Authors: John Sladek
Tags: #Artificial Intelligence, #Fiction, #General, #High Tech, #SciFi-Masterwork, #Science Fiction, #Computers
‘Wait, hold on. We’ve got till next Tuesday, maybe I can talk to a few members. Of course the damn committee’s packed with geeks and freaks, but you never can tell … Look, I’ve got a list here, let’s check ’em off.’
He unfolded a typewritten sheet and spread it on the desk. Fong glanced at it and turned away.
‘Don’t despair, wait. There’s Asperson, Brilling and Dahldahl, think we can count on them, and here’s Jane Hannah, ninety years old and talks to herself but she likes underdogs … Max Poons is neutral, pretty fair for a Goethe scholar, eh? You’re not listening. I mean Poons isn’t even sure he accepts Newton’s laws of optics yet, let alone anything since … You’re not listening.’
‘Been up all night, Ben, and I still haven’t caught up with these test charts. Some other time?’
‘Sure. Sure.’ Franklin stood up and zipped his parka, then sat down again. Flicking ash in the direction of the ashtray, he said, ‘Real reason I came down is to take Dan to lunch. Heard he’s
been living in the lab, right? Sleeping there? And eating peanut butter and water?’
‘I guess so. Good idea, get him out, walk him around in the fresh air … He could use a break.’
‘Anyway, somebody said it’s his birthday.’
‘And anyway, I’ve got something to celebrate myself. Final decree.’
‘What? Oh, uh congrat –’
‘She’s getting married again, I guess. To a guy named
can you imagine that? Hank Dinks, sounds like a Country Western singer – well, I’d better be going.’
‘Okay, see you.’
Ben made no move, except to sprinkle more ash. ‘You know, I thought the overworked genius bit went out with napkin-rings.’
‘I mean, here we are in the age of committee-think and team spirit and Dan goes it alone. I mean, damn it, Fong, he never gives me a damned thing to do around here. I feel like a damned apprentice or something, like he doesn’t trust me. Like right now I’m afraid, I’m actually afraid to go in the goddamned lab, it’s like an intrusion. He hardly lets me near the equipment, just hands me some crappy little piece of test program to write, I’m supposed to be happy doing what any kid from the business school could do. All I want is some real, real responsibility, is that too much to ask?’
‘No, I guess not. But Dan –’
‘– doesn’t give a shit about team spirit, fine, only where does that leave me? Or you? I feel – talk about Rogers, I’m beginning to feel like a science groupie myself.’
Fong opened a roll of antacid tablets. ‘What can I say? It’s really his project now, the rest of us are just along for the ride. Nobody planned it like this, it just happens sometimes. A strong idea takes over …’
‘Great, only now that the ride’s damn near finished, I’ve got nothing. Just to go in there and try one of my own ideas once in a while, is that too much to ask? Is it?’
‘See you later?’
The inkstained door banged to behind him. Ben Franklin
found the men’s room and cupped cold water to wash the heat from his face. It was, he liked to think, a nice face, a nice Northern face with blue eyes and an even brow, a straight smile and even a cleft chin. Today it looked wrong: the eyes, the smile, the trim moustache seemed poised, waiting for some expression which had not yet and might never emerge from the emptiness within.
‘… right. It’s a grab.’ Rogers nodded over the phone’s mouthpiece. ‘Fong more or less admits NASA pulled out because of some swindle. Swindle, that’s right.
says it’s internal to NASA, but you and I know how these things go. You can always get somebody to admit as much of the truth as won’t hurt him at the moment, right? … So I don’t know about you, I don’t feel much like risking it. Not that I’d accuse Fong of anything, nice guy really, but a little legitimate caution might not be a bad … right. Right, see you.’
He pushed a button, checked off a name on a list, and pushed another button. ‘Dr Tarr, you still there? I’ve just had Asperson on the other line, sounding him out, him and a few others on the committee, and we think – frankly, we agree something smells about this robot project. But why I called you, I thought maybe you had some little research project of your own lined up, you might put forward as an alternative proposal? I thought so, good, good. Listen, write it up and we’ll add it to the agenda. No, perfectly okay. I’ve been at these committee brawls before, know the infighting techniques you might say, haha … No, listen, last Fall we had a last-minute addition to the agenda steered through, it can be done … Oh, it was some scheme for sending messages into space, pi … no, pee eye, the number. Yeah, and listen, they had plenty of old farts opposing, sitting around cracking jokes about pi in the sky: you wouldn’t believe the hostility … no but it has to be worth a try, eh? So if I could have your proposal tomorrow, we’ll get it printed … That’s perfectly all right, sure.’
He hung up and noticed the face hanging at the edge of his door, the pouched eyes and red beard. ‘Uh, Goun is it? Pretty tied up just now, Goun. Like to see the girl for an appointment?’
The owner of the face stepped in. Dirty jeans, lumberjack
boots, mackinaw. ‘She’s not there. Could you spare me a minute now?’
‘Just one, then. And it’ll have to wait for this phone call, okay?’ He looked up the number of Helen Boag, Dean of Persons, and punched buttons. The haggard eyes watched every move.
‘Dr Boag? This is Rogers, over in Disney Hall. Say, I see our committee’s in for a rough ride with this Project Roderick thing … Yes, the cyber … Been allegations of fraud, for one thing. Not that I … yes, and I understand Dr Tarr of the Parapsychology Department wants to put up an alternative proposal, so we’re caught in the crossfire, you might s … Well I know you’ve got a tight schedule, so thought I’d better warn you … Yes, very wise, very wise. Get out of the line of fire altogether, let ’em fight it out themselves, so to sp … May just duck out myself, seems the wisest … Oh, you’re welcome.’
He checked off the name, while the haggard eyes looked up to the picture above his head.
‘Like that, Goun? An Allen Jones original litho, I’m kind of pleased with it myself. Hope it doesn’t give people the impression I’m some kind of fetishist, or … Okay, make it brief?’
‘I’ve got a field philosophy hang-up, sort of, professor.’
‘Let’s see, you teach one of the seminars – is it Human Use of Media Resources?’
‘No. Sociology of Losing.’
‘Of course, of course. Haha. Trouble with a big department like this, you lose touch with everybody.’ Rogers scratched a pock mark below his ear. ‘Go on.’
‘The thing is, I’m looking for a more meaningful involvement in the environmental mainstream. I mean, teaching in this kind of informalized stratum is okay, but with these kids, the, the catalyzation potential is already, er, catalyzed. Know what I mean?’
‘In a sense. Cultural matrix imprinting getting you down?’
‘See, maybe with less older subjects, kids, I could break through some of the urbanized alienation syndrome barriers, the stress, the stre-he-hess –’ Suddenly the eyes squeezed forth tears. ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry … sorry …’
‘What is it? Goun?’
The shoulders of the mackinaw shook. ‘I’m sorry … Been
depressed a lot this last year, ever since my sister died … can’t stay here knowing … could be one of my students, anybody … his first, she was his first victim and now every time there’s another it’s like he kills her all over again … This place, this place!’
‘Slow down now, Goun, I’m on your side, slow down. Now. What’s this about a victim?’
‘The … Campus … Ripper. He’s done it again, a waitress or something … in the paper. I mean he’s still out there, killing and killing and … I … I just want to get away from here, maybe try teaching in a … I don’t know, a grade school some place, I don’t know …’
When the sobbing stopped, Rogers said quietly, ‘You should have come to me before.’
‘I tried to, but you were always out or –’
‘Yes,’ crossing his legs under the desk to allow one foot to tap on air, ‘you should have come to me before, we could have rapped, talked this out. Clarified a few teaching concepts.’
That clarification, he explained, ought to involve a thorough-going process evolving in context and circumstance, exploring the infrastructure of any classroom situation according to well-defined parameters, without of course rejecting in advance those options which, in a broader perspective, might be seen to underpin any meaningful discussion attempting to cut through the appropriate interface … right?
But even before he could get rid of Goun, Rogers heard someone else in the outer office, sneezing.
read the sign on the door, hastily stencilled four years before and somehow never corrected. Ben Franklin paused a moment – should he knock? – before using his keycard and entering the darkened room.
A few red jewel-lights shone weakly in the background like older, more distant stars. Somewhat nearer, the glass box drew the eye to its green glow, the aquarium exhibiting in its luminous depths that marine oddity, the face of Dan Sonnenschein.
It was an odd face. Under normal light it reminded some of the younger Updike;
under green light it was nearer the face of Jiminy Cricket.
‘Just a sec.’ No warmth in that voice, only a flat command that might have issued from some other exhibition oddity: Donovan’s Brain, say … Moxon’s Master? … Ben groped his way towards a chair and a simile …
Bacon’s Brazen Head, that was it. That mysterious entity that (if it ever existed) used even more mysterious Arab clockwork …
‘Bacon knew,’ he muttered, ‘… secret of the peacock fountain of Al-Jazari …’
‘Just a sec.’ A sec, many secs might tick by on clocks elsewhere, but here time moved in silence and darkness at an unknown speed (secs per sec). He waited as one who has just felt an earth tremor or the kick of an unborn child waits, in darkness and silence for the next, the confirming instance. Time was indivisible, all the silences and uncertainty between the ticks joined up (sec to sec) into one continuum of doubt, reaching back seven centuries to that night when a servant sat waiting for the brass head to speak.
the servant thought he heard, but waited to be sure.
but why wake Friar Bacon for that?
Time is past,
said the grinning brass head, and fell to pieces (or so the servant would report, when he had hidden his hammer and wakened the good Friar).
To be fair, the servant was only following the example of Aquinas, who reasoned (with logic ruthless enough for any machine) that to destroy a thing is to create a possibility: ‘If it did already exist, the statue could not come into being,’ he wrote. Just as affirmation and negation cannot exist simultaneously, so neither can privation and the form …” It was Aquinas, the Swine of Sicily, waddling on a Paris street, who was accosted by a stranger made entirely of wood, metal, glass, wax and leather the automaton brought into being (through thirty years’ work) by Albertus Magnus. Instantly Aquinas raised his staff and brought about the possibility of another thirty years’ work …
Dr Helen Boag touched the intercom. ‘Jim, come in here, will
you? And bring the diary.’ She unfurled her copy of the
and glanced over the headlines:
CAMPUS RIPPER STRIKES AGAIN
Third Body Found
SOCCER SQUAD SHAPES UP
Fergusen Predicts ‘Pow Season’
GRADES AT LAST!
Camp Ops Strike Ends
CHESS CMPTR CHEATS IN IOWA OPEN
Park-O-Mat Mangles Dean’s Limo
Looking up from the last story as Jim came in, she grinned. ‘Listen, what day do I have for that Emergency Finance Committee thing?’
‘Next Tuesday, ma’am.’
‘Scrub it. Just heard terrible whispers, omens of a storm. Fraud, God knows what. The Nibelungen of the Computer Science Department rising up against the pale wraiths of Parapsychology –’
‘Skip it, I want out. So what else might I be doing?’
He consulted the leather-bound book. ‘How about the Shah of Ruritania’s visit? Were you going to deputize –?’
‘I’ll take it myself. Usual tour of the plant, is it? Lunch at the Faculty Club? Oh, does he have any special dietary –?’
‘Yes, ma’am. He, um, he eats peacocks.’
‘Yuck. Wouldn’t pheasant do?’
‘Afraid not. Has to be peacock, says the Consul, served in plumage on gold plate. Some religious thing.’
‘The sacrifices I have to make. By the way, I’ll need to rent a car that day. Says here mine is the victim of an act of God, guess they have to blame someone. Wonderful, isn’t it?’
‘Wonderful machine-age we live in. Blizzard blows a pinch of snow into the wrong place, and suddenly this million-dollar Park-O-Mat, the cutting edge of the Future, decides to drop my car
seven storeys down an elevator shaft. I remember, when old crippled Jake ran that place, all he ever managed was a dented bumper.’
‘Want some coffee, Dr Boag?’
He moved quietly to the outer office, where he copied her instructions from the diary into the computer. It would make every arrangement for the tour. Yet it did not supplant the leather-bound anachronism. Important persons usually keep something unfashionable close at hand, a contrast to their own up-to-the-minute importance: the Victorian footman (in a really first-class establishment) was required to put on the powdered wig, gold lace, brocade and buckled shoes of the previous century, while his master wore simple black dinner dress. That same dinner dress would, once it fell out of fashion, provide uniforms for butlers and waiters.
In any (really first-class) office of our century, anachronisms multiplied. Executives continued to sit at larger and larger desks, at which they wrote less and less with their quaint fountain-pens finally only their signatures. They required their secretaries to carry shorthand pads (and use them) fifty years after the invention of the dictating machine. They sent one another memos, a century after the invention of the telephone, an instrument which they felt required a secretary to dial, a receptionist to answer, and a special servant in white gloves to clean. Every advance, it seemed, required a step backwards.