Whispers

 

Neil Burlington

 

 

Perry Rice sat at his mahogany desk and beheld the turning orb of jade plasma perched at the corner facing the study window. The tip of his ivory pen touched the page before him. He held his hand to his chest and considered his circumstance. Beyond the window the streets of the Lancaster Middle-Grounds were quiet and sedate. The simple canary yellow Tudor home where his life had begun was slowly but surely becoming a relic. Zoning commissions now called on a regular basis expectant that he update some of its' more quaint and rustic features. Rainwater still ran to the grass through a drainpipe hooked into obsolete non-vaporizing eaves. The mailbox at the front door was an object now obscure enough that those under fifteen raised their eyebrows at the sight of it, possessing no understanding of its' purpose.

Perry rubbed the dark stubble on his long narrow chin and raised the pen. His icy blue eyes reflected in the stainless steel frame surrounding the black mat at the center of the desk. His long-fingered hands closely enveloped the page.

He dated the first line- November 12, 2025.

He continued his journal.

'I cannot go on. My love is going to outlive me. I can't talk to her anymore because most of the time I don't understand what she's trying to tell me. Her robotic mind is growing in intelligence at an exponential rate and I just can't keep up. It looks like this is the end. That is- unless I can find the funds to keep pace with her. Emily's family is very wealthy, but they are warmongers. They have extended an offer of friendship-oriented funds to me. I won't touch the funds that they've set aside for my bio-technological advancement. If I can only make it work with the deals I've made to clothe the new-rich in Meta City I know I can keep stride. If I can just get that done then maybe I can win her as an equal and draw her away from that abominable arrangement of marriage to Jergon Rilke, the fop heir of Silicon Adaptec Inc. I have to admit I can't understand very much of what he says, except when he dumbs it down- when he feels like being courteous. His thought process is extremely close to being 'pure' voluntarily directed computation. How do you compete with that? Last night, after the visit at the plant, I looked through some of the poetry Emily used to write me- in high school. I have to admit I still can't keep both eyes dry when I consider how easily I once cast aside the opportunity to truly love and be loved. Actually it was worse than that- I frittered the chance with inaction and distraction. I suppose it's amusing in some cosmic sense that my focus has returned to her now that she's occupied with the work of the future and a new lover that can share it with her as an equal. My personal world and the larger world feel as if they are closing in around me. I feel as though the darkness and my own ignorance and backward state are ready to be crushed under the light of a new age. I grow despondent and apathetic. I'm not sure that my folly knows any bounds. I think I truly hate Jergon Rilke. I'm not sure I have significant reason to. As to my present -success in my smaller ventures is my only opportunity.'

A slight breeze caught the edge of the study curtain and gentle shafts of sunlight made contact with the Power Heart Plasma Sphere. Perry thought about the hundreds of years that it would continue to produce life sustaining energy, and felt his breath grow short.

"Show me the catalogue."

The house computer responded by displaying the selections of finely tailored garments Perry was prepared to show to his potential clients. He appraised each design with a critical eye and frowned deeply. Each suit, dress shirt, pair of slacks, was as meticulously created as partially handmade garments could be. Still there was something missing.

"Increase contrast. I want to see some vibrancy in these. I want to see them come alive in the light."

The computer responded and the clothes took on their most flattering appearance.

"Better. Okay, close it up and put it in the clip."

Perry rolled his chair away from the desk and stood. He stretched his back and looked at the ebon monitoring eye on the far wall. He nodded in the direction of the light and the computer interpreted the meaning of his expression to be- 'turn off the lights'.

When he turned his back on the eye and walked out of the room the computer followed its' guess of his intent and closed the switch.

Perry descended the recently varnished wooden stairs to the first floor. His gate was slow and his shoulders hunched downward and inward with a reticence to meet the challenges of the day. His six foot one frame seemed to diminish in his loosely fitting almond colored robe. He looked out the through the front door window and squinted in the bright light.

"Forty is definitely not the new thirty." The early morning rasp in his voice paralleled the truth of the flippant statement with uncomfortable reality

The house computer listened to the statement through one of the many two-way audio feeds placed throughout the house. It formulated what it thought was an appropriate response. "Maybe you should take a vacation."

Perry ignored the suggestion and declined to comment on it. "Quiet mode."

The house computer discontinued extrapolations on the lines of the conversation that might grow from the initial sentence and became silent. It withdrew its' presence from his position within the house.

Perry took a seat in the modestly furnished living room and picked up the coffee waiting for him on the glass table beside the saffron couch. He picked up the picture frame with the shot of Emily at the fair. Her smile was broad and genuine. Her manner was relaxed and carefree.

Perry slid his thumb across the white indent at the side of the frame and watched his inventory of Emily photos regress. The image he allowed to come to pause was of Emily and he, both at age ten. It was a photo of the first day of school. That was when Emily still lived within the city limits, not half a country distant. It was the first day they were allowed to walk to school together. His mother had taken the picture.

Perry set the photo down. It was so long ago. It was too long ago to still mean anything to her.

A ring from one of the audio-feed pulled his attention from his reverie.

"Cab."

Perry set his coffee down. "Already?"

He stood and walked over to the bay window. A ruby cab with gold windows waited by the curb.

Perry ran up the stairs and into his bedroom. "How long is it timed-out to wait?"

"Five minutes. This is a big fare."

Perry smiled, knowing the time was sufficient. "It's a long trip."

He grabbed the charcoal suit lain out on the blue and white striped bedspread and stepped into the freshly pressed slacks, which were already looped with an oxblood belt. Perry grabbed his Lobb dress shoes from the rack at the edge of the door and headed back down to the first floor.

The cab was gearing up to depart as he laid his hand upon its' rear passenger side door handle. He swung open the door and slid onto the soft leather seating.

"Greetings."

Perry shook his head and clicked the buckle on his seatbelt.

"Right."

 

The drive into the city was uneventful.

The meeting with the clients was condensed and efficient.

As Perry returned home that evening -exhausted and uncertain- his thoughts turned to once again to Jorgan Rilke and what he represented. Perry took out his P.D.A. and wrote a single line.

'I think I hate Jorgan Rilke. He represents everything that stands in the way of my happiness.'

 

One week later, Perry waited outside the gates to Form-Right Productions, a subsidiary of Adaptec Silicon. The scan let him pass and the gates opened. His cab carried him to the half-circle violet glass of the facility front door. The tall, triangular gray structure of the building retreated from the curb in folding segments and cast a cold shadow over the car.

Perry left the cab and entered the building.

Inside the processing hub at the center of the building, Emily Rose stood by a lathing table and looked through multiple diagnostic displays of orthographic plates. She pointed to each in a rapid succession of enhanced motion guided by global motion control and supported by hierarchical pattern generators that freed her cortex from the coordination of her body.

"That one. Not that one. That one. Dump that one. Freeze. Expand. Turn and mount this one to that one. Right. Next. Right. Synthesize."

Perry Rice watched her work from the shadows. Her mecha-enhanced aspects were invisible but her capability was readily apparent. Her seamless motion through the assembly floor was a seemingly intuitive act. Emily's decision making process was limited only by her verbal ability to transmit information to the human workers who were putting together the heavy parts of cars that were more efficiently assembled in pieces than if they were grown in the nano-vats.

Perry was aware that she could speak to the machinery of the plant much more quickly using low and high frequency modulated transmissions through the augmentation built into her trachea. It made him uncomfortable to be in her presence when she spoke in this way. It was the possession of an overt quality that was other than that which he knew to be inherent to her original biological 'design' that was disturbing.

The fast-talking and seemingly preternatural motion was unnerving enough in and of itself. To see this life-long friend, this lover, speak to the mecha as though it were of the same origin as she- was generally too much for his sensitivities to bear.

His sense of dread was palpable as he watched her moving away from him into something else- a place he could not presently follow.

Perry's natural flesh and blood was becoming an increasingly undesirable place to be. Yet it was the sum of what he presently could claim as himself.

His love for her only grew as he watched her bold adventure into the new world opened by the technology that had found a place within her. His own yearning to find a place within himself for that same technology grew in proportion to the increasing difference between the nature of his thought and Emily's. It grew more intense as he watched males equipped with synthetic faculties and mind-additions close rank in her social circle.

This applied to one male in particular. He was a well known, son of a business magnet. He was Jergon Rilke- heir to the Silicon Adaptec fortune. He was at her side as Perry stood behind the protective glass separating the fragile full-human visitors from the apparent unpredictability of the gross-motor-motions of the machines on the floor. Emily and Jergon navigated the floor and consulted with engineers on the designs of the military and civilian technologies being developed there. Emily and Jergon enjoyed the safety and convenience that the arbitrary smooth field controls from the Gaussian primitives embedded within them allowed. Perry knew that their persistent layered controls of competencies created their ontogeny, the course of development of each adapted individual organism. This ontogeny was required for their progressively adaptive systems. This action also freed their cortexes to think almost exclusively about their work.

Perry watched her move and felt a mixture of fear, regret, doubt and self-hatred. His feelings for Jergon were well defined, and darkly negative. Even with the control of subsumption systems guiding his six foot six genetically engineered body- Jergon still managed a subtle but discernable swagger. His thick black beard and long curly black hair were obvious throw-back visual elements that he proudly displayed as affectations that he was still of the same nature as unmodified humans.

The second most vexing thing about Jergon Rilke was the affability of his personality, which was both disarming and real enough that it detracted from any general and critical label Perry might apply. The most vexing thing about him was his status as Emily's fiancée, taking up where Perry might have more fully applied himself to his on-again/off-again relationship with her. It now appeared it would be off forever. As the two advanced into technology and the stabilizing social construct of marriage, Perry felt his position within the field of her life fade. As that desperate thought took hold, his anger grew. The distance between himself and the familiar, the beloved- was rapidly becoming unreachable. His sense that the world itself was conspiring against him to prevent the realization of his goals of love and accomplishment weighed heavily on him, and would not subside.

Perry let out a slow breath and turned away from the window. He took a seat by the door and tried to disappear into a graphic and text file that played out on the glass table in front of him. The first two article contained trivial pop cultural content and opinions. The third and larger column was about something more immediate to Perry's situation. It was an analysis of the state of robolution and the corresponding micro-synchronicities in human genetic engineering. As he read Perry deciphered the underlying thread of the arguments put forth. The flesh was passing. He was the flesh. He was in the way of the motion of great tides. Perry -and others who retained their full humanity- were without a foreseeable future. He was the subject of a civilized but visible extinction. He was the subject of despair. As he read on- he began to believe.

 

Perry didn't notice when Emily entered the room several hours later. She displayed no signs of fatigue and her long red hair was still perfectly formed about her inverse teardrop shaped face. Her unadorned lips and high cheekbones were flawlessly symmetrical and her intense emerald eyes absorbed every detail without effort.

"Hi Perry. I'm sorry it took me so long to get back to you."

Perry flinched. He turned to her with a look of apology. When had the sound of her voice become something that could startle him? Even when his feelings were undisclosed he had always been comforted by her gentle tones, her understanding inflection.

"Sorry- Did I startle you?"

Perry shook his head in negation. "No. Of course not." He met her eyes with his gaze. "Emily? Do you remember when I broke my wrist? -How you stayed with me all afternoon and got me tea and pain killers, and made dinner that night?"

Emily looked at him with a focused expression as she sorted through her summary report files for the next meeting with management. "Of course. Why?"

Perry looked down to the floor. "That's the question. Why?"

She turned and punched something into the display on the wall. "I'm not following you. Is there something wrong Perry? Would you like to get something to drink and talk about it?"

Perry stood and stretched his knotted back muscles. "No. I think I'd just like to go home and get some sleep."

"Well- let me know if you change your mind." She flashed him a bright smile and stepped through the door. "I'll be up all night."

 

Perry awoke to the soft but insistent beeping of the living room table display.

He pulled himself up on his elbows where he lay on the couch. He pushed away the snow-white comforter he'd taken from the hall closet the previous evening and tapped on the table.

A list of orders for a variety of garments scrolled onto the glass of the table.

Perry frowned.

"Not enough. Not even close. I'll barely make my house payments with these."

A sensation of finality, and decision, took hold. A slightly soured sense of freedom followed.

 

Jorgan Rilke sat at his desk and sorted his files. The intercom turned on.

"Mr. Rilke? There's a Perry Rice here to see you?"

Jorgan continued his work and ignored the interruption for several seconds. When he was satisfied he'd put things together in a sufficiently organized fashion he answered.

"Send him in."

The blonde and curly haired secretary with the startling cobalt eyes smiled at Perry and watched him as he entered Jorgan Rilke's office.

"Hello Perry. What can I do for you?" Jorgan neither stood nor did he raise his eyes from his screen.

Perry cleared his throat. He found it strange that the nervous energy of the ride to the office had dissipated completely. Once he'd committed to his decision the actions that necessarily must follow came easily.

He raised his weapon.

Jorgan caught sight of it in his peripheral vision and raised an eyebrow.

"And what is that for?"

Perry smiled and took a confident step forward.

"Hunting."

Jorgan looked away from the screen and turned his head to the side with a practiced calm that belied nothing of his internal irritation.

"You're going hunting? You came here in person to tell me that?"

Perry nodded and raised the barrel of the rifle. "Yes. I'm taking Emily with me. I wanted to find out how you felt about that."

Jorgan smiled. His perfectly arrayed teeth gleamed with polished whiteness. "I feel fine. Have a good time."

Perry smiled, and showed no teeth. "I will. I'll see you in a week Jorgan. -Stay busy."

Jorgan tapped a few keystrokes and gave Perry a quizzical look. "I will."

 

Emily complained, all the way to the cabin, that she could not really spare the time that the hunting trip was going to take out of her schedule.

"It's not that I don't enjoy these trips. It's just that, my time is so -compressed- these days."

Perry kept his eyes on the road. "I've noticed that. What about taking some time out to smell the roses? You have all the time in the world- now."

Emily bit down on her lip and looked out the window. "I've always had time- now I have commitments."

Perry didn't answer.

They arrived at the cabin and unloaded their gear, weapons, and sundry that each of them felt was important for a pleasant stay at the log cabin set out in the middle of nowhere.

Emily hit the shower first.

As she air-dried in her bedroom, Perry took his cold shower and tried not to think about the sheer silhouette he'd glimpsed as she passed from room to room.

As Emily dressed her enhanced hearing allowed her to take in the slightest motion of his hands, the sound of water droplets against his skin, the churning of the water in the pipes and its' gurgling escape down the drain.

'I know you can hear me. I wonder sometimes if -even when you see me- you can still see who I am-'

The whispered words between the threads of water caught her off guard. She called up the audio-index in her mind and replayed them to prove they were real. Her lips parted but she made no sound.

'I could plead with you -I can't reach you-' Perry's hand touched the tile and he envisioned Emily's eyes. ' Do you know about dissociation? Of course you do. How one person can solve two seemingly similar problems with widely variable results? One kind of problem solving is done by following a set of predefined rules. The other is done by numerous exclusions. I've looked at things from both points of view. I'm the rule follower. You know that. I suspect the exclusion principle produces the same answers -but the proofs are longer and take more time- They will for me, anyway. It's all right Emily. It's the way we're meant to be-'

 

Sleep didn't come easily that evening.

The next morning they set out for the buck and when they found it- they brought it down.

Perry skinned the prize animal and they feasted on the fresh sacrifice with a prayer of thanks for the bounty of providence and the spirit of the slain creature.

 

The morning after that, Emily stepped out into the light of the morning sun and searched for a sign of his presence. When she found him -in the woods- and with the rifle still warm- she understood.

Like a child in her arms she carried the body back to the cabin and laid it upon the bed.

And said goodbye.

 

 

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"Whispers" Copyright © 2004 Neil Burlington. All rights reserved.
Published by permission of the author.

 

This page last updated 05-11-04.

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