Getting to Know You
by David Marusek
Here she was in a private Slipstream car, flying beneath the plains of Kansas at 1000 kph, watching a holovid, and eating pretzels. Only four hours earlier in San Francisco, Zoranna had set the house to vacation mode and given it last-minute instructions. She’d thrown beachwear and evening clothes into a bag. Reluctantly, she’d removed Hounder, her belt, and hung him on a peg in the closet. While doing so, she made a solemn vow not to engage in any work-related activities for a period of three weeks. The next three weeks were to be scrupulously dedicated to visiting her sister in Indiana, shopping for a hat in Budapest, and lying on a beach towel in the South of France. But no sooner had Zoranna made this vow than she broke it by deciding to bring along Bug, the beta unit.
“Where were you born?” Bug asked in its squeaky voice.
Zoranna started on a new pretzel and wondered why Bug repeatedly asked certain questions. No doubt it had to do with its imprinting algorithm. “Take a note,” she said, “annoying repetition.”
“Note taken,” said Bug. “Where were you born?”
“Where do you think I was born?”
“Buffalo, New York,” said Bug.
“What is your date of birth?”
Zoranna sighed. “August 12, 1961. Honestly, Bug, I wish you’d tap public records for this stuff.”
“Do you like the timbre of Bug’s voice?” it said. “Would you prefer it lower or higher?” It repeated this question through several octaves.
“Frankly, Bug, I detest your voice at any pitch.”
“What is your favorite color?”
“I don’t have one.”
“Yesterday your favorite color was salmon.”
“Well, today it’s cranberry.” The little pest was silent for a moment while it retrieved and compared color libraries. Zoranna tried to catch up with the holovid, but she’d lost the thread of the story.
“You have a phone call,” Bug said, “Ted Chalmers at General Genius.”
Zoranna sat up straight and patted her hair. “Put him on and squelch the vid.” A miniature hologram of Ted with his feet on his desk was projected in the air before her. Ted was an attractive man Zoranna had wanted to ask out a couple times, but never seemed able to catch between spousals. By the time she’d hear he was single again, he’d be well into his next liaison. It made her wonder how someone with her world-class investigative skills could be so dateless. She’d even considered assigning Hounder to monitor Ted’s availability status in order to get her foot in his door.
When Ted saw her, he smiled and said, “Hey, Zoe, how’s our little prototype?”
“Driving me crazy,” she said. “Refresh my memory, Ted. When’s the Inquisition supposed to end?”
Ted lowered his feet to the floor. “It’s still imprinting? How long have you had it now?” He consulted a display and answered his own question. “Twenty-two days. That’s a record.” He got up and paced his office, walking in and out of the projected holoframe.
“No kidding,” said Zoranna. “I’ve had marriages that didn’t last that long.” She’d meant for this to be funny, but it fell flat.
Ted sat down. “I wish we could continue the test, but unfortunately we’re aborting. We’d like you to return the unit—” He glanced at his display again, “—return Bug as soon as possible.”
“Why? What’s up?”
“Nothing’s up. They want to tweak it some more is all.” He flashed her his best PR smile.
Zoranna shook her head. “Ted, you don’t pull the plug on a major field test just like that.”
Ted shrugged his shoulders. “That’s what I thought. Anyway, think you can drop it in a shipping chute today?”
“In case you haven’t noticed,” she said, “I happen to be in a transcontinental Slipstream car at the moment, which Bug is navigating. I left Hounder at home. The soonest I can let Bug go is when I return in three weeks.”
“That won’t do, Zoe,” Ted said and frowned. “Tell you what. General Genius will send you, at no charge, its Diplomat Deluxe model, pre-loaded with transportation, telecommunications, the works. Where will you be tonight?”
Something surely was wrong. The Diplomat was GG’s flagship model and expensive even for Zoranna. “I’ll be at APRT 24,” she said, and when Ted raised an eyebrow, explained, “My sister lives there.”
“APRT 24 it is, then.”
“Listen, Ted, something stinks. Unless you want me snooping around your shop, you’d better come clean.”
“Off the record?”
“Fuck off the record. I have twenty-two days invested in this test and no story.”
“I see. You have a point. How’s this sound? In addition to the complimentary belt, we’ll make you the same contract for the next test. You’re our team journalist. Deal?” Zoranna shrugged, and Ted put his feet back on the desk. “Heads are rolling, Zoe. Big shake-up in product development. Threats of lawsuits. We’re questioning the whole notion of combining belt valet technology with artificial personality. Or at least with this particular personality.”
“Why? What’s wrong with it?”
“It’s too pushy. Too intrusive. Too heavy-handed. It’s a monster that should have never left the lab. You’re lucky Bug hasn’t converted yet, or you’d be suing us too.”
Ted was exaggerating, of course. She agreed that Bug was a royal pain, but it was no monster. Still, she’d be happy to get rid of it, and the Diplomat belt was an attractive consolation prize. If she grafted Hounder into it, she’d be ahead of the technology curve for once. “I’m going to want all the details when I get back, but for now, yeah, sure, you got a deal.”
After Zoranna ended the call, Bug said, “Name the members of your immediate family and state their relationship to you.”
The car began to decelerate, and Zoranna instinctively checked the buckle of her harness. “My family is deceased, except for Nancy.”
With a hard bump, the car entered the ejection tube, found its wheels, and braked. Lights flashed through the windows, and she saw signs stenciled on the tube wall, “APRT 24, Stanchion 4 Depot.”
“What is Nancy’s favorite color?”
“That’s it. That’s enough. No more questions, Bug. You heard Ted; you’re off the case. Until I ship you back, let’s just pretend you’re a plain old, dumb belt valet. No more questions. Got it?”
Pneumatic seals hissed as air pressure equalized, the car came to a halt, and the doors slid open. Zoranna released the harness and retrieved her luggage from the cargo net. She paused a moment to see if there’d be any more questions and then climbed out of the car to join throngs of commuters on the platform. She craned her neck and looked straight up the tower’s chimney, the five hundred-story atrium galleria where floor upon floor of crowded shops, restaurants, theaters, parks, and gardens receded skyward into brilliant haze. Zoranna was ashamed to admit that she didn’t know what her sister’s favorite color was, or for that matter, her favorite anything. Except that Nancy loved a grand view. And the grandest thing about an APRT was its view. The evening sun, multiplied by giant mirrors on the roof, slid up the sides of the core in an inverted sunset. The ascending dusk triggered whole floors of slumbering biolume raihngs and walls to luminesce. Streams of pedestrians crossed the dizzying space on suspended pedways. The air pulsed with the din of an indoor metropolis.
When Nancy first moved here, she was an elementary school teacher who specialized in learning disorders. Despite the surcharge, she leased a suite of rooms so near the top of the tower it was impossible to see her floor from depot level. But with the Procreation Ban of 2033, teachers became redundant, and Nancy was forced to move to a lower, less expensive floor. Then, when free-agency clone technology was licensed, she lost altitude tens of floors at a time. “My last visit,” Zoranna said to Bug, “Nancy had an efficiency on the 103rd floor. Check the tower directory.”
“Nancy resides on S40.”
“Subterranean 40. Thirty-five floors beneath depot level.”
“You don’t say.”
Zoranna allowed herself to be swept by the waves of commuters towards the banks of elevators. She had inadvertently arrived during crush hour and found herself pressing shoulders with tired and hungry wage earners at the end of their work cycle. They were uniformly young people, clones mostly, who wore brown and teal Applied People livery. Neither brown nor teal was Zoranna’s favorite color.
The entire row of elevators reserved for the subfloors was inexplicably off-line. The marquee directed her to elevators in Stanchion 5, one klick east by pedway, but Zoranna was tired. “Bug,” she said, pointing to the next row, “do those go down?”
“Good,” she said and jostled her way into the nearest one. It was so crowded with passengers that the doors—begging their indulgence and requesting they consolidate—required three tries to latch. By the time the cornice display showed the results of the destination adjudication, and Zoranna realized she w ...