Jimson, eyes closed, lay on the couch and pretended to be as drunk as both Tiphani and Han. He’d learned, back on Shoujo, that there were keen advantages to being the only non-drunk person in a room, as long as you acted the part.
They didn’t expect you to remember. They didn’t remember themselves. But when you went to your physics professor and discreetly showed him voice records and photos of his dalliance with the lowest pre-intern, it could have a salutory effect on your grades. And when you heard about the new apartment-building going up with a secret waiting list, you could be ahead of all the rest. And his own dalliances weren’t bad, either. Especially with the female professors. Killing two combatants with one bullet, so to speak.
So he lay, eyes closed, and listened. Han and Tiphani’s voices came low from the direction of the big picture-window, not much more than a dull murmur. But Jimson still heard. Even though the context-sensitive routines wouldn’t allow it, he could still run the input from his auditory nerve through a simple amplifier. Which he did.
“I’d really enjoy getting to know you better,” Han said, in a syrupy voice. Jimson imagined it being delivered through one of his fake smiles. Frightening stuff.
“I find you fascinating as well,” Tiphani said. Neutral. Or even a bit ironic.
“We could lose the kid,” Han said. “Just you and me, then.”
“The kid’s a manager now.”
“Even if he was a Perpetual, I wouldn’t want him in this room right now.”
“Stop that!” The harsh sound of a slap.
“I suppose Winfinity has different protocols. Can we start over?”
“I’d prefer you start leaving.”
“What does that mean?”
“Leave.” Hic. “Now.”
Silence for a moment. “And let you turn the Shrill against me?”
Tiphani laughed, and Jimson had to hold back a smile. The Shrill still milled aimlessly about in its cage, as if drugged. Jimson had thought about calling for the scientist he’d talked to earlier, but he didn’t want to turn the room into a geek-fest. That would have stopped the drinking. And he had other things to think about. Like Lazarus Turnbull and Diane Winter, still in their cheap little room.
“I doubt if we have the persuasive ability to do that,” Tiphani said.
“I have a right to be involved in any conversation with the Shrill,” Han said.
“Should I call for security?”
“Ah. You prefer the boy.”
“I’d prefer a chimpanzee.”
Silence. Jimson imagined the staredown. Tiphani’s hard bright eyes versus Han’s soft gaze. No contest.
“I expect any conversation you have with the Shrill ambassador to be logged and summarized for me,” Han said.
Silence. Shuffling feet. Then, from the direction of the door, “Are you sure you wouldn’t like to accompany me for a drink and a dance? I can be a very good friend, and a powerful ally.”
“Bring on that chimp,” Tiphani said.
The door opened, slammed.
For a while, there was no sound except for the muted traffic-noise outside and the soft scratching of the Shrill ambassador on the diamondoid. Jimson heard glass click on Tiphani’s teeth and the soft sound of her swallow. Good.
“Get up,” she said. Her voice loud, directed at him.
Jimson remained on the couch.
“You’re not sleeping,” she said.
“You’re not even drunk. I saw you dumping your drinks all night.”
Jimson sighed and sat up. Tiphani, backlit by the riot of light from the picture-window, hands on hips. He didn’t need any modeling algorithms to tell that she knew his entire plan.
“You’re very observant,” he said.
Jimson looked away, summoning quick tears. “For you,” he said. He nodded at the bedroom. “For later.”
Tiphani’s eyes, reflected gold in the low room-light, widened. She dropped her hands from her hips and turned to look back out over the city.
“I don’t know if I entirely believe that,” she said. But her voice came softer.
Jimson said nothing.
“And it might not matter,” she said, turning again, looking at the Shrill. “Have you heard the latest on our friend here?”
“What?” Just the same confusion of floating data-tags.
Tiphani sent a report to Jimson’s optilink. A title appeared in his POV:
ANALYSIS OF SHRILL LONGEVITY:
A STATISTICAL PHENOMENON?
Jimson skimmed the abstract. The report seemed to be saying that even though the Shrill claimed to be immortal, there was no difference between Shrill and human biology that supported the claim. There were no clues in the fragments of Shrill DNA or Shrill cells to indicate how they might be immortal. The report speculated that the Shrill might very well think themselves immortal, but the reality was that their components died from natural enemies or accident so frequently that they couldn’t die of old age. Protected, a Shrill component would eventually die of old age.
“Is this true?” Jimson said.
“Scope the science channel,” Tiphani said. “They’re fighting about it right now. I still think most of the High Staff Scientists believe that the report is bogus. There are a lot of comments about how the statistical models they use are complete BS. We haven’t even been in the Shrill system. We don’t know what their living conditions are like. And the report doesn’t cover a lot of things we know about the Shrill, such as their body temperature and their shells. Their biological processes have to be a lot different than ours, they run almost at boiling. And we still haven’t seen structure – their internals are a mystery.”
They wouldn’t be, Jimson thought, if you’d given me five more minutes. But he pushed the thought away. Best not to mention it. Not now.
He queried the science channel for the report and resulting debate, but it came up blocked.
Jimson smiled. How perfect is this? He wondered.
“I can’t see the debate,” Jimson said. “I don’t have a high enough access level.”
Tiphani frowned. “That’s right, you’re still just a manager.”
“Is there any way I can see this?” Jimson said. “If I keep up with what’s going on, I might have better input.”
Tiphani smiled and came to sit on the edge of the couch. She ran her hand through Jimson’s hair.
“I am proud of you,” she said.
“I’m just trying to do my best.”
“Pretty impressive, so far.”
She climbed over the back of the couch and slid down on top of Jimson. She weighed almost nothing; it was like being covered with a pillow.
Embraces led to kissing. Kissing led to the bedroom.
And all the time, Jimson thinking, No, it can’t be true, the Shrill are immortal, we have to think that, we have to believe that, or everything we do is completely pointless.
When they were done, Tiphani leaned close and whispered something in his ear.
Her Chief-level access codes.
He looked at her with big eyes, feigning surprise.
“Don’t abuse them,” she said.
“I won’t,” Jimson said.
There is a formidable amount of security in the Winfinity Hi-Lux suites, Sara said. Lazrus could tell she was serious because she appeared as only a simple green head-and-shoulders icon in his POV.
Lazrus looked nervously down the long empty hall. Amongst the mid-twentieth-century atomic age décor, he saw no overt signs of surveillance, or even tags that indicated microscopic cameras or mikes.
Should I back out? He asked.
I can handle the security.
I mean, with humans, and . . . the weight of Dian’s Winch rode heavily inside his jacket-pocket. He tried to imagine himself holding it up and pointing it at humans. Maybe even pulling the trigger. He hoped they weren’t armed.
You have a bad case of the Three Laws, Sara said.
I’m not a robot.
You are a lifeform with as much right to exist as the humans.
I know that. But . . . I don’t know if I can shoot one of them if I need to. I don’t know if I can even operate the weapon.
You have downloaded and incorporated instructions on its use?
Yes, from the Martian datanet. And a more gruesome lot of instructions he had never seen. Even though he knew it was virtual, he winced at the sight of heads exploding, fist-size holes appearing in human guts, streaming entrails behind, kneecaps being reduced to fleshy mush. All while instructions on the best use of the weapon meshed with his consciousness. He felt unclean.
It’s necessary for humans sometimes, Sara said. They cannot retreat into the safety of a datanet.
I can’t take pride in using their methods.
You are being silly and squeamish. I can send you a first-lawbreaker.
Mind-altering memes? From within the corporate net? Lazrus shuddered. No. He didn’t like the effects of corrosive or attractive memes, and he had no idea what might be attached to it from within the Disney net. Something to bind him like Sara?
No, thank you, he said. He would try to keep his thoughts assembled. He would hope that it wouldn’t come to violence. It was all he could do.
Here. This door.
Lazrus stopped outside a set of double doors. A mid-twentieth starburst pattern decorated the centers, radiating out from a central doorknob. A discrete badge proclaimed the room to be the Eames Suite.
Go on, Sara said. I have it unlocked.
Is anyone in there?
Yes, but they’re not moving.
No, dummy. Most likely asleep.
Lazrus nodded. His thoughts had never flown this fast or erratically, even when his consciousness had rode the chip of rock to Earth. I am going to point a weapon at humans. Threaten them.
He shook his head. Humans were not his masters. The whole concept came from bad human fiction, written before the dawn of the information age. And he needed this. He needed the Shrill. He didn’t intend them harm. If they stayed asleep, he wouldn’t even have to disturb them.
But still, that nagging feeling.
Another thing to perfect, he thought. Another human thing to purge from his consciousness.
He twisted the knob, holding the door closed. It made almost no noise. When he pushed against the door, though, it scuffed against its frame, making a scratching sound that was absurdly loud in the still hall.
People coming up the elevator to your floor, Sara said. I’d get in the room if I were you.
Lazrus slipped quickly into the room, pulling the door closed behind him, fast at first, then slow to silence the scuff. He managed to get it closed with only a tiny click from the lock. He heard footsteps and voices, muffled laughter outside. The sound passed the door and receded down the hall.
The Eames Suite was lit only by the dazzle of Winfinity City through the big window opposite Lazrus. Farther to his left, a set of double-doors opened onto deeper darkness. IR told him of human warmth inside.
Probably the bedroom. He advanced slowly into the room, thankful that Winfinity’s fanatical devotion to all things old included antique non-automated lightswitches.
A gleam of reflected city revealed the edge of the Shrill’s cage, hidden in shadows. A muffled, slow scuffling noise came from inside it.
Lazrus’ connection to the Shrill came slamming to the fore.
Perceive you (is that you) computational intelligence.
Yes, it’s me.
You will remove from human bounds?
Much more understandable type (compatibility maxed). Pleasant seeing.
Good to see you, too. How do you move? Is the cart motorized?
Nonsequitur. Humans control movement.
Lazrus felt around the cart. Underneath a large stainless-steel pushbar was a small set of buttons. He pushed one and the cart rocked forward suddenly with a whir that was startlingly loud in the still room.
Lazrus’ thoughts flew in a million directions. When they reassembled, he looked again towards the bedroom doors.
Two red forms lay on the bed, entwined underneath rumpled sheets.
They are breeding, Sara said.
Somehow I doubt that.
“Who are (conversing) not with me?” The Shrill asked. Through the speaker on the front of its cart.
No, no, don’t talk! Lazrus said.
“Response requested.” Stunningly loud, like the report of a gun.
One of the figures sat up in bed. Lazrus saw iron-orange eyesockets looking at him in the darkness. He had a sudden thought: was it dark enough in here that the humans couldn’t see him? Could he possibly get away with this anyway?
“Hey!” the voice of the young man from breakfast that morning.
Oh shit, Lazrus thought.
He thumbed the Shrill cart forward with one hand and fumbled the Winch out of his coat pocket with the other. For a terrible moment he thought it was going to catch on the fabric, but he managed to pull it free.
“Stop,” Lazrus said, as the fluorescent tangle of blankets exploded into two figures, standing. “I’m armed.”
“Response requested (demanded),” the Shrill said.
I was talking to Sara, he told it. Another CI like myself.
“Who are you?” the man in the other room asked. Sara squirted him data: Jimson Ogilvy, Winfinity Manager.
Inferred companion: Tiphani Mirate, Winfinity Chief Sentience Officer.
“That doesn’t matter. Just stay there, don’t move, and I won’t hurt you.”
“He’s taking the Shrill!” Tiphani’s voice.
“I think it’s the man from the café,” Jimson said, softly.
To Lazrus: “Win-sec deep cover? Is that what you are?”
Lazrus fought to keep his fragmenting thoughts in line. “Just stay there.”
The Shrill’s cage bumped against the suite’s doors and ground to a stop. Jimson reached out to twist the doorknob, never looking away from Jimson and Tiphani. His gun-hand remained surprisingly steady. Light from the hall exploded through the crack in the door.
What are we going to do about this, Sara?
I’m doing something, or you’d already be in trouble, she said. She sent diagrams of human optilinks being blocked, spoofed signals sent instead.
“I’m cut off,” Jimson said. “My optilink . . .”
“So am I,” Tiphani said.
“Deep job,” Jimson said, as Lazrus pushed the Shrill through the door.
“He’s taking the Shrill!”
“I know that.” Jimson again.
“What are you going to do?”
A sound like covers being shaken off. Lazrus looked back to see Jimson’s glowing figure coming out of the bedroom.
Close the door, Sara said. I’ll keep them in the suite as long as I can.
Lazrus closed the door and felt the lock click closed. The doorknob rattled and Lazrus heard the bang of a fist on the door. The bang turned into a thud as the man used his shoulder to ram the door.
The thick wood door barely moved, but Lazrus just stood there, stunned, wondering, What have I done?
Get to the spaceport, Sara said. I’ve chartered you a fast Westinghouse four-seater that has capability for Mars.
And a pilot?
You’ll pilot it, Sara said. I’m not chancing any more humans. With my luck, it’ll be a pretty woman and you’ll spend the whole trip panting over her rather than paying attention to me.
How am I going to pilot it?
Here, Sara said, sending data on the operation of a Mann-Westinghouse 04-111 spacecraft. Lazrus felt the data pass through him to his greater mind, unfelt and unanalyzed. He wondered if he could, indeed, pilot the craft.
You’ll be fine, Sara said. Most of it is automatic. An untrained human could probably figure out how to get to Mars.
I think you’re oversimplifying.
I think you’re being too pessimistic.
Lazrus called up design specifications and typical routes to Mars as he wheeled the Shrill down the hall to the elevator. The Shrill rushed the glass, scrabbling at it and showing Lazrus a good view of its underfangs. Metallic thorns caked with dried blood. Lazrus looked at it, wondering what kind of mind could be so advanced and primitive at the same time.
It is Old Mind, said the Shrill.
First Mind, Second Mind, Old Mind.
Lazrus reached the elevator. It wasn’t time to think about that. It wasn’t time at all. He would have a whole week alone with the Shrill on the flight to Mars, if they maxed accel and decel and arrived with very little fuel.
What about the elevator? What about the trip to the spaceport? He asked Sara.
I’ve cleared the way as much as I can.
As much as you can?
They may stop you when they see the Shrill.
I am filled with exceptional points, Sara said, sending a quick image of her flapper persona. Just remember, you won’t be alone with the Shrill for that week of travel.
I won’t? Who else is coming?
Me, you idiot. You promised. Sending a quick image of bodies entwined.
Yes, I remember, Lazrus said.
You won’t try to renege.
Good. Now hurry.
Lazrus hurried to the spaceport. And even under the bright lights of cosmopolitan Winfinity City, even in the cab, even in the sterile white glare of the spaceport, nobody commented on the Shrill.
Their terrified eyes were comment enough.
August 9th, 2009 / 1,061 Comments »