Saturday, November 18, 2006

Chapter 3 Perske

The lights were bright and hazy as Max stepped out of the darkened lab into the cramped office he shared with Stephen. His pupils were still dilated from the waning seizure, and although he knew that the fuzzy lump at the desk to the right was his slacker of an office mate, he could make out no detail in Stephen's form.

Max concentrated on making his way across the few meters that separated him from the door to the hallway. The thump of his foot against flimsy metal, and the hollow clang that followed, alerted him to the fact that he had strayed from his path and upset the trash can.

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Max groped toward the door like a blind man.

“You all right dude?” Stephen asked.

“Yeah yeah. I'm fine. Need some air,” said Max as he collided with the door and felt for the knob.

Stephen said something more, but Max was too busy squeezing into the hall to pay attention. The spring-loaded office door slammed behind him and he leaned back against the cold cinder block wall to catch his breath. Thankfully the halls were empty of students and researchers.

Unlike most university building hallways, which are perpetually cluttered with surplus cabinets and equipment, the passages in the Institute were devoid of any debris. Perske ran a tight ship. She had been appointed director of the Artificial Intelligence Institute five years earlier, and had made tidiness in all public spaces mandatory. On her Monday visits to the various Institute labs, she would make a show of ordering anything that lay unattended in the bleak, gray passages hauled immediately to the dumpsters at the back of the gravel parking lot out back. Max couldn't recall how many times he'd sent students to retrieve vital equipment from the trash. And even the Federal Express drivers had learned not to deliver anything until Tuesday, in order to avoid the risk of any packages left outside office doors getting chucked before they reached their intended recipients.

As he tottered along the hall, dragging his right shoulder against the wall for balance, Max was grateful for the Institute's tidiness. It meant that there was a good chance he could make his way to vending machines and out to the steps in back without tripping.

He was gradually gaining his composure on the way to the coke machines, counting the paces as he went. It was twelve steps to the first right turn, then sixteen more and another right. By the time he had to cross the hall to turn left toward the vending machines, he was stable enough to support himself without the aid of the wall.

Once he reached his destination, he removed his wallet and extracted a cellophane package of tiny white tablets. He aligned his shaky thumb over the debit sensor and selected classic coke from the drop-down list on the vending machine's screen.

He popped one of the phenobarb tablets, and gulped the coke to wash it down. The carbonated bubbles burned in his throat. He grimaced and rubbed his forehead to clear the ache that came from drinking the cold soda too fast. He bought a second drink and slipped it into his shorts pocket before turning to find his way to the building's back staircase.

After the cokes and the drugs, and a few minutes resting on the steps, Max was feeling almost normal, other than being just a bit tired. His tolerance for phenobarbital increased a little every day, but he could still feel its mild dulling effect. The drug slurred his speech slightly and slowed his reactions some. Fortunately, it wasn't something Perske was likely to notice or, thought Max, care about.

Dr. Perske's door was closed when Max arrived, but he could hear the muffled sounds of her speaking on the phone. He leaned heavily against the wall outside her office to wait and plucked absently at the screw-mounted nameplate that read Elizabeth J. Perske, Director.

If he had been a better student in his days as college student, Max would have been proud to study under her. But his mediocre transcript kept him out of graduate school. And so here he was; a technician in the lab, cleaning up after thoughtless post docs and grad students, and running endless neural net training programs in a second rate virtual environment.

All things considered, it wasn't such a bad gig, and the benefits were great. But the pay sucked, and there was no room for advancement in an academic environment where anyone short of a Ph.D. was treated like the downstairs help. Maybe the grad students had it worse, but they were on the road to doctorates and were just paying their dues. Max, on the other hand was at a dead end at the University, from a career point of view.

He traced the letters carved into Perske's nameplate and wondered what she would think of Betty 2.0. The grad students had built the virtual assistant in a rough approximation of Perske herself. Like Perske, Betty was tall and slender with a husky voice that reminded Max of a mob moll in some old film noir movie. The virtual version, however, was a woman in her early twenties, more than two decades younger than Perske. And the guys had given Betty a sexiness that was entirely at odds with Perske's sexless efficiency.

Max was on the verge of heading back to the lab and asking Betty for his mail when he realized that Perske's phone call had ended. He rapped on the door with a knuckle.

“Come in,” called Perske.

Max opened the door and found her turned away, apparently lost in thought and peering out the window at the back of the office. Hers was one of the few offices in the Institute with any windows at all, although the view of the gravel parking lot in back of the lab and the swampy forest beyond was nothing to write home about.

Perske's desk was devoid of anything other than a phone, a keyboard, and a flat-screen monitor. She apparently had no need of either a filing cabinet or a bookshelf, and the only decoration adorning the walls were two, unframed images; a cover of Wired magazine cut directly from a newsstand issue, and a mug shot. Both pictures were of Perske. The mug shot depicted Perske as a wide-eyed youth, seemingly startled to be posing for the cops. She had the same narrow face, the same high, angular cheek bones, and the same thin, slightly hooked nose that Max was familiar with in the older woman, except that the youthful image lacked Perske's typical severe glare and the pinched wrinkles above the bridge of her nose. The magazine cover also featured Perske, at about the same age as in the mug shot, grinning and apparently juggling an absurd number of balls marked with ones and zeroes. The headline on the magazine read, “E.J. Perske's Distributed Dynamic Memory Revolution: is the end of hard drives at hand?”

Max sat in the chair in front of Perske's desk. He pondered the back of the researcher's head and close cropped salt-and-pepper hair that extended down to a feathery fringe at the top of her long thin neck.

“Stephen said you wanted to see me,” he said.

“Yes, Max. Sit down.”

Max squirmed in his seat so that the chair would squeak enough to let her know he had settled in.

“How did the backgammon training go?”

“I finished up with Linus,” said Max. “But I was just starting on Minus when Stephen called me. I'll have them play each other in a day or two.”

“You were supposed to have finished that yesterday,” said Perske in a clipped tone that Max knew, even though he couldn't see her face, meant she had that familiar tight-lipped look of disapproval.

“Well yeah,” he started to sputter, “but first I had to run over to physical plant to get the back up power supplies. Then someone scavenged the server we were using to run one of the games.”

“Fine,” Perske interrupted. “I need you to do something else first. You can finish with Minus later.”

Perske continued without turning around. “You know about Herman, of course.”

“Herman Grunding? Sure, he's the kid I had cleaning out the electronics cabinets.”

“I'm not asking if you know him,” said Perske as she wheeled her chair around. “I asked if you know about him. About what happened to him.”

Max was tempted to make a joke about Herman electrocuting himself while showering with his computer vest on. But Perske's dour expression stopped him. “No, what about him?”

“He's had an accident.”

“Is he all right?”

“He's gone,” said Perske hesitantly. “He's gone to a better place.”

“The University of Delaware?” asked Max.

Perske blinked at the remark.

“He's dead.” She placed her hands on the desk, and looked at them as if she wasn't sure how they'd arrived there or why. “He fell down some stairs in a lecture hall.”

Max was stunned. He'd liked the kid enough. And on a college campus, surrounded by students in their youthful prime, death seemed entirely out of place.

“It was just an accident,” Perske mumbled. “He tripped.”

“I'm sorry.”

"It's not your fault.”

“I know -- I mean, of course not,” said Max. Perske had a way of literally interpreting things that made even simple conversations a chore, and this little chat seemed on the verge of becoming insufferable. “I'm sorry he's dead -- sorry he had an accident that is.” Max paused for a moment to choose his words more carefully. “Is there something I can do? Do you want me to circulate a card, or take up a collection for some flowers or something?”

“No. I'll have Stephen handle that.” Perske hesitated, then looked up. “Herman had an account on the lab server, didn't he?”

“Sure, all the lab employees do -- did-- I mean--”

“Could you do me a favor and check to see what programs he was running? Anything at all, games, applications, anything.”

“Isn't that a job for the system guys?”

“You have administrator privileges don't you?” said Perske.

“I do. I'll put together a list and get back to you in a day or two.”

“Get it to me tomorrow,” snapped Perske, then more gently. “Please.”

“Sure thing Dr. Perske.” Max fidgeted in his seat, then stood up to go. “So, I guess if that's all, I'll go on back.”

“Max,” said Perske when he reached for the doorknob. “You don't have to call me Dr. Perske you know.”

“Oh sure,” stammered Max at the sudden informality. “It's just that I think of you as Dr. Perske.” He fumbled with the knob. “Sure, if you like, Betty.”

“Elizabeth,” she corrected.

“Oh, of course." Max blinked. "Yeah. Elizabeth.”

Perske nodded rigidly then turned back to the window, and Max slipped quietly out the door.

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