By D. Avraham
“Please watch your step, Administrator Queen, as you exist the PT. There’s some moisture on the surface. It might be slippery.”
“Personal Transport,” thought Queen. They used to be called cars. But, then again, people used to actually drive themselves. That was one thing he didn’t really miss. Back in the day, fresh out of the academy, he started in Traffic. A few months of scraping babies off of windshields could make one appreciate the end of people actually driving their own cars–well, almost.
No one worked traffic anymore. Except the PTs, talking to each other; coordinating the traffic flow. There hadn’t been an accident in years–till now.
Queen stepped onto the pavement. It wasn’t that wet. And, even if he were to fall, there’d probably be some DS around that would stop him from hitting the pavement. They were everywhere. Dedicated Swarms were never too far away to treat injuries, if not prevent them. There were probably DSes that helped little old ladies across the street. That is if a little old lady had any reason to cross the street. Queen doubted there were too many that even left their homes these days. But that was okay. Last Queen heard, there weren’t any DSes trying to earn merit badges either.
The police tape was already set up. Things moved fast these days. Of course, it wasn’t really tape, but it looked like the old police line that Queen remembered from the old days. It wasn’t really necessary. All the PTs would know about the obstruction and reroute. And there weren’t any little old ladies wandering around in the street either. Conventions–society was leaving the future in the dust faster than one could blink, but conventions needed to be kept; protocols needed to be followed – for now anyway.
But conventions only went so far. The perimeter was live. It was smart. It looked like the old police tape, but Queen knew that no one would be able to skip under it or break through it; no one that wasn’t authorized. For him, or any other authorized personnel, the tape would part, and allow Queen onto the crime scene, all the time appearing as an unbroken strip of yellow plastic tape, announcing “Police Line: Do Not Cross.” Anyone else trying to cross it would have a better chance at walking through a brick wall. Queen doubted there were too many of those left in the worl either.
Queen took a step towards the police barrier. It came alive. “Good evening, Administrator First Grade Queen. Tragic, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, I can tell you’re all broken up over it.” Queen’s scowl returned. He didn’t need to make small talk with a machine. He looked around. Once upon a time there would have been other cops there, patrolmen an detectives, forensics. Now, it was just him and the machines. Queen turned towards the disembodied voice of the police barrier, ‘Tomorrow’s Patrolman.’ “OK, what’ve you got?”
“Is everything okay, Administrator? I detect an increased level of stress in your voice.”
“No, I’m fine. Leave the voice stress analysis for suspects. Just make your report.”
“At twenty-two hundred hours, thirty-three minutes, fourteen point zero five four seconds, a PT, owner currently undetermined, impacted into the underpass wall at approximately four hundred and eleven, point nine nine nine kilometers per hours. The PT was completely destroyed; there were no life signs from the vehicle. The structural damage to the underpass was minimal. Debris stretches for approximately one hundred and seventy seven point zero seven seven kilometers.”
“Yes, sir. I can give you more exact figures if you like.”
“No, that’ll be fine.” Queen shook his head and sighed. “Glorified adding machine,” he muttered.
“Excuse me, sir?”
“Nothing. Never mind.” Queen did a double take. Something was wrong. He had been distracted by the data. “Wait. Why is the owner of the PT undetermined? Didn’t you get an UID off the vehicle?”
“It must have been destroyed in the crash, sir.”
“What’s wrong?” asked the barrier.
“The PT is loaded with RFIDs smaller than a speck of dust. They should be able to get some UID. What about occupants? Who was in the PT?”
“There isn’t any data concerning the occupants, sir. “
If the Police Barrier had a collar, Queen would have grabbed it. “What are you talking about? There had to be a passenger. What about the passenger’s RFID?”
“We don’t have any data, sir. Our only data comes from the underpass, and the DSes in the air. Nothing is emitting from the debris. It must have all been destroyed.”
“What are you talking about. I’m looking at the debris. The ground is littered with pieces of metal bigger than a basketball. There has to be some data. Something must be emitting. The RFIDs are far more indestructible than the PTs structure.”
“But we haven’t any data sir. The entire zone is dead. Nothing is emitting.”
“That doesn’t bother you?”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand the question, sir. There’s no data.”
“No data.” Queen looked skyward. “That’s the problem with these bots. Nothing bothers them. That’s why they still need at least one human. All the data, or lack of data in the world doesn’t matter, if there’s no one around to ask questions.”
“I don’t understand your query, Administrator.”
Queen shook his head. “Without questions the data is meaningless. They haven’t figured out how to make these DSes ask the right questions, or even the wrong ones.”
The barrier lit up. “The wrong questions, what good would that do, sir?”
“Sometimes even the wrong questions can help solve a puzzle. Intuition is a strange creature. It makes the connections when logic fails. I don’t think anyone’s ever figured out how it works.”
“At least not yet,” offered the barrier.
“No, not yet.” Queen stared at the wreckage for a few long moments, as if he were trying to receive a signal the machines couldn’t detect. Finally, he broke off his concentration and turned back to the barrier. “Dust it. Let’s see what kind of story is hidden in there.”
A cloud of dust flew from the barrier. The Smart Dust Swarm spread out to cover the area of the wreckage. The tiny microelectromechanical systems, known as MEMs, were tiny motes of sensors, robots and other devices that detected and measured everything and anything: light, temperature, vibration, magnetism, and chemicals, among others. Individually, they weren’t much, but they could communicate, and even join together to form a Dedicated Swarm that functioned as a complete discrete unit for whatever was needed. Most of the world was built on a system of DSes.
The Swarm spread out and rested on the wreckage like a layer of light snow. Queen pulled out a flexible card from his coat. He watched the data scroll across the screen of his hand held. Most people didn’t have hand-helds anymore. Someone else would have watched that same data scroll past his field of vision, his visual cortex stimulated through a wireless Brain Computer Interface, a BCI. Most people had any number of digital displays, nearly unlimited data, hovering between them and the outside world. Everything in the world was defined through data. Even people had been reduced to a collection of data, thought Queen.
Queen was incompatible with BCI. He had been one of the first people to get a jack, which at the time was the latest in technology. It wore that crown for less than three months. The jack had fused to Queen’s spine and interfered with outside signals. Now, with BCI, the jack was obsolete, and Queen was stuck with a hand held. It now filled with numbers; the swarm recorded and relayed everything, without judgment. Only when Queen started asking questions, would the data be collated and analyzed. Without questions they were just a flow of meaningless numbers. Queen was grateful. The idea of BCI and all that data flowing across his field of vision wasn’t compatibility at all with Queen.
“What the?” Queen was looking down at his hand held, shaking his head. “That’s impossible.” As soon as it touched the wreckage, the swarm had stopped transmitting. All the motes were dead.
“What is it sir?” the barrier asked.
“Not what; we know what. The question is how, or maybe why.”
Queen was afraid to approach the wreckage. With all the smart dust on his body, and coursing through his body, and probably connected to his brain, despite his not being BCI compatible, he had no idea what would happen if he walked into that area. What would that do to him? He guessed it might not be too pleasurable.
Queen stared at the wreck. He scratched his chin and pondered.
A smile slowly creased his face. Queen’s fingers started gliding across the screen of his hand held. “I want a DS inert composite, a ball, between 142 and 149 grams, about 229–235 millimeters in circumference, 73–76 millimeters in diameter, and with height ratio of 0.3 and a yield strength that will allow a coefficient of restitution of e = 0.546 when thrown against that underpass wall, if thrown from here. I want it to send out a single signal every millisecond. As Queen talked, and his fingers glided across his hand held, dust gathered in front of him growing from a cloud into the form of a ball.
“This is what they used to call a baseball.” Suddenly he missed the sound of kids playing ball in the streets.
“What are you going to do with it?” asked the police barrier.
“Watch.” Queen offered a wink, plucked the baseball sized sphere out of the air and hurled it towards the underpass wall. On impact the ball bounced back towards Queen who snatched it out of the air. “Did you see that?” he said to the air. The signal’s back.”
“What does that mean?” asked the police barrier.
Queen looked askance. “It means the phenomena is local.” Queen figured that when they pull the wreck out of the area, the dust would return to life, and they might get some answers. They might be able to collect that all important data.
Queen turned towards the police barrier, and started tapping on his hand held. “I need inert steel chains with grapples, Grade 80 Alloy, 1.25 centimeter links. At this end, they should be attached to an active live winch, standard DS composite. Give me three of them. I also need a non-DS bot that can take the chains over there and hook them up to the main part of the wreck.”
Several bots rolled towards Queen. He pointed his hand held at them and gave them a set of instructions. “Okay, let’s see if this works.” He assumed that the bots would be able to bring the chain in and hook it up, as their processes are all internal. They weren’t a collection of independents communicating with each other like the DS was.
Queen watched the bots move towards the wreck. Something occurred to him, and he started keying his hand held. “I want the motes in the chain to send out a signal, so we’ll know if the area is moving with the chain, or if it’s staying in the same place.” Maybe it was the wreck itself, or something in it, that was what was killing the signal.
The bots moved slowly towards the wreck and hooked up the chain. Immediately the winch started moving the wreck towards the administrator.
Queen’s eyes were glued to his hand held. “Hmm.” He took the ‘ball’ he created from his pocket and through it towards the underpass wall. He caught it on the rebound, barely looking up from the hand held. “The area is shrinking.”
“What does that mean?” asked the police barrier.
“It looks like a ten cupper.”
“I do not understand, sir.”
“Coffee is an illegal stimulant.”
“Don’t depress me.”
“Sir? What does an illegal stimulant have to do with this wreck?”
“It’s just an expression.” Queen scowled. “Back in the day, coffee was what got us through those long investigations; the ones with scant evidence. A ‘ten cupper’ suggested a long night ahead.”
“That makes no sense, Administrator. If the dead zone is shrinking we should have plenty of evidence.”
“Data isn’t evidence. I doubt it’ll tell us why there was a dead zone in the first place.” Queen turned to the police tape. “Cross-coordinate the data. Find the center of the dead zone.”
“It is in the wreckage.” replied the police tape.
Queen rushed to meet the wreckage, his eyes glued to the hand held. He pulled up short, and threw up his hands. “We’re too late.”
“What happened?” asked the police barrier.
“It’s gone.” Queen didn’t hide his frustration.
“The dead zone.”
“Isn’t that a good thing, Administrator?”
Queen began muttering to himself. “Where did it go? Why did it go?”
The police barrier repeated its question. Why isn’t it good that the dead zone has disappeared, Administrator. It was a danger.”
“If it can happen once, it can happen again.” Queen turned his attention to what they did have. “Okay, now do we have some read on the occupants, the PT owner. It looks like there are a couple of bodies in here.”
“Accessing, Administrator,” said, the disembodied voice of the police tape. A few seconds later it had the answer. “The owner of the PT is Dr. Han Fastolfe. He is also the occupant of the vehicle.”
Queen glanced at his hand held as the information scrolled past. There were four RFIDs transmitting the same information. Most people had far more than four RFIDs, but four was a baseline minimum. It would do. The information was all coordinated: Dr. Han Fastolfe from the Tyrel-Rosen Corporation, age 84. He had a spouse: Gertrude Blugerman. There was more, but it didn’t interest Queen at the moment. “And the other passenger?”
“Who’s the other passenger?”
“Administrator, there was only one passenger in this PT. There aren’t any other RFID signals. Also, the PT’s log confirms that there was only one passenger.”
“Then tell me why am I staring at two pairs of legs?”
“I haven’t any data for that, Administrator,” answered the police tape.
Queen sighed. “Better put the kettle on. It’s going to be a long night.”
The PT stopped in front of a very large and prominent house on South Park Drive. Queen looked at the house on the view screen. “Well, this would be different.” Normally, he would have just projected to the home of Gertrude Blugerman to inform her of her husband’s accident. But for some reason, they weren’t receiving. Queen couldn’t remember making a house call like this in years. Today was full of firsts.
As the door to the PT opened, it reminded its occupant about the rain. “Please watch your step, Administrator Queen, as you exist the PT, there’s some moisture on the surface. It might be slippery.”
“It’s always raining, and it’s always slippery. You don’t have to remind me every time I leave the damn PT.”
“Administrator Queen, as you know, I am required to warn you. Also, it is not always raining. How can you make such an inaccurate statement?”
“Chalk it up to bad programming.”
“Look at that house,” Queen scanned the length and breadth of the mansion. He looked at his hand held. The house was real – ‘organic,’ as the kids called it. It was a hundred percent wood, metal and concrete; nothing like the virtual environmental cubes everyone else lived in – well, almost everyone else. The house was from a different era. Queen doubted there were many like it, outside of the reservations. Curious–most people wouldn’t want to live in an organic house, let alone be able to afford to. Despite the size of the mansion, it was static, and it would require maintenance, real, hands-on maintenance. The four by four cubes most people lived in might be small and plastic, but the virtual skein made them seem any shape or size their resident could imagine. Queen didn’t care what his VE looked like, but he knew most of the population spent a great deal of time designing and redesigning their living space. He wondered what kind of person would live in a static dwelling, even a big one like this.
Queen walked across the manicured lawn. It was real too. Queen suddenly had a longing for the smell of freshly cut grass. He hadn’t smelled that in a long time. He almost smiled at the thought of a hot summer sun on his neck and his calloused hands pushing the mower. Queen wondered what kids did to earn spending money today. Did they even need spending money?
“Hello, I am with The Public Administration Office. please allow entry,” Queen said to the double door entrance. It didn’t respond. He noticed the small white button on the door frame and chuckled. He pressed it. Chimes rang from inside the house. A doorbell – that was novel.
One of the thick wooden doors cracked open. A small man wearing a black jacket filled the space. “May I help you?”
“I’m with the Public Administration Office,”
“What is the nature of your call, sir?” the man asked.
“I’d like to speak to Mrs. Gertrude Blugerman, if I may?
“Is this a social call?”
“No,” Queen shook his head. “Business. Administrative Business.”
The man hesitated.
“Look, I’m sure Mrs. Blugerman would like to talk to me.”
The man looked at Queen. “It’s just that we weren’t expecting …”
“No one ever is. Let me in.”
The man hesitated another moment before opening the door wide. “This way, please.”
The foyer was lined with wood paneling. Despite it being ‘organic,’ the place was immaculate. Queen watched the man leading him through the house, but he knew he wasn’t really a man. He hadn’t ever seen an android so life-like, but it was clearly an android. That was also strange. Android development had fallen by the wayside. With the Dust, and with image vectoring connected to everyone’s BCI, androids, like all other fixed machines, were technological dinosaurs. Of course, this entire mansion was like a museum. Queen almost felt at home.
They entered a sitting room with large windows. Sunlight showered the room.
Queen squinted into the light, feeling its warmth, and then paused. It had been raining only a moment ago.
“We were just about to sit down to some tea. Won’t you join us?” The voice was sweet, with just a hint of the crackle of age. It was the voice of an elderly grandmother. Queen blinked away the light, and tried to focus on the owner of the voice. He glanced at his hand held. Everything was registering as real, organic. He had his doubts.
The blue haired woman smiled at Queen. “Please, Inspector, sit down.”
“Thank you.” Queen offered a smile, but instead of sitting down he strolled over to the windows. “Actually, we’re called administrators these days.”
“Oh yes, excuse me, dear. It’s not so easy for us old timers, is it?” She looked at Queen. “The changing times, the changing names. It’s amazing how much changes, and so quickly, today.” The old woman smiled. “And yet, stays the same, I suppose. Anyway, my apologies, Administrator, won’t you join me for tea.”
Queen nodded. He considered the woman a moment. Mrs. Blugerman?”
Queen leaned into the window boxes. “The flowers are beautiful Mrs. Blugerman.”
“Thank you, but please call me Gertrude.”
Queen leaned closer. He noticed a stray leaf, and examined it in the light. “Are they a special variety? I can’t detect any smell.” Queen asked. He absentmindedly pocketed the leaf.
Gertrude nearly laughed. “Why yes they are, Inspector. They’re cultivated for their aesthetic beauty. I suppose their scent was lost in the cultivation.”
The flowers were beautiful, almost perfectly so. As if they were the paradigm of what flowers were supposed to be, thought Queen.
“Besides,” commented Gertrude, “Han doesn’t tend to take to the scent of the rose.”
“You mean, Dr. Fastolfe, Ma’am?”
“Yes, my husband, Han.”
Queen drew a breath. “Yes Ma’am, that’s why I’m here. You see there’s been an accident.
Gertrude didn’t seem to hear Queen.
Queen winced. “About your husband, Ma’am.”
“Oh, he’ll be down in a moment.”
“I’m afraid I have some bad news, you see.” Queen took a step closer.
“I don’t understand.”
“There was an accident.” Queen drew a breath. “There was a malfunction, and Dr. Han Fastolfe’s PT crashed into an underpass.”
“Don’t be silly. Han’s been home all day. Isn’t that right, David?” Gertrude addressed the man entering the room behind Queen.
Queen looked over his shoulder. The man who had greeted him at the front door had returned.
Gertrude turned to David. “David, be a dear, and go see what’s keeping Han.”
David smiled and left the room.
“But, Ma’am, as I was trying to tell you, we found Dr. Fastolfe’s remains in his PT.”
Gertrude shook her head. “Don’t be silly. He’ll be along in a moment. Now sit down and have some tea with me while my son goes to fetch Dr. Fastolfe for you.”
“Well, yes, from my first marriage.”
“But it’s not human, Ma’am.”
Gertrude forced a another grandmotherly smile. “Well, in a manner of speaking, one’s creation is one’s child.”
“You don’t approve, Inspector?”
Well, he is very life-like, but …”
“Why do you say that?”
Well, ‘life-like,’ and not ‘alive?’”
Queen shifted uncomfortably. “Well, because, it’s not alive. It’s just a collection of data processors. It’s not alive.”
Gertrude smiled. “Well, I suppose you should ask him if he considers himself alive or not.”
Queen shook his head. “That’s ridiculous It only thinks what it’s programmed to think.”
“So do you, Inspector, It’s just that your programming is a bit more happenstance and flawed.” Gertrude’s smile widened.
Queen rolled his eyes. “We’re here about Dr. Fastolfe, Ma’am.”
“Yes, of course, Inspector.”
“I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but …”
Gertrude waved the notion away. “And I’m telling you, you must be mistaken, Inspector. By the way, how did you know?”
She had changed the subject again. Queen let her. “About what, Ma’am?”
“About David,” she answered, as if Queen should have realized what she was talking about.
Queen shifted. “Because he didn’t have an RFID. The same reason I know that Dr. Fastolfe was in his PT when it crashed.”
Gertrude smile. “But other than that?”
“As I said. he’s very life-like.” Queen became distracted. An elderly man entered the room with David. “Dr. Fastlafe, I presume.” Queen glanced at his hand held to verify. The RFIDs matched.
“Why yes, I am Han Fastlafe. How can I be of service, Inspector.”
“It’s Administrator,” Queen corrected. He offered his hand. “Pleased, to meet you, Professor.”
“Oh, it’s been many years since I’ve taught.” Dr. Fastlafe looked at Queen’s outstretched hand. His own faltered momentarily before finally clasping Queen’s. “Well, this is an old ritual isn’t it?”
“Well, we’re both old-timers.” Queen winked, and squeezed Fastlafe’s hand. “You’re hands are so smooth,” Queen commented. “I’ve found that the years have dried out mine.”
“Well, good genes, I guess.” Fastlafe offered a nervous laugh. “How can I help you Detective?”
Queen rubbed and patted Fastlafe’s hand before releasing it. “Well, for starters, sir, you can explain how you are here.”
“Well, that’s an odd request. Is it philosophical?”
“It might be,” offered Queen. “But, we can start with a more spacial and temporal answer if you prefer.”
“Well, I live here, Detective. Where else should I be?”
“Maybe so, but there’s some body parts registering your RFIDs some fifty kilometers from here. They were found in the wreckage of PT that also happens to be registered to you.”
“Well that is curious,” admitted Han Fastolfe.
“Yes it is,” agreed Queen.
“Well, I can assure you that I’ve been here all day. In fact, I don’t think we’ve been out for …” Dr. Fastlfe turned to his wife. “How long has it been, dear?”
Gertrude offered another of her smiles. “Oh, dear. I think it’s been weeks, maybe months. When was that Applied AI Conference? A month and a half ago, I think.”
“That sounds about right.”
Queen just nodded. “And, what about your PT? When was the last time it was out and about?
“Oh, I wouldn’t know. I mean, I suppose, it’s been here all along.” Dr. Fastolfe looked to his wife again. “Hasn’t it, dear?”
“Oh, yes. We practically never use it. There’s no real need these days.”
“Is it here?”
“Well, I don’t … I mean, up until you arrived, I would have assumed that it was.”
“Can we take a look?”
Dr. Fastolfe looked at his wife. “Of course. David, please show the Administrator where we keep the PT, will you?”
“Certainly.” David gestured for Queen to follow.
“Excuse me.” Queen leaned forward and brushed something off David’s shoulder. “You had some dust on your collar.”
“So tell, me does anyone else live here?” Queen asked.
“David turned, to look at the administrator. “You mean besides me?”
“Well, besides the couple, I meant.”
“There’s my sister,” replied David.
“You have a sister?” Queen’s eyebrows arched. “Is she like you?”
“No, Administrator, she tends to keep to herself. She rarely comes down from her room.”
“No, I meant,” Queen stopped mid-sentence. He decided to drop the subject. Queen sensed that David might know the truth about itself.
Queen was past counting cups, now. He was thinking about lining up some bottles.
The drizzle had intensified into full fledged rainstorm by the time Queen left the house. Queen looked to the heavens. He would have cursed them if he thought it would do any good. Queen turned up his collar. He hated the rain. He marched to the PT, and got in.
“Take me to the storage units. I want another look at the wreckage. And, I need some sample analysis.” Queen started looking through the pockets of his coat. “Here, do a complete dusting on these items.”
Electronic dust formed around each of the tiny items Queen produced from the folds of his coat. “There’s some cellular material from Dr. Fastolfe’s hand. A hair from ‘David,’ and a leaf, somewhere.” He looked through his coat again till he found the small leaf. “Compare with the victims of the wreckage, and with everything you have on file for Dr. Fastolfe.” Queen paused. “Also, do a search. Let me know if Mrs. Blugerman or Dr. Fastolfe have any offspring. And, I want a list of every android they have registered.”
Suddenly, the interior of the PT faded away and was replaced by the image of an office. Someone was projecting to him, but Queen wasn’t given the option of not answering the call. It was obviously his boss.
A middle age woman in a suit looked up from her desk. “What do you have for me, Queen?”
“Not much, and too much.” Queen explained to his commander the details of the day’s events. He was careful to use small words and simple sentences.
“Probably the work of radicals,” the Chief Administrator said. “Must be those Neo-Luddites. They’re all a bunch of anarchists.”
Queen struggled to hide his contempt. He wasn’t completely successful. “Now, why would you say that, Ma’am?”
“They should lock all those Amish Luddites in a room and project them whatever techno-free reality they desire. They’re a menace to society.”
Queen didn’t think it would be appropriate to remind the Chief Administrator of citizens’ basic rights, and that all of the various so-called Amish and Luddite groups were restricted to the reservations. He did so anyway.
“Well, we’ll see what the future has in store for us, and for them,” offered the Chief Administrator. “But why are you harassing Dr. Fastolfe? What do you suspect him of doing?”
“Well, I don’t know yet.” Queen succeeded a little better at restraining his contempt. “But, I’m not harassing him. I simply went to his home. I thought he was dead. When I found out he wasn’t, why shouldn’t I ask him some questions?”
“Because Dr. Fastolfe is a respected scientist, a pioneer in android technology and the President of Humanform Industries.”
“Humanform Industries went under three years ago, Ma’am,” Queen pointed out. When it became prohibitive for androids to operate outside their owners’ residences, and with everyone living in smart homes, there really wasn’t much need for domestic androids.
“That doesn’t diminish his contribution to society.”
“I didn’t say it did, Ma’am.”
“Well, he’s still a leading member of society. Besides he’s eighty-four.”
“Eighty-four? He didn’t look eighty-four.”
The Chief Administrator became irate. “What does an old man have to do with any of this business.”
Queen sighed. “I’ll be eighty-four next month, Ma’am.”
“That’s right,” cut in the Chief Administrator. “And well past the time you ought to be retiring. You should let someone younger take over your duties, and go and enjoy yourself.”
“Nothing gives me greater pleasure than working for you, Ma’am.” Queen knew the sarcasm would be lost the Chief Administrator. She had all the humor of a computer algorithm.
“Exactly what crime do you suspect Dr. Fastolfe of committing?” the Chief administrator demanded.
“We don’t even know if there’s been a crime, Ma’am.”
A nondescript woman in uniform appeared to the side and waited patiently. Queen noted that functions were much more attractive these days, but he kept his comment to himself. He didn’t want to be accused of subroutine harassment. Queen turned to the computer personification. “What do you got?”
The woman faced to Queen. The samples you retrieved from Fastolfe home match the samples from the crash sites.
“Which samples?” asked Queen. “The DNA from the crash site with the DNA off of Dr. Fastolfe’s skin?”
“Yes, Administrator. And also with the hair sample you provided.”
“There’s got to be a mistake.”
“No, Administrator. The data is a perfect match.”
“A perfect match?” Queen was incredulous.
“What’s wrong?” asked the Chief Administrator.
Queen ignored her. “What do you mean perfect? A hundred percent match?”
“What’s wrong?” repeated the Chief Administrator.
“What is?” The Chief Administrator asked.
“For starters one of those samples was from an Android. But even the other two matching 100% is strange. Genetic samples are never perfect matches. There are always minute changes, and those changes grow over time. That’s why people age, get sick …”
“Well, then the data must have been corrupted,” offered the Chief Administrator. “I’ll order the samples to be reanalyzed. I’m sure it’s just a problem with the samples.”
“Yeah,” Queen chuckled. “All of them, at the same time. One helluva coincidence.” He didn’t believe in coincidences.
“Exactly.” The Chief Administrator stood. “I’ll inform you when we have new results. In the meantime. Go get some rest, Administrator.”
The projection ended abruptly. Queen was back in their PT.
“Home, Administrator Queen?” the PT asked.
Queen paused. “No, you know what? Take me back to the Fastolfe-Blugerman house, okay?”
Queen crossed the lawn. On his way to the door, he plucked a few blades of grass and stuffed them into his pocket. Before he could press the doorbell, the door opened. David, wearing the same black jacket greeted Queen. “May I help you, Administrator Queen?”
“I’m sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if I may speak to Mrs. Blugerman again?”
“Certainly. I believe she may be expecting you.”
“Really?” Queen found that interesting.
David nodded. “This way, please.”
They entered sitting room. Sunlight still showered the room. Queen squinted into the light.
“I was just about to sit down to some tea. Won’t you join us?” Gertrude’s voice was sweet, with just a hint of the crackle of age. It was still the paradigmatic voice of an elderly grandmother.
Queen blinked away the light – again. “Thank you Ma’am. I’m sorry to bother you, I just had a few more questions, if I may.”
The blue haired woman smiled at Queen. “Please, Inspector, sit down. It’s no bother at all. How can I help you?”
Queen sat down and looked at the woman. “Mrs. Blugerman?”
Queen couldn’t help but smile. “None of this is real, is it Ma’am?”
Gertrude gestured with her hand. “Please, inspector. What is real? Isn’t it what we think, what we believe to be real?”
“I’m not a philosopher, Ma’am.”
“Inspector, what are you asking me then? Do you feel the table? Do you taste the tea?”
Gertrude laughed. “You know when my children were little, we would play a game. I would ask them how they knew they weren’t dreaming. They would answer as most children will, with simple answers like: because I know I’m not or they’d cite some outside evidence.”
“Then, I’d ask them if they didn’t think they were walking or talking or whatever in their dream. If, in their dream, they ever thought they were dreaming or, while they were dreaming, they just thought they were.” Gertrude smiled at Queen. “You know what they did then?”
Queen narrowed his eyes and shook his head. A nervous smile played at the corners of his mouth.
Gertrude nodded. “That’s exactly what my children did. They smiled, shook their head and proceeded to change their focus. The question is impossible to answer, of course. If we are in a dream, we can’t know we are in a dream, unless something shakes us from it.”
Queen shifted uncomfortably. “Are you saying, Ma’am, that you are in a type of dream?”
Gertrude smile gently. “How would I know, Inspector? How would you know if all this isn’t your dream?”
“No.” Queen stated, and shook his head. “That I know. That I know,” he repeated. Queen changed the subject. “Just like your androids don’t know they’re androids do they? They’re not even registered with the Administration.”
Gertrude laughed. “Again, Inspector, you’re asking the same question. Don’t you remember all of those old Science Fiction tropes where the robots are implanted with memories, so they think they’re human? How do we know we’re not just like them?”
“Ma’am, your husband tried to leave here, didn’t he.” Queen looked hard at Gertrude. “He wanted to escape all this, this dream, didn’t he?”
Gertrude shifted uncomfortably under Queen’s watchful gaze.
“He thought you were going with him, didn’t he?”
“No,” Gertrude protested. “My husband is here, with me. He’ll be down in a minute.”
“But it wasn’t you, was it Ma’am?” It was an android that looked and acted like you. Wasn’t it?”
Gertrude shook her head. “No. You have it all wrong.”
“Do I? You’ve both become prisoners of your own creation, of your little dream world.”
“No, my husband will be down in a moment, for tea.” Gertrude’s voice was strained.
“That’s not your husband, Ma’am. Your husband died in a PT crash yesterday. He was killed, wasn’t he Ma’am. He wanted to leave this little paradise of yours and tried to escape.”
“His leaving threatened to destroy this entire fantasy, isn’t that right?”
“No. You saw for yourself. You met him. He even had the right RFID. You said so yourself, Inspector.”
Queen shook his head. “That’s only because you asked me how I recognized that David wasn’t human. The house, or whatever network it is that’s running this place corrected itself, and supplied the appropriate RFID signal.”
“No, you have it all wrong.” Gertrude’s voice nearly broke. “My David,”
“According to our records, your David, the real David, died in an accident four years ago, Ma’am.”
“No, you’re wrong.” Gertrude was on the verge of tears. “That’s not the way it is at all.”
Queen pressed his hands on the table. “Then maybe you should help me out, Ma’am.”
Gertrude tried to gather herself. She forced a smile. “Inspector, maybe it’s you that are living in the fantasy. How do you know you haven’t been retired to some small room somewhere, and all this is a projection for your benefit, so you can while away your golden years. Maybe, the computers have taken over, and they just keep us humans here as a curiosity, likes pets in a zoo – AI nostalgia.”
Queen laughed, but there was a nervous edge to it. He was reminded of the Chief Administrators threat against the Luddites. Suddenly he had another suspicion. “Are you a human, Ma’am? Are you real? Are you alive?”
Gertrude shifted from tears to laughter and back. “How would I know, Inspector?” She looked at him pleading, “How can I know?”
“Thank you Ma’am.” Queen got up to leave. He had his answers. “You’ve been most helpful. Sorry for the intrusion.”
“But what about your tea, , Inspector.” Gertrude held up the tea pot. “You didn’t touch your tea. Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me alone here.”
Queen left the house. He looked at the PT, but decided he’d walk home. He wondered if he knew the way. The rain started to pick up again, but Queen barely noticed.