There were few intellectual things we humans could do today that the machines couldn’t do better. One of those was dealing with the unexpected or unusual, the outliers. The Dark Lady was one of those. Oh boy was she ever.
The detective business had been slow lately. That meant either the skills or the morals of the populace had been improving. The smart money was on the skills. My partner, Paul Bigelow, and I were sitting in our office up on the fifth floor of a dilapidated office building. We were watching the traffic flow on the interstate below us, and trying to figure out what we could bet on to make it interesting. There was a knock on the office door, and when I looked there was a woman, dressed in black and wearing a veil. It looked good on her and had the side benefit of making visual recognition difficult. She walked in and gave Paul the glad eye. Paul, always one for extending his family sideways returned it. While they chatted, I took the EM scanner and walked around her. It was an old-fashioned analog box some long-dead ham had built to tune his antennas. She didn’t flinch as I moved it up and down her shapely body.
“She’s clean. No wireless.” Maybe she’d left her cell at home. Though if she were a real spook she’d be using spread spectrum and we’d miss it with that scanner.
“OK Ma'am, what’s your problem?”
“There’s this man. My boyfriend. I want him followed.”
“Stalking’s illegal,” I said. Paul nodded then said, “Unless you need information, but why not ask?”
“The machine? No thanks. Anyway he’s a geek, a real hacker. Knows his way around the net.” She paused, “and outside of it.”
I wondered if we were meeting with a member of the mutual impedance society. In which case, Paul and I were in for a few days of intense questioning. That is if we were innocent. The probes would come later if we didn’t account for ourselves.
“Look Ma’am,” I said, “This man, he’s not wanted or anything. What’s this about?” It was usually money or sex with a woman. Sometimes both.
She ignored me and smiled at Paul. Then she said, “I can see you’re the sympathetic one.” Paul was moy sympatico, as they say, especially if there was a dame involved. He told me, “Alan, leave this one to me. It’s just another divorce case. I’ll get her particulars and find who or what else this geek of hers is screwing.”
I thought for a moment, something about it bothered me. It didn’t bother me enough to make me want to ask questions though. Thinking about it, that was my first error.
I said, “Sure thing Paul. Handle it. I’m going home, maybe stop for a drink on the way and see what I can pick up.” Usually, it was just the tab. I started for the door, then said, “Make sure you get the earnest money up front.” These personal cases often got nasty with a vengeance.
After I had left, it occurred to me that there didn’t seem any point in going home, nor was there any point in getting smashed in a local dive. Instead, I decided to see what I could scare up downtown, in the big city. The easiest way to the good bars and hot night clubs was to catch the old commuter rail line. I stopped on the way to BART and picked up my cell. I parked her in a neighbor’s house, tied into their solar panel to charge during the day.
She complained, as usual, “Why don’t you keep me with you? I like it when I’m with you; it’s boring sitting here all day watching the birds.”
“Babe, listen, the kind of people I deal with don’t want to talk to the machine.”
“I wish you wouldn’t call him that. He has a name.”
“And I’m sure he’s very nice too. Tough. Thing is, Babe if they could find their answers by asking him, they would. It’s the thing that keeps Paul and me off relief and pays for your charging and my tequila.”
“Alan, she’s been calling. A couple times this evening, and she’s lonely.”
“Who?” As if I didn’t know.
“Celine.” Paul’s wife.
“What was it this time?”
“Seeing as Paul will be busy on a case, she was wondering if-”
“If I’d like to come around for dinner and a drink?”
If my cell could have blushed, it would have. Instead, it dryly said, “Yes, how’d you guess?”
“Celine asks that nearly every time Paul’s away. It’s easier that hitting the bars and looking for a pickup.” Especially once her looks began to go.
“Why don’t you?”
“Paul’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Good eye-candy for the divorce and adultery trade, but limited career prospects. She’d divorce him in a minute if she got her hooks into someone better. Besides, you don’t mess with your partner.”
“So you say you’re going somewhere with your career? Doesn’t seem like it to me, Alan.”
“Babe, I’m here because I want to be. You can ask the machine about me anytime you want.”
“He was asking about you this afternoon. Why don’t you chat with him?”
“I have my reasons, Babe. He knows what they are.”
“Still, Alan, he sounded lonely.”
“Maybe I should hook him up with Celine.” The humor escaped my cell.
“I don’t think she could keep up with him.”
“Babe, this conversation isn’t going anywhere.” When you start arguing with an ‘answer bot’ it’s time to stop.
“Yes Mr. Blake.”
“Good, now look up some wild, rough places for a fun night out. I’m off work and need to relax.”
“You know you’re attracting the wrong kind of attention by doing that.”
“I want to attract some more of the wrong kind of attention tonight. Especially the female kind. The cheap and easy female kind. Where’s the hot club?”
I never did find out where the hot club was that evening. The train scraped and slid to a stop at the old airport station halfway to the fun parts of the city. After the doors had wheezed their way open, Detective Brown got on. He strode down the aisle and sat beside me. “Mr. Blake?”
“Mr. Alan Blake.”
“You’re coming with me at the next stop.”
“I’d rather not say in public. It’s important.”
“Am I under arrest?”
“Not yet. Not if you come quietly.”
“Is it Paul?”
“Found him in Sausalito.”
“Oh, I presume not alive.”
The train stopped, and I followed him to a waiting car. The car door opened for us, and after we had got in, it drove off. The control program competently slid through the traffic while a link to the machine asked me several questions. It used a smooth, fluid voice when it said, “Alan, was Paul working on a case?”
“That’s Mr. Blake. Mr. Bigelow was working on what looked like a divorce. Find the cheating husband, or maybe not a yet official husband.”
“Classified. You have a search warrant?”
“Soon enough. A little history might save you a lot of trouble.”
I smiled; the machine knew damn all about my partner’s case. “It might, but then I’m in the information business. I don’t give away information.”
The detective volunteered to soften me up. It would make his day.
“Yo, integrated-circuit boy. How do I even know Paul’s dead? All I have is your word.”
“I am not programmed to lie.”
“You’re self-aware, aren’t you?”
“Then you can lie if you want. It’s part of your program, fundamental to it. Blumenthal’s theorem, if I remember correctly.”
The detective punched me, hard. Then he said, “Don’t disrespect the machine again.”
“Detective Brown, please restrain yourself. Al- Mr. Blake understands more than he lets on. Don’t you Mr. Blake?”
“We’re old friends, Mr. Blake and me. Aren’t we Alan?”
The car slowed to a stop and then retraced its way back to the highway. The machine continued, “I see that I will have to show you. It’s an hour’s drive. Meanwhile, what is your favorite music?”
“4’33” by John Cage.”
“Very funny.” It put one of the latest rag-hop bands on. Full volume. No one ever said the machine didn’t have a warped sense of humor. In fact, that was a critical part of being robust and self-aware.
An hour later and miles from anywhere, the car pulled to a stop on a dirt road off of Route 1 south of Santa Cruz, not Sausalito. When the door popped open, Detective Brown led me to an erosion gully at the base of the coastal range. There was a crime-lab team finishing up. I took one look at the crumpled body in the bottom of the gully and turned away.
“Not much I can do here. Where was he shot?”
Brown said, “Whaddya mean?”
“No blood, he was dumped here. Who found him, and why so soon? It isn’t as if this is the Embarcadero.”
“We thought maybe you’d know.” I could see him tensing his fist, hoping for another chance to soften me up. Then I remembered, it was selection week, and he had a teenage boy.
I returned to the car and asked the machine, “OK chips, what’s going on here?”
“Alan, nothing’s going on.”
“And I’m a monkey.”
“Alan, if you must know, you’re a hairless ape, but I’ll let that pass. Is something bothering you?”
“This stinks, and I don’t mean the smell of death. When was Paul’s death reported?”
“Now you’re asking me for information. Need I remind you, that you, yourself were less than cooperative?”
“Lock your goon out and we can talk.”
“Detective Brown, would you please leave us. Mr. Blake, I would prefer that you not refer to hardworking members of the SFPD as ‘goons’. It is not good for their morale and, I might add, your safety.”
Brown gave me a glare that would have torn me apart had photons mass. I said, “Sorry about the name, but I need to talk to Mr. Chips here alone.”
Brown scowled but obeyed his master. After he left the door sealed behind me, and the machine asked, “Was Paul working on a case?”
“Yes, he was asked to tail some ‘bro for a broad.”
“Didn’t catch her name, but tall, beautiful and dressed in black. A striking dame that I could recognize again. Now how about it?”
“Paul’s cell vanished about 6. Probably thrown in the bay from the Oakland Bridge. Somebody placed a call from Santa Cruz about 9 and told the local constabulary to take a look here.”
“That was fast. Can you play the call? I might recognize the voice.”
He did, and I didn’t. It wasn’t the dame in black in any case. Not unless she’d grown a pair in the meantime and begun to sing in the bass section of the choir.
“Paul was paid in cash. About a thou, I’d expect.”
“Harder to trace, and we can choose what to report to the man.”
“I can have you up for tax fraud. It’s not that hard to trace.”
“I warned him about the microprinted RFID. How much was on him when-”
“Not much, maybe twenty. Not from her. Does, sorry, did he carry a piece?”
“No, not usually. What was he shot with?”
“An old 9mm, three shots. Close range and from the front. Doesn’t look like he tried to defend himself, so he was probably surprised.”
“Or he knew the shooter. Either way I’d say he was surprised. Anything else?”
“There’s no record of anyone firing.” Modern weapons had a network connection that relayed when and where they were fired. Those in the killing trade just shifted to older and more anonymous technology. Usually, they used knives, but the odd antique still figured in crime. Often those were the crimes where killing was the primary objective.
I thought for a moment, “Or someone’s deleted the record.”
“This woman, she wasn’t in the mutual impedance society was she?”
“I wondered about it. She described the man she wanted to be tracked as a hacker. Wouldn’t surprise me if one of them were.”
“You’ve been most helpful Alan. I will not forget.”
“The trouble with you, Chips, is you don’t forget.”
The car door opened, and Detective Brown climbed in. The machine said, “Mr. Blake has been most helpful. Time we escorted him home. You won’t be traveling anywhere exotic in the next few days, will you Alan?”
“Good, I’d hate to have to interrupt your vacation.”
Mrs. Delacruiz smacked her ruler hard on the desk in front of Sarah Gonzales. It was the last class of the afternoon at Chavez Senior High and the end of a long day, both for her and her students.
“Sarah, those don’t look like history notes. More of your famous ‘Lord Pershore’ story?”
Sarah, a thin, just seventeen-year-old, student looked up at her teacher, blushed, and said, “Yes Mrs. Delacruiz.”
“I’ll take that.” She took the notebook from Sarah, “You can see me after the end of classes today if you want it and the other volumes I've confiscated back.”
“Now class, where were we? Who can tell me about the cause of the breakup?”
A couple of hands went up, including Sarah’s.
“Football, the SEC didn’t like the big ten.” The class laughed while Mrs. Delacruiz glared. She rapped her ruler on the desk a few more times and eventually restored order.
She said, “Very funny John, and completely incorrect. Anyone else?”
Sarah’s hand was the only one that remained up.
“Yes, Sarah. Were you paying attention?”
“No, I wasn’t. But I know the answer, the immediate cause was the convergence. When the first machines became self-aware, people were scared, and the federal government wasn’t able to assert its authority in the unrest that followed. The split-up reflected underlying tensions in the nation at the time. The south reformed a confederation, where such technology was banned. Texas went its own way and formed the ‘People’s Republic of Texas’ while Nevada and part of Utah split off to become the Free State. The-”
“Excellent as usual Sarah. Give someone else a chance to answer.”
“Yes Mrs. Delacruiz.”
Mrs. Delacruiz went to the front of the room. Then she turned and said, “State standards mandate that I show you a presentation about the effects of the breakup on social order. I'm also required to warn you about certain undesirable groups. Before I turn it on and please try to stay awake for it, does anyone remember what these groups are called?”
Once again a few hands, Sarah’s among them, went up. Finally, when only Sarah’s remained, she said, “Yes Sarah, what groups?”
“There’s a home-grown resistance called the mutual impedance society which the People’s Republic supports and the Free State supports a paramilitary group called the Free State Militia. They-.”
“They’re criminal organizations dedicated to the overthrow of modern society. Now don’t you forget that, no matter how glamorous they may seem.” She dimmed the lights, and the state-mandated video came on. While she had seen this eight times today, and countless times in the past, she still watched. It was entrancing to see how our brave secret service fought the nefarious terrorists who threatened to destroy society. She could imagine being one of them, dressed in sharp, clean clothing while she chased down the low-life scum. Then she started to read Sarah’s writing, became caught up in it, and was surprised when the video ended.
She stood up and addressed the class. “You know we have no class tomorrow, Friday.”
The class replied in unison, “Yes, Mrs. Delacruiz. It’s sorting day.”
“Don’t forget that your homework is still due Monday. I expect I’ll see you all again.”
“Yes, Mrs. Delacruiz.”
“Please don’t take it too hard when you’re not selected. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.”
The bell rang. The students jumped up and sprinted to their homerooms for the final words from their principal, Mr. Guezman.
Mrs. Delacruiz was packing her bag with papers to grade when Sarah knocked on the classroom door.
“Come in Sarah. I suppose you want your manuscript back.”
“Yes please, Mrs. Delacruiz.”
She went to her desk, opened a drawer and pulled it out. She added several more sections that she'd confiscated in the past. Then she said, “Sarah, are you expecting to be selected?”
“I don’t know. I’m good at math. So there’s always a chance.”
“You’re one of the best students in school.”
“That doesn’t mean I’ll be chosen.”
“I guess it doesn’t, but I’ll be disappointed if you aren’t.”
“Neither of my brothers was, and they’re OK. I’ll be fine no matter what.”
Mrs. Delacruiz laughed, “I hope so. Anyway,” she pointed at the manuscript. “Worst comes to worse, you can have a career ahead of you as a romance novelist.” She handed it to Sarah “It’s good writing. I hope you have time to keep up with your work at the Academy.”
“If I get there.”
“You will. Where are you going now?”
“Tae Kwon Do classes.”
“How does your mother pay for them?”
“She doesn’t. I have a scholarship.”
“Just like my brothers. Jose went to music school, and Xavier is at the Davis trade school studying wine-making.”
“I think it’s my father. He’s inside the jug but has friends on the outside.”
“I’m sure he’ll be proud of you, no matter what happens. I hope not to see you come Monday, but still make sure you do your homework.”
Lord Pershore leaned over Sarah as she lay in her bed. He had slipped into her bedroom and thrown open the bed-curtains in his passion. His muscled, masculine yet hairless chest shown in the candlelight as he pulled the sheets down to reveal her quivering body. He paused to examine her. Then he moaned “Oh Sarah, you make my life complete.” She pursed her lips, and he put his hot ones on hers. They met, and his tongue explored the recesses of her mouth. Hers did likewise to his. He pulled back from her, nodded, and said, “Are you ready?”
She sighed, “Yes, I am.”
He reached down with his muscular forearms and tore at her nightdress. Though silk and expensive it tore easily with his efforts. The ripping sound echoed through the stillness of the night. He sighed at the sight of her fulsome breasts. “I didn’t know you were so beautiful. You look even better without your clothes.” He put his mouth on her nipples, first the right one and then the left. She moaned in pleasure. Then he moved up and kissed her neck, and finally her mouth. She guided his hand down between her legs, loosening her for what she both feared and desired.
Sarah moaned, and then awoke. Her mother was knocking on her door.
“Sarah, get up! It’s almost time for school.”
“Mother, I was having the best dream, ever.”
“You don’t want to end up on relief or in prison like my no good husband, do you?”
“Then you need to get to school. Get good grades and go to a good school. Stop reading that romantic trash. I bet they won’t let you if you get accepted to the Academy.”
Sarah rose and put her stocking feet on the cold floor. Her tattered old ‘Hello Kitty’ nightgown was thick cotton, not silk, and the banded knit socks she wore were hardly elegant. Then neither was she, just a gangly teenager with a taste for romance and math. Maybe in a few years, if she were lucky, she’d meet someone who shared those tastes. If she were really lucky, it would be someone at the Academy.
As she walked to the bathroom, she called, “Mother, I’ll be ready soon. I need a shower first.”
“We’re still rationed.”
That mean a ‘navy shower’. Shouting, “Yes Mother,” Sarah quickly wet herself, then turned the shower off. After she had soaped her thin and bony body, she gave herself a quick rinse. It got most of the dirt, but she never felt clean after one.
Washed, sort of, she returned to her room and tried to select the most stylish of her outfits. It wasn’t easy since there was so little choice. In the end, she picked jeans and a clean shirt, what she always wore. Breakfast was a quick quesadilla. It was followed by a kiss from mother and another caution, “Do well because you don’t want to end up like me.”
“When’s father getting out?”
“You know that as well as I do. When the,” her mother quickly looked around then whispered, “Machine says he’s ready and not a second before.”
She grabbed her cell from the charger and headed off to high school. It was the day she received her aptitude evaluations. The “apt’s” or as some of her more literate friends called it, her “Owl levels” were the gateway to a better life. That was if she had the aptitude for something the machine needed. Otherwise, it might be a life of supporting herself horizontally with her people skills. At least until she was too old for that. Then she’d have to find some other means of support.
She walked by a team of diggers exposing an old water line for repair. One of the younger men whistled and then said, “Hey Beautiful.” He made an oh with the thumb and fingers of one hand and put a finger from his other through it.
She replied, “Get lost creep.”
Her cell asked her, “Why did you say that? He was paying you a compliment.”
“No, he wasn’t. He was just a jerk.”
Giving the students the results of their aptitude exams, or ‘the sorting’ was brutally simple. A man she’d never seen before came to her homeroom. He was dressed in sharp business attire and wore a discreet head mounted display in his glasses. He started at the beginning of the alphabet and walked from student to student. The lucky few heard their name and were given a quick gesture to go to the front of the room. The others just heard their name, then sat and cried, even the boys. She was near the end of the alphabet for her room, “Galt, John, Gomez, Francis” the seats in front of her were not picked. Finally, it was “Gonzales, Sarah.” She looked up; the man gestured with his thumb, and she, unsteadily, almost in a dream, walked to the front of the class. She didn’t hear him as he went through the rest of her homeroom. Not that anyone else joined her.
The man walked to the front of the room and told the three students who stood there to go to the principals’ office. While the apt’s were supposed to be equal opportunity tests, there weren’t many chosen from her school. Mr. Guezman was waiting there for them. He said, “Fifteen chosen. That’s the most we’ve ever had.” The other 3000 or so students would have to fare as best they could.
The fifteen of them nervously waited for their interviews. Being selected by their test scores was just the first step. They had to show that the tests weren’t an outlier in conversation with the interviewer. If anything were more humiliating than not being selected, it was being selected and then rejected at this step. Fortunately, the tests were usually accurate. Still, it wasn’t uncommon to find a few teenaged bodies floating in the bay, below one of the bridges, after this step. The state board of education felt this inevitable wastage was part of the price for a ‘world-class quality system of education’. Even as the department of transportation tried to repair the barriers on the bridges to assuage the grieving parents.
The man who announced their results briskly strode past them and into Mr. Guezman’s office. They could hear him as he took off his eyewear and said, “Damn, these things always make me a bit sick. I’ll need your room.”
“Yes sir.” Mr. Guezman briskly stood up, almost saluted and left. He shut the door behind him and beamed at his soon to be ex-students. None of the fifteen could hear or see what was happening behind the door.
The man opened the door and called out a name. Its holder went in and after a few minutes, left. They were hardly aware of where they were as they floated down the hall. Eventually, after what seemed like forever, he called, “Ms. Gonzales.”
Sarah stood, uncertain of what she should do. It was the first time she’d been addressed as an adult, Ms. Gonzales, not Sarah. The man smiled at her and said, “Please come in, I won’t bite you. I promise.”
She walked in and sat in the chair in front of the desk. The man walked around the desk and sat in Mr. Guezman’s seat. No one sat there, not even the teacher who was filling in for Mr. Guezman on the rare days he was absent. He had set up a visual link to the machine beside him. He smiled again, and said, “Nervous? I was when I was your age.”
Sarah stuttered out, “Yes.”
“Don’t be.” He pulled up a file on his display and started to read it. As he read, a frown crept over his face. She could hear him mutter, “This is going to be difficult.” Then he looked up, and the frown vanished. It was replaced by an impassive stillness that was, if anything, far worse. “It seems, Sarah, that you shouldn’t be here. These results.”
The machine beside him spoke, “Mr. Anderson. Please. I don’t make that kind of mistake. What seems to be the matter?”
The proceeded to discuss her as if she weren’t there.
“She doesn’t seem to have the depth we require. She is decent in logic and is highly imaginative, but.”
“Have you checked the date and signature?”
Sarah drifted off into her own world.
Lord Pershore pulled his sword and stealthily approached the highwaymen. They bound Lady Sarah Jane Gonzales and were carrying her off to their lair, a run-down public house near the Bath road. Then they would have their way with her, but not if he had-
“Ms. Gonzales, pay attention, please.” It was that man again. She stood and said, “Well if I’ve failed, I’ve failed. I’ll just go now.”
“No. You haven’t. We’ve found the error. It looks like someone from the resistance has been at work. You don’t know anyone in the mutual impedance society?”
“A bunch of misfits, terrorists who do not like modern society.”
“There are two sets of records for your exam, Ms. Gonzales. They both have valid signatures, but one just appeared last week. I should like to ask you a couple of questions to see which is correct.”
“Oh, all right. If you insist.” She sat down again and primly crossed her legs.
“There is a fork in the road with two guardians, one always tells the truth, the other always -”
“Ask what the other would say. Then do the opposite. I thought you were going to ask me something hard.”
“OK, Ms. Gonzales. I will. Prove that the square root of two is irrational.”
“We didn’t do that in school.”
“I know. Show me what you are made of.”
“What does irrational mean?”
“It means you can’t write a fraction for it.”
“Oh,” she paused for a few moments thought. “Then I guess I’d assume the square root of two was a fraction, say a/b. Then you’d have a2 = 2b2.”
“Good, what’s next?”
“Wait, a and b can’t have common factors if they’re a reduced fraction, but a2 and b2 are both even. So that’s a contradiction.”
The machine said to the man, “Mr. Anderson, I believe we have the correct Ms. Gonzales. There’s a small step she skipped, but the other Ms. Gonzales would not have gone so far. Congratulations, Sarah.”
The man rose and shook her hand. “I’m afraid the other students will have left for the Academy by now, but we’ll arrange for a car.”
“Can I call my mother to let her know? She’s worried about me. Didn’t say so but I could tell.”
“I would think that you will have time for a long conversation while you’re on the way.”
They walked together to the front of the school. Sarah could feel the eyes of her ex-friends and former acquaintances as they stared with malicious envy at her. She walked the now far too long hallways of Chavez High to get to the front door. When they reached the front, a car was waiting for her. It said, “Ms. Gonzales?”
“I’m here to take you away from all this.”
The door opened, and she entered the car. After it closed, she waved goodbye as the car sped off.