THE BRIGHT LINE.

A TALE OF THE FAR FUTURE.

Part Three.

Concluding the story that began here.

Rebecca must have sounded urgent, or the members of the board must not have had any real work to do, because it didn’t take them long at all to assemble in the lab. Rebecca had arranged chairs and stools in a circle, and the meeting was promptly called to order.

“We called in Mr. Wright and Mr. Pulaski for a fresh perspective on why we couldn’t beat Mr. Kulundu’s infection,” Rebecca began. “Mr. Wright, could you explain what you’ve found?”

“You created a new form of intelligent life and now we have to kill it,” Wright said.

Including the four techs who were sitting over in the corner of the room looking bored until that moment, there were only eleven of us; but there was enough low murmuring for a considerable crowd.

“Well,” Rebecca said over the murmuring, “that’s what we’re here to decide. Mr. Wright, do you think you could explain how you came to your conclusion?”

She had just invited him to give his favorite lecture: How T. A. Wright Is Smarter Than You. “It was obvious, really,” he said, implying “obvious to a genius like me”: “in fact I suspected it from the moment I got your first inquiry. You designed your bacteria to work together by means of binary values and a simple instruction set. In a mouse they multiplied as you planned and formed a small biological computer that was completely adequate to its task. But in a human subject, of course, they had the opportunity to multiply into a computer that was more complex by orders of magnitude. Although our modern computers use much more exten­sive instruction sets for the sake of efficiency, we’ve known for centuries that, in theory, binary values and a simple instruction set can create infinite complexity. Your mistake was in not designing any barriers to that complexity. In a sense, you trusted your bugs too much. Now they’ve formed not just a brain but a mind. The mind is intelligent enough to meet the challenge of any treat­ment you’ve tried so far, and it’s becoming curious. It recognizes that there is an outside world where some other intelligence lives—maybe a malicious intelligence, but an intelligence—and it wants to communicate.”

“That’s the reason for the glowing line,” Rebecca said. Obviously the connection had just occurred to her.

Here an elderly man with a grey beard halfway down to his waist spoke up: “What glowing line?”

So Rebecca explained, with help from Wright, all about the experiments we’d made so far, playing the recorded conversation with the bugs. With a few more technical explanations, the four members of the board were convinced. Even I felt as though I under­stood what was going on.

Rebecca turned and called the medical tech over to the circle. “How long can Mr. Kulundu’s body be kept alive?”

“The body? Years. But the brain won’t keep functioning forever. You’d have to ask the doctors how long, but…two weeks, maybe.”

“After that,” Rebecca said, “we’ve got a live body but a dead person.”

“Pretty much,” the tech agreed.

“So,” Rebecca continued, “we have two persons that both need the same body, and only one can have it.”

A woman on the ethics committee asked, “Can’t we just take some of the bacteria and grow them in a culture?”

“Can’t we just kill you and clone you from your fingernail?” Wright returned. I glowered at him, but he wasn’t looking in my direction.

Rebecca noticed the rather bludgeoned look on the committee member’s face (a common reaction to meeting Wright for the first time), and she explained in a con­cili­atory tone, “Mr. Wright has pointed out, quite graphically, the flaw in that idea—and, believe me, it was the first thing I thought of—which is that it wouldn’t be the same person. This intel­ligence, however we think of it, is made up of all the bac­teria, con­stantly changing, dividing, dying, and experiencing. It’s murder to kill you even if you have clone children, because you’re a distinct person. It’s not your genetic makeup—it’s the combination of that and all you’ve learned, all you’ve felt, all you remem­ber, all you’ve made of yourself. Another intel­ligent biological computer grown from the same stock would be a different…person. I can’t avoid that word ‘person.’ ”

The man with the remarkable beard said, “I think the answer is obvious here. The body belongs to Mr. Kulundu. It is Mr. Kulundu. No matter how inno­cently it happened, this other thing is an invader. Sometimes we have to defend ourselves.”

“But this is a new species,” Rebecca said. “And it’s unique. And it’s intelligent. How can we deliberately…” She paused to choose the exact word. “How can we deliberately murder it?”

“Dr. Witterman, you of all people—”

“Of all people I’m the one who hates this decision most,” she said with a bit of steel in her voice that I hadn’t heard before. It was very attractive. “I think you know me well enough to believe that. But we’ll make it together, and we’ll make it as dis­pas­sionately as we can. Today we’re going to learn what we can learn, and then we can think about our decision. Mr. Wright, if we decided to kill the… the infection, do you think it could be done?”

“Easily,” Wright said.

“We haven’t been able to do it,” the beard grumbled.

“That’s because you tried to beat it with a club,” Wright said. “It’s an intelligence. First you have to distract it. Then you beat it with a club.”

“Distract it?” Rebecca asked. And then I could almost hear something click in her brain. “Oh, you mean—”

“It thinks in chemicals,” Wright explained, not giving even the divine Rebecca a chance to be clever in the same room. “Chemical quantities repre­sent binary states—that’s how the individual cells make up one brain. Flood the body with those proteins, and the brain disappears. You’ve killed it. Then you just have to mop up a bunch of indi­vidual bacteria.”

“Simple,” one of the committee members said.

“But brilliant,” Rebecca added quite unnecessarily. Although I suppose if she hadn’t said it Wright would have.

“So we think we know how to save Mr. Kulundu,” the beard said. “I say the sooner we use that information the better.”

“I agree,” said another member of the board.

“I think,” Rebecca said—and then she paused to consider how she ought to continue. “I think we have a duty to listen to at least one other opinion.”

She looked at Wright, and it was a significant look, which of course meant that Wright was completely oblivious to it. “The box,” I mouthed to him, but he doesn’t read lips.

At last Rebecca figured out that Wright wasn’t going to get it. “Mr. Wright,” she said, “could you please put us in touch with… with the intel­ligence again?”

“Oh,” he said. He picked up the box, which was sitting on the floor beside him. Turning it on, he took a breath to speak, when the box suddenly spoke in its un­settlingly bland female voice:

“Are you there?”

“Uh,” Wright said. We were all a bit startled—even I was, and I’d heard the box talk before. Everyone had probably heard dozens of artificial-voice systems that used this identical voice, but the idea of an infectious disease talking to us was a little spooky.

“Are you there?” the box said again, without varying its expression.

“Answer the nice bugs,” I whispered to Wright.

“Interesting,” he said, looking at the simple display on the box. “It looks as though the intelligence has been sending an ‘Are you there’ message every twelve and a half seconds, roughly speaking.”

“Let me talk to it,” Rebecca said. Wright shrugged and passed the box over to her.

Rebecca pushed the button. “We are here,” she said.

After a short silence, the box said, “We.”

“Yes,” Rebecca responded.

“There are other others,” said the box.

“Yes,” Rebecca said.

“Where?” the box asked.

Rebecca hesitated. She looked at Wright, who was looking at her legs, and then decided to answer, “Outside.”

There was a short silence, and then the box said, “Outside the world.”

Rebecca thought for a moment. “Your world,” she said to the box, “is my friend Pierre Kulundu. We created you to go into his body and heal him, but you became some­thing else. Something new.”

After the usual pause, the box asked, “You are worlds?”

While Rebecca was thinking about that one, it suddenly occurred to me that the thing she was talking to was struggling with its own thoughts as much as she was with hers. “You live in Mr. Kulurdu’s body, but he can’t keep living with you in there. That’s our problem. And if Pierre dies…”

She stopped, let go of the button for a moment, and then pushed it and continued.

“I don’t want to harm you. And I don’t want to lose Pierre. And I don’t know how to save Pierre without harming you. He’ll die if…”

She stopped. Outwardly her face was impassive; but her face wasn’t usually impassive, and I suspected a mighty struggle with her emotions behind the face.

Then the box spoke again. “He will die if I live.”

Rebecca looked down at the box and then back up, glancing around the circle. “Does anyone have the heart to answer that one?”

There was silence for half a minute.

Then the beard spoke up. “My opinion hasn’t changed. I still say we have a duty to save Mr. Kulundu. No matter how sophisti­cated the attack, no matter how innocent the attacker, it’s still an attack. He has a disease, and our duty is to cure it.”

“My opinion has changed,” Rebecca said. “I wasn’t sure, but now I am. I can’t recommend taking an innocent life. There’s a bright line we can’t cross, or we become murderers.”

“But,” the beard objected, “if we fail to save Mr. Kulundu when we know we could, then we murder him.”

“If we look at the question philosophically,” another board member said, “we might be able—”

“Just vote and get it over with,’’ Wright said. Uncertainty annoys him, and he has a violent allergy to philosophy.

After a moment of silence, Rebecca said, “He’s right. We’ll only dither if we spin it out. All stand, and we’ll take a vote.”

We all stood up. Although I wasn’t on the board, I would have felt awkward sitting when everyone else was standing, and in a social situation Wright usually just does what I do if he happens to notice it.

Rebecca posed the question officially: “Shall we apply Mr. Wright’s suggested cure? I’ll start. I vote no.”

“Yes,” the beard said.

“Yes,” said the next board member in the circle.

“No.”

“Yes.”

And then Rebecca looked at me. “We’re missing two members, and…”

The beard said, “Yes, I agree. You and Mr. Wright are our experts. You’re entitled to a vote.”

Ha! I saw where my chance lay. I knew Wright would side with Rebecca, but I had the chance to do it first and earn her grati­tude on my own, not just as Wright’s minion. “No,” I said confidently.

We all turned to Wright. He had the deciding vote. I looked a bit smug, I’m sure: I had stolen his chance to be the first to leap to Rebecca’s defense and take her side.

“Yes,” Wright said.

What? What was he up to? Had he actually developed prin­ciples or something? Was he exhibiting early symptoms of a conscience?

And then Rebecca suddenly fell on him—literally fell on him, her arms around him, tears flooding her cheeks. “Thank you!” she half-whispered, and she actually kissed his filthy cheek. “Thank you! Thank you!”

Well, this was just too much. I had voted with her. I had been on her side. If it had been up to me, the vote would have gone her way. Here Wright casts the deciding vote against her, and somehow he sucks up all the grati­tude. Where is the justice in that?

And of course he was smirking at me over her shoulder. He knew. Somehow he knew it would work out this way.

Wright addressed the rest of the room. “I need a current sample, with a complete chemical analysis to see what the thing has mutated into. We’ll get to work right away.”

Rebecca pulled herself together and let go of him. “I’ll take care of it,” she said; and she started for the door, with the medical tech close behind her.

“I’ll go with you,” I said.

“So will I,” Wright added immediately.

And for some reason the beard and another board member came along, too, and for some reason they made it to the tube and into the first car with Rebecca well before we got there. Maybe it was because of the way Wright and I kept tripping each other. We had the next car to ourselves.

“You knew, didn’t you?” I said to him as the little car took off.

“Knew what?” he asked in that infuri­atingly smug voice he uses when he knows he’s got the best of me.

I knew he knew what I meant, and I knew he knew I knew it. “The thing I can’t work out is how you knew that Rebecca wanted you to vote against her. I mean, I can see the psychology of it—can’t stand the idea of having the death of a colleague on her conscience, blah blah blah. But how did you know?”

“I asked the medical tech,” he answered smugly.

I was taken aback. I had expected some clever series of deductions. “That’s all?”

“I just said, ‘What does she really want me to do?’ and he said, ‘She’ll wrestle with her conscience, but what she really wants to do is appease her conscience and then be talked out of it.’ Sometimes the cleverest solution is the most straightforward.”

“That’s cheating,” I grumbled, by which I meant, “I wish I’d thought of it.” “So now,” I continued, “you just have to hope your idea works. If it doesn’t, you still lose.”

“Oh, I don’t think I have to worry about that.”

“You never worry, do you? But you’ve failed before. How do you know you can kill the bugs without killing our patient?”

“I’m pretty sure that’s already taken care of,” Wright said, still sounding smug. I had no idea what he meant by that, but I wasn’t in the mood to give him the satisfaction of asking.

We reached the patient’s room to find something of a commotion going on. Rebecca was saying, “Are you sure? It’s not just—” And the tech was inter­rupting her with “Look at the numbers!”

“I thought so,” Wright said. He wasn’t smiling, but I could smell the stench of smugness in the air.

“They’re gone,” Rebecca told him. “They’re just gone.”

“Well,” Wright responded, “that saves us some trouble.”

“Gone?” I felt as though the ship had left without me. “What’s gone? What do you mean, ‘gone’?”

“No trace of living bacteria in the patient’s blood­stream,” the medical tech explained. “I mean, you know, manu­factured ones. They just, uh—”

“Killed themselves,” Wright said. “Not surprising.”

“Not surprising?” Rebecca and I asked simultaneously.

“You gave them an ethical problem, and they solved it quite efficiently,” Wright said with that annoying detachment of his.

Rebecca looked stunned. “It was more human than we were willing to be.” She was gazing at me with those marvelous eyes, but I had a strong impression that she was staring into space and I just happened to be in the way. Then she snapped back into her competent-administrator mode. “Get his doctors up here right away. The infection is gone, so we can start reviving Pierre immediately.”

“Well, then,” Wright said cheerfully, “problem solved.” That was his way of reminding them that they owed him a fee.

• • •

It seems that our clients always want to do something to honor us when Wright has solved a thorny problem, and it seems that, pretty much universally, the idea they come up with is dinner. Our dinner was scheduled for two days after the demise of Mr. Kulundu’s infection. By that time the patient had revived wonder­fully, thanks to the excellent facilities of the Institute’s medical department. We had seen him a couple of times, because Rebecca insisted on introducing Wright to him as the genius who had saved his life. After that, Rebecca seemed to be very busy, and I didn’t see much of her. But Wright didn’t either, as far as I could tell.

I got out Wright’s good suit for him, and he spent half an hour making himself look like a clown, which was quite a bit of effort for a man who usually thinks it takes five minutes to dress for a funeral. I think he had it in mind that this dinner would be his last chance to impress Rebecca. I had it in mind, too. I did not look like a clown.

It was as formal a dinner as they could manage in the bland conference room the Institute provided. We were ready to sit down to a meal of appropriately bland institutional food, but we were waiting for Rebecca. She was very uncharacteristically late, as the bearded man remarked to me.

“Where is Dr. Witterman?” I asked him.

“The last I heard, she was in Mr. Kulundu’s room talking to him. She must have got, um, distracted.”

“I’ll go get her,” Wright said, immediately heading for the door.

“So will I,” I said, and I followed. The bearded man was saying something about its not being necessary, but his definition of “necessary” didn’t take into account my desperation.

Wright was almost running in the hall toward the tube. I passed him; he put on some speed. We arrived at the tube simultaneously.

“We’ll go together,” I said. “At the same time.”

“Why?” he asked as we stepped into the car.

“Because it’s undignified to run, but if it comes to that, my legs are longer.”

We did find Rebecca in the much more spacious room Mr. Kulundu was now occupying. She was on the bed with him, and she was—well, mostly dressed.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I completely lost track of time. Um, Pierre has recovered marvelously.”

“Well,” Mr. Kulundu said, “I could use a lot more physical therapy.”

She laughed and kissed him. Wright and I looked at each other. The psychology of the situation was suddenly abundantly clear to us. We both wanted to gag.

The next day we didn’t talk much on the crumbling liner as it started out along its long chain of backwater stops. Wright seemed lost in thought. I certainly was. I was thinking about a pair of emerald eyes, and about how unfair it was that they were shining right now on someone else. But at last, after the lighting had dimmed for the night cycle, I said in a low voice, “The one thing that consoles me is that you lost, too. You might have beaten me, but you didn’t get anything out of it.”

“Well,” he said, “I did get one thing.”

“Oh, really? And what would that be?”

He pulled something out of his bag. I recognized the little transparent box of cultured bugs, with the green line still glowing across it.

“But that’s— I mean, do you realize how dangerous that is?” I whispered hoarsely. “What do you plan on doing with it, for heaven’s sake?”

“I’ll think of something,” he replied, slipping the box back into his bag.

And I don’t doubt he will. That’s what worries me.