Xerxes was well dressed in public. In the city he wore a narrow tie, slacks with a crease, and polished shoes. He preferred public transportation, except at home in Ventura, where he wore jeans and a T-shirt and drove a seven-year-old Corolla. These were the easy offsets: his way to glide through the world unnoticed, or as unnoticed as a tall, good-looking man who talked to himself in public in a loud voice, could be. Maybe he was an actor rehearsing a scene. But would that explain his odd figure-eight pacing in the park? Xerxes did his best thinking walking in big cities. In New York, he would join the stream on 5th Avenue. This isthe fastest river of people in the world? He knew this without Googling. He liked a trotting crowd where he didn’t need to think for a moment about where he was going or whether he needed to look out for taxis or buses when he crossed the street. He liked autopilot, where walking charged his brain and his destination was a nice surprise. When he was a child, he wanted the ideas to stop. He thought about them as kites that filled the sky. He imagined slicing their strings with a laser. He imagined them pierced on the highest branches of cypress trees at the beach. Lasers would do it. They could do everything. Make a cat chase the dot—or a fish. He thought about how he could make a racetrack for fish and put weights on the faster fish to make the race more even. I can build a laser slingshot. I can build a laser cannon! “I really can build a cannon, Mom.” “I know you can, son. You can do anything you set your mind to.” “Can Mandy do anything she sets her mind to?” “Your sister is very smart.” “Is she a genius?” “She tests very high on the tests like you do.” “Why does she tease me?” “That’s just the way she is, Xerxes.” By twenty Xerxes stopped building prototypes. There wasn’t enough time to build them. Other people can help if I give them good drawings. He practiced his drawing until he was as precise as Leonardo. By age twenty-two he had come to the attention of DARPA and began working on Black Budget Projects. “To most people our technology seems more like magic than science,” the project director said. “You don’t have to hold back here, Xerxes. Let your imagination rip!” She was a tall, dark-haired woman who reminded Xerxes of his mother. DARPA gave the inventors free rein. They didn’t need to provide long narratives or abstracts of invention. A drawing would do. They loved Xerxes’ drawings. He was fast and drew with such precise detail, many of his ideas could go directly to prototype. When his mother died he stopped drawing. He didn’t want to work for the agency anymore. “You don’t have to draw anything, Xerxes,” his director said. We just want you to sit at the meeting with the specialists.” Xerxes withdrew and went on a long walk through the hills behind Ventura. A year later, still grieving, he agreed to work on a project at the University of Chicago. A week after he arrived, he found himself walking along the lake. Hours had passed. He was miles from where he started, but it didn’t matter. He could take a taxi back to the hotel. He remembered his big idea came to him in Millennium Park when he was standing before the LED sculpture of the mustached man squirting water. DARPA understands. They offered to wire me to record conversations when I’m talking to myself. They don’t make demands, but they need me when they need me. I like flying business class. I like good hotels. If Iforget my razor and toothbrush, housekeeping brings it up. I have everything I want, except the thing I want most. The girl next door was nineteen, but he didn’t know that for sure. He didn’t really know very much about her except that she was beautiful and seemed to be a shy, eccentric soul, like himself. Their houses were set back equal distance from the street. Two 1920s-style California bungalows with bedroom windows exactly aligned. Xerxes kept his blinds up—she her blinds down. Xerxes was propped up in his bed thinking about ways to make a troop carrier disappear. He knew how to bend light. What other large objects could he make disappear? How about oil platforms? Hideous iron islands that light up like cruise ships. He knew how to make them disappear.Skin the platformwith TV screens (ultra-thin OLEDS), then run a continuous loop of sea and sky. That would end the eyesore. But the oil companies would build more platforms! He imagined sticky balls floating onto shore. How would you get rid of all those sticky balls? Ha! Velcro the fish! She had just stepped out of the shower, and he saw her silhouette against the translucent shade. He remembered when they added her bathroom. During the demolition phase, the contractor parked his dumpster in Xerxes’ driveway. He complained that the City was holding him up because they wanted a steel beam. “Always over-engineering,” the contractor grumbled. “It’s not the way I would do it, ” Xerxes said, a picture of a carbon composite beam flashing before his eyes. Carbon beams to build airport terminals. Carbon poles for circus tents. Lightweight carbon wings for human flight. She must have moved in two years ago. Oddly, I don’t remember the day. Beams extruded from giant machines parked in his driveway. Her light is too bright for a desk lamp. Another bath? She’s standing at the window again. She has her hands on her hips. I can see the outline between her thighs. Is she taunting me? I can make tanks invisible. I can make tall buildings disappear. She wasn’t tall. He thought he caught her looking through the fence when he was sitting in the lotus position. A sycamore filtered the light. His mind drifted. He imagined his mother talking to the girl next door about her lazy boy. “Smart but lazy.” It was her little joke. Xerxes didn’t mind. He was lazy to offset the onslaught. These last few days in the garden felt so good. Sun for sleeplessness. Sun to stimulate the melatonin. Sun to slow “ideation!” That was the word DARPA liked to use. Xerxes’ mother left him the family house and a small stock portfolio. His last check from DARPA was $55,000 for consulting on a new approach to desalinate water. They were experimenting with capillaries, but the secret was to corkscrew the valve. Spinning frees the salt! He could make a delicious chocolate with his corkscrews. If the contracts continued, he would be able to take care of someone, someday. He watched her drying off. When she turned around, he studied the silhouette of her arms holding her hair up and how her legs connected to full hips. When she turned sideways, he admired her breasts. Like peaches—what a perfect word! Some inventions are incremental improvements. Others change the world. That’s how Edison did it. He was lucky because no one had done anything with electricity. Edison electrified everything. He couldn’t stop himself. An electric carriage, an electric flame. Once he opened up, the ideas wouldn’t stop. An electric chair! A black hole can be built by spinning particles. Great men stand on the shoulders of great men. I would like to stand on somebody’s shoulders and look into Candy’s bathroom window. * * * Xerxes got a call from DARPA. They wanted more help with the University of Chicago project. His solution was to write a form of artificial intelligence with random and discordant bits shuffled into an expert system. This approach would resemble human thinking. When he got back to Ventura, the wisteria on his front porch was purple and glowing. Daisies and sword ferns smothered the yellow sandstone in his garden. He would soak up the sun to relax his mind. When the sprinklers came on, they made a twisting spray. It made him think about light riding piggy-back on sound. This was something important. It had implications to the Big Bang. He needed to relax his mind. Another sprinkler flung water like a wave. He imagined how Candy might toss back her sheets and crawl into bed, silky and soft, after a bath and treatment with oils. He hoped she was spying on him. Now when he practiced his yoga, it was for Candy to see. He was shirtless, in loose white pants, and barefoot. His chair changed positions electronically—John, his neighbor, made the modifications. He stood in a shoulder stand, held the position, then slowly lowered his legs into a pike. She walked by and looked through the fence, exactly as she had done before. He would knock on her door. If her father answered he would say he needed an assistant for the DARPA project. Assistant—not model. DARPA wanted renderings for their “companions.” She should be blonde and nicely shaped for long space missions. No, he wouldn’t ask her father. He would wait until he saw her in town. He had seen her just a week ago at the beach wearing short shorts. Her legs were brown like his. He would like to cook her dinner with food he grew in his hydroponic garden. This was the way to end world hunger. It’s simple to grow food in water, but a better idea is to fax it to the hungry. His dot matrix food printer had gone viral on the Net. How should I break the ice? Maybe John can introduce us? He talks to her when he delivers the mail. He wouldn’t talk to the father. He would wait until he saw her again. She liked to stroll through town, but was never with a boyfriend. Lucky for me. DARPA had given him an advance to build a robot based on his ideal of the perfect female. “What kind of brain would it have?” the project director asked. “Sir Isaac Newton comes to mind.” “And for beauty?” “I have an idea, but let me give you some drawings.“ Xerxes started with magazines from the used bookshop in Ventura. It seemed he should know the range of possibilities for the body. He bought a stack of old Playboys for research and context. Xerxes’ sister called him a week before his thirtieth birthday. She had an idea for a language interface between humans and computers using iterations of tiling patterns. “That was my idea—a year ago,” Xerxes teased. “You always say that. You know I invent just as well as you. What are you doing for your birthday, bro?” “I haven’t thought about it.” “It’s a big one.” “Can I call you back, Mandy? I’m a little busy.” “Busy, huh?” “I am working on something for DARPA.” “That’s funny—I am too.” Xerxes sat in his lawn chair for sixteen hours. When the stars came up, he thought: The robot should be able to teach us about the universe, the Big Bang, black holes and the multiverse. She should know about planets and stars, but should speak with modesty and in a soft voice. He wrote his thoughts on his iPad. She will have a repertoire of randomized responses so that you will never know what to expect next. Her mind will be associative: poetry and metaphor will be part of everyday conversation. Mandy paid a surprise visit. “You don’t look so good. Aren’t you sleeping?” “I’ve been working on something for DARPA and I’ve gotten myself into a bad place. I haven’t felt like this before. I’m a little, uh, obsessional.” “I have a surprise for your birthday. We are going to have a birthday party.” Mandy said. “Just you and I?” “You and I and the neighbors.” “The neighbors—next door?” “Don and Candy—” Mandy said. Xerxes felt his heart beat faster. “You know them?” “Remember, I lived here too. It was my idea to buy the house next door.” “We owned both houses?”’ “Still do.” There was a knock on the door. Candy stood behind Don. She was wearing short shorts, and her legs were browner than Xerxes’. They stood in the living room, uncomfortably, he thought. No one sat down. “Would you like something to drink?” Xerxes asked. “Drink, drink, drinkin’ away with the lame and weary,” Candy replied. “I have lemonade. I made it myself.” “Sit next to Xerxes,” Mandy instructed. “Don, you sit here.” Candy crossed her legs slowly in a way that seemed to invite a long look. She placed her hands on her lap and smiled. “She’s beautiful, isn’t she, Xerxes? Do you want to have her?” “In your most frail gesture are things that enclose me,” Candy said softly. “I don’t—don’t quite—What have you been working on with DARPA?” “I open petal by petal as spring opens,” Candy continued. “What are you saying, Candy?” “My eyes, deeper than all the roses; not even the rain has such small hands.” “What is this, Mandy?” “It’s ee cummings. Ask her about the universe, Xerxes.”
-- Todd Easton Mills received his bachelor’s degree from Antioch University. As a young man he defined himself as a traveler, working his way around the world and supporting himself as a laborer, cook, and teacher in faraway places like the Highlands of New Guinea. Now, with his drifter days behind him, Easton Mills live comfortably with his Zimbabwean wife in Ojai, California.