A TALE OF THE FAR FUTURE.
Well, I suppose I could tell you about the time Wright cheated me out of the love of my life. Yes, I know I told you about that time, but this was the other time. One of the other times, anyway.
It started the way it always seems to start, with Wright saying we were going to take the job and me saying it was a stupid idea. I told him he wasn’t a doctor, and he had no business pretending to know anything about medicine. I told him that if he would put something more specific than “Problems Solved” in his advertisements, we wouldn’t be bothered with jobs we didn’t know how to do.
He told me to pack his good suit, because there might be dinner. “But not the one that makes me look like a clown,” he added, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that all his good suits make him look like a clown.
I knew what had happened, of course. Our new clients had posed him an intellectual puzzle, and Wright thought he already had the solution. And he must have thought it was a clever solution that would give him a chance to show off how clever he was in front of a new and more appreciative audience. More appreciative than I am, that is. Our greatest triumphs always begin with Wright coming up with some instant intuition like that. So do our worst fiascos.
“You realize,” I said, “that if you’re wrong about whatever your pet theory is, our client will be dead, and we’ll get the blame.”
“The Institute is our client,” Wright replied, as if that settled all possible objections.
So I’ll skip over all the indignities of traveling in the cheapest possible seats in a crusty old local that should have been retired decades ago. If you looked at his bank account, you’d think that Wright was quite wealthy. But if you judged by the way he spends money, you’d have to conclude that he doesn’t know where his next meal is coming from. People look at him and wonder whether they should drop something in his hat, but he’s usually wearing it.
The Institute for Applied Research is in one of those boring middle-sized stopover colonies they used to build along the main routes, back when travel was a lot slower and it was a lot more useful to have boring places to stop. The colony orbits a stable but otherwise useless dwarf star, with no habitable planets or more interesting colonies around it. About half the population works for the Institute. And since the population is only about 12,000 (I think that’s what I heard), that leaves only 6,000 people to do something interesting with the place.
I could tell as soon as we arrived that those 6,000 weren’t nearly enough.
“What a backwater,” I grumbled as I surveyed the little core of run-down shops and cheap diners that was grandiosely labeled “Downtown” on the map.
“The Institute for Applied Research has been behind some of the most important advances in technology for the past 175 years,” Wright replied. He was repeating almost verbatim a sentence from the visitor brochure.
“I was hoping to meet some women,” I said.
“Our contact is a woman. At least to judge by her name.”
“I meant for fun.”
”They might have a whorehouse. You could ask.”
I didn’t dignify that with a response.
It was a very short walk from “Downtown” to the Institute’s main entrance, and as soon as we presented ourselves at the front desk we were made to feel very important. I do wish Wright would take the trouble to introduce me sometimes, instead of leaving me to explain myself; but all I had to say was “I’m John Pulaski, Mr. Wright’s assistant,” and I caught the full gleam of his reflected glory.
“Wait right here,” the suddenly nervous-looking receptionist said with her best attempt at an ingratiating smile. “Dr. Witterman will be right down.” And she scurried off to the tube, while Wright and I sat on a bench in front of the reception desk.
“That was a woman,” Wright pointed out helpfully.
“She’s about three times my age.”
”Oh, you have age requirements,” Wright said in that tone he uses when he thinks I’m being inexplicably unreasonable.
So I was sitting there thinking how boring this job was going to be, and grumbling at the utter boringness of the stark and boring lobby which I guessed was about fifty years old, dating from the boringest period of boring colonial architecture, and how fitting the style was as an emblem of the boredom I felt right at the moment—
—and suddenly the tube doors opened, and there she was: the love of my life.
Have you ever looked across a room and seen a woman and known, just known, that she was the love of your life, the one and only woman in the universe for you? It’s happened to me at least half a dozen times, so I recognize it when it happens. This was it.
I wish I could describe her to you, but some kinds of beauty are too transcendent to yield to mere words. You may take it for granted that, even in her sensible work outfit, her figure was perfect. Her cascading auburn hair—oh, I could get lost in that hair! Her face could have launched a thousand ships, or ten thousand moldy old liners like the one we came in on. But it was those eyes, eyes of the most transfixingly rich emerald color—the eyes were what pierced straight through to my soul. And yes, I know that deep emerald irises like those are almost always implants. And yes, hers were. And I didn’t care. It was what she did with those eyes that was the magic. She turned them toward me, and I felt hot and cold and tense and limp all at the same time.
“Mr. Wright?” she asked as she stepped out of the tube car, walking toward us.
I stood at once, and Wright rose after I kicked his ankle.
“Thomas Aquinas Wright,” he said automatically as he stood. After years of training, I had finally taught him to respond to a greeting in at least a minimal way.
“I’m Rebecca Witterman,” the vision of glory announced, holding out her hand as she approached. I kicked Wright again, and his hand rose to meet hers.
“And I’m John Pulaski,” I said, wanting, needing, a touch, however brief, from that perfect hand.
She turned her eyes toward mine, and I took her hand, and I felt the whole colony spinning—which of course it does: I mean, that’s how we get gravity, isn’t it? But it was all spinning around her eyes, and I felt my whole body melting into her hand.
But she had finished saying “Pleased to meet you,” and I had to let her hand go unless I was going to propose to her on the spot—which I seriously considered before deciding that it was probably premature.
“I was impressed by your work with the Pevunghian cult artifacts,” the vision said, apparently to both of us. “Such a surprising answer to a difficult problem. No one else had thought of it.”
“I figured out how to make them talk,” Wright said. “Any genius could probably have done it.”
“Mr. Wright is characteristically modest,” I said quickly, lying through my teeth. Part of my job is to make Wright look good to the client without letting him make too much of an arrogant twit of himself.
“But no other genius did find the answer. You did. I’ve come to the conclusion that our own problem here needs some sort of genius that we don’t have.”
“You have us now,” I told her, and I was rewarded by a glance from those eyes.
”Would you like to start by seeing the patient?” she asked us.
Wright looked at me. Usually, left to himself, he would just go into a room and start building something that would test his hypothesis. But I had lectured him enough on the human side of the business that he was willing to spend a little extra time at the beginning of a job pretending to be human if I thought it was necessary. And I wanted to spend a few extra hours or years with Dr. Witterman, so of course I said yes. To be precise, I said, “That sounds like a good idea.”
So Dr. Witterman led us to the tube—oh, she was perfect from every angle—and we squeezed into the little car, which was delightfully cramped, which meant that I was standing near enough to Dr. Witterman to feel the warmth radiating from her body. I hoped the ride would last forever, but we went up a few levels and then over for a minute, and we stopped when the display read “HOSPITAL.”
The Institute’s research hospital looked pretty much like any other hospital—a bit blander, perhaps, but that was the era: it looked as though the whole institute complex was rebuilt at the same nadir of colonial architecture. We walked through a quiet hall, past mostly empty rooms, until we came to a door marked “DANGER—QUARANTINE—AUTHORIZED PERSONS ONLY.”
“We can go in as far as the observation room,” Dr. Wilterman told us, waving her hand over the lock. “We can’t go into the patient room without suiting up.”
She opened the door and led us into a little room—more like a booth, and again it necessitated standing very close to her—with an entire wall of window overlooking another small room. In that room beyond was a bed, and on the bed was a body—presumably still living, since there were monitors in the booth measuring heart rate and temperature and other things that cease to be interesting after the patient is dead. But the man could have been a plaster statue for all the signs of life he showed to my unscientific eye.
“He’s still being kept in a coma,” Dr. Witterman explained. “I, um, don’t know how much of what we sent you you’ve had a chance to read…”
Wright and I had both read the whole file. I’d read it twice just on the trip, because there was nothing else to do while the rumbling old local lurched from one godforsaken backwater to the next. But I wanted to hear more of her voice, and to stand there right next to her and inhale the ethereal but intoxicating fragrance of her, so I decided to suggest, “Why don’t you give us a more informal summary, so we can understand it from your perspective?”
“Well,” she said, and I was in heaven just listening to the music of her voice, “it should be a basic bacterial infection, but those aren’t basic bacteria. They come from a strain we were modifying genetically to fight against other infections.”
“You said they were like primitive computers,” I mentioned just to show that I had actually done my homework, and with the hope that she would turn those eyes back to me for a moment.
“Very primitive,” she confirmed—and yes! the eyes! “Simple binary machines, slow and limited, but implemented biochemically. They were supposed to be able to react to changing conditions with a few simple if-then instructions. And that may be the problem. No matter what we throw at it, the infection just adapts.”
“’How do you get the output from them?” Wright asked.
“Status, data collected…”
“Oh. We don’t. They weren’t designed to collect data. They were just supposed to go in, do their job, and then be flushed out.”
“Mm,” Wright said. It was a disapproving “mm.”
“So they don’t have something like an expiration date?” I asked. “You know, like some way of automatically shutting down when they’re done?”
“They should die when the infection they’re fighting is gone, because that’s their food, so to speak. That didn’t happen. Failing that, we should be able to get rid of them with a standard antibiotic treatment. That didn’t happen either.”
“And you’ve never had this problem before?” I asked.
“This was our first experiment on a human subject,” she answered. I apparently hadn’t quite done all my homework. But at least I got a flash of those eyes. “It worked perfectly in mice.”
“I’ll need a big room,” Wright told her, “with all the equipment for working on your bugs. I’ll need two of your top lab techs who know this project. I’ll need access to every file, including the ones you don’t want to show me because you think they’re trade secrets. And I’ll need you.”
“You’re obviously in charge here, so you can get things done. I need you to drop whatever else you’re doing and be available for me all day, every day, until this problem is solved.”
That was an unusual demand from Wright, whose usual demands were more like “Give me what I want and leave me alone.” But my soul danced a jig that I could barely keep out of my feet when Dr. Witterman cheerfully agreed. Yes! I would be working all day with the love of my life! This would be the best job we’d ever had.
“That went well,” I said cheerfully as I helped Wright unpack his things in the bland but spacious guest room he’d been assigned. “Dr. Witterman gave you everything you wanted, and you didn’t even have to throw a tantrum.”
“And did you ever see legs like those in your life?” Wright added.
A little alarm bell rang in my brain. “What?”
“Rebecca. She has perfect legs.”
“She was wearing pants.”
“They were tight. You could see the shape of her legs. Did you like the way I made sure she’d be with me all day? I’m looking forward to that, I can tell you.”
“Wait a minute. Are you saying you got Dr. Witterman to work with us just so you could gawk at her legs all day?”
“Well, eventually I’m hoping to see a lot more than her legs.”
“You— but— What’s got into you? You never chase women when we’re working. You never chase women when we’re not working.”
“I never met one with legs like those before.” He was smiling and looking past me, as if his mind was filled with pleasant images.
“No,” I said. “No, no, no, no. You can’t do this to me. How can you talk about her legs when…
“When… those eyes?”
“Oh, so you’re an eye man. I’m a leg man. Well, may the best man win, then.”
I slammed a drawer shut and turned to stomp out of the room.
“Just remember,” Wright added, “I’m the genius.”
Because I couldn’t think of a comeback for that, Wright had the last word, which ruined my dramatic exit.
Continues in Part Two.