THE BRIGHT LINE.

A TALE OF THE FAR FUTURE.

Part Two.

Continuing the story that began here.

Dr. Witterman’s minions must have worked all night, because by the middle of the next morning, standard time, Wright had the lab he wanted, with all the stuff he had asked for and two techs eagerly awaiting his orders, and the glorious Dr. Witterman herself sitting on a stool, looking even more beautiful than she had looked the day before. Wright had not called me after breakfast, and after a while I had got suspicious and gone looking for him. And sure enough he was there already, discussing something about bacteria with her. There could be only one reason why he had started without me, when ordinarily he thinks he needs me to buckle his shoes.

“Good morning, Mr. Pulaski,” Dr. Witterman said when she saw me come into the room.

“Oh, you can just call me John,” I replied. Whatever advantage in intimacy Wright had gained so far, I was determined to catch up.

Wright looked up at me with a calculating expression. “Oh, you’re here,” he said. “Good.” There was a pause while he calculated some more; and then, “Go up to my room and get my sketch pad.”

What a transparent ploy! “There’s one right next to you,” I pointed out with an oh-no-you-don’t glare.

“I like mine better.”

“Yours doesn’t even have a stylus anymore.”

“I’m used to it.”

He won that round. Without making an ugly scene in front of the love of my life, I had no way of refusing to assist him. “Assistant” was my title, after all. But he would pay for it. All the way up and over in the tube I thought of ways to make him pay for it, but most of them were illegal.

I returned with the sketch pad, and since Rebecca was across the room conferring with one of the techs, I took the opportunity to inform Wright that, if he sent me off for no reason again, I would poison his coffee. I don’t know whether he believed me or not, but I think he may have hesitated a bit the next time he took a sip.

One big advantage I had was that Wright couldn’t concentrate on our little rivalry forever. He had to do some actual work, if only to keep Rebecca’s respect; and once he got started on the problem, he actually got interested in it. I, on the other hand, had no real interest in the problem at all. While Wright was scribbling on his sketch pad with his finger, I had the opportunity to talk about nothing in particular with Rebecca. She was easy to talk to once I got her going, and I was thoroughly enjoying myself when Wright suddenly announced, “I need a sample.”

“A sample?” I asked.

“Some of the bugs infecting our patient. I need a current sample, taken from the patient right now, isolated and cultured.”

“I’ll take care of that myself,” Rebecca said.

“I’ll go with her,” I quickly added.

“No, I’ll go,” Wright said.

“Don’t be silly. You have important work to do. I can go.”

“He’s right,” Rebecca said—dear Rebecca! “You don’t need to come with me. That’s why you have an assistant, after all.”

Round two to me. Wright did a very poor job of concealing his annoyance, and I left with Rebecca.

“So anyway,” I continued as we walked toward the tube, picking up our conversation where it had left off, “I’ve always lived in a big city. I’d think a small colony like this would limit your social opportunities.”

“Well, I have to admit, when I was younger I thought I’d be married by this age. But I do love my work, and this is where it is.” We stepped into the tube, and as the door closed and the little car started to move, she continued: “How about you? Do you have a husband or boyfriend waiting for you?”

I laughed. “That’s not my thing, I’m afraid. I’m only into women.”

“Oh! I’m sorry.” She sounded a bit puzzled. “Thomas said you were homosexual.”

He did, did he? “Thomas was mistaken.” And he would pay for it. I wondered whether any of those dumpy little stores sold rat poison.

I suppose there was really very little reason for Wright or me to go along with her, since all I ended up doing was watching while she put on the biohazard suit and went in to draw blood from the patient. It would have been just about as exciting as watching dust settle on the furniture if it had been anyone else doing it, but there was just something poetic about the Rebecca moved, even in the bulky suit and filter hood. And of course I would have loved to be watching when she decontaminated, but the provisions for privacy were disappointingly adequate.

That first day of work was very stressful for Wright and me—at least I know it was for me, and I can infer that it probably was for Wright. He found half a dozen excuses for sending me away on trivial errands that were just useful enough to be plausible, and I found increasingly implausible reasons for following Rebecca every time she left the room. I was exhausted by the time we knocked off for the evening, and then we still had to have dinner with Rebecca and the two techs, which meant that I still had to be bright and cheerful for another two hours. And Wright was making some effort in that direction, too, but he was a bit subdued—a bit more like his normal self. Which could be dangerous. If he solved the problem right away, he might look like the wizard he thinks he is, and that might have some considerable effect on Rebecca’s esteem for him. I would have to watch these developments. It looked as though he was thinking.

I was right about the thinking. In the middle of the night I woke to a thunderous pounding on my door. I incorporated it into my dream of Rebecca for a few seconds, but it became too insistent to sleep through.

“Get Rebecca down to the lab,” Wright told me when I opened the door. “She gave me her thingy, but I lost it. Stupid com. Go get her. She needs to see this.”

“It’s—” I stopped. I was about to tell him it was half past two, and whatever it was could wait until the rest of the world woke up. But then the image of Rebecca in a diaphanous nightgown floated into my mind, and I thought, in the selfish depths of my primitive mind, that there might be some advantage to rousing her from bed in the middle of the night for one of Wright’s whims. What was the worst thing that could happen? She’d be roused in the middle of the night for no good reason, and it would be all Wright’s fault. And I would sympathize, and…

I called Rebecca—the com knew her as “Witterman,” and I suspect that the “thingy” Wright had lost was her last name—and told her what Wright had told me. Then I ran for the tube, which did me no good at all, because I still had to wait two and a half minutes for the next car. Still, though Wright got to the lab first, he didn’t gain anything by it, since Rebecca and I arrived at the same time from opposite directions. I was disappointed in my hope for a diaphanous nightgown, by the way; she was in shorts and a floppy shirt. The shorts at least confirmed that Wright was correct about her legs.

“Come in,” Wright said impatiently. “Over there. The sample on the bench. Go—over there—the sample on the bench.” He was practically pushing us. We walked over to where the little transparent box of bugs in culture was sitting on a lab bench. All I could see was the transparent box with some goo in it. I admit that microbiology isn’t my thing, but a glance at Rebecca told me that she was just as puzzled as I was.

“Ready?” Wright asked. We didn’t answer, because we didn’t know what we were supposed to be ready for. “Lights out.”

The room lighting turned off, leaving us in total darkness. Total, except—there was a glowing green line straight across the sample box.

“How did you do that?” Rebecca’s voice asked in the darkness.

“I didn’t,” Wright answered. “They did. Or I should say it did.”

“What does it mean?” I asked.

“It means I was right,” Wright answered. “It means I need to get you and the techs building the things on my sketch pad. In fact, I need another tech. I need a computer tech. Get me the best you have. Now we can really get to work.”

“Can it wait until morning?” I asked, more than a little annoyed.

Wright was in the middle of a full-blown enthusiasm. “Wait?”

“Lights on,” I said, and the room became blindingly bright. “Have you had any sleep?”

“Sleep?” he repeated, as if it were some foreign slang term that his translator couldn’t parse.

“We won’t do our best work unless we’ve had some rest.”

“Rest?”

Here Rebecca intervened and made me love her even more. “John’s right. We can get started after breakfast. You can explain it all to us then.”

Thanks to her sober thinking, we were all able to get a few more hours’ sleep, to Wright’s great disappointment but no one else’s. After breakfast I made sure to get right to the lab, without waiting for Wright to summon me, and I actually managed to get there before Rebecca did.

“So was it really necessary to wake us up in the middle of the night?” I asked Wright, who was making some last-minute adjustments to one of his drawings.

“Of course it was,” he replied, without adding any other reason than “of course.” He didn’t lift his head from the drawing, either. I looked at one of the techs, and she silently shrugged. She was already learning the first principle of dealing with Wright, which is not to try to figure him out.

Rebecca showed up a little while later with a computer tech in tow. The tech was a no-nonsense middle-aged woman who looked as if she had seen several wars and could deal with any emergency. I figured Wright would have her reduced to tears within an hour.

“We’re building this,” Wright said, showing us a sketch. “You’ll deal with the mechanical parts and the wiring,” he said to me; and to the computer tech, “You’ll deal with the chemo-electronic conversion and plug in some standard two-way speech converter here.”

I had to ask the obvious question: “What will it do?”

“It will talk to the bugs,” Wright answered. “And the bugs will talk back.”

The trouble with asking Wright an obvious question is that even when you get a straight answer it doesn’t make any sense.

We got right to work, requisitioning materials and making notes on Wright’s sketches to show how this would fit into that. The mechanical and electrical parts were simple enough—just a box with switches, connections, and other things needed to hold up and connect whatever mystical apparatus the computer tech was building. She just told me what had to be connected, and I figured out a way to connect it.

And now Wright had the advantage, because I had to be working most of the time, whereas all Wright had to do was look over my shoulder once in a while and tell me I was doing it wrong. So he could spend most of the time chatting over in a corner with Rebecca. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I heard Rebecca laugh twice, and unless she was laughing at his preposterous arrogance those laughs represented two more jokes than I had ever heard Wright make since I’d met him. It was galling, but the only way out I could think of was to get my job done quickly and well, so that I’d be done soon and wouldn’t have to do any of the work over again. It’s a sad day when high-quality work is the only strategy I can come up with.

We had worked past lunch—did I mention that we didn’t stop to eat?—when Wright came over to add what he called a minor alteration, which instantly scrapped the whole interface the computer tech and I had built. The tech’s head flopped down on the counter in resignation and despair. I muttered under my breath, “That took longer than I expected.” And since Wright’s new design called for “some sort of bio-interface thing,” we ended up having to call in a medical tech as well, which took more time. I offered to go with Rebecca to explain things to the medical tech, but she very reasonably pointed out that it would be easier to explain things once the tech was in the lab. So Wright went with her instead. How did that happen? I don’t know, but it was a triumph for him. He would have looked more triumphant if he hadn’t been sticking his tongue out at me as he left with her.

It took us a day and a half, but eventually we had Wright’s thing cobbled together, whatever it was. It was big enough to need a cart of its own—not one of the expensive hovercarts I’m sure Wright would have specified if it had been up to him, but a good old-fashioned cheap cart on wheels, one of which squeaked all the way down the hall to the tube. There wasn’t enough room for all of us and the cart in the little car, so Wright somehow got Rebecca to go with him in the first car and left the tech and me to wait with the cart for the next car.

The cart squeaked out of the tube and all the way to the patient’s room. It was loud enough to make conversation difficult. We didn’t really get to talk until the medical tech suited up and squeaked the cart in to start hooking Wright’s thing up to the patient.

“What will it do?” Rebecca asked—not for the first time.

“It will talk to the bugs,” Wright answered—not for the first time. I think Wright actually believes he’s giving straight answers when he talks like that. I decided to fill in what I could:

“Your medical tech says the interface basically becomes part of the patient’s circulatory system. His blood will flow through it, and Mr. Wright’s machine will…do something to it.”

“It varies certain chemical quantities that correspond to binary values,” Wright added, not at all helpfully to me.

But it was apparently helpful to Rebecca. Her gorgeous eyes lit up; I could almost see their emerald glow shining on Wright’s face. “You’ve built a computer terminal!” she exclaimed with dishearteningly obvious admiration.

“Exactly,” Wright agreed, looking smug.

“Well,” I asked a bit testily, “why didn’t you just say that?”

“I didn’t want to get too technical.”

So I had to listen to Rebecca’s unreserved admiration as she interrogated Wright, and he described chemical processes I didn’t understand, and I didn’t realize he understood either. When did he become a chemist?

At last the thing was hooked up, and the tech was decontaminated and back on our side of the window. It was time for a demonstration in the cramped little booth. At least I had managed to maneuver myself so that I was standing right next to Rebecca, and maybe by physical proximity I could give pheromones a chance to operate. Maybe it would have been a good idea to study chemistry.

Wright held the little brown box we had made for him. It had an elementary sound transmission and reception system, and a button to hold in when he wanted to transmit. He held in the button and said, slowly and clearly, “Who are you?”

We waited.

I could hear Rebecca’s soft and shallow expectant breathing. The silence continued.

“Well, that was exciting,” I remarked after half a minute or so. My job is to make Wright look good, but I wasn’t getting much job satisfaction at the moment.

Suddenly—it startled us all—there was an artificial female voice from the box. “I am I,” it said.

There was more silence, but this silence had a certain stunned quality to it.

At last Rebecca asked quietly, “Was that the—”

The box interrupted her: “Are you I?”

Wright pressed the button and said, “No.”

We waited in silence until the box spoke again: “You are other than I.”

“Yes,” Wright responded.

There was more silence, but it was noticeably shorter than the previous silence. Then the box said, “Other than I is I to you.”

“Um,” Wright said, but Rebecca quickly said “Yes!,” so Wright pushed the button and said “Yes” into the box.

That was the end of the conversation for the moment. “Let’s go back to the lab,” Wright said. “I figured out how to talk to it. Now I have to figure out what to say.”

“What exactly were we talking to?” I asked.

“Yes,” Rebecca agreed. “I think I’m beginning to see it, but I need you to tell me what it all means. In the lab—tell me in the lab. I need to think.”

So we all got out of that cramped little booth and headed for the cramped little tube car. This time I managed to get into the first car with Rebecca without too obviously shoving Wright out of the way, so while I was alone in the tube with her I asked her for some clarification.

“What’s it about? I’m afraid I’m not a chemist, so…”

“Thomas is a genius,” she said with obvious admiration—and yet somehow she didn’t sound altogether happy about it.

“Well, that’s what he says, but it’s really more of an advertising slogan.”

“I’m not going to be happy however this turns out.” She sighed a melodramatic sigh. “Somebody’s going to die.”

That didn’t sound very good. I don’t know what you think when you hear “somebody’s going to die,” but one of the first things I think is, “Maybe it’s going to be me.”

“You mean your patient?” I asked.

“Or… somebody else.” And then, almost inaudibly, and not really to me: “And I’ll bet I get to choose.”

When we got back to the lab, Rebecca started making calls right away. Wright walked in while she was on her third call. “There was room for four in that car,” he grumbled.

“I didn’t want to take the risk,” I explained.

“All right,” Rebecca announced. “One more, and then we wait for them to get here.”

“Wait for whom?” Wright and I asked simultaneously.

“The Board of Ethics. At least the ones who aren’t off-colony—we’ll be missing two. I need the best advice I can get.”

She was already back on the com, so I asked Wright, “Advice about what?”

“Don’t ask me,” he replied. “I never understood ethics.”

And would you believe me if I told you I actually kept my mouth shut?

Concludes in Part Three.