Authors: John Sladek
Tags: #Artificial Intelligence, #Fiction, #General, #High Tech, #SciFi-Masterwork, #Science Fiction, #Computers
One or two heads turned to watch them, two grown men struggling for possession of a grubby notebook. The girl in the ski sweater nudged her companion, who was bending over to peer at a signature on the white plaster: Felix Culpa.
‘Damn you, let go! I’ve got a right – see my own damn work, let go!’ Ben ripped out the page and spread it on the table, holding it with both hands while he studied the symbols cramped into little boxes. His cheeks and ears turned a deeper red.
‘Jesus! And this – it works?’
‘Yes. Give it back.’
‘Just a minute, I’ve never seen anything like this. Dan, this is – it’s beautiful. You took that half-baked idea of mine and you just – you redeemed it, that’s what. You redeemed it.’
‘Give it back.’
Ben passed over the ragged page and watched him trying to press it back on the spiral. ‘I’m sorry, Dan. Had no idea, Fong always said you were good but I mean I never see any of your work, you’re always so goddamned secretive. I mean, you never even publish, for Christ’s sake, work like this and you never even
publish. What about the
Journal of Machine Learning Studies,
or any of the AI –’
‘Publish?’ Dan hunched forward, protecting the notebook with his knobby wrist. ‘No, I don’t publish. It’s not the point. It’s not what I’m working for, my name in some AI journal, I don’t have time, see?’
‘But that’s how you buy the time, publishing. How do you think somebody like Czernski got the Norbert Wiener Chair of Cybernetics at –’
‘Anyway, why should I? Roderick’s mine, think I want to stick him in some AI journal for everybody to rip-off? He’s private, he’s not another toy for some toy company, I don’t want to see him crammed inside some plastic Snoopy doll. I don’t want him grabbed up by some Pentagon asshole to make smart tanks.’
‘Don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,’ Ben lit a cigarette. ‘Applications, what the hell do you care about applications? Feel like I’m sitting here with Alexander Graham Bell, he’s invented this swell gadget only he’s afraid to tell anybody about it, in case some loony uses it to make dirty phone calls. Point is, you can’t keep something like this to yourself, you just can’t, that’s all.’
‘Because it’s important, that’s why not. It’s too important to be left to one person. At least – at least let me help, I mean really help.’ The fibreglass chair creaked as he sat back. ‘Look, I know I’m not good enough to follow you all the way, just give me a glimpse, a Pisgah perspective, okay? This is, I feel like it’s the fifth day of Creation or something, the foreman tells me to collect a couple of wheelbarrows of mud and wheel it over to Eden, no one bothers telling me what it’s for. Only I’ve
to know. I’ve got to be in on it, even in some little way, Jesus, it’s the only thing I’ve ever really wanted to do. Why I went into machine intelligence in the first place, all those damned boring years playing with language translators and information retrieval systems and even poker players all I ever wanted was to create something, all right,
create something. Okay, okay don’t say it. I know my limitations. I’m intelligent but not creative, fine, only – at least I could help?’
The lock of hair fell forward. ‘What is it? You want to see him,
or what? Because there’s nothing much to see, not yet. And help, I don’t need any help, right now it’s a one-man job. All I need is some time, a little more time.’
‘Sure.’ Ben studied the coal on his cigarette. ‘Maybe you don’t trust me because I’m not Jewish or something, that it?’
‘Not – what the hell? Jewish? What does that mean?’
‘I don’t know, but, no offence but –’
‘Look, I’m not hardly Jewish myself, my old man was reformed I guess but I wasn’t even raised –’
‘Yeah, okay, but it’s a, like a holy work to you all the same. Secret and holy. Like the prophet Jeremiah and his son, making the first
you know? They made him out of clay, and they wrote the program on his forehead, and he came to life.’
Dan shrugged. ‘Yeah, well I’ve got to get back to the lab.’
‘Yeah, but you know what they wrote?
they wrote, and he came to life. And the first thing he asked them was couldn’t they kill him, before he fell into sin like Adam.’
‘Look, it’s just something I’ve got to do, alone.’ The lock of hair was brushed back, and fell again as he stood up.
‘But listen a minute, will you? All he wanted to do was die. They wrote the program on his forehead, ’
he came to life and all he wanted was to die.’
‘Really gotta be going, Ben. I mean, these parables or whatever they are, maybe they mean a lot to you but, uh –’
‘The point is, maybe that’s all we can create, death. Even when we try to make life it comes out death, death is there all the time. See – wait a minute! – see, Jeremiah and Son, all they had to do was erase one letter from the program, see? So ’
DEAD. It was there all the time.’
‘Yep. Hebrew, huh? Never learned any myself. Oh, uh, thanks again for the lunch. See you.’
Ben watched him go, a gawky Jiminy Cricket figure blundering among the white tables, stepping over the plaster leg, squeezing past the Manichee, slipping through gaps between formica and nybro, melamine and fibreglass, fleeing from the animated faces, only one of which turned to look, saw that he too was not Sandy, and dismissed him like an untidy, irrelevant thought.
There was dust on Mister O’Smith’s hand-tooled boots from sitting in the departure lounge. He noticed it when he was looking down, getting set for another fast draw against Brazos Billy. Brazos was not the kind of man to mind if a feller stopped a minute to dust off his Gallen Kamps. In fact Brazos was no kind of man at all, just a fibreglass figure at the end of an abbreviated fibreglass street, ready to go up against anybody for a quarter in the slot. If you shot him, Brazos would look surprised, crumple and collapse, even bleed a little; if not, he’d just smirk. Mister O’Smith always drew blood, and he did so now. They were calling his plane, but he lingered, watching the blood ooze out on the little cowtown street, watching it ooze back in, as Brazos uncrumpled and stood tall again. Well, back to work.
On the plane he read his gun catalogue. Nothing much else to do, since the Agency didn’t trust a freelancer like Mister O’Smith enough to tell him anything in advance so he could get his mind set for it. The Agency was a pain in the behind, with all their need-to-know stuff and their limited-personal-contacts stuff – hell, they even gave him a code book and a radio martini olive! As if he’d be fool enough to drink martinis anyhow, and shoot, radio olives went out with, with the Walther PP8!
In Minnetonka the snow was melting; his sheepskin was too warm; the taxis were all covered with crap; Mister O’Smith felt low. Well they can kill you but they can’t eat you! He dumped his gear at the hotel and hit the slushy street. Within minutes he found an amusement arcade and settled down to feed quarters into Randy the Robot. When zapped, Randy would look surprised, crumple and emit sparks.
Mister O’Smith had no more idea why he was doing this than did the figures of Randy or Brazos, or even that figure of Herakles (coin-operated and armed with a Scythian bow) that had been
drawing against a serpent (when hit, it hissed with surprise) three centuries before Christ. Whether this was a set of Skinnerian contingencies reinforcing the appropriate behaviour (zapping) or a Freudian acting-out of infantile aggression towards the castrating father, Mister O’Smith couldn’t say. Beauty was death, and death beauty, that was all Mister O’Smith knew (on a need-to-know basis).
‘Of course I have my own ideas.’ Tarr went on filling his pipe. ‘You both know about my plans for investigating psychic flight orientation in migratory birds.’
Aikin and Dollsly nodded automatically: they knew, they knew. ‘But it wouldn’t be democratic to put that before the committee without first consulting you, okay?’
‘So what about your ideas? Bud?’
Bud Aikin controlled his stutter remarkably well today, as he outlined his plan for crime prevention by use of the pendulum. He was becoming quite an authority on this psychic instrument, Tarr noticed. Too bad he still had such a hell of a time with that key word.
Aikin unfolded a map. ‘See, here I’ve been and located the three places where this “Ripper”, this murderer left his victims. The vibrations are very strong, even on a map. Using the p-p-p – swinging thing – I was able to locate them precisely.’
‘Fascinating!’ Tarr lit his pipe. ‘Of course sceptics will imagine you read about the locations in the paper …’
‘No, but wait. I can do it blindfold, with the map turned any way at all. As soon as the p-p-p – the pen-pen – the Galilean implement – gets over a psychic “hot spot”, it starts swinging violently. And, and that’s not all. I’ve found a
location. The place where the next body will be found. See, right here near the Student Union. So I mean when they find the body there, that pretty well clinches it, right? Maybe then crime prevention can take a leap forward, using the p – the isochronic vibrating part of a clock –’
Tarr exhaled a thick ball of smoke. ‘Lacks scope, if you don’t mind my frankness, Bud. And you don’t really need much of a grant for – but let’s hear what Byron has to say eh?’
Byron Dollsly grinned and slapped his heavy hand on the table. ‘Scope! Hah! Think you’ll
of scope in my idea, George. See how this grabs you. As you know, I’ve been working on lines suggested by Teilhard de Chardin, Buckminster Fuller and others, namely a kind of engineering approach to consciousness.
He beamed at Tarr and Aikin in turn, while they sat awaiting further enlightenment.
I’ve only had a
that’s all. As I see it, we have to begin with first principles.
After a moment, Tarr took his pipe from his mouth. ‘Is that it? Biology?’
‘Is that it, he asks. Hah! Okay, let me spell it out for you. The divine Teilhard saw life as a
force, and consciousness as a
force. Life, see, is like a gear-wheel growing larger, while consciousness is the gear actually turning – meshing!’
He grabbed a handful of his thick grey hair and more or less hauled himself to his feet by it. Then he marched to the blackboard. ‘So what’s the next step? Anybody?’
The other two looked at one another. ‘Mm, suppose you just tell us, Byron. Little short on time here …’
‘The, uh … the …’
intellect is a worm-screw with a
thread. Get it? Get it? See, it can never mesh with the destructive or left-handed intellect – never!’
‘Well I suppose not, mm –’
‘So what is God? Simple. He is the vector sum of the entire network of forces turning back upon themselves to produce ultimate consciousness! I mean isn’t He? Isn’t He just the infinite acceleration of the tangential? POW! POW!’ He smacked an enormous right-hand fist into an enormous left-hand palm. There was silence. There was always silence after one of Byron Dollsly’s little lectures, which always ended
‘Interesting, Byron, good line of thinking there … hard to see any practical research possibilities in it just now, but…’
As chairman, Tarr of course had the final deciding vote, which he cast for his own proposal (to study telepathy in birds). Dismissing his assistants, he prepared to write it up for the
committee. That is, he sat cracking his knuckles, one by one, and staring out of the window.
From here in the Old Psychology Building, he had a limited view of the Mall: a few dirty white drifts, the stump of a snowman. How many seasons had he watched from this narrow window? How many barren Winters? How many hopes shattered like icicles – Tarr was beginning to like the simile – while his career remained frozen, stiff as the heart of poor little Frosty out there, who would never come to life and sing …
Tarr started on the left-hand knuckles. Beyond the snowman lay the façade of Economics, a dirty old building on whose pediment he could just make out three figures:
shouldering a giant gear-wheel,
dumping out her cornucopia, and
applying his scythe to a sheaf of wheat or something.
His gaze returned to the central figure. Money, that’s what it took. A little money – a tenth of the cash they lavished on the Computer Science Department, say – and he could have parapsychology really on the move. Going places. They were doing it elsewhere: Professor Fether in Chicago was testing precognition in hippos; the Russians claimed a breakthrough on the ouija board to Lenin; the ghost labs of California were fast building a solid reputation. But here, a standstill, a frozen landscape. Nobody in the entire field had ever heard of the University of Minnetonka.
Nobody had ever heard of Dr George Tarr, either. Now and then his clipping service sent him by mistake some reference to ‘R. Targ’ or ‘C. Tart’. His own name never appeared.
Still, here was another chance, another crack at the old cornucopia … He cracked the last knuckle and reached for his dictating machine.
‘Title: Research into Psychically-Oriented Flock Flight. A project proposal. G. Tarr, B. Aikin, B. Dollsly.
‘Ahem. Observers have long obs – noted the uncanny agility of birds flying in formation. This agility has not yet been adequately explained. How is it that a flock of up to a thousand birds, manoeuvring in perfectly co-ordinated flight at high velocities, can avoid collisions? The psychic mechanism we propose may be tested as follows …’
A man in a red hunting cap and matching face was saying to the bartender, ‘Look, just because I never went to no university that don’t mean I’m drunk.’
‘Just take it easy, Jack.’
‘Plenny of things a university don’t teach you, am I right?’