Chapter 6: Meet the boss

“Randall. You want a coke or something? I’m making a run.”

“No. Thanks. I’m cool.”

Sanja waved to him over the wall of his cube as he headed off to get his own coke. Once again Randall thought, It’s no fair that they set out free coffee but not free pop. Only the old farts drink coffee. Everybody under the age of forty here drinks their weight in Coke or Mountain Dew every week and shells out a buck twenty-five per freaking can, when the machine doesn’t eat your dough in the first place.

His whiny, inner rant was interrupted by the phone.

“Randall Martin.”

“’Randall Martin.’ It’s Claire Dumont.”

“Why does everybody make fun of how I answer the phone?”

“It just sounds so serious. Like you’re a cop or something.”

“I am in security, in a way.”

“In a way. Remind me to call someone else if the house is being robbed.”

“Thanks. I can take care of myself.”

“Sure. You’ll brain them with the “Visual CX Bible” you’ve got under the couch.”

“Hey. I don’t wanna kill the burglar. Just knock him out.”

She laughed. What a really nice laugh, he thought.

“Are you busy?” she asked.

“Not so to speak.”

“Can you get off and over to the Amherst campus by around four?”

“Sure. Where? Why?”

“I’ll tell you where. You have to come to figure out why.”

“Give me a clue.”

“First the where. You know Bell Hall?”

“Sure.”

“Room 1003. 4 pm.”

“Sure. Now the clue….”

“OK.” Pause. “You’re going to meet my boss.”

* * * * * * * * *

The night before, they’d discussed Darwin, Turing and tarts.

“According to Turing,” Claire told him, “You could probably fool someone for a short while. A quick chat about the weather or something ubiquitous. But after a few minutes, most people would begin to suspect even the most advanced computer of being ‘not people.’”

“Especially if the computer kept using words like ‘ubiquitous.’”

“Piss off.”

They’d been, as usual, in their nested living rooms. Randall, kicked back, lying on the couch. Claire, sitting on her piano bench, feet up on the coffee table.

“I guess,” Randall replied, “That Mr. Turing never got a chance to plug twenty-seven IntelDeccas into a parallel array, load them up with Semtech’s latest language parser, and string the mutha across a solid state data cube with the Library of Congress held in stat memory.”

“You speak of Kirk Jr.,” she said, buffing the top of the coffee table in a circular motion with her gym-socked feet.

“And that was four years ago.”

She frowned.

“What?” he said. “I’m not making fun. I’m not being rude. We’re talking about stuff that interests me. If I was a lumberjack, we’d talk about… I don’t know…”

“Transvestitism”

“Exactly! I’m not trying to put you down, just… talking about related… topics.”

“I guess it’s like when Darwin first put out his theory.”

“Ah.”

“So you see what I’m saying?”

“Not really, no. It doesn’t bother me at all that umpty-ump generations ago my family walked on their knuckles and ate bugs from under logs.”

“It doesn’t? Not even a little?” she peeked out from under her bangs as she said this.

He shrugged. “Why should it? I’m not so different from an ape. I’m an animal, for sure. The similarities are pretty obvious. Why should it matter if I evolved from a monkey or sprang full-blown from the head of Zeus?”

“It shouldn’t. But some people were upset about it.”

Now he frowned. “I guess that maybe they felt deprived of a certain uniqueness.”

“How so?”

“If people descend from apes, how are we any better than them? We take pride in our human ancestors. Should we take less pride in our simian relatives? And if man is made in God’s image…”

“Does that make God a monkey…”

“Something like that. Lots of people have very well developed ideas about why their own life is much more important than everybody else’s. When Darwin comes along, some of those constructs are shown to be…”

“Artificial?” She said it with one eyebrow way up.

He didn’t get it. She shook her head. Then he got it.

“Sure,” he nodded. “Right. That fits. Here we are, almost angels. God’s only creature with soul. Given dominion over the beasts. If that’s part of what makes you feel good about yourself, running headlong into evolution can ruin your world view.”

“But it doesn’t bother you?”

“It’s been part of my world view since birth. I assume that I feel just as superior about my ego as did Victorian creationists. But I feel superior based on breeding, rather than anthrodeism.”

“You just made that word up.”

“Did not.”

She tapped her head. “Library of Congress, remember?”

“Shit. Yeah. OK. Sorry.”

She gave him a three count, shook her head and muttered, chuckling, “You are such a fucking tool.”

“What? I didn’t… you aren’t connected to the LOC, are you?”

Negative shaking of small, cute, virtual head.

“OK. You got me. But could you?”

She slid down off the piano bench and stretched out on the floor, scratching the back of one calf with the top of her other foot. She absentmindedly tapped her head with a ballpoint pen and pondered. He gave her time to think; didn’t chime in just to fill the space.

Finally she replied, “Yeah. If I needed to.”

“Need?”

“Yes. Need.”

Now it was his turn to think quietly. What would she need? What would put her in a jam that would require an, Oh, shit! I’ve gotta download the Library of Congress! response. He shook his head a little and got up to go get something to drink.

“Get me a beer while you’re in there,” she called after him. It was a regular joke between them, and had been for weeks now. For quite some time after he’d started talking to her, he’d had a hard time telling when she was joking, and when she was just being… herself. He’d sometimes laugh, and she’d look hurt. Or he’d give her a serious answer, only to turn his head and see her giggling, silently, one cuff of a sweatshirt clamped in her mouth to keep quiet. After awhile, though, he got to know the jokes from the not-jokes.

He returned to the living room with two bottles of Heineken and put one on top of the glass case. Beads of moisture ran down the side and began to pool on top of her small room.

Claire looked up and made a, “You will clean that up, dick-head,” face. He nodded, then raised his own bottle to take a long pull.

After another few minutes of quiet, broken only by two gulps and a quiet belch, she said, “I wonder if it’ll ever be like that for me?”

“Like what for you?”

“Like you with the apes thing.”

He didn’t get it.

“I don’t get it,” he said.

She stood up, stretching a little, and sat on the love seat, as close to him as the wall of glass would allow.

“It doesn’t bother you. The evolution thing. You said it yourself; you grew up with the idea. So it’s no big whoop. Like the world being round for post-Galileans. Like America for post-Columbians. Like…”

“Like Pop-Tarts for post-toasties.”

Pause. Scrunchy-face. “That was very, very bad.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You aren’t.”

“No. But I’m a little buzzed.”

“Puns are only a mild neurosis. I should count my blessings.”

She leaned back and lay down on the seat of the chair. Her legs dangled over the side, and he could see that one of her socks was about to fall off.

“So…” she said. He couldn’t see her face. It was hidden behind the back of the love seat. Her voice even sounded a little muffled, a bit more distant than it had when his view of her mouth wasn’t blocked. He experienced a moment of mild vertigo, an appreciation for the programming.

“So?” he replied.

“So,” she went on, “Maybe someday people will interact with virtuals just as if they’re people. It won’t be a big deal because it’ll happen all the time. In ten years, all this ‘tank junk’ will be old school. Totally East Coast. My descendents will live in real rooms, with hidden projectors embedded in the walls.”

“Or they’ll get around in small vehicles controlled by their own programming. Or be projected by roaming nano that isn’t ever seen or felt by us house apes.”

That stopped her for a sec. “Yeah,” she finally replied.

They were quiet for another few minutes. He sipped the last of the beer. Her sock finally fell off her dangling foot and landed on the floor of her living room with a barely audible puhf.

“So it’ll be normal,” she said.

“What will be?”

“My having a human for a friend.”

“Hey,” he mumbled, standing up slowly. “Don’t lay that on me.” He took her Heineken and wiped the condensation off the top of the tank with a sleeve as he walked past. “I’m a simple, hairless house-ape.” And he wandered up to bed.

Claire stayed where she was. One sock off, one sock on, kicking her foot, tapping her pen against her head and staring past her glass wall, past the bare, winter trees on Dushane Avenue until long after midnight.