Excerpt

Chapter 1 — The STAIR Project

Daryl McIntyre paced back and forth in a small anteroom on the top floor of the Turing Building waiting to propose the most important project of his distinguished career. At any moment he would be summoned before the Challenge Committee to defend his theory. Daryl believed that simulating human creativity and consciousness had to be the next step in strong artificial intelligence, but not everyone thought such an ambitious goal was attainable – or even desirable. The power of computers had increased so rapidly by 2018 that even the experts were starting to fear them. If the growing dread of machines conquering mankind won out, Daryl knew the Earth was doomed.

The door in the far wall swung open and Dr. Gardner Reynolds stepped into the room, impeccably dressed in a dark double-breasted suit and maroon tie, every strand of his distinguished grey hair in place. By contrast, Daryl wore a sporty green shirt open at the neck with casual tan pants. Light brown tufts of his tousled mop stuck out over his ears. The two men differed just as much in body type, the stocky Reynolds a head shorter than lanky Daryl. Their faces reflected a mutual respect that overshadowed appearances.

“Welcome, Dr. McIntyre. After following your work for years, I’m delighted to make your acquaintance in person. The Committee is ready to see you now. Come this way.”

“Thank you, Dr. Reynolds, it’s a pleasure to meet you at last. Your recent work on eleventh generation data transmission is brilliant. Virtually unlimited signal density — amazing!”

“That means a lot to me coming from one of our foremost visionaries,” Reynolds replied with a gracious nod as he motioned Daryl into the large semicircular meeting room. Set into the curved outer wall was an enormous plate glass window affording a panoramic view of San Francisco and across the bay to Oakland on the east, Tiburon and Sausalito on the north, with the graceful arch of the Golden Gate Bridge to the west rising out of the morning fog. No problem keeping the big picture in mind from up here, thought Daryl as he followed Reynolds through the door.

The Turing Challenge Committee assembled once a year in San Francisco to fund advanced research projects too daring for academia and too abstract for product-oriented corporate labs. Eight Committee members, representing the largest computer firms in the world, sat four on each side around an immense oval table. Dr. Reynolds gestured for Daryl to take the chair at the foot of the table as he walked around to the head. Reynolds, his strongest ally on the Committee, felt uncomfortably far away, the full length of the twenty-foot shiny marble slab.

Glancing around the table, Daryl was relieved to see neutral and curious looks directed his way, except for a skeptical scowl on Isaac Nicholson’s face. What’s that old relic doing on the Committee? Daryl wondered. Maybe his lab enjoys getting rid of him for a few days. 

“Dr. McIntyre,” Reynolds began, “would you be good enough to summarize your proposal?”

“Yes, of course. I plan to create a strong artificial intelligence program capable of simulating human creativity and even consciousness itself,” Daryl declared. “I want to realize Alan Turing’s dream of a computer whose responses would be indistinguishable from those of a brilliant and creative human mind.”

“Wait a minute!” interrupted Arnold Van Vector, the pioneering IBM software engineer, “You aren’t claiming a computer can simulate creative imagination, are you? Even the powerful chess program Deep Blue played without any flair and triumphed over Gary Kasparov only by calculating every possible position many moves ahead. Those games bored me to tears. No pizazz at all. Machines have no soul. They can’t bring any true originality to their output. Just workhorses, that’s all they’ll ever be.”

“How do we know that, Arnold?” Daryl shot back. “Deep Blue is ancient history. Computers have only recently approached the capacity of the human brain. What if. . .”

Dr. Nicholson interrupted with a dismissive gesture. “Yes, yes – no doubt we have greater computation power than ever before, but even if we built a computer ten times as powerful as the human brain, how would we know how to program it for creativity and consciousness? No one understands these mysterious qualities of mind. We can’t teach a machine to do a task we can’t define, so why should we fund you to fumble around in the dark trying to do the impossible?”

“But suppose we could define the indefinable, Isaac? What then?” Daryl parried, “Consider, what is the essential process that distinguishes abstract thinking and creativity from blind calculation? What’s the critical difference between the chess master and Deep Blue?” Daryl looked around the table. Silence.

“The crucial advantage of man over machine,” Daryl continued, “has been the ability to recognize and synthesize complex patterns from data and to discover the hidden designs in groups of patterns. This function allows human beings to make intuitive leaps beyond the reach of number crunching alone.  My mathematical models use iterative equations to discover patterns within data, then take the patterns themselves as the data and find patterns within those patterns. The program repeats the same process over and over to discover higher order patterns embedded in the original data. This, I believe, constitutes the essence of original thinking and creativity. My theory defines consciousness as self-aware recognition and creation of higher order patterns. The conscious computer would see itself as a pattern seeker and pattern weaver.” 

Nicholson waved Daryl’s idea aside like a pesky fly. “No equation, iterative or not, could come anywhere close to modeling creativity, let alone consciousness. There are too many variables and random elements even to begin designing a mathematical simulation. You’re too talented to be wasting your time on a pie in the sky project. Pick a more approachable problem and come back next year with something at least plausible.”

“Haven’t you read my theory, Isaac? I use complex equations based on chaos theory, not some simple random number generator! Chaotic behavior may bear a superficial resemblance to randomness but there’s a crucial difference. When chaotic equations are plotted, the points aren’t just scattered around aimlessly – they fall into complex orbits, like the paths of satellites around planets – or the patterns of creative thinking.”

The chastened Dr. Nicholson sat glowering silently while others raised legitimate questions about lack of experimental data to support this new model. Daryl sensed that the majority were impressed by his approach but hesitant to bet big bucks on an untested theory. This was the moment to bring up the most urgent application of his theory.

“Gentlemen, we could quibble endlessly about details of my proposal while life on Earth goes down the drain! The STAIR Project holds the promise of reversing the catastrophic decay of the biosphere. Think about it for a moment. A computer capable of creative problem solving in highly complex situations involving thousands of variables would be just what we need to resolve the rapidly worsening environmental crisis. Mankind has amply demonstrated its inability to cope with the many issues involved. Strong artificial intelligence may be our last hope.” 

To emphasize his point, Daryl presented ominous data showing that time had run out on a number of fronts – air and water pollution, global warming, extremes of drought and flooding, and species extinctions. He projected photographs of the disappearing glaciers and the ugly wounds left by strip mining. “Look at what our civilization has done — whole mountains cut away, leaving shapeless piles of grey rock and sand – barren manmade slag heaps cluttering the horizon of sacred Navajo lands. The same savaging of the Earth occurs on every continent now.

“In the next photo you can see huge islands of floating trash choking the ocean as it meets the atmosphere, the interface where so many species come to breathe, feed and breed. These piles of debris occur all over the world now and have increased alarmingly in size. The largest is twice the size of Alaska. They are surrounded by dead zones of sterile seawater devoid of life extending ten or fifteen miles in all directions. One of these poisonous floating junkyards has started to obstruct the Atlantic sea lanes. Nearby fish populations have been wiped out everywhere and many varieties of food fish have disappeared in the last five years. All of us are responsible for creating new continents of toxic waste that have disrupted the delicate balance of ocean life.

“Now look at this video I took from the window of my plane on a trip to the Amazon. You are seeing mile after mile of clear cut rainforest. Where the densest and most diverse biosphere on Earth used to thrive – the major producer of oxygen on Earth and the home of countless species, many still undiscovered – nothing but naked pastureland now remains to feed herds of cattle for fast food burgers. A priceless treasure lost forever. Half of the rainforest on our planet has disappeared now and the oxygen content of the atmosphere has fallen from 20% to 18% in a single decade!” Daryl noticed the Committee members turning pale and looking increasingly alarmed as they viewed this relentless parade of desecration.

“But at the rate we are going,” Daryl went on, “most of the world’s population will run out of drinking water long before they run out of oxygen. Private companies have taken over 85% of the aquifers and are quietly selling water to the highest bidder. The poorest countries will be the first to die of thirst, but many more will surely follow. Private corporations out for a quick profit have no interest in conserving clean water sources.”

“For the STAIR Project to have a chance of preventing imminent environmental collapse, we must act at once. Should you dismiss or delay my proposal, you will not only be holding back research in artificial intelligence, you will be imperiling all life on Earth.”

Daryl rose from his chair and leaned across the table, looking each man in the eye, skewering them with his words. “I propose to create a superhuman problem-solver that could help us right these terrible wrongs. Make no mistake, failure to correct our blunders and misplaced priorities within the next decade will lead to the extinction of the human race!”

Daryl sat down and continued to gaze into the eyes of the grim faces around the table. After a long silence, Dr. Reynolds cleared his throat and asked Daryl to wait outside. Ten minutes later, he ushered him back to hear their verdict. “Speaking for the Committee, I wish to thank you for bringing your bold proposal to us. We agree on the vital importance of acting quickly. The Committee has decided to approve the STAIR Project and to fund it in excess of what you have requested so that you can extend your research protocol and proceed to test its ecological applications immediately.”

Daryl thanked the Committee and Dr. Reynolds escorted him out. At the door he shook Daryl’s hand warmly. “Good luck, Dr. McIntyre. We’re counting on you.”

 

Early that evening Daryl stood on the deck of the Whidbey Island ferry from Seattle, gazing across the wooded length of shoreline ahead. He savored the salt breeze wafting over the bow, his pulse leaping in anticipation of his reunion with Samantha.  As the ferry thrummed closer to the island, Daryl thought he could just make out her shapely figure at the end of the dock, red hair streaming in the wind. 

Samantha spotted him as the ferry drew closer to the pier. She jumped up and down waiving excitedly, impatient to hear the news about the meeting. Samantha ran up to her husband at the bottom of the ramp and grabbed him by the shoulders, fixing him with her flashing green eyes. “Quick, tell me what happened!”

“We got the grant!” 

“Already? What a coups, Daryl!” Samantha threw her arms around him and gave him a long hug.

“I still can’t believe it!” Daryl exclaimed as Samantha dropped her arms. “They’re giving us thirty million dollars, enough to create a state of the art lab and float the project for ten or fifteen years! They approved my proposal on the spot!”

“Unheard of!” shouted Samantha over the rumble of the ferry.  

“The decision was unanimous, except for Nicholson, who abstained, stuck in the Dark Ages as usual!”

A brilliant scientist, Samantha was also a strikingly beautiful woman, the kind that never goes unnoticed. Even now in her late thirties, her flaming red hair and fair complexion made her stand out anywhere. Over the years, she’d learned to use her riveting features and youthful figure to advantage in overcoming men’s tendency to be threatened by creative intelligent women and discount what they had to contribute. Her appearance held their attention long enough for them to respect her ideas as much as they appreciated her attractiveness.

On the short drive to their house overlooking the water on the northwest side of the island, Samantha, still amazed, asked incredulously, “How did you manage to get funding so fast? Those guys are the big guns – important men from each software company representing their firm’s interests. They aren’t easily impressed. A snap decision from that bunch? You’ve got to be kidding!

“And thirty million dollars – unbelievable! I think the last time they gave out such a huge grant was five years ago when that big project in Europe got twenty million for a computer simulation of the entire human brain. I can’t see what they’ll do with their humungous neural net once they build it. How are they going to educate the damned thing? Send it to nursery school? I think your ideas are much more interesting and practical. So how did you convince them? Tell me everything!”

“I’ll give you a blow by blow, but first let’s celebrate. Yesterday I put a bottle of that vintage champagne on ice just in case, the one we saved from our wedding.”

“Ooh, you confident man! I’ll go put together some crackers and cheese downstairs while you open it. I don’t want to get hit in the eye by a champagne cork.” With Samantha carrying crackers and cheese spread artfully on a terra cotta plate and Daryl armed with champagne flutes and the open bottle, they climbed the spiral staircase up to the crow’s nest, cantilevered out over the trees to afford a panoramic view across Puget Sound up toward the San Juan Islands. Daryl poured and they toasted the success of the project.

“Now let’s hear the whole story. Begin at the beginning!” demanded Samantha.

“Not just yet, sweetie. I’ve got a more pressing matter I need your opinion about.”

“What can be so urgent that you can’t tell me right now about your presentation?” Samantha snapped.

“Well,” Daryl replied, oblivious to her impatience, “on the flight home I was thinking about the people we need for our team. We have to decide on our first choices and invite them immediately. Anyone sharp enough for the job will need plenty of lead time to free themselves up for a long term commitment like this. I have some names in mind. People you know. I want to hear what you think.”

It annoyed Samantha when Daryl would put his agenda first and wouldn’t just answer her questions. So like him – like most men, I guess. He’s always thinking about the future and the big picture. Doesn’t he get that the juicy details are the most interesting part? He just gets upset when I interrupt him and goes off to brood.

“Of course, darling. Who do you have in mind?” she sighed.

“I think we need two computer whizzes to join us, a software man and a hardware guy, but not just anyone. The software person has to be a topnotch mathematician, a master of computer modeling. He has to be a specialist in nonlinear dynamic systems and chaos theory. Can you guess who?”

“You aren’t thinking of Martin Darcy, are you?” Samantha’s heart skipped a beat and she felt a flush spreading over her face. She cast a furtive glance in Daryl’s direction to assure herself he hadn’t noticed. She knew he was still jealous over the steamy affair she’d had with Martin just before she met him. Passion had burned much higher between them than it ever had with Daryl.

“Martin is the very man. I knew you’d guess … but I have to ask you something. We’re going to be working together at close quarters in a secluded lab, possibly for a decade or more. Do you think your old fling with Martin will create a strain?” Daryl was uncomfortable bringing up this sore subject, but consulting Samantha was a must before contacting Martin.

Samantha paused. Martin would definitely be the best man for the job, but she wished it were easier to dismiss his concern. Her attraction to Daryl was more mental than physical and Samantha had often regretted marrying him. If their close friendship and mutual support with their research projects weren’t so important to her, she would have asked for a divorce long ago.

Samantha had finally stopped fantasizing about Martin when she made love to Daryl, but it had taken a long time. Years. What would it be like living in the same lab with him and working shoulder to shoulder, day and night? And what about Martin’s infatuation with her? They hadn’t communicated for at least a decade, but she’d heard he’d never married. Was he still waiting for her? She tried hard to ignore the thrill that ran through her body. 

“Honestly, I don’t know, Daryl. I’ve stopped thinking about him but I have no idea how he feels about me now. Is there anyone else?”

“Not really. Martin has this gut level understanding of the role chaotic processes play in biology. I can’t think of any other mathematician who could model something so complex as human creativity and consciousness. Back when Martin and I were best friends in college we took a stroll through the October woods in Vermont. It was one of those perfect fall days – crisp, clear, sun blindingly bright – not a cloud in the sky air. Yellow and orange and red leaves crunched underfoot and rained down all around us every time the breeze picked up. When I asked Martin why he was so interested in modeling biological processes with iterative equations, he stopped and pointed up at the trees.

“’See the way the twigs split off from the branches? It looks random at first, doesn’t it? Now look at the way branches split off from trunks. Do you get how they are distributed in the same general way? That’s an iterative process at work right before our eyes. It’s called self-similarity because the same pattern occurs at every level of magnification, right down to the veins inside each leaf. The exact details may be different, but the pattern is the same in the structures of all plants and animals.’ Martin picked up a leaf and showed me the delicate veins as they branched off from the stem, a microcosm of the twigs and branches above our heads. ‘Self-similarity is a universal characteristic of growth in nature, including the branching of nerve cells in the brain.’ 

“That walk with Martin made me realize that iterative equations – in which the same mathematical process is repeated over and over, using the output from each calculation as the input for the next one – might hold the key to understanding the structure of information-processing in the nervous system. The STAIR Project needs him.”

Samantha realized she needed Martin too, but for very different reasons. She felt a titillating mix of eagerness and apprehension. “All right,” she murmured, turning away to hide her flushed face, “go ahead and invite him… Who else did you have in mind?”

“We need a resourceful expert who can handle our ambitious hardware requirements. I think George Ellison is our man. Remember him?”

“You mean that strange guy you used to play chess with in grad school? The one who never would go out on a double date with us and wouldn’t even come to our apartment? Are you sure we’d want to be living with that antisocial geek for years?”

“Yeah, he’s kind of a recluse but he’s a genius with computers. And I know he understands the data processing issues involved in computing complex differential equations because we used to discuss that during our Sunday afternoon chess matches. Now he heads up the most prestigious hardware development lab in the industry. We might even have trouble luring him away. As for getting along with us, he’s always been very friendly to me, even affectionate. I have a soft spot for that isolated guy. I’ll bet he’s still leading a lonely life.”

“All right, that’s settled. So what happened at the Committee meeting?” Samantha asked once more.

“OK, sweetie, fasten your seat belt!” Daryl droned on, making the same points she’d heard a hundred times before. Samantha stifled a yawn and tried to be patient with his self-absorption. Sunset light filtered through the overhanging leaves, taking her back to a delicious romp in the woods with Martin on just such a late summer evening years ago … Samantha shivered in the chill breeze of approaching dusk and reluctantly wrenched herself free from that treasured memory, turning her attention back to Daryl as he reached his victorious climax.

 

First thing the next morning, Daryl phoned Martin at Simulacrum Simulations, the cutting edge software company where he directed the Mathematical Modeling Division. “Hi Martin, I called to make you an offer you can’t refuse.”

“Daryl? My god, it’s been so long… How’s Samantha?”

“Doing great. Still studying her chimps – been following her work, by any chance?”

Martin hesitated a moment. He decided it was wiser not to tell Daryl just how closely he’d been monitoring Samantha’s career. “Occasionally I run across one of her popular articles about primate cognition in Scientific American.” A pale reflection of the truth. Martin followed Samantha’s blog and read everything she wrote in the scientific literature. “By the way, nice piece you put out in Nature on the Singularity, Daryl. Do you really believe the moment is coming very soon when computers will surpass human intelligence and even redesign themselves?”

“The sooner the better. It may already be too late to save us. Speaking of which, how about joining me in a project that will reach and transcend the Singularity?”

“No! You must be exaggerating. What’s this all about?” Martin responded with cautious excitement. Daryl outlined the STAIR Project and his role in it.

“Sounds pretty ambitious, Daryl . . .” Martin hesitated a moment. He knew this project would match his skills and interests perfectly, but what about the challenge of living and working in close quarters with Samantha? He noticed his heart pounding and his face getting hot. Do I dare take the risk? he asked himself. Oh hell, even if this weren’t a great job proposal, I’d beat myself up for the rest of my life if I didn’t jump at the chance to be near Samantha again.

“OK, count me in,” he replied. “I’ll just need a few months to finish up the humongous program we’re wrestling with here.”

“No problem. It’ll probably take months to design and build the lab anyway. Meanwhile I’ll send over the details… It’s great to hear your voice again, Martin. I’m looking forward to seeing you after all these years, my friend. I look forward to collaborating with you.” Daryl hung up the phone with a sigh of relief. Without Martin the Project was dead in the water. 

A few minutes later, George picked up his private line at Innovative Systems Unlimited, where he headed up a world-renowned hardware development lab. Through the receiver came a voice he hadn’t heard for two decades. “Hi, George, how about coming over for a seven-dimensional chess match lasting ten or fifteen years?. . . No, this is no joke. I need you for an important project… Oh, just computer simulation of creativity and consciousness, saving the world, that sort of thing.  …  Call you back when I’ve got something a little more interesting?? Get serious!”

George was able to hold Daryl off with flippant answers for just long enough to pull himself together. He shook his head in disbelief. Imagine Daryl contacting me after all this time! I must have better karma than I thought. 

George took a deep breath – then he got serious. “I’ve been buried up to my eyeballs in administrative responsibilities here and really missing the excitement of wrestling with challenging problems in the lab. Just when I was thinking how much I’d like to heave this pile of paperwork in the trash, you offer me a chance to get back to what I love most. I’m in!” George’s hands trembled as he hung up the phone.

 

A week later and eleven hundred miles away, Daryl spotted what he was looking for. He stepped out of his jeep into a dusty street on the outskirts of Moab, Utah, once a boomtown during the uranium rush, now a tourist destination adjacent to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. He walked into the Prospectors Diner, a run-down eatery in an old railroad car. Curious looks turned his way. Tourists frequented classier restaurants downtown, but Daryl had a mission in mind.

He sat down in a wooden booth with cracked and faded green upholstery and a stained formica table. Gazing out at the sunset, Daryl flashed back to a transcontinental railway trip he’d taken as a child. He could recall the clickety-clack of the wheels as if it were yesterday. His soup slopped from side to side with the rocking of the dining car as it sped through the desert. It felt magical to eat his dinner while cliffs painted all shades of pink, orange and vermillion scrolled by the window.

A dumpy waitress brought coffee and set it down with a scowl and a clatter. Daryl had to ask for cream. Then he remembered the local guys took their coffee strong and black, like the cowboy coffee out on the range. The customers seated near him were burly construction workers covered with dust. In the back, a couple of old guys with dirty grey beards and faces like tanned leather sat gabbing over chicken fried steaks.

Daryl picked up his coffee mug and headed in their direction. They looked up at him suspiciously as he approached. “Excuse me, do you mind if I join you? I’m new in town and you two look like you’d know the best thing to order for dinner.”

The scruffier of the two stood up and rolled his eyes with a smirk. “Talk to Gus. I gotta go.”

Gus gestured for him to sit down in the vacated seat. As Daryl slipped into the booth, he couldn’t help noticing the aroma. These geezers have been out in the wild without a shower way too long, he realized. 

“I’d try this here chicken fried steak. Best in town. Hey, Gladys! Bring the man a chicky steak with all the fixins. . . So, young feller, what you lookin’ fur?” 

His directness took Daryl aback, until he realized he couldn’t have been the first to ply this old relic for information. “I’m trying to find an abandoned mine out near Needles Overlook. Do you know the one I mean?”

“They’s at least a dozen of ‘em out that way, been empty since the uranium boom went south,” Gus replied, chewing noisily on his steak.

“Could you tell me how to find one with buildings still standing?”

“What if I could? What’s in it fur me?”

“Well, your meal’s on me, for starters, and twenty bucks if you draw me a map.” Gladys arrived with Daryl’s “chicky steak,” a deep-fried slab alongside a mountain of mashed potatoes all covered in greasy brown gravy with a slurry of peas on the side. Daryl felt queasy.

Gus appraised Daryl shrewdly. “This here map you’re asking fur, it’ll cost you fifty dollars. Take it or leave it.”

Daryl slipped a hundred dollar bill across the table. “That’ll cover dinner and the map plus something extra to make sure you don’t lead me on a wild goose chase.”

Gus frowned suspiciously. “Why you so interested in finding some worthless mine, mister? You figurin’ to make a strike? You some fancy prospector with shiny new equipments lookin’ for what ain’t there no more? Well, you’re wastin’ your time.”

“No, I’m just a photographer doing a spread on the uranium boom,” Daryl improvised.

“A rich picture taker, eh? How about two hunderd?”

“Sorry, Gus, one hundred is all my boss will cover. I’ll have to find someone else.” Daryl got halfway out of the booth before Gus held up his hand, as Daryl knew he would.

“All right, you get your map for a hunderd, but I can’t be sure the mine’s still standin’. Ain’t been out that way in a good long while.” Gus accepted Daryl’s pen and drew a few crude lines on a napkin. “See, this here’s the main road to Needles Overlook. You gotta watch for a two-track, maybe three or four miles this side of the Overlook. Might be overgrown by now. Leads ya right up over the slickrock maybe half a mile – less than a mile anyways. Ends at the old Randlett mine, if it’s still there. Good luck, mister.” Gus got up and sauntered out, looking pleased with himself.

Daryl smiled. The old goat had taken the hundred and left him to pay for both dinners. The uranium might be gone but the prospectors could still mine gullible tourists. Daryl washed down his steak and potatoes, much tastier than they looked, with his second cup of bitter coffee, passing on the peas. He paid for the dinners and tucked the map in his jacket pocket.

At 5 o’clock the next morning, Daryl’s jeep was crawling along the Needles Overlook road. He craned his neck through the window peering into the ghostly predawn light. Gus’s map fluttered in his hand. He spotted the turnoff at the last moment and swerved sharply left onto a rough dirt track. Clouds of dust poured in the window as the jeep skidded to a stop.

Daryl coughed, wiped the ruddy powder off his face and glanced again at the wiggly lines that the sly geezer had scrawled on his greasy napkin.  This had better be the right road. The sun will be rising soon and I don’t want to risk being seen. 

Daryl downshifted to low-low and inched cautiously forward, bouncing up and down in his seat as the jeep bumped and pitched over rocks and deep ruts. He crested a low hill and around the next bend Daryl spotted the outline of a large ramshackle shed leaning steeply to one side as if windblown by a hurricane. The roof sagged and irregular patches of darkness suggested gaping holes. At least there was no chance anyone could still be living here. Daryl relaxed and took a deep breath, inhaling the fresh fragrances of sage and juniper. He couldn’t imagine a better site for the lab. Then he spotted the wooden tower off to the right, still standing despite dangling support timbers and rungs missing in the ladder. Daryl pulled the jeep up between the mine and the tower to take a closer look.

The light was increasing in the east now. Daryl felt an urge to climb the tower and watch the sunrise from the top. Without Samantha to dissuade him from risking his neck, Daryl jumped out and walked over to the bottom of the ladder. A chill breeze hissed across the desert. Daryl shivered and wrapped his denim jacket tighter. He placed one foot gingerly on the bottom rung. It creaked but held. He began the slow climb, nearly losing his footing half way up when a timber split, breaking the desert silence with a startling snap. Daryl pulled himself carefully up past the gap to the narrow platform at the top. He turned to the west where the first beams of the rising sun would fall. He could just make out high cliffs and weird spires silhouetted in the distance, their glow increasing imperceptibly with the turning of the Earth. 

Daryl prepared to salute the sunrise just as men from plains, tundra and hilltop had recognized with wonder and gratitude the daily return of the light throughout human history. He pulled his beaded rattle from his jacket pocket, shaking it quietly as he sang up the sun. In a strong clear voice he chanted thanks for the coming of another day on beautiful Mother Earth. 

Just then the first rays of day flashed over the horizon, igniting distant fires of dazzling color against the darkness to the west. The close packed spires of the Needles District flamed pink and orange and red, licking at the gloom of clouds hanging low on the horizon. Daryl lost himself in the colorful drama unfolding. The wonder of dawn in the desert filled him with awe.

Daryl took a gulp from his canteen. It was time to walk the land and find his power spot. He stretched his stiff muscles in the predawn chill and cautiously descended the creaky ladder. He found a path through the sage brush that wound through the hills to a sheltered hollow like the palm of a giant hand.

Daryl built a fire pit out of scattered stones and gathered branches to build a fire. After smudging himself and his rattle with cedar smoke, Daryl chanted to each of the six directions – the four compass points, the sky and the Earth. “Oh, ancient spirits of the land, thank you for calling the STAIR Project into being. I call upon you to bless and protect this place and guide us in our work. Ho!” As Daryl finished his prayer, the morning sun peeped over the dune and filled his power spot with light, welcoming the STAIR Project home.