The trade paperback edition of L. E. Modesitt, jr.'s collection of short stories titled Viewpoints Critical (Canada, USA, Europe) will be released in a few short weeks. Here's a little taste of the sort of short fiction found within its pages. Modesitt was kind enough to grant me permission to post the full version of "Precision Set."
The idea for this story came to me while I was watching a telecast of, naturally enough, the Olympic gymnastics competition…
He calls himself Charley Cable. That is/is not his name. At the moment he sits in the third row at the Sports Pavilion, watching the gymnasts warm up. Although the Pavilion is full, and tickets are so scarce that there are no scalpers plying the Plaza outside, each seat beside him is vacant. The price he has paid for all three seats would have bought him a suite at the local Ritz-Singleton for a season. He wears a classic blue wool blazer and gray slacks, with a white silk shirt and black leather boots. He is the only man in the section who wears a jacket, and the only one who wears no jewelry.
The glow from the slow-glass panels increases, indirect but bright enough to provide perfect lighting for the competitors and clear illumination of the various gymnastic apparati on the Pavilion floor -- the four centimeter beam that replaced the older four inch beam a generation earlier; the vaulting horse; the bars; and the floor exercise square.
For a moment, Charley concentrates.
"...say the Basque team has a new technique for kinesthetics..."
"...NordAms are still using enhanced physical patterning..."
He lets his concentration lapse, and the clear words drop into background noise, not soothing, but only vaguely disturbing. The fingers of his right hand slip across his forehead, not quite touching or brushing back the short but otherwise nondescript brown hair streaked with silver. His eyes are a deep hazel.
On the Pavilion floor, the warm-ups continue, each girl-woman moving effortlessly, gracefully, and precisely. The judges fiddle with their laser-measuring/calibration equipment. The audience juggles programs and personal computoculars.
The slightest of sounds alerts him, a pattern he has memorized, if self-programming recognition to precise sonic patterns can accurately be called memorization, and he forces himself to turn his gaze toward the aisle slowly, as if in idle curiosity, although his curiosity, comparatively new as it is, is seldom idle.
She is slender, black-haired, and of an indeterminate age beyond youth and before obvious physical degeneration. She wears a cream-colored cotton blouse, hand tailored, and a dark skirt of real wool, and a turquoise silk scarf. Charley watches her for a time, sensing, rather than actually seeing, the blackness behind the china blue eyes. Her low-cut, light black leather, laced shoes touch each step with unvarying precision, as if each foot understands independently where it should go.
Charley nods. Each foot is programmed to react kinesthetically to the situation. He raises a hand as she looks in his direction. Her eyes meet his, and he points to the seat beside him.
With a sad smile, she shakes her head. Charley points again.
This time, she walks in front of a pseudo-family -- a boy, a girl, and two parents wearing unisex clothes and hair - and eases into the seat on his left. She does not look at the chair, yet settles into it perfectly. "Are you sure?"
Charley is sure. He bought the tickets for privacy and for her. This is the fifth competition he has attended. "I'm Charley Cable."
"You could have sold these seats."
"I wasn't interested in selling them."
Charley concentrates on the narrow beam, where a delicate redhead practices a double flip with a full twist, followed by a single with a half-twist to a handstand. "Is that Maureen Dinisha?" he asks, knowing full well that the redhead is Dinisha, having seen her in the four previous sessions.
"The redhead? Yes. She is very precise." The woman's voice is soft, yet as clearly defined as her steps, posture, and grooming.
"Aren't they all?"
"Of course. That's why..."
She does not finish the sentence, but he knows what she means. Both look toward the precision measuring equipment used by the judges.
"Do you really want to torture yourself more?" he asks gently.
Her head snaps toward him. Hazel eyes meet blue eyes.
"How would you know?"
"Why else would you be here? Obviously, someone let you in without a ticket, and that means..."
"You are too perceptive."
"No," Charley says truthfully, for lying remains difficult with his literal background. He knows her patterns through observation, not perception. He stands up. "Shall we go?"
She sighs. "I suppose you're right."
"That remains to be seen." He offers a hand that she does not need.
She takes it, but puts no weight upon him as she rises, graceful as always. They ease past the pseudo-family, and both parents glare, either at their obviously conservative and wealthy attire or their cavalier departure even before the competition begins.
"What do you do?" she asks, half-way up the aisle to the exit landing.
"I'm a consultant. I receive a considerable stipend... for past services. I also design advanced DataNets, communications equipment."
They pause at the top of the aisle as the slow-glass panels above the audience dim in preparation for the competition proper.
"You haven't asked what I do," she says. "Doesn't it matter?"
"I wouldn't define you just by what you do." Charley provides an easy smile, although it is a mannerism that he has had to learn. "What do you do?"
"I also receive a stipend for...past services. I teach athletic... history... at the University - part-time."
As they exit the Plaza, Charley's eyes scan the scattered crowd, studying those outside until he sees three girls, all pre-pubescent, all bearing tablets and styli, all clearly hoping for a sight of Sirelli or Dinisha or perhaps even Yurkira. They wait, despite the lateness of the hour, and he stops in front of them, and smiles.
"I've been called away, ladies. Would you like my tickets? They're third row center off the floor exercise." He extends the plastic coated oblongs, with the holograms that are difficult, if not impossible, to counterfeit.
"Thanks!" The tallest girl, smooth-skinned as all youth are, but still awkward, takes the tickets.
Charley nods, watching as they scramble toward the doorway, clutching the tickets as though they were made of gold when gold was itself valuable.
"That was cruel," the woman says.
"In a way." Her observation of the effect of his gift pleases him, but not totally, for he does not engage in wanton cruelty.
"Where are we going?"
"Can you stand a long drive? Several hours?"
"If I must." She smiles. "Why should I trust you?"
"I'm eminently trustworthy. I have too much to lose by not being trustworthy. Consultants, you know, only survive through their clients' trust."
"I'm sure. But does that translate into personal relations?"
"I hope so." His vehicle is deep-coated gun-metal gray, and bears the antenna which indicate its ties to the national automated road system. He opens the door for her.
"I didn't know anyone still did that."
"My programming is doubtless dated."
They only use the highway for a time before he turns off and takes a side road, which winds through hillier and increasingly wooded land, generally obscure in details in the darkness. Beside him, the woman rests, dozes perhaps.
Still later, as the sky is graying into dawn, he turns up a dirt road. He stops beside a small house - gray, late twentieth century modern with excessive glass - overlooking a lake. After opening her door, he pulls a small, but heavy pack from the car.
"If this is yours, I'd appreciate the chance to..."
Charley purses his lips, another learned mannerism, and opens the unlocked front door. "It's the first door on the left."
He uses the upstairs facilities and then returns and waits by the vehicle.
She returns before long. "This is yours? It's lovely."
"It is mine. Consultants do have a choice of locales in this electronic age." He offers his arm. She ignores the offer by touching his elbow.
"I'd like you to look at the lake from the wall down there." He points to the path which circles through the lawn and past a garden filled with bright yellow marigolds and crimson petunias.
They walk downhill, their steps precise for very different reasons.
They walk downhill, their steps precise for very different reasons.
Old as the stones are, the wall has been maintained. Charley sits on a precisely reset stone wall and places the small pack by his feet. He looks down at the lake. "I told you my name was Charley Cable. I'm a man who doesn't exist."
"You look real enough to me." She remains standing.
"Your name is Cylvira. You were the first cyber-kinesthetic gymnast. You won the Gold medal in the 2012 Olympics, and every event in the Worlds' for the two years before and after the Olympics."
"Cylvira died a long time ago."
"I'm a man who doesn't exist."
"Neither one of us makes much sense." Her tone is bitter. "I should not have come."
"You retired when the new techniques became widespread."
"Cylvira was obsolete even when she won the Olympics."
"Obsolete refers to machines."
"You saw Dinisha. You saw the judges with their lasers that measure deviations from the horizontal and vertical by micromillimeters. Is that human?"
Charley gestures toward the lake, so still in the dawn that the trees on the far shore appear to grow in two directions. "The water reflects the trees perfectly, but it is still water."
"Don't you ever say anything directly?"
"It's hard for someone who doesn't exist."
"What do you want?"
"Would you sit down?"
She sits, and they watch the lake, as slowly, the faintest of breezes ripples the water, and the upside down picture of the trees and cloud-specked sky shivers, wavers, and vanishes. Only a single set of trees remains above the cold blue water.
"It is a pretty place." Cylvira's eyes shift toward Charley.
"Do you know what a data lattice looks like?"
"Or an enhanced if-then decision tree?" Charley smiles. "They're black and white, incredibly detailed black and white pieces that form pyramids or chains. For all the graphic arts presentations that show artificial intelligence in colors, it's not that way."
He bends down and opens his pack. From it, he removes two headsets and a black box with two input leads. He plugs each headset into the box and hands one to her.
"No!" Cylvira stands, handing the headset back to him with a harshly precise motion.
"These aren't implantation sets. They're just impression sets. Look at the leads. You should know the difference." Charley waits.
"I want to give you two impressions."
"This isn't big enough for an impression set."
"Technology does advance." His voice is dry. "Besides, Cylvira is dead."
She laughs, raggedly, but it is a laugh. This time she takes the headset.
Charley puts on his set, then touches a stud on the black box.
He looks at the lake, concentrating on its blueness, and upon the dark green of the tall pines, their brown trunks, and the puffy white clouds overhead, upon the scent of damp-air pine, and hard texture of the stone under his hand, the feel of the silk against his skin. He touches her hand and lets her sense the wonder of the warmth of her skin and fingers against his. Then he looks back at the lake for a long time, marveling at its colors and how it changes from moment to moment.
Then he touches the second stud on the box, calling up past memories - cold lines of black and white bytes, chains of black and white, black and white, black and white...white and black, black and black. No scents, no smells, no colors - the chains go on endlessly, looping, flashing, but always black and white, white and black.
He touches the stud, and removes the headset.
Silently, Cylvira removes hers. "You're....
He nods. "The man who no longer exists. The AI they plugged into a brain-drained killer named... his name doesn't matter. I'm Charley Cable, or I'm not."
She shivers. "Do all AIs feel so... so...cold?"
"No. Only the ones who have to become human. How can you know what color is until you see it?"
She takes his hand. "Thank you." The darkness behind the china blue eyes is lighter, although it will never totally lift.
"Wait a moment." He sets the black box on the ground beside the stone wall. With a quick motion his booted heel crunches through the plastic and circuitry. Then he replaces the pieces in the pack and seals it, setting it carefully on the wall.
His name is/is not Charley Cable. Her name is/is not Cylvira. There are no cyber-kinesthetic gymnasts, and no former killers/ethically enhanced computers.
A couple walks along the lake shore, their arms entwined. Neither exists.