I went into a deep funk after the accident and barely even acknowledged Christmas as it happened around me. I’d already bought presents for everyone I knew, so at least I didn’t have to go about buying any after the accident. It was the first time in my life I was actually in a position to buy nice Christmas presents at all; I was still rather poor when I lived with the Rodriguez family. The presents I bought for Frank and Shaun, of course, were never given, nor did I ever take the time to return them. For quite some time, they served as a reminder of the life that almost was, the life that would never be. Ultimately, I gave them away to charity. In the meantime, the one consolation was that the nightmares I’d been having stopped completely, leaving me to wonder if they were gone for good.
Applazon was quite generous in allowing me time to grieve and to recover. It took Dr. Moorthy making a trip to Omaha just to talk to me for me to resume work and complete my dissertation. He gave me the time off to work on it until it was complete, and then I set a date to defend it in mid-April, in plenty of time to finish it before graduation. Little did I know that it would be one of the first thesis-defense presentations to be done entirely online. At that point, I would become Dr. Jeffries in my own right. In the meantime, I had another birthday – two of them, actually. Legally, I was now seventeen, but in reality, I was only fifteen, but what did it matter? I’d been completely on my own since the day I turned thirteen.
However, before my thesis defense could take place, Wuhan went into lockdown as cases of SARS related to a new coronavirus began to spread like crazy, and then there were cases in Italy and the rest of Europe, and then there were cases in the Seattle area and then New York. By mid-March, nearly all of America went into lockdown and even though Nebraska’s governor resisted the call to impinge on personal freedoms in the name of controlling the pandemic, Omaha itself pretty much went into a lockdown, and only essential businesses stayed open. It didn’t matter if there was a government decree or not; people were scared, and they just weren’t going out.
The pandemic was incredibly good for Applazon, however. People afraid to go out shopping were ordering everything they could get their hands on online, and mostly from us. Our business shot through the roof. With schools shut down and people working from home, demand on our data centers skyrocketed, and we had to add capacity as quickly as possible. In Omaha, we had an empty building waiting for the installation of servers that wouldn’t be available until mid-2021 at the earliest, and we couldn’t wait. We already had thousands upon thousands of the new server circuit boards, just waiting to be installed in data mini-centers that had yet to be built, and we needed them immediately.
I took it upon myself to design a quick and simple adapter bracket that made it possible to mount sixteen of the new server boards in the space of a single conventional server in our existing server racks. It was a good thing we’d designed the circuits to be capable of both low- and high-temperature operation. Of course, with conventional cooling, they failed at a conventional rate, but those boards made it possible to expand our capacity rapidly. Of course, my workaround for using the new servers in conventional server racks came at a critical time for Applazon, and my work didn’t escape the notice of the higher ups at corporate. Omaha effectively became a test site for the new server design.
The new building was filled to capacity by April, and we still kept in operation the temporary facility where I’d started out. We ordered even more circuit boards from FoxConn as they allowed us to retrofit existing server racks with several times the number of servers as before. Troubleshooting the boards was much more difficult, however, but profits were so high that the cost of replacing them was a rounding error, so we just threw the out the ones that weren’t performing to specs. In the meantime, we hired and trained an army of data-center technicians and put them to work. With so many people out of work, finding young people who weren’t afraid of the virus wasn’t a problem at all. I ended up being the de facto director of the new data center while Clarence continued to run the old one. It wasn’t at all what I wanted to do with my life, but Applazon had bigger plans for me anyway.
Rob finished up his studies and obtained his associate degree. With all the restrictions on travel, his plans to see the world would have to wait, so he applied to become a full-time student at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, but all indications were that classes would likely be online anyway. On my suggestion, he took an online course and passed the test for certification as a data-center technician. He got an internal transfer to the new data center and saw an instant increase in his income. Thanks to his people skills, he was promoted very quickly to the role of a shift supervisor and eventually to my old position as the center director.
Thanks to the pandemic, Applazon was flush with cash and looking to expand in a big way, and that meant adding server capacity. Applazon decided to make use of my skills to help them deal with the increased server demand. There were numerous facilities with aging hardware that could dramatically improve their capacity and efficiency by installing the new servers into their existing racks. Applazon put me in charge of supervising the entire retrofitting operation, and that meant traveling all over the world. Hence, when almost no one was traveling anywhere, I found myself shuttling all over the world to supervise installation of the new server boards. It wasn’t an easy life, and I ended up getting stuck overseas for very long stretches of time when the rest of the world started placing restrictions on those entering from the U.S. I couldn’t afford the downtime associated with having to quarantine every time I returned from the States, so I stopped visiting home. It also kept me away from all the reminders of the charmed life I’d led before the accident. It kept me from remembering Shaun.
I was well-paid for my efforts and managed to save more than enough for the down payment on a house – McMansion-size, actually – not that I had any interest in buying one. The work was busy, but there was also a significant amount of downtime while waiting for parts to arrive and others to do the dirty work of the installations. The one consolation was that I finally learned how to speak the languages I only used to read. I even learned some basic Japanese, Korean and Mandarin Chinese. Yet the desire to be inventing something, rather than just supervising server upgrades, was overpowering. I was capable of doing so much more!
I spent a fair bit of my downtime working on a new single-chip server design with direct liquid-nitrogen cooling and superconducting ceramics. I pulled up research that had been done on the concept of the Josephson junction in computer design, but no one had actually built a commercially viable quantum computer based on one, although the Chinese had claimed to have done so. The concept had been verified decades ago with metal-based superconductors cooled to near absolute zero with liquid helium. Liquid helium was used for superconducting magnets in MRI machines, but the size, complexity and cost of liquid-helium cooling just weren’t practical in real-world computers.
The use of ceramic superconductors with liquid-nitrogen cooling had long been predicted to be just around the corner, but other developments in semiconductor miniaturization and speed had outpaced anything that might be gained by using superconductors. With semiconductors reaching their theoretical physical limits, however, now that I'd demonstrated the practicality of liquid nitrogen cooling in real-world data servers, quantum computers based on ceramic superconductors gained a new appeal. With a switching voltage of nearly zero, the power requirements per server would be on the order of milliwatts or even microwatts, and data speeds would be limited only by the speed of light. Because ceramic superconductors are anisotropic, the superconductivity is one-dimensional, making it possible to use closely-packed, extremely narrow data channels that could reduce the size of a server by nearly an order of magnitude.
The biggest problem with ceramic chips manufactured at room temperature was that they shatter when cooled to 200 degrees below zero Celsius. Perhaps someday we’d be able to make the chips in the cold vacuum of outer space, but space-based manufacture was as much as a century away. The obvious solution was to manufacture the chips at a temperature just above the boiling point of nitrogen, but that had never been done before and we’d need to develop the infrastructure for doing so entirely from scratch. There was also the issue of maintaining low temperatures during transport, but once installed in the Dewar vessel of a data mini-center, I could maintain liquid-nitrogen cooling for transportation anywhere in the world.
The final issue was the physical connection of the servers to a backplane. I could fit an entire server with four terabytes of data storage onto a ceramic chip the size of a stick of chewing gum, but then there was insufficient room for physical connections using metallic contacts. I realized right away that I’d need to use fiberoptics, and because superconducting ceramic chips required only milliwatts of power, fiberoptic light could even be used to supply power to each chip. However, with the chip densities I hoped to realize, it would be impractical to use conventional Ethernet switching. What I needed was on-chip switching and nearest-neighbor communication between the adjacent chips – a true network mesh.
The only fly in the ointment, so to speak, was that the ceramics contained rare-earth elements. The supply of those elements was exceedingly limited and came from third-world countries, mostly in Africa, where children were often exploited as virtual slaves. Able to work in tight places, they were exposed to highly toxic substances while the world looked the other way. Used in making compact, highly magnetic components, rare-earth elements were essential to the manufacture of hard drives and small motors. The irony wasn’t lost on me that as the need for hard drives in the computer industry was rapidly disappearing, I was considering an application that would result in an explosion of demand for rare-earth elements. That kept me up at night, and it certainly gave me pause.
Rather than giving up on my advanced server design or ignoring the environmental and human impact, however, I doubled down and put my effort into reading the literature and trying to understand how ceramics with the right combination of elements were superconducting at relatively high temperatures. Of course, I knew it had to do with the crystalline structure, but why? None of the mathematical models explained it. Nothing from quantum mechanics explained it, but then those were approximations at best. I therefore decided to try a numerical solution and commandeered one of our data center’s full capacity to run simulations under the guise of testing new software. It wasn’t a lie, but the cost would’ve been in the millions if I’d had to pay for it myself.
It took the better part of a week, but I had my answer. I’d get a paper out of it for sure, if not a Nobel Prize in physics someday. Or my ideas might flop, but I was onto something. At the least, I had a handle on both low- and high-temperature superconductivity. The simulations showed that in metals at temperatures near absolute zero, atomic motion virtually comes to a standstill, resulting in an entirely new phase of matter in which electrons move freely as if the underlying atoms aren’t even there. The simulations revealed a completely different mechanism in ceramic superconductors in which the electrons don’t actually move at all. What they showed was so bizarre that I didn’t believe them at first and had to rerun them before I accepted the results. The simulations showed that electrons entering at one end of the crystal lattice literally tunnel through it, emerging at the other end, nearly instantaneously.
A good analogy is Newton’s Cradle, an executive desk toy in which a series of polished metal spheres are hung from an overlying frame, forming a continuous column of pendulums. When one lifts the first sphere and lets it fall, it hits the column and transfers its kinetic energy through the column, causing the sphere on the other end to pop off and finish the arc as if the rest of the column wasn’t there. In the world of quantum physics, it didn’t matter that an electron that enters on one side of a superconducting ceramic might not be the same as the one that pops out the other side.
I found that the phenomenon of superconductivity in ceramics is related to the characteristic wavelength of the covalent bonds that hold the crystals together. If the wavelength is in the visible spectrum, it contributes to the color of the material. For example, copper has a peak at a wavelength of 327 nanometers, which corresponds to green light. It is the absorption of green light that gives copper its reddish color. Likewise, when heated, copper burns green.
My simulations revealed that in superconducting ceramics, the characteristic wavelength corresponds with the dimension of the underlying crystal structure. Hence, the crystal resonates at that wavelength, changing the molecular structure when the temperature falls below a critical threshold. The crystal thus enters a superconducting phase state in which electron tunneling occurs. This also explains why ceramic superconductors are anisotropic, as resonance only can occur along the axis of the crystal structure.
With a viable model, I was able to explore other crystalline structures that exhibited molecular resonance and came up with a novel ceramic based on carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and silicon, four of the most abundant elements on earth. It was a cyanosilicate that would be extremely difficult to manufacture but remarkably stable and superconducting, even at temperatures as high as 17 degrees Celsius, or 63 degrees Fahrenheit. If it worked, we’d have come within a cat’s whisker of achieving the Holy Grail of room-temperature superconductivity, eliminating the need for liquid-nitrogen cooling. Hell, an air-conditioned room would suffice.
I sent the full results of my simulations and my final design for a server based on cyanosilicate chips to Dr. Moorthy and Mr. Cooper for Applazon to develop further, should they choose to do so.
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My father had his hands around my neck, and I couldn’t breathe. In desperation, I kneed him in the balls, and when he let go, I ran. I knew that if he caught me, it was all over. It was either him or me. Remembering that he kept a gun behind the headboard of his bed, I ran into his bedroom and leapt onto the bed, reaching for where I knew the gun to be. I grabbed it and aimed it toward the doorway just as my dad ran through. At the last moment, I remembered there was something called a safety, quickly identified what I thought was it, and flipped it to what I hoped was off. I aimed at the center of my father’s chest and warned him to stop, but he kept right on coming, so I aimed for the center of his chest and shot him. His body literally exploded, and I was covered in his blood, guts and brains.
But then there was a whistling sound, and with a sense of dread, I ran, naked through the lab, heading for where we kept the prototype data mini-center. The whistling noise got louder the closer I got to the prototype. When I entered the room where it was kept, I could actually see the gas escaping from the oxygen line. It was a brilliant blue color. The closer and closer I got to it, however, the farther and farther away it seemed to be. I just couldn’t seem to reach it no matter how fast I ran. Shaun was there, right next to the oxygen tank, and then he held up a lighter and lit a spark.
I sat bolt upright in bed, drenched in sweat and gasping for air. It had all seemed so real. Clearly it wasn’t over, and it was worse than ever. The dreams had returned.
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In spite of the raging pandemic, I managed to hook up with men from time to time. I dared not go to any of the gay clubs that still flourished underground, but there were plenty of cute guys at the data centers where I worked, and quite a few of them weren’t opposed to hooking up with a seventeen-year-old boy. Little did they know I was only fifteen, which would have been considered statutory rape in most places. That soon became a moot point as the holidays came and went, and then I celebrated my supposed eighteenth birthday, followed by my real sixteenth birthday. I wasn’t even able to vote, as my eighteenth birthday came after the election was over. While all of America was consumed by the events of the pandemic, Black Lives Matter, the election, Trump’s reckless attempt to reverse the will of the American people and the actual insurrection that arose as a result, I missed all of it, watching everything unfold from on the sidelines. Trump had indeed proven to be the threat to American democracy that I’d feared. By the time I returned to The States, the Biden presidency was in full swing, and even Trump’s staunchest supporters were having to confront the reality of his electoral demise.
Finally, in April of 2021, the Vietnamese factory came online and started manufacturing complete data mini-centers to be shipped all over the world. Ironically, it was the facilities I’d yet to retrofit that became the first recipients of the new server architecture. Naturally, I was put in charge of the installations and continued my globetrotting activities for the better part of another year. During that time, I managed to hook up with boys from time to time.
In the meantime, Covid-19 began to be brought under control on two fronts. Firstly, much was learned about viral transmission, allowing for a gradual reopening of such activities as outdoor and limited indoor dining, and travel, subject to specific rules of social distancing and mask use. Just being able to get out of the house made a huge difference, and taken together with an extensive economic recovery package that was passed by Congress without a single Republican vote, it seemed that America had finally turned a corner.
The second front in the war on Covid came when several vaccine trials, initiated under President Trump, yielded safe, effective vaccines. Under overwhelming pressure, the FDA released them under emergency-use authorizations, with full approval to follow later as more data were collected. The development of mRNA vaccines was a true game changer, allowing for the rapid deployment of genetically engineered vaccines that used the body’s own cellular machinery to churn out antigens. The vaccines had remarkably few side effects and were more than ninety percent effective, and they even conferred immunity against mutant strains of the virus. Unfortunately, although Trump had an effective strategy for vaccine development, he lacked a coherent strategy for deployment, leaving it largely up to the states, which was likely a major reason for his loss.
The task of immunizing America thus fell to the Biden administration and following his inauguration, the vaccines were deployed in record time. There were glitches to be sure, not the least of which were the emergence of more virulent strains and the disinformation espoused by vaccine-adverse people. With the full resources of the U.S. government behind the effort, America finally got its act together and vaccinated a majority of the populace. Healthcare workers, teachers, the elderly and those with preexisting conditions were vaccinated quickly, followed by the rest of the adult population and more recently, children. Sadly, the same couldn’t be said for most of the Third World, where Covid-19 remained rampant and dangerous.
Unfortunately, rebellion against the remaining social restrictions became a major issue around the world, with even the wearing of masks coming to be seen as a political statement. In the U.S., the CDC gave its approval for those who were vaccinated to stop wearing masks, which was taken as a green light by everyone to give up on mask mandates and social distancing. Ironically, it was in parts of the country where vaccination rates were high that mask use and social distancing remained common, and viral spread remained low. In areas where vaccination rates and mask use were low, a new, deadly Delta strain became rampant, undoubtedly delaying the recovery effort. Around the world, protests and riots resulted from efforts to reimpose mask mandates and lockdowns.
It seemed strange that things as innocuous as getting a shot or wearing a face mask could become political flash points, yet faced with mask and vaccine mandates as a condition of employment, most people eventually complied. The development of new antiviral treatments greatly reduced the incidence of death and so-called long-haul disease, and then came intranasal vaccines and with them, the pandemic could finally be considered to have been conquered. People felt free to rail against vaccines in general, yet very few failed to take advantage of the combined influenza-coronavirus vaccine, once it involved nothing more than administration of a nasal spray. Finally, the masks could come off for good.
In the face of pent-up demand and residual constraints in global supply chains, inflation actually became a problem for a while. Unfortunately, the mere threat of runaway inflation was enough to worry some Democrats in Congress to pare back Biden’s budget and slow down the recovery. I was no bleeding heart, but history had shown that government spending nearly always led to growth, and targeted tax cuts such as the child tax credit allowed the working poor to remain in the workforce. Of course there were exceptions. War spending grew the military-industrial complex at the expense of everything else, and tax cuts for the wealthy almost never trickled down to the poor – they merely increased income disparity. I’d begun to develop an interest in macroeconomic theory as a hobby, and I wondered if computer models could ever replicate human behavior.
As we began to catch up with the server demand within Applazon Cloud Resources, we began to market the new data mini-centers commercially. Interest was very high but nowhere more so, much to my surprise, than within the U.S. government. The Pentagon alone ordered fifty of the units, providing an unbelievable one hundred petabytes of quadruply redundant data capacity. What they’d do with that much capacity, I’d no idea, although I suspected they intended to use them to build the world’s largest network of supercomputers. The NSA, the CIA and the FBI all placed orders, far exceeding our capacity to manufacture them. Plans were drawn up to build a mammoth plant in Mexico, to be completed by next spring.
Another official birthday came and went, and I was now nineteen on paper and soon to turn seventeen in reality. Even by that standard, I’d soon reach the age of consent in most of the world. Naturally, I was expected to continue in my role as globetrotter and to supervise the installation of the new data mini-centers from the plant in Mexico, but I balked at that. For one thing, I’d have needed a security clearance for any government installations, and that would’ve introduced the potential for unacceptable complications. For another, I’d had it, and would have even quit if that’s what it took to put an end to my travels.
Dr. Moorthy, or Jitendra as I now called him, came to my rescue. He pointed out to the senior management in Global Operations what should’ve been obvious, even to me. I was far more valuable to Applazon as a thinker than as a doer. Just because I was the most qualified person to supervise data-center installations didn’t mean it was the best use of my abilities. When I met with Jitendra in his Seattle corporate office, I was still very much jet lagged from flying in from Vietnam. He took one look at me and said, “J.J., you look like shit. Take the rest of the week off and we’ll meet again on Monday.” Applazon was putting me up in a surprisingly luxurious suite at the W Seattle, Marriott’s premier business hotel, located in the heart of downtown. I took full advantage of the facilities and hooked up with the cute guy who checked me in.
Disclaimer: This story is purely fictional and any resemblance of characters to real individuals is unintentional. Although it takes place in actual locations, in no way are any official policies, opinions or events inferred. Some characters may be underage and at times engage in homosexual acts. Anyone uncomfortable with this should not be reading the story, and the reader assumes responsibility for the legality of reading this type of material where they live. The author retains full copyright and permission must be obtained prior to duplication in any form.