«This was my second sale, to a small Canadian mag called Prairie Fire back in 1994. Think Max Headroom meets Terms of Endearment. A lot of people seem ...»
This was my second sale, to a small Canadian mag called "Prairie Fire" back
in 1994. Think "Max Headroom" meets "Terms of Endearment". A lot of
people seem to like it, although I keep wondering if it isn't a teeny bit wet. It
does, after all, involve a dead cat; so I post it here in memory of the recentlydeparted Cygnus T.
Flesh Made Word
Wescott was glad when it finally stopped breathing.
It had taken hours, this time. He had waited while it wheezed
out thick putrid smells, chest heaving and gurgling and filling the room with stubborn reminders that it was only dying, not yet dead, not yet. He had been patient. After ten years, he had learned to be patient; and now, finally, the thing on the table was giving up.
Something moved behind him. He turned, irritated; the dying hear better than the living, a single spoken word could ruin hours of observation. But it was only Lynne, slipping quietly into the room. Wescott relaxed. Lynne knew the rules.
For a moment he even wondered why she was there.
Wescott turned back to the body. Its chest had stopped moving.
Sixty seconds, he guessed. Plus or minus ten.
It was already dead by any practical definition. But there were still a few embers inside, a few sluggish nerves twitching in a brain choked with dead circuitry. Wescott's machines showed him the landscape of that dying mind: a topography of luminous filaments, eroding as he watched.
The cardiac thread shuddered and lay still.
Thirty seconds. Give or take five. The qualifiers came automatically. There is no truth. There are no facts. There is only the envelope of the confidence interval.
He could feel Lynne waiting invisibly behind him.
Wescott glanced at the table for a moment, looked away again;
the lid over one sunken eye had crept open a crack. He could almost imagine he had seen nothing looking out.
Flesh Made Word 2 Something changed on the monitors. Here it comes...
He didn't know why it scared him. They were only nerve impulses, after all; a fleeting ripple of electricity, barely detectable, passing from midbrain to cortex to oblivion. Just another bunch of doomed neurons, gasping.
And now there was only flesh, still warm. A dozen lines lay flat on the monitors. Wescott leaned over and checked the leads connecting meat to machine.
"Dead at nineteen forty-three," he said into his recorder. The machines, intelligent in their own way, began to shut themselves down. Wescott studied the dead face, peeled back the unclenched eyelid with a pair of forceps. The static pupil beneath stared past him, fixed at infinity.
You took the news well, Wescott thought.
He remembered Lynne. She was standing to one side, her face averted.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I know this is never a good time, but it's-" He waited.
"It's Zombie," she went on. "There was an accident, Russ, he wandered out on the road and--and I took him into the vet's and she says he's too badly hurt but she won't put him to sleep without your consent, you never listed me as an owner--" She stopped, like a flash flood ending.
He looked down at the floor. "Put him to sleep?" "She said it's almost certain anything they tried wouldn't work, it would cost thousands and he'd probably die anyway--" "You mean kill him. She won't kill him without my consent."
Wescott began stripping the leads from the cadaver, lining them up on their brackets. They hung there like leeches, their suckers slimy with conductant.
"--and all I could think was, after eighteen years he shouldn't die alone, someone should be there with him, but I can't, you know, I just--" Somewhere at the base of his skull, a tiny voice cried out My Christ don't I go through enough of this shit without having to 3 Watts watch it happen to my own cat? But it was very far away, and he could barely hear it.
He looked at the table. The corpse stared it's cyclopean stare.
"Sure," Wescott said after a moment. "I'll take care of it." He allowed himself a half-smile. "All in a day's work."
The workstation sat in one corner of the living room, an ebony cube of tinted perspex, and for the past ten years it had spoken to him in Carol's voice. That had hurt at first, so much that he had nearly changed the program; but he had fought the urge, and beaten it, and endured the synthetic familiarity of her voice like a man doing penance for some great sin. Somewhere in the past decade the pain had faded below the level of conscious recognition. Now he heard it list the day's mail, and felt nothing.
"Jason Mosby called again from Southam," it said, catching Carol's intonation perfectly. "He s-still wants to interview you. He left a conversational program in my stack. You can run it any time you want."
"What else?" "Zombie's collar stopped transmitting at nine sixteen, and Zombie didn't s-show up for his afternoon feed. Y-You might want to call around."
"Zombie's gone," he said.
"That's what I said."
"No, I mean--" Christ, Carol. You never were much for euphemisms, were you? "Zombie got hit by a car. He's dead."
Even when we tried using them on you.
"Oh. Shit." The computer paused a moment, some internal clock counting off a precise number of nanosecs. "I'm sorry, Russ."
It was a lie, of course, but a fairly convincing one all the same.
Outside, Wescott smiled faintly. "It happens. Just a matter of time for all of us."
There was a sound from behind. He turned away from the cube;
Lynne stood in the doorway. He could see sympathy in her eyes, and something else.
Flesh Made Word 4 "Russ," she said. "I'm so sorry."
He felt a twitch at the corner of his mouth. "So's the computer."
"How are you feeling?" He shrugged. "Okay, I guess."
"I doubt it. You had him all those years."
"Yeah. I -- miss him." There was a hard knot of vacuum in his throat. He examined the feeling, distantly amazed, and almost felt a kind of gratitude.
She padded across the room to him, took his hands. "I'm sorry I wasn't there at the end, Russ. It was all I could do to take him in. I just couldn't, you know--" "It's okay," Wescott said.
"--and you had to be there anyway, you--" "It's okay," he said again.
Lynne straightened and rubbed one hand across her cheek.
"Would you rather not talk about it?" Which meant, of course, I want to talk about it.
He wondered what he could say that wouldn't be utterly predictable: and realised that he could afford to tell the truth.
"I was thinking," he said, "he had it coming to him."
"I mean, he'd spread enough carnage on his own. Remember how every couple of days he'd bring in a wounded vole or a bird, and I never let him actually kill any of them--" "You didn't want to see anything suffer," Lynne said.
"--so I'd kill them myself." One blow with a hammer, brains scrambled instantly, nothing left that could suffer after that. "I always spoiled his fun. It's such a drag having to play with dead things, he'd bitch at me for hours..."
She smiled sadly. "He was suffering, Russ. He wanted to die. I know you loved the little ingrate, we both did."
Something flared where the vacuum had been. "It's okay, Lynne. I watch people die all the time, remember? I'm in no great need of therapy over a fucking cat. And if I was, you could--"
--have at least been there this morning.
He caught himself. I'm angry, he realised. Isn't that strange. I haven't used this feeling for years.
5 Watts It seemed odd that anything so old could have such sharp edges.
"Sorry," he said evenly. "I didn't mean to snap. It's just -- I heard enough platitudes at the vet, you know? I'm sick of people saying he wants to die when they mean It would cost too much.
And I'm especially sick of people saying love when they mean economics."
Lynne put her arms around him. "There was nothing they could have done."
He stood there, swaying slightly, almost oblivious to her embrace.
Carol, how much did I pay to keep you breathing? And when did I decide you weren't worth the running tab?
"It's always economics," he said. And brought his arms up to hold her.
"You want to read minds."
Not Carol's voice, this time. This time it belonged to that guy from Southam... Mosby, that was it. Mosby's program sat in memory, directing a chorus of electrons that came out sounding like he did, a cheap auditory clone. Wescott preferred it to the original.
"Read minds?" He considered. "Actually, right now I'm just trying to build a working model of one."
"Like me?" "No. You're just a fancy menu. You ask questions; depending on how I answer them you branch to certain others. You're linear.
Minds are more... distributed."
"Thoughts are not signals, but the intersections of signals."
"You've read Penthorne."
"I'm reading him now. I've got Biomedical Abstracts online."
"I'm also reading Gödel," the program said. "If he's right, you'll never get an accurate model of the human brain, because no box is big enough to hold itself."
Flesh Made Word 6 "So simplify it. Throw away the details, but preserve the essence. You don't want to make your model too big anyway; if it's as complicated as the real thing, it's just as hard to understand."
"So you just cut away at the brain until you end up with something simple enough to deal with?" Wescott winced. "If you've got to keep it to vidbits, I guess that's as good as any."
"And what's left is still complex enough to teach you anything about human behaviour?" "Look at you."
"Just a fancy menu."
"Exactly. But you know more than the real Jason Mosby.
You're a better conversationalist, too; I met him once. I bet you'd even score higher on a Turing test. Am I right?" A barely perceptible pause. "I don't know. Possibly."
"As far as I can tell you're better than the original, and with only a few percent of the processing power."
"Getting back to--" "And if the original screams and fights when somebody tries to turn him off," Wescott went on, "It's just because he's been programmed to think he can suffer. He puts a bit more effort into keeping his subroutines running. Maybe not much of a difference after all, hmmm?" The program fell silent. Wescott started counting: one one thousand, two one thousand, three-That actually brings up another subject I wanted to ask you about," the menu said.
Almost four seconds to respond, and even then it had had to change the subject. It had limits. Good program, though.
"You haven't published anything on your work at VanGen," Mosby's proxy remarked. "I'm unable to access your NSERC proposal, of course, but judging from the public
you've been working on dead people."
"Not dead. Dying."
"Near-death experiences? Levitation, tunnel of light, that sort of thing?" 7 Watts "Symptoms of anoxia," Wescott said. "Mostly meaningless.
We go further."
"Why?" "A few basic patterns are easier to record after other brain functions have shut down."
"What patterns? What do they tell you?" They tell me there's only one way to die, Mosby. It doesn't matter what kills you, age or violence or disease, we all sing out the same damn song before we cash in. You don't even have to be human; as long as you've got a neocortex you're part of the club.
And you know what else, Mosby? We can almost read the lyric sheet. Come by in person, say a month from now, and I could preview your own last thoughts for you. I could give you the scoop of the decade.
"Dr. Wescott?" He blinked. "Sorry?" "What patterns? What do they tell you?" "What do you think?" Wescott said, and started counting again.
"I think you watch people die," the program answered, "and you take pictures. I don't know why. But I think our subscribers would like to."
Wescott was silent for a few moments.
"What's your release number?" he asked at last.
"Six point five."
"You're just out, aren't you?" "April fifteenth," the program told him.
"You're better than six four."
"We're improving all the time."
From behind, the sound of an opening door. "Stop," Wescott said.
"Do you want to c-cancel the program or just suspend it?" Carol's voice asked from the cube.
"Suspend." Wescott stared at the computer, vaguely jarred by the change in voice. Do they ever feel crowded in there?
"Can you hear it?" Lynne said from behind him.
He turned in his chair. She was taking off her shoes by the front door.
Flesh Made Word 8 "Hear what?" Wescott asked.
She came across the room. "The way her voice sort of--catches, sometimes?" He frowned.
"Like she was in pain when she made the recording," she went on. "Maybe it was before she was even diagnosed. But when she programmed that machine, it picked up on it. You've never heard it? In all these years?" Wescott said nothing.
Lynne put her hands on his shoulders. "You sure it isn't time to change the personality in that thing?" she asked gently.
"It's not a personality, Lynne."
"I know. Just a pattern-matching algorithm. You keep saying that."
"Look, I don't know what you're so worried about. It's no threat to you."
"I didn't mean--" "Eleven years ago she talked to it for a while. It uses her speech patterns. It isn't her. I know that. It's just an old operating system that's been obsolete for the better part of a decade."
"Russ--" "That lousy program Mosby sent me is ten times more sophisticated. And you can go out and buy a psyche simulator that will put that to shame. But this is all I have left, okay? The least you can do is grant me the freedom to remember her the way I choose."
She pulled back. "Russ, I'm not trying to fight with you."
"I'm glad." He turned back to the workstation. "Resume."
"Suspend," Lynne said. The computer waited silently.
Wescott took a slow breath and turned back to face her.
"I'm not one of your patients, Lynne." His words were measured, inflectionless. "If you can't leave your work downtown, at least find someone else to practise on."
"Russ..." Her voice trailed off.
He looked back at her, utterly neutral.
"Okay, Russ. See you later." She turned and walked back to the door. Wescott noted the controlled tetanus in her movements, 9 Watts imagined the ratchet contraction of actomyosin as she reached for her shoes.
She's running, he thought, fascinated. My words did that to her.