettes.
We rode an elevator in silence, walked through corridors lit by fluorescent tubes, lush carpeting swallowing the sound of our footsteps until we stepped into a meeting room.
A large window occupied the opposite side of the room, displaying a view of a scenic city I did not recognize. Certainly not Copenhagen. The sun shone through the window from a position near its zenith. How long had we been driving? A smell of fresh coffee caressed my nostrils.
A dark mahogany table stretched from one end of the oblong room to the other. At the right end of the table, a man in a bright blue leisure suit was constructing a small tower of cookies on the plate next to his steaming coffee cup. He looked to be in his fifties, his hair a mixture of brown and gray.
I was suitably impressed; only someone at the top of the social ladder could get away with wearing such a tacky outfit. Even the Eurasian president usually stuck to old t-shirts, pre-aged. I was painfully aware of my expensive business suit.
To his right, with her back to the window, a lithe woman in a modest grey suit drummed her fingers on the table, absent-mindedly. Her black hair was cut short, barely reaching her ears.
The man in blue poured me a cup of fresh coffee and placed it in front of me, along with a cookie from his tower.
“Um, hello,” I said.
The lithe woman pushed a single piece of paper towards me and handed me a pen. I skimmed the paper: A non-disclosure form, threatening heavy penalties if I ever revealed the details of the meeting. I signed.
“Finally,” said the man in blue, and the tower of cookies collapsed on his plate. “We can get started. I am Victor Bernhoeft, head of Global Security for the pan-Eurasian Union. My colleague here,” he nodded towards the woman, “is Doctor Nicolaides.”
He sipped his coffee and looked straight in my eyes. “And you are Kristian Storm, the optimization expert. They tell me your software is the best on the market. Drink your coffee before it gets cold.”
The coffee had a subtle caramel aftertaste.
“Doctor Nicolaides, will you bring our new colleague up to speed?”
The sun flew rapidly across the sky, leaving the city in twilight. I blinked.
The man in blue laughed. “My apologies. That is not a window. We show AI-generated cityscapes, to obscure our location.”
I looked at the twilit city, recognizing elements of several European capitals.
A bright rectangle of light on the far wall dispelled the darkness. Dr. Nicolaides stood brandishing a laser pointer, and a red dot danced across the square. She pressed a button on the pointer, and the projector square displayed a picture of the Earth, floating in space.
“Earth,” she intoned. ”The cradle of humanity.”
She pushed the button again, and the square showed an animation of an exploding sun. “Two months ago, a Conglomerate observation vessel detected a gamma-ray burst heading in the direction of Earth. The origin has been determined to be a supernova roughly five hundred light-years from Earth. The observation vessel was ten light-years away at the time.”
“Thank god Einstein was a fool,” said Victor. “If information couldn’t move faster than light, we would have no warning at all.”
Dr. Nicolaides stared at him coldly. “Information does not move faster than light. It takes shortcuts through curved space-time.”
Earth appeared on the wall again; pulsing arrows attacked from the left, scattering against the atmosphere.
“When the burst arrives, in approximately ten years, it will deplete most of the ozone layer, leaving us vulnerable to UV radiation from the sun.”
Yellow arrows bombarded the surface of the Earth.
“The radiation will destroy most complex life on Earth. Furthermore, the gamma rays cause oxygen and nitrogen to combine into nitrogen oxide, blocking the sun with photochemical smog. The earth descends into a decades-long winter.”
The Earth turned into a snowball, beautifully animated trees and plants withering and dying.
The projector square disappeared; the sun rose again over the patchwork city behind the window, and Dr. Nicolaides returned to her chair.
“Thank you, Doctor,” said Victor. “More coffee, Mr. Storm?”
“So, what are we doing to prevent this?” I said, after sipping my coffee.
Victor looked at me, blue leisure suit radiant in the light of the fake sun. His face was smiling, but a deep sadness hid behind his eyes.
“Prevent it? With what? A giant space mirror?”
He idly tossed a cookie from one hand to the other and back again. “We have spent the last two months negotiating with the Conglomerate Resettlement Council. They have agreed to accept ten thousand refugees.”
“Ten thousand…” I mumbled, pointlessly stirring my black coffee with a spoon. Something clicked in my head. “But there are ten BILLION people on earth!”
Victor sighed and shrugged. “And twenty billion people were living near Betelgeuse. There are two thousand living on Earth now. The CRC says the number is proportionate to the number of refugees we have accepted ourselves, in the past.”
“What happens to the Betelgeusians, then?”
“They already have refugee status, so they will be resettled.” He smiled a joyless smile. “Once you are in, you are in.”
He leaned forward, folding his hands, his gaze causing my eyes to water. “Mr. Storm, we are facing a problem of unprecedented complexity.”
I stirred my coffee faster, desperate for something to keep my hands occupied. My voice was flat. “You want me to select the ten thousand refugees.”
He nodded slowly. “I realize this is a lot to ask. Making you put a price on human life…”
I dropped the spoon and sneered. “Oh, for crying out loud. Putting a price on human life is EASY. Insurance actuaries do that all the time. You are asking me to put a price on combinations of human lives. Is a family worth more than a group of random people? What about an entire community? Do we need diverse groups or just a team of genius scientists?”
“You will not be working alone,” said Dr. Nicolaides.
“Indeed,” said Victor. “In addition to her cosmological competencies, Dr. Nicolaides is also an expert in the use of statistical mechanics to solve combinatorial problems. Also, we realize that hard science will not be sufficient. Your team will include philosophers, sociologists, and anthropologists, to help determine the optimal subset of humanity.”
“Sounds like you already have a pretty diverse sample,” I said, still stirring my steadily cooling coffee.
“Yes,” said Victor. “Ironically, none of them will make the cut. There will be no way to convince people that the selection is mathematically objective if the team chooses its own members. Everyone involved in the project will have to stay behind, myself included.”
He stood, downing his coffee, consuming one last cookie. “Come. Let me introduce you to some of your colleagues.”
We left the meeting room together. Behind us, machine-generated people went about their day in the simulated city, oblivious to their impending doom.
We walked through winding corridors, across soft carpets, eventually entering an office. A light-brown desk contained scattered papers, books by Martha Nussbaum, and semi-circular coffee stains galore. Behind the window, the Eiffel tower rose from the top of a pyramid in the center of a Mediterranean city.
By a small blackboard on the wall, two people were engaged in a vigorous discussion; diagrams and stick figures covered the blackboard.
The person on the right was a dapper, elderly, Asian gentlemen, dressed in a three-piece suit. Steel-gray hair covered his head.
The person on the left was Betelgeusian. It was tall for its species, around five foot five, and its wiry trunk wrapped around a long piece of chalk, specks of white dusk floating from the tip. A brown, suit-like piece of cloth covered most of its blue body and hid its feet. It occurred to me that I had never seen Betelgeusian feet.
With six people crowding into the office, there was barely space for the air and chalk dust.
“Sorry to interrupt,” said Victor. “Allow me to introduce you to Kristian Storm.”
The Asian man’s face brightened, and he reached out to shake my limp hand vigorously. “I am Dr. Liao. I have been looking forward to meeting you, Mr. Storm. I was just discussing The Problem with … here.”
He said a name that I could not possibly hope to pronounce, much less spell.
The Betelgeusian waved its trunk in my general direction. Its yellow eyes widened slightly, but I had no idea if that was good or bad.
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Storm,” it said; its English had only a slight accent.
Dr. Nicolaides spoke from behind me. “Mr. Storm was just telling us about the difficulty of comparing the value of human lives.”
“Difficult, indeed,” said Dr. Liao. “But not impossible or unprecedented. Similar issues arise in medical triage, and philosophers have developed several methods to evaluate quality of life. …. was telling me about the Betelgeusian process, but it appears that they have a somewhat different cultural perspective.”
“My people value community highly,” said ….. “Volunteering to be left behind was considered a great sacrifice, not a reward.”
It took me a moment to realize that the ones “left behind” were the survivors.
“I am sure you will have lots to talk about,” said Victor from behind. “Do you have any questions for your new colleagues?”
I opened and closed my mouth several times. “Uh…” I looked at the round, yellow eyes of the Betelgeusian. “That meat dish that your people like so much. You know, the one that tastes like a mixture between pork and chicken. What is that? A Betelgeusian creature?”
Its face was inscrutable, yellow on blue. “It is a mixture between pork and chicken, close in taste to the Blorg. Did you think that we would use any of our refugee spots on animals? All other lifeforms from the Betelgeuse system are now extinct.”
Victor mercifully escorted me out of the room before I could embarrass myself further.
Back in the soft hallway, I cleared my throat. “Look, I am flattered that you think I am the right man for this job, but I am quite busy. I have many clients…”
I felt suddenly very stupid. “You canceled my contracts”
“All of them,” said Victor, nodding. “We are your only client, from now until the end of the world.”
“You can’t do that!” I paused. “You can do that?”
“Like Sherlock Holmes put it: ‘When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’.
Victor patted my shoulder. “Let’s call it a day. You need time to absorb this new information. We will pick you up tomorrow morning.”
“What do I tell my girlfriend?”
Victor stopped abruptly, sliding a few inches on the carpet. ”Right, Miss Mikulić. I completely forgot about her. Getting too old for this shit.” He stroked his chin. “Maybe we can bring her on board, but that will require more arrangements. For now, just tell her that you have a new government contract, but that the details are classified.”
Back home, I retrieved my Fjällräven travel backpack from the wardrobe and started folding shirts.
“What on earth are you doing?” asked Val, looking at me through horn-rimmed glasses.
I looked at the mostly empty backpack and realized the answer. “We are going on vacation.”
“What? What about the contracts?”
“I will explain everything once we are safe. You have to trust me on this.”
She looked into my eyes and smiled. Her perfume smelled faintly of sandalwood and fern. “Sure, let’s go have some fun! I could use a break, anyway.”
We packed together, talking and joking along the way, and for a moment, I forgot that this was not actually a vacation. The sun shone through the window, and I heard birdsong from outside, remembering what the Betelgeusian had told me about the fauna of his lost home.
Our bright blue Centurion bicycles leaned against the side of the building, sparkling like deep water in the sun.
I mounted my bike, adjusted the gear with my right hand, and turned onto the bicycle path next to the sidewalk. The heavy backpack barely slowed me down. Behind me, I heard Valerija click into gear.
We raced down the path, snaking between the slower bicyclists out enjoying the weather.
A few hundred meters down the road, we turned right onto the elevated ramp connecting the street level path to the Bicycle Snakes, the network of elevated bicycle highways that allowed cyclists to quickly reach any location in the city.
I switched on the electric engine and a light tap on the pedals caused the bike to shoot up the ramp as if my backpack was filled with nothing but air. Valerija pulled up at my side and we enjoyed the view together. Several stories below us, pedestrians walked the streets, so used to bicycles zooming above their heads that hardly anyone looked up.
As we crossed central Copenhagen, I noticed two familiar figures reflected in the glass of one of the nearby office buildings. I slowed down, looked behind us, and saw them approaching from behind: A steel-haired woman and a bald man, black suits replaced by shorts and jerseys.
“What is it, honey?” said Valerija.
“We need to hurry.” I cranked up the power to the engine and sped past the other bicyclists, Valerija following close behind.
As we approached the famous Round Tower of Copenhagen, I turned onto the on-ramp leading to the snake that spiraled around the exterior of the tower, terminating at the top – a popular destination for tourists. Round and round we went, speeding past tourists taking their time to enjoy the view, catching glimpses of the two pursuers around the curve behind us. They either had electric engines as well or were in incredible shape – or both.
I ignored the entrance to the observation spot at the top and turned onto the exit snake leading away from the tower to the north, steadily dropping in altitude along the way. I switched off the engine and let gravity handle the acceleration. We flew past the other riders at far beyond the allowed speed limit.
I looked over my shoulder. The two pursuers maintained a steady distance not far behind. At this speed, trying to stop us would be suicide, but neither did we show any sign of escaping.
The sunlight reflected from the water nearly blinded me as we crossed the lake of Sortedam. When my vision returned, I saw Fælledparken parkrun rapidly approaching, the path through the park merging with the bicycle snake where it reached ground level. Our bikes jumped the off-ramp and landed on the gravel path, dust and stones flying in our wake. We sped past the pedestrians, down paths where bicycles were no longer allowed. Through the dissipating dust cloud behind us, I could still see the two agents.
Valerija and I nodded at each other in unison and squeezed the handbrakes, simultaneously kicking back on the pedals. An even bigger dust cloud formed behind us as the bicycles came to a screeching halt by the park lake. A group of bored swans observed us from the water.
The two agents emerged from the clouds; their bikes parked behind them. In unison, like marching soldiers, they wiped the dust from their shoulders.
I took a deep breath. “Tell your boss I have decided not to accept the contract.”
They stopped within striking distance. The man placed his hands on Valerija’s shoulder, and she twitched; lithe as a cat, she grabbed his arm, flipped him around, and placed him in a Judo hold on the ground. The swans cheerfully flapped their wings. The man grunted, managed to push Valerija aside, and retreated.
The steel-haired woman looked briefly at her colleague, then back at me. “There is nowhere to run.”
“But will you be able to take us?” I said, nodding towards Valerija. “As you can see, we are quite capable of defending ourselves.”
The man in the blue leisure suit emerged from behind nearby trees, clapping slowly. Three other agents followed behind him. “Wonderful! What an exciting chase, but we had you on satellite the entire time. Your trip is over, Mr. Storm.”
“If you had us on satellite, why bother with the chase at all?”
“I never miss an opportunity to exercise my agents! Besides, you needed to blow off some steam. We can all shower at HQ, and there will be food at the meeting.”
I stepped into the meeting room still damp from the shower, wearing clean, fragrant clothes; smart-casual with an indigo blazer.
The smell in the meeting room made my mouth water. The window showed the sun setting behind a colorful Middle Eastern city, minarets rising between the houses, like pins in a pincushion. Weird choice for lunch.
Victor, Dr. Nicolaides, Dr. Liao, and the Betelgeusian sat with their backs to the window, waiting for me to join them at the table. The center of the table was covered with silver dishes containing glistening meat medallions, steaming rice, sweet potatoes, normal potatoes, vegetables, ramekins with different types of sauce and blueberry pie for dessert. The confluence of smells was nearly overwhelming.
Between the dishes, two long, curved, blackish horns sprouted from white ceramic vases, like weird plants.
I fought the impulse to stuff my face and looked around the room. “Where is Valerija?”
“We are still considering her status,” said Victor. “Such a decision cannot be made on an empty stomach. Sit down.”
I could no longer rest. I sat down, poured food onto my plate, and sampled the meat; it melted in my mouth, tender, finely grained, like venison but with a fiery aftertaste, covered in a sweet and tangy glaze. “This is amazing! What is it?”
Victor retrieved one of the horns from its vase and brandished it like a spear. “Saola medallions, with honey-balsamic glaze.”
The word flitted through my mind for a few moments until it clicked into place. “Saola? But that’s an endangered species. There are only like a dozen left.”
Victor dropped the horn back into its vase. Clonk. “And soon there will be none left! We may as well learn what they taste like.”
I looked at the medallion on my fork and fought the desire to consume it. “Is that really your decision to make?”
“Might is right, Mr. Storm,” said Victor, honey glaze running in rivulets down his cheek. “I told them Global Security needed a Saola, and nobody argued the point. Besides, we need to improve morale. You’re not the only runner.”
Everyone else was too busy eating to join the conversation. The Betelgeusian vacuumed sweet potatoes into its trunk. I looked at Victor, looked at the meat on my fork, shrugged, put it in my mouth, and shuddered with pleasure.
“That’s the spirit,” shouted Victor and followed my example. “Tonight, we dine on honey-glazed extinction!”
After eating, we all leaned back in our chairs, enjoying the view through the window. I burped and savored the sweet aftertaste of the glazed meat.
Victor stretched his arms and then leaned forward, placing his hands on the table. ”Time to get down to business. As mentioned, you are not the only one trying to run. Therefore, we have decided that all team members will be staying in GS facilities until the project is completed. All your needs will be taken care of, and, as you can see, the food is excellent. Unfortunately, we cannot allow you to leave.”
I thought about how quickly we had left our home. “Can I at least go back to pick up some stuff?”
“You can make a list, and we will fetch whatever you need.”
“What about Valerija?”
“That was my next question. We certainly don’t want to confine more people than necessary. How crucial is she to your work? Can you expand the MORIARTY system without her?”
I thought for several minutes, remembering Valerija’s face and the sparkle in her eyes, thinking about her brilliance and her joy of life. About how those qualities would rub off on me and uplift me.
I laughed. “I mean, some of her code is passable, but she is basically just my secretary. If anything, she would slow me down.”
“You will not miss her? Your mental health is important for the project.”
I shrugged and ate some more pie. “We have been growing apart for a while. This is as good a time to end it as any.”
We have been moved several times; I am not sure if we are still in Eurasia. All the windows show imaginary cities, atmospheric but meaningless.
The work is progressing steadily. Every day filled with meetings, coding, philosophical discussions. We argue about who to choose, who to combine, how to determine the value of a group, a family, a couple.
Are you worth more or less without me, Valerija? Will someone else complement you better than me?
The consumption of endangered species has been legalized, and the canteen is rich with the aromas of Saola, Amur Leopard, and Vaquita. The food is, indeed, excellent.
Every day, more branches of code grow from the MORIARTY system. I never quite understood how the core worked, that was Valerija, but I am perfectly capable of maintaining and expanding it. Rivers of data from every region of the Earth flow into the system, feeding it, teaching it.
I sit motionless like a spider in the center of a web with strands radiating to every person on earth, sub-webs covering every group, every family, every couple, and I know well every quiver of each of them.
There are three point four nine four times ten to the power of sixty-four thousand three hundred and forty ways of selecting ten thousand individuals from a population of ten billion; all sixty-four thousand three hundred and forty digits are written on the blackboard in the auditorium, as a reminder.
We have ten years to find the best one.