Jason Voz bicycled through the deserted campus of UC Santa Barbara, threading his way among the palm trees toward the Marine Sciences Lab. It was a brutally hot day in August-- the forgiving coastal fogs of early summer were gone. Swirling dust added grit to the sweat dripping into his eyes. The bicycle path was trash-laden; the school itself was just about out of business except for its research wings: the Marine Sciences Institute, the Theoretical Physics Institute and the Robotics Lab. Fewer than 300 students would arrive on campus next month to begin the fall trimester; on-line schools had all the students these days.
He pedaled around to the rear of the Marine Sciences building, parked the bike and grabbed the backpack off his bicycle carrier rack. The backpack contained a 90-pound boat motor.
He walked between a pair of ten-foot-high water storage tanks and then down a flight of stairs to the holding area: rough sheds filled with a maze of pipes, pumps and machinery designed to keep highly corrosive sea water flowing through tanks holding hundreds of ocean animals. Ping-Pong-style tables supported wide, eight-inch-high flat tanks. Tanks were stacked like milk crates, tanks were tiered and arrayed like shelves and drawers, all topped by screens or panels or openwork metal. Inside, crabs scuttled, abalone pulsed, kelp floated, shrimp chased freshly added food, lobster peeked from hiding. Fresh live sea water flowed through them all.
Jason called out, "Steve! Hey, Steve, are you here?" as he walked through the sheds toward the lab door, but heard only the pumps and hums and hisses of flowing water.
Next to the door sat a concrete tank like a wishing well ten feet across. Jason looked down into it and saw two moray eels five feet long and eight inches thick. They saw him and opened their mouths to display multitudes of sharp teeth.
He opened the door and stepped into the lab and saw a woman in a fluorescent orange bikini sitting at a workbench full of electronics equipment. She looked to be about 25 years old. She had a giant, ancient VR rig on her head.
"Excuse me, I'm looking for Steve Desmond," he said, but the woman showed no response. He set the motor down onto a bench-- it was heavy despite its small size because of the density of all the superconductors packed into it. "Excuse me," he said again, but she didn't even twitch. Her head-mounted display was very old-fashioned, heavy and cumbersome. It included a fabric cap that clung to her skull but left her ears exposed-her hair must have been very short. Her hands were twitching like a dreaming cat's paws-- she had joint tats on her fingers, red hematite, it looked like, just like his own joint tattoos.
In the old days you needed gloves to control your computer screen with hand gestures, but now you could have coded magnetite embedded in the skin around each joint, plus a dot at each fingertip, and the computer could sense their positions and make the on-screen hands operate with faithful precision. The faint circles and lines of dark red under Jason's skin were coded only to him-- somebody else's magnetite hands couldn't affect Jason's computer. He'd been debating whether to go to the expense of wrist tats so he'd be more competitive in on-line frisbee.
"Hello, I'm looking for Steve Desmond," he said again, much louder this time, but she still did not respond. Was she deaf?
He heard a noise outside the door and stepped back out and saw Steve Herault carrying a big squirming octopus. "Hi, Jason, just a minute." He dumped the octopus into a tank of salt water and grabbed a towel and wiped his hands and arms while walking into the lab. "You got that new version of the motor for me?"
"Yes," Jason said. "Who's that girl? Is she deaf?"
"Oh, you haven't met Moire yet, have you. No, she's not deaf, she's just immersed. She just got here from Woods Hole-- she solved that latest brain parasite plague among East Coast whales. Let me introduce you." Steve tapped her on the shoulder and she started, then turned away from the bench to face him.
"Sorry to interrupt you, Moire, but I'd like you to meet Jason Voz of Acme Nanotemplates. They're helping me turn this fancy new motor idea into a practical device. Jason, meet Moire Herault."
Jason was expecting her to take off the VR rig, but she didn't. It was big, clumsy turn-of-the-millenium headset with a flat black visor two inches high and six inches wide.
She turned the face-plate toward Jason. "Pleased to meet you, Jason," she said. "What kind of motor is it?"
"Howdy, Moire," Jason said. "It's a superconducting induction motor-- it's an old idea that Steve is trying to make work."
Steve said, "It generates a strong magnetic field from a superconducting coil to eject water at high speed to propel the boat forward. It'll be like an underwater jet engine."
"If we get it to work right, it could go over 100 miles per hour!" Jason said.
"Well, we want it because it's efficient and quiet," Steve said. "With this motor in a sub, we could pace along with sharks and whales without spooking them. It's noiseless."
"Why isn't it working?" said Moire.
"The Buckytube coils keep expanding and heating up, which destroys the superconducting properties," Steve said. "Salt water is really corrosive, too."
"Yeah, Sandy told me to remind you not to go out of sight of shore," Jason said. "He's still not sure the shielding is going to be good enough."
Steve said, "How's it going with the trilobite DNA, Moire? Are you getting the hang of the equipment a little better?"
"Oh, yeah, it was just a little different from our equipment at Woods Hole. It's going okay, but it's tedious. Slow."
"What are you doing?" Jason said.
"I'm analyzing the DNA of these trilobites Steve found at a seafloor volcanic vent," she said.
"I thought trilobites were extinct."
"So did everybody else. But it's a big ocean out there."
"What kind of equipment is this that you're using with your virtual reality gear?"
Moire hesitated, then said, "It's a magnetic resonance 3D imaging microscope. First I scan a rough area, then I select one cell and scan it at a higher resolution, then I locate a mitochondria and scan it at ultra-hi-res."
"Could I take a look at it?"
"Um, this is a custom headset, you can't use it. Made just for me."
"Could I jack in with my own headset? I have an infra-red link like you're using." Her headset was old and cumbersome, but Jason had access to Acme's 50-element nanotank and all the templates in the world, and he upgraded his rig whenever possible. Today he was wearing his new ultralight headset-- nothing but a plastic band that curled around the back of his head and across the top of his ears, with a pair of unobtrusive side projections that extended forward far enough to spray photons directly into his eyeball to create the impression of full vision. He'd had the insides of his eyelids coated with phosphor dots, so he could watch with his eyes closed.
Moire looked at Steve, who nodded assent. She shrugged. "Okay, come on along. Just a second." She climbed onto the workbench with a cat-quick athletic move and reached high to throw a switch, then dropped back onto her stool. "Go ahead," she said. Jason activated his headset and suddenly he seemed to be floating inside a gray sphere filled with smaller spheres and rods and blobs.
"Are you with me?" Moire said. "We're inside the cell, now-- I'll take you down to my work-point. That's the nucleus up there-- " Jason saw a glowing array of her hand-tats gesturing toward a blob in the middle of the cell-- "these rods are centrioles, those bubbles are vacuoles, and so on. Now I'm heading for this mitochondrion down here." They floated closer to the mitochondrion and it enlarged and enlarged and then they floated through the mitochondrial membrane and were inside. "Mitochondria have their own DNA, and that's what we're analyzing to calculate this trilobite's relationship to other species and other members of its own species," she said.
The blobs and structures grew bigger and bigger as Moire increased the magnification, and Jason was overwhelmed by sensory overload. "We're not seeing by light now-- the colors are all computer simulations," Moire said. They floated now next to a twisted strand of DNA. "I left a marker here somewhere... .there." Jason saw a flashing light and they approached it. "This is the molecule of cytosine where I stopped," she said, touching a yellow clump of balls on the double helix. When she touched it, a note sounded. She moved to the next clump of balls along the chain, which were blue, and a different note sounded when she touched it. "Guanine," she said. "The red ones are adenosine, the green ones thymine." She moved along the strand faster and faster until the notes formed a continuous stream of music and Jason felt as though he were on a supercharged rollercoaster, swooping and soaring and rushing through a chaotic tumble of colors and shapes.
"I've never seen anything like this before," Jason said.
"It's a technique I developed," she said. "It's simple and boring, really. The computer does most of the work. The DNA is all twisted and packed together, and when the strands are too close together for the computer to track, I have to tell it what to do."
"It's not as boring as the project my friend Al caught," Jason said. "He's an astronomy student-- he's measuring and dating all the craters on one of the moons of Mars."
"I've heard about that," Moire said. "Once every crater in the solar system is dated, we'll have a chronology of the major events of solar system history. That doesn't sound boring to me." They sped along the strand of DNA faster and faster, then stopped abruptly while Moire reconnoitered, then resumed. Jason was totally confused by the sensory overload.
"Al thought it was boring," Jason said. "Maybe when it's your own job, it's boring."
"Maybe. Well, Jason, it's been nice meeting you, but I have to keep at this, so..."
Jason clicked off his VR and looked around; Steve Desmond was gone. "Okay, Moire... um, have you had a chance to look around downtown in Santa Barbara yet? Why don't you meet me at Stearn's Wharf tonight at 6 and we can pedal around and I'll show you the sights."
Moire turned her headset toward Jason and looked him up and down. Jason was a wiry athlete with 8% body fat. "You know, that sounds like fun. Stearn's Wharf, huh? I suppose that's easy to find?"
"Yep, at the beach where State Street hits the sea."
Jason pedaled away from the campus to the asphalt bicycle path that led south toward Santa Barbara, a ten mile ride. So he had plenty of time to think about Moire. Jason didn't meet many girls like Moire-- mainly because there just weren't very many young women around these days. Back just before the turn of the millennium, the first cheap and simple methods for determining the sex of your next child became available, and Jason's parents had decided to have a boy. And so did an overwhelming proportion of new parents, and Jason grew up as part of the first wave of the Boy Bulge, the worldwide demographic anomaly: a generation of children that was 65% male and 35% female. So when he met a woman who was new in town, his first impulse had been to ask her out before one of the Golden Oldies got to her first.
He looked her up in a database while he was pedaling. She was 27 years old, a little older than he'd thought, and had gotten her PhD two months ago at Woods Hole. He scrolled down through a long list of titles of articles and papers she'd written for technical journals, but there was nothing else except school transcripts. He poked at the database for more information, but most of Moire Herault's information was locked, inaccessible.
He hoped she didn't look up his record.
After Jason had graduated from UCSB he, like a lot of students, decided it would be a nice town to stay on in. Unfortunately, there have never been enough jobs in Santa Barbara to support the number of people who would really, really like to live there, and Jason was barely scraping along on his job at Acme Nanotemplates.
He looked at the Los Padres mountains as he pedaled, inhaled a big whiff of ocean and eucalyptus smells, listened to the crows and mockingbirds, watched a pelican gliding in the electric blue sky. It was such a beautiful little town, but he wasn't making enough money.
A pricey town. Jason was able to afford it only by living in the hills and thereby escaping rent payments.
Jason was simply a courier. Acme Nanotemplates made prototypes for manufacturers, and Santa Barbara had quite a development community. The prototypes were of two kinds: some developers wrote their own code and used Acme's industrial-strength growth tanks, and Jason delivered the results and the company would test out the prototype. The other way was when a company developed a prototype and gave it to Acme for scanning and duplication.
But a duplicate can look exactly like the original without containing all the internal quality. Jason's job was to carry the duplicate and the original to experts for analysis and appraisal. He had a pretty good bicycle-- 28 ounces, diamond lattice frame, superconductor magnetic induction link between pedals and drive wheel instead of a chain, intelligent automatic transmission-- another side benefit of working at Acme, of course. They allowed Jason to specify his own bike when he started, and he researched it till he was blue in the face and then found this design in the files and downloaded it to Medium Tank #4 on a Sunday morning when the shop was closed; he'd monitored the intake tubes and kept their element supplies filled, then left it to cure overnight and on Monday morning it was ready.
So he got plenty of exercise and had plenty of free time. But he wasn't getting anywhere, even if he was in the most beautiful town in the world.
That reminded him to turn on his headset's RECORD mode-- he made five or ten dollars a week by recording his bicycle rides and uploading them to the web. For most people in the world, traveling by fullsense recording was the only option.
Jason believed it was better to do things in your actual body than to use the web to plug into somebody else's recorded experience.
But he also turned on his TV receiver because the Dodger game was on-- they were playing in Havana today-- and he watched it in his right eyepiece as he pedaled down the bicycle path linked to satellite access of everything happening on the planet, access to every book ever written, every video and movie ever made. He'd been 13 years old when the last movie film was made. It was strange that such a huge industry could develop from the practice of taking many photographs per second of ongoing action, then showing each photograph for a fraction of a second. Less than 100 years after the first talking movie appeared in the United States, not one film was made in Hollywood. Sure, the show still went on, digitally, but the brief practice of smearing chemicals on celluloid and exposing them to light and then projecting light through the celluloid died out soon after the turn of the century.
His ear buzzed and it was Cal, the Acme dispatcher-- "Jason, you got a pickup at Big Al's Dive Shop on Hollister in Goleta, you know where that is?"
"Sure, I been there a lot."
At Big Al's Dive Shop, Al gave him a gill mask to take back to Acme for scanning. "Here you go, Jason, the winner was #5. I e-mailed Sandy how to scan it and compare it against the standard model and see if he has any ideas why I got the improved oxygen extraction performance in warm water."
Big Al at the Dive Shop didn't know shit about nanoengineering, but he knew what he wanted. Last week Jason had dropped off 8 new gill masks at the dive shop, each slightly different than the standard model you could download. Al had been tinkering with the gill mask ever since Jason had been with the company.
Jason put the gill mask in the bike's carrier and pedaled toward Santa Barbara. Probably in another week or three he would bring back another batch of mutant versions, because Al was always trying to improve the mask. Big Al didn't know why #4 worked so much better than the other samples, but it did. Over time the gill mask was becoming better and better. That's one of the reasons hundreds of people a day downloaded the nanotemplate for Al's standard version, which was the main reason Al was able to afford to live in Santa Barbara.
At Acme Nanotemplates, they bought one of everything and scanned it and made a nanotemplate that you could download into your growth tank. Everybody had a growth tank. The operation of a home growth tank was very simple. It was about as big as a refrigerator and the growth chamber itself was the size of a small oven. Just barely big enough for a turkey. There was an IN bin that you refilled with dirt and sawdust (or just about anything at all), and it had to connect to the plumbing system. Close the door, the tank fills with fluid, and molecules are subjected to nanoplacement. Fluid drains away, you open the door and reach in for your apple, or diamond ring.
It was possible, theoretically, to make something as complicated as a color TV set in your home tank, but you needed hefty computer upgrades and even then it would take a month.
Sometimes a warning light would flash on the growth tank's control screen, and it would tell you that you needed to put some stuff in the TRACE ELEMENTS bin. Food was made with a relatively small palette of atoms, mostly CHON-- carbon-hydrogen-oxygen-nitrogen.
It was the fastest-spreading technological innovation in human history. Who wouldn't want one? A duplicator box.
Jason pedaled south on Hollister and then State street counting the number of retail and commercial store-fronts that were being converted into rental apartments, all of which were far too expensive for Jason's budget. Overall the real estate market was in the dumps, even though the Santa Barbara area was highly desirable. The problem was the goddam Golden Oldies, who owned most of the property and were not dying.
It was a time of severe deflation. Homes in Santa Barbara were selling for $25,000, but it might as well have been a million as far as Jason was concerned. He made fifteen dollars a week at Acme Nanotemplates. Ever since the introduction of house seeds and growth tanks, a substantial proportion of Americans had dropped out of the job market and preferred to sit home watching TV and drinking beer instead of getting up and going to the office every morning. Even if you wanted to work, it was hard to find a job. There just wasn't much need for people to use their bodies.
Santa Barbara county law forbade the planting of house seeds except in approved lots, and that's why Jason didn't have a house growing back in the foothills. Instead he lived in an electrotent in a hidden location in the Los Padres National Forest.
At 4:30pm he arrived at Acme's office in the Granada Building, the tallest building in the city. He dropped off the gill mask in Sandy's office, then went into the prototype shop and accessed the template of his headset on one of Acme's heavy-duty nanotanks. He told the machine to make another copy of his headset for Moire.
He pedaled to his storage closet on Milpas street, where he bought a shower and changed clothes, and the new headset was ready by the time he got back from the storage center/shower shop.
He pedaled down State Street to the ocean; Moire, on a rental bicycle, was already at the dolphin statue at Stearns Wharf. She was still wearing the orange bikini-- well it sure was bikini weather-- but she also still had on the bulky old VR headset. He'd heard about such VR addicts who can never bear to leave their private worlds, but he'd never met one. He decided to be diplomatic about it. "Hi," he said. "Welcome to beautiful downtown Santa Barbara." He gestured toward the buildings and trees rising into the foothills, with the yellow rock face of La Cumbre Peak looming high behind the foothills.
"It really is beautiful," she said. "I should have done this earlier. I've been too locked up in my work."
They began pedalling west along the bicycle path on top of the birm. "This used to be a beach," Jason said. "Now from Butterfly Beach to Ledbetter Beach this twenty-foot birm holds back the Pacific." Santa Barbara had been lucky so far since the sealevel rose. Further south, the cities of Carpinteria and Oxnard were no more, and Ventura had moved back a quarter mile from its former beachfront.
"At Woods Hole they had to move everything a mile inland," Moire said. "Martha's Vineyard has really been hit hard, all the littler islands, too."
It was one of the electric blue days in Santa Barbara, days when there's not a particle of dust in the sky, not a whisper of water vapor, and the sky is a deep, deep blue and there's a feeling of electromagnetic tension in the air, and the humidity is extremely low, and the temperature is high, and the air is so clear that the mountains seem to loom extra large in the sky and the islands are near enough to touch, and the Santa Ana winds whirl up at sunset as high pressure systems behind the mountains push masses of air over the edge, and the air falls, compressing hotter and hotter and racing toward the shore.
They pedaled through the harbor under a vivid indigo-blue sky. "Usually you can't see the Channel Islands this good," Jason told her, gesturing toward the ocean. "It's really clear today."
Moire rode slowly and uncertainly, stopping often to put a foot down. At the harbor she was looking at the boats and collided with a pedestrian. The little boy wasn't hurt, and Moire said, "Why don't we walk the bikes for a minute," and they strolled through palm trees along the bike path by Ledbetter beach watching the surf pound into the birm.
"This is so terrific," Moire said. "I want to stand here in the breeze for a few minutes. In fact, let's sit down." She parked her bicycle next to a picnic table and sat down. "This was really a good idea, Jason. I can't remember the last time I've been out like this."
"Is the lab having trouble with their equipment budget?" Jason said.
"Not that I know of," she said. "Why?"
"I was wondering why you were stuck with that ancient headset." He reached for his shirt pocket and pulled out the duplicate of his own headset. "Anyway, here's one for you that's just like mine. It has all the latest technology and it has to be a lot less heavy than the one you're wearing."
She stared at his outstretched hand but didn't move. "Um, thanks, Jason, but this one is custom made for me. It's not just a VR rig, it's a prosthetic eye. I'm blind."
"Oh," said Jason. He didn't know what else to say. He sat down next to her and stared out to sea, then looked back at her. He could see the clean lines of her cheeks, her straight nose, her chiseled chin, her lips, but not her eyes, not her whole face.
"So I never take it off," she said. "I guess I'm not used to discussing it-- back at Woods Hole, everybody knew about me, everybody knew about it. I haven't been away from home very much at all."
"How good can you see?" Jason said. He pointed toward a pelican soaring above the ocean. "Can you see that bird?"
"Oh, sure. I know my headset looks like a turn-of-the-millenium rig, but it has a complete micro-adaptive-optics system. The front may look flat and featureless, but actually it is a billion point-receptors. I can zoom in on things-- I can see fishing line tangled on that pelican's left foot, for instance.
"It's one of the reasons I'm able to do my DNA mapping. I have a split consciousness, sort of. I can separate into a right brain and a left brain with different pictures for each brain. Focus on two things at once. I'm not so hot at real-world 3D actions, though... I'm really sorry about running into that little boy."
Jason said, "But if you're a marine biologist-- how do you-- is your headset waterproof?"
"No," she said sadly. "I can't go into the ocean. Not and see anything, I mean."
They bicycled back to the wharf in silence. Moire said, "Look, I didn't mean to freak you out. It's my problem, not yours. I thought you said you were going to show me the town-- why don't we go somewhere and get something to eat?"
They returned Moire's bicycle to the rental stand on State Street and hiked into downtown Santa Barbara, passing under the deserted US 101 freeway. There was hardly any traffic; with manufacturing completely replaced by nanotech replication, people no longer commuted, commodities were no longer trucked. The cities were thinned out now. People were moving into the wilderness, able to survive without civilization as long as they had a nanotank and Web access.
"Do they make a good martini here?" Moire said as they were sitting down at their table at Joe's Cafe.
"I don't know, I'm not a martini kind of guy." Jason ordered a bourbon and 7-Up. Joe's was packed with people and loud with talk and clanking glasses and dishes, but they were in a bubble of privacy amid the noise.
Their drinks arrived. "So how long have you been in Santa Barbara, Jason Voz?" Moire said, sipping her martini.
"I came here to go to college, and after I graduated a couple years ago I haven't been able to leave the place. I keep trying to figure out some way to be able to stay here."
"What's your degree in?"
"Oh, it's just Bachelor of Science in Information Access. It doesn't matter what you know; what matters is being able to find what you need to know.
"I wanted to be a dentist. But then molecular repair technology came along in my junior year and 'dentist' went the way of 'buggy whip maker' and 'VCR repairman.' I don't really know what I want to do any more. That's one of the reasons I like my job-- it lets me move around and see a lot of different lines of work.
Moire stirred her martini and said, "I thought you had a job-- aren't you a scientist at Acme Nanotemplates?"
Jason stared at her. "No, I'm their bicycle delivery guy and nanotank attendant."
"Oh. Oh dear. I'm sorry, I just assumed... I mean, this is such an expensive town, how can you afford it here?"
"Well, there's an awful lot of us clinging to existence here in electrotents," Jason said.
"What's an electrotent?" Moire asked.
"It's an extremely rigid tent. It packs into a suitcase because the fabric is so thin and light. You can unfold it out into a number of different configurations, from a pup tent size to ten feet square and eight feet high, and then you turn on the electricity and the fabric turns rigid. Billions of interior molecules switch position and link with their neighbors in a bond of high tensile strength. In fact, they're bulletproof, they're so rigid. I have an electrotent and a pizza box, so I can live anywhere I want."
"A pizza box?"
"You haven't heard of pizza boxes? They're specialized nanoconverters, about as big as a suitcase. You open it and fill it with whatever organic stuff you have lying around-- leaves, grass clippings, restaurant scrap, dead rats, anything. Close the lid and press the activator, and a few hours later the red light comes on and that means your pizza is done. You open it up and slide out a steaming hot pizza. If you don't have a fuel cell for energy, the pizza box can operate on solar power but it takes longer for the pizza to get done."
"Oh," said Moire. "Could we order now?"
Jason signaled the waiter. "I'm going to have the abalone," he said.
"Ick," Moire said. "I guess it sounds funny, but I can't stand sea food." When the waiter arrived, she ordered a hamburger and another martini.
"You'll love the burger," Jason said. "They use real natural meat here, in fact everything is real. Local farmers still bring traditional produce to market, and nanotank stuff just can't compete."
"You seem to know a lot about Santa Barbara. Did you grow up here?" Moire asked.
"No, I'm from Waterloo, Iowa," Jason said.
"How'd you pick Santa Barbara?"
"I don't know. I guess it was when they were building the birm to keep the ocean out. It was in the news, and the other cities were just pulling back from the coast, giving in to the ocean, and Santa Barbara was fighting back. I wanted to fight back." When he was 15 he'd joined a Web community of kids who were going to attend UC Santa Barbara, but now his group had graduated and dispersed and he was floating untethered with no idea what to do or where to go in the dazzling new millennium. So for now he was hunkered down in the most rich and beautiful little coastal town in the world.
Their food arrived, and Jason took a bite of abalone.
Moire exclaimed about her salad. Farmers market stuff. "My god, this is good."
"You've been eating that college cafeteria stuff, that's all. Nanosludge. I remember."
"What do your parents back in Waterloo do?"
"Nothing," Jason said. "My parents are just in a different world. They're total house potatoes. My dad is nuts about motor sports and my mother is heavy into virtual rollerblading. They planted a house seed ten years ago and they have six rooms now. If you have a house in the country with all free services, why go to work? That's their belief. They just sit home and watch the screen all day."
"Do you have a house seed?"
"Well, yeah, mom and dad can harvest one every year. But I'm not ready to settle down yet."
"Maybe you're like abalone," Moire said. "An abalone larva is a free-swimming ocean creature until a chemical signal (gamma-aminobutryic acid, GABA) from corraline algae tells it to drop to the bottom. It loses its swimming cilia, and in forty hours, a heart forms and the larva attaches to a rock and starts growing a shell. Its wandering days are over."
Jason took another bite of his abalone. "But I'm still a wandering boy for now. What do your parents do?"
"Mom's a musician, she plays violin in the Boston Orchestra. She says she's lucky-- there's been no technological advancement in her field for over 400 years. Her Stradivarius is still state-of-the-art."
"And your father?"
"My father was a neurobiologist. He died a few years ago." She took another sip of martini. "He was the world's foremost authority on the visual system of the squid."
"Squid, eh? You followed him into marine biology?"
"Not exactly... squids have large nerves, they're easier to study. But yeah, we were there at Woods Hole, we knew a lot of marine biologists." She took a final bite of her hamburger, washed it down with the last of her martini. "I need another drink, okay?"
"Are you sure?" Jason said.
"Oh, I'm quite able to handle my martinis," she said. "Liquor doesn't affect me much."
"I just don't want you getting blind drunk on me. I mean... ." Jason blushed.
"I'm sorry, Jason, I don't usually go around blabbing about my deformity. I hope it doesn't make you uncomfortable."
The waiter cleared their dishes away, brought Moire her fourth martini and a second bourbon and 7up for Jason.
"Well, I'm kind of interested in the technology," Jason said. "I never heard of prosthetic eyes before. How do you control it?"
"I don't know of anybody else using this technology, so it's not surprising," she said. She rubbed her hand across the fabric cap on her head. "The skullcap has hundreds of metal contact points touching my scalp. It's nothing but an encephalograph, but the feedback system lets me to communicate with the vision-control computer with subtle variations in my brain waves." She took the olive out of her martini and ate it. "Also, I control it by flexing my scalp in certain ways. Look, I can wiggle my ears." She wiggled her ears. "I don't know exactly how I control it, to tell the truth. I grew up with it and slowly learned. I mean, do you remember how you learned to see?"
"No, but then I wasn't born blind. How does your headset connect to the visual cortex? I never heard of anything like that."
She took another big gulp of martini. "I'm half-computer," she finally said.
"What do you mean? I'm on the computer half the time, myself."
"Did you ever hear of B.F. Skinner? A psychologist? A pre-Millenium guy?" she said.
"He developed a way to train animals using what he called a 'Skinner Box.' You could read about it on the Web. Anyway, what he did was raise his own daughter in a Skinner Box, just the way he raised pigeons. God only knows what he thought he was doing. It ruined her life. Well, my father decided to do Skinner one better. He gave me the best eyes in the world. I wasn't born blind."
When Moire was two days old, her father clamped a headset and earplugs onto her, radio linked to a computerthat could play back anything in its storage at the child's command.
"I had to learn to see all by myself-- just like you." Somehow she did it. As she grew, Dr. Herault had to replace her headset several times, and each time the hardware was more sophisticated. When she was 8, Moire asked her father for a hundred gigabytes of 20-picosecond random access memory for her birthday present.
A significant proportion of Moire's "self" was in the computer. Her organic brain was not able to process language without the help of the computer. She had a true photographic memory. She used the stupendous storage capacity of the human brain combined with the computer's ability to tag and file each memory and find it again when needed. "I can remember everything everybody has said to me since I was 4 or 5. It took me that long to learn language and learn how to store memories coded in language, just like a normal child."
"I don't get it," Jason said. "If you're blind, how do you get the visual information?"
"The headset has two video screens, one for each eye."
"You can see the screens? So you're not really blind."
"Well, first of all, I never developed variable-distance vision. I'm permanently nearsighted. Daddy didn't anticipate that. They discovered it when I was 4 or so. But it's more than that. They could have cured me by taking off the headset permanently, but without it I was only 6 months old, mentally. My eyeballs caved in to the perfection of the vidscreen; likewise my brain caved in to the perfection of the video storage system.
"Today I have no idea which things are stored in meat and which are stored in computer. Without the headset I can't track objects, I can't focus, I can't do anything. I'm effectively blind." Also, she didn't really understand English without the headset. Sure, the girl/computer pair used English to communicate with the rest of the world, but that was a construct of the computer; the communication between the girl and the computer was in a creole that Moire developed all by herself, understood only by her and her private neural network.
So it wasn't that she was physiologically blind without the headset, it's just that nothing could enter her long-term memory. If you can't remember seeing it, then you didn't see it, is the bottom line.
"But that's terrible," Jason said. "How could your father do that to you?"
"It wasn't just me-- he started with my older brother, Darnell." She took another large gulp of martini and reached over and grabbed Jason's wrist. "That's why Darnell killed Daddy."
"You read in the papers about a murder victim who was stabbed many times and you think what a savage monster the killer must have been, but really it's because the first cut doesn't get anywhere close to doing the job, and Daddy was yelling and flailing, and so Darnell kept slashing and stabbing and Daddy kept sobbing and flopping and it took forever. And then you're standing there breathing hard with quarts of adrenaline and flight-or-fight chemicals flooding through your bloodstream and the door unexpectedly opened and it was Grandma, and she said, "Darnell, what have you done?" and he slashed her to ribbons too. He was sorry later. Not about Daddy." She finished her martini and swirled the glass. "Can I have another drink?"
"Why are you telling me this?" Jason asked. Her hand was gripping his wrist so hard the tips of her knuckles were white.
"I've never told ANYBODY," she said.
She stood up and paced around the table, then sat back down. "Everybody in Woods Hole knew about it and everybody just shut up around me. They treat me like I'm a mass-murderer. It's all they remember about me."
"I doubt that," said Jason.
She stopped talking.
"Well," Jason said.
Their waiter appeared at their table. "Give me another martini," Moire said.
"I'm sorry," the waiter said, "I don't think we should serve you any more drinks. Would you like a cup of coffee?"
"No, no... Jason, can we get out of here?"
Jason put the meal on his card and thumbprinted it, but left a tip in silver so the waiter wouldn't have to report it as income. Nanotanks can't transmute elements, so gold and silver were the coinage of choice, as usual. Gold remained a rare atom in the replicator in-box.
The gold dollar still tracked with the US dollar, unofficially; the US dollar was defined as the value of one minute's access to the Web at full bandwidth. But over the years the amount of stuff you could accomplish in one minute rose astronomically. A dollar in 2025 could buy a hell of lot more than a 2015 dollar. Wages and prices declined, but it was a fairly smooth transition; the periodic "gold recessions" occurred after dramatic technological surges in bandwidth capacity.
They stood outside Joe's Cafe. Moire looked up at the starry sky. "How am I going to get home?" she said. "I've got to get back to the campus. Do you have a car?"
"No, I'll call a taxi," Jason said.
"No, wait, I'm not done yet. I hope I'm not offending you. It's like... I've never been able to talk about this stuff with anybody. Could we go to your place?"
Jason was embarrassed. "My place is an electrotent in the hills. I'm sorry."
"Well, let's go to a hotel or something."
Jason stared at her.
"I don't do this," she said defensively. "I don't go out and pick up guys. This isn't like me. But I need to talk about it to somebody."
"You're drunk," he said.
"No, well, maybe my body is a little drunk but my computer isn't. And I'm half-computer."
"I don't know if I can afford a hotel," he said.
"That's okay, I'll put it on my card," Moire said.
They found a room at a motel a few blocks away. "Okay," Jason said, "Here you are. I'll see you next time I'm at the Marine Sciences lab, I guess."
"Wait," she said. "Kiss me first."
"Look," he said, but then they were kissing, and then they were taking their clothes off, and then they were in bed.
But gradually Jason noticed that Moire was detached, not really participating, and then it was over. He rolled off her and lay back on the bed.
"Oh well," she said. "I was hoping it would be different this time." She sighed. "I've never-- always before I've done it with guys without telling them about me, about my Dad, about the headset. About everything. Tried to make them think it was just my own kinky way. But the computer interface doesn't have any hormonal feedback, I guess. It's like my own body is nothing but a video game that I'm playing remotely."
"Maybe there's an upgrade path for your hardware," Jason said. "You know, all the latest stuff comes through Acme Nanotemplates, and I could do a literature search and find something to help you at least get out from under the cumbersome VR rig and get a lightweight eyepiece like mine."
"Oh," she shouted, "like my Dad's stuff is no good, huh?"
"No, no, obviously your Dad's technology was impressive in its time, but there's been a lot of advancement, how do you know that something can't be done now to improve things?"
She slumped back down. "I suppose you're right."
"Let me try out your headset just for a second, let me see what you're up against."
"Nobody else can comprehend it," she said.
"Oh, just let me look. When was the last time you let somebody look?"
After a minute she said, "Oh, all right." She pulled the headset and cap off and handed them to Jason. He put it on, but all he saw was an idiosyncratic display of flashing lights and images that he couldn't comprehend.
"I guess you were right," he said. He took off the headset and handed it back to her, but she was staring at him with her real eyes, her vivid blue eyes that he'd never seen before, and she had an animal electricity and they fell into the most highly charged sex that Jason had ever experienced. With her glasses off she was a superb empath, able to use her sharp intelligence to interpret gestures and tonal variations and aromas even in the absence of all language ability.
It was a magical mystical experience for him, easily the best sex of his life. They did it for an hour, and then they were done, breathing hard and sweating.
She rolled over and put her headset back on, rolled back, and slowly became rigid. Sat up abruptly. "All right," she said. "What happened?"
"What do you mean what happened? You were right here doing it with me."
"What?" Moire exploded into anger. "You preferred that brainless squealing meat better than ME?" she said. "God damn you, get out of here, you rapist! Go on!"
Jason gathered his clothing and left to pedal into the night to his electrotent in the mountains.
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