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Authors: Bruce Sterling

A Good Old-Fashioned Future (6 page)

BOOK: A Good Old-Fashioned Future
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Tug was inspired. Words gushed from him like Revel’s Urschleim. He’d never before met anyone who could fully understand him when he talked techie jargon absolutely as fast as he could. Edna Sydney, however, not only comprehended Tug’s jabber but actually tapped her foot occasionally and once politely stifled a yawn.

“I’ve seen artificial life devices before,” Edna allowed,
as Tug began to run out of verbal ectoplasm. “I knew all those Santa Fe guys before they destroyed the futures exchanges and got sent off to Leavenworth. I wouldn’t advise trying to break into the software market with some new genetic algorithm. You don’t want to end up like Bill Gates.”

Revel snorted. “Gates? Geez, I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.” He chortled aloud. “To think they used to compare that nerd to Rockefeller! Hell, Rockefeller was an oil business man, a family man! If Gates had been in Rockefeller’s class, there’d be kids named Gates running half the states in the Union by now.”

“I’m not planning to market the algorithms,” Tug told the consultant. “They’ll be a trade secret, and I’ll market the jelly simulacra themselves. Ctenophore, Inc. is basically a manufacturing enterprise.”

“What about the threat of reverse engineering?”

“We’ve got an eighteen-month lead,” Revel bragged. “Round these parts, that’s like eighteen years anywhere else! Besides, we got a set of ingredients that’s gonna be mighty hard to duplicate.”

“There hasn’t been a lot of, uh, sustained industry development in the artificial jellyfish field before,” Tug told her. “We’ve got a big R&D advantage.”

Edna pursed her lips. “Well, that brings us to marketing, then. How are you going to get your products advertised and distributed?”

“Oh, for publicity, we’ll do COMDEX, Life Developers, BioScience Fair,
MONDO 3000
, the works,” Revel assured her. “And get this—we can ship jellies by the Pullen oil pipelines anywhere in North America for free! Try and match that for ease of distribution and clever use of an installed base! Hell, it’ll be almost as easy as downloadin’ software from the Internet!”

“That certainly sounds innovative,” Edna nodded. “So—let’s get to the crux of matters, then. What’s the killer app for a robot jellyfish?”

Tug and Revel traded glances. “Our exact application is highly confidential,” Tug said tentatively.

“Maybe
you
could suggest a few apps, Edna,” Revel told her, folding his arms cagily over the denim chest of his Can’t-Bust-’Ems. “Come on and
earn
your twenty thousand bucks an hour.”

“Hmmm,” the consultant said. Her brow clouded, and she sat in the armchair at Tug’s workstation, her eyes gone distant. “Jellyfish. Industrial jellyfish …”

Greenish rippling aquarium light played across Edna Sydney’s face as she sat in deep thought. The jellyfish kept up their silent, eternal pulsations; kept on bouncing their waves of contraction out and back between the centers and the rims of their bells.

“Housewares application,” said Edna presently. “Fill them with lye and flush them through sinks and commodes. They agitate their way through sink traps and hairballs and grease.”

“Check,” said Tug alertly. He snatched a mechanical pencil from the desktop and began scribbling notes on the back of an unpaid bill.

“Assist fermentation in septic tanks by loading jellies with decomposition bacteria, then setting them to churn the tank sludge. Sell them in packs of thousands for city-sized sewage-installations.”

“Outrageous,” said Tug.

“Microsurgical applications inside plugged arteries. Pulsates plaque away gently, but disintegrates in the ventricular valves to avoid heart attacks.”

“That would need FDA approval,” Revel hedged. “Maybe a few years down the road.”

“You can get a livestock application done in eighteen months,” said Edna. “It’s happened in recombinant DNA.”

“Copacetic,” said Revel. “Lord knows the Pullens got a piece o’ the cattle business!”

“If you could manufacture Portuguese men-of-war or other threatening toxic jellies,” Edna said, “then you
could set a few thousand right offshore in perhaps Hilton Head or Puerto Vallarta. After the tourist trade crashed, you could buy up shoreline property cheap and make a real killing.” She paused. “Of course, that would be illegal.”

“Right,” Tug nodded, pencil scratching away. “Although my plastic jellyfish don’t sting. I suppose we could implant pouches of toxins in them.…”

“It would also be unethical. And wrong.”

“Yeah, yeah, we get it,” Revel assured her. “Anything else?”

“Do the jellyfish reproduce?” asked Edna.

“No, they don’t,” Tug said. “I mean, not by themselves. They don’t reproduce and they don’t eat. I can manufacture as many as you want to any spec, though.”

“So they’re not truly alive, then? They don’t evolve? They’re not Type III a-life?”

“I evolved the algorithm for their behavior in my simulations, but the devices themselves are basically sterile robots with my best algorithms hard-coded in,” Tug geeked fluently. “They’re jellyfish androids that run my code. Not androids, coelenteroids.”

“It’s probably just as well if they don’t reproduce,” said Edna primly. “How big can you make them?”

“Well, not much bigger than a basketball at present. The lasers I’m currently using to sinter them are of limited capacity.” Tug neglected to mention that he had the lasers out on unauthorized loan from San Jose State University, thanks to a good friend in lab support at the School of Engineering. “In principle, a jellyfish could be quite large.”

“So they’re currently too small to live inside,” said Edna thoughtfully.

Revel smiled. “ ‘Live inside,’ huh? You’re really something special, Edna.”

“That’s what they pay me for,” she said crisply. She glanced at the screen of Tug’s workstation, with its rich background color drifting from sky-blue to sea-green, and with a vigorous pack of sea nettles pumping their way
forward. “What genetic operators are you using to evolve your algorithms?”

“Standard Holland stuff. Proportional reproduction, crossover, mutation, and inversion.”

“The Chicago a-life group came up with a new schemata-sensitive operator last week,” said Edna. “Preliminary tests are showing a 40 percent speed-up for searching intractable sample spaces.”

“Terrific! That would really be useful for me,” said Tug. “I need that genetic operator.”

Edna scribbled a file location and the electronic address of a downloading site on Tug’s business card and gave it back to him. Then she glanced at a dainty wrist-watch inside her left wrist. “Revel’s uncle paid for a full hour plus travel. You two want to spring for a retainer, or do I go?”

“Uh, thanks a lot, but I don’t think we can swing a retainer,” Revel said modestly.

Edna nodded slowly, then touched one finger to her pointed chin. “I just thought of an angle for using your jellyfish in hotel swimming-pools. If your jellyfish don’t sting, you could play with them like beach balls, they’d filtrate the water, and they could shed off little polyps to look for cracks. I just hate the hotel pools in California. They’re surrounded by anorexic bleached blondes drinking margaritas made of chemicals with forty letters in their names. Should we talk some more?”

“If you don’t like your pool, maybe you could take a nice dip in one of Tug’s tanks,” Revel said, with a glance at his own watch.

“Bad idea, Revel,” Tug said hastily. “You get a good jolt from those natural sea nettles and it’ll stop your heart.”

“Do you have a license for those venomous creatures?” Edna asked coolly.

Tug tugged his forelock in mock contrition. “Well, Ms. Sydney, amateur coelenteratology’s kind of a poorly policed field.”

Edna stood up briskly, and hefted her nylon bag. “We’re out of time, so here’s the bottom line,” she said. “This is one of the looniest schemes I’ve ever seen. But I’m going to phone Revel’s uncle with the go-ahead as soon as I get back into Illinois airspace. Risk-taking weirdos like you two are what makes this industry great, and the Pullen family can well afford to back you. I’m rooting for you boys. And if you ever need any cut-rate Kazakh programmers, send me e-mail.”

“Thanks, Edna,” Revel said.

“Yes,” said Tug. “Thank you for all the good ideas.” He saw her to the door.

“She didn’t really sound very encouraging,” Tug said after she left. “And her ideas were ugly, compared to ours. Fill my jellyfish with lye? Put them in septic tanks and in cow arteries? Fill them with poison to sting families on vacation?” He flung back his head and began camping back and forth across the room imitating Edna in a shrieking falsetto. “They’re not Type III a-life? Oh dear! How I hate those anorexic blondes! Oh my!”

“Look, Tug, if Edna was a little underwhelmed it’s just ’cause I didn’t tell her everything!” said Revel. “A trade secret is a trade secret, boy, and three’s a crowd. That gal’s got a brain with the strength o’ ten, but even Edna Sydney can’t help droppin’ certain hints in those pricey little newsletters of hers.…”

Revel whistled briefly, pleased with his own brilliance.

Tug’s eyes widened in sudden, cataclysmic comprehension. “I’ve got it, Revel! I think I’ve got it! When you first saw an Urschleim air jelly—was it before or after you put my plastic jellyfish in your swimming pool?”

“After, compadre. I only first thought of blowing Urschleim bubbles last week—I was drunk, and I did it to make a woman laugh. But you sent me that sorry-ass melting jellyfish a full six weeks ago.”

“That ‘sorry-ass melting jellyfish’ found its way out a crack in your swimming pool and down through the shale beds into the Ditheree hole!” cried Tug exultantly. “Yes!
That’s it, Revel! My equations migrated right out into your goo!”

“Your software got into my primeval slime?” said Revel slowly. “How exactly is that s’posed to happen?”

“Mathematics represents optimal form, Revel,” said Tug. “That’s why it slips in everywhere. But sometimes you need a seed equation. Like if water gets cold, it likes to freeze; it freezes into a mathematical lattice. But if you have really cold water in a smooth tank, the water might not know how to freeze—until maybe a snowflake drifts into it. To make a long story short, the mathematical formations of my sintered jellyfish represent a low-energy phase space configuration that is stably attractive to the dynamics of the Urschleim.”

“That story’s too long for me,” said Revel. “Let’s just test if you’re right. Why don’t we throw one of your artificial jellies into my cooler full of slime?”

“Good idea,” Tug said, pleased to see Revel plunging headlong into the scientific method. They returned to the aquaria.

Tug mounted a stepladder festooned with bright-red anti-litigation safety warnings, and used a long-handled aquarium net to fetch up his best artificial jelly, a purple-striped piezoplastic sea nettle that he’d sintered up just that morning, a homemade, stingless
Chrysaora quinquecirrha
.

Revel and Tug strode out to the living room with the plastic sea nettle pulsating gamely against the fine-woven mesh of the net.

“Stand back,” Tug warned and flipped the jelly into the four inches of Urschleim still in the plastic picnic cooler.

The slime heaved upward violently at the touch of the little artificial jellyfish. Once again Revel blew some Texan hot air into the goo, only this time it all lifted up at once, all five liters of it, forming a floating sea nettle the size of a large dog.

Revel shouted. The Urschleim jelly drifted around the
room, its white oral arms swaying like the train of a wedding dress.

“Yee haw! Shit howdy!” shouted Revel. “This one’s different from all the Urschleim ones I’ve seen before. People’d buy this one just for fun! Edna’s right. It’d be a hell of a pool toy, or, heck, a plain old land toy, as long as it don’t fly away.”

“A toy?” said Tug. “You think we should go with the recreational application? I like it, Revel! Recreation has positive energy. And there’s a lot of money in gaming.”

“Just like tag!” Revel hooted, capering. “Blind man’s bluff!”

“Watch out, Revel!” One swaying fringe of the dog-sized ur-jelly made a sudden whipping snatch at Revel’s leg. Revel yelped in alarm and tumbled backward over the living-room hassock.

“Christ! Get it off me!” Revel cried as the enormous jelly reeled at his ankle, its vast gelatinous bulk hovered menacingly over his upturned face. Tug, with a burst of inspiration, slid open the glass doors to the deck.

Caught in a draft of air, the jelly released Revel, floated out through the doors, and sailed off over Tug’s redwood deck. Tug watched the dog-sized jelly ascending serenely over the neighbors’ yard. Engrossed in beer and tofu, the neighbors failed to notice it.

Toatoa the parrot swooped off the roof of the Samoans’ house and rose to circle the great flying sea nettle. The iridescent green parrot hung in a moment of timeless beauty near the translucent jelly, and then was caught by one of the lashing oral arms. There was a frenzy of green motion inside the Urschleim sea nettle’s bell, and then the parrot had clawed and beaked its way free. The nettle lost a little altitude, but then sealed up its punctures and began again to rise. Soon it was a distant, glinting dot in the blue California sky. The moist Toatoa cawed angrily from her roof-top perch, flapping her wings to dry.

“Wow!” said Tug. “I’d like to see that again—on digital video!” He smacked his forehead with the flat of his
hand. “But now we’ve got none left for testing! Except—wait!—that little bit in the vial.” He yanked the vial from his pocket and looked at it speculatively. “I could put a tiny Monterey bell jelly in here, and then put in some nanophones to pick up the phonon jitter. Yeah. If I could get even a rough map of the Urschleim’s basins of chaotic attraction—”

Revel yawned loudly and stretched his arms. “Sounds fascinatin’, Doc. Take me on down to my motel, would you? I’ll call Ditheree and get some more Urschleim delivered to your house by, oh, 6
A.M
. tomorrow. And by day after tomorrow I can get you a lot more. A whole lot more.”

Tug had rented Revel a room in the Los Perros Inn, a run-down stucco motel where, Tug told Revel as he dropped him off, Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe had once spent a honeymoon night.

BOOK: A Good Old-Fashioned Future
9.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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