The first thing I'm posting today is an origin story, part of the background of the character Marc C. DuQuesne in Grand Central Arena. If you haven't read GCA yet (either as an electronic copy or the part I've posted in snippets, and you don't like spoilers, then you don't want to read this.
As discussed in GCA, Marc is the product of an extremely ill-advised project to create fictional and mythological supermen, run by what amounted to a bunch of obsessive fans. The technology available in the era of Grand Central Arena made it possible for this SFG (Sim Focus Group) to perform work which, in our era, would require the resources of a first-world government on the level of a Manhattan Project, if it could be done at all (which it could not). This tells the life that he believed he was leading, during his "creation", so to speak, interspersed with a glimpse into the dialogue and thoughts of his specific creators -- one human, one AI.
By Ryk E. Spoor
He pushed his way up the hill, legs straining. Almost there.
But the other was coming up the hill too, and by the sound, slightly ahead. No way. Not this time.
Somehow he forced more speed from his aching limbs, hurdled one of the fallen logs. A subliminal flicker warned him, he ducked and rolled instead of letting the camouflaged rope take him across the chest or neck. Up, up!
He burst into the clearing no more than a step ahead, but with a supreme effort dove forward. Hands closed around the hardwood shaft and wrenched it free with the force of his movement, and he brought it around even as he landed, the point of the flag's spear-shaft directly in line with his pursuer's throat.
His father, taller even than he, craggy-faced, hard and grim as a mountain, looked down the spearshaft into his eyes.
Then the hard face wrinkled, creased into a smile. "Now that be the way to do it, son."
The rush of relief, that tonight there would be no punishment, was accompanied by a momentary pang of happiness. His father's praise was rare indeed. "Thank you, Dad."
"Don't thank me for that; was your doing, Marc." Pierre stood still suddenly, listening. Marc could hear nothing but wind in the trees, leaves rustling…
No animals, he suddenly realized, and tensed, listening even more intensely alongside his father. Birds have gone quiet.
Movement. Movement in the brush, downhill, near the stream.
He looked up, saw Pierre's eyes narrowed and teeth bared in a snarl, with the hard glitter he sometimes saw in his father's eyes when punishment was going to be severe. But this time it wasn't Marc who was the target of that terrible glare.
"It's happened…" Pierre breathed slowly. "They've come, damn them."
"What do we do, Father?"
"What we trained t' do, son. Give 'em hell."
The snares the two set now, as they began a long-practiced retreat that neither had ever truly expected to happen, were not tricks, were not meant to sting or trip or otherwise chastise; these were lethal, tripwires to homemade explosives buried beneath the pathways, deadfalls, spike-arms made of tree limbs with vicious stakes fastened to them, and others.
They made it to the compound, which was hidden from above by artful camoflage attached to every surface, and Pierre stopped for a moment by the tiny plot of graves near the entrance, then shook his head. "Leastwise they're not here to see it. Be glad of that.
"Now remember, boy," he said, as the two armed themselves with live ammunition, "some of them might show human faces, even voices, but they're no more human'n this rifle."
"I remember, Father." It was knowledge of the horror waiting outside that explained his father's fears, his unwillingness to leave their grounds and seek other people, though it meant that his line might end here, his son never have a wife or see another face besides that of his father, now that his mother had passed on, explained the harshness and sometimes, yes, cruelty of his training. "Maybe they won't come up. We've hidden our –"
The look Pierre gave him was one of anguish mixed with pity… one of the most tender expressions he could ever remember his father wearing. "No, son. I'm sorry, Marc, no. If they've gotten this far, they probably found the creek heat, know it runs a degree hotter. No way to hide that if they started looking, an' no way to live like men without the power." He placed the spare weapons next to him in order and took his position. "Get ready, Marc."
Marc tried to be strong and nod, but he couldn't. He just couldn't, even if he was a big boy, almost a man, of fourteen years. He threw his arms around his father, who stiffened in surprise, but then put one arm around the boy, and then another, and gave a quick hug. "I'm afraid, Father."
"So'm I, boy. An' you've been a good boy, better'n I've told you. But it's time for us to be good men, now."
Marc pulled back and nodded now, grabbed up his weapons and did not wipe his face.
Tears would dry on their own.
The explosion echoed through the woods, and in the distance were shouts of confusion. Shouts of voices that were not his or his father's.
"Ha!" His father's voice was triumphant. "One of the damn things not so smart, is it?"
Another explosion came, this one farther around the mountain, and Marc frowned. "Father, they're circling."
"Probably surrounding us, son. But we back on the mountain and there's no way to the top 'cept straight up or through us."
Minutes passed. Then more explosions, one after the other. "What, are they charging?"
"No such luck, son. They just been rigging them to blow, get all the traps outta the way. Machines are smart, that way. Not so inventive, but when they set us up for the fall, they knew the system."
Marc's grip tightened on his rifle with its armor-piercing rounds. Soon he'd see the footsoldiers of the machines, the ones that had triggered World War III despite the best efforts of the atomic defense crews – crews that had relied on their machines to tell them the truth, instead of lies.
It looked like a man, mostly – in shadows, and to someone without Marc's keen eyesight and experience in these areas, would pass without question.
But the blank glass-lensed stare under the helmet was not that of a man. It was only 400 yards away, at the clearing's edge. Marc sighted, exhaled slowly, then held his breath just long enough to pull the trigger.
The bullet struck right between the figure's eyes and it went down instantly. Hopefully not to get up. If the brains are in another part of the robot…
"Got one, Father!"
"Good boy! Good boy! We'll make 'em pay for us at least, maybe the last free men on Earth, but they'll pay, that they will. Ha, there's one!" His father's rifle spoke, and he knew another invader was done; Father never missed.
Sporadic fire was returned, some of it blazing bolts of energy, not bullets. "Plasma packets, Father!"
"Don't worry 'bout the fire, son. Wood's wet as hell, after last week's rains. Won't spread far enough t' matter to us, not before it's all over."
A line of figures appeared now, hustling forward with some covering fire, trying to get closer, holding shields in front of them. Marc fired twice, saw his bullets couldn't penetrate those shields, reached into the nearby bin and pulled the pin on a dual-grenade, held until they were nearing throwing range, pitched it up and outwards.
The combined EMP-Fragmentation grenade scythed through the attackers, dropping most of the line instantly.
His father repeated the maneuver on his side, and then unlimbered a mortar, shelling the forest edge systematically. "Come get it, you mechanical sons of bitches!"
The woods went silent for a long while. Almost, Marc began to hope that the invaders might have given up, deciding that two refugees were not worth the risk.
But then he heard the humming in the air.
"Damn them, damn 'em all!" His father threw down his rifle, grabbed up the antiaircraft launcher. "Got to get a visual on them, son; they're scrambling everything else!"
But now there were low chuff noises, a series of them, and through the camoflage and canopy ripped multiple canisters that popped open, discharging gas. "Masks, son!"
His father pulled on his mask, almost getting it tight, but his fingers slowed, became unsure. His eyes, wide, horrified, met Marc's through the half-fastened mask, and with a last convulsive movement he yanked the pin from the grenade at his belt.
"NO!" Marc screamed, even as he felt his own breathing tightening, his vision fading.
The explosion was the last thing he heard before blackness and silence took him.
Consciousness slowly returned, with surprise that he still lived, and along with it the aching knowledge that his father was dead. There was a small soupçon of relief that no longer would there be the harsh canings for failure, the silent nights of study of apocalyptic Biblical verses alternating with engineering texts for building weapons and fortifications, but a greater pain for the loss.
He tried to sit up, realized he was restrained. His eyes snapped open.
He was in a room whose white, sterile color scheme screamed machine at him, and he knew with complete horror that he would have been better off dead. He struggled against the bonds desperately. There was no one else in the room; if he could manage to break free quickly, maybe…
But the door opened, almost instantly, and two figures came in. His panicked eyes could still register that these two did look very human. One of them was saying, "Whoa, come in, kid, settle down…"
The hands were trying to force him down. "You damn machines!" he snarled, redoubling his efforts. "You killed my father, you killed the rest of the world, why don't you just finish me?"
"Machines?" The second figure looked like a woman – a very pretty woman, and he hesitated. But then he heard his father's voice in the back of his head: "Right, son, and what better to use to trick a boy than some pretty face? The face don't matter, it's what's behind it that counts."
He reminded himself of that. "You think I don't know? Father told me all about it. How you fed misinformation to the Technos' screens, on both sides, so that they destroyed their own people, leaving you untouched!"
"What?" He had to hand it to the designers, the expressions of dumbfounded confusion on those artificial faces were note-perfect. But the hands had loosened just a bit, and he lunged upward.
His forehead struck the figure above him with an audible crack, and it staggered back, clutching its face. Marc wrenched one arm free, clawing at his restraints.
"Damn it!" the one said in a muffled voice. "He's broken my NOSE! And I think one of my teeth!"
Marc froze as he saw the hands come down and red blood – blood! pouring down the man's face. The woman glanced at him, saw he had stopped struggling, and went to help her partner. "Are you all right, Jack? Stop moving, let me look…" She shook her head and helped him back up. "Get yourself to the infirmary."
She turned, anger written across her face, but her expression softened as she looked at Marc.
Marc felt as though the world was dropping away below him. That was a human being! Not a machine! And that means…
He remembered aiming carefully, pulling the trigger…
"No.. no, how, Father told me…"
He was barely aware of the hand that touched his shoulder gently, as he began to cry.
"Scenario and Deployment complete."
"Past to be kept secret. Suspicion of others; suspicion of artificial intellects. Difficulty in connecting. Rejection of religion and irrationality. Extreme competitive nature. Need for others but only on equal level. All within 0.1% of projected requirements."
"Excellent. Balanced Stimuli must be achieved in next cycle. Generate sequential experiential matrix."
"Mister DuQuesne," the older man said, pronouncing Marc's name deliberately as "Doo-kweznee", with a marked sneer, "If you believe you know so much more about this subject than I, praytell why am I the instructor?"
"Damned if I know," Marc answered before he could stop himself.
Professor Bryson's eyes narrowed below his graying brows. "Then you're welcome to leave and contemplate until you can answer the question, Mister DuQuesne. And while you are at it you can look up Harkness, Smith, and Jones on the finer points of the subject. I want a five page summary on the physics of the nuclei of trans-uranic elements, and in particular the reasons for their instability with implications for why you can expect no reasonably stable elements on the table past those currently known." As DuQuesne hesitated, Bryson snapped, "You may go, sir."
Fuming, DuQuesne strode out, ignoring both suppressed snickers and sympathetic glances. There were more of the former than the latter, something he'd gotten used to over the years. Partly my fault, he admitted. He never had learned the art of just getting along with people – Father had seen to that.
Oh, Maria and the others from the USRS – United States Reconstruction Service, the people who'd stormed the compound and, really, rescued him from his father's paranoia – they'd done a good job, helping him unlearn most of what he'd been taught, getting him into schools, giving him a life… but they couldn't change everything drilled into a boy for fourteen years.
And nothing would've made me willing to put up with that pompous, self-important, blinkered, overbearing little pipsqueak of a professor! It's right in front of him but because it's not in his blasted books …!
He realized he'd reached the library and stopped, pausing, letting himself breathe. The great marble-faced building seemed as solid and certain as the history of humanity, even though he knew it had been built only twenty years before, part of the second surge of reconstruction. Poor Father, he thought for the hundredth… no, thousandth or more… time. I never realized how long it had been. It wasn't Father's generation, but his father's, that was caught in the war. Two generations of paranoia and loss, ending when some of your traps killed an innocent hunter and they came looking.
Melancholy was better than boiling anger, but not much. DuQuesne snorted, shoved the maudlin emotions back where they belonged, and banged his way through the door. The librarians jumped, and he tried to look properly apologetic and, he suspected, only half-succeeding. When you were more than six feet six, black of hair and black of eye with olive-dark skin, looking threatening wasn't even an effort; looking harmless, now, that was difficult.
He made his way upstairs, to the second level and followed the classification numbers to physics, nuclear physics… Yeah, that's the one, Harkness, Smith, Jones: Nuclear physics, third edition.
He took the thick, red leather-bound tome down and carried it to one of the nearby tables and began to work. As was his wont, once he began to focus, he could almost entirely ignore the comings and goings around him. Five pages? I'll give him ten, five showing why there can't be elements stable past one-oh-five, and five more showing that there can!
An hour later, however, something did penetrate his self-induced focus: someone cursing, not far away, in a voice whose tones would normally have been deep and pleasant, but were now strained with anger.
"That son of a… That weasel-faced, ossified, over-tenured, under-qualified, sneaky little…"
DuQuesne looked up to find the source; his eyebrows rose slightly as he realized that the complaints were coming from a young man about his own age and – startlingly – his own height and build. The other man continued, "… sent me to write a paper with a book that he knew wasn't here. I'll bet he's sitting on it in his office right now, that unprintable, unmentionable …"
It dawned on DuQuesne suddenly. He's standing right in front of the same shelf…
The other started, then turned, already with an apologetic look on his face. His hair was gold and eyes were a blue-gray, and where DuQuesne's face – even to himself in a mirror – looked hard and forbidding, his was an open and friendly countenance. "Oh, sorry, fella – I was running pretty hot there, wasn't I? But if you knew what I was –"
He cut off suddenly as DuQuesne, with a wry grin, held up Nuclear Physics, Third Edition, by Harkness, Smith, and Jones. The fair face went crimson in embarrassment and the young man shook his head and chuckled. "Well, okay, I really made a monkey out of myself there! But what are you – aw, no, it can't be. Bryson?"
"The learned professor Bryson, yes."
"He threw you out too? No wonder he was in a royal snit this period." The other glanced down at the scattered notes. "What'd you get him riled up over?"
"Nuclear stability past one-ought-five," DuQuesne said, reluctantly. What's the chance he'd even understand?
The other's jaw dropped. "You're kidding." He looked at DuQuesne's face. "You're not kidding."
The newcomer threw back his head and laughed. "Oh, now I needed that laugh! Shake, partner – I argued with him on the exact same thing, and that's why he turned about seven shades of purple and threw me out without so much as a how-de-do!"
DuQuesne found himself gripping the other's hand as the blonde man continued, "I'm Richard Seaton, and pleased to meet you…?"
"DuQuesne," he answered, and felt an answering grin slowly spreading on his face. "Marc C. DuQuesne."
DuQuesne looked up, feeling a crick in his neck, and it slowly penetrated that it was pitch black outside. On the opposite side of the table – now piled high with scratch paper on both sides – Seaton was sitting with his head in both hands, fingers digging into his hair as though trying to pull thoughts out by main force.
"I think I owe old Bryson a little apology," Seaton muttered at last. "He's still wrong – that I'm sure of, by ninety-seven rows of little apple trees…"
DuQuesne found himself giggling. It was a completely incongruous sound, and one he found embarrassing, but for a moment he couldn't stop it, and his new friend glanced up with a slightly hurt expression. "What?"
Marc finally managed to convert the giggle into a chortle. "… by ninety-seven rows of little apple trees!" he repeated, and found himself laughing.
Seaton went pink again, but a moment later joined in. "Yeah, I guess it does sound kinda silly. My dad had all kinds of expressions like that, and what with me and him being mostly alone when I was a kid, I pretty much learned to talk just like him. When you live in the woods a hundred miles from anywhere else, that's what you do."
Damnation. We're like light and dark mirrors. DuQuesne stopped laughing. "Sorry. Yes, it was funny, but I shouldn't have laughed at you."
"Don't worry about it. If I can't laugh at myself, I'm taking things way too seriously."
"So what do you mean about Bryson?"
Seaton gestured to the table. "I guess it all seems obvious to us, but it looks like we're having a hell of a time proving that it's possible to have real stability out past element one-oh-five. He may be a close-minded stagnated old bird, but he does know his stuff, and he wasn't all that far off; Harkness, Smith and Jones make it all sound open-and-shut."
DuQuesne nodded unwillingly. "Yeah… Yeah, I guess you're right. Well, we've both got our five pages of the conventional wisdom and about fifty pages of stuff that doesn't quite overturn it. And now that we've come up for air, I suddenly have discovered I'm hungry. I think we need to let this problem sit." He started gathering his notes and packing them methodically away.
"You know, I'm about hungry enough to eat a bear without salt. Want to join me?"
DuQuesne started. It suddenly dawned on him that this was the first time someone else had asked him to join them in a … well, a social context. To his chagrin and confusion, he realized there was some level of actual… well, not fear maybe, but nervousness, tension. It's just going to get dinner, for Crissake!
And that was true, as far as it went, but for him he realized there was more. And it was incredibly hard to respond.
But he also knew he needed to respond – for his own sake. "Well… sure, why not?" The answer sounded lukewarm in his own ears, but Seaton didn't appear to notice.
"Great! Hey, I transferred in just last week, so I'm hoping you actually know a place a guy can get a decent steak…"
Actually… "I think I know just the place… by about ninety-seven rows of little apple trees!"
Richard Seaton gave a delighted snort. "Then set the course, Captain!"
It occurred to him that he didn't know how well Seaton was set for cash. "Well, that is, if your wallet isn't too thin."
"Fat enough for now. I'll worry about it getting skinny later. Then lead on, MacDuff!"
As the two made their way across Washington Campus, the strange tension finally began to make sense to DuQuesne. Vulnerability was always frightening, always a worry for one trained to constant alertness.
And there was no vulnerability quite like having a friend.
"Balanced Stimuli begun. Competitive –Cooperative matrices well within established parameters."
"Didn't even need an adjustment in that part of the scenario. You've done wonders."
"Praise accepted. Seaton and DuQuesne match perfectly as complements – equivalent capabilities, personalities playing off each other; they can be highly competitive – and will be – but should remain friends throughout."
"Excellent. This was one of the first major changes; it seems to be working well. Complete this phase, then we can prepare for the next."
"Balanced Stimuli to be completed, followed by Adjustment and First Denouement. Engaging."
And already the divergences are clear...