But apparently that wasn’t the reason.
“I know you,” he said. His voice squeaked a little.
Sho raised her eyebrows.
The guy nodded. “You’re the ape lady.”
That was the second time this week—although the last time, at the Barnes & Noble at Hazard Center, she’d been referred to as “Homo’s favorite subject.”
She’d politely corrected the elderly woman in the bookstore. “That’s Hobo,” she’d said. It was an interesting Freudian slip, though, and it surely hadn’t been a gay-bashing comment. Hobo did sometimes seem more like he belonged in genus
Sho looked at the kid behind the 7-Eleven’s counter. “The ape lady?” she repeated coolly.
The young man seemed disconcerted, perhaps at last recognizing that what he’d said could have been construed as an insult—although it wasn’t to Sho: she admired apes a lot, which was why she was pursuing a career in primate communications.
“I mean,” he said, “you’re the woman that ape likes to paint—you know, Bobo.”
“Hobo,” said Shoshana. For God’s sake, it wasn’t that hard a name.
“Right, right,” said the guy. “I saw it on the news and on YouTube.”
Sho wasn’t quite sure she liked being famous—but, then again, her fifteen minutes would doubtless soon be up.
She stopped here often enough—although she’d never seen this kid before—to buy raisins, one of Hobo’s favorite treats. She knew where they were kept and went over to get a box, feeling the boy’s eyes on her as she did so.
When she went up to the cash register, the boy seemed to want to say something to make up for calling her the “ape lady.” “Well, I can see why he likes to paint you.”
Sho decided to take it in stride. “Thanks,” she said, opening her little purse and paying for the raisins.
But anything else he said would be too much; she knew that, even if he didn’t, and so she cut him off. “Thanks,” she said again. She headed out of the cold store into the harsh late-afternoon sunshine. As she approached her car, she idly wondered if the California vanity plate APELADY was already taken—not that she could afford any such thing.
Shoshana drove the additional fifteen minutes to the Marcuse Institute, which was located outside San Diego on a large grassy lot, pulling her car in next to the black Lincoln owned by Harl Marcuse himself. If he’d had a vanity plate, it might have read 800 LBS; he was known around the NSF as the eight-hundred-pound gorilla. Or, she supposed, it could have said SLVRBCK—although she actually rather hoped that he’d never overheard either her or Dillon, the other grad student, calling him the Silverback.
She entered the Institute’s white clapboard bungalow. Dr. Marcuse was in the little kitchen, fixing himself a snack. “Good afternoon,” Sho said. She didn’t actually know if she was allowed to call him “Harl,” and yet “sir” seemed too formal. He always called her Shoshana—all three syllables—even though he’d doubtless often heard the others call her just Sho. She tilted her head toward the window. “How is he?”
“A bit grumpy,” said Marcuse, slicing a big hunk off a brick of white cheese. “He misses you when you’re late coming in.”
Sho ignored the barb. “I’ll go say hi.” She headed out the back door and walked across the wide lawn leading toward the pond. In its middle was a circular dome-shaped island about seventy feet in diameter, with a gazebo at the center. Shoshana crossed the little wooden drawbridge.
The island had two occupants. One was made of stone: an eight-foot-tall statue of the Lawgiver, the orangutan Moses from the
Planet of the Apes
movies. The other was flesh and blood. Hobo was sitting in the shade of one of the island’s six palm trees, his chinless jaw propped up by a bent arm; the pose reminded Shoshana of Rodin’s
But suddenly the pose dissolved into a flurry of long hairy limbs. Hobo caught sight of Sho and came bounding on all fours toward her. When he’d closed the distance, he gathered her into a hug and, as always, gave a playful tug on her ponytail.
he demanded, as soon as his hands were free.
Shoshana signed back.
At university today.
Not as much fun as being here,
she said, and she reached out and tickled him on either side of his flat belly.
Hobo hooted with joy, and Shoshana laughed and squirmed away as he tried to even the tickling score.
Caitlin knew nothing yet about telling people’s ages by their appearance. Her mother was forty-seven, but she couldn’t say if she
or not, although Bashira said she didn’t. Her hair was brown, and her eyes were large and blue, and she had an upturned nose.
Her father was two years younger than her mother, and quite a bit taller than either of them. He had brown eyes, like Caitlin, and hair that was a mixture of dark brown and gray.
Her mother was looking at Caitlin; her father was staring off in another direction. “Yes, dear?” her mom said, concerned, in response to Caitlin having announced that she had something to tell them.
But, Caitlin discovered, it was not the sort of thing that came trippingly to the tongue. “Um, Dad, you remember those cellular automata Dr. Kuroda and I found in the background of the World Wide Web?”
“And, well, remember the Zipf plots we did on the patterns they made?”
He nodded again. Zipf plots showed whether a signal contained information.
“And, later, remember, you calculated their Shannon entropy?”
Yet another nod. Shannon entropy showed how complex information was—and, when her dad had done his calculations, the answer had been: not very complex at all. Whatever was in the background of the Web hadn’t been sophisticated.
“Wellll,” said Caitlin, “I did my own Shannon analyses . . . over and over again. And, um, as time went by, the score kept getting higher: third-order, fourth-order.” She paused. “Then eighth and ninth.”
secret messages!” said her father. English, and most other languages, showed eighth- or ninth-order Shannon entropy. And that had indeed been their fear: that they’d stumbled onto an operation by the NSA, or some other spy organization, running in the background of the Web.
“No,” said Caitlin. “The score kept getting higher and higher. I saw it reach 16.4.”
“You must have been—” But he stopped himself; he knew better than to say “—doing the math wrong.”
Caitlin shook her head. “It isn’t secret messages.” She paused, recalling that Webmind’s first words to her were, in fact, “Seekrit message to Calculass,” imitating a phrase Caitlin herself often used online.
“Then what is it?” her mother asked.
Caitlin took a deep breath, blew it out, then: “It’s a . . .
“A what?” her mom said.
Caitlin spread her arms. “It’s a consciousness, an intelligence, that’s emerged spontaneously, somehow, in the infrastructure of the Web.”
Caitlin still had to parse facial expressions piece by piece, and then match the clues to descriptions she’d read in books. Her father’s eyes narrowed into a squint, and he pressed his lips tightly together: skepticism.
Her mother’s tone was gentle. “That’s an . . . interesting idea, dear, but . . .”
“Its name,” Caitlin said firmly, “is Webmind.”
look on her mother’s face—mouth opened and rounded, eyes wide—had to be surprise. “You’ve
Caitlin nodded. “Via instant messenger.”
“Sweetheart,” her mother said, “there are lots of con artists on the Web.”
“No, Mom. For Pete’s sake, this is
“Has he asked you to meet him?” her mother demanded. “Asked for photographs?”
“No! Mom, I know all about online predators. It’s nothing like that.”
“Have you given him any personal information?” her mother continued. “Bank account numbers? Your Social Security number? Anything like that?”
Her mother looked at her father, as if resuming some old argument. “I
you something like this would happen,” she said. “A blind girl spending all that time unsupervised online.”
Caitlin’s voice was suddenly sharp. “I’m
blind anymore! And, even when I was, I was always careful. This is as real as anything.”
“You didn’t answer your mother’s question,” her dad said. “Have you given out any personal numbers or passwords?”
“Jesus, Dad, no. This isn’t a scam.”
who is being scammed says,” he replied.
“Look, come up to my room,” Caitlin said. “I’ll
She didn’t wait for an answer; she just turned and headed for the staircase. Her breathing was ragged, but she knew she wasn’t going to accomplish anything by being pissy. She took a deep breath, and a memory of an animated cartoon came to her. She hadn’tseen
it yet, but she’d always enjoyed listening to it, after Stacy back in Austin had explained what was going on. It was a Looney Tunes short called “One Froggy Evening,” about a frog who sang and danced for the guy who’d found it, but just croaked when anyone else was around. Eyes closed, steps passing beneath her feet, the frog’s favorite song ran through her head:
Hello! ma baby
Hello! ma honey
Hello! ma ragtime gal
Send me a kiss by wire
Baby, ma heart’s on fire!
Her parents followed her. Caitlin sat down in the swivel chair in front of her desk. She had an old seventeen-inch monitor hooked up to one computer, and the new twenty-seven-inch widescreen monitor she’d received that morning as an early birthday present connected to her other computer. Her mother took up a position on her left, arms crossed in front of her chest, and her father stood on her right. The chat session with Webmind was still on screen, with her
as the last post. Things she said were in red letters, and Webmind’s words were in blue.
She couldn’t see her father—she was still blind in her right eye—but in her left-side peripheral vision, she saw her mother shoot him another look.
There was no response. The IM window—a white rectangle parked in a corner of her big monitor—showed nothing except an animated ad at its top. She shifted in her chair. Of course, Webmind knew she wasn’t alone. It watched the datafeed from her eyePod, and certainly could see her mother.
She tried again, typing
Still nothing. She turned to look at her father—and realized that might have been a mistake, since Webmind could now see that he was there, too. She faced the screen again and drummed her fingers on the stonewashed denim stretched across her thigh.
Send me a kiss by wire . . .
And after six more seconds, the blue letters “POS” appeared in the instant-messenger window.
A startled laugh burst from Caitlin.
“What’s that mean?” demanded her mother.
“ ‘Parents over shoulder,’ ” Caitlin said. “It’s what you write in an IM when you can’t talk freely.” She typed:
Yes, they are, and I’d like you to meet them.
She looked at her father, so Webmind could see him, and she sent,
That’s my dad, Dr. Malcolm Decter.
And she looked the other way, then added,
And my mom, Dr. Barbara Decter.
Webmind might have wrestled mightily with what to do next—but its response appeared instantaneously.
Greetings and felicitations.
Caitlin smiled. “It’s read all of Project Gutenberg,” she said. “Its language tends to be dated.”
“Sweetheart,” her mother said gently, “that could be anyone.”
“It’s read all of Wikipedia, too,” Caitlin said. “Ask it something that no human being could find quickly online.”
“The Wikipedia entry on any topic is usually the first Google hit,” her mom said. “If this guy’s got a fast enough connection, he could find anything quickly.”
“Ask it a question, Dad. Something technical.”
He seemed to hesitate, as if wondering whether to go along with this nonsense or not. Finally, he said, “Are heterotic strings open or closed?”
Caitlin started to type. “How do you spell that?”
She finished typing the question, but didn’t press enter. “Now, watch how fast it answers—it won’t be searching, it’ll
it.” She sent the question, and the word
appeared at once.
“Fifty-fifty shot,” said her mother.
Caitlin was getting pissed again. There had to be an easy way to prove what she was saying.
And there was!
“Okay, look, Mom—my webcam is off, see?”
Her mother nodded.
“Okay, now hold up some fingers—any number.”
Her mom looked surprised, then did what she was asked. Caitlin glanced at her, then typed, “How many fingers is my mom holding up?”
The numeral three appeared instantly.
“Which ones?” typed Caitlin.
The text “Index, middle, ring” popped into the window.
Her mother made that round-mouth look again. Caitlin had Webmind repeat the stunt three times, and it got the answers right, even when she made the devil’s horns gesture with her index and baby fingers.
Caitlin’s mother sat down on the edge of the bed, and her father crossed the room and leaned against one of the blank walls, which, she had learned, were a color called cornflower blue.
“Sweetheart,” her mother said, gently. “Okay, somebody is intercepting the signal your eyePod is putting out. I grant you that, but—”
“The eyePod signal is just my retinal datastream,” Caitlin said. “Even if someone
intercepting it, they wouldn’t be able to decode it.”