|Author:||Robert Charles Wilson
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|Sub-Genre Tags:||Artificial Intelligence|
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At Blind Lake, a large federal research installation in northern Minnesota, scientists are using a technology they barely understand to watch everyday life in a city of lobster like aliens upon a distant planet. They can't contact the aliens in any way or understand their language. All they can do is watch.
Then, without warning, a military cordon is imposed on the Blind Lake site. All communication with the outside world is cut off. Food and other vital supplies are delivered by remote control. No one knows why.
The scientists, nevertheless, go on with their research. Among them are Nerissa Iverson and the man she recently divorced, Raymond Scutter. They continue to work together despite the difficult conditions and the bitterness between them. Ray believes their efforts are doomed that culture is arbitrary, and the aliens will forever be an enigma.
Nerissa believes there is a commonality of sentient thought, and that our failure to understand is our own ignorance, not a fact of nature. The behavior of the alien she has been tracking seems to be developing an elusive narrative logic--and she comes to feel that the alien is somehow, impossibly, aware of the project's observers.
But her time is running out. Ray is turning hostile, stalking her. The military cordon is tightening. Understanding had better come soon....
It could end at any time.
Chris Carmody rolled into a zone of warmth in an unfamiliar bed: a depression in the cotton sheets where someone had lately been. Someone: her name was elusive, still lost in layers of sleep. But he craved the warmth of her recent presence, the author of this lingering heat. He pictured a face, benevolent and smiling and a little bit walleyed. He wondered where she had gone.
It had been a while since he had shared anyone's bed. Strange how what he relished, as much as anything, was the heat she left behind. This space he entered in her absence.
It could end at any time. Had he dreamed the words? No. He had written them in his notebook three weeks ago, transcribing a comment from a grad student he had met in the cafeteria at Crossbank half a continent away. We're doing amazing work, and there's a kind of rush, knowing it could end at any time
Reluctantly, he opened his eyes. Across this small bedroom, the woman with whom he had slept was wrangling herself into a pair of pantyhose. She caught his glance and smiled cautiously. "Hey, baby," she said. "Not to rush you, but didn't you say you had an appointment somewhere?"
Memory caught up with him. Her name was Lacy. No surname offered. She was a waitress at the local Denny's. Her hair was red and long in the current style and she was at least ten years younger than Chris. She had read his book. Or claimed to have read it. Or at least to have heard of it. She suffered from a lazy eye, which gave her a look of constant abstraction. While he blinked away sleep, she shrugged a sleeveless dress over freckled shoulders.
Lacy wasn't much of a housekeeper. He noted a scattering of dead flies on the sunny windowsill. The makeup mirror on the side table, where, the night before, she had razored out skinny, precise lines of cocaine. A fifty-dollar bill lay on the carpet beside the bed, rolled so tightly it resembled a budding palm leaf or some bizarre stick-insect, a rust spot of dried blood on one end.
It was early fall, still warm in Constance, Minnesota. Balmy air turned gauzy curtains. Chris relished the sense of being in a place he had never been and to which he would in all likelihood never return.
"You're actually going to the Lake today, huh?"
He reclaimed his watch from a stack of the print edition of People on the nightstand. He had an hour to make his connection. "Actually going there." He wondered how much he had said to this woman last night.
"You want breakfast?"
"I don't think I have time."
She seemed relieved. "That's okay. It was really exciting meeting you. I know lots of people who work at the Lake but they're mostly support staff or retail. I never met anybody who was in on the big stuff."
"I'm not in on the big stuff. I'm just a journalist."
"Don't undersell yourself."
"I had a good time too."
"You're sweet," she said. "You want to shower? I'm done in the bathroom."
The water pressure was feeble and he spotted a dead cockroach in the soap dish, but the shower gave him time to adjust his expectations. To ramp up whatever was left of his professional pride. He borrowed one of her pink disposable leg razors and shaved the ghostly image of himself in the bathroom mirror. He was dressed and at the door by the time she was settling down to her own breakfast, eggs and juice in the apartment's tiny kitchenette. She worked evenings; mornings and afternoons were her downtime. A tiny video panel on the kitchen table played an interminable daytime drama at half-volume. Lacy stood and hugged him. Her head came up as far as his breastbone. In the gentle embrace there was an acknowledgment that they meant essentially nothing to each other, nothing more than an evening's whim recklessly indulged.
"Let me know how it goes," she said. "If you're back this way."
He promised politely. But he wouldn't be back this way.
* * *
He reclaimed his luggage from the Marriott, where Visions East had thoughtfully but needlessly booked him a room, and caught up to Elaine Coster and Sebastian Vogel in the lobby.
"You're late," Elaine told him.
He checked his watch. "Not by much."
"Would it kill you to be punctual once in a while?"
"Punctuality is the thief of time, Elaine."
"Who said that?"
"Oh, there's a great role model for you."
Elaine was forty-nine years old and immaculate in her safari clothes, a digital imager clipped to her breast pocket and a notebook microphone dangling from the left arm of her zirconium-encrusted sunglasses like a stray hair. Her expression was stern. Elaine was a working science journalist almost twenty years Chris's elder, highly respected in a field where he himself was lately regarded with a certain disdain. He liked Elaine, and her work was top-notch, and so he forgave her tendency to address him the way a grade-school teacher might address the kid who planted the whoopee cushion.
Sebastian Vogel, the third member of the Visions East expeditionary force, stood silently a few feet away. Sebastian wasn't really a journalist at all; he was a retired professor of theology from Wesleyan University who had written one of those books that becomes an inexplicable bestsellerGod & the Quantum Vacuum, it was called, and it was that ampersand in place of the conventional "and," Chris suspected, that had made it acceptably fashionable, fashionably elliptical. The magazine had wanted a spiritual take on the New Astronomy, to complement Elaine's rigorous science and Chris's so-called "human angle." But Sebastian, who might be brilliant, was also terminally soft-spoken. He wore a beard that obscured his mouth, which Chris took as emblematic: the words that found their way out were sparse and generally difficult to interpret.
"The van," Elaine said, "has been waiting ten minutes."
The van from Blind Lake, she meant, with a young DoE functionary at the wheel, one elbow out the open window and a restless expression on his face. Chris nodded and tossed his luggage in back and took a seat behind Elaine and Sebastian.
It was past one in the afternoon, but he felt a wave of exhaustion sweep over him. Something to do with the September sunlight. Or last night's excesses. (The coke, although he had paid for it, had been Lacy's idea, not his. He had shared a couple of lines for the sake of companionabilitymore than enough to keep him buzzed nearly until dawn.) He closed his eyes briefly but refused himself the indulgence of sleep. He wanted a glimpse of Constance by daylight. They had come in late yesterday and all he had seen of the town was the Denny's, and later a bar where the local band played requests, and then the inside of Lacy's apartment.
The town had done its best to reinvent itself as a tourist attraction. As famous as the Blind Lake campus had become, it was closed to casual visitors. The curious had to make do with this old grain-silo and rail-yard hamlet, Constance, which served as a staging base for Blind Lake's civilian day employees, and where the new Marriott and the newer Hilton occasionally hosted scientific congresses or press conferences.
The main street had played up to the Blind Lake theme with more gusto than taste. The two-story brick commercial buildings appeared to date from the middle of the last century, yellow brick pressed from local river-bottom clay, and they might have been attractive if not for the wave of hucksterism that had overtaken them. The "lobster" theme was everywhere, inevitably. Lobster plush toys, holographic lobster window displays, lobster posters, lobster cocktail napkins, ceramic garden labsters
Elaine followed his gaze and guessed his thought. "You should have had dinner at the Mariott," she said. "Lobster fucking bisque."
He shrugged. "It's only people trying to make a buck, support their families."
"Cashing in on ignorance. I really don't get this whole lobster thing. They don't look anything at all like lobsters. They don't have an exoskeleton and God knows they don't have an ocean to swim around in."
"People have to call them something."
"People may have to call them something, but do they have to paint them onto neckties?"
The Blind Lake work had been massively vulgarized, undeniably so. But what bothered Elaine, Chris believed, was the suspicion that somewhere among the nearer stars some reciprocal act might be taking place. Plastic caricatures of human beings lolling behind glazed windows under an alien sun. Her own face, perhaps, imprinted on a souvenir mug from which unimaginable creatures sipped mysterious liquids.
The van was a dusty blue electric vehicle that had been sent from Blind Lake. The driver didn't seem to want to talk but might be listening, Chris thought, trying to feel out their "positions"the public relations office doing a little undercover work. Conversation was awkward, therefore. They rolled out of town along the interstate and turned off onto a two-lane road in silence. Already, despite the lack of obvious markers beyond the PRIVATE ROADU.S. GOVERNMENT PROPERTY and DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY signs, they were in privileged territory. Any unregistered vehicle would have been stopped at the first (hidden) quarter-mile checkpoint. The road was under constant surveillance, visual and electronic. He recalled something Lacy had said: at the Lake, even the prairie dogs carry passes.
Chris turned his head to the window and watched...
Copyright © 2003 by Robert Charles Wilson
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