Authors: John Sladek
Tags: #Artificial Intelligence, #Fiction, #General, #High Tech, #SciFi-Masterwork, #Science Fiction, #Computers
A tiresome boy declared himself once more a Manichee to the girl in the leg-cast, who nodded, though listening to someone else explain how Lady Godiva invented the rosary. The juke box, now muffled by the wall of bodies, sang:
Funniest thing I ever seen
Tomcat sittin’ on a sewin’ machine …
Dr Hannah raised her glass to toast the departing O’Smith.
‘Break a leg,’ she said.
He winked. ‘For you, anything.’ He pushed through the crowd and out into the night, which was nearly as dark and empty as the piano bar on the other side of town where two short-haired men waited to meet someone called O’Smith.
Allbright slept on while Dora kept watch. Suddenly he sat up, rubbing at the ash on his cheek. ‘He looked burned out, coke or, I don’t know, burned out. What was I – oh yeah, he’s got a kid, Roderick, he even treats him like a damned machine.’
‘Is this still Bugleboy?’
‘Yeah listen, he was carrying this doll, I asked him if he had any kids, he said, Just Roderick. “Oh, this?” he says, holding up the doll. “It’s for testing Roderick. Testing his pattern-recognition threshold.” Might have been talking about a goddamned piece of equipment, you know? Cold, cold and – so when I asked how old the boy was, what do you think? He said,
“Doesn’t matter. I’m getting rid of him”.’
‘What did he mean, getting rid –’
‘Wants to ship him off to some foster home, even asked me for an address.’ He picked at his beard absent-mindedly, disentangling a cigarette butt. ‘Felt like telling him to ask his computer pals if he wants a favour, only – what’s that cop doing in here?’
A campus patrolman stood by the door, looking around, while the crowd parted to let him through. Out of habit, one or two people dropped things on the floor. Finally the lawman saw Dr Hannah’s white hair and came over to her.
‘Mrs Hannah? Mrs Jane Hannah?’
‘Doctor Hannah, if you don’t mind.’
Awkwardly he bent and whispered to her that her son was dead. Awkwardly he supported her as she rose and wobbled to the door, blind to faces turning with momentary curiosity, deaf to the thumping of the juke box …
The man in the hunting cap (its flaps erect as the ears of a fox terrier) clutched his glass for support and muttered, ‘College boys! B.S., M.S., Ph.D., haw haw haw, stands for …’
Allbright said, ‘So I gave him the address. Friends of mine out West, they’re into the environment. Figured they couldn’t be
worse parents than him. Jesus, he doesn’t even care about that kid, doesn’t even all he wanted was some address, stick an addressograph label on the kid and ship him out, not even human himself, just a ghost in a machine all burned out, coked out …’
‘Allbright? Let’s split, you look tired.’
‘Take William Burroughs, inventor of the adding machine, know what he says? Or I mean inventor of the soft machine, know what he says?’
She helped him to his feet while his free hand started flailing, ‘And I quote: “The study of thinking machines teaches us more about the brain than we can ever learn by introspective methods.” Did you know that?’
The crowd parted as it usually does for wild drunks, policemen and other dangers; Allbright continued flailing as they made the door. ‘“The C-charged brain is a berserk pinball machine, flashing blue and pink lights in electric orgasm.” Did you know that?’
Outside in the purple evening he paused to smash his fist into a wall.
‘Stop! Allbright, stop – why do you hate yourself so much? Why can’t you just – stop that!’
‘… burned out, a ghost burning in a machine, the lights all going out, zzzzt, let me out of here. Let me out of here!’
‘We are out, outside. Come on.’
He slumped down. ‘Safer here,’ and slept while she kept watch. The sky blazed with stars, brighter and more disturbing than the imitation sky in Bernie’s Piano Bar (across town), where two others were giving up their watch.
‘What we get depending on outsiders, he’s not gonna show.’
‘We could of handled it ourselves.’
‘Try telling that to the brass.’
The aged pianist had been gently chiding them for an hour for not joining in with the others around the piano. Now, looking directly at them, he said, ‘Come on
Don’t be shy!’
Reluctantly they added their voices to the quavering chorus:
… and I’ll put them all together
With some wire and some glue
And I’ll get more lovin’ from the dumb, dumb, dummy
Than I’ll ever get from you
(Get out and waaaaalk, baby).
The Shah would trove this memory, would he not? An aerial view of the entire campus, greening with Spring, looking so like one of those clever little silicon chips he was forever reading about. Yes, the clean square buildings represented the little transistors and things, while the roads and footpaths represented the – the other parts. It was even possible to think of the students crawling about down there as information to be progressed, processed rather. He desired strongly that his only son should be processed in a place such as this. But now it was time to put by such thoughts, and concentrate on the tedious task at hand; already his chopper was settling like a golden dragonfly atop the – he checked a map – the Admin building.
Jim hadn’t told her she’d have to scream her speech of welcome over the roar of helicopter blades. But protocol demanded instant recognition:
‘Welcome to the University of Minnetonka! We hope that Your Royal Incomparability will take pleasure from our humble institution.’ Awkward stuff, translated by the Ruritanian consulate.
The Shah was not quite as tall or good-looking as his photographs had previewed. She might not have recognized him but for his splendid uniform: gold lame head to toe, with peacock-feather epaulets. Curtseying, she noticed that even his jackboots had been gilded.
When the mechanical roar died, he said: ‘Please, Dr Boag. Not too much of these ceremony. I hope you will treat me as any ordinary visitation, yes?’
‘Yes of course if your – if you – but this way to the elevator.’
Crowded in with the Shah, his secretary and five enormous bodyguards, she found conversation difficult. It was hard enough
even to see him over a padded shoulder, and the smell of pomade (heavy with patchouli) took her breath. When she informed him that the weather was unusually mild and Springlike, not at all like last week’s, he simply beamed and said nothing. When she asked if he’d had a pleasant journey, he nodded. Did he understand? Did he speak English? Was it impolite to talk in elevators in Ruritania? Finally she gave up and consulted her card notes.
He would want to see the library, examine a Ruritanian manuscript, and visit the history department. Then –
He suddenly snatched the card from her hand. After examining it through his lorgnette, he passed it to the secretary, a tiny dark man with bad teeth.
‘It’s simply our itinerary,’ she began, but they were arguing in their exotic language. Or was it arguing? Whatever it was, it continued as they strolled out into the sunshine.
Finally the Shah beamed at her. ‘Forgive our ugly manners, Dr Boag. My secretary wishes me to follow to the letter this thoughtful itinerary you have for us provided. He worries, you see, for the security. I however have other
He grimaced so on the word that she fell back a step.
‘I – see. I – well I had planned –’
‘Moment. I must confess that libraries leave me “cold”. And history was never my “strong” subject. But if you will forgive me, there are two things I should admire seeing. The horses’ barns, first of all. And the computers. I greatly admire the computers.’
‘Your Inc – the campus is of course at your disposal. I have a car waiting if you’ll –’
‘No,’ said a guard. He and the others, their faces expressionless behind sunglasses, herded the little party past the official car to another, a long Mercedes with gold fittings.
car,’ said the Shah, and twirled his lorgnette. ‘I am sure you will find it greatly comfy, yes?’
‘Well yes of course, if –’
A guard slapped the door with a giant hand. ‘Is better,’ he threatened. ‘Bombproof.’
Not an auspicious start. She began to envy the committee.
Tarr slammed down the phone as Bud Aikin came in. ‘Great, just great. Tried calling Rogers and he’s off sick. Sick!’
‘You mean he won’t – ?’
‘– be there to steer our proposal through the committee. We’ve just wasted our time – what are you looking so pleased about?’
‘Well, the paper says –’
‘That’s not the worst of it. Only reason I called up Rogers was to get him to change the title on our proposal, too late now. They’ve got it, forty-six copies already in the committee room with that title staring them in the face, why didn’t somebody tell me? Why didn’t you point the acronym out to me, I have to think of everything around here – something amusing, Bud?’
‘No, just, did you see the paper? It says –’
‘Research into Psychically-Oriented Flock Flight,
why do I have to do everything my, what paper?’
Aikin held up the
‘You know how I predicted another body? A fourth body at the Student Union? Well here it is! Some freshman shot himself right on the steps, how’s that for precognition? Listen: “The body of Bill Hannah, 20 …”’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘“… and Wesson .38 … cassette suicide note in his pocket. Hannah blamed his failing Grade Point Average, .95 last … member of Digamma Upsilon Nu and son of Dr …” Anyway there it is, my prediction.’
Tarr began filling his pipe. ‘And frankly, Bud, I wonder if you know either.’
‘But you, you saw me do it, with the map, remember? And the p-p-p – the vibrating dangly thing, remember? You and Byron were witnesses!’
He lit his pipe and puffed out an ectoplasm of blue smoke. ‘Can’t say I remember that, no, hmm, hmm, hmm …’ After a moment he added, ‘But even if you did, so what? One swallow doesn’t make a flock.’
‘Kindly let me finish? Okay, what I think we have here is a political situation, Bud. No sooner do I tell you the committee will probably veto my proposal, than you want to back another horse. Maybe all you ever really cared about was your pendulum, eh?’
‘No, but –’
‘It’s okay, Bud. Really. I’m not hurt. Some people are capable of loyalty, some aren’t, I realize that. I don’t know, maybe you’re
in your own crazy way, I can accept that too. Just a humble scientist myself, I leave the politics to you slick guys with all the answers.’
Unanswered phones were ringing all over the place. A patrolman sat on his desk, trying to juggle two receivers and take down a message that would probably be just another flying saucer sighting. The dispatcher peered over her glass partition (a frosted look over frosted glass, he would write) letting the chief know she was peeved about missing her coffee break. The telex was ringing its bell and rattling out a yard of paper. The fat prisoner threw him a sulky look from the cage (‘… as if,’ he would write, ‘as if he thought someone else had crapped his drawers’).
Chief Dobbin went into his office and closed the door against all of them. But even here he had Sergeant Collar balancing an armload of reports and shouting into a phone:
‘Don’t ask me, that’s all. Just don’t ask me!’ The receiver banged down. ‘Been like this all fucking day, chief. Two more men down with flu, the coroner’s screaming for his paperwork on this suicide, not to mention –’
‘Shut up, Collar, and get outa my office. I need five minutes to get squared away here.’ Getting squared away meant sitting down with a clean legal pad and a handful of sharpened pencils, to work on his book. Dobbin wrote slowly and carefully, his tongue protruding at the corner of his mouth:
‘Don’t touch me,’ she said. ‘Don’t you ever touch me again. Why was I ever dumb enough to marry a cop?’
Suddenly I felt big and awkward and very, very tired. ‘Look, I know it’s our anniversary, but this Delmore diamond case is ready to crack wide open –’
‘And then there’ll be some other case,’ she said, her mouth set hard. ‘Maybe when you give all you’ve got to your work, there’s just nothing left for me.’
She was near the window when it happened. Suddenly the glass blossomed into a spider-web pattern, with a hole in the middle the size of a .303 slug. There was a matching hole in Laura’s lovely throat. Even before she hit the floor, she was very, very –
‘What is it
Collar? Can’t you handle it?’
‘Security problem, chief. With our visiting potentate. He’s visiting all the wrong places. In fact we can’t locate him.’
‘Terrific. Have Angie get him on the radio, and –’
‘No can do. He’s got the wrong car, too. I’m trying to get a VSU fix on him now, but nothing. Zilch. Maggie’s drawers.’
‘Probably left the damn campus.’ He flicked on his own video surveillance unit and ran through the scenes quickly, then slowly. ‘There, is that his car? Black Mercedes limo, gold grille? Okay, he’s at the Ag Sci complex, horse barns. Can we detail a coupla men to escort?’
Collar made a face. ‘Nope. Simons is off sick, and Fielder has to guard this gold dinnerware at the Faculty Club, so that leaves –’
‘Okay, okay. Try to catch up on a little paperwork around here and what happens? All hell breaks loose, people get sick, people want coffee breaks – and now we got this guy, a king of some place, just walking around loose like anybody else!’
‘You want to question the prisoner now, chief? He’s kinda weird and –’
‘Who is he, anyhow?’
‘A John Doe. No
at all. Our special Ripper Patrol picked him up last night. He was using a glass-cutter on a window at the Computer Science building. Had a microflex camera on him, and a wig.’
‘Kinda fat for the James Bond stuff, isn’t he? Okay, bring him in. Oh but first, ring the morgue, tell ’em it’s okay to release the Hannah kid’s body for a funeral. We’ll catch up on the paperwork later. I know his ma wanted to cremate him today.’
‘Already released him, chief.’