SFWRITER.COM > Novels > Factoring Humanity > Opening Chapters
by Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 1998 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.
Hardcover: Tor, June 1998, ISBN 0-312-86458-2
Paperback: Tor, May 1999, ISBN 0-812-57129-0
Trade Paperback: Orb, January 2004, ISBN 0-765-30903-3
British edition: HarperCollins Voyager, January 1999
What is mind? No matter.
What is matter? Never mind.
Thomas Hewitt Key, British classicist (1799-1875)
The messages from space had been arriving for almost ten years
now. Reception of a new page of data began every 30 hours and 51
minutes an interval presumed to be the length of the day on
the Senders' homeworld. To date, 2,841 messages had been
Earth had never replied to any of the transmissions. The
Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the
Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence, adopted by the
International Astronomical Union in 1989, stated: "No response
to a signal or other evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence
should be sent until appropriate international consultations have
taken place." With a hundred and fifty-seven countries
comprising the United Nations, that process was still going
There was no doubt about the direction the signals were coming
from: right ascension 14 degrees, 39 minutes, 36 seconds;
declination minus 60 degrees, 50.0 minutes. And parallactic
studies revealed the distance: 1.34 parsecs from Earth. The
aliens sending the messages apparently lived on a planet orbiting
the star Alpha Centauri A, the nearest bright star to our
The first eleven pages of data had been easily deciphered:
they were simple graphical representations of mathematical and
physical principles, plus the chemical formulas for two seemingly
But although the messages were public knowledge, no one
anywhere had been able to make sense of the subsequent decoded
images . . .
Heather Davis took a sip of her coffee and looked at the
brass clock on the mantelpiece. Her nineteen-year-old daughter
Rebecca had said she'd be here by 8:00 p.m., and it was already
Surely Becky knew how awkward this was. She had said she'd
wanted a meeting with her parents both of them,
simultaneously. That Heather Davis and Kyle Graves had been
separated for almost a year now didn't enter into the equation.
They could have met at a restaurant, but, no, Heather had
volunteered the house the one in which she and Kyle had raised
Becky and her older sister Mary, the one Kyle had moved out of
last August. Now, though, with the silence between her and Kyle
having stretched on for yet another minute, she was regretting
that spontaneous offer.
Although Heather hadn't seen Becky for almost four months,
she had a hunch about what Becky wanted to say. When they spoke
over the phone, Becky often talked about her boyfriend Zack. No
doubt she was about to announce an engagement.
Of course, Heather wished her daughter would wait a few more
years. But, then again, it wasn't as if she was going to
university. Becky worked in a clothing store on Spadina. Both
Heather and Kyle taught at the University of Toronto she in
psychology; he in computer science. It pained them that Becky
wasn't pursuing higher education. In fact, under the Faculty
Association agreement, their children were entitled to free
tuition at U of T. At least Mary had taken advantage of that for
one year before . . .
No, this was a time of celebration. Becky was getting
married! That was what mattered today.
She wondered how Zack had proposed or whether it had been
Becky who had popped the question. Heather remembered vividly
what Kyle had said to her when he'd proposed, twenty-one years
ago, back in 1996. He'd taken her hand, held it tightly, and
said, "I love you, and I want to spend the rest of my life
getting to know you."
Heather was sitting in an overstuffed easy chair; Kyle was
sitting on the matching couch. He'd brought his datapad with him
and was reading something on it. Knowing Kyle, it was probably a
spy novel; the one good thing as far as he was concerned about
the rise of Iran to superpower status had been the revitalization
of the espionage thriller.
On the beige wall behind Kyle was a framed photoprint that
belonged to Heather. It was made up of an apparently random
pattern of tiny black-and-white squares a representation of
one of the alien radio messages.
Becky had moved out nine months ago, shortly after she'd
finished high school. Heather had hoped Becky might stay at home
a while the only other person in the big, empty suburban house
now that Mary and Kyle were gone.
At first, Becky came by the house frequently and,
according to Kyle, she had seen her father often enough, too.
But soon the gaps between visits grew longer and longer and
then she stopped coming altogether.
Kyle apparently had become aware that Heather was looking at
him. He lifted his eyes from the datapad and managed a wan
smile. "Don't worry, hon. I'm sure she'll be here."
Hon. They hadn't lived together as husband and wife
for eleven months, but the automatic endearments of two decades
Finally, a little past eight-thirty, the doorbell rang.
Heather and Kyle exchanged glances. Becky's thumbprint still
operated the lock, of course as, for that matter, did Kyle's.
No one else could possibly be dropping by this late; it had to be
Becky. Heather sighed. That Becky didn't simply let herself in
underscored Heather's fears: her daughter no longer considered
this house to be her home.
Heather got up and crossed the living room. She was wearing
a dress hardly her normal at-home attire, but she'd wanted to
show Becky that her coming by was a special occasion. And as
Heather passed the mirror in the front hall and caught sight of
the blue floral print of the dress, she realized that she, too,
was acting as Becky was, treating her daughter's arrival as a
visit from someone for whom airs had to be put on.
Heather completed the journey to the door, touched her hands
to her dark hair to make sure it was still properly positioned,
then turned the knob.
Becky stood on the step. She had a narrow face, high
cheekbones, brown eyes, and brunette hair that brushed her
shoulders. Beside her was her boyfriend Zack, all gangly limbs
and scraggly blond hair.
"Hello, darling," said Heather to her daughter, and then,
smiling at the young man, whom she hardly knew: "Hello, Zack."
Becky stepped inside. Heather thought perhaps her daughter
would stop long enough to kiss her, but she didn't. Zack
followed Becky into the hall, and the three of them made their
way up into the living room, where Kyle was still sitting on the
"Hi, Pumpkin," said Kyle, looking up. "Hi, Zack."
His daughter didn't even glance at him. Her hand found
Zack's, and they intertwined fingers.
Heather sat down in the easy chair and motioned for Becky
and Zack to sit as well. There wasn't enough room on the couch
next to Kyle for both of them. Becky found another chair, and
Zack stood behind her, a hand on her left shoulder.
"It's so good to see you, dear," said Heather. She opened
her mouth again, realized that what was about to come out was a
comment on how long it had been, and closed it before the words
Becky looked at Zack. Her lower lip was trembling.
"What's wrong, dear?" said Heather, shocked. If not an
engagement announcement, then what? Could Becky be ill? In
trouble with the police? She saw Kyle lean slightly forward; he,
too, was detecting his daughter's anxiety.
"Go ahead," said Zack to Becky; he whispered it, but the
room was quiet enough that Heather could make it out.
Becky was silent for a few moments longer. She closed her
eyes then re-opened them. "Why?" she said, her voice quavering.
"Why what, dear?" said Heather.
"Not you," said Becky. Her gaze fell for an instant on her
father, then it dropped to the floor. "Him."
"Why what?" asked Kyle, sounding as confused as Heather
The clock on the mantelpiece chimed; it did that every
"Why," said Becky, raising her eyes again to look at her
father, "did you . . ."
"Say it," whispered Zack, forcefully.
Becky swallowed, then blurted it all out. "Why did you
Kyle slumped against the couch. The datapad, which had been
resting on the couch's arm, fell to the hardwood floor with a
clattering sound. Kyle's mouth hung open. He looked at his
Heather's heart was racing. She felt nauseous.
Kyle closed his mouth, then opened it again. "Pumpkin, I
"Don't deny it," said Becky. Her voice was quaking with
fury; now that the accusation was out, a dam had apparently
burst. "Don't you dare deny it."
"But, Pumpkin "
"And don't call me that. My name is Rebecca."
Kyle spread his arms. "I'm sorry, Rebecca. I didn't know
it bothered you, my calling you that."
"Damn you," she said. "How could you do that to me?"
"I never "
"Don't lie! For God's sake, at least have the guts to admit
"But I never Rebecca, you're my daughter. I'd never hurt
"You did hurt me. You ruined me. Me, and Mary."
Heather rose to her feet. "Becky "
"And you!" shouted Becky. "You knew what he was
doing to us and you didn't do anything to stop him."
"Don't yell at your mother," said Kyle, his voice sharp.
"Becky, I never touched you or Mary you know that."
Zack spoke in a normal volume for the first time. "I knew
he'd deny it."
Kyle snapped at the young man. "Damn you you keep out of
"Don't raise your voice at him," said Becky to Kyle.
Kyle fought to be calm. "This is a family matter," he said.
"We don't need him here."
Heather looked at her husband, then at her daughter.
"Becky," Heather said, fighting to keep her own voice under
control, "I swear to you "
"Don't you deny it, too," Becky said.
Heather took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. "Tell
me," she said. "Tell me what you think happened."
There was silence for a long time, as Becky apparently
composed her thoughts. "You know what happened," she said
at last, the accusatory tone still in her voice. "He'd slip out
of your room after midnight and come to mine or Mary's."
"Becky," said Kyle, "I never "
Becky looked at her mother, but then closed her eyes. "He'd
come into my room, have me remove my top, f fondle my breasts,
and then " She choked off, opened her eyes, and looked again
at Heather. "You must have known," she said. "You must have
seen him leaving, seen him come back." A pause as she took a
shuddering breath. "You must have smelled the sweat on him
smelled me on him."
Heather was shaking her head. "Becky, please."
"None of that ever happened," said Kyle.
"There's no point staying if he's going to deny it," said
Becky nodded and reached into her purse. She pulled out a
tissue and wiped her eyes, then got to her feet and began walking
away. Zack followed her, and so did Heather. Kyle rose as well,
but in a matter of moments, Becky and Zack were down the stairs
and at the front door.
"Pump Becky, please," said Kyle, catching up with them.
"I'd never hurt you."
Becky turned around. Her eyes were red, her face flushed.
"I hate you," she said, and then she and Zack scurried out the
door into the night.
Kyle looked at Heather. "Heather, I swear I never touched
Heather didn't know what to say. She headed back up to the
living room, holding the bannister for balance. Kyle followed.
Heather took a chair, but Kyle went to the liquor cabinet and
poured himself some Scotch. He drained it in a gulp and stood
leaning against the wall.
"It's that boyfriend of hers," said Kyle. "He put her up to
this. They'll be filing a lawsuit, betcha anything can't wait
for the inheritance."
"Kyle, please," said Heather. "It's your daughter you're
"And it's her father she's talking about. I'd never
do anything like that. Heather, you know that."
Heather stared at Kyle.
"Heather," said Kyle, a note of pleading in his voice now,
"you must know it's not true."
Something had kept Rebecca away for almost a year. And
something before that had
She hated to think about it, and yet it came to mind every
Something had driven Mary to suicide.
"I'm sorry." She swallowed then, after a moment, nodded.
"I'm sorry. I know you couldn't do anything like that." But her
voice sounded flat, even to her.
"Of course not."
"It's just that . . ."
"What?" snapped Kyle.
"It's no, nothing."
"Well, you did have a habit of getting up, of leaving our
room in the middle of the night."
"I can't believe you're saying that," said Kyle. "I can't
fucking believe it."
"It's true. Two, three nights a week, sometimes."
"I have trouble sleeping you know that. I get up
and go watch some TV, or maybe do some work on my computer.
Christ, I still do that, and I live alone now. I did it
Heather said nothing.
"I couldn't sleep. If I'm still awake an hour after I go to
bed, I get up you know that. No bloody point just
lying there. Last night I got up and watched Christ, what was
it? I watched The Six Million Dollar Man on Channel 3.
It was the one with William Shatner as the guy who could
communicate with dolphins. You call the TV station they'll
tell you that was the one that was on. And then I sent some
e-mail to Jake Montgomery. We can go to my apartment right now
right now and look at my outbox; you'll see the
timestamp on it. Then I came back to bed around 1:25, 1:30,
something like that."
"Nobody accused you of doing anything wrong last night."
"But that's the kind of thing I do every night I get
up. Sometimes I watch The Six Million Dollar Man,
sometimes The John Pellatt Show. And I look at The
Weather Channel, see what it's going to be like tomorrow. They
said it was going to rain today, but it didn't."
Oh, yes, it did, thought Heather. It came down in fucking
The University of Toronto the self-styled Harvard of the
North was established in 1827. Some fifty thousand full-time
students were enrolled there. The main campus was downtown, not
surprisingly anchored at the intersection of University Avenue
and College Street. But although there was a traditional central
campus, U of T also spilled out into the city proper, lining
St. George Street and several other roads with a hodgepodge of
nineteenth, twentieth, and early twenty-first century
The university's most distinctive landmark was the Robarts
Library often called "Fort Book" by students a massive,
complex concrete structure. Kyle Graves had lived in Toronto all
of his forty-five years. Still, it was only recently that he'd
seen an architect's model of the campus and realized that the
library was shaped like a concrete peacock, with the hooded
Thomas Fisher rare-books tower rising up as a beaked neck in
front and two vast wings spreading out behind.
Unfortunately, there was no place on campus where you could
look down on Robarts to appreciate the design. U of T did have
three associated theological colleges Emmanuel, affiliated
with the United Church of Canada; the Presbyterian Knox; and the
Anglican Wycliffe. Perhaps the peacock was meant only to be seen
by God or visitors from space: sort of a Canadian Plains of
Kyle and Heather had separated shortly after Mary's suicide;
it had been too much for both of them, and their frustration over
not understanding what had happened had spilled out in all sorts
of ways. The apartment Kyle lived in now was a short walk from
Downsview subway station in suburban Toronto. He'd taken the
subway down to St. George station this morning and was now
walking the short distance south to Dennis Mullin Hall, which was
located at 91 St. George Street, directly across the road from
the Robarts Library.
He passed the Bata Shoe Museum the world's largest museum
devoted to footwear, housed in another miracle of
twentieth-century design: a building that looked like a slightly
squashed shoebox. One of these days, he'd actually go inside.
In the distance, down at the lakeshore, he could see the CN
Tower no longer the world's tallest freestanding structure,
but still one of its most elegant.
After about two minutes, he reached Mullin Hall, the new
four-story circular building that housed the Artificial
Intelligence and Advanced Computing department. Kyle entered
through the main sliding glass doors. His lab was on the third
floor, but he took the stairs instead of the waiting elevator.
Ever since his heart attack, four years ago, he'd made a point of
getting little bits of exercise whenever he could. He remembered
when he used to huff and puff after just two flights of stairs,
but today he emerged without breathing hard at all. He headed
down the corridor, the open atrium on his left, until he reached
his lab. He pressed his thumb against the scanning plate, and
the door slid open.
"Good morning, Dr. Graves," said a rough male voice as he
entered the lab.
"Good morning, Cheetah."
"I have a new joke for you, Dr. Graves."
Kyle took off his hat and hung it on the old wooden coat
rack universities never threw anything out; this one must have
dated back to the 1950s. He started the coffeemaker, then took a
seat in front of a computer console, its front panel banked at
forty-five degrees. In the center of the panel were two small
lenses that tracked in unison like eyes.
"There's this French physicist, see," said Cheetah's voice,
coming from a speaker grille below the mechanical eyes. "This
guy's working at CERN and he's devised an experiment to test a
new theory. He starts up the particle accelerator and waits for
the results of the collision he's arranged. When the experiment
is over, he rushes out of the control room into the corridor,
holding a printout showing the trails of the resulting particles.
There, he runs into another scientist. And the other scientist
says to him, Jacques, he says, did you get the two particles you
were expecting? And Jacques points first to one particle trail
and then to the other and exclaims: "Mais oui! Higgs
Kyle stared at the pair of lenses.
Cheetah repeated the punch line: "Mais oui! Higgs
"I don't get it," said Kyle.
"A Higgs boson is a particle with zero charge and no
intrinsic spin; a quark is a fundamental constituent of protons
"I know what they are, for Pete's sake. But I don't see why
the joke is funny."
"It's a pun. Mais oui! that's French for `But
yes!' Mais oui! Higgs boson! Quark!" Cheetah paused
for a beat. "Mary Higgins Clark." Another pause. "She's a
famous mystery writer."
Kyle sighed. "Cheetah, that's too elaborate. For a pun to
work, the listener has to get it in a flash. It's no good if you
have to explain it."
Cheetah was quiet for a moment. "Oh," he said at last.
"I've disappointed you again, haven't I?"
"I wouldn't say that," said Kyle. "Not exactly."
Cheetah was an APE a computer simulation designed to
Approximate Psychological Experiences; he aped humanity. Kyle
had long been a proponent of the strong-artificial-intelligence
principle: the brain was nothing more than an organic computer,
and the mind was simply the software running on that computer.
When he'd first taken this stance publicly, in the late 1990s, it
had seemed reasonable. Computing capabilities were doubling
every five years; soon enough, there would be computers with
greater storage capacity and more interconnections than the human
brain had. Surely once that point was reached, the human mind
could be duplicated on a computer.
The only trouble was that that point had by now been
attained. Indeed, most estimates said that computers had
exceeded the human brain in information-processing capability and
degree of complexity four or five years previously.
And still Cheetah couldn't distinguish a funny joke from a
"If I don't disappoint you," said Cheetah's voice, "then
Kyle looked around his lab; its inner and outer walls were
curved following the contours of Mullin Hall, but there were no
windows; the ceiling was high, and covered with lighting panels
behind metal grids. "Nothing."
"Don't kid a kidder," said Cheetah. "You spent months
teaching me to recognize faces, no matter what their expression.
I'm still not very good at it, but I can tell who you are at a
glance and I know how to read your moods. You're upset over
Kyle pursed his lips, considering whether he wanted to
answer. Everything Cheetah did was by dint of sheer
computational power; Kyle certainly felt no obligation to reply.
And yet no one else had come into the lab so far today.
Kyle hadn't been able to sleep at all last night after he'd left
the house he still thought of it as "the house," not
"Heather's house" and he'd come in early. Everything was
silent, except for the hum from equipment and the overhead
fluorescent lights, and Cheetah's utterings in his deep and
rather nasal voice. Kyle would have to adjust the vocal routine
at some point; the attempt to give Cheetah natural-sounding
respiratory asperity had resulted in an irritating mimicry of
real speech. As with so much about the APE, the differences
between it and real humans were all the more obvious for the
earnestness of the attempt.
No, he certainly didn't have to reply to Cheetah.
But maybe he wanted to reply. After all, who else
could he discuss the matter with?
"Initiate privacy locking," said Kyle. "You are not to
relay the following conversation to anyone, or make any inquiries
pursuant to it. Understood?"
"Yes," said Cheetah. The final "s" was protracted, thanks
to the vocoder problem. There was silence between them.
Finally, Cheetah prodded Kyle. "What was it you wished to
Where to begin? Christ, he wasn't even sure why he was
doing this. But he couldn't talk about it with anyone else he
couldn't risk gossip getting around. He remembered what happened
to Stone Bentley, over in anthropology: accused by a female
student of sexual harassment five years ago; fully exonerated by
a tribunal; even the student eventually recanted the accusation.
And still he'd been passed over for the associate deanship, and,
to this day, Kyle overheard the occasional whispered remark from
other faculty members or students. No, he would not subject
himself to that.
"It's nothing, really," said Kyle. He shuffled across the
room and poured himself a cup of the now-ready coffee.
"No, please," said Cheetah. "Tell me."
Kyle managed a wan smile. He knew Cheetah wasn't really
curious. He himself had programmed the algorithm that aped
curiosity: when a person appears to be reluctant to go on,
Still, he did need to talk to someone about it.
Christ, he had enough trouble sleeping without this weighing on
"My daughter is mad at me."
"Rebecca," supplied Cheetah. Another algorithm; imply
intimacy to increase openness.
"Rebecca, yes. She says she says . . ." He trailed off.
"What?" The nasal twang made Cheetah's voice sound all the
"She says I molested her."
"In what way?"
Kyle exhaled noisily. No real human would have to ask that
question. Christ, this was stupid . . .
"In what way?" said Cheetah again, no doubt after his clock
indicated it was time to prod once more.
"Sexually," said Kyle softly.
The microphone on Cheetah's console was very sensitive;
doubtless he heard. Still, he was quiet for a time a
programmed affectation. "Oh," he said at last.
Kyle could see lights winking on the console; Cheetah was
accessing the World Wide Web, quickly researching this topic.
"You're not to tell anyone," said Kyle sharply.
"I understand," said Cheetah. "Did you do what you are
Kyle felt anger growing within him. "Of course not."
"Can you prove that?"
"What the fuck kind of question is that?"
"A salient one," said Cheetah. "I assume Rebecca has no
actual evidence of your guilt."
"Of course not."
"And one presumes you have no evidence of your innocence."
"Then it is her word against yours."
"A man is innocent until he's proven guilty," said Kyle.
Cheetah's console played the first four notes from
Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. No one had bothered to program
realistic laughter yet Cheetah's malfunctioning sense of humor
hardly required it and the music served as a placeholder.
"I'm supposed to be the naive one, Dr. Graves. If you are not
guilty, why would she make the accusation?"
Kyle had no answer for that.
Cheetah waited his programmed time, then tried again. "If
you are not guilty, why "
"Shut up," said Kyle.
More Good Reading
More about Factoring Humanity
Other novels by Robert J. Sawyer
Short stories by Robert J. Sawyer
More Sample chapters
HOME • MENU • TOP
Copyright © 1995-2016 by Robert J. Sawyer.