[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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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 collected.

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 on.

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 sun.

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 benign substances.

But although the messages were public knowledge, no one anywhere had been able to make sense of the subsequent decoded images . . .

Chapter 1

       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 eight-twenty.

       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 die hard.

       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 couch.

       "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 got free.

       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 felt.

       The clock on the mantelpiece chimed; it did that every quarter-hour.

       "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 abuse me?"

       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 wife.

       Heather's heart was racing. She felt nauseous.

       Kyle closed his mouth, then opened it again. "Pumpkin, I never —"

       "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 it."

       "But I never — Rebecca, you're my daughter. I'd never hurt you."

       "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 this."

       "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 Zack.

       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 her."

       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 talking about."

       "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 day.

       Every hour.

       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 last night."

       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 buckets.


Chapter 2

       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 architecture.

       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 Nazca.

       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 boson! Quark!"

       Kyle stared at the pair of lenses.

       Cheetah repeated the punch line: "Mais oui! Higgs boson! Quark!"

       "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 and neutrons."

       "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 lousy one.

       "If I don't disappoint you," said Cheetah's voice, "then what's wrong?"

       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 something."

       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 —

       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 discuss?"

       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, become insistent.

       Still, he did need to talk to someone about it. Christ, he had enough trouble sleeping without this weighing on him.

       "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 more solicitous.

       "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 accused of?"

       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."

       "Well, no."

       "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.

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