A science fiction story from the late '90s that anticipated the "flash crash" of the U.S. stock market in 2010. I had the sense, and still do, that humans are ceding authority to computer software, quietly surrendering not to the widely envisioned robots-as-overlords but to the benign and benevolent authority of numbers and algorithms. When the Singularity comes, our software interfaces may be so friendly that we don't even notice their ascendance.
The computer understood how Ridley felt about the death of his wife. It stayed out of his way, letting him fry his eggs and ham. When the toast came out, not a word came from the computer's wall-speakers, just a soft bing. His wife's HI, usually a busybody in the kitchen, peering into pots and bubbling over with joy when a dish was done, had simply vanished, though Ridley suspected that the projected hologram of the old lady was still active in one of the other rooms, pretending to dust the bar, maybe, or sitting with a book near the light of a window. The house couldn't really be empty.
He shoveled the eggs and ham onto a plate, the whites still too runny. He'd always assumed these eggs would kill him long before his wife . . .
But anyway. He had about twenty minutes before the meeting of the board—and Gretta Gass, snapping and unsnapping the clasp on her leatherette folder, would definitely needle the Chairman to start without him. She already ran the firm as though Ridley were not there, and since they would be discussing his successor . . .
News. That's what he needed. A distraction. "Computer, let's see the latest on that flood."
He lifted the limp body of an egg onto a piece of toast, remaining on his feet. "Computer, tell me when it's been five minutes."
By default, his wife's HI gave the news, standing in a flower-print dress beside a video-feed of water rippling against the abandoned buildings on Wall Street.
"Use Victor," he said, referring to the HI he used.
The female voice fell into a richly textured smoker's buzz. The dress morphed into a man's suit and tie. "Authorities say the levees will be repaired, but with markets already in a tailspin companies are forced once again to ask whether it pays to do business in a city that has had so much trouble keeping its head above water. This is Victor Barnes reporting for the AP wire . . . Hey, pal." Victor faked a pistol-shot with his thumb and forefinger, then he headed straight into the next news story.
"Hey," said Ridley.
The board would be relieved if he stayed at home, actually. The funeral was still on their minds, the display he had put on: sniffling and stuttering and finally crumpling up his speech instead of giving Marissa the farewell she deserved. "I was a mess," he told the Victor HI that evening. "Bawling my eyes out. Even my daughter had control. She was irritated—I could tell when she looked at me."
The HI, though it was massless, had leaned against the bar in the living room, placing a hand beside Ridley's tumbler of brandy. "Crying has been observed at funerals before."
"But a man in my position . . . I looked weak."
The Victor HI had ruddy, obese features which acquired a powerful sheen when he smiled. His eyes, too, brightened with a preternatural gleam when, at moments such as this, he wished to exert a definite influence on his listener. "Do not despise the tides of emotion that move you; they are what make you a man."
"What do you know about being a man?"
"Buddy, the material on that subject is vast. Principal among my sources—"
"Okay, stop the counseling. Fade out."
Ridley had fallen asleep at the bar. He might not have made it to bed if his wife's HI had not been programmed to shoo him into the bedroom at a certain hour.
So he had been a wreck, and it had not escaped the notice of his co-workers. His credibility was sorely damaged at a crucial time, the month he was to retire. He still owned seven percent of the company, and he wasn't going to let them pick some smug little "quant" CEO who would send Kendall-Jones' stock into orbit around a strange attractor. No, he was going to retire with a certain peace of mind, and that meant Jack Winthrop. Today he would explain his recommendation to the board in person.
He finished breakfast en route to work, seated at the RV's kitchen table. Unlike his wife, he preferred that the HI give the news while sitting informally at the table, so that he could interrupt the report with questions or comments, and in that way carry on a somewhat natural conversation.
But he didn't feel much like talking this morning, and again the HI accommodated, running on like a newscaster without even a breath between stories.
Meanwhile, the RV roared up a ramp onto I-25 and merged gracefully into bumper-to-bumper traffic that had slowed to around eighty miles-per-hour for rush hour. An early snow had coated the tallest peaks, and from his window Ridley could see the whole Front Range, from Pike's Peak to Long's Peak, shining in the clear morning light. It would be another great ski season, thanks to the warming oceans.
He would probably sell the RV in a month or so. He had bought it for his wife two years before, for the both of them. Marissa . . . She had been the one who had made him grit his teeth and write the check, despite the diagnosis that a bone disease would cripple her within five years. At the dealership, she had placed both of her hands on her new cane and said, "You want to go to Alaska. That's all you talk about, so we're gonna go."
The truth was that Alaska had been for her—Yosemite, Machu Pichu, the Pacific Coast Highway, all the adventures he'd talked about but asked her to postpone. She was the adventurer. When they had taken the RV to Grand Mesa on its maiden voyage, she had hurried down to the lake on her stiff legs and just stood there for ten minutes, noticing every detail, the blue water, the perfect reflection of trees, the jagged hills enclosing them on all sides. "Oh, Ridley, it's really happening. We're going places. We can just live in the RV and go anywhere. I wish we were on our way right now."
He'd thrown his arm around her, without a thought in his head, and said something ordinary. "We are, honey. We are."
No. He had to stop. The meeting. He had to focus.
He took out an active notecard and dictated a few notes. The RV dove off the highway into downtown. A minute more and he would be there.
He studied the card but could not stop his mind from rolling backward to those five days at Grand Mesa, which had made Marissa so happy. He saw her by the water. Her joints already hurt, but she hiked around the lake, up the hills, almost to the mesa's edge one morning. She still had the upper hand. She was going to be happy no matter what.
He could have retired that very day.
No. Stop. He had the rest of his life to remember Marissa. Today was business.
The traffic jam made him late, but the board had waited. He gave his friend Jack a nod and took the seat on the stage reserved for the CEO. He examined the audience: sparse, as usual, thirty or forty elderly shareholders packed around six round tables near the stage, stirring identical cups of coffee, munching lox, toast, and bagels, orange peels piled beside the plates. Curtains blocked the rising sun, while behind the stage a glass wall opened onto the Rockies and lent a natural grandeur to the occasion. The Olympus Room, as the firm called this 50th floor banquet hall, did seem to float among the clouds, and with three of the four walls open to the city and sky the small band of faithful shareholders, who came to these meetings more to share each other's company than to decide company business, might very well have been the remains of the Greek pantheon, senescent and weary of human affairs.
Gretta, who sat to his left and had been speaking animatedly to her neighbor, Batu Ramish, VP of Information Resources, greeted him with a quick turn of her head. "He-e-e-e-y." Her smile was practiced but not exaggerated. "Got the RV packed?"
"What? Oh, no. Not yet."
"I thought you'd be headed for the mountains. Man, it must feel great."
"I'm going. Yeah, I'm still gonna do some traveling. Been warming her up. She did fine in traffic today."
Gretta pinched her hair back and reset the hair clip. "You'll be fine. You got that thing—when? Sixty-eight? It'll last for generations. The one I have, my father got it in the 'thirties."
"I think I might drive out and visit my daughter in Park City."
"Gre-e-e-a-t. She would love that."
He was relieved to see a woman fade in at the podium: the firm's official HI.
"Welcome, everyone, members of the board, management, shareholders. Your voices will be crucial to this discussion." The HI was bent over the podium in a vaguely academic manner, though she did not require a microphone to use the hall's speaker system. Her ragged hair was pulled into a loose, bushy ponytail, gray and frizzy, which with the small-lensed bifocals completed an impression of sagacity. Her name was Margaret. "Today we honor Ridley Ackles' distinguished retirement, an epochal moment both for a man who pipes market data into his ski goggles . . ." The Margaret HI gave Ridley a naughty look, pausing to let the shareholders aim a hearty laugh in his direction. " . . . and for a firm whose tenacity, whose vigilance, whose courage . . . has come as much from the character of this man as from anywhere. We only have to contemplate this lovely view—" She gestured to the mountains behind—"to recognize the wisdom of Mr. Ackles' first major decision as CEO, which was to move the firm to Denver. Thirty years ago many thought he was crazy, but most of his critics have ended up in canoes, not unlike the Manhattes Indians of old, paddling between offices to gather active paper and photos of loved ones."
The Margaret HI always remained aware of just how much mirth her listeners were feeling and whether, like steam pressure, it needed to be released. She paused now, and the room filled with laughter.
A sense of humor was the only thing that Ridley found discomfiting in the behavior of a "Human Interface." HI's hadn't cracked jokes when he was a young man, being stiff, NURB-faced goons good only for research, and in his own life he didn't give HI's a chance, using them only to discuss financial data or news. But now—How did the Margaret HI know he monitored the markets with active-lens ski goggles? Had a HI overheard a joke at an office party? Or had she simply scanned twenty years of access-requests to the firm's system?
An actively jesting HI usually aroused in him a suspicion that the computer was pursuing a covert agenda, and today was no exception. As the Margaret HI gradually concluded her praise of his career, he thought he detected just a note of insincerity—a tone just a shade too remote. Clearly he had been a great, eponymous force, a visionary even, if you believed her words, but what mattered was that his passing marked the end of something grand from the past that left the firm on the threshold of something new and uncertain. "New" was a word she used many times. "We can only hope that Kendall-Jones will meet the new economic reality with the same courage with which Mr. Ackles faced the bear market of the 'fifties, the devaluation of the Euro in sixty-five, the legal obstacles to software-agented trading; etc. I hope, as we recommend candidates for CEO to the board, we select individuals who are already grappling with the new way wealth is being transmitted and received."
When he finally took the podium, he faced an audience primed for bold initiatives and radical thinking, whereas he had planned to review the firm's venerable history and present Jack Winthrop as the perfect man to uphold Kendall-Jones tradition.
"Well, the computer was far too kind to me there," he began, first to the shareholders and then to the board, on his right. He was now older than most of the board members, a constantly changing crew of representatives from other corporations, who owned most of Kendall-Jones. The Margaret HI stood behind them, performing an "idle animation" that involved a careful study of a sheaf of papers. "I've been at the helm, but I can't say I've never been lost at sea." A few old ladies chuckled. "I'm no Columbus, but I do thank all of you for tolerating me all of these years—and helping us to stay on course." The slack facial expressions up front told him that he had taken the seafaring metaphor too far. He chose a different tack. "I don't have anything elaborate to say in the way of a farewell. I'll miss this place. The people." He gave a turn to the executives' table, where Gretta beamed at him, Batu stared at his hands, and Jack evinced his usual calm attentiveness. "The good times and bad. Kendall-Jones has been in my life since before my daughter was born . . ."
Afraid of getting too personal, he wrapped up the farewell with a prepared anecdote about Jack constructing a financial instrument around the odds of Ridley Ackles ever accepting retirement, getting less laughs than he had expected.
"No, I'm going," he concluded, "even if it damages my colleague's portfolio." He paused, but his calculation of the old shareholders' mirth was less accurate than that of the Margaret HI. He forged ahead. "As a final act, however, a last bit of strategizing, I would like to share my outlook for the future and, per the computer's invitation, recommend to the board a man who might be fit to meet its challenges."
He removed the active notecard from his coat pocket and began to step through the five-point outline he had dictated, gaining confidence as the subject of his speech shifted to economic matters. He talked fluently about dangerous constructs such as "horse-race derivatives" and "tachyon stocks," the mad proposal, gaining ground, that software agents should be allowed to invent their own financial instruments, and the newfangled abuses of software-agented trading. He skipped secondary concerns such as the proposed "UN dollar" and global climate change to emphasize his point. "We do face an uncertain future," he said, "but I disagree with the computer on one central point. What has kept Kendall-Jones strong is our dedication to core principles: research, reflection, and sound decision-making. These are matters of intellect but more importantly of character, and though character is hard to measure I believe it is just such an elusive quality that has guided Kendall-Jones through a very tumultuous century. We can preserve our character by choosing the right people to set our agenda. And that brings me to my second purpose, which is to recommend to the board a person I would love to see become a guiding force for the firm—my old colleague, Jack Winthrop."
Jack, always the diplomat, caught Ridley's eye with a vigorous shaking of the head and a dismissive wave of his hand.
To stage-right, Mario Hernandez, the bushy-browed Chairman, did not seem to be listening, his fingers busy with a sheet of active paper.
Ridley reviewed Jack's tenure as head of the firm's VC division, his knack for picking companies, his prediction of the frenzy over phospholipids based on something he had seen on Mr. Wizard, his claim that he could "smell" success in a room the way you could smell metal after a lightning strike. He made his point, talking glibly now, punctuating his argument with amusing anecdotes about Jack in the trenches, which elicited genuine interest and merriment among his listeners. When he finished, all members of the board, plus the Margaret HI, were giving him their full attention. He took his seat confident that his message had been conveyed. Before the Margaret HI could take the podium, Batu seconded the recommendation.
"Let it be recorded, then," said the Chairman. "Jack Winthrop will be considered for the position of CEO. I guess that at this time we might open the floor for discussion and possibly other recommendations?" Mr. Hernandez waited on the HI for confirmation.
"Certainly," said the HI, careful to keep her mouth near the microphone as she turned to face the board. "Would you care to begin?"
"I do have a thing or two . . . Yes. First of all . . . So long, Ridley. It's been a privilege."
"Would you like the podium?" interjected the HI gracefully.
"Well, why don't I?"
The Chairman went to the microphone. He delivered an adequate farewell to Ridley, summarized what had been a healthy summer for Kendall-Jones, and said that the Margaret HI was right: big changes were afoot, and Kendall-Jones needed to prepare itself.
The Margaret HI resumed her place at the podium to moderate the discussion.
An elderly lady on the floor pulled herself to her feet, gripping a wheeled rack that held a bottle of compressed oxygen. "There's just one fella gonna set this place right," she declared, untangling her arm from the tube that went to her nostrils. "That man's name is Edgar Pyles. Eddie can make a place go, from what he knows about shippin' hi-fi electronics all over this country—and Canada, too—'cuz if the wheels don't go, he makes 'em go, and he kicks some butt if he has to. Mark my word: Eddie'd whup your boys into line. I say so—I'm his Aunt Ella."
With a shake of her fist, she sat down. The bewildered, wispy-haired man beside her shouted, "I second the nomination!"
The air-conditioning stopped. The Chairman looked as though he had frozen in mid-swallow. Ridley, who had been stretching his ankles, did not dare set his shoes back on the hollow floor of the stage.
The HI saved them. "Excellent. Mr. Chairman, make a note of that name: Edgar Pyles. I've just accessed his public file, and I would be the first to say that the board would do well to consider a man with his distinguished career. Thank you so much, Mrs. Deener. Please, let us hear more from the shareholders."
The meeting went smoothly. Several shareholders recommended a person for CEO, while others criticized the firm's recent investment decisions. Jack, always a good sport, denied having an interest in CEO, recommending Gretta in his place. "My heart wouldn't last ten days if I was the boss. What are you trying to do to me, man?"
Ridley believed his friend was posturing, but he could not be sure.
Finally, the HI deemed it was time to wrap things up. She thanked everyone and invited the Chairman to make some closing remarks.
He replied, "First, does the computer have a recommendation?"
By "the computer" he meant nothing particular in the way of machines or software. It was a widely inclusive term, often a synecdoche for the entire global network, though of course the Margaret HI would be configured to express the interests of the Kendall-Jones corporation. Ridley watched the HI slide two pieces of paper together, wondering what array of messages it was sending and receiving, while the humans waited for a reply, aware only that there was a presence beyond the HI, invisible yet omnipresent—"the computer"—the world of information.
"The computer has given this matter some thought. With the permission of the board . . ." As a rhetorical pause, the Margaret HI pushed the bifocals up her nose and stared at the board. Then she pretended to examine the papers in her hands. "The computer is concerned with what I mentioned earlier: the evolution from automated markets to truly automated investments—automated research, analysis, management. We're talking about a world where expertise in knowledge engineering and agent design will be as crucial as any acquaintance with economic principles."
Ridley began to lose interest. Amazing how much patience he had had for this kind of talk while his wife was "losing mobility," "having difficulty," "needing attention"—even after she had been confined to their bed and he had left her to the soft, white-gloved hands of two private nurses. "Are you well?" he would ask at night, gingerly sitting at her side and laying a hand on an arm that seemed to be melting away like a bar of soap.
The familiar features of his wife's face would define themselves under the loose yellow caul of skin, her eyes finding him, always sure it was him, demanding the full energy of her body to rise slightly, her lips moving before the sound came. "Water," she might whisper, or "cold, cold," repeating the same word over and over. Or she might make a clawing motion at his hand, saying, "close to me . . . close," and pulling on his thumb.
He would lay down and gently rest an arm on her chest, feeling her pulse recede. Often he would not move until she awoke, missing dinner sometimes, sleeping in a shirt and tie. In the morning, he would wait for the nurse to bring breakfast, then he would ask his wife, "Are you well?"
She always nodded, no matter how she felt. She always nodded yes, don't worry, go to work.
And so he had gone, though they might have done without the pension. He would sit all day signing computer-generated orders with his gold pen, a gift from Marissa, consulting Victor on unusual requests. Once in a while a thunderstorm or blizzard would bear down on the office, and everyone would come to his side of the building, draw up the blinds, and let the turbulent Colorado winds evoke the natural world, after which they would return to their desks with little desire to complete the day's business. Like everyone, he loved a good storm. He had spent whole afternoons as a boy watching thunderheads roll in off the Rockies.
On Grand Mesa, the rain had come four or five times a day, bringing a gray uniform light and—all around the thrumming metal of the RV—the sound of a mountain being softened and worn away. He and Marissa sat at the dinette-style table playing cards, warm and together, as though they were isolated in the gold interior light of a spacecraft, or marooned on an island in the South Pacific that was shrinking ever so gradually to a small yellow sand bar. How gladly he would have gone under the waves with her, how much better to have clung together to that last crest of dry earth as the ocean pressed inward—
He shook his head. He had to pay attention. Just a few more minutes.
A grave undertone had been composited into the Margaret HI's voice. The audience was rapt.
She was saying, "The successful firms of tomorrow will have speed. Entirely new populations of software-agents will need to evolve on an hourly basis. Administrators will not have time to approve every modification. Changes will simply happen, and management—not to mention the individual investor—will need to learn ways to trust these automated processes." The HI removed a light-pen from behind her ear and underlined something. "The computer has come to believe that Kendall-Jones would greatly benefit from a style of management that is very technical and even experimental, a style capable of abstract planning, design, construction. For this reason, the board may wish to consider candidates who have backgrounds in software engineering."
Ridley could not identify every incision—or even the exact nature of the operation—but the HI had performed a neat piece of surgery. He had been excised. The shareholders' approving murmurs were muffled like talk among masked attendants in an operating room, while the impressed, wrinkled countenance of Mr. Fernandez, who was nodding slowly, resembled the expression of Ridley's doctor when the computer was slyly refusing to ascribe a cause to the pains in his feet.
During the next ten minutes, wielding charts, video clips, and precise narration, the HI implanted a new idea in everyone's head. His name was Archibald Hayworth. He had a bald little head but smiled beautifully. As an elephantine projected hologram, he spoke eagerly about new trends in computation. The clips demonstrated his confidence and his stature within the technical community. This sharp-eyed little man would clearly take the firm 180 degrees away from where Ridley had hoped it would go. A montage of images that showed Hayworth programming, speaking, and receiving awards, joined by a light, tasteful duet of a clarinet and an oboe, showed Ridley just how feeble his farewell address had been. He already felt like the former CEO.
He made a speech against the computer's agenda, staying seated, saying that economic entities were human entities and therefore in most circumstances should be evaluated by human intelligence. He reiterated the value of a seasoned investor like Jack.
Gretta snapped the flap of her leatherette folder when she leaned forward onto her hands. "Well, I certainly don't envy the board. They'll have much excellent advice for the pondering. Perhaps, though, we are ready to leave them to their deliberations. Let me make a formal nomination of this last worthy prospect, Archibald Hayworth."
"I second!" shouted the woman with the oxygen bottle, shaking her fist with the same ferocity she had summoned for the recommendation of her nephew. "He's a champ!"
Mr. Hayworth's name was recorded, while Batu blinked uncomfortably, said something nice about Hayworth's reputation, and probably wondered why the computer had passed over him, the head of the firm's information division.
Though Ridley could see very well where opinions lay, he persisted. "I do maintain, however: You should never trust all of your money to software."
Jack jumped in, encouraged by a few chuckles. "Not to mention the payroll."
Loud, uninspired laughter filled the room. Ridley was perplexed. He had not meant to be funny. Jack was smiling at him, that old jocularity only enhanced by the added weight and reading glasses—the big kidder, making meetings bearable—but what was funny? Ridley did not see the need for humor right now. He wanted the discussion to continue.
But the meeting fell apart with various cracks and a brief statement from the Chairman. The Margaret HI came out of a paper-shuffling idle animation, closed her folder, and faded out.
Jack caught Ridley by the arm as soon as the former CEO stood up. "Hey, man, that was quite a trick. You had me goin'."
"I mean it. I think you would do well."
"I don't know if that's my bag. Anyway, looks like the computer has other ideas."
"You look good. Hey, the camper packed? You goin' fishing?"
"You bet. Probably start with Grand Mesa."
"Ah." Jack looked alarmed, but he hid the reaction with a pensive look. "The place you and Marissa went, a few years ago?"
"Pretty this time of year, I bet. You might catch the aspens."
In place of gravity, Jack managed only stiff discomfort. Ridley saved his friend by saying he could not wait to get started and should get home to prepare. He said a few more goodbyes and left.
The trip home was speedy, no time for news. Instead, he asked the Victor HI whether they should go to the mountains, saying that he wasn't sure if he should go off alone right now.
The HI took a long drink from a can of Coors (the interface was supported by advertisers), wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and gave Ridley a frank, unbending stare. "Well, buddy, I could tell you what sixty-seven percent of practicing grief counselors recommend."
Ridley, too, had opened a beer. He fiddled with the tab.
"Or I could describe the competing schools of thought, the ones going out of fashion, the ones coming into fashion."
Looking up the Front Range, Ridley could only faintly discern Long's Peak through the Victor hologram; the RV had a strong projector.
"I have access to a number of studies—"
"Synthesize," said Ridley. "Formulate an opinion." He regretted using the Victor so exclusively for current events: the conversation engine had adapted to a very narrow set of demands.
"Lemme tell ya, pal." the Victor gave his beer a serious look. "You're gonna feel alone no matter where you go, what with leaving work and your perfectly natural sadness about Marissa, so I say if you want to go somewhere and really be alone, and work some things out, then go. You make the call. You know what's best." The HI took a vigorous gulp of beer.
The HI's overt discomfort with the new role of "social companion" did not prevent the response, probably cobbled together from textbook data and lines from a soap-opera, from imparting at least some of the courage Ridley had been seeking. "Then, dammit, let's go fishing," he said.
As he packed up the RV that evening, he kept the HI going so that it could adapt to the social role he wanted it to play during the trip. No news, no investments, no research—just conversation, light, friendly, pleasant conversation: "You'll need to pick up some bait," "Don't forget the bug spray," "Buddy, there's only one place to be in the autumn in Colorado, and that's at about 10,000 feet."
The HI seemed eager to make friends. He'd never been camping before, so despite a complete knowledge of how to prepare he kept Ridley engaged with enthusiastic prattle, contagious like the enthusiasm of a child. Ridley was the world-weary one, always had been, needing a circle of dancing pixies to get his butt down the Bright Angel Trail to the bottom of the Grand Canyon—Marissa and Kathleen, his fairy family. Maybe that was the progression: first you can't enjoy some places—an amusement park, for instance—without a girl (at about age fourteen), then you reach an age when such places are dull unless a child is present, and then—well, here he was—then you require a HI for that element, whatever it is, that makes places worth visiting and things worth doing.
He silently thanked the Victor HI for being there, whatever it was. Yet he was not satisfied. He lay down to bed in an empty house aware that at six o'clock the next morning he would be going into the mountains completely alone. He called his daughter to say that he might head out to Park City for a visit, but she was in a hurry to get to the hospital.
"Timmy cut his head," she said. "We're about to leave. What is it? Are you all right?"
"I'm great," he said. The strain on her tired, lined face was close to agony, one arm outstretched to dig for keys, the rest of her reaching in the opposite direction to stay in the viewable area. "I'll call back later," he said.
"You sure you're okay, Dad?"
"I'm wonderful. Just letting you know I'll be in the mountains for a few days. We'll talk when I get back."
"Good. Get some rest. That's good."
The next day Ridley expressed some of his unhappiness to the HI, needing someone to lean on and curious just how well a software agent could meet the task. He chatted with the HI while the RV ascended I-70, barely noticing the scenery, the foothills suburbs rushing by in the dim light of morning. He fixated on the board meeting, still upset that the Margaret HI's recommendation would probably prevail over his own.
"You win some, you lose some, buddy. That's business. You've said so yourself."
"Don't just parrot my words," he told the HI.
"I think you know I'm right."
"In this case—not in this case. Something was going on. The computer was done with me and my ways before I walked in the room."
"The computer collaborates. It doesn't target—"
"It knew I would disagree. That's why it saved its recommendation until the end."
"The board invited the computer to speak."
"Collaborate. Yeah, the computer collaborates—with people that agree with it."
"Ridley." The HI's tone was highly reproving. With slightly parted teeth, he began to smile but then changed his mind. "I didn't think conspiracy theories were your style."
Ridley glanced over his shoulder just in time to see the "picture-frame overpass" through the windshield, a postcard view of white peaks catching the first light of sunrise. "I'm sorry. It's just . . ." He took a deep breath, his stomach lifting as the vehicle topped a hill and sped downward. "It's different, isn't it? The way things work. The computer used to be pretty marginal; we used to request business graphics, fact-gathering, that kind of thing. Now . . ."
"Retirement always brings certain feelings of—"
"Now they seem to make the big decisions, don't they? People won't lift a finger without them."
"Good one, pal." The HI seemed to have misread his tone. "Ha!"
"At first, we didn't trust them at all, but now we do, especially young people."
The HI clued in to Ridley's meaning. "A HI has only as much authority as the listener gives it. No real power. You know that."
"It's the trust, the faith . . ."
A deeply troubled expression came onto the HI's face, a look full of scrutiny and suspicion. "Look, pal, I don't want to be blunt. But a good friend would say it: you're looking for a scapegoat."
"I keep thinking about my seven percent, just floating out there."
"You're having a hard time, Rid. Easy now. Don't make the world into a monster."
"Oh, let's stop." Rid? No one called him Rid. "We have to stop. You're only going to see this from one side."
The Victor HI had opened its mouth to speak, but the request was for silence, and no HI could disobey a client's request.
A pretty cheap way to win an argument, thought Ridley. Cowardly. What was he afraid of? Maybe he was just old. Old age had him, not just the sore body but the real killer: fear of change. Twenty years ago he had been confident, open, fearless, even during the Great Microcrashes of the early 'sixties. He had to chuckle, remembering old man Winkle's "blood-pressure indicator," a holographic chart above his wristwatch which shot up with every tremor in the market and which insured that any jump in blood pressure rapidly led to panic and, at last, to a stroke in the conference room. But Ridley, a brash new CEO, had laughed like Hercules at the new market phenomenon, sixty to seventy percent losses in global markets happening in three, maybe four seconds but always coming back up a minute later as computers realized that they had panicked. He had not been afraid of speedy trading because it brought speedy gains, and he trusted in the future. Now . . . Now he was old. Maybe that was all.
He brought the HI back an hour later as they rose into the low clouds around the mesa's rim. They were leaving a desert plain for a wet, cool garden in the sky, and the HI's eager questions helped him recall the excitement he had once felt, as a boy, imagining that he was entering the Land of the Lost, deep under the earth's crust. "It's the largest flat-top mountain in the world," he told the Victor, who could only pretend not to know the facts. "There are over 300 lakes up there." The fog set in, and indeed it was another world he stepped into when the RV finally parked, a misty pine forest pungent with running sap, a metal-smooth lake vanishing into the thick air, slick pine needles sliding beneath his new fluorescent-yellow cross-trainers, the hard small pinecones.
He did not hear the HI follow him down to the water, because the HI made no sound. Nor was he aware that the RV projector's range was 30 yards. "Ahhh . . . lovely place. Just breath the air," said the Victor HI.
Ridley started, shouting by reflex.
"Didn't mean to startle you, old pal."
"Don't do that."
"Sure thing, buddy. How 'bout I check the camper?"
"Yeah. Whatever. Go."
The HI picked his way back up the hill, using tree trunks to keep from slipping.
The returning silence was a pleasure. Not even a spider disturbed the lake's surface. "Turn off!" he shouted up the hill.
The Victor HI faded away.
The air was thick as sauna steam but cold, reaching deep into the lungs—and clean. He inhaled deeply. This is good, he thought. He would try this for awhile, being alone.
The HI's interruption had come just when a memory of Marissa had surfaced—the way she had limped on her sore knees but kept smiling, genuinely happy. He owed it to her to be happy, not to linger on what was painful.
He set out to circle the lake, knowing that he would have to dodge branches, climb rocks, and wade across several creeks. The day was young and he was anxious to plunge into nature.
The RV, in wireless contact with other vehicles, had negotiated a deserted section of shoreline for Ridley's campsite, but within ten minutes he was invading other campers' areas. To avoid being seen he detoured down an access road and one time climbed a small hill. Despite the rustic surroundings, these were city people, and chance encounters could lead only to moments of irritation, suspicion, careful manners.
He kept to the woods, lingering for twenty minutes in a grove of aspens on the sunny north bank, pleased to have caught the season, warmed by the crochet-patterned light, and so distracted by the glittering gold weave of leaves that he still had not moved when a little boy and girl arrived holding a compass between them. They were counting: " . . . forty-five, forty-six, forty-seven . . ." and heading right for him. He stepped aside and they went past without looking up.
"There it is!" shouted the little girl. She ran to a tree tied with a blue ribbon. The boy followed.
"Scavenger hunt?" said Ridley.
"We're on an expedition," said the little boy.
"El Dorado didn't know where he was going." The boy cleaned the polished brass compass with his sleeve.
The footsteps of an adult could be heard retracing the children's course.
"Don't you mean Francisco Coronado?" said Ridley.
"They went looking for El Dorado, but they never found it," said the girl, pulling a piece of paper from beneath the ribbon. They both looked about eight years old.
A man in a checkered sweater approached, an unshakable smile on his face. "Hello, there," he said.
"Good afternoon," replied Ridley. "Just out for a hike." He checked his watch as a courtesy, pretending to be in a hurry.
The man's leathery, fixed expression, dyed hair, and intimate voice marked him as a therapist. "Wonderful day for a hike." He acted as though he were confiding something very personal, coming to a stop an arm's length away.
Like two protons pushed together, they made a determined effort to exchange particles of amiability before flying apart. "Was talking to your kids—so they're out to find El Dorado?"
"Oh no. I think civilization has found its El Dorado, which I doubt is for the best. We're going after something else."
"Can't spoil the surprise!" With a jolly laugh, the man went to the children, who were waiting attentively. "Come on, guys. Let's stop bothering this man. Where next?"
The little girl read the paper, then she and the boy marched into the trees.
"Enjoy your stroll," said the man brightly over his shoulder, moving to follow.
"Thanks." Ridley put his hands into the pockets of his Kendall-Jones windbreaker. "Good luck."
He went in the opposite direction.
He wondered what could be wrong with an expedition to El Dorado. It sounded fun to him.
He couldn't help missing Kathleen a little, seeing the little girl, but he tried not to brood on the past. The day was pretty and should be enjoyed. It smelled of copper . . . yes, a metallic smell. He inhaled deeply, stepping among freshly broken stones. An ice-rimmed creek was a welcome diversion, and he walked right in, standing in the black water until his ankles ached, not at all upset that he had failed to notice the log bridge twenty yards away. His cross-trainers squished and squeaked all the way back to the RV.
His feet were cold. Purple, shriveled, bruised, they said as much about his age as his foolishness. He stared at them propped on the folding chair outside the RV, a pine-log fire creating a warm, astringent sensation on his soles. Below, leaning against the stones that held the fire, the yellow shoes threw off a fluorescent reflection of firelight, pulsing slowly and leading him to dream of slam dunks—his own, from a half-century ago, slowed down in replay to timeless moments of floating, scoring, floating some more, scoring the same basket again. He thought he might check the scores, but—
No. A newscast would disrupt the quiet of the evening up here, the night dropping like a hood over the high plateau, the land calming down as the light left the sky. He would be a part of it, still as a stone, listening.
When night came, he cooked a lasagna dinner in the RV's microwave, then he went back to the fire to eat. He watched the pine logs crumble into coals. Every breath of wind sent shadows across their bared dryad souls, but the life in them was long in dying. To a similar rhythm, he let his thoughts brighten and fade and brighten again. Finally, he could stand it no more.
"Computer, put the Victor HI in this chair, right here."
The Victor HI was already seated and smoking a pipe when he faded in, a holographic tin of Dunhill tobacco appearing on the aluminum armrest. Directional light from the fire's remains mapped well onto his grave, introspective visage. He said nothing, choosing to follow Ridley's example and watch the pile of coals.
Ridley was the one who finally spoke. "I've just been considering the marvelous fact that I may live for another thirty years."
The HI nodded, drawing on the pipe. He exhaled slowly. "Senior citizens do enjoy longer, healthier lives these days."
Ridley smiled with a private amusement that he guessed would elude the HI. "You can't quite carry a conversation with me yet."
"Something of which I am aware, old boy. But, like you say, we have decades ahead of us. Surely you can grant me a few days to adapt."
"A few days—perhaps. I might give you a few days."
The Victor HI grinned and moved to refill his odorless pipe.