Read The Complete Roderick Online

Authors: John Sladek

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

The Complete Roderick (2 page)

BOOK: The Complete Roderick
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‘Stonecraft’s the name, Avrel Stonecraft, but just call me Stoney. I’ll be your liaison man at NASA, so you’ll be callin’ me, sho’ nuff. Ever’thing goes through me, got that?’ That was over the crab cocktail.

Over the chicken Kiev: ‘Listen, Lee, I ain’t just here to beat my gums over this piss-ass little Project Rover. We got something a whole lot more interesting in mind. In fact this Rover stuff is just a cover for the real project. Because the real project has got to be kept ab-so-lutely secret. What NASA really wants from you – are you ready? – is a
real
robot.’

‘A what?’

‘A real, complete, functioning artificial man. It don’t matter
what he looks like, a course. I mean, a space robot don’t have to win no beauty contests. But he’s gotta have a real human brain, you with me so far?’

‘I – yes, I think so.’

‘Fine, now we’ll talk details later, but let me say right now you can write your own ticket on this. You need personnel, equipment, money – you got ’em. Only problem is gonna be security. We’re keepin’ this one under wraps and I do mean under R-A-P-S. You got that? Because if the opposition ever finds out –’

‘You mean Russia or –’

‘Russia, my ass, I’m worried about the goddamn Army, I’m worried about the goddamn Department of the Interior. I’m worried about goddamn departments and bureaux we hardly even heard of. Because there’s at least a dozen projects just like ours going on right now, and we just
gotta
get there first. Like second is nowhere, you got that?’

‘But why? I thought you cooperated with other –’

‘Don’t you believe it, Lee. This is big politics, I mean
appropriations.
Take the Secret Service for instance. See, they’re working on this President robot, to double for him, making speeches, public appearances, that kinda stuff. Now say they perfect the bastard, where does that leave us? I’ll tell you, it leaves us standing around with our pricks in our hands and nowhere to put ’em. I mean they’d get all the patents, half a trillion in appropriations, any goddamn thing they want – and we’d get horse-shit, we’d be out of the game. Same if anybody else beats us out.’

‘But you think they’d actually spy on us?’ Fong whispered.

‘Why sure, same as we spy on them. Hell, no need to whisper here, I don’t mean
that
kinda spying. I don’t mean the old geezer over there’s got a radio in his martini olive, nothing like that. Naw, they look for patterns, see? Like the Army might have their computers go over our purchase orders, phone calls, how many times does X phone Y, shit like that. So we gotta keep a low goddamn profile on this, and I mean low. Can you do that?’

‘Well, y –’

‘Fine, fine. Don’t tell even me. I don’t want to know a damn
thing, not even the name of the project. Far as I’m concerned – officially – this here is still just Project Rover.’

Over the chocolate mousse, Stoney said: ‘I’ll give you this list of companies, and I want you to order all your research equipment through them. See, they’re dummies. NASA owns ’em, and that helps us disguise your purchases. Cain’t afford to tip off the opposition by our purchase orders. I mean if you went and ordered a robot body shell from some outside firm, that’s as good as saying, “Looky here, I’m fixin’ up a robot”. So you order from us, and we fake up a second purchase order makin’ it look like – I don’t know, a case of nuts and bolts – and ever’thing’s still cool, see? You with me?’

Fong was with him, through the meal until, over coffee and Armagnac, Stoney said: ‘We’ll talk details later. Hell, that’s enough business talk for today. Let me show you something, Lee.’ He hauled out his billfold and started passing photos across the table. ‘What do you think a them cute little devils, eh?’

‘Your kids?’

‘Ha ha, no, my
planes.
Got me a Curtiss Hawk and a Lockheed Lightnin’, completely restored, and now I’m a-workin’ on this little baby, my Bell Aerocobra. Boy, you can always recognize this little baby, just looka that nose wheel …’

‘Warplanes. He collected vintage warplanes, spent all his weekends restoring them and flying them. He said that when he was a kid, he’d cut pictures of these same planes off of Kix boxes, and now here he was collecting the real thing, fifty years old and still a kid. I couldn’t believe it, one minute we’re talking about NASA backing the most important project in history, and the next moment he’s gloating over these pictures of old warplanes. He even, when we said goodbye, he even gave me a thumbs-up sign and said, “Keep ’em flying”. Keep ’em flying! I started wondering just what the hell I was getting into there. Thought maybe I was just dealing with a nut, maybe the whole project would just melt down, you know?’

Rogers yawned and looked at his watch. ‘And didn’t it?’

‘Not at first. I got my team together, Dan Sonnenschein, Mary Mendez, Leo Bunsky and Ben Franklin, a few technicians. I went ahead and put through those funny purchase orders to those
dummy companies – and it worked! NASA picked up the tab for everything, and we really started to move. Project Roderick, we called it, only of course we had to let on we were just working on Project Rover. We couldn’t tell anybody anything, and that was the toughest part, because … because Christ almighty it was exciting! It was like a dream, like a dream …’

He re-dreamed it now, the time when Roderick seemed unstoppable, when they’d found themselves solving problems no one else had even posed. He re-lived the high moments: the day Bunsky’s Deep Structure babbled out its first genuine sentence on the teleprinter (‘Mama am a maam’); Dan’s first Introspector, the day it thought (it thought) and therefore it was (it thought). The day his own Face-recognizer, seeing him stick out his tongue, cried …

He started opening and shutting desk drawers. ‘Let me show you something, just let me show you … here, this, look at this.’

Rogers took the bundle of accordion-folded paper, yellow-edged and dusty. ‘What’s this?’ He read the top page and passed it back. ‘What is it?’

‘The spelling’s all wrong, but that’s, it’s still intelligent, you can see a living intelligence there, it’s, I guess you could call it an essay … listen, let me read some of it to you:

‘“There a like because they both sound like they begin with R. There a like they both have some syllables more than one. There a like because one is like a bird and theres a bird called a secretary and the other is like a furniture and theres a furniture called a secretary too. Or may be they both have quills which are like old pens. May be E. A. Poe wrote one when he sat at the other or is that a like? There both inky. I give up. I give up. There a like because otherwise you would not ask me why. Or there a like because there both in the same riddle –’”

Rogers hung his legs over the arm of the chair and tapped a foot on air. ‘Okay, so you had fun working on this.’

‘Fun? I – fun? We had four years of hard work, good work but too hard, some of us didn’t even make it all the way. But it was going to be worth it, we were getting closer all the time, closer and then … and now, those maniacs in Houston want us to just …
stop.
As if you could just stop a thing like this, just forget about it and … Look, look, here’s the damned telex, read it yourself

He smoothed out the paper and handed it over.

Dr Lee Fong Cmptr sci dept univ of Minnetonka be advised all funding ex NASA per project robber and/or any other project your dept frozen as of this date, pending internal NASA audit. Recall all purchase orders and cease all ongoing operations immediately. Address all future communications to section officer

R. Masterson

‘All this Masterson would tell me on the phone was that I couldn’t talk to Stonecraft any more, he’s suspended. And that their auditors were getting a court order to look over my books. And he practically called me a crook.’

Rogers nodded and tapped. ‘Doesn’t look good, does it? I really don’t see how you can expect the University to foot the bill for your project while you’re under a cloud like this. I mean of course you’re innocent, probably meaningless to assign guilt labels at all in a multivalent situation like this, okay I can buy that –
but.
But Lee, why don’t you just get a good lawyer and ride this thing out? Then when you’re cleared – who knows?’

Fong looked at him. ‘I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, lawyers, why should I get a lawyer? Whole thing’s probably a misunderstanding, Stonecraft’ll clear it up. All I want is to finish –’

‘Sure, sure, you want emergency funding from the U to tide you over, and believe me if it was my decision you’d get the bread. Only the rest of the committee might not see it that way …’ An elaborate shrug, and he was on his feet. ‘Good to talk to you, Lee.’

‘Wait, you haven’t even looked at the lab, don’t you want –?’

‘Okay. A tour. Fine, but a quickie. Then I really must …’

They left, closing the anonymous ivory-coloured door on the stuffy little room where nothing moved, or almost nothing: a telex message lay on the desk, trying to gather itself once more into the crumpled form of the inside of Dr Fong’s fist, as though it would remember bafflement and anger at its reception, as it remembered (with a misprint) the confusion at its transmission.

The four young accountants might have been four high-school
boys, trashing Stonecraft’s office just for fun. And it
was
fun, one of them realized, catching sight of his own gleeful face reflected in a picture glass, as he passed to dump another armload of files on the floor.

‘This is kinda fun, you know?’

‘Yeah, only don’t let Masterson see you standing around looking at pictures. We gotta get the dirt on this sonofabitch before he gets back here.’

‘What the hell’s this, a bill for a buffalo? And this, for a hurricane? Who the hell buys hurricanes?’

‘I got a lot of those funny bills, just put ’em in this pile. Like this one, a Grumman Avenger –’

‘You dumb twat, that’s an airplane. Let me see those – holy Christ, forty-three thousand for a model – they must be
real
planes! He must be collecting old airplanes!’

‘But hey, there must be fifty, a hundred of ’em, look at this, Hellcat, Focke-Wulf –’

‘Yeah you Focke-Wulf, hahahaha.’

‘I’m serious, Bob, here’s a Liberator, a Flying Fortress, a Spitfire, no two Spitfires, a Messerschmidt, Thunderbolt, Zero, Christ he’s got a air force here, it’s like he’s getting ready for World War Two all over again …’

‘Yeah and look at these repair bills, and this … deed to a fucking airfield, what do you think all this adds up to?’

‘We’ll run it when we get them all. I can tell you right now where the fucking money came from, only question is how did he rip it off?’

Masterson was on the telephone in the outer office; they could hear every roar: ‘I don’t care where he is, I want him found. I want him back here now … Well you just make sure he does. I don’t care if you have to call out the Air Force and force him down, just don’t let him turn up missing across the border … He’ll find out when he gets … you do what? Yas, yas, I’m holding …’

One of the accountants nudged another and giggled. ‘Old Masterson wants his damn job, that’s what it’s all about.’

‘Looks like he’s got it, lookit all this shit, man, must be over eight figures – Kevin, you gettin’ anywhere with your stuff?’

‘I got it, all right. Simple, he just funnelled the money through
this hick university up north, into these here dummy companies. I mean, look at these names, Rockskill Industries, Pebblework Electronics, Bouldersmith Inc – who the hell’s supposed to be fooled by names like that?’

‘Hey you twat, them files are marked
TOP SECRET,
you got a clearance?’

‘Bullshit, man, Stonecraft never had no clearance himself, this is all faked up. See, he got this university to buy stuff from these companies – owned by him – at about ten times market value, only we picked up the tab. Look, double-billing, I mean that’s really an old trick, I mean that’s really old, man …’

‘How did he get away with it? Didn’t this university look at their own bills? SOP, Bob.’

‘That’s just it, he looked over all the damn universities till he found this jerkwater outfit using an old computer accounting system, shoulda been scrapped years ago. There, he seen his chance and took it.’

Masterson swore next door, and the four fell silent, but only for a moment.

‘Gotta admire the old bugger, in a way. He bitched our computer too, so it passed stuff over to the next audit, and then the next – looks like two, three billion here never audited. Bob, what you got there?’

‘Damned if I know. Notes about a “secret robot project”, how he’s putting these hick university guys to work on – you know, I think
this
was his blind. If the hicks thought it was secret stuff, they sure as hell wouldn’t ask embarrassing questions.’

‘Robots, sheeit! You mean he told ’em NASA was making robots? Sheeit!’

‘Gotta admire the old bugger. Sure knew how to keep everything in the air, all right.’

Masterson came in cursing and laughing quietly. ‘Too bad he didn’t keep himself in the fucking air, though, ain’t it? Know what he done? Soon as he heard we were on to him, he went and suicided on us. Crashed his fucking plane and left us to clear up his shit.
Shit!’
He kicked the empty file cabinet, walked up and down the room, and then stood, fists on hips, staring at the pictures on Stonecraft’s wall.

‘I don’t know, you give your fucking life to try to build
something, and all the time you got some fuckhead like this tearin’ it all down. Look, there’s a picture of Luke Draeger, remember him?’ None of them did. ‘I seen him walk on the Moon, boys,
I helped put him there.
Or was it Mars? Anyways, NASA still means something to some of us. It means – it means – billowing exhaust clouds catching the first light of dawn, a silver needle rising, reaching for the fucking stars! The puny crittur we call Man setting out to conquer the sky, to rendezvous with his Eternal Destiny! Call me a dreamer, boys, but I see Man leaping out from this little planet of ours, to the Moon, to the planets, to our neighbouring stars and finally beyond, to the infinite reaches of dark promise beyond – into the cocksucking Unknown!’ He turned to face them. ‘So that’s why we’re gonna bury this, boys. To protect NASA. To protect the destiny of the human race, our inheritance in the Universe. Bury it, boys. Deep.’

BOOK: The Complete Roderick
2.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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