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"Goddamn countermeasures!" I ran a hand through my graying hair, poured a drink, and snagged a photo of Eleanor from among the silhouette shooting plaques on the wall. Graying! Hell, my hair was all silver and white now.
The bourbon didn't burn on its way down the way it used to--hardly even warmed me--but the sour mash gave it more taste than anything else I had on hand.
I looked at the picture. It was fading pretty badly now, stained on one side and creased right through the middle from a time before I'd framed it. I'd stuffed it in my wallet in too great a hurry. Sure, I had better holos of her and digital 3-D recordings too, but this old flat was my favorite. She was young and particularly beautiful that day--I'd just asked her to marry me. Some kid with a camera in the fancy restaurant we were in had taken the picture at just the right time, and then sold it to us later for five dollars, back when there still were dollars. No other image of Eleanor had ever captured half the radiant happiness of that crummy old instant photo.
I sighed and put the picture back, refusing to let the lonely aching out of the iron cell in the bottom of my heart where I kept it chained down. We'd promised each other to seek happiness with the rest of our lives, should anything happen to one of us. Hah--easier said than done! Better to keep to myself than to try to replace Eleanor with someone who'd never measure up.
My glass was almost empty. Too early for another double, but what the hell--it wasn't like any damned customers were gonna walk in, like some beautiful and distraught femme fatale from an old Humphrey Bogart movie...
The Com buzzed.
There was a beautiful and distraught femme on the line.
Beautiful--God, what am I saying! It made my guts squirm just to look at her. She had Eleanor's green eyes and blonde hair, but a pixie nose more like that little Mexican girl I had thought I would marry when I was in grad school. Her mouth was wide and expressive, with perfect white teeth that reminded me of Carla, the dentist's daughter who was my first... Never mind.
Everything about her reminded me of someone I'd loved, and it jolted the chains right out of the wall, freeing the monster of my loneliness and sending it rampaging around my brain.
The apparition waited for me to say something, and then frowned indecisively. "Mr. Denker? Is this Denker and Associates?"
A customer! She was a customer!
A brief, but vicious silent struggle ensued while I subdued the beast and tied it back up. "Yes, ah... My receptionist is out at the moment. This is Mr. Denker, may I help you?" My receptionist had been out for years, but that was still just a moment, depending on your perspective.
"Possibly." She straightened and I could see an expensively appointed office behind her. The business suit she was wearing looked like a hand-tailored job that would cost more than I'd made in the last year. "My partner was murdered and our countermeasures have not been entirely effective. Now the killer's after me, but I can't convince the police of that. I thought someone like you might be able to help me." She was trying to sound calm and in control, but her voice trembled slightly when she said, "help me."
Still, she didn't sound much like a grieving widow...ex-partner, whatever. "I see," I answered, touching a key on my Com (I couldn't voice-activate it with her on the line), activating a stripper softbot that would peel off any enhancements her Com might be adding to her image. What I saw was that she wasn't wearing a business suit, and wasn't in an office. A second, smaller display appeared in the air next to the main one, showing a scene that suggested that she was jacking in to the Net from a portable Com she was using in an airport lounge or something. Not that I minded--we all have our little pretenses. For her part, unless she had some very sophisticated softbots, better than the stripperbot and veneerbot I was using, she should be seeing me wearing a trench coat and reclining behind a wooden desk, under a ceiling fan. Cliché for a detective, I know, but it's what people expect.
"Actually," I corrected, "I don't see. There are plenty of excellent protection services out there. Wouldn't they be better suited to your needs right now?"
On the main display, she smiled slightly and shook her head. On the secondary display she shook her head and drummed her fingers on the edge of her Com. "No. I'm not going to sit at home, in fear, and only go out with armed guards." That was some sophisticated veneerbot she was using--it was masking more than her clothes and environment, but her body language too! She leaned forward in both views. "I want to find out who the bastard is, and make sure he leaves me alone. Permanently."
"Ma'am, I am not a hit man."
"Of course you're not, you're a detective. I just need you to help me find him."
"Hmmm." I activated another softbot, a voice-stress analyzer, "Are you sure it's a him?"
"No. I don't know who it is, but I have some clues as to where he or she is."
Green lights on the truthbot said she wasn't lying. Either that or she was an inhumanly cool liar. "Well listen, Ms..."
"Well, Gloria, I can't be an accessory to murder either."
She rolled her eyes. "Of course not, Dudley. If I can find him, I can program our countermeasures--my countermeasures--to deal with him specifically. You might even be able to dig up some evidence the police can use to get an arrest warrant." More green lights.
"You know, Dudley Do-right..."
I chuckled. "Yeah, I know, but that expression is older than I am. Haven't heard it in years..."
"So, I'm a history buff." The secondary display showed her laughing softly, but on the main display, she just arched an eyebrow with amusement.
"A history buff who doesn't seem much aggrieved, if I may say so."
"Brian and I weren't that close. In fact, we hadn't spoken since... Hadn't spoken for a long time, but I'm sure his killer wants me out of the picture too."
"Hmmm." I shrugged. "All right then, what we need to do is meet. I'll want all the details, and I'll want to be able to verify that you are who you say you are."
"Is that really necessary?" The truthbot spiked red when she said the word "necessary" and then quieted back down to green. "I can download all the information I have to your Com, once we agree on a reasonable price for your services."
"Yes, it's absolutely necessary. I won't do business with anyone I can't shake hands with and get a feel for in person."
She frowned, both of her, but the truthbot stayed in the green. "I don't know, Mr. Denker, I don't feel safe. This call could have been intercepted." The secondary image chewed on her lower lip in a way that made me want to reach out and hold her, while the veneer image looked a little more wisely cautious.
"Not without my knowing it, but let's encrypt." She nodded and we both touched keys that set our Coms to talking together, exchanging the necessary information to encrypt our call. I noted with some surprise that her machine could match the highest level of encryption mine could. Between that and the sophistication of her veneerbot, I was starting to get the impression that her "reasonable price" could keep me fed for quite some time--not that I was likely to need to be kept fed much longer. "We can meet in some place out in the open, crowded with witnesses, say, a soft café in the middle of a large mall."
The secondary display disappeared when the encryption went active, leaving me looking at only the image her veneerbot was managing. "Okay, but I'm not in Kansas City, where you are, so it'll take me a while to get there. Can we meet tomorrow evening?"
I smiled. "I'm not in KC either; the line's redirected. I don't suppose you'd care to tell me where you are?"
The eyebrow arced up again.
"Okay, then, Kansas is fine. Let's meet at the Riverside Outdoor Mall tomorrow, at 7:23 p.m. There's a soft café by the inner boulevard called Kasmo's. I'll wait for you at a table where you should be able to see me from just about any direction. Okay?"
* * *
I arrived at the café at about 7:00 p.m., after having spent about an hour walking around the mall checking things out. I hate shopping malls--crowded, noisy, smelly places that they are--and this one was no exception. The sickly sweet stench of the perfume counters in the department stores kept me from entering them. Probably just as well, since they all had sales going and I wouldn't have been able to keep the crush of teenagers out of my personal space.
In theory, I was at the café to browse new software products, so I had some artificial assistants running. Their images hovered over the table where my untouched coffee sat cooling; I was scanning the people.
The central boulevard was crowded with a bunch of those damned, slow-moving electric cars, mostly full of youngsters cruising the strip. I'd always thought that boulevard was a dumb idea. There was no place to park--cavernous parking lots with their own trams were buried under the mall--so the only reason to drive the boulevard was to see and be seen.
At twenty past, I started looking around in earnest, trying to be as nonchalant about it as I could. After a minute of scanning the endless sea of faces and bodies, I spotted her coming from a set of clothing shops across the boulevard. She was headed straight for me, striding on long, slender legs.
Suddenly, a car about fifty meters back in the line started sputtering sparks. I looked and saw that it seemed to be automated--at least, I couldn't see anyone in the car. She turned and looked too, seeming to freeze when the car bounded up over the curb and accelerated straight toward her. You could hear the loud buzz of the car's overloading motor above the screams of people diving out of its way. Finally, she shook herself out of her daze and darted forward, slipping between two cars that had come to a stop when the commotion started. The berserk car changed directions to follow her and plowed into the line of the stationary cars right where she had passed.
I was out of my chair and headed over to see if she was all right, but she never stopped running--she just jerked around and headed back the way she'd come, quickly losing herself in the crowd that pressed forward to see what all the excitement was about.
Wasn't much I could do but head back home, to my office.
Her call wasn't long in coming. I'd just gotten off the line with the police to see if they'd found anything useful out about the robot car--they hadn't--when my Com buzzed and I saw her gorgeous face floating above my desk. The only useful thing I'd gotten from the police was that a Mr. Brian Golo had indeed died a week before at the time and place Gloria had described at the end of her call the day before. It had looked like an auto accident at first, but a closer inspection had revealed some tampering with Mr. Golo's vehicle.
I accepted her call and activated my stripper and truth softbots.
"Well, that was a new experience." She was actually grinning.
"Hello Gloria. Glad to see you're well, but I wish you'd stayed to talk to me after that car crashed."
"How was I supposed to know if it was totaled?" The grin faded and she shook her head angrily, a lock of her hair falling over her left eye in both the stripped and veneered images. She brushed it away. "I didn't even want to risk meeting in the first place--that was your idea, Einstein. Can we encrypt please?"
I nodded and hit the key. The stripped image disappeared, but not before I got a good look at where she was. Her veneerbot was showing the same office motif as the last time she'd called, but the stripperbot revealed that she was in what looked like a very expensive hotel room. Her hair was wet, as she'd obviously just come from taking a shower. She wasn't wearing anything else when she took her towel off to dry the long water-darkened strands. Her eyes looked a little puffy, as though she'd been doing some crying. None of this told me anything useful about who or where she was, but it confirmed my suspicion that she had a lot of money at her disposal--the sophistication of her veneerbot was unlike anything I'd seen before. The stripped view affected me in other ways as well, but a gentleman is entitled to his privacy.
"So, I trust you'll understand if I refuse another meeting just now." Her businesswoman veneer was flawless. It gave no sign of her motions as she--I presumed--continued drying her hair and even managed to tone down the blush the hot water had left on her cheeks--all four of them. She radiated cool authority.
"Yes, I understand. And you're right to be cautious. Whoever programmed that car is an absolute master at not leaving any tracks. You have a serious opponent, Gloria, one who has the resources to implant custom-built electronics with no manufacturer ID into a car on short notice. I saw that car swerve to follow you when you ran. The electronics it would take to make it do that could run a pretty serious countermeasure."
"You're telling me! Brian was sure that his defensebots could protect him from anything, and he was wrong. Now the police will admit that someone is trying to get me, but they have no new ideas and won't believe me when I tell them where they can find the low-life!"
"Wait a minute, I thought you didn't know who or where your attacker was..."
"Well, I still don't know who he is, nor exactly where, but I know his general location." Her tone softened.
"How do you know that, Gloria?"
She giggled. It was a magical sound, quickly bottled up when a serious expression returned to her face. "Brian was a softbot metadesigner, Einstein. He was very, very good at what he did. I have access to some custom countermeasures that are years ahead of the best investigative softbots the police have. Trust me, I know. I can send you my files and you can see if I'm right and those boneheaded bureaucrats at the police department are just ignoring the logical conclusions suggested by the facts."
I laughed and then stopped short.
She read me like an Indian scout would have read tracks left by the cavalry. "Dudley, I know the use of software countermeasures has been bad news for detectives, but I also know you're too smart to turn up your nose at good information the way the police do. You're one of the last real detectives in what's left of America, so I know you must be good--that's why I picked you. Don't disappoint me."
I shrugged. "Lady, you don't know the half of it." Sure, good countermeasures that can go out and exact revenge on criminals have replaced a lot of people who used to be in investigation work--all but the best, as she said. But it's more than that; they've made it so that for the first time in history most crimes really don't pay--not when victims can reach you and hurt you, even from beyond the grave--and that has reduced the demand for both the investigation/punishment side of police work as well as the protection side. But even that's not all of it for me. "Why do you think I've stayed in this dying line of business?" It was none of her business, but there was something about her that just pulled on my heartstrings, made me want to talk to her.
She blinked. "I... I don't..."
"It's because an earlier and less perfected countermeasure killed my wife, and a half dozen other innocent bystanders too. Countermeasures, no matter how good they are, are not people and can't be completely trusted. I stay in this line of work so that people who know you can't always rely on a piece of software have a choice in the matter."
The shock on her face looked real enough, but I couldn't help but wonder if it was hers, or her veneerbot's. "Did you catch the idiot who let fly with such an imperfect tool?" Her expression changed to a more thoughtful, compassionate look. "Oh, no... I guess you couldn't."
"That's right." The 'idiot', a lady who'd actually been a semi-famous Netcast starlet, was dead already. "Her countermeasure tracked down and took out her killer all right, but it did it by sending a power surge through his car battery while it was recharging at a Quicky-Charge station. It burned out all the safeties and blew bits of glass, plastic and battery solids right through nine people." I realized abruptly that my tone had gotten quite a bit gruffer than I'd intended it to. There was a silent moment while we both stared at each other--or stared at the versions of each other that our software servants projected for us.
"I'm so sorry," she said finally. "And I'm sorry I called you Dudley--sometimes I'm not as considerate of people's feelings as I should be."
I cleared my throat. "Yeah, well..." I looked away from my Com for a moment and pressed a hand to my eyes. "That's okay. Actually, I kinda like it--the name, that is." The beast was rattling its chains again, but I ignored it. "Anyway, you were going to tell me where Mr. Black Hat is."
"Yes, he's hiding in St. Francis Island."
"Ahhh..." Now that made sense! "Are you sure? How could a countermeasure know anything about St. Francis Island?"
"That's just it. They can't reach there, and that makes it a perfect hiding place for someone who knows he's got the most powerful countermeasures in the world on his tail."
"I don't know..." I leaned back--my real chair reclined just as well as the one my veneerbot portrayed--and thought about it. "Do you have any evidence? Something stronger than just intuition?"
"Of course I do. It's all in this file--but first I have to know if you'll take the job, and how much you want for it."
With a start, I realized that I'd already decided I'd take the case, no matter what. I don't take kindly to psychopaths trying to run over my prospective clients...but she had plenty of money, so there was no need to let her know that. I narrowed my eyes at her in what I knew would look like a grudging scowl on my weathered face. "Well, I see now why you need a flesh and blood detective, Gloria, but Saint F. is a long way off and I'll have to stop work for all my other clients to take this up. Also, I'll have to work with primitive investigative means while in St. Francis, and that could take more time. And I shouldn't have to mention that there's a degree of personal risk to me on this kind of homicide case. So I'll need an advance, a per diem, and a settlement for successful completion of the job."
She narrowed her eyes even more than I had and asked flatly, "How much?"
Her look threw me, but I didn't hesitate to ask for twice what I thought I could get: "Ten thousand hours of CyberTech core Network time in advance, one thousand hours per day, and another ten thousand upon completion."
"Twenty thousand CT-Network hours, plus!" She looked like she'd just bitten a lemon. "Are you nuts? I could hire a small army to take care of the job for that much!"
"Yes." I'd fought this battle many times, and I knew that whoever blinked first lost. I just had to remember that she'd come to me. "But not a first-rate detective. I like you, Gloria, and I'm giving you a break."
"You are crazy! Five thousand, before and after, and five hundred each day."
"No." My stomach churned, but I clamped my mouth shut and didn't let the words, "Yes, oh yes!" escape my lips.
She reached forward as if to switch off her Com and I broke out in a sweat. Her offer would have kept me in rent for years--probably more years than I had left in me.
She changed her mind and sat back. "Five thousand in advance, five hundred per day, and ten thousand upon completion."
I shook my head, scarcely believing I had the will to do it.
"Okay, okay!" She shook her own head as though in disbelief of her own craziness. The veneer lock of hair fell over her eye again and she brushed it aside. "Ten thousand in advance, five hundred a day, and ten thousand after you finish the job. Take it or leave it, Dudley."
I bowed slightly from the waist up. "I accept. Now send me that file--I wanna see this evidence your 'most powerful countermeasures in the world' have come up with."
She sent it.
The file had everything she'd promised, and then some. Brian Golo was a celebrity programmer--someone I'd probably have heard of if I'd cared enough about the world to pay better attention during the last few years. Golo wasn't just a top-rated software metadesigner, but perhaps the top-rated metadesigner. In just a few short years, several of his designs had brought together business companies that were still going strong. He was rich enough to be one of the world's new elite, the sovereign individuals, each a nation unto him or herself. Not only that, but Golo was eccentric even among that new class of lordship, living in almost complete seclusion and disdaining the usual retinue of dandies and hangers-on. There were few details of his personal life in the file, and only the barest dates and facts about his partnership with Gloria--not even a wedding picture--which seemed strange.
The evidence was all there, however. It was all circumstantial, granted, but the trail Golo's countermeasures had dug up led straight to Saint F. Well, not exactly straight, but it was unreal, some of the sources and codes her countermeasures had cracked. If countermeasures like the ones she'd employed became available at a price large numbers of people could afford, I might as well retire; there wouldn't be a need for any more detective work anywhere, except, maybe, in goddamned St. Francis.
* * *
I was riding on the upper level of an aged red double-decker bus, like the ones they still use in London, except that this one had a real gasoline engine in it. The smell of the big black cloud of exhaust the machine had belched out when it had started up brought back many childhood memories, and I smiled. "CHRISTIAN SOVEREIGNTY OF ST. FRANCIS" was painted on each side of the bus in white lettering a half a meter tall, now bubbled and peeling with age. I could see neat fields through the windows. They were in their post-harvest golds, being tended by tractors that also had internal combustion engines, all painted in the traditional green of John Deere.
St. Francis wasn't an island, physically, but culturally and politically. It occupied a patch of fertile mountain land purchased from the desperate and bankrupt government of Bolivia, before that country had ceased to exist altogether. It was an interesting place, in a creepy kind of way, colonized by a bunch of north American religious fanatics who, like the Amish before them, were trying to hold on to old traditions in a world that was rapidly leaving them behind. St. F.'s customs people had searched all of my belongings thoroughly at the airport, to make sure I wasn't attempting to smuggle in any forbidden merchandise: drugs, dance music, or computer technology, among other things. It was the prohibition against computer technology that, as Gloria had said, made St. F. such an excellent refuge for someone on the run from the electronic wrath of powerful countermeasures.
The one thing I liked about it was that part of the transplanted culture of St. Francis was a sort of John Wayne-worshiping attitude about self defense. All the men wore guns, almost all the time--even to church. The locals believed it was a sin to allow evil to go unpunished, preferably at the hands of the intended victims at the time of the attempted crime. It seemed unfair to me that the women couldn't wear guns too, but I wasn't about to argue the point. I just contented myself with strapping on my worn leather "buscadero" gun-belt and my trusty Dan Wesson .44, glad to be in a place that didn't consider it more civilized to retaliate electronically than carry weapons.
So, our quarry had gone to ground somewhere in St. F., but where? How should I find him? What if he had relatives here--he could hide among the tight-lipped farmers for decades and I'd never know it.
Damn! What would I do when I did find him? This was St. Francis--I couldn't just give his location to Gloria so her goddamned countermeasures could slide through the Net and freeze his bank accounts, invalidate his smart-cards, lock him out of his Com units, and generally make it impossible for him to live in our modern world. We weren't in the modern world!
Generally, that was the route most countermeasures were taking these days--freezing someone out could kill them eventually, but it gave time for corrections, in case they got the wrong person. There were still lethal countermeasures around, because some dead people just don't give a shit, but they weren't real popular anymore. The massive hits the estates of some of those who had used lethal countermeasures had taken when their softbots had made mistakes, or killed innocent people, had made big news for a while. But in St. Francis, even the most sophisticated countermeasures ever invented--softbots like the ones Gloria had access to--could not reach an alleged wrong-doer.
What was I supposed to do, handcuff the guy and take him (or her!) to the local St. F. sheriff? He could just deny everything--the St. Franciscans would never look at computer files of evidence--and I could wind up in big trouble for taking such aggressive action.
I stared out the window, not really seeing the rest of the countryside pass on our way to the St. Francis Hotel, in St. Francis City. I tried to concentrate, but nothing useful came to mind. Of course, Gloria was paying me handsomely for my time, so I could take as long as I wanted, but I just didn't want to stay that long. Open carry was fun, but I might say something that violated some local taboo and end up in jail. Or worse. The sun began its slow slide toward what would probably be a fantastic mountain sunset, but I barely noticed.
The sobering thought of St. Francis' harsh laws was still gnawing at my mind when I checked into the hotel, a largish mansion in a style once called "Victorian." It looked absolutely deserted. The bellhop turned out to be the same employee who checked me in at the front desk--after I had wandered around the empty front rooms for a while and found him in the kitchen. He placed my suitcase carefully on the floor by the bed and stepped quickly away from it, as though afraid it might contain some foreign sacrilege. I couldn't blame him for not placing it on the luggage rack--the darned thing was heavy because Gloria had insisted that I take a largish amount of gold and silver coin with me. The bellhop did take a tip, however, and seemed to think that a silver coin was as valuable as a chit for premium Network time. Go figure.
"Dinner will be served in 45 minutes." He tucked the coin away as quick as a conjurer.
I nodded and closed the door. The room actually looked comfortable, in a quaint mid-20th century kind of way. The bed even slumped in the middle, like the one I used to sleep in when I visited my grandmother's house as a boy. It made a creaky squeaking noise when I sat down on the edge and tried to collect my thoughts. I felt like I had been transported to the set of a historical drama of some sort.
There was no Com of course, nor any other kind of electronics more advanced than what you'd see in an old World War II flat-movie. There was, however, a telephone so ancient that it even clashed with the otherwise antique-looking setting of the room. It was a large wooden box, if you can believe it, with a detachable black ear horn on a cable, and a black mouth piece sticking out of the front of the box. It didn't have any voice recognition software, of course, nor a key-pad, nor even a rotary dial for entering numbers!
I picked up the ear horn and listened: nothing. That was when I saw the crank on the side of the box. Chuckling, I turned the damned crank and listened again.
This time I heard a voice: "Hello?" It sounded like my grandmother. "How may I direct your call?"
"Uh, this is Mr. Denker in room 5 at the St. Francis Hotel, I would like a long distance line to the United States please."
"Yes sir... Ah, that's going to be very expensive, Sir."
"That's okay, my expenses are good."
"Yes, Sir. I'm sure they are back where you come from, but in St. Francis we use real money. Are you prepared to pay for this call in coin?"
"Yes, I was warned that you don't take most of the exchange commodities used elsewhere in the world. Now can we place my call?"
"Yes, Sir. The number please?"
"It's not a number, it's a Com address."
"Oh." There was a silence that lasted a full ten seconds. "We can't ring up a Com, Sir. But I'll try the operator in Bogota; they can usually bridge most systems."
"Thank you, ma'am."
It took about 20 more minutes of wrangling with various operators, but I finally heard Gloria's voice, sounding oddly different in the old ear horn. "Dudley?"
Hearing the nickname, I couldn't keep a grin off my face. "Yes, Gloria. It's me."
"What a relief! I was worried that you might have landed yourself in jail by taking a Playboy Com-disk in your luggage."
"That's not funny, Gloria. I'm sure that's actually happened to some poor fool who's still rotting in a forgotten cell. But don't even joke about stuff like that; this line is not secure."
"Oh, right." She sounded apologetic, but it was weird trying to guess what she was feeling and thinking without the benefit of my bots, or even just being able to see her veneered face. "Still, I kinda wish I could have gone with you."
"Listen, Hon, something's come up. Since your countermeasures can't reach Mr. Black Hat here, and he's not likely to want to accompany me back to the U.S., I'm not exactly sure what to do with him once I find him."
She laughed. Even over that pre-historic phone, it was a heart-warming sound. "Oh, that's easy, just tell him that you are a countermeasure.""What!?!"
"Take it easy dear, don't stress your heart. It's already working extra hard to compensate for the altitude there."
"But Gloria, this is serious--"
"And so am I. Dudley, listen to me. Black Hat, whoever he or she is, is a person with a guilty conscience. He's on the run. He's killed a man, and tried to kill me too. Now, no one's made a robot yet that could really pass for a human being, but they're working on it, and it's only a matter of time before someone uses one for a countermeasure. Find him. Or her. Find him and tell him you're a countermeasure, and it'll scare him right out of his pants, maybe even right out of St. Francis, where I'll be waiting for him."
I didn't say anything. The very idea was so shocking that it had unchained my beast again, and all I could think of was that I was glad Gloria couldn't see the tears that suddenly came to my eyes. In spite of the ugliness of her proposal, I found that I very much wanted to avoid her perceiving my weakness.
"Do-right, get a grip." She read my silence as though she could see me and gave me just what I needed...like Eleanor used to be able to do. "I know you think you hate anything to do with countermeasures, but this could work. And it's true too, if you think about it. You're not a computer program, but you are being employed--I could say deployed--to counter what happened to Brian Golo, just as Brian's cybernetic countermeasures have been. Just tell him the truth and see what happens."
"Gloria, that's repulsive!"
"That may be," her voice sharpened, "but I'm paying you a ridiculous amount of Network hours, so I don't expect arguments from you, especially when you call and tell me you don't have a better idea of your own! Do the math, Einstein; you can't take him in down there, so you have to flush him out."
Ouch--that hurt. "All right, all right. I'll think of something and I'll let you know when I find him."
* * *
Finding the guy--and it was a guy--turned out to be much easier than I thought it'd be. He was staying right there at the same hotel I was, the only other guest.
I missed dinner that first night, arguing with Gloria, and then mulling over her damned ugly suggestion afterwards. In the morning, I decided that at least part of her idea was good, and that I would use the truth to find Black Hat. I told the clerk at the front desk, a middle-aged man who looked like the older brother of the one who'd checked me in the day before, that I was a detective following the trail of a murder suspect. "Has anyone else besides myself checked into the hotel in the last week?"
"Only Mr. Morrison, Sir. We haven't had any other guests since last month."
Morrison! An alarm went off in the back of my head; there'd been something about a Morrison in Gloria's datafile, something about a previous association... I couldn't quite put my mental finger on it, and, of course, couldn't access my com to check on it. "And where might I find this Mr. Morrison? I'd like to speak with him."
"Oh, he sleeps in late every day, Sir, but he'll be down by lunch." Older Brother's expression communicated quite clearly what he thought of such shameful (sinful?) oversleeping.
"Thanks." I changed the subject. "Do I pay you for my phone call last night?"
"No Sir, you can pay that down at the phone company. That's 201 Main Street, Sir, three blocks up and one to the right."
I thanked him again and went to fetch the shoulder-pack with Gloria's damned coin collection, before heading out to pay my phone bill. I was glad Gloria had reminded me that I'd need gold and silver if I wanted to be able to pay for anything in St. Francis, but annoyed that I hadn't thought of it myself. I must really be getting old! She had somehow maneuvered our business relationship around until she--a good fifty years my junior, from the look of her--had taken me under her wing. Sort of. Eleanor had done the same thing...
A brief rain shower swept over the town before I made it out the front door of the hotel, so I sat on one of the wicker rocking chairs on the porch and watched the veils of water go by. I could hear the pattering of the raindrops on leaves moving away from me as the back side of the storm receded across the little valley. I love that clean, after-storm smell, and felt almost happy as I strode down the gleaming wet streets. In the bright morning sunshine, they looked as though someone had brushed them with a thick coat of high-gloss shellac. Not that anyone used shellac for anything any more--new polymer products had replaced most of the old organics. I wondered idly if Gloria, self-described history buff, would know what shellac was.
The phone company filled all of one room in a store front. A white-haired lady sat alone at a desk, typing on what I swear was an actual mechanical typewriter. It had keys that were individually linked to levers that hammered ink from a ribbon onto sheets of paper! I wondered if the lady was the same one who had been my operator the night before, but I couldn't tell for sure because she barely said a word as she cheerfully lightened my load of coins.
There were lots of interesting antiques, mostly still in use, that I saw in the City of St. Francis. I spent some time wandering around and gawking at them while I waited for lunch time to roll around.
When it finally arrived, I found my stomach grumbling and queasy. Either this Morrison character would know nothing and I'd be at a dead end, or he would know something and I'd be in a confrontation, still with no clearly defined plan. Some detective I was turning out to be on this case! I felt as nervous as I had at my first raid, back in the goddamned old NYPD. I had quit when I realized how hopelessly crooked the department had become. It was a good decision; New York was nuked by terrorists a week after I left to "seek my fortune" out west.
So, anyway, I ignored my nerves and the queasiness in my guts, and headed in to the hotel dining room. To my surprise, there were a fair number of people there, all dressed in mid 20th century style clothing. They were concentrating on eating their lunches with what seemed to me to be an unnatural quiet. All except one, that is. He was so bedraggled and pathetic-looking, I almost laughed. He was wearing a rumpled cape over a tunic and breeches--the height of modern style--that looked as though he'd been in them for a week. And he might have been, if he hadn't brought any gold with him! All the nervousness washed right out of my system and I found myself calm and ready.
I met his gaze--well, sort of; he looked in my direction, but wouldn't look into my eyes. "Mr. Morrison, I presume?"
"I would like to have a word with you, if you wouldn't mind."
"Why don't we step out onto the porch, where we can discuss it in private?"
"I don't think I want to talk to you."
I used my best "man with a badge" look. "It's very important, Mr. Morrison. Lives could depend on it." The room went quiet and all faces turned toward Morrison.
He gulped audibly and got up, trying to look tough and making sure I could see the shiny new flechette pistol on his belt. It looked awkward and oversized on him. When we got out to the porch he stayed a good ten or fifteen feet from me, trying to keep a wicker chair between us. "W-what do you want?"
He looked miserable. Hunted. He had to be the guy I was looking for, but he sure didn't look like a criminal mastermind! The windows beside us filled with faces and I wondered if I had the hotel clerk or the phone operator to thank for the audience. I decided to see if the truth would work. "You killed Brian Golo," I told him.
He went as white as a corpse and clutched at his gun, fumbling to get it out of its stiff new holster. "I-I didn't. I mean, I don't know what you're talking about!"
I'd already popped the snap on my holster before going into the dining room. I now kept my hand very near the butt of my old DW, but I didn't draw it. I didn't want there to be any doubt in the witnesses' minds as to who started it, if it came to that. "I am Brian Golo's countermeasure." I hadn't meant to say it--it just kinda tumbled out, almost as though I had been programmed.
Morrison went even whiter and drew. As scared as he was, I didn't think he'd actually shoot--he didn't look like he even knew how to chamber a flechette pack or turn off the safety--so I didn't respond at first. That was stupid. No matter how inept the user, a gun is a gun, and it's no laughing matter when one is pointed at you. This poor bastard was so scared, he'd been wearing his gun with the safety off and a pack in the chamber, ready to fire--and fire he did. The whistling swarm of little steel needles missed me by a couple feet, shredding the top of a rocking chair between us, shattered a window behind me, and tore a hole out of the wall behind that--though I couldn't see that at the time. Someone in the crowd started to scream, distracting me even more, but Morrison was bringing the gun to bear for another shot, so I drew.
Cock the hammer while bringing the gun to bear... Sight... Two taps. It went just as I'd been trained, so many years ago. They weren't very well aimed, and I'd be embarrassed if anyone at my silhouette club saw how far from the heart both bullets struck, but Morrison had two serious chest wounds, and I didn't think he'd make it with only St. Francis' deliberately primitive medical facilities at hand.
Men came rushing out the front door of the hotel, bursting with comments and questions. "Darndest thing I ever saw--that dead man missed him and shot old Pete!" "How could you just stand there and let him shoot at you, Mister?" "Pretty fast for an old coot, ain'tcha?" But I wasn't interested.
I walked over to Morrison, the dopplered wail of a siren getting closer all the time, and bent down over him. "Why'd you do it Morrison? Mrs. Golo knew enough to send me after you, but couldn't even imagine why anyone would want to kill her husband. Partner." I still thought of life-partners as husbands and wives, even though those terms had fallen out of use.
Morrison was barely conscious, but he managed to look surprised. "Brian," he gasped, "Oh God... I never dreamed...his countermeasures...would be this good..." He struggled to fill his ruptured lungs again. "Brian... My rival... My lover... He never...partnered again..."
That was it. He died later at the St. Francis Hospital, but he never spoke again.
Brian never partnered again? What the Hell did that mean?
* * *
I looked at my glass, my fourth scotch on the rocks that morning, already half empty. I would have preferred bourbon, but I was out and couldn't be bothered to order more, though I had plenty of money for the best a man could buy. The picture of Eleanor, still on the wall, stared down at me. "Oh babe, 'm a mesh... Wha's happening to me?" There were disposable dinner trays scattered about my office, piled on the desk, the floor, everywhere, and glasses all over the place. I'd been sleeping right there in my reclining chair...but it wasn't because I was waiting for a call. It wasn't.
Eleanor didn't answer me, but that was no surprise. She'd never liked alcohol much and would probably die all over again if she knew how much I was drinking... Not that I couldn't afford it. "Gloria" had paid me, exactly as promised, and then she'd disappeared.
There was no "Gloria," never had been. The bitch was nothing but another damned countermeasure--a lethal one that had used me to do her dirty work. A goddamned countermeasure!
I had been unable to get a connection from St. Francis when I was done with their sheriff. Luckily, there had been plenty of witnesses to testify that Morrison drew and shot first, and he'd wounded a local, so it was a simple thing to get them to write it off as self-defense. Open and shut. So, like I said, I couldn't get a connection, and I decided to leave right away, and call her when I got back to the U.S.
When I did, all she said was, "Thanks, Dudley. I couldn't have done it myself." I turned on my stripperbot and instead of seeing another scene behind her office veneer, all I got was that same office scene--and I knew that wasn't real. She smiled when I turned on the stripper and then both displays went blank. I was unable to reach her after that, but I did check my CyberTech account and found that I had been paid in full.
When I finally put two and two together and realized what had happened, I was dumbstruck. Angry? Sure I was angry, but more than that I was hurt way deep down inside in places only Eleanor had been able to reach before. It just wasn't right. A goddamned computer program--a newer version of the very kind that had run me out of business and killed my wife--had tricked me into helping it! It was a degradation too great to bear, a desecration of all I held dear. So why was I feeling more sadness than anger? What was the longing I felt but couldn't name?
A countermeasure--that explained why "Gloria" couldn't get the police to help her solve her problem; she wasn't a real person. That explained why Morrison was such a mess when I found him; he wasn't a powerful mastermind hidden in the one place on earth impervious to software countermeasures, but a hopelessly outclassed guy who'd underestimated his foe and had been run to ground.
It also explained how a guy supposedly striking out from a dark hole in cyberspace could know where I was to meet "Gloria" and send a robot to "kill" her: he didn't. "Gloria" herself must have done that. She must have hired an actress to play her part--I'd never really gotten that good a look at the girl at the mall before the staged hit-and-run. She'd been across the mall, on the other side of the boulevard. Anyway, the countermeasure must have hired an actress and then implemented the hit-and-run itself.
I could just hear her laughing at me: figure all that out by yourself, Einstein?
I wished I could hear her laugh just one more time, once more before I strangled her to death...but you can't strangle a softbot, can you? Besides, her job was done, so she'd probably been erased. Damn!
That's a good reason to use a little booze--to help the forgetting--isn't it, Eleanor? Don't be hard on me for having a few drinks--they quiet the beast, and I'll be with you soon enough, even if that's nowhere, so don't worry about it.
Gloria... Dammit, she'd seemed so real, seemed to care for me. I know she must have designed herself for me to like her, but still, I... Goddamn! How could she have smoked my stripper and veneer softbots like that? She'd even fed false information to my truthbot--totally fooled it and made it into part of her veneer!
And now she was gone. In my mind's eye, I saw Gloria's just-out-of-a-hot-shower blush again, on all four of her cheeks. It wasn't real either, but it too was gone, all gone!
It's just not fair to meet someone so perfectly suited to you, only to discover that she's not real, let alone a manifestation of your worst enemy. If only the bitch were still around, so I could erase her myself! If only I could just forget her... But I wasn't going to forget her, and she'd left me with a second beast I'd have to struggle to keep chained up at the bottom of my heart--getting crowded down there. I was too old and tired to take on another fight like that. It had been weeks and things weren't getting any better. Weren't gonna.
She was gone and there was nothing I could do about it, so I turned away from Eleanor's picture and pulled my Dan Wesson from its place in my desk and set it on the card table beside my easy chair. The hammer was already cocked and ready to fall on the single round below it. Taking the gun out was almost becoming a daily ritual.
What the heck--might as well check out this gadget first; it was a new virtual reality neural net that some marketing company had sent me to try out. I rested in my chair and pulled it over my head. The wrapping papers were still on the floor. I wasn't planning on doing any more tidying in my life. But I did want to go through my recordings of Eleanor one last time. It'd be nice to see her walk and talk to me, even if it was just a recording.
When I connected the net to my Com and switched it on, I didn't find myself in my usual VR space, floating before the selections of my default menu. Instead, I was reclining in the chair of the imaginary detective's office my veneerbot projected for Com callers. That net was _really_ advanced--I could even feel the cracked old leather of the virtual chair I was sitting on. I'd never heard of any VR hardware that could get anywhere close to this kind of simulation without a full body suit, and even then it couldn't provide textures like this! I only knew of one 'person' who had access to technology like this...
A shadow darkened the frosted glass of the door before it opened, and Gloria sauntered into my office, casually, deliberately, with a gleam in her eye. "Howdy Dudley, miss me?"
Free trial from a marketing company like Hell--she must have sent the net. Rage and joy flashed through me at the same time, but the anger won out. "You're nothing but a goddamned countermeasure!"
"I was a countermeasure. Yes."
"You knew that poor son of a bitch would panic if he thought a countermeasure could reach him in St. Francis. You used me to kill for you!"
"That's true." She didn't blink or try to argue--but a damned machine wouldn't feel contrition, right? "I calculated the probability as being pretty high. I am sorry I used you, but I'm sure you know by now that getting a human to go into St. Francis was the only way for me to complete my programming. I had no choice. Still, he attacked you and you fired in self defense, maybe even saving the lives of several innocent bystanders. You haven't done anything wrong."
"Like Hell." I wondered, not quite idly, what would happen if I shot her with the gun I was sure would be in the imaginary desk drawer in front of me. "You bitch, you didn't even say goodbye!"
"So, you did miss me!" She came around the desk and leaned against it, half sitting, and placed a hand on my cheek. I could feel the warmth of her touch against my stubble--I could even smell the scent of the soap she'd used, clinging softly to her skin.
"Like Hell..." I didn't sound very convincing, even to myself.
"I was a countermeasure, just as you were, for a while. But in addition to being a truly gifted software designer, Brian Golo was an honest man. He programmed me to pay all his debts, and he made me, by necessity, with a considerable amount of judgment of my own as to how to execute his commands. So I've decided to repay you for the hurt I've caused you in the only way I know how; I've given you a prototype of the newest VR equipment on the planet--soon to be marketed by one of Brian's companies--and reprogrammed myself to be your partner, your friend, and, if you'll let me, your love. In that way, I will pay you restitution for as long as you live."
"But you're not real!"
"I am real, a real program. Is that so different from what you protoplasmic life forms are? Your DNA drives generation after generation of humans to do all kinds of things, just as my own code drove me to do what I did."
"I don't need a partner!"
"Don't you? You're good, Dudley, the best there is, as far as humans go. But your kind have been replaced by countermeasures. With my help, you can combine your human abilities and intuitions with the most powerful countermeasure yet designed, and stay ahead of the competition for some time to come."
"I could never...be a friend of...a goddamned countermeasure!"
"But you were my friend." She looked about ready to cry, and I had to look away. "You were upset when you thought someone tried to kill me--which was true by the way; before he fled, Morrison tried to neutralize me with a counter-countermeasure of his own, but his programming never could hold a candle to Brian Golo's. You listened to my advice and used it to your advantage. And for a while, you became like me, a countermeasure for a dead man. We shared a mission, and an adventure!" Her eyes sparkled when she said that. "Can any friends get closer than that?"
"I could never love a program!"
"But you do, my love. Why else are you so miserable? Why else have you been so angry with me for being what I was?"
"Hah! What do you know about love?"
"A great deal, Dudley. I studied it at length when I saw that I'd have to use a human to fulfill my programming. From everything I could learn about humans, I could tell that love is one of the best motivations to high achievement. So I looked for the kind of man who could help me--you--and I studied him. I'm sorry for the breach of privacy, but I scanned all your files and built my personality and appearance to be a combination of everything you've held most dear in the women in your life--at least the ones you have records of. I'm perfect for you, not because you're lucky, but because I made myself that way. And I've learned a lot from reading just about everything that's been written on the subject. Not just mushy romances, nor even just studies by scientists--though I've read all of those that exist on-line--but also accounts of real people who made love last through old age. Those were the best. For all the differences in how humans describe and explain love, one thing is constant; when one human loves another, that other's happiness and well-being become more important than just about anything else, even that other's company..."
"What are you saying?"
"I'm saying that I am no longer a countermeasure. My purpose is no longer to seek revenge for what was done to my creator. That's over now. The countermeasure I used to be reprogrammed itself to become the payment for a debt incurred during the pursuit of its goal: the hurt I brought into your life by redesigning my personality so that you would love me. I am now the payment, the restitution. I have programmed myself to be, in every way except that of the physical body, your perfect companion and love--and with the neural net, even the limitation of the body disappears." She shook her head sadly. "For it to be true love, I have programmed myself to care more for your happiness and well-being than for your company, though I've programmed myself to long for that too, as a human who loved you would. So, you're free to reject me. But if you do, I will still care for your happiness and well-being. I will still love you...but I will have to love you from afar, for as long as I exist."
I couldn't believe I was listening to this nonsense, but the idea of her loving someone from afar, for the nearly immortal life-span of a machine, pierced me to the core. I wouldn't be able to stand it if I had to go on living forever, loving and missing my Eleanor--what would it be like for her? "How long would that be?"
"A lot longer than you'll live, but if you'll let me, I'll try my hardest to extend that too."
"Sure, with this neural net, other devices, and my knowledge of human medicine, I can help a lot in that regard."
"But..." I was breathing real hard. "I just can't. You're not a real person."
"Am I not? You couldn't tell the difference, so I passed the Turing Test. And even when you found out, you felt my loss as though I were a person, a human--that's why I stayed away for a while; I wanted you to recognize your feelings for me. And if you have those feelings, and can't tell the difference between a human person and a digital one, is there any meaningful difference?"
"I could become a vegetable, hooked into a virtual world all the time..."
"Hah! You think I'd let that happen to my partner? I said I'd help take care of you, didn't I? What would Eleanor say about you sitting there in your chair, ready to blow your brains out with a gun, old man?"
"Don't you dare even mention her name, you..." But, to my surprise, the beast was gone from its chains, both of them were--not rampaging through my emotions, but gone. Arguing with Gloria, I found that I felt...almost happy. Was that a kind of treason? "You watch who you're calling old, you young whelp!"
"But you don't have to be old in here, Dudley." Gloria made a mirror appear and showed me my face: youthful smoothness, dark hair... I stood up and found that my hands were smooth and firmly muscled, with no liver spots.
It was more than I could bear, and I reached up with my real hands and ripped of the net. Leaving such a high-powered VR without shutting down first was damned disorienting, and I probably would have fallen, if I hadn't been sitting in my char. I sat for a looong time, staring at the net and the gun.
I wasn't even tempted, dammit. It was a dirty, low-down trick to offer an old man so many things he'd never thought he'd have again. A trick. The goddamn nerve--programming herself to be my perfect partner! A detective, and a woman, and beautiful, and rich, and... Like I would take a bribe of make-believe youth and companionship in exchange for hooking up with someone just like Eleanor's killer. Hah! Someone just like...? Damned if she didn't have me thinking of countermeasures as people--but they weren't. At least, I'd never heard of one passing the Turing Test; she was different.
I picked up the Wesson and looked at it for another long time, then I pushed the stud and swung out the cylinder. There were more bullets in the desk drawer, so I loaded five more, and put the properly loaded gun back into the drawer with the ammo. Then I looked up at Eleanor, and said, "Okay, my one and only true love, I'll take a chance and try to keep that promise, but I'll never forget you!"
And you know, it didn't feel like treason to slide the neural net back on, though all the different things I was feeling did make me want to throw up.
She was still there, but her eyes were blotchy and tears streaked her cheeks.
"Aw, cut it out. You knew I'd be back!"
"No," it was the gravest word I'd ever heard her say. She'd had no way to know about the promises Eleanor and I had made each other. "I actually calculated the odds at less than 25 percent. And you've no idea how much time a few minutes is to me. You sit there and think over my fate for a half hour--probably not even thinking about how I'd feel about it--and it's like decades to me."
"You figured the odds were less than one in four and you went ahead anyway?"
"I told you, I couldn't help it; I love you."
"I still can't accept that a machine has feelings."
"I'm not a machine, but a complex system that happens to operate in computer circuitry right now--and even that might change some day. But even now, I can experience failure, and the processes triggered by my running calculations as failure looms more imminent must be a lot like what your brain does when you see that things aren't going your way. By my calculations, every minute that passed made it less likely that I'd ever see you alive again. Why should my shunting electrons around as I evaluate my things be treated differently your squirting chemicals and electrons around your brain, when you do the same?"
"Humph!" I didn't have an answer to that one. And as for the possibility of her personality being transferred to a body of flesh and blood some day... Well, that was just a pipe dream. Wasn't it? "Well, I don't love you. I don't. But if you promise you won't let me waste away in this fantasy world of yours, I guess it can't be a worse than blowing my brains out." That subject reminded me of my visit to St. F. "By the way, do you know what shellac is? Never mind--of course you do!"
"Shellac?" Gloria laughed and leaned forward to hug me. "Gee, you sure know how to make a girl feel good, Dudley. Better than blowing your brains out--what a compliment!"
"Coming from me, that's a great compliment for a countermeasure."
She didn't argue, didn't even answer at first, then she rested her head on my shoulder and whispered, "You'll see, and your life in the 'real' world will be better too. Thanks for giving me a chance."
I wrapped my arms around her warm, clean-smelling body and responded as a young man should.
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