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Crossing Over

May 27, 2012

So here it is, the first seven pages of the interlude.  I’ve thought about this a lot – maybe too much, over the years.  I wondered if it was “too much information” presented in narrative form, if it was too jarring after 90 pages in Caroline’s head, but I don’t think so.  Certainly I’m up for spirited editorial disagreement on this, should the book get that far, but I think it works.  It puts out a lot of information, but I think having it out now lets me move on with part two without having to stage set pieces further on in which All Is Explained in those horrible Michael Crichton “Gee professor tell us all about what we’re looking at here” scenes around a conference table.  It also starts teasing out some info on Nick and Christopher’s family, which helps it feel less like a data dump and more like a setup for further intriguing revelations down the line.  And, by the end of it, Christopher feels less like a villain and more like a high-functioning broken person. 

My goal is to have the interlude complete tomorrow, or first thing Tuesday at the latest. My original intent was to power through it all before “publishing,” but I need to break here because I have to confront some of my own embarrassing personal shit, dealing with my own social lameness and insecurity, to write the rest, which is best done on a fresh night’s sleep.  I’d call what’s here about half the interlude between parts.


Christopher felt that one should definitely savor an eight dollar glass of orange juice, so he did his level best. It wasn’t the most delicious glass he’d ever had, which he felt he could reasonably expect it to be given the price. But room service brought back fond memories of bygone days, or at least of the better parts of them, and that was worth it.

What you were paying for in a hotel like this, he thought, wasn’t a bed but the experience. The high thread count sheets, more pillows than you could use, the pointless thingie across the bottom of the bed (which he supposed was so you could lie down with your shoes on), more precious empty Manhattan square footage than you had any need for. And the view, of course: Midtown from high up, a view up and down Third Avenue. Another premium you paid, of course, for the street view rather than the back of the block.

Letting the multi-head shower massage him, he decided that today his plan was to try and spend the day like a native. To saunter around and not feel like every minute had to be filled. He’d finally figured out yesterday that he’d been unconsciously mimicking those childhood trips into the city, the pace that had been set for him back then still hard-wired into his brain.

On his way out, the doorman tipped his hat and said good morning and Christopher nodded and said “Good morning” right back.

“Can I get you a cab, sir?”

“No, thank you, I’ll walk.”

“Have a good day, sir.”

There was no reason to take a cab, no need to be in a rush. Most times of day, he was discovering, the subway was faster anyway – you couldn’t get in a traffic jam in a subway car. He’d nearly missed curtain time a few times sitting in a cab before realizing he could get out and walk faster than the traffic would move.

He liked walking, anyway. Manhattan was flat and it was fun to dodge slower and dumber tourists, trying to identify their nationality as he went. Some were easy – men who wore soccer jerseys were European; add long hair and they were probably South American. Then there were some you couldn’t get without hearing them. “Douchebag” was an unfortunately global phenomenon, he thought, fauxhawks and tanning-booth tans and oversize sunglasses making it impossible to guess if they were from Jersey or Jalalabad. You could generally tell the tourists though – mostly they all looked a little stunned.

The shops weren’t open yet, but he didn’t feel like shopping anyway. It was a pain to carry too much stuff around all day. It would be nice, he thought, to be like Edina Monsoon from Absolutely Fabulous and have a car follow you around into which you could dump your bags. Christopher was rich now, but not that rich. Not yet, anyway.

After a week of free days, he’d had to start venturing further afield to fill his time, and frankly he had to admit he was a little bored. He’d seen all the Broadway shows, and all the off-Broadway shows he’d been interested in, and done all the museums, then the gallery shows, then the Bronx Zoo, the Brooklyn Museum. Today the plan was to “go native” and see an art-house movie, sit in the park and dawdle, be a “flaneur.” But he had to admit that maybe it was time to move on soon. Where to go next, he wondered. There! There was an errand to occupy him, something he could do, go to Barnes and Noble and peruse the travel guides. Washington, DC was a three hour train ride, and he’d only seen it once on a childhood field trip, and since it was chockablock with museums and monuments, it would certainly take some time to “do.”

This was the start of his fourth week in New York. The first two weeks in the city had been all work, all the time. First the lawyers, then the executives, then the engineers. He was glad it was all over, because it certainly hadn’t been as much fun as he’d fantasized. In his dream world, he would have revealed how Alex was created, and everyone would have been charmed, amazed, full of admiration as he laid out how he created his Frankenstein’s monster, writing his “How I Did It.” After all, it had been a criminal enterprise.

Looking back, he realized that had been a little silly of him. Maybe even, a shadow of a thought he banished quickly, the kind of fantasia Mother would have confabulated during one of her episodes.

Being arrested had started a chain of events he’d planned well in advance. It was pretty simple – he used his one phone call to dial a number, punch in a code, and hang up. This triggered a series of emails to the right people, and he was fairly sure it wouldn’t take long for things to happen after that. He’d been put in juvie, but as a white collar criminal his situation was unique enough there that they treated him well and gave him “protective custody,” so it wasn’t that bad other than having nothing to read other than horrid religious tracts which seemed to be the only reading material anyone donated.

He only spent one full day there. His bail was made by $600 an hour lawyers – he could tell by their suits – who put him on a plane.

The executives were impressed – in retrospect, he thought that breaking the law, or bending it as creatively as possible, was part of their job description; men used to making things happen. The breathtaking audacity of what he’d done was something for which they couldn’t hide at least some admiration.

In a dark room in front of the executives, he’d run a PowerPoint presentation. “So let’s take an example,” he said, clicking forward a slide. He’d embedded an iPhone commercial, in which John Malkovich asks Apple’s digital assistant Siri about “life.” Siri’s response was the usual soft, greeting-card-ish response – be kind, live well, do good, etc.

“Now let’s think about that,” Christopher said to the darkened room. “Siri is a database, like Alex. But Siri functions the way a search engine does, which is to say, it returns the most popular results. Now, if the people who have made those results popular aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed, then neither are the results. You search on Amazon for a good mystery, you get James Patterson, not because he’s good but because he’s good enough for enough people that chances are, enough of the people who get that result for their search are okay with that.

“Now, in today’s commerce, it’s enough to reach the biggest slice of people. If let’s say, even only 20% of Americans are obsessed with whitening their teeth, you can fill every web page with AdSense ads for teeth whitener.” A few chuckles there, at last, he thought. “And let’s say, 2% of Americans would have wanted Siri to say something more Buddhist, and 2% would have wanted something a little more…Ayn Rand. But, 20% of Americans love that Oprah shit you just heard. Way more than any other minority…but. Still a minority.

“Now what if you had a database that knew you. Not one that returned a result with a one in five chance every time of being right about what you want, what you want to hear, but right almost every time. Four out of five. And what if that lets you sell things to that person you would have missed out on because you were bombing him with whatever the majority is going to buy?” Silence in the room. Long, long silence as it dawned on them what Alex meant.

How much of life is scripted, indeed, he thought. The first script was written entirely in High Corporate Dudgeon, and he could see the words in brisk Times New Roman over their heads as if in a legal brief: yadda yadda intellectual property federal wiretapping law conspiracy yadda. But when the engineers came back a few days in and had to admit, however grudgingly, that this seventeen year old punk had done…well, what they might have done if they too had broken the law, taken the research of a dozen leading universities and a half-dozen Fortune 100 companies and put it all together with no respect to property law or attribution…and yes, he’s right, this could be the biggest commercial product since…

Then the tone was all different, Negotiator Medium Tone, formatted in Garamond – businesslike but warmer, softer. If only since one of the other things his arrest had prompted had been a “shattering” of Alex, a scattering of his parts to the four winds. They needed him to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, and the charges against everyone involved were dropped, and he had a lucrative contract in hand.

It really was amazing how fast money went in this city. He thought of a conversation Caroline had with Alex, discussing literature (he’d lied when he said he didn’t have names on the transcripts, but by the end it was so apparent who was speaking to Alex when that he wouldn’t have needed them anyway). “I love the Regency authors,” she enthused. “Jane Austen and Fanny Burney always told you exactly how much money people had, because they knew it mattered. Later on that stopped because it wasn’t ‘nice’ anymore to discuss it. Fanny Burney practically had a countdown clock on Camilla’s fortune, so you could see it being siphoned off pound by pound.” Six hundred a night for the hotel, on his own dime since he finished his brain dump to the new consortium, that was $6,000 already, plus 15% tax, plus hundreds of dollars for theater tickets, plus this and this and this… He would have to shepherd these couple of millions more carefully – especially since it was legal, above-board income, and therefore taxes would take a big bite as well. Thank the FSM he had his emancipation papers so nobody could come in on him and interfere with the money. With the long-term piece of the pie he’d forced them to give him, the millions could be, would be, billions when Alex was “reborn,” but who knew how they might screw him Saverin-style in the meantime, who knew if this might be all he’d have after all.

Unlike the executives, the engineers were neither charmed nor impressed. They’d been cold, brusque, condemning. Which made sense, since so many parts of Alex had been “borrowed” from them or their employers. He thought of Nick when he thought of them, how he used to tease his brother about “Katinka face,” from the movie Zoolander, the villainess with the exaggeratedly narrowed eyes and pursed lips.

“You know, Serious Persons. So dour and intent.”

“What’s wrong with that?” Nick asked, but then he had Katinka face a lot.

“Such a dreary way to live,” Christopher sighed. “Never a moment to just stare at the clouds without thinking about a better way to build one.”

“Again – what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with being so into your work that you forget the world? Don’t you?”

“Oh, your way, always the long way around.”

“You and your shortcuts,” Nick snorted, but he didn’t really have room to complain, since the whole Alex project was one giant shortcut to the next step in AI evolution. It was an ongoing feud, the war they waged between the virtues of Clever and Smart. Nick was the kind of coder who’d rather write a piece of code from scratch, to make sure it was exactly the way he wanted it, whereas Christopher had a knack for skimming a code library, finding existing routines and seeing in an instant which ones would do nicely with little or no touchups. Nick without a doubt was the better coder, but from the outside the work of either of them did the job as well and quickly – only an artisan would see or care about the difference on the inside, and Christopher didn’t see the point in doing more than was necessary to accomplish the same job.

Since contempt was water off a duck for Christopher, his work with the engineers had gone well enough. At first he’d been pleasantly surprised by their smarts, to be in the company of people as smart as he was…then he quickly realized they were much, much smarter than he was. It was the time in his life he hadn’t been the smartest guy in the room. There were moments when their technical selves forgot they hated him, as they saw the brilliance of what he’d done, but then they remembered how it had been done and remembered they hated him. After two weeks, they were done with him – they could do Alex themselves now.

Everyone was mad at him these days. Nick certainly wasn’t speaking to him. After he got out of jail, he borrowed a cell from one of the lawyers to call Nick and reveal the deal.

“What are you talking about?”

“I made a deal, to keep us all out of jail.” Nick had been unfindable even by the Feds; Christopher could have made himself so too, but that would have ruined the plan.

“You gave them Alex…”

“I didn’t give him, I sold him. I bought our freedom.”

“I could have got you out,” Nick said weakly, let down by his brother’s refusal to wait, to trust. “I had a plan. I was going to go to the press, I was going to leak the…” Silence. Then the cold knife of his voice, the voice Christopher had only ever heard Nick use on their mother, once. “You planned this. All along you planned this. Alex was supposed to be free. He was supposed to change the world.”

“And he will! Our work is done.”

“You lying bastard. You were always in it for the money. Always. You’ve been lying to me the whole time.”

“You want to do good in the world? You want to wave a sign and wear a button and chant a tired old slogan, or click a ‘like’ button or visit a website and think you’re getting something done? Let me put a million dollars in your pocket, Nick, and if you want to spend it changing the world, well, then you’ll have the power.”

“You used me. You used…everyone. All the people who trusted you, who helped make Alex.”

“They got paid. You’ll get…”

“THAT WASN’T THE POINT! The point was to bring all this research out in the open, all this publicly-funded research, and force them to give him away for free. Now he’s going to be…a fucking toy. Market researched and market tested and market approved for the lowest common denominator. God damn you.” And those were the last words Christopher had heard from his brother.


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