Authors: John Sladek
Tags: #Artificial Intelligence, #Fiction, #General, #High Tech, #SciFi-Masterwork, #Science Fiction, #Computers
Thank God something was done. Dobbin could see he’d get no further today on
Call Me Pig.
As soon as they were in the car, His Incomparability removed his gold military cap, unbuttoned his stiff collar and sighed. ‘Now we can relax. Let us be informal, eh? I will call you Helen, and you must call me Ox.’
‘It is my favourite pickname, as you say. These horses’ barns, are they far?’
‘Why yes. I hope your driver knows the way.’
‘Yes, he studies your campus with a fine tooth comb. He knows it like the back of his hams.’ The weedy secretary spoke into a gold microphone, and they moved.
The patchouli scent was heavy. Dr Boag tried to forget it by studying the car’s elaborate furnishings. The roof interior was covered with peacock feathers, the floor with squares of black and white fur (ermine? sable?) and while two guards and the secretary were forced to squat on tiny carved stools, she and the Shah reclined on a deep, comfortable seat, upholstered in cloth of gold and heaped with blue silk cushions. She remarked on the luxury and he replied that he owned seventeen such cars.
And that seemed to be that. Six miles to the horse barns, and already they’d run out of conversation.
The Shah rummaged in a carved cabinet and produced a book.
‘Very interesting, this Book.’
‘Alas, my English is not so well for reading, so I have had it translated into my own poor tongue. I believe in English it is called
By Mr K. Vonnegut. Very good. Much computers.’
She studied the beautifully-tooled cover. ‘I’m afraid I haven’t read it. Technical book is it?’
‘A novelle. All on my own crazed subject, the computers. But the curious part is, there is a Shah in it, making a visitation! Of course he is nothing like me, but even so – reading this is a
experience for me. Suppose I too were in a novelle, eh? Read by another Shah, who is in turn – you see?’
‘I explain so badly. Let me only say I begin to feel like the iteration within the great computer myself, or thereabouts.’
One of the guards grinned, nudged the other and pointed out of the window at a Coca-Cola sign.
‘The pianola,’ continued the Shah. ‘An excellent symbol for the automation, yes? It is I believe used also by Mr W. Gaddis in his novelle
where he speaks of Oscar Wilde travelling in America, marvelling at the industry, the young industry you
understand. Now I do believe Mr Wilde suggested shooting all the piano players and using the pianola instead, or do I have that erroneously?’
‘Very ahm, perceptive, Your Inc – Ox, I mean.’
‘Do you like books, Helen? How stupid of me, of course you must be immured in them, books are your life, yes?’
She chuckled. ‘Not as much as I’d like, I fear. Pressure of work, administrative duties –’
‘I too, I too,’ he said, and squeezed her knee. Dr Boag was glad she’d worn the pants suit after all. ‘Yet I do find time to read. Anything I can find on the computers, fiction or not fiction. I believe the machine must some day replace all of us, yes? We will have the robot Dean of Persons, yes, and even the robot Shah of Ruritania. Sad it is, but so. Meanwhile these computers are damn useful, yes? For the police work and so forth.’
He gave her a glass of gold liqueur and rambled on about computers, while she lay back and tried to keep her knees out of reach, trying to ignore the overpowering scent. Eventually she said, ‘You have a point there, Ox, but really isn’t the computer more or less an overgrown adding machine? A tool, in other words, useful of course but only in the hands of human beings. I feel the role of the computer in our age has been somewhat exaggerated, don’t you?’
‘Perhaps. But I see the subject tires you. Let us speak instead of business.’ He leaned back against a peacock-blue cushion. ‘My visit is of course not entirely socialized, you understand.’
‘I wish to enrol my son Idris at your excellent university.’
‘Oh. Well I’m sure he’ll like it here, Your, Ox. It’s more than a university, it’s – it’s a perspective on the world, past, present and fut –’
‘Yes yes yes. So I suggest as, as you say, a ballpark figure of two million.’
‘What?’ She sat up.
‘American dollars. At today’s prices not bad, eh?’
‘But our fees are nothing like, of course if you want to arrange a deed of gift –’
‘Gifting, yes, a gifting. Just to ensure Idris’s education. I think of it as an investment in my country’s future. Also a hedge against
inflation, yes? Idris is now six months of age. By the time he is ready, the price may go up and up, yes?’
She put down her liqueur glass, sat up straight and looked at him. ‘Let’s be clear about this. Your gift sounds more than generous, but I hope you won’t expect special treatment for your son in return. We are after all a state institution.’
He winked. ‘I understand. Two million and a half, let us say, and be done with. Yes?’ He slapped her knee heartily. ‘Now, on to the horses!’
The history professor looked at his watch. Another minute had passed into his domain. ‘We all seem to be here. I declare this meeting open. I’m sorry Dr Boag couldn’t be here – a previous commitment – and Professor Rogers – he’s ill – and Dr Hannah. I assume you all know of her son’s recent tragic death. Still, we have our quorum, so I suggest we consider these two proposals – Question, Dr McGuffey?’
Just want to put it on the record that I had nothing to do with Bill Hannah’s suicide.’
‘Pardon? I don’t follow.’
Dr Fred stood up and looked up and down the table. ‘Oh, I know what you’re all saying. Just because he was in my class. Just because I made a little mistake in his birth chart.’
‘Well, yes, now if we can ahem just get down to these two –’
‘Only I never made that mistake at all. The machines did it! Magnetic influences. Terrestrial currents. Someone saw a flying saucer the other night, unimpeachable witness, ever think of that?’
‘Yes, now if you’re finished, we’ll just –’
‘I’m not finished, may be old, may be sick, but I’m not finished. No siree, copper bracelet wards off arthritis bursitis neuritis, benefic influence of Venus, have to get up early to –
Each sneeze threatened to blow the frail figure off its feet. Noticing his glittering eyes, the chairman said:
‘If you’re ill, Dr McGuffey, perhaps –’
‘Ill? Ill-aspected, Mars the face of Mars, malefic but I ward it off, they have to get up early to catch old Fred, Napoleon slept only four hours per night, magnetic power, secret dynamos, hidden reserves of Atlantean force fields deep in the – but they do, you know. They do get up early, humming away in the night, in
the …’ He looked bewildered. After a moment he sat down and began to study the documents before him. The meeting continued.
‘No luck, chief?’
‘Zilch. Either this guy really is some government yahoo, which I very much doubt, or he’s really nuts. Any word from the FBI yet on his prints?’
‘Maggie’s drawers, so far. Should I book him or what?’
‘Not just yet. Not just yet.’ Chief Dobbin drummed a pencil on his legal pad. ‘I want to try a little psychology on this cracker. Because if he’s nuts, he just might be nuts enough to be our Ripper, right?’
Collar snapped his fingers. ‘Hey, that ties in with something else. I forgot to tell you. You know that book we found last week on the scene of the crime?’
‘Yeah, this education –’
‘But that’s just it! I had our experts go over it, and it’s not education at all. This book, this Learning Systems, is all about computers!’
‘And we caught this guy at the Computer Science building! Now we’re getting somewheres.’ Dobbin sat up. ‘Get the prisoner, Collar. I think the three of us oughta pay a little visit to the morgue.’
The Mortuary Science department of University Hospital was just around the corner, and in a few minutes they were in the cool antechamber, handing the attendant a ticket.
‘Six-sixty-six?’ he said. ‘Let’s see, that must be –’
‘Never mind who it is, just bring it out.’ Dobbin watched the attendant slouch away, then turned to his suspect. ‘Still not talking, Mister Spy?’
‘Nope. Like I said before, you boys are makin’ one hell of a mistake here. People I work for ain’t goin’ to like this a-tall.’
‘Sure, sure, double-oh-seven. We got your number all right.’ When the attendant rolled in the sheet-draped trolley, the two cops twisted their handcuffs, forcing the suspect to move close to it. He would need a full dose of psychology.
‘I want you to take a good look at this girl,’ said Dobbin. ‘I
think maybe you seen her before.
Before you took an electric carving knife and butchered her up like this!’
He whipped back the sheet to show the placid features of Bill Hannah. ‘What the hell – Collar, what’s this?’
‘I don’t know, chief, guess the computer mixed up the ticket numbers or – and they must of cremated the girl.’
The suspect grinned out of his deep tan. ‘Now if you boys are done fartin’ around here, how about lettin’ me go? I ain’t really done nothin’ and you know it.’
‘Millions of bits of information on a little chip,’ said the Shah. ‘Answers at the speed of light. Of what will they think next? Ah, dear Helen, I cannot tell you how much I look forward to seeing your computers.’
‘Well I’m sure you’ll be – Good God what’s that?’
As the long Mercedes turned into University Avenue, a mob suddenly closed in to block the way. There seemed to be angry faces at every window, fists hammering at every bomb-proof panel.
‘MURDERER! MURDERER OF CHILDREN!’
‘I can’t think how this happened, Your Incomparability. This is – I must apologize. Must be some mistake in our security, some leak –’
He shrugged a peacock epaulet. ‘I am accustomed to this. Ruritanian students assuredly, a despicable faction known all too well in my own country. And now even here, in the land where everything is free –’
The bodyguards started feeling inside their jackets as the car slowed, halted. A student whose sign read
NO FASCHISM HERE
shouted something in an ancient language, and the Shah looked unhappy.
‘They accuse me of murder –
who brought them colour television on two channels! Only communistic anarchists could even dream of so terrible a lie. Drive on Uza,’ he shouted in the microphone. ‘Run them down!’
‘No, wait. I’m not sure you should –’
‘Red anarchistic nihilists! They say I murdered children –
, their spiritual father! I never murdered anyone in my life.’
‘No, of course but –’
‘All of those so-called children were executed in accordance with our laws, after a fair trial – and many were over ten years old!’
He shouted something into the gold microphone, and the car began inching forward.
When the FBI report finally came through, O’Smith left the yokel cops mumbling their apologies, and went right to work. No time for subtleties now, just have to go in fast and heavy. He stopped at a drugstore on University Avenue and picked up cotton wool and a few cans of lighter-fuel. Then, straight for the Computer Science building.
Seemed to be lots of other folks hurrying in the same direction. One or two carried signs. Away down the street a black limo was caught in a mob of some kind. Student demonstration? Good diversion there, all set for a quick in-and-out operation.
He paused, waggled his stiff right forefinger until it clicked, then removed the tip of it. Half the fingernail slotted into the remaining finger to form a forward sight. Not more than three or four in the lab, he reckoned, should be able to get the drop on two of ’em before the others could close their mouths.
Better get this Dr Lee Fong first thing, you never knew with chinks and their martial arts. Then the notes, grab essentials (they’d be most likely in top desk drawers and pockets) and use the rest to start the fire. Whole thing didn’t need to take more’n fifteen minutes.
He was closer to the car now, and could see students sprawling over the hood, banging on it, scratching the paint with their signs. Punks! If he didn’t need the ammo he’d take out a couple of ’em right here and now.
Suddenly the car broke free, flinging a body and a sign into the air, and careered towards him. O’Smith dodged left as it swerved left, dodged right as it swerved right, and collided with someone else, a student with a sign.
O’Smith felt the blast of bad breath, saw
and felt the impact; before he could argue the truth of the accusation, or demonstrate it, he was down and out.
The room that had been a lab was nearly empty now, its grey floor material marked with pale squares and rectangles. In one corner two men wearing the orange uniforms of Custodial Services struggled to lift the last large cabinet, revealing the last pale rectangle. In the opposite corner Dan sat at a table sorting papers into two piles. Franklin paced up and down, stepping carefully in the pale parts. Finally he hunkered down and lit a cigarette.
‘Christ,’ he exhaled. ‘Seeing all this you might think we’d lost out or something.’
‘Maybe we did, in a way.’
‘Like hell. Lee’s just the same, moping around his office like a Jehovah’s Witness the day after the world didn’t end. I mean what the hell’s wrong with you two, we’ve got the green light on this, now we can really be –’
A thump from the other corner made him look up. ‘Careful, fellas. That stuffs expensive.’
One of the men put down his end of the cabinet and turned around. ‘Listen, you think you can move this fuckin’ ton a junk any better, you just come over and try.’
‘Okay, I just, okay.’
He waited until the two had lifted their burden on to a trolley and wheeled it out of the room. ‘Be lucky if anything works when we get moved. I don’t know where Custodial gets these guys. Saw one in the hall just now didn’t even have a uniform; old clothes and a straggly beard looked like it had mange on one side. Only reason I knew he worked here was I saw him carrying a box of your stuff. Can’t be two Bugleboy Peanut Butter cartons on the whole campus.’