Howard Roarke: The Gritty Reboot

Thalberg again. “I didn’t know you built robots, Mr. Gregory.”

Leon squints into his spex. “I don’t.”

“I’m in Point Grey right now, looking at one that has your handiwork all over it.”

“Point Gr—oh.” It comes back to him. “Vortex.”

The feed switches to Thalberg’s drone, hovering over a dead Honda Kamakiri splayed across granite flagstones. Its carapace is fractured; two legs are broken. A sparse cloud of tinfoil moths flutter around it like tiny angels gone grand mal, lurching and jerking in a spastic caricature of the swirling murmurations Leo programmed in three years ago. Thalberg’s Bloodhound noses the carcass with a precise forensic rigor that can’t quite dispel the sense of one being mourning the loss of another.

Thalberg reappears. “204, I presume.”

“Yeah. The bot’s off-the-shelf, but I— customized it.”

“These little floaty bits.”

Leo nods. “Among other things. They’re supposed to flock like birds. Magnetic coils, microfans, nearest-neighbor algos. It was actually pretty impressive before…”

“Uh huh.” Thalberg does not sound impressed. Truth be told, Leo isn’t either, really. 204 was a gimmick, a handful of elements from his Greatest-Hits collection recycled into work-for-hire.

Still. “So is this a pattern, then?”

“Twice is coincidence,” Thalberg says. “Takes three times to get to Enemy Action. But you might want to send me a list of any of other works you’ve got scattered around the lower mainland. Just in case.”

It hits him then. “That’s a security bot; there should be video. If not in local memory, uploaded somewhere.”

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?” Thalberg smiles grimly. “All the local surveillance was scrambled.”

“What?”

The officer nods. “Some kind of magnetic interference. Every camera in range got fratzed before anything appeared in frame.”

“Don’t look at me,” Leo says.

Thalberg raises an eyebrow. “Why would I?”

“Well, um, the coils I installed. For the birdlets. But I shielded the onboard electronics, and anyway the fields weren’t nearly strong enough to mess with anything outside the chassis.”

“Uh huh.” Thalberg leans out of frame for a moment before the tracking macro kicks in and reacquires; Leo catches a glimpse of steering wheel, experiences a flicker of envy. Cops still get to drive, manually. Their cars don’t even come with a self-drive option, not since the Antinatalists hacked the whole Cincinnati PD fleet into playing bumper-car at 100 kph in the downtown core.

Those were the days.

*

Emma’s eyes still move under their lids.

It’s not supposed to happen. Her brain is as shut down as the rest of her: metabolic pathways clogged by precise aliquots of hydrogen sulfide, the machinery of that vital life slowed by ninety percent or more. Her mind resides mainly in the hippocampus now: pure dreamless slow-wave, its upper reaches dormant and blissfully unaware.

Yet there she is. Looking around in the darkness. Always the rule-breaker.

“Hey, kid.” Leo glances down at the bauble in his hand. “Brought you something.” It’s not kinetic but it’s pretty enough: a small beaded urchin lit from within, a home-made LED with an epidermis of polished sea-glass. He shows it to her, as ritual dictates (did those closed eyes stop moving for just a second, come to rest on the gift in his hand?); carefully sets it down on the headboard with all the others he’s brought her over the years. He smooths the hair away from her forehead. They should probably buzz it but they keep it short instead. He and Kris wash it together, every week.

So damn young. Fifteen years old and she still looks like a little girl: their sleeping beauty, aging one year in ten. What happens if it takes another decade to find a cure? Two? Emma could hit thirty before she hits puberty.

They’ve thought about waking her up, of course. Fought about it, even: what harm would it do, on special occasions? Birthdays, Christmases. Just for an hour or two. Maybe a day. To give her some time in the light, to reacquaint themselves with this small bright soul they’ve put on hold while they wait for medicine to catch up with the bioterrorists.

Cruel fantasy, of course. It takes days to lift someone safely out of a sulfide coma—and for what? So their beautiful daughter can see her parents aging in stop-motion, glimpse a world moving on without her as all those tiny monsters, reawakened in turn, devour her a little more from the inside? And then it’s Playtime’s over, sweetie. Back to the void. Happy birthday. All for a few minutes of selfish face time.

And yet they miss her so much. The hurt, the heartache—builds up. So they let it out now and then, arguing, denying, iterating through the same steps to the same unassailable end point while Stella waits in stasis, tended by magical machines.

Sometimes Leo finds a measure of comfort here: the soft blue lighting, the twinkling constellations of vital signs, the slow viscous peristalsis of the gel mattress as it rolls his daughter to and fro to keep the bed sores at bay. The low electrical hum and snap of the EMS pads on arms and legs: small electrocutions to head off the wasting of unused muscles. The whole room is a kind of ecosystem, a blue-shifted electric forest keeping the monsters away. That ambiance—reassures him, somehow.

Sometimes.

Other times it drives him up the fucking wall.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Tuesday November 10 2020at 09:11 am , filed under fiblet . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

25 Responses to “Howard Roarke: The Gritty Reboot”

  1. I feel very very dumb but I can’t see the connection to _The Fountainhead_.

    I like it though. Hope it makes it into a longer form someday.

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  2. You are not dumb. The connection is completely opaque based on the excerpt.

    Leo is an architect. In fact, he’s a real person in the real world: this big art-house publisher is putting together a big glossy coffee-table book retrospective on his career, and being a fan, he approached me to contribute a piece. So I shoved him a couple of decades into the future and watched him flail.

    He seems okay with it.

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  3. I didn’t catch the connection either, but I *love* the feel of it!

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  4. Peter Watts: he’s a real person in the real world

    huh.

    Are you allowed to do that? It seems like it should be against the rules. I guess he did ask for it, but I’m not sure how much of a fan of yours he is if he wants to be put inside your imagination.

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  5. Yeah, he asked for it. And he even approved— said he loved it, in fact— except for the part in the first draft where his kid was dead. He wasn’t keen on that part.

    So I put her in a coma instead, and we met in the middle.

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  6. Peter Watts: He wasn’t keen on that part

    Yeah, I was kinda wondering about that.
    (That was me, I posted as anon, apparently)

    https://www.appliedeschatology.com/

    Fun link I just came across, btw.

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  7. I’d pay decent money for you to write more like this. Though it seems a bit like a good cold open for a detective story

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  8. Nestor,

    Whoa

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  9. Nestor: Fun link I just came across, btw.

    Their last blog post was in July 2019.

    I think they may have gone extinct.

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  10. Selfishly loved the bit about sea glass urchin. (Don’t want to know for sure that that absolutely wasn’t my influence, of course it wasn’t, but I liked the moment of that vain thought 🙂

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  11. They were seriously precognitive, that second last post is about covid-19…in July 19. Rather I think they were fucking around with older posts and forgot to update the timestamps.

    I seem to recall we had a lively conversation about extinctionism here a while back… or maybe it was on reddit…

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  12. Gorgeous. Esp “noses the carcass with a precise forensic rigor .. one being mourning the loss of another.”

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  13. Was that “first time happenstance, second time coincidence…” a nod to Sean Connery’s recent passing?

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  14. Kate Seastainedglass:
    Selfishly loved the bit about sea glass urchin. (Don’t want to know for sure that that absolutely wasn’t my influence, of course it wasn’t, but I liked the moment of that vain thought

    Oh, that was totally you. It was even more you in the first draft, when it was a sea-glass urchin with an LED in its heart. But then Omer told me that he was working on building his own LEDs from scratch in reality, so instead of having one thing inside the other why not make them a single object?

    Phil:
    Was that “first time happenstance, second time coincidence…” a nod to Sean Connery’s recent passing?

    It was not. Connery was still alive when I wrote that.

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  15. Peter Watts: Oh, that was totally you.

    OMG. One of the most proud moments of my life 🙂 Gonna boast about it!!!

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  16. Loved it. Didn’t realize I wanted a near-ish future moderately hard sci (Neo-noir?) detective story until now.

    Anyone have any recommendations for same?

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  17. (I assume comments must be approved before appearing – do I need an email for that?)

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  18. Bleak:
    (I assume comments must be approved before appearing – do I need an email for that?)

    Nah, new commenters get held in moderation by default. Once I approve their first comment, subsequent comments are approved automatically.

    Except when they aren’t. I still haven’t figured out why that doesn’t always work.

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  19. Peter Watts,

    It probably requires a cookie, but I clear cookies every time I close my browser 😛

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  20. Bleak:
    Loved it. Didn’t realize I wanted a near-ish future moderately hard sci (Neo-noir?) detective story until now.

    Anyone have any recommendations for same?

    I suggest Neuropath by Scott Bakker. It’s not detective, but it is murder mystery (in a near future sci-fi setting). Not as good as his fantasy books but still good. Might scratch your itch.

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  21. Bleak:
    Loved it. Didn’t realize I wanted a near-ish future moderately hard sci (Neo-noir?) detective story until now.

    Anyone have any recommendations for same?

    If you haven’t read Asimov’s robot series, it’s really good sci-fi detective stuff, although a bit further out than near future. I feel like they’ve aged far better than Foundation, and are much, much better written.

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  22. MORE!

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  23. Peter Watts:

    So I put her in a coma instead, and we met in the middle.

    Lmao. Never change, Peter.

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  24. Apropos short stories which might never see a full release, when’re can we see “Insect Gods” in the backlist? Hopefully the exclusivity period has elapsed…

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  25. Bleak,

    The Regular by Ken Liu. Only a short, but pretty killer.

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