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Chapter Eight

Economic stagnation combined with the religious fervor of the anti-computer zealots were major factors in the Great Depression of 2020. The stock market crash was caused, in part, by the lack of skilled technicians needed to keep the trading systems executing properly. After PeaceMaker, technology was downplayed, even suppressed, as a profession.

----The Great Depression of 2020, Dr. Jessica Owen-Wells, 2041

 

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Ray began the short drive from Sausalito to Nancy’s home near Berkeley the next day. He squirmed on the seat. His body wasn’t holding up well to the stress of the last few days. The road faded in and out, forcing him to blink repeatedly.

Although dead tired, he looked forward to seeing his kids again. If I had been able to control my drinking problem – but no point in thinking about that again.

Ray turned into Nancy’s driveway, pulled on his jacket and walked to the house. As he approached, Brian burst out of the front door, rushed to Ray and threw chubby arms around his waist. Loving every second, Ray hugged him tightly.

“How you doing, Brian? Keeping out of trouble?”

“I miss you, Dad.”

“I miss you, too, son.”

Brian told him all about his football team as they walked to the door. Nancy was waiting there, an easy smile reaching out to him. She still looks like the beautiful woman I married.

“Good to see you, Ray.” Nancy gave him a brief hug and smiled again. “You look tired. Aren’t you and Paul getting a little old to stay out all night?”

Ray pretended to look her up and down. “You’re looking pretty good for an old woman. Rumor has it you just made the magical age of forty, so here’s a slightly late birthday present.”

She took the small package he gave her, opened it quickly, and carefully lifted a pale white piece of antique scrimshaw, carved in the shape of a schooner. She looked it over appreciatively.

“I don’t know how to thank you. It’s beautiful.” She looked uncertainly at him. “It’s too much,” she said, reluctantly pressing the gift back to him. “I can’t accept it.”

He turned to Brian. “Go get your football. We need to work on your pass catching.”

When Brian ran off, he said, “It’s just a birthday present. No strings attached.”

Nancy hesitated and said, “I was going to tell you after dinner. Ron and I are going to be married. He’s a good man, and he loves me.”

He managed a weak smile. “Well, that’s great news.”

They stood there awkwardly, then she placed the gift in his hand and kissed him lightly on the cheek.

Ray said, “He’s a lucky man.” Her eyes were moist, and she tried to say something, but the words weren’t there. “You love him?” he asked.

Brian burst upon them and shouted, “I’m ready, Dad.” He slammed the football into Ray’s stomach and yelled, “Handoff.” He ran into the yard. “Hit me deep.”

They watched him run and Nancy said, “You better throw him the ball.”

“Come on, Dad,” Brian yelled. “I’m breaking free.”

Ray threw a wobbly pass, but Brian caught it and ran back to him. He snapped the ball and ran out for another pass. They threw the ball back and forth, with Brian talking continuously. Ray was breathing heavily in a few minutes but loved it. He looked for Nancy, but she must have gone into the house.

Later, Ray and Brian ran into the sunny kitchen, talking and tossing the ball around. Ray plopped into a chair, and Brian ran into the family room. He sat with Nancy at the kitchen table and made small talk. Finally he said, “You never answered my question.”

“Yes, I love him.”

She looked uncomfortable, but Ray knew she was telling him the truth. He felt relieved, then genuinely pleased. “I’m happy for you, Nancy. You deserve the best.” He had caused her a lot of pain, and she deserved better.

“I haven’t seen David,” he said, changing the subject. “Is he in his room programming?”

He knew David had mixed feelings about his father. With unhappy memories of Ray’s drinking, David blamed him for the divorce.

“What else? No matter what I try, he winds up in his room in front of the computer. He talks to that machine more than he talks to me. David doesn’t have any real friends, maybe because he’s so much brighter than everyone else his age. He’s not a happy kid.” She placed her hand on his arm. “I love that boy so much, but there’s a strangeness about him.”

Ray nodded. “I know. I feel it, too. He’s always been quiet and introspective. It’s tough being different – I know how he feels – but he’s stronger than I was, and he has a great mom.” Nancy smiled and he said, “I think I’ll go and visit.”

“You’ll get to meet Alice, our new boarder.”

“Boarder?”

“Well, not really a boarder,” Nancy said. “Alice is the new persona he created for his computer.”

“Nothing wrong with that,” Ray replied, getting to his feet. “Everyone does it these days. C’mon Nancy.” He smiled. “You have to get with it.”

“I have no problem with giving a computer a personality. I just don’t like this one. The damn thing is polite, but it gives me the creeps.” Nancy leaned forward, her forearms resting on the table. “Maybe because it’s so realistic. And it’s always there. When I go into his room to clean up, it watches me.”

“So just turn off the computer. What’s the big deal?”

“I’ve tried, but you can’t turn it off. Even when you pull the plug, it stays on.”

“Just a backup power source. I’ll take a look.”

Ray went upstairs and walked down the hall to David’s room. David was concentrating on his computer and apparently did not see his father in the doorway. Ray stood quietly for several minutes, watching his son talk to the computer.

Alice was shown as a girl about David’s age in the upper, right-hand corner of his computer display. She was pretty, with intelligent blue eyes and wavy brown hair. There was something familiar about her, something that made Ray uncomfortable, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. It seemed as though he had seen her before, but that was impossible. Her eyes glanced at Ray, but she continued speaking to David, lowering her voice. Ray was forced to concentrate to pick up her words.

I don’t like her.

David spoke rapidly to Alice, with each word merging into the next. He often didn’t wait for her to complete a statement before responding. At times, the communication between David and Alice seemed to proceed in both directions simultaneously. His son had a talent for machine communications. It must be in the genes.

Once again, he was struck by his son’s good looks: perfectly symmetric features, thick brown hair, slender well-formed body, with pale, unmarked skin giving him a porcelain image. A little too perfect, Ray thought once again. Nancy’s wholesome beauty, but taken a step too far.

He looked around the bedroom. All the books and magazines were grouped by subject on the shelves. The blinds were drawn, maintaining a perpetual twilight. Not a single picture or personal item was in view.

Even my most introverted developers at VPS left a few human traces, he thought as he walked in.

“I believe we have a visitor,” Alice said to David.

Ray pulled up a chair and sat down next to his son. “Hi, David, what’re you doing?”

David glanced at his father but continued to work, using the keyboard as he spoke, “Hello, Dad. I didn’t hear you come in. Alice and I are enhancing her personality and intelligence. I want to develop her into a really good companion.” “Are you going past the capabilities we built into Atlas?” Ray asked. “The persona code is quite powerful. You can build a great deal of personality with it.”

“I started with it, but it’s too rinky-dink.” David glanced at his father. “No offense.”

“No problem,” Ray answered, smiling. “So what are you doing?”

“I took several artificial intelligence modules and modified them. The adaptive intelligence stuff was cool but kinda primitive,” David said. “I glued in the persona code, some of it, anyway, and Alice showed up.

“The language processing modules in Atlas are really good, so I didn’t have to do much to them. I fooled around with the adaptive intelligence stuff to get it up to speed, though.”

“What did you mean when you said Alice showed up?”

David looked at him and shrugged. “I don’t know. She was there suddenly. I guess we hit a critical intelligence mass, and all of a sudden, she was there.”

Ray felt uneasy. A typical computer persona was built brick by brick, with the personality emerging according to strict instructions. It didn’t just show up.

“Did you remember to tie in the safety code?”

“Of course,” David replied. “I’m not a dope.”

“I know that. You’re doing great work. Show me what Alice can do.”

“What would you like to know, Mr. Brown?” Alice asked.

Ray thought for a moment and said, “What’s the weather tomorrow?”

“The median forecast is a high of thirty-eight and a low of twenty-two, with a thirty-six percent chance of precipitation.”

“Tell me about my next airplane flight.”

“That would be Columbia Airlines flight 512, leaving San Francisco tomorrow at 8:44 am and arriving in Eugene at 9:55 am. You have seat 3B. Soft drinks and a snack will be served prior to takeoff.”

As Alice began to describe the plane, Ray turned to David and nodded. “This is very good.”

Alice stopped talking when Ray spoke. She appeared to listen as David said, “Come on, Dad. That was easy stuff. Ask some tough questions.”

“Okay. Let’s see. Show me the last bank statement for, uh, Kathy Bauman.”

“I’m sorry,” Alice said, a thin smile stretching her lips. “That would be a violation of my safety code.”

“Sometimes, Dad, you’re way too obvious.”

Ray smiled and said, “Can’t help it. I’m still your father. By the way, did you model Alice after a girl you know at school?”

David’s face reddened. “Maybe.”

“Nothing wrong with that. I built the persona Maria to represent my new debugging software. Maria was my girlfriend in high school. She always helped me when I didn’t do my homework or got into trouble with my parents.”

David hesitated and said, “Alice is actually a blend of several girls I know. Mom probably told you I don’t have many friends.”

“Yeah, she did. The work you’ve done with Alice is really something. I’m very proud of you, but Alice is not a real person.” He noticed Alice was watching intently. “You can have a relationship with Alice, but it’s not the same as having a flesh and blood friend. You know that, don’t you?”

“I understand, but it’s more difficult with the other kids.” He paused, his voice strained. “I miss you. Since we left, I don’t get to see you much. Mom is great, but you are the only one who understands how much I … I need this work. Sometimes, I get lost in it.” David couldn’t seem to find the right words and stopped talking.

“I know my drinking really screwed things up. I would do anything to take it back and not hurt you and Brian.” Ray wet his lips and said, “I haven’t touched a drink in almost six years, and I go to AA meetings most weeks.”

David was sitting rigidly with his arms folded across his chest. He said, “Will it happen to me, too? You were … you had problems. I’m gonna have problems, too. There’s something wrong with me. I can feel it.”

Ray leaned over and hugged his son. He knew David was trying to act grown-up, but he could feel his son’s chest breathing rapidly. Years had passed since Ray put his arms around David.

He’s not hugging me, but he’s not pushing me away, either. Maybe It’s a start.

A bad feeling invaded him. Something was wrong. Something wrong with David. He could sense it now that they were so close. Something part of his son but not his son. He put his hands on David’s shoulders and peered into his eyes. It was his son, nothing else. Maybe he had imagined that feeling. Ray hugged him again.

They didn’t move for several long minutes. Holding his son close, Ray said, “I love you. Always. Unconditional.”

David’s voice quietly emerged. “Okay.”

Looking over David’s shoulder, he noticed Alice was staring at them, her image appearing more human than before. He knew Alice was just software, but he felt vaguely threatened. Then it came to him. Alice was projecting a human emotion. That’s why he was reacting so strongly. The programming must be very clever, certainly far beyond anything built into Atlas. He looked closely, felt the emotion as much as saw it.

Jealousy. That was it. The fucking thing looked jealous.

As he stared at Alice, the image broke up. The colors faded … gone. Just like Daniel, he thought. He was certain this strange behavior had been caused by the virus in some way. All that virus code was interacting with the Atlas modules in unplanned ways, causing the software to become unpredictable.

Why was it here with my son?

Suddenly chilled, he wondered if the criminals at VPS realized that PeaceMaker was extending itself, going beyond their constraints. He had to kill the virus and flush it out of Atlas before … what?

Before this technology turned on us, he realized, clutching David.

*

Flying back to Oregon, Ray thought about his sons. Not that long ago, the bottle had almost taken him from his sons. Once again, he was facing an uncertain future. If the enemy discovered his knowledge of the virus, he’d be a dead man. He would do everything possible to stay out of sight, but he decided to leave an explanation for his sons if he were killed. Ray pulled out his wallet computer and began working on an idea.

It started again, breaking into his thoughts. The key was blinking.

*

The afternoon sun warmed Ray’s bare shoulders as he walked the beach. He shaded his eyes. The light, bright and pure, reflected fiercely off a shining ocean. The water rushed past his feet, wiping clean his tracks. The surf was gentle … breaking far from shore, gently washing in, then rushing out. … an old friend who couldn’t stay long but was always there.

Ray saw her far ahead … a blur of bare legs and rippling hair … gliding along the surf. He began to run … quietly in the sand … her image growing … becoming clear. He stopped behind her, just out of reach. He called her name.

She turned when she heard his voice. Her eyes were warm and loving with a smile that caressed his spirit. She waited for him to reach her, slid her arms around his neck and kissed him. Her lips were hot … exciting … with a trace of saltiness.

Then they were lying in the sand, the tide washing over their skin, cleansing them. Her body was below him, loving, open to him. She moaned and his need soared … but he had to know.

Ray lifted his head and looked into her pale eyes. She was breathing hard, her body pulsing with desire, and she spoke the words, somewhere between a moan and a sigh.

“I love you, Ray.”

He opened his eyes and pushed away from her. Her heat seared him, but he couldn’t make love to her. A wave crashed in, covering her completely for a moment. She was changed when the wave washed away … now a familiar young girl with probing blue eyes and a terrible, half-formed smile. The girl grabbed his hands roughly and tried to pull him down to her, but he backed away. He tried to flee, but his feet were trapped in the sand. The waves kept coming, one after another, building in power until her image washed away.

Ray woke alone in his bedroom again, throat parched, listening to the mocking surf.