Melissa Destiny

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Chapter 2.3

“I’m trying to decide,” said Melissa, “whether to eat real barbeque or some kind of soy option. The idea of real barbeque is tantalizing—like, I figure it will definitely be more juicy. But on the other hand, then I get this mental image of a fat little cow with big watery eyes standing in a field behind a barb-wire fence. . . and then I feel guilty. And you know I’m a bio-massicist, so eating cows is actually against my politics. Of course, it’s not like my politics is my religion or something, so I can go against my politics sometimes. . . But maybe I’ll just get the soy so I won’t have to think about this any more.”

“Um, at Goode Company, there may not be a soy option. You’re not in California anymore,” said Lee.

“I’m sure there’s a soy option. I mean, we are in the civilized world. I’m sure there must be lots of vegetarians in Houston.”

“They might not eat at Goode Company.”

As they were speaking, Suky guided the car onto one of the Overway’s steep off-ramps. Halfway down the off-ramp, the cars ahead were stopped, so the little Jalapeno Sportlet stopped as well.

“So, Lee, are you seeing anyone these days? I remember when you were living in that cabin you said you weren’t trying to meet anyone, but it must be easier now that you’re living in the city.”

“Well, I’m still not really trying that hard. I’m actually very poor, and I really can’t afford to do much more than stay at home and write. I’m starting to feel like I’m going to be poor for my whole life. It’s OK, you know, some people have to have that experience and so maybe I’m one of those people who should have it. But my sense of this city is it’s moving in a kind of a yuppie direction. Women are out on the street wearing clothes that cost more than I make in a month, so obviously it’s impossible for me to take women like that out. Sometimes I go to clubs with Travis, I think you’ve met Travis? I’m running through my discretionary spending in a couple hours on the town, so obviously I’d look like a horse’s ass if I tried to take a woman out and she’d expect a typical expensive-restaurant, bottle-of-wine date and I’d like, I dunno, take her for tacos at the taco-stand or something. I discovered this incredible taco stand by the way. Mind blowing. I mean, you know, there’s like grease, you know, some food is greasy and that’s bad, but this food is just dripping this incredible fluid. You wouldn’t want to call it “grease” because . . . that would be unfair. This is just . . . transcendent heart-attack fluid. . .”

The car had moved forward maybe a foot in the last three minutes.

“Honk, Suky,” Melissa said. “I want those fucking people out of our way. I am so hungry.”

“Am I being ordered to honk?” Suky replied. “In my opinion, honking at this time would be unjustified and rude, but if you are specifically informing me that I should honk. . . well then, I’ll make some noise at the bastards!”

“No, no, it’s OK. The thing is Lee there’s lots of girls who are not shallow like that. I mean, there are women who respect an intellectual like yourself. Someday you’ll be a big professor and own a house and all the trimmings, whatever. Or your business with Chin will make a little money.”

“My business with Chin is at best a cottage industry. The multi-nationals are not interested about the kind of A.I. Chin and I are promoting. What do they care if an artificial intelligence can do theology? Multi-nationals profit from theology remaining under the control of knee-jerk traditionalist and kooks. They look at what I’m doing and say, a computer that can think about why God created the Universe is not a traditionalist project . . . So they think of me as a kook! The fact is if theology was approached with the same degree of ingenuity that, say, film entertainment technology was approached. . . I think human beings would know a lot more about what we’re doing and should be doing in this world. . .”

“You just need to publicize. A lot of rabbis and ministers and imams and monks are going to be eager to download a Computer Theologian, so they can test their understanding of scripture against the computer. Just like how big chess players practice their games against the chess A.I.s, because the cutting-edge of chess is with the A.I.s, so if humans want to be in contention that’s who they practice with. The Computer Theologian is destined to be the dominant force in scriptural interpretation.”

“There are real problems,” Lee replied. “Protestants don’t like the Comp-The because, obviously, it can’t be inspired by God’s guidance to interpret correctly. . . I mean, that’s obvious to them, but not to me at all; I don’t know how they can just assume that God’s sphere of action, as far as inspiration, is confined to the human psyche. But they do. Arrogance. The big thing about humans is they think they can decide what God really thinks, really wants, really prefers, and they almost always think that’s aligned with their own interests. . . Of course, some monks do escape from that ego-fallacy. But I want the Computer Theologian to escape further. I think through this software that the Mystery of God may finally be able to be appreciated. . . more deeply than humans have been able to do.”

“Excuse me,” said Suky. “Although I am technically not a true A.I. . . . I am only a pattern-response server. . .”

“Nothing wrong with that,” said Lee. “I used to love my old pattern-responder. For years, she stimulated my creativity. And then one day she didn’t. So I turned her off. I needed to start listening to silence again. It’s a horrible feeling, so boring, listening to silence, but sometimes you need something like that, to promote intellectual discipline. But, uh, anyway, go ahead.”

“I am programmed to avoid discussions of theology, due to the fact that very few of my pre-programmed responses are relevant to that area. On the other hand, I have a broad ability to discuss Artificial Intelligence. Do you intend to create Artificial Intelligences which have experiences analogous to those which humans have when praying or thinking about god?”

“Please disable relays,” said Lee. “I don’t want you banking any of my info with your home-server. Computerized Theology may be a cottage-industry, but cottage industries can be competitive too.”

“Relays are disabled,” said Suky. “This may inhibit my conversational skills. But I’m still a very good listener!”

“I love that,” said Lee. “Some of those pre-programmed responses make him seem so human. Such a little gentleman! It’s great programming.”

“I like having him around,” said Melissa. “Dave has a non-talker in his car, but I really prefer the stimulus of the interaction. Keeps my thoughts flowing, makes me more productive.”

“Right. So little robot, the answer to your question is, humans have a lot of different experiences when thinking about God. I’m not interested in replicating emotional experiences, because emotions are just epiphenomena. They’re pro-survival, just like pain when you’re burned or hit or genital pleasure from reproduction are pro-survival. Emotions help humans to more efficiently evaluate their shifting status within tribes, extended families, or other groups. But theology is more like chess or physics, more like experimental physics. You work out what the motives and interests of a being called God could have been, based on a mixture of textual evidence and historical evidence, with help from past interpreters when appropriate. You create profiles of what God might be like and where His intentions may be leading the world, or how humans are blocking His intentions, or whatever. Many profiles can exist, depending on how certain interpretative cruxes are valued. But not all profiles are equally valid, because some use cruxes in ways that are more resonant with scripture-as-a-whole or history-as-a-whole. The Computer Theologian produces constantly updated three-dimensional graphic representations that map the relative merits of different responses to various cruxes. It helps us to discover what understandings of God have the most textual consistency. . .”

“If there were a God,” said Melissa, “he would get us off this off-ramp.”

Just then, the car in front began to move. Fifteen seconds later, the Jalapeno Sportlet was out on ground streets.

“Wow. What a coincidence,” said Lee. “If it was a coincidence. I do want to teach the Comp-The to begin thinking about coincidences and other possible signs of God’s activity. So far though, those programs lead to a rapid degradation of the Comp-The’s ability for contextual analysis. It starts deprioritizing historical data, and deciding what god’s like based on how many birds fly past the window and stuff like that. . .”

“You’re a wild man,” said Melissa. “I mean, in terms of intellectual practices, you’re a real wild man. I know some of my girlfriends in L.A. would go crazy about you, I think. There must be people like that in Houston too. You know, bohemians. Like hipsters, but not stupid hipsters. Hipsters with thoughts, you know.”

“Maybe,” said Lee. “So how’s Dave?”

“He’s really into cooking lately. He’s always cooking. Are we there yet? I’m so hungry.”

“We are here, O puissant mistress,” said Suky. “Time for some hot, juicy Texas barbecue.”

“Yes,” said Melissa. “I’m so hungry I could eat a cow. . .”


Sunday, December 19, 2004

Chapter 2.2

Melissa woke up as the car came to a stop in front of Lee's house.

"Shall I pull around to the side?" Suky asked.

"Okay, why not?" she yawned.

Suky took the car into the narrow driveway beside the house. "So this is Lee's famous place, huh?" Melissa said as they stepped out of the car.

"I have little doubt," Suky said. "1919 Priscilla Court, correct?"

"Uh-huh." Melissa knocked on a side door near where they had parked. She was answered by a skinny guy with glasses and a few days' growth of beard.

"Hey, Mel!" he said.

She threw her arms around him. "What's up, Lee-Bo!"

"Not much," he said, patting her on the back. "Come on in."

"Excuse me," Suky said. Melissa turned around. The robot was having trouble making his way up the steep concrete steps.

"Here, Suky. Let me help you..."

"Not to worry," he said. "Just hold a minute." Suky squared up momentarily, then unwrapped in a new configuration with extended arms and legs. He took a running start and mounted the steps quickly, letting momentum compensate for his lack of balance. Melissa caught him with her hand as he ran up against her knee.

Lee's house was a single large room. The side door led into a kitchen area, which he had partially set off with some shelves and a bread rack full of wines and Scotches. The walls of the main living space were filled with books. There was a small TV, with books stacked on it, in front of the couch. There were two desks strewn with papers, and more tall stacks of papers on the floor.

"This is Suky," Melissa said.

Lee pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and looked down at Suky. "Pleased to meet you," he said.

Suky tottered out from under Melissa's wing, squared up, and returned to his normal shape. "How's it hanging," he answered.

"Uh, fine." Lee said. "It's so cool y'all are here."

"It's great to be here!" Melissa hugged him again. "God, you look...busy."

"I'm working on a paper."

"Ooh. I hope we're not bothering you."

"No, no. I have to eat, anyway. Do you guys want a beer?"

"Sure," Melissa said.

Lee took two Fat Tires from the fridge and handed one to Melissa.

"Cheers," she said.


"So, what's your paper about?"

"Umm..." He ran his hands through his hair. "It's philosophy of A.I."

"Mmh," Melissa said, pulling the bottle away from her mouth. "I bet Suky would be interested in that. Oh, you know, I forgot to have him call for reservations. Hey, Suky?"

"Yes?" The robot was standing in front of the bookshelves, scanning them systematically. His head turned slowly from side to side as he spoke.

"Could you call the barbecue place and make reservations for us?"


Lee laughed. "You don't need reservations for a barbecue place. Where are we going?"

"Goode Company."

"Yeah, don't worry about it. It's cafeteria style. No big deal."

"Oh, okay. Well, never mind, Suky. What are you doing, Suky? Don't you want to come over and get to know Lee?"

Suky turned away from the shelves and came to stand next to Melissa's chair.

"How do you like Houston so far, Suky?" Lee asked.

"I'm glad I don't have to breathe," Suky answered.

Lee smiled. "True."

"He's joking," Melissa explained. "It's very beautiful here."

"No, I'm not," Suky said. "It's just an observation based on routine air toxicity readings. Of course, I'm still susceptible to corrosive effects over a longer period, but I didn't think it worth mentioning since we're only here to visit." Suky flexed his legs and sprang onto the sofa next to Melissa.

"Right," Lee said. "Well, listen, how long are y'all going to be in town? Do you have a place to stay?"

"We haven't really found a place yet," Melissa answered.

"You should stay here."

"Oh, I don't want to bother you while you're writing your paper," Melissa said.

"It's no trouble, really. It'd be fun."

"Are you sure?"


"Cool. Well...are you starving, Lee? I assume you've been writing all day without food...?"

"Yeah," he said. "Let me just get my shoes and we'll go."


Chapter 2.1

Suky was quiet during the elevator ride and all the way to the car. Melissa kept waiting for him to say something. Finally she couldn't stand it any more.

"What are you thinking, Suky?"

The robot's eyes flickered rapidly and she realized he was Googling. His innards clicked a few times before he looked up and answered.

"I was researching what that lady said about this not being a physical assault under existing law. I examined the laws on the way here, you know. I didn't go in unprepared. It seemed to me we had a case."

"I know, Suky. I didn't want to sue anyone, though."

"Sometimes you have to let people know they can't push you around, Melissa."

"I know."

"Well, anyway. If there's any law that specifically excludes this type of incident from the definition of physical assault, I can't find any reference to it."

"How about one of those .gov sites?"

"Melissa, I don't think it's very prudent to try to access .gov sites without the proper authorization."

"I guess. Well, are you ready to go to the barbecue place?"


"Okay." She slumped into the passenger seat and let Suky take the wheel. "She gave me two cards. That's perfect! I was going to go say hi to my friend Lee. Now we can take him with us. Can you call him, Suky?"

"Okay." Suky drove while Melissa watched the houses and side streets slip by outside the window. She was feeling tired. They were in a beautiful old neighborhood. The front yards were full of palm trees and fountains and statues and rose bushes. The houses looked like New Orleans, she thought, though she'd never seen New Orleans.

"Hello?" It was Lee's voice coming from the robot driver.

"Lee? It's Melissa!"


"Hey, guess what. I'm in town!"

"In Houston?"

"Yeah. Have you had dinner?"

"Um..." He was looking for a clock, she knew. "No."

"You want to go eat?"

"Sure. I didn't know you were coming...When did you get here?"

"I'll tell you all about it. Can you meet me?"

"Okay," he said. "No, wait. Chin has my car."

She yawned. "That's okay, that's okay. I'll pick you up. Are you at home?"


"Okay. See ya."


Melissa sighed and stretched her legs, pressing the soles of her feet hard against the front of the floorboard. She curled up on the seat and rested her head on the window while Suky drove. One thing she loved about Suky was letting him navigate rush hour traffic. It was late afternoon now, and she was ready for a nap.


Chapter 1.5

Melissa rested on one knee and placed her hand on Suky's head as he recited. She noticed that the room had gradually grown dimmer, and their surroundings continued to darken until she could no longer make out the walls clearly. She looked up, and saw that the cheap-looking ceiling had disappeared. In its place was a starry sky. Jagged bits of cloud drifted across the face of an orange harvest moon.

All the animals had retreated from view, but the wolves continued to moan in the distance. The wall behind the reception desk was now the edge of a dark pine forest.

"Thanks, Suky," Melissa said, rising to her feet. "That always makes me feel better. I wonder why?"

"The rhythm. The repetition is soothing. The way each line ends with a question, and the voice going upward, it gives it a very open feel. It's sort of hopeful, in a way. Also, the text reinforces your romanticized image of yourself."

"My what?"

"Your idea of yourself as mysterious, unfathomable, and aloof. That's what comforts you above all other things. It helps you to deal with the fact that we're being ignored."

"How would you know?"

"I was just speculating."

"Hmph. I don't think it's that simple. I don't just give pre-programmed responses, you know."

"Perhaps," Suky answered quietly.

Melissa winced. "Oh, Suky. I didn't mean it that way! I like your responses."

"Thank you. I'm sorry for being so reductive in my analysis."

"That's okay, Suke."

"There was only an 85 percent chance of accuracy, anyway."

"Don't worry about it."

A tiny light appeared in the woods beyond the reception desk. It bobbed up and down as it moved closer to them. Soon, a woman in a gray suit stepped out of the trees and came toward them. She was holding a miniature jack o' lantern, which she placed on the edge of the desk. "Welcome to Camhurst Enterprises," she said. "Happy Halloween."

Melissa looked around once again. Now that her eyes were used to the dimness, she saw that they were in a kind of Transylvanian setting. They were standing in a small forest clearing. Above the trees to her right, she could see a craggy hill with a ruined castle on the crest. A muddy path opened at the edge of the woods, leading in the direction of the castle.

"I see," she said. "It's a Halloween theme."

"I could have told you that," Suky offered.

"We're so sorry for the state we were in when you arrived," the woman said. "We're still working on getting things up and running for the Halloween season, and I don't believe..."

She had slipped a silver palm book from her breast pocket and was dabbing at the screen with a stylus.

"...that we were expecting you. I'm Emily, by the way."

"I'm Melissa. This is Suky."

"Great! Pleased to meet you both. What can we do for you today?"

"Well, we wanted to speak to Mr. Camhurst."

"Mm-hm." Emily nodded gently, waiting for Melissa to go on.

"Because, um. There was some kind of...defect in one of my appliances."

"Okay. And have you spoken with customer service?"

"Well, no."

Emily stroked the face of her palm book deftly as they talked. "And you have the defective device with you?"

"No, was destroyed. Suky had to destroy it."

Emily seemed unruffled by this news. "Why was that?"

"It was biting me."

"And what was the model?"

"The what?"

"The model. What was the product that was causing the problem?"

"Oh, an alarm clock."

Emily stopped writing and frowned. "What sort of appliance was it?"

"An alarm clock."

"I don't believe we manufacture alarm clocks."

"No, it's not that."

"Mm-hm." Emily waited patiently.

"It's--it was a holographic alarm. What happened was, Mr. Camhurst's face came out of it and bit me."

Emily switched off her palm book. Her face seemed to vanish in the darkness for a moment as the blue glow abruptly winked out. Dazzled, Melissa searched for the woman's face in the dim light from the little pumpkin. Emily was smiling sadly.

"Melissa, I'm sure I don't need to remind you that all likenesses of Mr. Camhurst, and his immediate family, are the property of Camhurst Enterprises and may not be downloaded for personal use."

"I didn't download it. I never saw it before it tried to bite me."

"Then how do you know it was Mr. Camhurst?"

"Suky captured the image and ran a check."

"It's a 28-point match," Suky said. He floated the image in front of them. It rotated slowly, a 3-D snapshot of a face contorted with rage and sudden terror. "I snapped this as I rushed in for the attack. There was little time. I had to act very quickly."

"Well. I certainly understand your alarm, Melissa. I mean, I understand why you were alarmed. What you encountered was a part of our new copyright protection protocol. Illegally downloaded images owned by Camhurst Enterprises are subject to...becoming aggressive, as a way of warning potential violators of intellectual property law."

"I didn't illegally download anything."

"I only said potential violators. No one's accusing anyone of anything."

"She was physically attacked," Suky interjected.

"It wasn't a physical attack. It was just trying to get your attention, that's all. All it would have done was issue a warning similar to the one you heard a little while ago." She stared down at Suky for a few seconds to let this sink in.

"I had to defend her from physical attack."

"It wasn't a physical attack under federal or state law."

"As you interpret it."

"It's specifically excluded," she replied coldly.

"That's okay, Suky," Melissa put in. She turned to Emily. "Listen, I'm not trying to get anything out of this, okay? I just want to know what that image was doing on my alarm clock."

"I'm afraid that's a question I can't answer, Melissa." Emily stepped around the desk and walked closer to them. Her tone softened. "Please understand that I do sympathize with your problem." She raised up her hands in a gesture of futility. "There are a lot of illicit programs buzzing around out there. Now, you never know who might have had access to your clock at one time or another." Her eyes darted down in Suky's direction as she said this.

"We realize that accidents happen," she continued. "I'm afraid it's very difficult for Mr. Camhurst to handle each of these problems personally, but I assure you that he does keep track of them and we're doing everything we can to make sure things like this don't happen."

A wolf howled miserably in the distance. Others joined in a chorus, some closer to the edge of the forest.

"The Count's on the prowl," Emily said with a wry smile. "Is there anything else I can do for you, Melissa?"

Melissa felt confused. She didn't want to leave but she didn't know what else to say. Maybe Emily was right. Camhurst could have gotten into her alarm by accident, she supposed. But there was no way Suky had downloaded him without telling her. With Suky, it was always "better safe than sorry."

"No. I guess not."

"Let me walk you out."

They followed a path through the woods back in the direction of the entrance. Melissa could actually feel the pine needles crunching under the soles of her shoes. Suky switched on a flashlight beam in his forehead. He walked ahead of them, casting a wobbly circle of yellow light on the path. He began reciting the poem again. Melissa loved him for it, though it didn't seem to comfort her as much this time.

Are you the new person drawn toward me?
To begin with, take warning—I am surely far different from what you suppose;
Do you suppose you will find in me your ideal?
Do you think it so easy to have me become your lover?
Do you think the friendship of me would be unalloy’d satisfaction?
Do you think I am trusty and faithful?
Do you see no further than this façade—this smooth and tolerant manner of me?
Do you suppose yourself advancing on real ground toward a real heroic man?
Have you no thought, O dreamer, that it may be all maya, illusion?

They came up suddenly on the door and the set of chairs.

"Is this your first visit to Houston, Melissa?" Emily asked.


"Well, let me wish you a pleasant stay. If I may make a recommendation?"


"Treat yourself to some south Texas cuisine while you're here. It's on us." She produced two plastic cards from a coat pocket and handed them to Melissa.

"Oh. Thank you."

"It's been a pleasure meeting you," Emily said. They shook hands. "And you," she said, leaning over to shake hands with the robot.

"Thanks, Missy," Suky replied.

They stepped into the hallway and the door closed behind them with a hiss. Melissa looked at the two cards as she walked back to the elevator. They were gift cards from Goode Company Barbecue.


Friday, December 17, 2004

Chapter 1.4

“This is a recording,” Camhurst said. “The property rights, including all intellectual properties, enzymological properties, and genomic properties, of Camhurst Products, Peacosck Products, Garfuel Products, Regent Products, Clarimia Products, Entron Ltd., Storkphon Ltd., Randolph Consolidated Ltd., Wolfette Torment Ltd, Big Joel Industries Ltd., Captain Cappin Ltd., and all subsidiaries and applicable partnerships of the aforementioned corporations and groups, are copyright protected.”

At this point the Joel-hologram paused and started wagging a meaty finger up and down. Melissa thought he looked like an off-duty highway patrolman— the kind of guy who would talk to his wife in exactly the same tone he used for lecturing someone about why they deserved a ticket.

“I repeat,” Joel said, “copyright protected. I should add that these copyrights are vigorously policed and defended by our legal representatives, McTucker, Chuckles, and Taape, in the United States and Free Trade Regions L and Q, and by their affiliates in Free Trade Regions E, J, C, and U, and by the State Organization for Logically Arranged Equity and Ethical Ownership in Free Trade Region A. Proprietary codes are not authorized for ethical study at universities participating in the Federal License and Ownership Program. Copyrights are policed and defended vigorously in disputed territories and stateless zones on an at-need basis by Felix Hard Professional Strikeforce and affiliates.”

“What is this rigmarole?” Melissa said.

“You know what it is,” Suky answered. “It’s a threat. He thinks we’re trying to steal his company’s secrets from the stork. He’s reminding us that they’ll sue us, and if we’re affiliated with a university our school will lose all federal funding if they catch us even looking at his code, and if we’re in China the government will sue us, and if we think we can copy his code safely just because we’re in the Congo or some other place in the middle of a war, we’re wrong, because he’ll send hired soldiers after us.”

“Humph. What do I want with his stupid code? Didn’t his code cause a bunch of people eating cans of Beefaroo to projectile vomit for a week?”

“Yes, or actually maybe. That case is pending in the legal system. It is rumored that Camhurst code produced the problematic meat. Nevertheless, once they get the “bugs” out of the meat’s genomic code, those “low-feed” animals are going to replace most of the meat-animals grazing today. That means that Camhurst stands to be in a position of owning the DNA of the majority of the world’s livestock. That’s big money. Potentially it’s a roll of dough as big as the State of Texas.”

Camhurst had apparently finished his speech and was now standing motionless. In Melissa’s opinion, there was something nervous-making about stilled holograms; she didn’t like them. Some people, of course, like to use stilled holograms, especially of nude celebrities and porn-stars, as part of the decoration in their homes, sort of like visual furniture. Melissa had never liked this, because she tended to find her eyes were more attracted to holograms than they were to real people, probably because the holograms are light sources, putting out about as much radiance as a TV. It’s hard not to be attracted to bright lights in a room, especially if the bright lights have faces or even genitalia. In L.A. a lot of people would come to parties and avoid looking at any of the real people; the real people, having the power to look back, make these “gramophilic” people feel uncomfortable. A “gramophile” likes nothing better than to stare and stare, and being looked back at is torture to them, because it embarrasses them so they can’t stare as they would like to and therefore can’t enjoy themselves. Most hip, cool people are to some extent “gramophiles,” just because a reluctance to look at people is kinda sexy (it puts people in their place and implies you have more power than them). But Melissa’s more of a “gramophobe” and does her best to drag her eyes off of the things and look at anything instead (often her feet.)

The interesting thing about the Camhurst-gram is how ugly he is. It’s a kind of rugged, masculine ugliness, such as some women might like, especially if it came with money.

Several of the storks were now circling the Camhurst-gram.

“Why doesn’t this place have a receptionist?” Melissa asked. “I mean, considering all the damn unemployment, you would think a big corporate head-office like this would hire someone to wait for visitors.”

Suddenly all the storks around Camhurst began flashing different colors. A pistachio-type green, a raspberryish-red, a kind-of-deep-sea, kind-of-gloomy blue.

“There probably is a receptionist,” Suky said. “He or she is probably watching us through a camera. Because Camhurst is important, they’re dramatizing his importance, by making us wait before they even acknowledge our existence. But in case someone important comes in, they don’t want this room to be too boring, because some big shot might come in here and get all riled about his time being wasted, so that’s why the animals are here to entertain us.”

“That’s a very detailed response to be pre-programmed. How can such an elaborate analysis of and hypothesis about the situation be pre-programmed?”

“I have been programmed with quite a few things to say on the subject of hierarchy, demonstrations of hierarchy, and general corporate culture. These issues are pivotal ones in our society.”

Suddenly all of the wolf-like animals began to howl.

“Obviously, someone’s going to come out soon,” Suky said. “They’re preparing an ‘atmosphere.’”

“Well, I’m not getting all excited about it,” replied Melissa. “Hey, why don’t you recite to me that Walt Whitman poem I like. . .”

“Okay,” replied Suky. The robot cleared his throat, which he often did when he wanted to sound authentic. “Are you the new person drawn toward me, and asking something significant from me? To begin with, take warning— I am probably far different from what you suppose. . .”

Melissa giggled, because Suky’s voice had suddenly become so much deeper and more resonant. It was his 19th century wise-man voice. . .


Thursday, December 16, 2004

Chapter 1.3

Melissa leaned over and set Suky on the floor.

She looked around for signs of human activity. The room was enormous, but plain and unfurnished...nothing but white walls, a dropped ceiling, and a worn Astro-Turf carpet. There were two square-shaped chairs with maroon cushions, one on each side of the doorway. Beside each chair was a small table with stacks of "US," "People," "Field and Stream" and "Sports Illustrated." There was a reception desk at the far wall, but no one was behind it.

Melissa sighed. She could have just gone for a late lunch. She'd gone straight to Camhurst's office because she was behind schedule and worried that she might miss him if he left work early. She felt a twinge of irritation for the first time on the trip. It was 2:30 and the office was already empty. Melissa knew there were three restaurants she wanted to visit while they were in town; one Japanese, one Italian, and one barbecue place, since barbecue was Texan food. She had read about all the best barbecue places in "Texas Monthly" and she'd decided to go to Goode Company on her first day. They were close to the office, and they'd been on the magazine's top 20 list for 39 of the last 40 years.

"No!" Suky said. "Uh-uh. No!"

Melissa looked down to see her robot, still in his suitcase position, resting motionless on the floor. He was surrounded by three of the stork-like creatures. They were walking slowly back and forth beside him, stretching their necks down to the floor to examine him.

"NO!" Suky repeated in a raspy, metallic voice. Melissa knew this tone was supposed to sound commanding. She smiled.

"Suky, can't you walk with me?"

"It wouldn't be wise," Suky answered. "We don't know the temperament of these beasts."

"Technically, they're not beasts. They're birds," Melissa said.

"I'm aware of that. My words were chosen for rhetorical effect. I want to emphasize the danger of the situation."

"All right, then." Melissa swooshed her foot around a few times to scatter the birds, then picked Suky up by his handle. She walked the hundred or so paces to the reception desk. A few of the wolf creatures stopped licking their paws and hunched out of her way as she passed by.

"Where's everybody?" she asked. The desk was entirely bare except for a blue, frosted-glass vase full of orange flowers. "What are those flowers? They're gorgeous."

"I can't see them."

"Well--here." She plopped Suky on the floor. "Now stand up."

Suky dutifully unfolded his arms and legs and took a few steps back from the desk. "Oh, " he said. "Those are Paintbrushes, known to the locals as 'Indian' Paintbrushes. They're the same flower we saw on the drive here."

"With the Bluebonnets!"

"Yes, indeed. The two varieties commonly grow together in the fields of southern and central Texas. The combination of brilliant orange and violet colors is exquisite. The state...fuck! NO! NO!"

"Hey! Go away!" Melissa shouted. The storks had again surrounded Suky. They stood quietly in a circle, opening and closing their beaks at him. Melissa found the display unsettling. "Shoo!" She swiped at one of the storks and her hand passed through with a crackling sound. She yelped and cradled her hands together.

"That little shit gave me a shock!"

"I'm sorry to hear that," Suky replied. "Thank you so much for your help. Wait a might be a good idea to put me on top of the desk." The storks were gathering again, seemingly intent on Suky.

Melissa bent over and looked one of the birds in the eye. "Hey! What are you doing?" She clapped her hands in front of its face. "Go away!"

The stork leaned its head back, compressing its long neck into a tightened s-shape. Its mouth opened wide, stretching to the breaking point and beyond, as Melissa stared. The bird froze in this position, its eyes blank, waiting.

"I've never seen anything so real," Melissa said. She gazed into the open mouth. The pink tongue pulsed inside the lower bill. Melissa touched the tip of the long beak with her finger and felt a pop, like a static shock from a doorknob. "Hey..."

"What is it?" Suky asked.

Melissa frowned as she stared down the bird's throat. "Come look at this, Suky."

The inside of the stork's mouth was dotted with cysts in regular, straight rows. The lesions seemed to be grouped according to their color. There were four green next to four red, four pink, four yellow, and so on.

"Suky, come here. It's not doing anything. Look at this." Melissa waved her hand in front of the stork's face. There was no reaction. "It's hypnotized."

Suky stepped up and peered into its mouth. "Well I'll be a sumbitch," he said.


"It means I'm surprised."

"Well, duh. It just sounds a little weird, that's all."

"I'm programmed to adjust my vocabulary and style of expression according to changing circumstances," he answered. "It's important to observe the idioms of the time and place."

"When did you hear anyone say 'sumbitch?' "

"I didn't. It's pre-programmed, as you know. My internal GPS monitors our location and outputs a signal, which is converted to a four digit code that tells my--"

"All right, OK. What is it you're so surprised about?"

"Well, these look like input/output terminals of some kind, by the arrangement and the colors. I don't see how to plug into it, though. It's coded like an L2 board, but it's only these..."


"Yes. I don't know what to make of it. It's got to be the gayest thing I've ever seen."


"Sorry. I just mean..."

"Is there anything you can do with it?"

"I'll try." Suky opened a panel in his chest plate and drew out a handful of cables with an assortment of prongs and receptors. He chose a yellow cable with a long copper needle and began prodding at some point of interest inside the stork's mouth.

"Be careful," Melissa said.

"Don't worry. Just keep an eye on him."

Melissa looked into the stork's eyes again. They were glazed and neutral. The down on the underside of its neck fluttered gently in the artificial breeze of the air conditioning.

"It's so vivid," she said.

"Just keep an eye on him."

Suky removed the yellow cable and replaced it with a blue one. Melissa looked into the stork's mouth again, as Suky touched the end of the cable to a cloudy, blue-colored cyst. The infected bird flesh sizzled and melted away as though dissolved in a liquid. The robot selected three more cables and quickly began to place them. Melissa stepped away. The stork's eyes rolled back to follow her.

Suky inserted the last cable. The bird disappeared and was replaced by an oversized image of Joel Camhurst.


Thursday, December 09, 2004

Chapter 1.2

“Okay, square up Suky,” Melissa said, at which point the little robot tucked his legs together, one above the other, to form the bottom of a little box, and wrapped his arms around his head so that his elbows formed the top two corners of the box. Most of his hand was sucked into the box, except his little eyes peeked out and his ears extended and clicked together to form a handle. Picking up Suitcase, Melissa left the car and started looking for an elevator.

They were on the Eleventh Floor, in the Green C section of the Parking Structure. Why should the C be green, Melissa wondered. The adjoining sections were Blue B and Red D, and Melissa could see Purple F in the distance up a ramp.

“Elevator’s that way,” said Suky.

“So you already know the floor plan of the building.”

“Most of it. The upper floors are secret.”

“Really? Why?”

“That’s part of the secret,” Suky said.

“Does that make sense?” Melissa replied. “If those are places that are publicly known to be secret, doesn’t that make them conspicuous? Wouldn’t it make more sense to file floorplans publicly, but just not file the real ones? Then, if anyone meant to do anything bad, they would base their plan on the false floorplan and wind up messing everything up because their plan would fail because they wouldn’t know the real one.”

“But Melissa, people who just were in the building would become disoriented by such an arrangement. Anyway, it’s good to let the public know where it is they are not allowed to go. If they don’t know where they shouldn’t go, some of them will go there accidentally.”

“Huh,” said Melissa. “What’s the name of this guy we’re going to see?”

“Mr. Camhurst. Joel Camhurst. Call him Mr. Camhurst. Probably. Maybe you can call him Joel if he seems quite casually dressed.”


Melissa and Suky had been in California yesterday, when Melissa’s alarm clock, which took the form of a beautiful floating blue bird hologram that sang louder and louder beautiful songs to her, had suddenly turned into an ugly face and jumped at Melissa and bitten her. Specifically, it shocked her at the moment when its open mouth reached her shoulder. Luckily Suky destroyed the alarm immediately, by stabbing it with a butter-knife that Melissa had left by her bedside the previous night, after making toast.

“I never knew you were so strong, Suky,” Melissa said. “You drove a dull knife right through the alarm yesterday.”

“I put my weight behind it,” Suky said.

“But you only weigh twelve pounds!”

“By latching my feet to a surface, I can create a powerful lever effect. Also, I let the movement begin in my ankles and pass upward through my whole body, sort of like when a really good basketball player makes a jump shot.”

“Huh,” said Melissa.

“Twelve pounds is a lot,” Suky said. “You just carry it easily because you work out on those arm machines. . .”

“Hmm,” said Melissa.

It turns out Suky had recorded an image of the ugly face that appeared and shocked Melissa. He then Googled the face through GoogleImageMatcher and found that it was the face of this Houston dude, Camhurst. Camhurst ran a company in Houston that specialized in creating experimental animals that could process nutrients very effectively. The weird thing about these animals is that they rarely ate and they rarely shat; they could live on very little food. The bad thing was after awhile they would die of liver or kidney failure or other byproducts of toxic buildups caused by the fact that they tried to retain and process materials that they ultimately couldn’t process. Camhurst hoped ultimately to move past these liver-failing prototypes and create grazing animals that could live on minimal amounts of grain and yet nevertheless become big and fat. These animals of the future would be slaughtered for food, thereby increasing the resource efficiency of meatfood. Normal meat consumed nutrients equivalent to ten servings of grainfood for each serving of meatfood final output; whereas Camhurst’s hypothetical animals would consume only one to two servings of grainfood for each serving of meatfood output. However, Camhurst had apparently been trying to defer the costs of his research in a naughty way; recent scandals suggested that Camhurst had been selling some of his experimental animals “under the table” to slaughterhouses. The problem with this was that these prototypes were full of toxins. . . It was suspected that individuals eating Beefaroo (a popular canned meat-and-tomato meal to be warmed in a pot, popular mainly with low-income people) had been getting sick because Camhurst animals had been ground into the mix.

Melissa had no idea why her alarm-clock had turned into Camhurst’s face and attacked her. Since she worked at home, on a completely flexible schedule, she had seen no reason not to spend a day popping over to Houston to find out. She loved driving anyway. She had passed many areas along the way that lacked any sort of development by humans. Melissa found total lack of development incredibly beautiful, in a way that made her kind of sad and frightened. As if there was no reason for human beings to exist. . .

Perhaps the reason Americans don’t want to develop more advanced states of consciousness, Melissa thought, is that we are secretly afraid that if we became wise, we would see no more reason to desire to exist. . .

“Well I’m not wise Suky,” Melissa said. “I’m not wise at all.”

“I don’t know anything about it,” Suky said. “Everything I say is just a pre-programmed response.”

The elevator opened at Camhurst’s floor (his office was a whole floor) which was full of wolf-like animals licking their paws and birds sort of like storks strolling around on skinny legs.


Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Chapter 1.1

“Despite my gifts at human conversation,” Suitcase said (Suitcase was Melissa’s ChauffaBot, affectionately known as “Suky”), “I feel I am unable to please you with regards to the subject of our most honourable President. I am both troubled by my inability to please you in this matter, and also troubled by what you have said about our honorable President. Can we talk about something else?”

It was night, and Suky had been relieved from driving. Due to his programming, Suky was unable to exceed the speed-limit, or to do various other human things, such as cut off fat-ass bastards in their fat-ass cars. Melissa had her foot all the way down on the gas and the little Jalapeno Sportlet she was driving was willing and eager to slip through skinny spaces between the big trucks and massive FAMVEEs on the road around her. The Houston Overway rose up to incredible heights at points, higher than almost all of the city’s buildings, and it seemed a shame to waste the moment on Suky’s stodgy, grandfatherly defensive driving. Technically it was possible to override the robot’s factory programming and teach it to really drive, except that such an upgrade would invalidate the robot’s warranty, which would invalidate Melissa’s liability insurance policy, and if her insurance were not up-to-date of course she could not legally drive, so it would all be too much of a hassle.
Melissa had been complaining to Suky about the President, which disoriented the poor robot. Suky’s programming enabled him to talk in only the most general, positive ways about politicians. About the President, Suky was programmed to say things like: “We should be very glad to have him at the driving wheel of the nation” or “He is very wise, and better yet he is surrounded by wise counselors. So much wisdom working together!” Melissa’s opinion of the administration was somewhat different. She knew that the robot didn’t approve of her opinions, and she felt a little guilty about upsetting him, but not very guilty. In a way maybe she even enjoyed speaking provocatively to the robot, putting him on the defensive.

“It’s pointless to talk to you,” Melissa said. “Nothing we talk about means anything to you. Your processors analyze the statement and match it to one of the 80 million pre-programmed responses that you know, and then you spit that back out at me, but you have no capacity to learn from what I’m saying or to meaningfully evaluate political talk.”

“I have 4 billion pre-programmed responses now, thanks to my automatic self-updating feature, with 3 billion more responses scheduled to be added by June. These responses are crafted by conversational scientists who understand what sort of gaps can lead to uncomfortable pauses. The design-team do not feel that extensive political knowledge would be a practical possibility in a robot, because the rapidly evolving nature of political opinion would mean my political knowledge would have to be constantly updated or my ideas would become old-fashioned. You wouldn’t want me to have the political opinions of an ‘old fogey’ or some sort of boring dad.”

“What you don’t understand,” said Melissa, as she honked several times at a FAMVEE that was honking at her, “is that the President is a dumb nationalistic war-monger. For one-tenth of the price of the war in Africa, or less probably, we could donate enough food and medical supplies to the African people that most of them over there would stop being angry with us, and then the people that don’t like us wouldn’t be able to recruit people to their army. I don’t want us to kill so many Africans. There’s nothing so awful about their religion anyway; lots of Americans think equally stupid things.”

“Giving so much food and medicine to Africa sounds like a good idea, Melissa, but it would also make the rebel countries stronger. It would not be wise to make them stronger while we are fighting with them. When the war is over, we will help them improve their countries. The President loves the people of Africa; our policies are designed to help them.”

“I wish the Rainbow Peace Party would put forth a better candidate,” Melissa said. “I don’t know why people think it’s so important to choose a realistic candidate. What is it about war that makes it so realistic? I think peace is realistic too.”

“Peace is beautiful Melissa. Peace is like a pillow in the shape of a cloud. But we can’t afford to always have our heads in the clouds. We can’t afford to sleep through the danger.”

“Which one of your conversational scientists came up with that line? It sounds like part of a poem. Is it a quote from something?”

“I don’t know,” said Suky. “Would you like me to look it up on Google for you?”

“Hmm. Umm. . .” Melissa was momentarily distracted as she shot across three lanes of traffic and took an exit-ramp, pushing the brake all the way down to the floor to avoid flying off the exit-ramp as it cork-screwed down to the city below them. “Maybe later; right now maybe you could navigate. I think we’re almost there. . .”