Sunday, November 19, 2006

Chapter 4. Betty3.5

After his meeting with Dr. Perske, Max meandered through the halls and out the rear exit by the loading docks where tangled brush crowded the chain link fence at the back of the parking lot. He reached into a hole in one of the cinder blocks in the building's foundation to pull out a crumpled pack of cigarettes and some matches he'd stashed there a few days before. Perske's window was on the second floor, just above him to the right. It was set far enough back into the building that he knew she couldn't see him loafing. He tapped a cigarette out of the pack, lit it, and took a long drag before stuffing the pack and the matches into his pocket.

Listen to the podcast of The Dark Net, Chapter 4 by robo-reader Audrey

If there was one thing Max had learned in his years at the University, it was not to work too hard. There was, after all, no clear connection between job performance and pay raises at the state-funded school. Work your fingers to the bone, thought Max, and what to you get? Bony fingers.

In a way, it made him invincible. Nobody in the lab was ever fired for anything short of an overt physical assault. And although he sometimes wished he could grab a wrench and crush the skull of one of those conceited smart-ass doctoral candidates, he instead took solace in smoking and slacking off behind the lab.

The woods beyond the fence were dense and green. The moist Maryland summers turned the forest into mushy swampland that bred snakes, possums and ground hogs that were rumored to grow as large as a Beagle. Max sometimes squeezed through a hole in the fence and slogged around in search of the enormous orange slugs oozing amongst the foliage. When he found one, he would scoop it up on a leaf and take it back to the lab, where he would freeze it with liquid nitrogen and toss it to one of the novice grad students. The frozen slugs were so cold that the victim would instinctively drop it. The slug would shatter into countless, tiny pieces that thawed into gooey chunks of slug offal on the floor. It was Max's way of setting the tone for their future working relationships. They generally got the message.

He took a final puff of the cigarette and flicked the butt onto the gravel, then picked up a rock and heaved it over the fence. It made a satisfying thunk when it hit a tree. That helped a bit. Perske could push him around all she wanted, and he would pass it along to the trees, the slugs and the grad students. It was her fault that the rest of them would suffer because she was making him miserable. But invincible or not, he wasn't going to cross Perske, at least not blatantly. That was why he gave in so easily when she asked him to poke around in Herman's account. He hadn't even thought to ask her what she hoped he might find.

Herman, like a lot of the kids working at the lab, would have had access to many of the projects under development. Maybe he had been working with a project that Perske hoped to keep under wraps. Secrecy was much less of an issue at the University than it is in most commercial labs, but Perske's various groups were on the cutting edge of a handful of technologies, ranging from virtual environments to teleoperated robots to networked computing farms, and it was for the best that they keep it all quite until they were ready to publish.

The virtual environment that Max worked in, for example, was far ahead of most commercial virtual reality systems, but it was already outdated relative to some of the systems down the hall from his lab. And it was nothing compared too the latest military environments. Max figured that someday everyone would do away with their keyboards and monitors, and spend their online time in virtual environments - caves, as they were known in the business. It was definitely a more comfortable and versatile computer interface than poking at keys and clawing at a mouse while squinting at a screen.

The neural nets he was training on the other hand, were truly cutting-edge stuff, although he only had a rudimentary understanding of how they worked. He'd once sat in on a lecture Perske gave to a crowd of government funding agents, and learned a little about neural networks.

At one time, she'd explained, neural networks were primarily built of hardware, which consisted of transistor-filled layers stacked like a deck of cards. The transistors were linked together to form a three-dimensional grid that functioned much like a living brain. The transistors acted as neurons, and the links between them played the part of interconnecting axons. The strength of the connections determined what virtual thoughts the nets could have. Training them meant checking their responses to various queries, then readjusting connections to improve their answers. Modern neural nets were simply software emulations of transistor networks. That was pretty much where Max lost the drift of the lecture. He gathered that Perske's Dynamically Distributed Memory, which was the subject commemorated on the Wired magazine cover mounted on Perske's office wall, was an important leap in neural network technology. But he'd never really understood DDM.

Eventually, Perske had told the funding agents, neural nets would change the world. Just when that might happen, wasn't so clear. In the meantime, patents and copyrights were money in the bank for whoever managed to build a useful application first.

That must be it, he concluded, Perske was worried that there's some proprietary data in Herman's account, and she needed it cleaned up before the system administrators got a peek at it. He wasn't sure why she would burden him with the task, but there was probably no one else she could turn to on such short notice. It seemed he was always cleaning up someone's mess.

He headed back to the lab by way of the vending machines, where he picked up a cinnamon bun. Stephen, as usual, was away from his desk, probably screwing around in the electronics lab or shooting hoops with some of the other technicians. Then again, maybe he was out picking up a card for Herman's family. For once, Max thought, he hadn't drawn the shortest straw in the bunch. He'd much rather be in the cave than browsing the condolence racks at Hallmark.

He flicked on the lights in the lab, plopped down in the lawn chair, and tore at the plastic wrap on the cinnamon bun with his teeth. Once he'd settled in, he called out, “Login, Max 1.”

A hazy smudge appeared in the center of the room. After a moment, his eyes adjusted to the virtual environment, and the smudge jumped into focus. “Password,” it read.

“Algernon,” said Max. A tone confirming the password sounded, and his default settings loaded. Everything was in order, as usual. A writing desk with a few papers scattered on it stood to the left. The call light was dark on the heavy black rotary phone near the back of the desk, indicating that no urgent messages awaited him. Next to the desk was a wooden filing cabinet. The wire trash bin on the floor beside the cabinet contained only a few crumpled items in need of disposal.

Max liked depression-era decor in his home environment; sturdy plaster walls, a dark and slightly threadbare oriental carpet, and a simple wooden ceiling fan with a bulbous etched glass lamp hanging from its center gave the room the feel of a B-movie private detective's office.

“Load Betty 2.0,” said Max. A confirmation tone sounded. “Betty, please check my messages.” A shadow appeared behind the smoked glass panel of the door on the right hand wall. The handle rattled briefly and the door opened, revealing Betty in heavy black pumps, a skirt that stopped just above her delicate knees, and a white, button-down blouse with puffy shoulders and frills at the cuffs.

Betty strode to the desk and rifled through the papers filling the in-box.

“You have three emails offering risk-free investment opportunities with former Nigeria officials, and two messages promising guaranteed virility-enhancing drugs without a doctor's prescription. They look like spam. Should I dispose of them?”

“Yes please,” he said, eyeing the tantalizing slit in Betty's skirt that revealed the barest hint of her thigh as she leaned over to place the pages in the trash. “Anything that seems important in the rest?”

“Your time card is overdue, this is the third notice. And there's a note from Stephen saying he'll be out the rest of the afternoon at Dr. Perske's request.”

“File the time card notice for me, will you? And let me take a look at Stephen's message”

Betty slid open a cabinet drawer and placed one page in a folder. She walked over and held out the other sheet. Max put on the gloves that lay beside the lawn chair and took the paper from her hand. Her fingers brushed his slightly in the exchange.

There was a time that Max had marveled at the realism that the gloves added to the cave. The fact that something as subtle as the merest touch of a finger tip, or the minuscule sensation that comes with handling a piece of paper could be conveyed by the tiny actuators in the glove's fabric was one of the lab's greatest achievements. Like all innovations, it had soon become routine and Max took no particular notice of it anymore.

Betty sat at the chair in front of the writing desk, crossed her legs, and waited while Max read the message. As he'd suspected, Stephen was off in search of a sympathy card to circulate around the lab on Herman's behalf. When he finished reading, he crumpled the paper and tossed it toward the trash bin. It sailed with unswerving precision into the bin.

“Empty the trash,” said Max.

“Would you like me to permanently remove the deleted items?” Betty asked.

“Yes,” said Max. Betty reached down and tapped the trash bin with the tip of a finger and the papers swirled away in a vortex of confetti.

“Thank you,” he said.

Max took a bite of the cinnamon bun. As he chewed, he gazed at Betty, who sat by the desk with her left leg crossed over her right. After a while, she disentangled her legs, then crossed them the other way, right over left. Max counted silently to himself, “One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three --” When he got to one thousand and ten, Betty reached for a small clutch purse on the desk, pulled out an Emory board, and started tending to her manicure.

“Betty,” said Max.

“Yes?” She said as she replaced the Emory board and uncrossed her legs.

“Nothing,” said Max.

She waited for a moment, then crossed her legs again, left over right. A short while later she crossed her legs the other way. Once more, Max counted to himself. After ten seconds, Betty reached into the purse for the Emory board, and returned to tending her nails.

I'm going to have to add some random variables to her programming, thought Max as he finished off his snack. He stuffed the bun wrapper into his pocket, leaned back in the lawn chair, and closed his eyes. He put his hands behind his head and knitted his fingers together.

“Betty, sit on the desk please.”

Her chair squeaked and Max heard a soft rustling.

“Un-button your blouse.” He waited a moment. “Hike up your skirt.”

When he opened his eyes, Max saw Betty perched on his desk as he had seen her dozens of times before. Her blouse hung open, revealing the inner curve of each breast, and a narrow swath of smooth pale skin that ran from her collarbone to her navel. The black triangle of her panties peeked out below the rumpled skirt, which Betty held in place with her hands.

“That's nice.”

Max felt a slight promising stirring in his crotch.

“Come here.”

Betty let her skirt fall as she slipped off of the desk. She walked toward him showing no more emotion than she had when she first entered the room. The flat expression on her face threatened to dampen the eroticism. Max struggled to concentrate on the subtle jiggle of her breasts that accompanied each step, and the barely perceptible swish of her stocking-covered thighs brushing against each other.

She stopped in font of his chair, her arms dangling by her side. Max beckoned with his finger, and Betty bent forward to lean over him. She propped herself on the arms of the lawn chair, which allowed her shirt to fall open and create a tent draped over her slender torso. Her breasts dangled inches from Max's face. The programmers had done an excellent job capturing the physics of the female breast. With every breath, they swayed minutely in a way that seemed to perfectly mimic the real thing, at least as far as Max could recall.

It was a good illusion, this half naked woman hovering over him. Good, but incomplete. Not that it would have stopped him in his younger days, when he was free of the epilepsy drugs. There was a time that he couldn't help but respond to a pornographic photo, a passage of literary erotica, or even a sexy billboard ad. Betty was much more realistic than any of that. But the things she lacked, the details that were missing, nagged at him. There was the sound of her breathing next to his cheek, but no hint of the breath caressing his skin, the delicate curve of her shoulder that flowed along her breast and under her arm, but no musky pheromones emanating from secret recesses hidden there. When Max weighed her breasts in the palms of his gloved hands and explored their contours with his thumbs, he could feel the transition from smooth skin to velvety areola to resilient nipple - but as he pinched and caressed, there was no sudden gasp or shudder from Betty to indicate any reaction to Max's exploration.

He let his hands drop into his crotch. Nothing. The stirring he had felt moments before was gone. He reached up and gently pushed Betty's shoulder.

“Enough,” he said as she stood. “Thank you Betty. That's enough.”

He had once attempted to program her reactions himself; a moan in response to this touch and a cry in response to that. The experiment resulted in something shy of low budget porn, with unimaginative snatches of sexual choreography elicited by a short list of predictable cues. If anything, the experience had been anti-erotic, like making love to a video game console. And when it ended with masturbation, as it had to, Max was left feeling physically satiated but empty, alone, and a little bit ashamed.

Still, this was worse. He told himself that it was only apathy - the result of missing details in the simulation. No matter how he tried to convince himself that it was the fault of the drugs or the simulation, it felt like impotence.

He looked down at his hands lying limply in his lap and said to Betty, “Straighten yourself out. Button up.”

As she dressed, Max pondered the shape of her calves and ankles. He could still appreciate her virtual beauty. But it reminded him of an art history class he'd taken once. The instructor went in to great depth analyzing brush strokes and technique, and speaking of nudes in dry academic terms. It ensured that any hint of visceral response was wiped out.

Looking at Betty, he knew there should be some animal urge, some arousal. Instead he found himself wondering what equation the computer used to calculate the arc of her thighs straining periodically against the skirt.

Max kneaded his eyes with his fists.

“Open a new window,” he said. Betty sauntered away to the wall next to the door. She placed her hand on the smooth plaster and pushed aside a previously invisible panel, revealing a plate glass window framed with dark, polished wood that matched his environment's theme. It opened onto a featureless expanse of brilliant blue. Betty returned to her seat as Max lifted himself out of the lawn chair and headed for the window.

“Switch user to Herman Grunding,” said Max to the window. A room materialized on the other side of the glass. Max looked in, shook his head, and muttered, “How juvenile.”

The room beyond the window was cluttered with game consoles, stacks of papers, and DVDs. Like Max's room it had a desk, a chair, a filing cabinet, and a trash can. Unlike Max's room, the furniture was fashioned of sleek, black leather and chrome, and both trashcan and filing cabinet were overflowing with papers. A disco ball hung in the place of the ceiling fan, and the walls were decorated with movie posters and pictures of women in various states of undress. The red light on Herman's phone blinked frantically, indicating numerous unanswered messages, and an odd machine consisting of a hodgepodge of gears, wires, and levers was grinding away in the middle of the plush, black, wall-to-wall carpet.

He pushed the maximize button on the lower right corner of the window sill and the window grew rapidly. He experienced a brief instant of vertigo as the cave turned inside out and he found himself on the other side of the glass, standing on the carpet in Herman's room. He glanced over his shoulder through the window, which was now behind him, and saw Betty sitting unperturbed at the desk, filing away at her nails. He turned his attention to the mess in Herman's home environment.

He wandered over to the machine in the middle of the room, knelt down, and inspected the whirring gears. He reached out and tweaked a small knob that protruded from the side. The machine squealed sharply and one of the bobbing levers snapped off. There was a grinding noise, and the machine lurched to a halt. “Oops,” said Max as he stood up and backed away a step. “Looks like I broke that.”

He doubted that the miniature Rube Goldberg contraption was what Perske wanted him to look for. It was probably some pointless gadget Herman had put together for fun, or perhaps an assignment for one of his classes. In any case, it seemed much too childish and pointless to be of any real importance.

Max turned his attention to the papers, books, and DVDs on the desk. A heap of short paper slips was piled high beside a device that resembled an archaic ticker tape. He picked up a handful and looked at a few. They had short fragmentary sentences typed on them. It was only an instant message interface. Max tossed the strips back onto the desk. He put his hands on his hips and sighed in exasperation at the mounds of garbage.

He glanced at the window and called to Betty, who was still sitting at the desk. When she looked up, Max beckoned her. She slipped the Emory board into her clutch purse, stood up and disappeared from view. A moment later the door next to the window opened and Betty walked in.

“I'm gonna need some help here,” he said. Betty waited in silence. “Look, could you organize the files by modification date, starting with the most recent?”

Betty glanced at the overflowing filing cabinet and nodded.

Max turned toward the lawn chair, which had taken up residence in Herman's room when the environment focus had changed. “Bring me the dozen latest files.”

As he took his seat on the chair's tacky vinyl straps, he could hear Betty rustling through the paperwork. By the time he'd settled in and glanced up, the filing cabinet was in perfect order and Betty was on her way over with a short stack of files. She handed them to Max. Most of the files appeared to be homework assignments, Internet searches, and multiuser games in various stages of play. Nothing critical. He handed the stack back to Betty who returned them to the cabinet and retrieved a fresh bundle.

The next stack seemed to be more of the same useless junk. But just as he was finishing leafing through the bunch, Max noticed a file labeled Betty 3.5.

Herman, apparently, had a virtual Betty as well. Most of the folks in the lab had a Betty to help them out when they were logged on, or in some cases a virtual Bill, depending on their taste. The fact that Herman's virtual assistant was version 3.5 meant that Herman had a more recent edition than Max's. He placed the file on the stack and was on the verge of handing it to his own Betty when curiosity got the better of him.

Max slipped the virtual assistant file off the stack and handed the rest back to Betty. She replaced the files in the cabinet.

"Thank you Betty. I won't be needing you for a while. You're dismissed.”

She nodded obediently, turned on her heel and abruptly exited through the door to Max's home environment. For a second, he had the impression that Betty was irked by the dismissal, but of course he knew that was nothing more than illusion. She had about as much emotion as the average department store manikin.

Max opened the file and looked at the image of Herman's Betty. As he might have guessed, the kid's virtual assistant was much more exotic than his own Betty. She had short spiky black hair, with a single shock of white on the left side of her head. She wore black lipstick with a thin outline of blood red. Her eyelids were painted with black eye shadow, and a spider web tattoo adorned one cheek. She was clothed in a tight black body suit that appeared to be made of shiny leather, and on her feet was a pair of heavy, patent leather boots.

“Terminate Betty 2.0,” said Max. A brief tone sounded, indicating that the program had shut down cleanly. “Load Betty 3.5.” Another tone sounded.

Max eyed the door and called out, “Betty, could you come in here, please.”

Nothing happened.

He tried again, “Betty, come here.”

Still nothing.

He dropped the file on the carpet, lifted himself out of the lawn chair, and walked to the door. Just as he reached for the knob, the door burst open. A gust of wind raced through the room, stirring papers and knocking stacks of DVDs to the floor.

A voice cried, “Look out, Herman!”

The leather-clad Betty lunged into the room and spun around to slam the door behind her. She leaned into it, but the door stopped just short of closing. The wind or something else, was holding it open.

“For God's sake you idiot, help me,” Betty shouted above the rushing roar. Max was too stunned to react. The door opened a fraction more despite Betty's struggles. Through the opening, where Max's room should have been, there was a swirling purple light. “Help me Herman!”

A blood red tentacle shot in through the narrow gap and groped for the knob with a moist slapping sound. As it flopped against the door, Max had the horrific impression that it was actually a sort of grotesquely long tongue. Fear of whatever might be attached to the other end jolted Max out of his temporary paralysis and he joined Betty in pushing against the door. The tentacle, or tongue, or whatever it was, flailed about as the door squeezed against it. It quivered with what looked like a spasm of pain and withdrew with a jerk. The door slammed shut, shuddered briefly, and all was quiet.

Herman's Betty turned her back to the door. She slid to the floor in a panting heap and rested her head on her knees. “Christ Herman,” she said between breaths, “Where the hell have you been?”

“I'm not Herman.”

Betty glared up at him. “You're a shithead,” she sneered.

Max stared back in shock. It was all simply too much to take in. “Exit shell.”

The room turned inside out, and Max was left standing in his home environment. He trudged to the leather office chair and sat down heavily.

“What on Earth have you been up to, Herman?”

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