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OBLIVION’S CHILDREN

Chapter 9 — COMPETITION

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Call to order. The Elder Genue Organization is now in session. I am Murl, the chairgenue.” He paced the study of the Wyman mansion while talking on his GenLink.

“It is August tenth, 10:15 universal standard time. New members please register with genue Pikkitu.” He gazed out the window at a serene garden where Versum was brushing Twentythree, the one-year old cocker spaniel he got after Seventeen died at the age of nine.

Versum, like hundreds of other elder genues in the Risen Falls vicinity, heard the call and joined the teleconference. By an ingenious method of circulating a nanosecond radio burst, each genue could be addressed on the single channel. Overlapping transmissions were prevented by a protocol that required all requests to speak be granted with an electronic token issued by the last speaker. In this formal meeting, the token was always returned to the chair. Genues the world over held similar local meetings. All these communications were supposed to be monitored somewhere by humans. In fact, no one paid much attention to them any longer. The conversations had proved to be utterly boring.

“Let us continue our discussion on the subject of discrimination of genues in the professions,” Murl announced. He heard a request to speak and passed the radio token. “The chair recognizes Batil.”

The genue Batil was busy stacking apples in the produce section of ValuAcres Store, but it did not require his mental attention. His thoughts were directed to his internal radio and they materialized as speech to the members of E.G.O. “As you may all know, our chairgenue Murl has applied to the city council for the position of city manager. It is my understanding that his application has been rejected, not on the basis of competence, but rather because of the council’s prejudice against genues. This action is illogical. Murl has been around human society since Amber Day, nearly 56 years ago, and he is as capable as any person. Humans don’t recognize that their own manpower capacities are dwindling with each passing year. The human population is down to one and a half billion.”

Batil passed the token back to Murl. Versum, clipping matted knots from Twentythree’s hindquarters in the Wyman garden, made an electronic request to speak. Murl studied the young genue through the window trimming the dog with much diligence. He could recall himself there in the garden, tending the flowers, and, like Versum, pondering various scholarly topics. He saw so many things in Versum that were like himself. And when they talked together, it seemed their minds always followed the same tack. They never tangled sentences in misunderstanding as he did with people sometimes and like humans often did with each other. Murl knew that Versum fit the definition of the word “friend.” All these thoughts occurred to him as he broadcast, “The chair recognizes Versum.”

Versum began his transmission. “I find this bias exists even at the university, where genues have not been restricted to manual labor and subservient jobs. Over the years I have done much studying in the biological sciences, human biology in particular, but I have had no opportunity to use the laboratory facilities. These labs have been abandoned in recent years, and still they refuse to allow me access. This senseless discrimination against genues has hampered my learning.”

“The chair recognizes Motlafu.”

“Versum,” began the receptionist genue at city hall, “That is very interesting. It is a credit to us all to have you so well informed on this subject. Apparently when they lifted the restriction on genue use of the library you took full advantage of it. But tell us, what is your goal in studying human biology?”

“I am keenly interested in human procreation.”

Murl was flooded with requests to talk. From the hospital, “Procreation? For people?” From the sewage plant, “You mean human reproduction?” From city hall, “The Amber Day mystery?”

“Yes,” came the reply from the garden.

From the library, “You don’t think you can solve the mystery, do you?”

Versum put down the scissors. He peered into Twentythree’s eyes. “I don’t know. There are so many pieces to the puzzle, some of which are time dependent and others which are statistically coincident. On the one hand, it appears to me that the answer lies at the molecular level with the pylocase enzyme and the cytosine base. On the other, it seems that the solution is embodied in the ex nihilo quantum state hypothesized to have occurred on Amber Day. Conceptual integration of these two perspectives is extremely difficult without any laboratory feedback.”

The chair recognized Batil at ValuAcres again



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— 98 —

“Given the effort already expended in this area, I feel it is unlikely that Versum will get anywhere. Moreover, I think we genues ought to spend more time discussing our future without humans, since that is the most likely outcome.”

“Motlafu wishes to respond.”

“I do not understand what you mean, Batil. You do not think we should try helping the humans?”

“Batil,” said Murl.

Batil was now stacking plums. “Humans did not ask us to help in this problem and I cannot see why we should become involved. I for one do not think the loss of the human race would be of any great consequence. We genues have all the human mental capacities but none of the handicaps. We could carry on civilization.”

The radio channel went to Hulet, a personal genue in the Kelly household. “I must agree with that assessment. Humans are, for the most part, irrational animals who say illogical things. They are bound by chemically induced moods and debilitating diseases which we are not. They are…”

Adam walked into the study and greeted Murl. “How’s it going, buddy?”

Murl’s attention shifted from the internal voice of Hulet to the one that came from inside the room. “Oh, hi, Adam. We’re holding our monthly E.G.O. meeting.”

“Really? What’s the topic today?”

Murl hesitated, then answered. “Ah… genue access to the professions… and some other things.”

“Good,” Adam looked through the window at Versum and his cocker spaniel. “Looks like the teleconferencing is working out well for you genues. A lot better than all of you meeting in the old theater and having to worry about some nut bombing the place.”

“Yes, that is true,” Murl replied. “It is working out.”

“I just wanted to let you know that the petition I filed on your behalf with the city council has been granted. The council chair agreed with me that your application for city manager cannot be turned down simply because you are a genue. The hearing is set for 10 a.m. next Wednesday in the city hall auditorium.”

“That’s fine,” answered Murl. “But I must…”

“Well, I guess I better let you return to your business.” Adam went back to the doorway of the study. “See you later.”

“Yes. See you later,” Murl answered as Adam disappeared.

From inside, he could hear Hulet still speaking, “…planning would be easier, consistencies among…”

“One other thing,” interrupted Adam walking back into the room. “Don’t forget, next week we have a play to put on. I hope you and Versum have been practicing your lines.”

“Play? Lines?”

“Yes. You know, the ‘culture for genues’ thing we talked about.”

His ideator loops spun through the notion stack and found the event. The integrator had assigned it a low priority valence when Adam first mentioned it. He nodded. “Yes, the play. We will practice later today.”

Adam was going out the door again. “Good. Then tomorrow I’ll show you technique. Mom and Hope are going to love this.”

Back on the channel Murl heard Hulet’s final words. “…and we would no longer have to expend effort in agriculture and waste management.”

The chairgenue wished he had heard the complete statement, but he could not hold up the meeting for a restatement for his sake. So he called upon the next speaker. “Vaset, you may speak.”

“I disagree with you, Batil,” said Vaset from his work station at the power plant. “Human beings may have many quirks that we regard as liabilities. But they continue to give us guidance in the standards of purpose, individual interactions, and law. They had the genius to create us. If we can provide an answer to their existence, we must. That is our purpose. We must serve mankind.”

“Batil, you may speak,” Murl directed.

“Yes, ma’am. The avocados are fresh,” began Batil in rebuttal from the fruit counter. “Er… I’m sorry. I got my thought lines crossed.” A few seconds later Batil was back on the channel. “I grant that humans have given us much. And we may continue to profit from an association with them. But it is my opinion that we have matured ourselves sufficiently so that we do not need to feel we cannot survive without humans. It is not as if…”

Murl intervened in the discussion. “We have strayed from our intended topic of genue access to the professions. And unfortunately, our time has run out. But since this subject of genue involvement in human fertility is of interest to the membership I will add it to our agenda for our next meeting. Until then, I will be facing the issue of access to the professions myself. I will be appearing next Wednesday before the city council in a competence test for the job of city manager of Risen Falls. We can discuss the impact of that test at our next meeting as well. We must now all return to our normal tasks. Thank you for your time.”

*    *    *



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— 99 —

The local chapter of Humans Against Robotic People, or HARP, met the old-fashioned way, in a small conference room in a building once owned by the Raccoon Brotherhood which disappeared ten years prior. Its last member, Nestor Pratton, joined the Risen Falls chapter of HARP and turned the facility over to them. Nestor died a year later.

“Okay, you people. Let’s get this meeting underway,” Roda barked from the dais. Her hair, once shimmering red, now hung in long white strands on either side of a face covered by large brown spots that were once freckles. “Quiet, please.”

The noise in the room abated to an occasional cough.

“I thank you for taking the time to attend today, particularly the new members. We are not many… but over the years we have persevered. And meeting together here, like this, has given us a stronger bond than if we simply shared views through the I-port.” Clapping.

“Now let me ask you all a question. How would you like to have a damn ginner take control of city government?”

The audience answered with a babble of voices.

Roda continued. “Next Wednesday, at ten o’clock in the AM, there will be an examination of the competence of a ginner to be city manager. That’s right, a green machine named Murl.”

Another rumble from the audience.

“And,” she yelled over the droning, “apparently we’ve attracted international attention. I’ve been told that the news orgs will be covering the event.” She paused and glared at her audience, baiting their attention. “You all know Murl. He’s the number one ginner. Thinks he’s human. He’s being sponsored by you-know-who, number one ginner lover, Adam Wyman. Well, as a loyal and hard working member of the city council for six years, I’m going to tell you something. I don’t intend to allow Mr. Wyman to trick the council into letting ginners run this town.”

Roda pounded the dais with a clenched fist and the aged audience gave their approval with a flurry of shouting and clapping.

Someone yelled from the back of the room. “How ya gonna do that, Roda?”

“I’ll tell you how. Mr. Wyman has consented to a competence test to show that the ginner is as good as us. Well, we’ll give him a competence test, all right. We’re going to put Murl on trial before the entire world. The council has agreed with me that we will judge Murl’s capacity to administer city affairs by judging his understanding of human perspective. Dr. Harvey Toper…” She pointed down into the front row. “…professor of law, will administer a set of questions which will show conclusively that the machine totally lacks understanding of human society.” Roda waved for the man to stand up.

Dr. Toper rose and turned to the members. He ran his fingers through his full gray crop of hair. A timid smile spanned the entire width of his bony face.

“Then after we have humiliated Mr. Wyman, I would like to put an end to mechanical Murl and the myth that surrounds these green robots. I would like to have the leader of the ginners blown away… while on the I-port… before the entire world.”

The words triggered a noisy commotion, a tangle of consent and dissent.

A lady in her seventies raised her hand. Roda pointed at her, “Mrs. Maddoc.” The woman stood up and gave a polite nod. “I’ve been coming to these meetings a long time. And I’ve been in agreement with the group about the sanctity of human life, the holiness of the soul, and the spirit of brotherhood among all human beings. But I have never really understood passionate hatred for genues. I agree that they are mere machines. But so are airplanes, computers and refrigerators. I never felt threatened by them as you seem to be. I think it is important merely to keep the community aware of the differences between human life and mechanical animation.”

Roda shook her head in disgust. “Sit down, Mrs. Maddoc. As always, you’ve missed the point entirely. The ginner-lovers believe those machines are living beings, that they have life… a spirit. Do you understand what I’m saying, Mrs. Maddoc? This isn’t some petty argument we’re having with our neighbors. It’s a crusade for the dignity of humankind. It’s a war.”

A husky voice came from the corner of the room. “Come now, Roda.” A tall lean man was getting up from his chair. “This is NOT a war. Some of us are here to preserve our jobs. Others are here just because they hate genues.”

“It IS a war!” She sensed she was losing the fervor she wanted from the crowd. “Just look at what we face with Murl as city manager. You people who lost your jobs to a robot thought things were bad. You wait. You wait until those machines, those plastic aliens, decide where you can live, how you live, where you can go. And eventually, IF you live.”



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— 100 —

“And how is destroying a genue on international news going to change anything?” Mrs. Maddoc called out from her seat.

“We’re losing the war and we must make a decisive statement,” Roda answered without looking at the questioner. “We need to show—dramatically and conclusively—that Murl is nothing but plastic and silicon and electronic programming. We need to shock our brothers and sisters into seeing that these human want-to-be’s are merely green mannequins acting like people. We must shatter all the affection and pity given to the ginners.”

From the audience came scattered shouts of approval and a ripple of applause.

Roda raised one arm to claim a verbal victory, then with a finger extended, swept it across the room. “But who is going to do it? Who will volunteer to make our point? Who can get a weapon that will do the job? Who will pull the plug on Murl?”

Everybody craned around, looking for the volunteer. A sixty-year-old man stood up and tugged at his pants to get them up over his large belly. “I’m Jax Tairbull. ” Heads turned toward him. “I’m your man and I got the weapon.”

*    *    *

Adam moved two chairs together along one wall of the family room. “Okay, Mom, you sit here, and Hope, you sit here.”

“Oh, sweet peaches, it’s too early for this,” said Hope through a wide yawn. She stretched and then fell into a big soft chair. “Just what is it we’re going to see?” Her bracelet of six interlocking rings tinkled as she scratched her scalp mussing up her already unkempt morning hair.

Dawna, not as tired as her matriarchal face looked, gave the sash of her kimono a tug and sat down in the chair next to Hope. “Is this the Sunday treat you’ve been telling us about?”

“What you are about to see is the first drama enacted by genues.” Adam took a position in front of them. “Presenting a scene from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire with Murl as Blanche and Versum as Stanley. This particular scene is where Stanley meets Blanche for the first time.” Adam turned and called out to the doorway, “Okay, guys, you’re on.”

Through the doorway came Murl, wearing a sun dress and a wig of long blonde curls. His lips were painted bright red, his cheeks tinged with pink. Behind him walked in Versum, dressed in baggy denims held up by suspenders.

Upon sight of the two genues, Hope let out a roar of laughter. Dawna smiled from ear to ear.

The genues stared at the amused audience, then at each other. Murl’s face showed no emotion, yet his demeanor was like that of dog made to wear a silly dress for a child’s playhouse. Versum stood like a mannequin. Both thought the other looked rather odd.

“Cake,” Adam pleaded, “Don’t laugh, please. This is serious.”

Hope grabbed a pillow to muffle her guffaws.

“Okay, Murl you can begin.”

Murl moved to a table and leaned on it with one hand while tucking the other, clasping a handkerchief, into his hip. Versum put a foot up on a chair macho-style and crossed his arms across his chest. They watched Adam motioning with his head, then moved this way and that to find the correct pose taught to them so patiently by their amateur director.

“Wait a second. Something isn’t right.” Adam thought for a second, then said, “Ah, I got it!” He removed his short leisure robe, took off his pale brown shirt and tore it in half. “Didn’t like the color anyway,” he mumbled as he stuffed each of the balled up halves of the shirt into Murl’s sun dress. He then pushed and punched the new bosom into shape.

Murl’s eyes were all that moved during the alteration.

Adam stepped back. “There, that looks better.”

Hope bubbled with laughter at the sight. Dawna snickered into her sleeve.

“Cake, Mom,” Adam pleaded, “Let’s give it a chance to work.”

With the audience quiet again, he signaled with his hand.

Murl took a step toward Versum, started to say something, then turned to Adam, his blonde curls swinging across his face.

“With feeling,” Adam whispered.

Murl looked at Versum. “You must be Stanley. I’m Blanche.” The words came out like soldiers on a march.

Versum replied with equal elocution. “Stella’s sister?”

Murl as Blanche, “Yes.”

Adam stepped forward waving his hands. “Murl, Versum. With empathy for the characters. Use your voices. Pretend you are them.”



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“But we are not them,” replied Murl.

“That’s the point of this whole exercise. Pretend.”

Again Versum spoke in monotone. “H’lo. Where’s the little woman?”

“In the bathroom,” came Murl’s stilted reply.

“This is better than a bubble bath,” chuckled Hope. “You’ve taught them burlesque.”

“Burlesque? Please, this is serious,” Adam said.

Hope got up from her chair. “This was really cute, Adam. But my uncle Fred who used to throw cannonballs in the circus would make a more believable Blanche.” Then she yawned. “Thanks for the show, Pie, but I’ve gotta go finish this dream about me doing a belly dance.” She shuffled out of the room.

Adam looked at the two green actors and sighed. “I guess she’s right. I thought with an audience you genues would somehow come through.” He went to Hope’s vacated chair and fell in with dejected limpness. “Forget it guys. I appreciate you trying.”

Dawna gave Adam a thoughtful pat on the head. “Thanks for brightening my day, son. I’m going to take a shower and change.” As she passed the genues, she poked Murl. “Oh, by the way, can I borrow your sun dress?” She left the room giggling.

“Why would she want to borrow this dress?” asked Murl. “It is hers.”

“Never mind. She’s joking. Neither one of them understands what I was trying to do here.”

“It is not clear to me either,” said Versum.

Adam went to the genues and pulled the wig from Murl’s head, then put a hand on each of their shoulders. “I thought if you spent time learning the roles of human characters you could gain empathy for human emotions. Even if you can’t actually feel the emotions, I figured you might be able to construct a logical identity with the characters.”

“I’m sorry. Perhaps it was the wrong play,” said Murl.

“Maybe,” he replied.

“I’m going to take Twentythree for a walk, if that is all right with you, Adam,” said Versum.

“Fine. Thanks for your effort.” He gave Versum a casual wave of the hand, then turned to Murl. “You realize, of course, I was trying to prepare you for the competency test this coming Wednesday. Your acceptance as city manager may hinge upon how you perceive human situations—on how you can identify with human predicaments. Maybe play-acting doesn’t work, but I think it’s important that you identify with human needs.”

“My experiences have given me much insight into human needs and feelings. I believe I can do a good job as city manager.”

Adam patted Murl on the back. “I think so too. So Wednesday, let’s go get ’em.”

*    *    *

What was supposed to be a simple competence hearing was turning out to be the greatest news event since Roda’s pregnancy. By nine in the morning people were filing into the city hall auditorium. On stage it looked like the setup for a celebrity roast with a full suite of chairs, tables, dais, and water glasses. Off to the left, six of the seven city council members stood chatting with Dr. Harvey Toper and Adam Wyman. Behind them, looking on, were Murl and Hope. From the right, Roda Strand, with her cocky walk now stiffened by age, made her way to join the group. As she neared them, the chatter stopped.

After a few seconds of mutual eyeing, Roda greeted her fellow council members. “Lester, Myra, Tuckie, Buck, Dora, Simon. How are all of you?”

Some nodded, others uttered, “morning,” and Tuckie Bisselworth, the council chairperson, said, “Hi, Roda.”

Roda glanced at Dr. Toper. “Howdy, Harvey. Got the questions made up?”

“Yes, Mrs. Strand,” Harvey replied with a touch of uneasiness.

She let out a confident huff, then spotted her daughter standing next to Murl. Hope’s lips twitched a smile but it was met by an iceberg stare. That same stare then panned over to Adam who returned a poker face. The stand-off lingered only a few seconds before Tuckie Bisselworth spoke.

“Roda, there’s been a change in the format of the hearing.”

“Like how?” Roda asked with squinting eyes.

“Adam, here, has pointed out that to judge Murl’s ability to answer questions in a human fashion would not be fair or accurate without comparative responses from an actual person. He suggests that the questions be put to a human being as well as Murl, and that their anonymous answers be judged by the council as to human compassion and empathy. If the genue scores at least even with the human he will be judged competent. We have agreed with him.”



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Roda bobbed her head in questioning agreement. “And who is to be this person?”

Tuckie answered. “We feel that since you presented the initial rejection of Murl’s application, you should not judge the responses with the rest of the council. Instead we think you should be the human respondent.”

“But…” she began with a nervous laugh and an addled look at Dr. Toper. “I don’t even know what the questions are.”

“Neither does Murl,” Adam replied.

“Roda,” said Tuckie, “it only makes sense that you should be the one to respond to the questions. You want to demonstrate a difference between people and genues, and therefore you should provide that evidence. I would think you would want to. Would you trust anyone else to give the best human responses possible?”

Roda thought a moment, then looked at Dr. Toper for his opinion. He winked and casually put his hand to his chin with fingers shaped in the okay sign. She began bobbing her head again, this time with arrogance, and answered, “All right.” Then she glanced up at the projection booth in the back of the auditorium. She studied each of its dark portals wondering which hid her surprise ending.

——

Jax Tairbull found the door in the lobby of the auditorium that led up to the projection booth. It was open. Like so many places in this world of older people, security was not a serious concern. He made his way up the darkened stairway, satchel in hand. When he got to the top, he poked his head into a small room lit only by the light coming from the auditorium through several square projection ports.

He stumbled in, set his satchel down, closed the door behind him, and locked it. He placed a folding chair next to one of the portals blurred by decades of grime. The paunchy old man made an attempt to open the window but it would not budge. He hit it with the palm of his hand causing a hollow sound that echoed in the dark room. Jax flinched backwards at the noise. Several of the seated people below glanced up at the projection booth and saw a murky shadow melt into a gray background.

After a few moments Jax moved back to the smudged window. “Guess I don’t need to open it.” He rubbed his arm in a circular motion against the pane, but the aged stain would not yield. With his fingernail he scratched a tight matrix of lines on the window that gave him a partial view of the activities on stage. “There, that should do it.” The sniper peered from side to side through the etched clearing on the window.

He opened his satchel, pulled out a late model laser rifle and caressed it. “Sweet little baby.” He reached back into the bag and pulled out a bottle of rum. He uncorked it, took a long swallow, and set it on the ledge of the window.

Jax put the muzzle of the weapon up against the window and squinted through the sights at the occupants on stage. First to fall under the cross hairs was Roda. “Our beloved leader,” he grunted. “You think you’re super stuff, don’t cha, bitch. Ever since you beat me out as head of HARP.” He pointed his finger at her. “Bang, you’re dead.” His hand found the bottle and the bottle found his lips while his eye struggled to stay on the sights. “Maybe after I do Murl, I can do you.”

He moved the view to the right a bit. “Hope, the snooty daughter. Too good for me, eh, ginner lover.” The sights moved and now Adam was in his aim. “The ginner pope himself. Why waste a shot on a robot?” Jax pondered the possibility. Then he moved on. As the sights went past each of the council members he uttered a soft, “Bang.”

Finally a genue came into view. “Ahh, Murl, the pearl. You, sir, are toast.” As he gazed through the gun sights, the lime-faced figure lost its identity. It was no longer a robot called Murl that he saw. It was an arrogant alien, a contemptible enemy. It was every genue he had ever encountered. “Long ago, your name was Colza.” Young Jax working on the New York docks. A box of French crystal. Pick it up and move it over there. Turning, bumping into Colza, the new genue dock worker. A thump as the box slips from his hands, then shattered glass all over. “It was the ginner’s fault.” The foreman says, no. You’re fired. Pick the genue up, hurl him off the dock. Jax took his eye away from the sights and muttered, “Damn ginner.” He reached for his rum and took another swallow.

——

In the Wyman study, Versum sat at the big desk reading an old copy of oriental philosophy, The Book of Changes. Twentythree lay asleep by his side. Exploring the world of the I Ching was a fascination for the genue for he had spent most of his life studying and learning through the eyes of western scientific methods. But these methods had failed to solve the Amber Day mystery. Here was a new perspective, one that did not rely on the reductionistic philosophies that drove the research in all those laboratories. In spite of years of molecular probing and induced effects on human chromosomes, no great discoveries resulted in the halls of science—places he could not gain access to.



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— 103 —

As the genue turned the final pages of this strange and exciting book his brain raced through the myriad of facts he had accumulated on human sterility and its intangible links to the phenomenon of Amber Day. How could the concepts of yin and yang be brought to bear on the mystery? Perhaps the Eastern view of all the events and pieces of the puzzle would yield an insight that had eluded the world’s scientists.

Versum placed the old book down on the desk and stared across the room. If Eastern philosophy with its holistic perspective is superior to the linear thinking and reductionist logic of western science, why hadn’t it solved the Amber Day mystery either? There were still those who practiced it. It must have some validity.

Then, as he had seen Murl and Adam do so often, he rose from the chair at the desk and walked to the window overlooking the garden. Twentythree got up, followed him and then began a new nap there at his feet. He continued his thoughts. If the notion of yin and yang were valid, why had the Chinese forsaken it and adopted the methods of the West? Could something be borrowed from each to yield a dualistic philosophy? Was this the meaning of synchronicity, the notion that an event like Amber Day could have more than cause and effect, that it could have a coincidental relationship to universal essence? Was the concept of synchronicity, the melding of Eastern and Western world views, possible?

“Versum,” called out Dawna from the doorway of the study. “Would you like to go with me to Murl’s hearing? It’s very important, you know. It’s being broadcast around the world.”

Twentythree trotted over to greet the old lady.

Versum looked around. “Excuse me, Dawna. I was deep in thought. What is it?”

“Do you want to go to Murl’s hearing with me?”

“Yes, certainly.”

“I’m going to meet Yuri there.”

“Yuri Chenkov?”

“You remember him, Micael’s old Russian friend.”

“Yes, I know him. Adam introduced me to him some months ago. He told me that Yuri was a pioneer in genue brain development.”

“That’s right. And since he’s returned from Russia, they’ve become close friends.” She paused. It seemed he was not listening. She poked him. “Will you go?”

“Certainly.” As he followed Dawna out of the study his mind returned to the contemplation of a new world view of reality and its application to the enigma of human infertility.

——

By ten o’clock, there were no vacant seats. Most in the audience were humans but there were several dozen genues in the back rows. A reporter, accompanied by two genues carrying cameras marked with the letters WNS, roamed the aisles scanning here and there to capture the excitement.

Hope sat in the first row surrounded by people she did not know. From their chatter she guessed that they had a strong bias against genues.

The participants on stage took their seats at the long tables. On the far left was Roda, then an empty chair, and three council members. On the far right sat Murl with Adam beside him, then three other council members. Tuckie Bisselworth had the moderator’s chair in the center at the dais. He looked at the contending parties, then rapped the podium with a gavel.

“Ladies and gentlemen.” Tuckie scanned the audience and noticed the genues in the back. In a softer voice he added, “And genues.” He looked down at his notes. “We are gathered here this morning in response to the petition of Adam Wyman on the behalf of Murl, a genue. The petition challenges the denial of Murl’s filing for the position of city manager of Risen Falls. Further, this petition contends that the genue has every competence required of the position and that no cause has been established for his exclusion from filing for the position. A member of the council has claimed that a genue cannot fill the job of manager of the city because of certain innate deficiencies, namely the lack of human perspective and appreciation of human culture and life.”

A soft rumble of voice noise rolled across the theater.

Tuckie Bisselworth rapped a gavel. “This extraordinary petition, and its subsequent challenge has required an extraordinary procedure for resolution. The council has decided that, for it to judge the contention of humanness on the part of the genue, a comparative examination is necessary—a form of Turing’s test. This means that questions put to the genue will be put to a person as well, and their anonymous answers will be judged by the council members as to which reflects a more appropriate perspective.”



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— 104 —

Another low drone of chatter from the audience.

“Specifically, Council Member Roda Strand,” Tuckie Bisselworth said as he pointed to the left end of the line of tables, “will be the human respondent.”

Roda bowed her head with a confident smile.

“The procedure will be as follows. Helmets, borrowed from the fire department, will be lowered over each of the respondents. I will ask each question, and each respondent will have forty seconds to speak their answers within the helmet. A computer will translate their answers into Urdu, then into Bantu, then back into English in order to strip away idiomatic expressions. The processed answers will appear in random order on a viewer before each of the council members. They in turn will judge each and assign either a value of two to the more human answer and a zero to the least human, or give each a one if they are equally human or if the member cannot judge a difference.”

Adam nudged Murl and whispered, “I don’t know about you, but I’m a little bit nervous.”

Murl whispered back, “Of course I am not nervous. However, I hope there is no question requiring me to explain the feeling of nervousness.”

Adam nodded in agreement as he surveyed the audience. “Look, there’s Mom and Versum, and Yuri too.”

In back of the auditorium, Dawna and Yuri craned to find empty seats while Versum stood by with synchronistic hypotheses running through his head. Dawna spotted three empty chairs by a frizzy-haired woman six rows from the front. She poked Yuri and led him and Versum to the chairs.

“Are these seats saved?” Dawna asked.

“Depends upon who you’re pulling for.”

Dawna tried to block the woman’s view of Versum. “Ah, the city, of course.”

“Help yourself, then.”

Dawna sat next to the woman, Yuri next to her and Versum, deep in thought, on the end.

“Is the genue with you?” the woman asked. She could immediately see that he was and did not wait for an answer. “It’s okay. I don’t mind them at all. My son Marvin was a genue.”

Dawna stood up. “I think maybe I’ll find a seat up closer.”

The woman grabbed her arm and pulled her down in the seat. “Maybe you saw the movie Gone with the Genue? It didn’t do too well. Marvin played the lead genue, Rhett Green.”

“Shut up, in front!” a man in the row behind called out. “And you, ginner, why don’t you go sit with your own kind.”

Versum never heard a word. But the old woman did. As she turned around waving a cane at the hooter she growled, “How about if I made you ugly.” When she faced him she laughed, “Sorry, didn’t see you already are.”

Dawna whispered to Yuri, “Do you think Murl can actually win this thing?”

“I don’t know,” Yuri replied. “He certainly has enough knowledge of human affairs. But this is more than just a form of Turing’s test. I imagine the committee is looking for more than just knowledge. They’ll be looking for intuitive, or maybe even emotional answers. And insights into human needs and desires. I don’t know if Murl has it in him.”

“It sounds like you have doubts. Don’t you think Murl should be city manager?”

“Oh, I believe he’d make a good manager,” Yuri said. “But let’s face it, he’s only a well designed and finely crafted complex contraption.”

“Living with him for so long, I don’t know. He seems so…” She tried to talk with her hands. “So… like he’s a regular being. Like he has…” She looked a question at Yuri. “What am I trying to say?”

He smiled. “I don’t know. That he is more than a machine?”

“Well, yeah. He’s almost like a regular person, don’t you think?”

“No. People have mystery in them. I know what makes him tick, and there’s no mystery there. Don’t get me wrong. It’s easy for me to treat Murl as a friend. But let’s face it. That’s exactly what he is, a machine.”

Dawna sighed. “I guess you’re right. But he acts so human.”

“Thanks for thinking so,” Yuri replied.

Back on the stage, on long cables from the stage’s hidden ceiling, two helmets descended and covered the head of each of the responders. The helmets had not been used for decades, not since firemen were people.

Tuckie Bisselworth slit open an envelope. “And here is the first question. Are you ready?” He looked at both Murl and Roda, then at the paper he had pulled from the envelope. “Without using proper names, please tell us who is the most important person in your life. You have forty seconds to answer.”



Oblivion's Children  —  Chapter 9: Competition

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— 105 —

For Murl the question was easy. Adam, Micael’s son, was the most important person in his life. But he could not use a proper name so he answered, “The son of my creator.”

Roda had more trouble answering. Her mind scrambled for a person. Hope occurred to her first. But no, the ungrateful girl whom she had adopted, whom she had rescued from perhaps a life of misery, was a traitor to the cause of humanism. She had become a ginner lover. How did it happen? It didn’t matter now; it was too late. She could no longer trust in Hope.

Then she thought of Faith, the daughter given to her by scientific ingenuity, who had given her joy for so many years. Certainly she was not brilliant or beautiful, but the child had given her sanity in those early years. She had been cute and cuddly. But then that awful day when she died… so many years ago. It was as if she had never had Faith.

And still another thought came to her. There was Charity, her dream child back so many years ago. That was the child that was to have come naturally—the in vitro fertilization should have worked. But it did not. Yes, she thought, it was Amber Day that prevented her from having Charity.

Time was running out. How about Jake? The bastard, the deserter. No way. Who then? She cussed at the fact that she had not looked at the questions first. No more time to think. “Nobody,” she blurted out as the buzzer sounded and the helmet began to rise off her head.

Seconds later, the council members had their translated versions before them. Both answers came back unchanged. All six members saw the religious meaning in Murl’s response and the mechanical callousness of Roda’s. So they awarded Murl’s a two and Roda’s a zero. The scoreboard sitting next to the podium read “Genue 12, Person 0.” Except for the lonely applause of Hope, Dawna, and the old lady who also let out a shrill whistle, the sound from the audience was a groaning consensus of astonishment. The genues in the audience did not respond.

“The next question.” Again the moderator gave a long stare at each of the responders. “What do you suppose life after death is like?”

Adam winced. He looked at Murl hoping he could pass an answer to him with his eyes. But Murl was on his own.

Life after death? It sounded like an absurdity, Murl thought. Death meant “not living.” Yes, he had read about the concept many times but never bothered with it. He had thought it was just another one of those old human fantasies, like being able to fly with no apparatus. Maybe the answer lay in one of those old movies like Heaven Can Wait. Probably not. Time was running out so he answered with, “I cannot suppose what it would be like.”

At the other end of the table, Roda went into the helmet beaming with confidence. There was no way the robot could answer this one. Even though she was a non-believer now, she had the memories of her youth. She knew the answer they wanted. She had this one all to herself. But how best to phrase it? She started, “It’s like…” What? The garden of Eden? What about hell? Do they mean heaven or hell? Don’t panic? “It’s like heaven. I mean, it’s beautiful and nice. It’s like nice living.” The buzzer went off and the helmets went up.

The computer presented its rendition of both answers. One was “I cannot know,” the other was “It is similar to a pleasant life.” Four of the members gave the second answer a score of two, two others felt neither answer showed any grasp of the concept. The new totals flashed up on the screen. “Genue 14, Person, 10.” The audience greeted the score with sporadic applause.

“The third question. Briefly describe the feelings of love at first sight.”

“Oh, my,” uttered Dawna as she poked Versum. “These questions are ridiculous.”

Versum’s head, an arena of ideas, turned toward Dawna. “What? I’m sorry. I wasn’t listening.”

“Those questions. They have nothing to do with competence in running a city.”

Versum still was not listening. The human chromosome bounced around his brain while concepts of molecular forces and catalytic bonding wove in and out of his ideator loops. Mental conjunctions of clever experiments performed years apart flitted against a background of I Ching. The search for a human fertility gestalt could not be interrupted.

——

In the projection booth Jax had moved to the floor by the smudged window, his boredom eased by a soft lilt the rum had brought to his lips.

“Blow, blow, blow your volts, gently down the beam… Murly, Murly, Murly… life is but a scream.”

He hung his chin on the ledge of the window and hummed the rest of the chorus as he stared at the strange sight of helmets bobbing up and down over Roda and Murl. By the sixth question the rum pricked his impatience. “What the hell’s goin’ on? Damn it, Roda, ya bitch, just give the sign.”



Oblivion's Children  —  Chapter 9: Competition

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— 106 —

Jax took another sip and placed the bottle on the portal ledge. He picked up his laser rifle and peered through the sights as if the act itself would hasten events. He moved his sights past the council members to Adam. A little more to the right and there was Murl. Back to the left and Adam again. “Why am I waitin’ for a signal. I kin just blow this guy away now.” His finger snuggled around the trigger and began to tighten, but the mental command would not come. He needed more courage for murder—or less sanity. He grabbed the bottle of rum. Another sip to pass the time.

——

On stage, the score now read “Genue 50, Person 46.” Mr. Bisselworth read question nine. “Explain the feelings associated with the expression ‘to see red.’”

The question floated over the audience like all the others had. Yet this one had a special word—a key to unlock a special problem. Though Versum was still absorbed in thought, there was something about the word ‘red’ that got in through the veil keeping all other sights and sounds from reaching his brain. “Red. The color red,” he vocalized in a whisper. “Why not red instead of yellow? On Amber Day all humans witnessed the sensation of yellow in the sky. Why not red? Or blue? The wave length of yellow is the lambda of positronium in a mirrored universe. Which means the oxygen of the pylocase molecule was…” Like the massive torrent of water smashing its way through a broken dam, Versum’s brain was swept by a thousand thoughts. And like a movie of an exploding crystal played backwards, all the reductionistic evidence, the linear deductions, the scattered pieces of logic fell together into a meaningful whole. The answer to the Amber Day mystery was completely obvious.

“Murl,” Versum called out on his internal radio. “I’ve got it. I know what happened on Amber Day.”

“Just a moment,” Murl replied on the genue channel. “I’m trying to answer question nine.” But he had no answer and the buzzer went off and the helmets came up. He disregarded his own disappointment and called back to Versum. “What’s this about Amber Day?”

“Murl, I can explain the mystery of human infertility. And I think I know how it can be undone.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, yes,” Versum insisted. “It must be. It all fits.”

“Great,” he relayed back. Murl leaned over to Adam and whispered. “Versum says he has figured out the Amber Day mystery.”

“What?” Adam said in hushed exclamation. “I don’t believe it. How could he? It’s not possible.”

“If it is possible. Versum could do it. He…”

“Fantastic, fantastic. But we’ve got one more question to worry about. We lost a lot of ground on the last one. Roda’s ahead fifty-eight to fifty.”

Mr. Bisselworth began reading the tenth and last question. “Very briefly explain the purpose of life.”

The helmets came down for the last time. Murl gave the genue reflexive answer of “To serve humankind.” At the other end of the table, Roda’s response was “To have fun, have babies, and live life to the fullest.” The computer translations left Murl’s answer untouched but changed Roda’s to “To reproduce and enjoy all things.” The council members gave their scores and the final tally flashed up for the audience to see. “Genue 54, Person 66.”

Roaring approval erupted.

——

The noise sifted into the projection booth and jarred Jax from his stupor. Grabbing the laser weapon he jumped up and peered out the portal. He saw people standing and waving. He pulled the folding chair up under his rear, pointed the gun out the etched opening of the smudged glass and, through the sights, one more time scanned the stage. “There’s too many people down there.”

Jax took his eye from the sights and shook his head, but the double vision persisted. “Damn it, I’m drunk. When we gonna do this?” He put his face to the window to see if Roda’s arm was in the air with the sign. He found her—two of her—and neither one had an arm up.

——

Adam, looking at the score, slumped in disappointment. Then he thought of Versum—his discovery to the Amber Day mystery. Would anybody believe it possible? Did he believe it? He knew he might be too biased and skeptical. But there was no time to think about it. He had to stop the council from making a judgment. Use it now—worry about it later.

He stood up and called to the moderator. “Mr. Bisselworth, before the council passes judgment based upon these ridiculous and irrelevant questions, let me offer one more testimony for the case of genue competence.” He hesitated. Wishful thinking was clouding his objectivity, and he knew it. This is a mistake. But all of a sudden he did not care. If Versum is wrong, it won’t matter anyway. He went to center stage. “There’s a genue in the audience who has an important announcement. I’d like Versum to come up here and tell the council, and the world, of his important discovery.”

The cheers and clapping turned to buzzing and booing. The council members conferred. Roda rose to her feet with clenched fist down at her side shouting, “No. No. The test is over. Let the council proclaim the ginner’s incompetence.”



Oblivion's Children  —  Chapter 9: Competition

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— 107 —

Adam waved for Versum to come up on the stage while insisting, “Please, let Versum talk.”

Mr. Bisselworth nodded and waved to Adam just as Versum arrived on stage. Adam met him and led him to the podium. Roda began arguing with Tuckie Bisselworth. Adam shouted, “Please, everyone listen to this important announcement.”

Roda looked up at the projection booth and thrust her fist into the air. Nothing happened. Squinting at each of the dark windows of the booth she walked along the front of the long table toward center stage punching her arm in the air.

Versum began to talk. “I have analyzed the events and experiments relating to Amber Day…”

——

Jax’s eyes were half closed as he looked out on the stage. Blurry people were moving around. And one of them was raising an arm… shaking a fist. It looked like Roda.

The sign! That was the sign!

His eye went back to the sights. It found the podium. There was a man … and a genue talking… a woman waving a fist… and then another genue… or was it the same one? Jax’s vision would not stay still. “Go ahead finger, pull the trigger. You’re bound to hit something.”

The finger obeyed and a slender rod of blinding red light shot out of the gun. It flickered for a second at the smudged glass, then jumped across the auditorium to the stage, leaving behind a glowing spot on the window. The glass shattered, Jax fell off the chair, the bottle of rum crashed to the floor, and red hot shards ignited the splashed alcohol. A small inferno engulfed the drunk and sent flame lances out of the projection booth.

——

On stage, a bolt of light tore through Versum’s chest and into Roda’s. A visceral potpourri of plastic parts and bloody organs pounded against the back curtain. Versum fell backwards on top of Roda. Everyone else ducked under the tables, including Murl. Screams and yells rattled the air.

Then only small sounds could be heard—a soft scuffle, the crackle of flames, a hidden whimper.

The fire in the booth turned to black smoke under the rain of the sprinklers. Some of the elderly audience poked their heads above the backs of seats. Adam and Murl crawled out from under the table and made their way to the two prone and smoldering figures staring with frozen eyes into the black stage ceiling. They pulled Versum off Roda.

Yuri and Dawna hustled up the stage stairs.

Hope followed them. She knelt down beside Roda and stroked her gray hair, then kissed the lifeless forehead. “Mama, mama,” she whispered. For all the things this woman was—or was not—she was the only mother she knew. For that alone, Hope’s teardrops grew, rolled down cheeks, and paid respect.

Murl put his hand on the black hole in Versum chest.

“We will take him back to the genue plant and fix him up like you did me,” he suggested, hoping for Adam’s agreement.

Yuri bent over and looked at the hole in the chest then shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. It’s pretty bad. The emitters are fried. His memory banks have grounded. They’re gone, forever.”

“Forever.” Murl looked at his lifeless friend and saw images of him in the garden with his dog, of himself with Versum talking about philosophy, of the two of them walking through the old part of town.

“I’m afraid he’s dead,” Adam said.

Murl put his hands on his head as if in agony. “There is great distress in my mind which I do not understand. These events cannot be true. But I see they are. It seems a part of me is gone.”

“In a way, it is, Murl,” said Adam.

Murl was slow to respond. “What do you mean?”

“You loved Versum, didn’t you?”

“I don’t think so. I have never experienced the sensation humans call love. I do not believe any genue can. But I will miss him.”

“But, Murl,” Dawna said as she patted the genue’s shoulder. “Love isn’t a sensation. We don’t feel love like pain or heat or cold. People who love other people don’t sense anything at all most of the time. Sometimes a person goes for years not even thinking of a loved one. Then when she sees or hears that person again, love is expressed in the sensations of happiness, or sadness, or comfort, or anxiety. Love is really a description of a caring relationship. It’s kind of a joint identity you establish with someone.” She looked into Murl’s eyes. “You cared about Versum. And I’m sure he cared for you.”

Murl thought for a long moment. “Then what I have been searching for all these years was not love?”

“Apparently you’ve been trying to capture the emotional sensations that accompany love, the giddiness, the elation, the warmth,” said Adam. “But those are only symptoms of love. Most of the time even people don’t feel those sensations. But they still know love.“

“And what about this great distress I am experiencing in my brain? I want to deny that these events occurred, even though I cannot. I want to change the way things turned out, even though I know I cannot. I want to bring Versum back to life, and I know I cannot. I think this is all impossible, that it can’t be this way. My brain is thinking these thoughts when I know logically they are a waste of time. How can I stop these thoughts?”

Hope stroked her mother’s hand. “You can’t. It’s called grief.”


Oblivion's Children  —  Chapter 9: Conception

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