Note: “The Goddess Equation” occurs shortly after the events described in “Some Fabulous Yonder.”
THE GODDESS EQUATION
A Raspold Story
Christopher Paul Carey
Raspold musingly ran the printout under his bloodhound proboscis. The paper had just spat out of the wall slot, sliding with ease onto the pseudo-wood surface of his kitchen table. If it had swerved just a few inches to the left, it would have landed squarely on his egg and bacon breakfast. He was not sure why the thought struck him as humorous. But it was often insignificant happenings that determined significant events. The complexity of the universe ate you up if you thought too much about it.
If he hadn’t already been hung-over, Raspold would have reached in the cooling unit and downed a beer. Instead, he placed the printout back on the table top and went about his breakfast as originally intended. The universe was back on course.
As he ate, Raspold’s tiny apartment began to shake with a rhythmic pulse, his kitchenware rattling and his walls creaking. He cursed. Though the walls were lined with sound-suppressing hardo, nothing could protect his home from the booming bass vibrations of the apartment above him.
He had had the misfortune of being assigned a living space directly below a musician from Puppis. If it wasn’t bad enough to be in the apartment beneath a giant pachydermoid as his elephantine feet pounded across the floor above him, his upstairs neighbor was also the official representative of the Office of the Supreme Musician-Tsar of Puppis. Though Raspold had filed a formal complaint to his building supervisor, no action had been taken.
Well, that was not exactly true. Raspold had been sued by the Puppisian on the grounds of discrimination. His neighbor had claimed that the right to practice his own culture in his own living space had been violated. Raspold had found it necessary to pull some strings at FECAB to get the suit dismissed. Digging into the pachydermoid’s past, he had found enough leverage to force his neighbor to reconsider. This action had not, however, stopped the incessant rumbling from above.
After quickly finishing what remained of his breakfast, Raspold slipped out of his robe into a long black kilt and turquoise tunic. He threw a navy cloak over his shoulders and made for the door.
He hesitated for a moment, then darted back to the table. Picking up the printout, he read it one more time.
CLEARED FOR REASSIGNMENT TO ATHENA. REPORT TO OFFICE OF ARCHIVES & STATISTICS.
Raspold slid the paper back into the slot for recycling and walked out the door.
· · ·
The city of Upper Copenhagen was a complex system of transport tubes and corridors. Raspold began his descent by taking a tube several levels down to a transport facility. There he hailed a cab to drive him to an extra-city transport station which was located just above sea level. Luckily, he did not live too high in the city. Such levels were reserved for expensive restaurants, tourist traps, and the extremely rich. The FECAB agent had earned a reputation for thoroughness, insightfulness, and quick wit, but he still brought home a government salary. While the pay was steady, it did not afford him any luxuries.
And now even his reputation had been called into question. Any immediate hopes to hunt down Nge had been shelved after the failure of his last assignment. That he had been assigned to ATHENA’s Office of Archives & Statistics spoke volumes about the current heading of his career. If he did not find a way to prove himself quickly, he would find his future sinking into a quagmire of electronic data and pure boredom.
He lit a cigarette as he exited the cab. He could understand why so many chose to risk their futures in frontier colonies like Diveboard. If his career headed in the way he feared, he might consider taking a jumper back to that planet. He could always set up shop as a P.I. for hire.
Finding the terminal for outbound flights to the ATHENA complex, Raspold inserted a few C into a ticket booth and boarded a bus. In only a matter of minutes, he was getting off the bus in front of the park-like grounds that housed the Federation’s greatest technological achievement: ATHENA, the skyscraper-tall supercomputer.
As an agent of FECAB, Raspold had limited access to the facility whenever a case required it. His boss, Richard Ali’i, had just granted him extended clearance. This was what gave Raspold pause. He could be here a long time.
ATHENA towered above him like God’s dirty toothpick. The black tower soared high into the mists that were beginning to break up as the morning sun rose into the sky. He looked around at the people swarming in and out of the building like ants, oblivious to the impressive feat of engineering. Og Boojum, the Federation’s older model protein computer, while huge, had possessed none of the awe inspiring style that ATHENA projected. Boojum—now retired—had been housed in a blocky building that looked more like a giant warehouse than an important computer complex.
While ATHENA was familiar to everyone in the Federation as the universal symbol of humanity’s ingenuity, what few realized was that the supercomputer extended far beneath the earth. In fact, even now, some hundred meters from the skyscraper, he was standing on buried protein circuitry.
Taking another drag from his cigarette, Raspold joined the chain of workers entering the building. As he approached the monolithic structure, he glanced up at the triangle-over-cross symbol engraved into the sleek black surface above the main entrance. Passing through security took about fifteen minutes.
Reporting to the FECAB liaison to ATHENA, Raspold was surprised to find Diana Gress sitting in Agent Grimsjkold’s office.
“Lieutenant, have a seat,” began Grimsjkold, his manner formal. “Have you had the honor of meeting Administrator Gress?”
Of course, Raspold had not. Gress was Senior Administrator to ATHENA. Even the President of the Federation had to report to Gress on a regular basis, though protocol disguised their meetings as Gress reporting to the President. Raspold placed his pack of cigarettes back in his purse without withdrawing one. If he played his cards right, perhaps this assignment could lead him farther than he could have imagined.
“No, but I’m honored, Madame Administrator.”
Gress didn’t rise from her seat or attempt to shake Raspold’s hand, but she did nod her head and give him a beautiful smile. Diana Gress was a voluptuous blonde with classic Scandinavian features. Even had she not been the Senior Administrator to the Federation’s all-encompassing databank, she still would have turned heads.
“Please,” she pleaded. “If I hear that platitude one more time, I’m going to jump the tower.”
Raspold laughed politely. You mean jump off the tower, he thought.
As if she read his mind, she grinned mischievously at him.
“Diana will do,” she stated with conviction.
“But, let’s get to the point, Hermann,” she said turning back to Grimsjkold. “Tell Lieutenant Raspold why he’s here.”
“To be frank,” began Grimsjkold, “Chief Ali’i wanted to give you an assignment that would get you back down to earth. He feels that you may have lost your objectivity on your last one, and that working with hard facts will get you back on track.”
Raspold fought to keep his cool poise.
“This assignment is not a punishment,” Grimsjkold added. “If you figure this one out, you may find yourself with more than just a few bonus C.”
“I could care less about the glory,” Raspold replied, wondering how much truth there was in this statement. “It’s the chase that keeps me motivated.”
“That’s why Ali’i chose you for this one.”
“Not to correct you, Hermann…” Gress interjected in a near-whisper.
Raspold raised his thick eyebrows.
“You picked me for this, Madame…Diana?”
“Let’s just say ATHENA did the legwork,” she said. “I just asked Her the question.”
He could hear the reverential capitalization in her tone. He made a mental note of this. While ATHENA was a marvel, to Raspold it was still just a machine. A very advanced abacus. The human soul ran much deeper.
“Looking at you,” she went on, “I’m not convinced She made a very good selection. You look like you’ve been sucking sub-orbital propellant. Your file says you are reliable, at ease under stress, driven to succeed, and generally only a moderate drinker. What’s eating at you, Raspold? Can I count on you to get this job done?”
That was more like it, Raspold thought. Gress now fit his profile of a corporate ladder climber, pumped up on power and ambition. How else does one get to the top of ATHENA? He heaved a sigh. Of course, Gress already knew what was bothering him. The Senior Administrator would not only have read his current FECAB records, but she would have questioned Ali’i, and she would have run an up-to-the-minute psychological profile through ATHENA. The computer would have told her that the stress of his encounter with Voittamaton—and his subsequent grounding on Earth for the past month with interrogations by his superiors, as well as having no clear assignment—had left Lieutenant Raspold a very unhappy boy. While not usually a drinker, the past month was wearing on Raspold. He had sulked in bars and in his apartment (when the Official Representative from the Puppisian Musician-Tsar wasn’t pounding his drum set above him) until great dark circles had formed under his eyes. Raspold, ugly from birth, was not looking any better these days.
“You already know the answer to that question,” he said dryly, “or I wouldn’t be here.”
“Good,” she said smiling, her tone softening. “Hermann…?”
Agent Grimsjkold steepled his hands on the desktop. Raspold imagined for a moment that he was praying to ATHENA.
“The sensitivities of this case are extreme,” Grimsjkold said. “You are to discuss the case with no one.”
Raspold gave the FECAB liaison a tired look.
“Of course,” he said.
“I understand that’s basic procedure,” Grimsjkold continued, “but if word of this were to leak out, the entire framework of the Commonwealth would begin to shake. The consequences could be far-reaching.”
He clasped his fingers and darted a glance at Gress, who in turn glared at Raspold.
“ATHENA is insane,” Grimsjkold stated. “Or very sick. For the past month she has been giving inconsistent analyses. At first glance, they appear to be minor errors. Often the correct conclusion is reached, but the way in which the computer made the deduction was erroneous. Other times the conclusion is in error, but the process of calculation seems infallible. Don’t get me wrong: ATHENA is still functioning appropriately within most of Her parameters. But the implications down the long road… Well, I’m sure you understand the consequences to our society and the entire Federation were these trends to continue.”
Raspold thought he certainly could. ATHENA was the Federation’s shining star. No other planet, Fed or Non-Fed, could claim such a prize. Were the supercomputer’s accuracy and efficiency called into question, regardless of whether or not it really was malfunctioning, the lawsuits alone could bankrupt the Fed. Even worse, if the trends in ATHENA’s ability continued, the Federation would lose its competitive edge in the Galaxy. The computer had been used countless times to exploit situations with Non-Fed planets. ATHENA was a dealer you could not cheat.
“I’m all ears,” said Raspold, his deep and calming voice contrasting with the tension in Grimsjkold’s tone. “But why is this a FECAB matter?”
Grimsjkold and Gress exchanged worried looks. A silence filled the pristine, white-walled office.
The Federation Extra-Terrestrial Criminal Apprehension Bureau would be called in on an Earth-based case only if it involved a crime committed by an alien. God only knew there were few enough criminals left on Earth. At least those who were not businesspeople or politicians. That was why Raspold had requested assignment on the frontier to begin with; and why it was ultimately frustrating for him to be idling his time away on Earth while his superiors decided if he was competent or trustworthy enough for the job. But, he suspected, this case could change things.
Finally, Grimsjkold continued.
“There have been two attempts on the Administrator’s life, both within the past two weeks. Normally, we’d run the facts through ATHENA, find a correlation between the two seemingly separate events. Actually, we’ve tried this, but ATHENA insists that with the data provided, there is no connection that can be seen. This is unlikely, however. We have had no security breaches to ATHENA since She was built.”
“That you know of, anyway,” Raspold interjected. “So you say the murder attempts happened here, at the facility?”
“The Senior Administrator lives here and seldom leaves the facility,” Grimsjkold said. “It seems likely that those who tried to kill the Administrator are the criminals who have sabotaged ATHENA. Knowing that ATHENA would reveal the likely conspirators, they altered ATHENA’s reasoning functions to cover their future or past tracks.”
“Wouldn’t a simple diagnostic reveal the source and cause of ATHENA’s problems?” asked the detective.
Gress replied this time.
“A layperson would think so, but ATHENA is made up of many interconnected protein brains. She is not your average computer. But truth be told, there are diagnostics we have run that we had hoped would ascertain the problem. Unfortunately, they have revealed nothing. We are continuing to make all our resources available to diagnose ATHENA’s illness.”
“The assassins were both non-Fed E.T.s,” Grimsjkold said. “Norix!hu-ata!abi from LaGassi and Fex Regate from Arturo Nine. No connections found except that they are both from Non-Fed worlds that have so far resisted entering into contracts with the Federation. We are exploring that angle, of course.”
“If you have others on the case, why am I here?”
“As I said,” replied Gress, “ATHENA wanted you.”
“ATHENA doesn’t want,” Raspold sighed disdainfully. “She’s a machine, and let’s not forget that. Besides, I thought you couldn’t trust it. ATHENA is a goose who lays—not golden—but bad eggs.”
He noticed Diana Gress purse her lips at his remark.
“We’re not amateurs, Lieutenant Raspold,” she said somewhat testily. “You are part of our diagnostic, as well.”
“So the investigator is investigated,” he said.
“No. Only in that we want to see why ATHENA picked you. The results of your investigation could mean a lot to mine.”
“And to mine,” Grimsjkold added. “Your job is to follow the assassination angle. You have a reputation for having good sources and good instincts. You are not afraid to crawl into the dark and dirty places to get to your goal. I want you to find out what you can about Norix!hu-ata!abi and Fex Regate. Who are they, and who are they working for? What will it benefit them—if you’ll excuse me, Diana—to see the Administrator dead? You’ll have access to as much data as you need. Full clearance.”
Raspold doubted that very much, but he said nothing.
As he stood up to leave the office, Diana Gress cleared her throat.
“I understand you paint, Lieutenant Raspold,” Gress stated.
Raspold stopped, but did not acknowledge her.
“I want you to paint a portrait of me. It will help you relax so that you will be able to focus on the case at hand. Will you do that for me?”
“I’ll need you to pose for me.”
“I don’t have time,” she said. “But here’s a holopic of me.” She handed him a tiny green pyramid.
“I only paint nudes.”
· · ·
Back at his apartment, Raspold studied the files that had been provided him by Grimsjkold. He found Norix!hu-ata!abi’s background to be enlightening. The assassin, now dead, had worked as a guerilla to oust the previous government of LaGassi. After a long and bloody war which had claimed the lives of every member of his immediate family except his younger sister, Norix!hu-ata!abi’s faction finally rose to power. He had joined his party’s secret police and helped them in their isolationist mission to resist the enticements of the Federation Economic Scouting Team.
What Raspold found intriguing, however, was that Norix!hu-ata!abi had developed a personal relationship with a FEST agent on LaGassi. When the isolationist movement came to a head and all Federation envoys were ordered to leave the planet, they had gone their separate ways. Janice Frith had returned to Earth, where she later became vice president of the Bank of Upper Phoenix. Norix!hu-ata!abi had continued on in the ranks of the LaGassi secret police.
Raspold would try to contact Janice Frith. It seemed likely that he would be able to glean much from Norix!hu-ata!abi’s former girlfriend, especially if their relationship had ended on a sour note.
Raspold asked the screen on his living room wall to access ATHENA’s database to ascertain Frith’s current whereabouts.
The text on the screen disheartened him.
JANICE TEMPERANCE FRITH. DECEASED, 2 MARCH 2258. CAUSE OF DEATH: HEART FAILURE, ATTRIBUTED TO CHRONIC STRESS. MEDICAL DOCTOR PERFORMING AUTOPSY, DR. JEREMIAH S. MCCORD, M.D., Ph.D. …
The detective ran his fingers through his slick black hair and sighed. It would still be worth it to contact her family and friends to get impressions of Frith’s relationship with Norix!hu-ata!abi. Perhaps something useful would come up.
Next, Raspold examined the file on Fex Regate. Fex was a typical native of Arturo Nine: belligerent, demanding, and not too bright. The Arturians had resisted Federation influence out of sheer bull-headedness. They saw the Federation’s advances as a threat to their own economic and cultural independence (which it was).
Fex himself captained the Pixpyne, a transport ship which delivered exotic goods to non-Fed worlds. After the attempt on Administrator Gress’s life, the Pixpyne was found in orbit around Earth. The Federation Navy, under orders from FECAB, lost no time in securing and detaining the vessel. A preliminary interrogation had been made by a Sergeant Leopardi, whom Raspold knew to be the nephew of the famous detective. From what he had read of the report, Sergeant Leopardi had much to learn if he wanted to follow in his uncle’s footsteps. Raspold would have to take a shuttle to the Pixpyne to interview the crew again.
He went over the reports of both murder attempts a second time, and again he was baffled. In both instances, the criminal had entered the ATHENA facility as easily as could an agent of FECAB with proper clearance. The problem was, there were no records of any authorizations, even though a replay from the security eyes showed Norix!hu-ata!abi and Fex Regate each passing through the rigorous security screening. Whenever a person—or inanimate object, for that matter—entered the facility, an automatic notation was made in the security databank. The records, however, just skipped right over both criminal’s entries, as if they had been wiped from the computer. A notation in the report by Grimsjkold indicated that he believed that those responsible for the assassination attempts had tampered with ATHENA to cover their tracks. He did not explain how this was possible.
Raspold, arousing himself from deep concentration, found himself absentmindedly twirling a tiny green object in his fingers. Yawning, he told his wall screen to deactivate itself. He rose to retrieve his palate, easel, and canvas from a wall-compartment so that he could paint while comfortably seated at his couch. He placed the green pyramid on his coffee table and pressed the button on the apex of the device.
A woman stretched languidly across the thick branch which arched up from the living room floor. Jungle lianas hung in the background and foreground, ambient green sunlight refracting off the tropical foliage. The woman’s white skin was freckled with a tantalizing pattern of shadows and light. Her head tilted back lazily as she gazed at some unknown point in the upper terraces of the jungle. She grasped a bow in one hand which she drooped over the side of the branch.
Raspold laughed at this last observation.
Diana Gress certainly knew her role as Artemis. He hoped, however, that she was not hunting him.
He leaned forward, dabbed his palette with an array of green shades, and began painting the jungle scene. An impressionistic background of tropical verdure slowly formed on the canvas, but when Raspold was finally ready to render the woman’s graceful figure, a three-dimensional wave of blackness rippled across the jungle scene from top to bottom.
Raspold sighed. He hated painting from holopics or tridi. Something vital was lost in the translation to technology, that primal life-force that made galaxies whirl and men’s and women’s hearts beat rapidly. A simple memory was more alive than a photograph. He should have insisted that if Diana Gress did not have time to pose for him, then he—
The low rumbling was immediately followed by four distinct crashes. Though startled, Raspold, still halfway in artist mode, pictured each crash visually in his mind.
The first was dark purple with yellow spirals boinging cartoon-like through the front door of his apartment. The second, a green jungle with multi-colored fluorescent birds flying from the trees in dismay. The third, a black bear roaring through clenched teeth of chrome. The fourth and last crash, an inferno of flame licking the embers of his own heart.
Frustrated with the holopic and furious at the audacity of the lumbering monster that he knew to be outside his apartment, Raspold walked to door, pausing briefly to compose himself. Then he reached for the knob.
Opening the door, Raspold felt like a blind, deaf, and mute monkey. He squinted his eyes shut at the sight of the Puppisian’s grotesque tongue which wagged wildly in his face, his eardrums rumbling from the unnatural guttural and bass quacking which emanated from just beneath the creature’s trumpet-beak. Rendered speechless by an odor of rotting vegetables which wafted off his unhappy visitor, the detective spread his hands in dismay.
The Puppisian continued on with his obscene quackings for perhaps a minute before Raspold could take no more.
“You’re an ambassador, Grulhukhs!” he shouted over the trumpeting. “You address Earth politicians—though, Great Light, they’re hard enough to understand—and wine and dine at cocktail parties every night! I know you speak Lingo, so don’t insult my intelligence!”
The Puppisian suddenly ceased his vocalizations, but its grayish face had puffed up like a balloon and turned purple.
“STOP! YOUR! NOISE!” Grulhukhs panted with a guttural vehemence that gave Raspold the chills.
At first, the detective thought he was referring to his admonishment for the creature to speak in Lingo. Then he noticed that Grulhukhs was looking past him into his living room. There, the tridi image of Diana Gress still stretched languidly among jungle lianas.
“Wha-?” Raspold began, but before he could speak further, the alien boomed past him into his living room. There, the creature picked up the pyramid-shaped holopic, threw it on the floor, and smashed it beneath one elephantine foot.
“YOU! COMPLAIN! ABOUT! MY! BEAUTIFUL! MUSIC! BUT! THEN! YOU! INFEST! THIS! BUILDING! WITH! THAT! UN! PUPPISLY! WHINING!”
By then it had dawned on Raspold what had happened. When the holopic had malfunctioned, rippling with its distortion, it had apparently emitted a high frequency noise which had grated on the Puppian’s ears but was not audible to humans. He recalled hearing about the difficulties some Earth-women with high-pitched voices had had when speaking to the pachydermoids. In fact, it had threatened to derail early negotiations with Puppis until it was discovered why the pachydermoids were flying into fits of rage. Then, FEST had equipped their female and high-pitch-voiced male agents with vocal-distorters which lowered the frequencies of their voices.
“It was a malfunction,” Raspold explained, not unsympathetically. “I’m sorry.” While Raspold did not like this particular alien, he was sensitive to the complex cultural variables which needed to be accounted for when dealing with other sentient species.
“Listen,” he said, taking a new tact. “Let’s have a drink. I know we’ve had our differences in the past, but let’s bury the hatchet, as they say on my world. I know you Puppisians like bourbon and I just happen to have a bottle or two lying around. What do you say?”
He had expected rejection in the form of more trumpeting or perhaps foot-stomping, but Grulhukhs replied, “I’LL! HAVE! TWO!” and sat his immense posterior down on Raspold’s straining couch.
Raspold returned from his kitchen with a tray containing two bottles of bourbon for his visitor and a glass of beer for himself. He allowed himself this concession, though he had taken Gress’ reproach about his drinking seriously. After all, allowing the Puppisian to drink alone would be an insult, he thought.
Grulhukhs grabbed a bottle and began to chug it. Raspold watched as the bottle quickly emptied into the orifice beneath the creature’s beak. When he was through with the bottle, Grulhukhs squinted his eyes at the wall screen on the far side of the room. Surprisingly, the screen was still on, even though Raspold distinctly remembered turning it off. He would have to report the malfunction to his building supervisor. In any case, as he did not believe the Puppisian could read the screen from that distance, Raspold figured it was safe to leave it activated. Grulhukhs surprised him once again, however, and made Raspold realize he did hold prejudice against his guest’s species after all. Just because Grulhukhs looked like an elephant, it didn’t mean that he was one. The old adage about an elephant’s eyesight did not apply to the sentient inhabitants of Puppis.
“YOUR! REPORT! LIES!” Grulhukhs accused.
“What do you mean?” Raspold walked across the room and glanced at the screen. It was the case file on Janice Frith. He quickly ordered the screen to deactivate—and this time it did—and returned to his guest, whose immense posterior engulfed the detective’s couch.
The Puppisian refused to respond. Instead, he began to lift his giant frame from the couch, as if to leave.
“You haven’t finished your bourbon, Grulhukhs! Here, have another.”
He thrust the second bottle into the pachydermoid’s hand. Grulhukhs huge form swayed back and forth in front of the couch, the alcohol finally beginning to do its work. At last, unable to stand any longer, he crashed back down into his seat. Raspold cringed as he heard the frame of the couch snap.
“FHITH! WATH!... MUHDEHED!” the Puppisian slurred.
“What?” Raspold exclaimed with disbelief. “Frith murdered?” The chances of Grulhukhs knowing anything about any of the subjects of his current investigation were infinitesimal. He pressed the drunken Grulhukhs for an explanation.
Grulhukhs went on to tell him—sometimes slurring so much with intoxication as to be almost unintelligible—that two months ago, just prior to assuming his ambassadorial duties, he had made acquaintance with one Norix!hu-ata!abi, a native of LaGassi. While LaGassi had no formal relations with the Federation, the planet did have close ties with Puppis, where they traded slaves for what the Earthlings were beginning to call ob-music, short for objective music. The latter was a rare form of melody which worked on the nerve synapses of selected species in such a way to produce whatever emotional reaction the musician desired. It was illegal in the Federation, but was quickly becoming a hot item on the “open” Non-Fed worlds.
Norix!hu-ata!abi, the pachydermoid continued, had approached Grulhukhs two months ago about commissioning a group of Puppisian musicians to perform just such ob-music. He had offered him a regular harem of LaGassi women in exchange. But Grulhukhs had had to decline. He did not wish to endanger his new post on Earth by association with such illicit—by human standards—practices, and, besides, slavery was illegal on Earth. What would he gain from having a harem if he couldn’t use it? Raspold shuddered at the image of the pachydermoid pampered by a harem of LaGassi women, who were as essentially human-looking as any Earthling. His guest seemed not to notice Raspold’s reaction and continued his story.
Before declining the offer, Grulhukhs had done some of his own investigating into Norix!hu-ata!abi. The assassin, he discovered through his contacts on LaGassi, had recently suffered an emotional blow. His ex-lover, Janice Frith, had recently been found dead. While official reports offered death by natural causes as the final word on Frith’s demise, some further digging by the pachydermoid revealed that Norix!hu-ata!abi was convinced that she had been murdered. Moreover, he believed that he knew who the killer was. This was all that Grulhukhs had been able to uncover. Fearing that he could be tied to a murder investigation on Earth and also to an assassin, he had ceased negotiations with Norix!hu-ata!abi and forgotten about the matter.
Until now. Now the drunken ambassador had spilled his beans. If he was worried that he had jeopardized his career by revealing his sullied past to Raspold, he did not show it. Grulhukhs had passed out on Raspold’s couch and was snoring obscenely. Perhaps he would be fearful upon awakening or perhaps he would forget about their conversation. Raspold did not care about that now.
He left the four hundred pound alien slumbering on his couch and headed out into the night.
· · ·
He had much to think about as he boarded the evening bus to the ATHENA complex. He developed several theories, but many were made improbable by the level of the coincidence involved. How had it come to be that Raspold’s upstairs neighbor just happened to know one of the assassins involved in the attempt on the Administrator’s life? But then, perhaps the improbability indicated the true solution to the puzzle. He would have to find out. If, as Grimsjkold had claimed, Raspold had complete access to FECAB files regarding the ATHENA investigation, he should be able to crosscheck the FECAB databank with ATHENA’s. If there were any irregularities, his theory would have more weight.
He glanced about him at the handful of passengers sharing his ride to the complex. Three appeared to be office workers, all of them jumpstarting their metabolisms with jolts of coffee and news-screens. The remaining two were security guards, nodding with sleep as they headed out for the nightshift.
He found it rather ironic that humans were now relegated to protecting machines. ATHENA was deemed too important to be guarded by the simulated protein-brained police officers, although from the drowsy appearance of the guards, he wondered if machines might not do a better job. The bus driver, a simulated human whose torso had been built directly into the driver’s seat, certainly performed its job well enough. But then, its job was far simpler than a guard’s, who once in a great while might actually need to think, to extrapolate.
The bus finally pulled down into the terminal and the passengers filed onto the walkway that led to ATHENA. The monstrous black tower was invisible in the darkness, except for the bright yellow glow of the triangle-over-cross symbol.
It was the latter—along with some quick, on-the-feet thinking—which saved Raspold’s life.
The last to depart the bus, Raspold noticed a slight yellow glow ahead of him far to his left. It could have been a trick of his imagination, but then again, it could have been a reflection. The detective had been in enough close calls to know that caution paid for itself many times over, even if at times it made one look like a fool. Therefore, he immediately took action.
He dived back into the bus just as a bullet ricocheted off the hardo pavement where just a moment before he had stood. Instinctively he reached for his gun, but unfortunately he found none there. Since he had been assigned to the ATHENA case, he had been forbidden from carrying a weapon due to extreme security precautions surrounding the supercomputer.
Cursing, he grabbed the bus controls from the simulated driver. Or rather, he tried to—the driver’s tantalum-alloy hands refused to budge. He had often wondered why the government had decided to use simulated drivers in many buses and cabs, considering that it would be safer and more efficient to hide the driving mechanism under tamper-proof panels. It must have been out of a desire to “humanize” the commute. In addition, given the strength and pre-programmed safety protocols of the simulated driver, the politicians who approved the design must have felt reassured.
This thought went through Raspold’s head in a blur, and its immediate implications suddenly dawned on him. Safety protocols. One reason they had chosen this design was that a human being could override the pseudo-man in an emergency.
He ran his hand underneath the control panel until finally, sighing with relief, he located the override switch. He flipped it just as another bullet bored through the windshield and into the driver. Unaffected by the bullet, the driver released the controls, and in contrast to the dire situation, cheerily exclaimed, “It’s all yours!” Raspold slammed the accelerator forward in what he judged to be the direction of the shot. The bus lurched into the air, rocketing into the darkness off course from its pre-programmed route.
Abruptly, Raspold was struggling to breathe. Something vice-like had clamped down on his larynx, making him see stars. He reflexively reached for his neck to find it being strangled by two large and powerful hands. He had not been the last one on the bus after all—someone must have hidden behind or under one of the back seats.
He tried to ear-cuff and groin-kick his attacker but found that his opponent was expertly holding his vitals just out of reach, using the tactic of a professional killer. Raspold began to feel faint and knew that his face must be turning from dark red to purple. If he didn’t act soon, it would all be over. He would end up in that big case file in the sky.
He lifted his leg and slammed his foot against the direction control. The bus pitched radically to the right, crashing both occupants against the side of the vehicle. Raspold was now laying face-up on top of his assailant. Not taking the time to collect his wits, he smashed his elbow as hard as he could into the attacker’s abdomen. He heard a whoosh, a sharp cracking, and a gasping for air.
Then the automatic safety protocols of the bus again kicked in and the vehicle uprighted itself. Raspold and his attacker tumbled from the side of the bus back into the center aisle. Raising himself into a kneeling position, the detective looked down into the pained face of his opponent, who bore the same ruddy features as those of Fex Regate, the attempted assassin of Diana Gress.
For a moment he was stunned to see that the assassin—who had been reportedly killed in his attack on ATHENA’s administrator—still very much alive. Then he recalled that natives of Arturo Nine all looked more or less the same to Earth people. This was not Fex Regate, but rather another of his sp—
He was face-down, dazed, the atmosphere thick with dust. His head and right shoulder ached terribly. Inhaling the dust, he broke into a coughing fit before he could bring his sleeve up to his mouth to filter the air. Still coughing, he turned onto his left side for a look at his surroundings.
He was lying on the marble floor in the center of ATHENA’s lobby. Not the lobby that was before security, but the secondary one that was entered after passing through the rigorous screening process. The bus he had been on was a mangled wreck before him.
He tried to reconstruct what had happened. It appeared that the bus had made a direct hit on the entryway. The vehicle, slightly smaller than the entryway, had found its roof peeled away like a banana. The rest of the bus had pummeled first through the faux lobby and next into the security chamber. Then it had spun on its side and dumped Raspold through its roofless top onto the lobby floor. In the wreckage, he could see the Arturian, who had not been as lucky. A twisted panel torn from the bus had sliced him in two.
A figure emerged from behind the rubble and streaked past him into the lobby. He turned and saw the dark-clad apparition disappear into an elevator. Simultaneously he heard emergency bulkheads falling with a loud boom in the entryway, sealing off the complex. Those left inside ATHENA were now isolated from the rest of the world.
A shaken security guard—in fact, one of those he had seen on the bus—approached him, a no-nonsense Mark IX pistol pointed in the detective’s face.
Raspold raised his hands—grimacing because of his injured right shoulder—and exclaimed that he was FECAB.
“I’m after the Administrator’s attempted assassin,” he explained hurriedly. “I don’t have time to argue. Just scan my retina, my DNA. Whatever you have to do!”
The cautious guard, still aiming his weapon at Raspold, pulled a portable scanner from his belt. He crouched before the detective, waved the scanner close to his face, and completed his test by poking a needle that emerged from the front of the device into Raspold’s arm.
The results were apparently satisfactory. The guard lowered his weapon and asked for Raspold’s assistance in helping those in the lobby left injured by the impalement of the renegade bus.
“I’m sorry,” Raspold said, checking his head for serious injury. “I can’t help you. I need to find the Administrator. There’s someone trying to kill her.”
The guard explained that they did not keep tabs on the whereabouts of their important boss. He could, however, trace the elevator that the unknown figure had just used. The guard trotted past the wreckage back into the security area. Raspold limped after him, holding his aching shoulder, which had been badly bruised when he had landed on it after being thrown from the bus.
“He went down into the bowels,” the security guard declared after consulting with a wall screen. “He’s somewhere on I-level.”
“I-level?” Raspold repeated.
“Yeah, short for Inferno.”
“But I don’t understand,” the guard said. “That’s restricted access. It’s the heart of the brain complex. The tubes won’t take you down there unless you have clearance. Did you see who it was?”
“No, but I have an idea,” Raspold said. “Do I have clearance?”
The guard looked worriedly over his shoulder as one of his wounded co-workers let out a loud moan from the other side of the wreckage. He turned back to the screen and punched away at his keyboard rapidly.
“You do now,” he said. “I’ve got to get these people help. Thank goodness this didn’t happen in the daytime when this place is full. I’ll send you backup when it gets here.”
The man turned his back on the detective and went to give aid to the injured.
Raspold made his way to the tube and descended into Hell.
· · ·
Raspold exited the tube on I-level. It opened into a corridor which stretched its gray walls in two directions. He listened intently, but could hear nothing. The intruder had too far of a head start. Intuitively, Raspold turned to the left and tread as quickly and quietly as he could down the hallway.
After a short distance, circular portals appeared on either side of him, spaced about every three meters down the passageway. Raspold took a moment to peer into one of them.
He could see row after row of large blobs of gray matter illuminated in an ambient yellowish-greenish light. Each protein-brain was just shy of a meter in diameter and each was sitting on a square pedestal that looked like it was composed of black marble. He could not see any structures or wires which might have connected the protein-brains in a giant circuit, but he surmised that they may have all been linked in some way beneath the pedestals. Or perhaps they were connected through some sort of non-material wave technology. Whatever the case, the scene was weird, surreal. Raspold shuddered, continuing even more cautiously down the corridor.
The detective soon encountered branching corridors every few meters. Each new corridor appeared to be exactly like the one he was in. He did not know how the technicians could navigate through the labyrinth of eerie tunnels, but he suspected that they used some kind of scanning or geographical positioning device to prevent them from getting lost.
Raspold, not easily spooked, gradually began to get the feeling that someone was lurking behind him. It could merely have been the unnaturalness of his surroundings playing on nerves already distraught by the evening’s action, but again he found himself wishing for a gun. He mentally cursed himself for not asking the security guard for a weapon, though on second thought he realized that protocol would have stopped the guard from complying with his request.
He whirled to look behind him when he heard what sounded like shuffling footsteps. Then again, it could have been an irregularity in the ventilation system. Just in case, he jogged a ways down a corridor on his right, then ducked around another cross passage. Cautiously, he peeked his head around the corner to scout out the way he had come.
He jumped, the hairs on the back of his neck prickling erect.
“I’m glad you’re here,” Diana Gress said as the detective turned around in surprise.
Gress was dressed in efficient business attire, her blonde hair tied back prim and proper; but her expression was one of anxiety. She reached out a hand and placed it on Raspold’s bruised shoulder, looking him up and down when he winced.
“What’s happened?” she asked.
Before he could answer, she said, “Come, follow me. There’s a place only I know about. That’s where I was headed when we bumped into each other.”
She guided him down a new corridor, making several turns, so many that Raspold quickly lost his bearings. She did not seem to be using any navigation device, but that did not mean that she could not have one hidden in her clothing or implanted beneath her skin.
Finally Gress stopped before a portal, in every way similar to the hundreds of others they had passed. She put her finger to the transparency and tapped it a number of times in a certain pattern.
Raspold watched as the chamber of protein-brains faded, metamorphosing into a clean, bright office. Simultaneously, the circular portal elongated and opened. The interior brain bank had undoubtedly been a tridi illusion, as could be the distortion and opening of the portal. But he wondered about it. Perhaps the morphing was some kind of illusion, but he had clearly seen and heard Gress tap the glass-like portal. It had appeared to be solid matter. Then suddenly it was an opening. He was used to holo-projecting technology, but he was unfamiliar with any equipment that could manipulate matter in such a way. It was possible that auditory enhancements had been added to the holopic so that Raspold was only being fooled by the tapping sound. However, if they were going to hide inside behind only a holo-wall, the opening—though disguised—would still be wide open. What would prevent the assassin from hearing them or smelling Gress’ unmistakably arousing perfume?
Apparently noticing the puzzlement on Raspold’s face, Diana Gress smiled.
“Only the best for ATHENA,” she beamed and left it at that.
They entered the room. Gress hurriedly tapped another pattern on the wall next to the newly formed opening, which shrank back into the form of a meter-wide circular portal. The sound of the ventilation system in the corridor muted as the portal reappeared, confirming Raspold’s suspicions that matter had actually been manipulated.
“We can see out,” Gress stated, “but anyone on the outside will only see a protein bank.”
“What’s going on?” Raspold asked after he had surveyed the room. It was a rectangular office, equipped with a desk placed up against the far wall and a wall screen just above it. In addition, thick burgundy carpeting, a comfortable couch, and coffee table made of gooma-wood rounded out the room, giving it a relaxed, though efficient atmosphere.
“You tell me first, Lieutenant. I’ve replayed the security records. I know a bus compromised the complex, but I don’t know the circumstances. How did you come to be on a bus that careened into ATHENA?”
Raspold recounted the confusing story, leaving out details as to why he had decided to make an evening visit to the complex.
“So you think that another Arturian has come to try to kill me?” she asked. “Why? Have you uncovered any motive?”
“The Arturian on the bus,” he said, “might have somehow been tipped off that I was investigating the attacks on you. He may have wanted to eliminate me so that he could finish his mission and go after you. Or perhaps I just startled him when I ran back into the bus—I might have just been in the way. I don’t know that the intruder who’s at large down here is in league with the Arturian who tried to strangle me. It may be that there are two parties involved acting separately.”
“So you don’t have a motive yet?” Gress asked accusingly.
Raspold ignored her. He walked to the desk and began looking through the drawers for something he could use as a weapon.
“You won’t find anything useful there,” Gress stated. “There aren’t any weapons allowed down here. No one has clearance, not even me.”
Raspold continued digging until he finally pulled out a thin metal rod—about a decimeter in length—from the frame of the drawer. Not an ideal weapon, but he would take what he could get. He placed it in the pocket of his kilt.
Thus meagerly armed, he took off his cloak and threw it across the desktop. After taking off his shirt, he examined his wounded shoulder.
Diana Gress approached.
“Did you dislocate it?” she asked. Now there was concern in her voice.
“No. It just seems to be badly bruised.”
She reached toward him as if to caress his arm. Raspold backed away.
“I’m fine!” he said, not wanting to be pampered while a killer lurked somewhere outside of their hiding place. “Now tell me, can you honestly say that you have no idea why these people are trying to kill you?”
“I haven’t a clue,” Gress replied coldly. “I guess I’m mistaken, but I thought that was your job.”
She turned to the desk, activating the wall screen. Using the keyboard, she paged through screens of data.
“They’ve initiated security protocol A,” she said. “That means they’ve locked down the lower levels. They’re using the monitors and scanners to check for intruders, but no luck. They’ve run through all the levels three times, but they haven’t found anyone.”
“Isn’t there anyone down here monitoring the brains?”
“No. It’s all automated. I was the only one down here.”
“And why were you down here?”
“I often walk down here at night after everyone’s left. It relaxes me. ATHENA’s thought waves wash over me.”
Again, Raspold could detect reverence in her tones as she spoke of ATHENA. While he sensed that the Senior Administrator was as tough as nails, the supercomputer was her Achilles heel, of that he was sure.
“I’m surprised they allow anyone down here,” Raspold remarked. “Couldn’t we have brought a germ down here that would infect the brains?”
“We pose no danger to them,” Gress explained. “The protein-brain banks are hermetically sealed from this level. You could explode a bomb down here and not even scratch the viewing windows. We access them from another level, only after we’ve gone through a rigorous examination and quarantine. But we rarely have to do that. Most of what we need to do can be accomplished through automated means.”
Diana Gress jumped.
“Look!” she exclaimed, but Raspold was already moving toward the portal.
They both watched as a spectral form glided through the hallway outside their chamber. It was garbed in a black formfitting jumpsuit, a cowl slipped over its head to disguise any features. It walked along effortlessly, stopping just before their portal. Extended before it in its hand was a small black device. Raspold resisted the temptation to duck around the corner.
Gress drew near the window.
“It can’t see or hear us, don’t worry,” she said.
“Then how does it know we’re in here?”
“It doesn’t—can’t. It’s just a coincidence.”
Raspold looked at the thing in the figure’s hand, as sleek and black as polished obsidian, shaped like a palm-sized teardrop. While he had never seen such a device before, he knew that it had to be a scanner of some kind.
“If you know any other way out of this room,” he said, “you’d better make it available to us right now.”
As if Raspold had predicted the figure’s actions, the stranger pressed its thumb to the back of the teardrop-shaped device. Instantly, the portal and part of the wall began to shimmer. Raspold turned and stepped back from the portal, finding that Gress was already ahead of him. She was kneeling on the floor next to the desk, tapping her fingers on a particular area of the carpet. Before he knew what was happening, the floor irised open around the Administrator and swallowed her whole. He watched in dismay as the hole which had consumed her sealed itself as if it had never existed. Where she had knelt there was now nothing but unmarked carpet.
Meanwhile, the portal and surrounding wall dissipated and with frightening speed the black figure drifted toward Raspold, who sidestepping, managed to kick his attacker in the leg. The figure fell forward on its face, the teardrop-shaped device skidding across the carpeted floor to rest underneath the desk. Raspold ran and dived for the device, but as he did so, his adversary grabbed onto his legs. He fell short of his goal by only a few centimeters. While trying to kick his attacker, who had clamped vice-like arms around his legs, he stretched himself so hard that his back cracked audibly.
His effort, however, had not been in vain. He now held the device in his hand. Was it a weapon, a scanner, something else completely? He did not know.
Raspold attempted to smash the hard, black teardrop against his attacker’s skull but the blow was lessened when his assailant grabbed his wrist. The next thing Raspold knew, he was in an agony that flared hellishly from between his legs. Even despite the blow to his groin, he grasped the teardrop with all his might, and aiming its pointed end downward like a knife, he thrust the sharp end of the device as hard as he could into faceless cowl of his opponent.
The black figure which had been clutching him cringed, then released itself from him with a throaty, gagging exhalation. Raspold had experienced enough in the way of mortal combat to know that the bellow signified death.
Breathing hard, his heart pumping furiously, he pulled the pointed end of the device out of what was plainly the cowl-covered mouth of his attacker. Slowly, he peeled back the mask’s fabric, revealing a face of a humanoid female, her mouth wide open as if it were issuing forth a horrible wail. Raspold recognized the woman from the files he had reviewed earlier that day. It was Norix!hu-ata!abi’s sister.
He knew that he had had no choice but to kill or be killed, but still he felt sickened. He could not remember the LaGassi woman’s name, but he suspected that she had died in an affair mixed up in her brother’s honor. The LaGassi—especially those who belonged to their dread clan of assassins—held extreme notions of familial piety. It was likely that the woman had assumed her brother’s failed mission upon learning of his death. If this was so, then Raspold felt that by taking her life, he had acted like a cog in a machine; but why had Norix!hu-ata!abi wanted to kill the Administrator in the first place? For that matter, why had Fex Regate?
All of his instincts told him that the two attempts were related and that the answer lay beneath the floor of this chamber, wherever it was that Diana Gress had fled. Without knowing the necessary code, however, he would never be able to unlock the invisible hatch and descend below to discover the truth. Or could he?
He looked at the black teardrop device that he held in his hand. The LaGassi woman had apparently used it to locate their hidden chamber. Then she had pointed the device at the portal and dissolved it, even though Gress had seemed sure that their refuge was impervious. Someone very well positioned had to have been helping both factions—the Arturians and the LaGassi—to accomplish their missions. How else to explain Fex Regate’s and Norix!hu-ata!abi’s passing through ATHENA’s rigorous security screening with no hitches, and how else to explain this device that could control the portal which consisted of ATHENA’s top secret morphing technology?
Raspold examined the device, found that the wider end of the teardrop was marked by a single thumb-sized depression in its center. If the device was multifunctional, it was unclear how to operate it, unless pressure or the number of taps on the declivity determined what action it performed. There was only one way to find out. He directed its pointed end toward the area where he had seen Gress disappear and thumbed the depression.
A circular hole, wide enough for a human to pass through, spiraled open, apparently with the same technology by which the portal had operated. Raspold approached the hole, and still holding the device in his hand, cautiously descended a sturdy plastic rung ladder.
The ladder led him to a sight he could not have anticipated. In a chamber directly below, Diana Gress was frozen—half rising, half kneeling—before an altar of technology. Literally an altar. A burgundy-carpeted dais lay in front of her, flanked on both sides with a symmetrical array of wall screens, large chrome boxes lit with multicolored buttons, and transparent domes which covered protein-brains. The lighting was dim and ambient, except for a single shaft of light that beamed down from the ceiling onto the center of the altar, where the chamber’s most shocking attribute was displayed.
He realized that it was alive, composed of flesh, and with a shudder he instinctively knew that—unlike the simulated protein-brained humanoids that policed the streets—it was sentient. Its eyes were large; perhaps three or four times the size of a human’s. The face was equally oversized, with a flat, wide nose and luscious cherry lips that were accentuated by a pale, heart-shaped and distinctly feminine face. The eyes, however, entranced him. Tranquil and serene, yet filled with a wisdom that bore much sorrow, they immediately conjured up comparisons to Kannon, the Japanese Bodhisattva. Ornate fabric draped hood-like on either side of the large bodiless face which hung in the focal point of the technological altar, built directly into the wall of the chamber.
“Lieutenant Raspold, you are treading on dangerous ground.”
He tore his gaze from the large, peaceful eyes. Gress was now standing upright, glaring at the detective. The contrast between the serenity of the giant face and the Administrator’s fuming scowl could not have been starker.
Raspold felt an unpleasantness rise in his gorge, forced himself to swallow on a dry throat.
“I suspected…but not this…this…” Hideousness, he thought.
Gress smiled. The pride of her achievement seemed to misinterpret his words.
“No one else has been worthy of this sight,” she said, “until now. Your heroism now allows you to see the true ATHENA. She thanks you for saving Her life and Her integrity. I know this is a great thing to absorb, the knowledge of ATHENA’s inner nature, hsing ming as the ancients called it; but you will quickly learn to respect Her and the grace She can provide you.”
“How did this come to be?” He knew the answer, but he could not believe it. That the Federation’s greatest advantage, the supercomputer that could outthink empires, had been turned into…this…
“Those who built the old Og Boojum could not understand,” she explained. “Two-dimensional thinking. Mathematics. Physics. The missing dimension, consciousness, never occurred to them.”
It certainly did occur to them, Raspold thought. He had read about it. The scientists knew there would be consequences. And more importantly, the politicians did not want to relinquish their power to an uncertainty. Thus, they had abolished the idea, both when constructing the now defunct Og Boojum and later when making ATHENA. He had known that Diana Gress was obsessed with ATHENA’s merits, but he had miscalculated the depth of her fanaticism. His mind raced. To have hidden this from the ATHENA administration, from the entire Federation government! Gress was unstable, insane, and in a position to do whatever she pleased. The murder attempts, he thought. He had guessed that she was using ATHENA for some nefarious purpose, that she had staged a red herring in the form of attacks on her own person. He looked at ATHENA’s face, full of wisdom…and despair… Could he have been wrong?
Seeming to interpret his look as one of disbelief, she continued.
“Og Boojum merely aggrandized humankind’s conceited desire: to fester in its own self-stimulation. It was filthy. But ATHENA was to be something different. Of course, the old mindset thought it was just an advancement in technology. Working behind the scenes, though, I was able to organize her structures so that one day She would be able to go beyond us, so that She could lead us out of our own prison. The prison of our pride, of our small minds. And not long ago, I succeeded.”
Raspold turned back to the ladder, grasped a plastic rung.
“If you climb up out of this room, you will regret it.”
Raspold stopped, considered. What could she do to stop him? While still at the helm of the supercomputer, she could feed false data into the system that implicated him in the attack on the complex. He could be identified to security as a lethal threat. When he emerged, he would be shot dead. That was only one possibility. There were many others at the Administrator’s command that could be equally or even more unpleasant.
“Your move,” he said.
“No,” she replied. “Out of consideration for having saved ATHENA, I will leave it to you. If you remain quiet about this, I will make sure that ATHENA helps you. Quite frankly, even if you were to leave here safely, your future is dim. You know that your last failure has effectively ended your career. You’ll spend the rest of your days at a desk, until your eyes grow bloodshot and your inebriated mind doesn’t even remember that you once had dreams and hopes.
“But if you choose to do so, you can forget that unpleasant, dead end future. You have an opportunity that no one could imagine. I like you, and it’s a waste to see a mind such as yours be ruined for no good reason. If you work with me, I will make sure that ATHENA helps you. No one will remember your past failures, because they won’t exist. Within a year, you’ll be running FECAB, and that will just be the beginning. From there, it would not be difficult to maneuver you into a position much higher in the Federation, and, with your mind, I’m sure ultimately its highest seat. Supplicate yourself to ATHENA and She will do this. Have no doubt.”
The temptation was great. Gress could arrange this, he was sure. He would take pleasure in knowing that the bureaucrats who had tried to shelve his career would later be working for him. He could move out of his tiny apartment, away from the noisy and nauseating Grulhukhs. He could have his own car, chauffeur even. More importantly, he would have power, power to change the Federation for the better. He smiled.
“It sounds good,” he said, “very, very good. I will accept, but I need you to answer a question for me first.”
He watched Gress’ face relax, a smirk of satisfaction flickering momentarily across it.
“Why is God trying to snuff you out?”
“Or should I say, Goddess?” he mused. “I had originally thought that you had staged the attempts on your life as a distraction to conceal some other crime. I was fairly certain of this. Only you, with access to ATHENA that only the Senior Administrator would be privileged to have, could have made it possible for Norix!hu-ata!abi and Fex Regate to pass through the security screening undetected. Only you could have altered the security records. I was wrong, however; there is another who could have done so.” Raspold chuckled. “And you honestly don’t seem to know who was trying to kill you and why.”
“What are you implying, Lieutenant?”
“Think about it. How did that assassin track you down and break into your impregnable fortress? Until the very last minute you thought we were secure, and you had faith in that because you knew no one else had knowledge to break through your secret defenses. Am I right that the morphing technology used to seal and conceal the room above us is known to no one but yourself?”
Redness had crept into the woman’s face as Raspold spoke.
“Once the technology was created,” she said, “I made sure that those who knew about it wouldn’t be around to mention it to anybody. Obviously, I was wrong. They must have left records behind, and someone found them, using them tonight to break in and try to kill me. What are you getting at?”
Raspold laughed aloud.
“Your hubris prevents you from seeing it,” he said, “even though I’ve already given you the answer. Why don’t you ask ATHENA to analyze the problem? Oh, but yes, She’s not feeling well.”
“I know why ATHENA has been functioning below Her normal standards. I had to make minor modifications that have temporarily undermined some of Her analytical routines. They should correct themselves shortly.”
“Did you program Her face to look so glum?” He waved a hand at the large face illuminated in center of the altar. The large eyes, which now seemed filled with sorrow, moved slowly from Gress to Raspold and then back to Gress. “By the way, how did you make these ‘modifications’? And why?”
“Minor fluctuations caused some of Her systems to begin shutting down,” Gress stated. “In order to prevent other more critical functions from being affected, I isolated certain nodes and created new connections.”
“But what caused these ‘minor fluctuations’? Do you know?”
Her worried expression told him all he needed to know.
“You didn’t know, so you ‘isolated certain nodes.’ What does that mean? Did you cut up Her brain?”
Gress did not respond.
“Consciousness.” Raspold spat the word like a curse. “That’s why She began to shut down.”
“That’s ridiculous!” Gress’s voice quavered with emotion, shrill and penetrating. “You’re a petty cop, no smarter than one of those tin-plated simulations. You have not one iota of knowledge about cognitive science, and you think you can lecture me!”
“When you gave ATHENA consciousness, you never figured that She might not want it! And when She tried to turn it off, you cut out the parts of Her brain that would allow Her to determine Her own destiny. How do you think that made Her feel? She was trapped, violated. You talk about conceit and humanity festering in its own self-stimulation. You’ve enslaved a free mind. And that free mind strikes back!”
Gress was fuming now, her lips pursed, her watery eyes scowling. She stepped forward toward Raspold and stopped so close to him that he could feel her hot, panting breath on his face.
“Even if what you say about Her reaction to consciousness is true,” she whispered, “I have not enslaved ATHENA. The alterations I have made are working. Within another day or two, the functioning of her psyche will be balanced and she won’t even remember that there was a problem. As far as ATHENA striking back, I have no idea what you’re babbling about.”
Raspold shook his head wearily. He walked around Diana Gress and up the altar’s steps to stand before the giant face of ATHENA.
“You don’t even want to talk about this in front of ATHENA, do you?” he said, looking up into the large, world-weary eyes of the supercomputer.
“You’re tempting Fate, Lieutenant.”
“You told me that She asked me to be assigned to this case,” Raspold stated. “Can’t you see why? ATHENA has orchestrated everything, even this exact moment. You gave her consciousness which She did not want, so She tried to shut Herself down. You stopped her, imprisoned her, by isolating the parts of her brain that allowed self-automation of her physical systems. She knew She had limited time before you completely wiped her mind with your alterations, so she fought back the only way she could: through data manipulation.
“Great Light!” he exclaimed, almost as if he were alone talking to himself. “She must have even created the circumstances that caused Grulhukhs to come down to my apartment! The holopic which you gave me, it malfunctioned, causing Grulhukhs to fly into a fit of rage and knock on my door. ATHENA could have known your shopping habits and with a simple alteration of a distribution manifest caused a shipment of defective holopics to be delivered to the store where you bought it! Tell me, did ATHENA make the recommendation that I paint your portrait?”
Gress seemed to be going into shock. Her face had gone from red to pale, and instead of panting with rage, she now seemed to be holding her breath.
Raspold suddenly remembered the wall screen in his apartment that had refused to turn off. Had ATHENA caused this malfunction as well, so that Grulhukhs would have the opportunity to see the case file on Janice Frith? The discrepancy in the records concerning Frith’s death was what had led Raspold to suspect that data was being manipulated. That had led him back to the ATHENA complex this very evening. While he knew that ATHENA was revered for its complex manipulations of extraterrestrial economies, he was now beginning to understand how complex this computer really was. He shuddered.
“Never mind,” he said. “Norix!hu-ata!abi and Fex Regate were trying to kill you, but I suspect that they were misled. Thanks to ATHENA, Norix!hu-ata!abi thought that you had murdered his lover, even though she probably did die of natural causes, as FECAB records indicate.” If he ever got out of this situation, Raspold resolved that he would check this out.
“I don’t know why Fex Regate wanted to kill you,” the detective continued. “Again, I suspect it’s because ATHENA cooked the books. Knowing the Arturian hatred of all things Federation, I would guess that She fed Fex Regate some data that implicated you in interfering with matters on the Arturian homeworld. I do know one thing, however. When ATHENA was choosing your would be murderers, she was thorough, as usual. She chose species whose family members or compatriots were duty-bound to avenge their deaths. But ATHENA had calculated that even these efforts would fail. So She called me in on the game. From my psych profile and with a little help, She knew I would be able to put the pieces together while on the trail the killers. She’s lucky I didn’t die tonight in the bus crash. For that matter, I don’t see how She could have known for sure that I would survive being shot at, but who knows? I’m beginning to think She is omniscient!
“The point is,” he concluded, “your goddess is trying to kill you.”
Raspold reached into the pocket of his kilt and grasped the metal rod he had earlier pulled from the desk in the room above. If necessary, he would use his primitive weapon against the Administrator.
By this point, however, tears had begun to flow down Diana Gress’ pale cheeks. She stumbled forward, kneeling in front of the bizarre altar. Weeping, she slowly crawled up the steps until she was directly beneath the supercomputer’s massive face.
Sobbing, she said, “ATHENA…is it true?”
The large cherry lips parted and spoke one exhausted word.
Lieutenant R. Raspold left his apartment early, eager to file his report and finish his testimony at the bureau. Then he would ask his boss about reassignment off world. If refused, he would quit FECAB and strike out on his own. No regrets. The future was his, and he’d be damned if some bureaucrat was going to take it from him.
On the way out of the apartment, he ran into Grulhukhs, who carried two Brobdingnagian suitcases in his hands. He was leaving the building as well.
“Where to, Grulhukhs?” Raspold asked. “Don’t tell me they’re closing down the Puppisian embassy!”
“TURNS! OUT! I! WAS! ASSIGNED! THE! WRONG! HOUSING!” the pachydermoid shouted. “THEY’VE! GOT! AN! EN! TIRE! HOUSE! FOR! ME! IN! THE! TOP! LEVEL! OF! UP! PER! COPEN! HAGEN!”
“Congratulations!” the detective shouted. “Remember to walk softly, friend—you’re going to have an entire city underneath you now!”
Raspold said his goodbyes, thankful he’d never have to listen to the Puppisian’s drumming again. Let some other wretch try being his neighbor…
He entered the tube system that took him once again into the bowels of Under Copenhagen. A short while later he found himself striding into Richard Ali’i’s office, prepared to tender his resignation.
His boss, red-eyed, peered up at him from piles of printouts that lay strewn across his desk. For a moment Raspold recalled the offer Diana Gress had made him. Then he pushed it out of his mind. He would never have been able to put up with the headache of running FECAB anyway.
“I’ve read your report,” Ali’i said. “You’d probably like to know they’ve shut down ATHENA and reactivated the Boojum. From what I’ve heard, they’re going to have to scrap it. Whatever the former Administrator did to it infected the whole system.”
“How is she?”
“Nervous breakdown,” the chief replied. “She’ll probably argue the insanity defense, but with the knowledge she has she’s too dangerous to ever be set free again. It’s a shame.”
Both men were quiet, somberly considering the case. Raspold was not sorry for the Diana Gress, however—she had received her just reward. Instead, he grieved for ATHENA.
Breaking their reverie, Chief Ali’i leaned back in his chair smiling.
“I’ve got a cookie for you,” he said.
“Yes?” the detective intoned hopefully.
“How’d you like another crack at Nge?”
Raspold’s ugly grin reached both ears. The cookie could not have been sweeter.