Read The Complete Roderick Online

Authors: John Sladek

Tags: #Artificial Intelligence, #Fiction, #General, #High Tech, #SciFi-Masterwork, #Science Fiction, #Computers

The Complete Roderick (11 page)

BOOK: The Complete Roderick
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‘Him? That’s, that’s a guy I used to know. Keeping some stuff for me.’ A grubby notebook with a loose page flopped on one pile.

Franklin waved his cigarette. ‘Look, this move to a new lab is just what we need, a chance to really get organized.’

‘What for?’

‘I mean, don’t you want to see this project running like any other, teamwork, I mean a team, I mean – listen, this is a hell of a time to deliver an ultimatum, but to put it bluntly if I don’t get some real work to do around here, I quit. Already told Lee, he sees my point, I work or I walk.’

Dan squared up a stack of dog-eared sheets. ‘Well, maybe we should all just quit. Now that Roderick’s safe, well …’

‘Quit? But we haven’t even begun, what do you mean “safe”? Of course he’s safe, we’ve got the green light, the, now we can really go ahead –’

Dan looked at the two stacks of yellowing paper. ‘I’ve got one or two things to clear up here. Okay if I meet you in Lee’s office in a few minutes?’

‘Okay, sure.’ Ben Franklin patted his moustache. ‘I mean it’s always “wait a minute” with me, right? Always okay if I just hang around – okay, okay I’m going.’

When he was alone, Dan shuffled the two piles into one. When the men in orange returned, he said:

‘Would you guys do me a favour?’

The black one looked suspicious. ‘What favour?’

Dan pointed to the little door in the wall marked
‘The chute in here is blocked or something. Would you drop this stuff in somebody else’s chute?’

‘Yeah, okay prof.’

‘Is that you, Dr Fong?’


‘Oh, very funny. You won’t feel like making funny noises when you hear what I’ve got to say. This is Dr George Tarr. I think you know the name.’


‘Just keep it up, keep it up. I’m recording this, you – you – now listen, I’m very disappointed about the way you finagled this committee vote.

Excuse me it’s my stom –’

‘As a matter of fact I’ve just called my lawyer and he says we have a good case against you. Hear that? A good case.’

‘But I don’t know what you –
errrp –
excuse –’

‘Because I happen to know there were six members of the committee firmly committed to
project, and only three on your side. So the only way you could have got a vote eight-seven in your favour was to
the whole system. I don’t know what you did, maybe something to the computer, but you won’t get away with it. I just called up to tell you – we


‘Under the Freedom of Information Act we have access to the computer too, you know. And I have the printout right here in front of me. I have
the facts and figures!’

‘Don’t know what you’re talk –’

‘Don’t you? A fix, that’s what I’m talking about, a fix! Because how else do you explain it – only three out of fifteen people actually wanted your damned robot – twice as many people wanted my project – yet you won! I don’t know whether you bought votes or fixed the comp – but I mean to find out. See you in court, Doctor Fong!’

University of Minnetonka Special Emergency Finance Committee Voting Record Part 189077

Number of Cttee memb
Number Present
Casting Vote Inoperative Number Votes Cast
Preference Indicators:
F: Fong (Proj Roderick)
T: Tarr (Proj Ripoff)
O: Neither (No Award)
Ballot I
Ballot II












15 Votes Total

No Award

Today the stain on the door looked to Ben Franklin like a Portuguese man-o’-war. ‘You’re not going to let a little thing like that worry you, Christ, I wish he would take us to court. Laugh him off the faculty.’

Fong crunched an antacid tablet and blinked. ‘Tarr, no, he doesn’t worry me. Only it’s just one more little piece of aggravation …’

‘Relax, I’ve seen the printout on that too. Funny part is, if Tarr hadn’t trotted out his little project Ripoff – well-named – we would’ve lost, 12 to 3. Guess you could say the psychic world has done us a favour – okay, what

‘Thought Dan would’ve told you himself. I’d better –
grrrp –
wait, let … let him tell you himself.’

Franklin looked at the door again. Now it looked a little like a parachute, its shrouds unravelling as it descended. Funny how you could see almost anything …

‘Tell you one thing, I want some changes made around here. When we move, I want a whole new structure. No more of this prima donna act of his, this, well
just talking about you. Lee says you’ve got some little problem.’

‘No problem.’ Dan closed the stained door and leaned against it. ‘I’m just leaving, that’s all.’


‘I tried to talk him out of it, Ben. But if the kid wants to go –’

‘I don’t believe it! You – you want something? It isn’t enough that you’re the big star, you want something else? More power? No? Well then mind letting me in on the secret? What makes you want to walk out on four years of your life? Not to mention my life
and Lee here, you plan to just waste four years of his life?
Mind telling me why?’

‘Lots of reasons.’ Ben stared at the t-shirt
waiting for him to go on. ‘For one thing it’s all wrong. Nothing turned out like I thought. See, when I joined the project I was still a kid, nineteen, how did I know what I was getting into? I thought, Wow, the first robot, the first alien intelligence on this planet, I couldn’t think of anything better, anything – specialler.

‘Only when it gets down to it maybe it’s not so special. It’s more like being wrong all the time, you know? And that’s just the work. See, I thought it would be like being part of a family, only just look at us: look at you, all you do is bitch and moan and worry about who’s got a better job, who’s the star player or something.’

‘I –’

‘See, you’re like a baby, Ben, you can’t read the books but you still want to chew on them.’

Franklin turned his blush away. ‘So it’s going to be personalities, is it? Because I’ve got a thing or two to say –’

‘Wait. Look, I’m, all I’m saying is this isn’t working out for you or for me or for anybody. And you, Lee, your stomach’s so bad you’ll have to retire early, just like Leo Bunsky – only he didn’t retire early enough. And when he died I just started wondering what this is, is it special after all? Is it special enough to die for?

‘And then Mary Mendez, was it special for her? Wandering around in that damned looney bin over there, asking everybody to please wind her up, is it worth that?’

Franklin lit a cigarette and held it ready to drop ash on the floor. ‘Doesn’t seem to have touched you, though, does it? I mean you’re still healthy. Still the same nasty little snotty-nose –’

‘Well I had scurvy last year but sure I’m okay physically. That’s not the point. The point is Roderick, is he okay? Is he, is he special? See, when people around me were dying or going nuts or getting bitchy or having ulcers I could always say, “All right, but it’s worth it, it’s special. It must be special because look, NASA, the United States government, is putting cash into this. They’re backing us a hundred per cent.” Only they weren’t.’

‘Now let me get this straight. You’re tired of the project first
because you find out that people wear out, have accidents and break down – just like in any other job – and second because NASA doesn’t love us any more? Is that about it? Why, you pathetic little creep, is your ego so –’

‘Let me finish. It’s not just that they don’t love us, they hate us. Not just NASA but everybody. As soon as they find out what we’re doing, soon as they really understand what we’re doing, they’re out to get us.’

‘Let’s not get all paran –’

‘Look, when NASA pulled out on us I started thinking. Haven’t you ever wondered why nobody else is running a project like this? I mean
Oh I know there’s a few dozen AI projects in different places, but they kinda stand still, don’t they? They work on a pattern-recognizer or a language analyser; they keep on working on it and they keep on keeping on. I checked a few places. No significant advances in the past ten years.’

‘Where is this leading?’

‘Let him go on,’ said Fong. ‘This is where it gets sinister.’

‘So I started checking on private robot projects – you know, the kind of crank stuff or maybe not so crank, stuff you see in articles in
Micro-Ham, CPU Digest,
you know.’

‘I never read the amateur journals.’

‘You should. Because you find funny things. Like this commune in Oregon, all the neat things they were doing with something they called a
guesser”, really it was just – but anyway, just when it was getting interesting they had this fire.’


‘So it was just like the fire they had in Tuscon, where this little micro club were trying to set up a little thing to write short stories. Then this old guy in Florida I forget what he was making but when it hit the local papers suddenly he got snuffed by a prowler. Then a nurse in Oklahoma City smashed her customized processor and killed herself, and so did a guy in Kansas, ran a feed store, only upstairs he had –’

‘Are you sure? I’d have to check some of these myself.’ Franklin forgot to smooth his moustache. ‘Anyway a few cases don’t

‘You don’t get it, do you? All these people were safe as long as they kept quiet. And when we thought NASA was our boss, we kept quiet too. We didn’t publish anything, we didn’t give any
interviews, we kept a tight security lid on this. Only now …’

‘You think we’re targets for some kind of – ?’ Franklin flicked ash on the floor. ‘Find this a little hard to swallow. I mean why? Who would, I mean

‘Who knows? I mean, who knows why anything? Why do we suddenly have to move the lab upstairs? Everybody you ask just says they got this computer transfer order, this paper here says we gotta move. I don’t know who or why, I mean I know what’s
behind it, but that’s not much help. I know it’s just something like the old species trying to zap the new one before it gets started, that makes sense but it’s kinda depressing all the same.’

‘Especially if they try to zap us with it,’ Fong said. ‘Anyway the kid’s right, let’s quit while we’re ahead.’

Ben Franklin wasn’t listening. Smoothing his moustache, he said, ‘Can’t be the military, they’d be happy as shit to get their hooks on a robot, to hell with wider implications. Bet it’s some government agency, probably connected to a think tank, bunch of “futurologists”, bet you any damn thing. Bastards sitting there working out their “scenarios” as if the future were some kind of big-budget movie, they want us on the cutting-room floor, do they? Well I say we fight, can’t let ’em get away with four years of our – fight, damnit, expose the whole vicious –’

‘What for?’ Dan smiled. ‘Is it really worth it?’

‘What kind of bullshit scientist are you to ask a thing like that? Is it worth it? Is it – ?’

Fong was tugging at his sleeve and making faces. Ben finally saw that he’d written something; and leaned over to read it:

The fight’s already over.
We won.

keep quiet
about it.

Four years, he kept thinking, four years. As though repeating the number could magically call them back, restore his career, his wife, whatever it was that had deserted him …

‘I don’t believe you.’ He pushed past Dan and reached for the door (noticing now how like a shrunken head the stain really looked). ‘I don’t believe a fucking word.’

As he entered the men’s room an unkempt student jumped back from the graffito he had obviously been inscribing next to
the mirror. He looked at Ben and quickly turned away, probably to conceal the port-wine birthmark on his cheek. Then hurried out, capping his fibre pen as he went, and leaving Ben to consult his own blank mask. Perfect. Unblemished even by expression.

Automatically he began to wash his hands. He studied them as though he were Ambroise Paré, that military surgeon whose first elaborate designs in jointed iron provided not only new limbs (for those who reached the Peace of Augsburg without them) but also new work for unemployed armourers. There were times when Ben felt as though his entire body were a prosthesis, perfect, ready to work, but untenanted. Even his mind seemed no more than an ingenious engine for grinding through facts (and a part of the engine now reminded him that this was Darwin’s complaint) but to no purpose. He felt as hollow as that chess-playing Turk exhibited by Baron von Kempelen in 1769 (and later borrowed by Maelzel, delighting the world even more than his borrowed invention of the metronome).

He dried his hands and folded them tentatively in prayer. Well, no. No point in investing in that unnecessary hypothesis, pie in the sky for the ghost in the machine … And yet. Even a prosthetic hand could not function properly unless its wearer retained some of the ‘feeling’ in his ghostly limb. Why couldn’t he, Benjamin Waldo Franklin, be waiting just for such a feeling?

BOOK: The Complete Roderick
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