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Interzone 251 (5 page)

BOOK: Interzone 251
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I try not to think of
Rosemary’s Baby
.

She sees me not thinking about it. “I told you, Nick, I don’t believe in ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night, and that goes for devils too.”

For half a minute or longer the only sound between is the creaking of the rowlocks.

“We should have a DNA test done,” I say. “That would prove it one way or another. If the testing shows the babe has my DNA, then your idea about having encountered a stray from a neighbouring universe…but, no.”

I raise the oars from the water and we drift for a few yards.

“I’ve been worrying about that too,” she says. “Why have I never before today heard of Dverna?”

***

It’s not till
we’re back on dry land that I think of phoning home. I glance at my watch and find it’s just a few minutes before six. Dverna probably won’t be home yet – most days she stays on late at the school, marking papers or supervising clubs, and it’s especially likely tonight that she’ll stay on, knowing I won’t be home for hours. She doesn’t carry a mobile, so the only number I have to phone is the landline. Even so, I give it a try.

No answer.

I’m tempted to stay overnight in London. I feel I should face Connor and Elsa, try to explain to them that really I’m not the cad they must think I am – even though Lindsay has told me they don’t think about it like that. Because, you see, they too don’t know I’m married. So far as they’re concerned it’s just fine their darling daughter is getting it together with someone they’ve known all his life. Of course, perhaps said daughter shouldn’t have got herself knocked up by him in the interim, but modern days, modern ways… So Lindsay says. How they’re going to feel about me when she tells them the new version of history, I can hardly bear the thought of it. They’re going to think Lindsay is the craziest fool in the world for believing my obvious lies. What whoppers I’ve been telling. Land her in the pudding club, then pretend it was my mysterious Evil Twin…

I should be with her, so we face the music together. But I also need to be with Dverna. If I could speak to her on the phone, maybe it’d be different, but she has to have the option of deciding whether or not I go home to Bristol tonight.

I explain something of this to Lindsay. As we stand there, the light beginning to fade from the sky, I see a young guy who’s passing helping himself to an eyeful of her. It’s far from the first time it’s happened today. She’s exquisite, a jewel cut by a master craftsman, just as she was when she was five. And I think to myself yet again how very easy it would be, if things were different… But things
aren’t
different. I’ve never felt that each of us has only one soulmate out there in the world. If anything were ever to happen to Dverna, I wouldn’t resign myself to never finding someone else to whom I’d feel equally close. But I cannot figure Lindsay as a soulmate. I love her in that almost-family way. I think she’s beautiful and wonderful and amazing, and I’m fascinated by her presence the way I’d be fascinated by the over-brightness of a jewelled automaton, and the streak of lust I have for her right now is like a guitar string being tightened too far, but she’s not the person I’m meant to spend the rest of my life with.

None of this do I say. Instead I say, “What’re you going to tell your parents this evening?”

“Nothing.”

“They’ll be wanting to know, won’t they?”

“They respect my privacy, I respect theirs.”

“Like I can believe that.”

She gives my hand a squeeze. We’re approaching the bright lights and the noise of Marble Arch. “Do believe me,” she says.

And suddenly I see things from her viewpoint. Here she is, pregnant by the man she believes she’s loved ever since childhood, and he’s saying, no, it was nothing to do with me, and planning to catch a train back to the wife he never told her about…

“Aw, hell, Lindsay…”

I pull her into my arms, feeling her breasts against my chest, running my hands down her back to the curve of her behind, kissing her the way I’ve never kissed anyone in my life before except Dverna, holding her for an unadvisedly long moment before stepping away from her on the darkened grass.

“I wish…” I say.

She touches my cheek with her fingertips.

“So do I, Nick. So do I.”

***

So by the
time I get home it’s nearly ten. What I’ve had is about one more expensive can of beer than I should have had during the train trip down from London to Bristol. I’m not sloshed, but it would be kind of useful to find a bed for the night. The taxi drops me off at the gate, and I give the driver an extra-large tip because…well, because of that extra beer. Dverna hates it when I drink too much. On the other hand, Dverna hates it when other women accuse me of fathering their children. I figure she’ll forgive me, just this once, the lesser crime.

I ring the doorbell and this guy appears I’ve never seen before. He’s wearing a grey vest, too many muscles, and a lot of tattoos.

“Yeah?”

“Who’re you?”

He stares at me. “David Hamilton. You?”

I’ve had about as much strangeness as I can manage today. “Where’s Dverna?”

“Who?”

Someone else who’s never heard of Dverna. “My wife.”

“Who’s there?” a voice shouts in the distance. All the while I’ve been talking with this monstrous stranger there’ve been the cries of small children in the distance.

“Just some nutter, love!” he yells.

A small round woman appears, rubbing her hands dry on a tea-towel.

“I think I may have the wrong address,” I say.

***

Instinct suggests I
walk the couple of miles, sobering all the while, to where I used to live. The house is in the slum part of Bristol’s outskirts. I had the upstairs. An ever-enlargening family called Mulligan had the downstairs – and obviously still have. Standing in front of the place, I can hear the usual Mulligan clatter from the brightly lit downstairs. Upstairs, the windows are dark.

I go to the downstairs door and press the bell.

Tim Mulligan appears. He looks more like David Hamilton than I would ever dare to tell either of them.

I am horribly, horribly lost.

“Hey, Nick!” says Tim, reeking of cheap beer. “Ye’ve forgotten yer fackin’ key again…”

He fishes in his pocket for his wallet, fishes in his wallet for the key, and gives it to me. It’s as warm as a kitten.

I let myself in. The place is just as I remember it. All my books and CDs are just where I remember them being. My laptop opens up the internet with a password I haven’t used in years. The laundry basket has socks and underpants in it that smell freshly dirty. There are friendly personal messages on my answerphone from people I don’t remember ever having met.

None of them is from Dverna.

None of them is from Lindsay.

All of a sudden I am far too sober. I wish I’d bought myself a bottle of the hard stuff on the way home.

But, prithee, what is this?

In the cupboard over the fridge I find there’s still a three-quarters-full bottle of Cutty Sark. I know where the glasses are, of course.

Dverna.

Where are you?

***

When I wake
up the next morning with a head like a building site, I reach out my foot thinking it’ll stroke Dverna’s leg. Instead, it sticks out the side of a single bed into cold air.

***

How inevitable, as
we look back on it, the past can be made to appear. Yet, when we were living through it, inevitability was the last characteristic it seemed to have: life is an endless succession of resolved uncertainties. I’ve come to conclude that, as this universe of ours expands along its time axis, what it’s doing is telling itself its story. Like any other author, though, it never gets things quite right the first time, so it’s constantly having to readjust itself to iron out the minor inconsistencies in its tale. Ordinarily we never notice this continual process of self-editing; we remember the newly created past, not the one we actually lived through.

But every now and then, because of that same habit the universe has of not getting things quite right, someone’s lucky enough to be aware of one of the changes the universe is making.

Or unlucky enough.

I wish I could persuade myself there’s a neighbouring universe where my doppelgänger and Dverna have found each other and their own happiness, but I don’t think there is. I think both of them, Dverna and the other me, were just minor errors that the universe, without trace of compunction, simply tidied away.

Today Lindsay and I took the kids to the beach. Alice tromped up and down along the line of the breakers, squealing with delight whenever an extra big wave bowled her over. Ronnie is still young enough to be frightened by the sea’s sound and fury, so he spent the afternoon holding his mother’s hand and looking very solemn as he sucked his thumb. Then it was home for high tea, and bathtime and bed for the kids and finally the house was quiet.

Much later, Lindsay and I crept up the stairs to our bedroom at the top of the house, and into the moonlight that comes streaming in the big bay windows, so that it seems like, as we make love, we’re doing so as characters in an old black-and-white movie. And as I run my hands over all the planes and folds of my strangely lovely wife – over a body that is by now more familiar to me than my own and yet still so mysterious – where my heart really is, despite everything deep I have for Lindsay and our two adored weans, is with a nutbrown maid who now never was, whose robe was never decorated with pink cauliflowers, and whose crazily grinning face never appeared in my digital photo frame.

***

John Grant’s most recent book,
A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir
– the largest noir encyclopedia yet written – came out last October. His next book, provisionally titled
The Young Person’s Guide to Bullshit
, is due out later this year.

ASHES
KARL BUNKER

illustrated by Jim Burns

The little box was heavy. The word “ashes” makes us think of wood ash, paper ash: light, fluffy, black and gray flakes that can float on a breeze. Human ashes aren’t like that. My apportioned share of Lucia’s ashes was a few tablespoons of gray-white powder that sat leaden in my hand, in a little plastic bag that was in a little cardboard box. Through the clear plastic of the bag it looked like stone dust, though I didn’t look at it much. I didn’t want to look at it, but I couldn’t help feeling its weight. It was heavy.

Lucia’s mother handed it to me, first taking me to an empty corner of the room, pressing the box into my hand without looking at it or me, as if we were passing illegal goods. “I’m keeping most of them, Neil. She’ll be with her father. But I thought you should have this. A small portion. I know you two were very close.”

“Yes,” I said stupidly, looking down at the white box in my hand. I had no idea what was in the box or what she was talking about. Is it customary to give out party favors at a memorial service?

“Perhaps you could take them to some place that was special to the two of you” she said next, and that’s when the proverbial coin finally dropped. Ashes. I had a box of Lucia’s ashes in my hand.

Lucia’s mother was a small woman. Not wizened or bent, but short. And Lucia had been so tall… She looked up at me, full of earnest desire to impart information. “But you must be very careful if you go outside the enclaves,” she said. “There are still diseases in the world. Terrible diseases. I’m sure that’s how Lucia got sick. She was only thirty four, you know…” She stopped talking and lowered her head, staring down at the floor.

I knew Lucia’s illness was a vanishingly rare thing, that there were hardly any diseases left in the world, and those that still existed were as likely to strike inside or outside of an enclave, but I couldn’t fault Mrs Charyn for her paranoia. She had been through the Dust Wars, and now she’d lost her daughter. I couldn’t fault her for much of anything, ever.

She lifted her head again and shook it a little, as if her grief was an annoying bug flitting around her face. “She was always going to different places outside the enclave,” she said. “Always different places. Do you know, once she told me that she’d gone to the airport and found an airplane and a pilot, and she just hopped aboard and flew to Chicago! Can you imagine?”

I could imagine. Only our real destination had been Batavia, not Chicago. Lucia had heard reports of a major new-tech construction project at Fermilab. Supposedly they were going to use the old accelerator to open a portal to other dimensions, or other worlds, or maybe Auntie Em’s house in Kansas. Lucia was bouncing with excitement all through the trip, her hands dancing with gestures as she chattered delightedly about what we would find, what we would see, about all the wonderful possibilities. Beside her, I basked in her enthusiasm, loving her for her energy and optimism. There were times when I almost believed that some of that vitality was my own, but really I was just feeding on her, like a vampire.

And of course when we got to Fermilab it was shut down, abandoned, dead. We found the construction site easily enough; a glistening black building about four stories high, freeform and amorphous in shape. It was adjacent to an older structure that we learned was called the DZero laboratory. The old-tech inside the DZero building was incredible; dazzling in its massiveness and complexity. But in the new building, everything was simply incomprehensible. Smooth, unbroken surfaces; shapes that might have been display screens and workstations growing up seamlessly from the floor and out of the walls. But nowhere was there anything that looked like a usable control; nothing that gave a hint about how to interact with this construction, how to make it do anything.

And there was no one there, in the new building or the old one. No bustling robots, no stone-faced, blank-eyed augmented humans, no regular people. Just Lucia and me and emptiness and nothing.

Lucia wandered through the new-tech building, touching everything, her eyes wide and worshipful, taking it all in as if it meant something, as if it was something other than a hollow, empty shell. “It looks like they finished this place,” she said, her voice trembling. “I bet it’s completed. I bet it’s functional, if we can just figure out how to turn it on.”

“It can’t be that simple,” I said. “The fact that it’s here must mean that it depends on the particle accelerator being active, and we can’t turn that on just by flipping the right switch. There isn’t even any electricity for it.”

“We don’t know that. We don’t know if it needs external power and we don’t know that it’s dependent on the accelerator. It might have just needed that for preliminary research, or to…I don’t know, set it up, get it going the first time. It might be self-sufficient now.”

It might have been, but if it was we never found the secret of turning it on. Chances were that this place, whatever it was, wasn’t finished. Like every other grandiose project of the transhumans, it was unfinished because the minds who had started it had winked out before it was completed.

It was three days before Lucia finally gave up and let us go home.

***

I put the
box in my pocket, looking out across the room. There were about fifteen people, probably more people than I’d ever seen in one place before. Lucia was good at making friends. I was thinking about leaving when Anders waylaid me. “You weren’t still seeing her, were you?” he asked. “I mean when…”

“No. We kind of drifted apart.” The weight in my pocket got heavier.

“Have you heard the latest? About the president?” he asked. “They say he’s winked out. He got himself fitted with Cambridge-class augmentations. Said it was his duty to try. That it was the only way to come to an understanding of the world situation. And then—” He held a hand up with the fingers together in a point and then flicked them open. “Psh! Gone, just like that. Flatline. Didn’t last even a day. Stupid, huh?”

He shut up long enough for me to stare at him blankly. “President?” I said. “I didn’t know there still
was
a president.”

Mrs Charyn’s enclave had once been a high-priced condominium complex; four elegant brick buildings on the edge of a Frederick Olmstead park. Back in the days when there were a lot of people in the world, it was probably considered a choice place to live; something reserved for the moderately wealthy. Passing a french door I saw a small balcony, and down at the foot of the railing of the balcony there was a cat, looking out at the view of trees, grass, a pond. I went out, looked at the view myself for a bit and then crouched down to pet the cat. It leaned into my hand for a few pets and then said, “I’m very sorry for your loss, Neil.”

I jolted a bit, started to pull my hand back, then relaxed. “Thanks Domino. I was wondering where you were. I didn’t know you were in a cat these days.” My hand was still hovering over the cat; now that I knew it was Domino, I wasn’t sure if it would be rude to stop petting it or presumptuous to continue. Then the silliness of the conundrum made me smile, and I gave it another pet.

“Yes,” Domino said. “It was Lucia’s idea. She liked having me as a physical presence; something that could sleep on her bed with her after she got sick.” The cat opened its mouth when it spoke, but like a puppet, its lips didn’t move to articulate the words that came out. The voice apparently came from some biomechanical equivalent of a speaker, no articulations of lips or tongue required.

“I’m sorry we didn’t contact you while she was ill,” Domino said. “It was Lucia’s wish, but I wonder if I should have gotten in touch with you anyway.”

“What are you going to do now?” I asked. “Find a new person, or…?” I trailed off. Domino was fully Cambridge-Standards, so it wasn’t a piece of property like a housekeeping robot. Or a cat. It could do whatever it wanted.

“I don’t have any plans,” Domino said, the cat looking out at the view again. “What are you going to do?”

I put my hand in my pocket, fingering the small box. “Mrs Charyn gave me some…some ashes.”

“Yes. What were you thinking of doing with them?”

I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Suddenly I was seeing Lucia lying in bed, this AI-inhabited cat curled beside her, keeping her company while she waited to die. My throat muscles cramped up and it hurt like hell. I looked out at the view for a while, not seeing it, while Domino waited.

After a minute or two I took the box out of my pocket and set it on the floor at Domino’s feet. “You should take this. You were closer to her than I ever was.”

The cat turned its head and regarded the box, touching it with the tip of its nose. Then it looked up at me. “Before she got sick, Lucia became interested in reports of another new-tech construction site.”

“That’s not surprising. What were the rumors around this one? Portal to alternate universes? Starship? A radio for talking to aliens?”

“A starship,” Domino said. “The rumors were that a consortium of AIs and augmented humans were building a starship, or at least a spacecraft of some kind. Lucia hoped to visit this site personally, as you and she did with the Fermilab site. This one is in Colorado, southeast of Denver.”

“Southeast of Denver,” I repeated. “Why are you telling me this, Domino?”

The cat pushed the box toward my feet. “I think we should go there, Neil. To scatter Lucia’s ashes in a place that would have been special to her, to honor her memory, and perhaps to find out what is – or was – being built there.”

“Denver fucking Colorado?” I whined. “How the hell am I supposed to get there? Lucia was the one who was good at finagling transportation.”

“I’ve just contacted an intelligence that owns a small aircraft as one of its components. I’ve described your situation and it has agreed to provide transportation for us.”

I pondered, trying to think of reasons to refuse. I could pretend, like Lucia’s mother, that I believed there were terrible diseases running rampant out there, or armed gangs, or radiation, or any of those mythical bugaboos. But Domino knew me, and knew that I knew better. And as it probably also knew, I had nothing else to do. Utterly and literally nothing. I’d barely managed to drag myself out of a weeks-long drugged and hot-wired VR binge to bring myself to this memorial service. “Is there any reason to think there’s more to these rumors than all the others – Fermilab, for example?” Domino hadn’t been with Lucia at the time of our trip to Batavia. It wasn’t until a few months later that she’d connected with Domino; at that time a newly-born free agent living in the spare cycles of some pre-Wars hardware cache, mostly talking to Lucia through her phone.

“It’s impossible to say,” Domino said. “Given how uncommunicative high-transhumans are, it’s to be expected that we have no firm information. But there are indications that some such projects have been carried to completion.”

I thought about asking what “indications” meant, but decided against it. “When can we start?” I asked the cat.

“If we leave early tomorrow morning, we can be there by afternoon.”

***

Neurons are slow.
They’re capable of massive parallel processing and there are a lot of them in the human neocortex, but compared to electronics they’re crushingly, numbingly slow. So building hardware equal to, and then vastly surpassing, the processing power of the human brain wasn’t too difficult. The difficulty, the snagging point, was in the software. It was in teaching these thinking machines how to think. Not just to calculate and compute and follow instructions, but to
think
.

In fact, teaching a machine how to think turned out to be essentially impossible. To be an effective intelligence, an entity needs to have a basic understanding of how the world works. It has to know all the things that a person knows without thinking about them, starting with which way is down and what “down” means, all the way up to symbol and metaphor and whether a joke is funny. And no one can sit down and write out all the endless rules – and the endless-multiplied-by-endless interactions between those rules – that go into that kind of knowledge. It turned out that the only way to make human-level intelligence is the same way nature does it: start out with something stupid and blank and empty, and give it the ability and desire to improve itself. Give it an appetite for information and a will to come up with ways of organizing and making sense of that information. Give it the ability to develop and implement ever-improving algorithms for its own intelligence, for making sense of the world, for thinking. Instead of creating a fully-formed mind, it was only necessary to create a seed, a fetus, a thing that could grow up to become a mind.

***

I met Domino
outside Mrs Charyn’s building the next morning. The enclave kept a few electric cars available for local trips, so we took one of these to the airport where the AI that Domino had convinced to handle our air transportation was waiting. Ariel was its name. “From Shakespeare’s
Tempest
,” it said when Domino introduced us, “not the moon of Uranus.” I’d just climbed into a small airplane that looked like an executive jet from before the Wars. It had about a dozen seats and the quaint look of old-fashioned luxury. I picked out a seat toward the front, twisting around to look back for Domino, who had followed me up the ramp staircase into the plane. I just caught sight of the cat leaving by the hatch we’d come in through, its tail in the air.

BOOK: Interzone 251
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