By William Ledbetter
As the sun cleared the tree line, Victor stopped rowing and pulled an old hat from his tackle box. Ten years of sweat, mud and fish slime almost—but not quite—covered the Presidential insignia. The hat, a gift from the Chief Executive himself along with a handshake and thanks, had given him the strength to continue the fight. But even high recognition hadn't been enough to help Victor and Deanna stem the tide of the Goopie takeover.
The hat, however, had turned out to be a very lucky fishing hat.
He sighed and looked out over the water. Mist and silence covered the still surface like a blanket. Victor loved the lake and, since the rise of Goopies and the Mix, few people marred its natural beauty—which suited Victor just fine. This was his refuge from a world he neither liked nor understood and had been manna for his soul after Deanna's death.
He scooped a minnow from the bucket and expertly inserted the hook. Spinning bait hadn't worked well this season, so Victor hoped they would like live ones better. With an easy flick of the wrist, he cast his line and it landed with a plop near a tree overhanging the bank. With some luck, he'd catch enough for lunch.
Stark had been a good president. He appreciated the work Victor and Deanna had done. He knew the value of their rallies and editorials to sound the alarm and educate the people about the Goopies. But even Stark's support hadn't been enough.
The Goopies—advanced intelligences that existed in vats of electrified jelly--were of human creation, yet deemed themselves superior. They were the greatest threat ever posed to human existence, yet complacency and apathy made humanity easy pickings for their siren song.
Sudden ripples marred the lake's glassy surface. Only anti-gravity fields--one of the thousand new technologies that had sprouted in the wake of the Goopie takeover—could cause water to behave that way. Victor's stomach rolled. Had they finally come to take him?
A sleek air-taxi drifted into sight above the trees, then dropped lower as it crossed the lake. He felt the air vibrating but heard only the squawk of frightened birds. The taxi slowed and settled to the ground behind Victor's house. He heard distant voices and then the craft lifted into the air again.
He stopped rowing and watched the taxi leave. What the hell? How could they not have seen him out on the lake?
He turned to see a young woman standing on the pier. She was pretty, with long honey-brown hair pulled into a pony tail. She was also hugely pregnant and had a suitcase.
He hadn't been with a woman since Deanna died, so the kid wasn't his and she didn't look young enough to claim him as her daddy. Of course there was only one way to find out, so he rowed in.
She watched with arms wrapped protectively over her belly as he tied off the boat. Then she advanced with hand extended.
"Hello, Mr. Yager. My name is Bonnie and I have something important to discuss with you."
"Well, I guess we’ll have plenty of time since your ride left and you brought a bag." Victor turned toward the house without taking the proffered hand, but he did pick up her bag. "Did you know it's considered rude in most parts of this world for a stranger to arrive for an extended stay without warning or invitation?"
Her only response was to follow with the ponderous waddle characteristic among very pregnant women.
He started a pot of coffee, motioned for Bonnie to sit, and brought leftover biscuits and homemade strawberry jam to the table.
"So, I bet this will be a good story," he said and sat down.
"Attempts were made to notify you, via electronic mail, paper mail and telephone, that without action on your part, your wife's preserved eggs would be destroyed or put up for public auction. The records indicate that you never replied. When the eggs went on auction, I bought them."
Victor's skin prickled and his hair stood on end. "Are you telling me that—"
"I'm carrying a child conceived from your preserved seed—which has been available to the public for the last six years—and one of your late wife's eggs."
Victor jumped up. "How dare you! That's illegal! You can't just—"
"I assure you, Mr. Yager, it’s all perfectly legal."
His hands shook and he leaned on the table, trying to gather his wits. The young woman watched him with passive interest. Then he thought he understood. Victor had heard rumors, but never believed it could be true.
"Are you a...Goopie?"
"Most people consider that a derogatory term, Mr. Yager. But yes, I'm an artificial intelligence."
Victor's stomach churned and he turned toward the counter so he wouldn't have to look at her. Fighting the Goopie takeover had always been important, but had turned into his only reason for living since Deanna died. And he was losing. Now this...thing was no longer an abstract or an avatar on a screen, but sat right in his kitchen, flaunting its superiority.
"Mr. Yager? I know this is a shock..."
He held up a hand and she stopped talking.
Up until now, fighting them had also been an abstract. He didn't know how a Goopie could steal a human body, and didn't care, but this was something he could fight. He picked up a fillet knife from the dish drain and turned toward her.
"No human has yet been convicted of killing a Goopie," he said.
"No, but then again no artificial intelligence has been murdered after having a human body constructed around them. And don't think for a minute that this body is less human than yours. Besides, I'm carrying a human child—your child—and that murder precedent was established a long time ago."
Had she looked like some plastic construct, he could easily have tested the legal system, and been glad for the media attention. But not like this. He stabbed the knife deep into the wooden countertop and stomped out of the room, then out of the house.
The morning sun was already high in the sky, but Victor needed to get back out onto the lake. He needed to be alone and he needed to think. There had to be a way he could get custody of the child and get rid of Bonnie too. Maybe he could use this as a bully pulpit and show the world what they were up against. He had friends he could call.
After checking his bait bucket, he grabbed a box of grubs and put it in the boat, but before he could escape, clunking boards on the pier alerted him to the pregnant thing's approach. She watched him rearrange his gear in the boat without speaking and when he returned from fetching a cooler for storing his catch, she was sitting in the boat.
"What the...get the hell out of my boat! You can't just come here and...You’re trespassing!"
"We have things to discuss and details to work out. And I've never ridden in a boat before."
He blinked at her, not sure what to do next. He didn't want her violating the sanctity of his lake, yet if he went back to the house she would follow him there too. And of course she was right. They needed to get some things straight. Maybe then she would go away. He untied the rope and climbed in.
As he rowed out toward the center of the lake, his unwanted passenger examined the beauty surrounding them. He wondered if a machine-based intelligence could appreciate such wonders of nature, or if they only saw beauty in cold mathematics and logic trees. Did placing an artificial mind into a human body affect their perceptions?
"So...how is it done? How do they get a Goopie brain into a human body?"
She shifted her weight, obviously trying to find a more comfortable position on the wooden seat.
"You really are cut off from civilization out here, aren't you, Mr. Yager? No wonder you never answered the inquiries. And I would’ve thought that you’d know your enemy better."
Victor pulled in the oars and waited.
"Okay. We basically take an organic processing substrate—our brain, which is now much different than the bucket of goop that gave us our much hated nicknames—and we build a human body around it. The system is much like the one we use to replace damaged tissue, but more involved. We grow the bones and organs first, then place them all into a vat where the nervous and circulatory system is built and tied in, pretty much one molecule at a time. Of course with nano-assemblers—"
"Okay, I get the picture. But just because you could pass a physical, can walk and talk and look like a human being, doesn't mean you are one. Why are you here and why are you carrying a human child? And why my child?"
"Do you really understand the Mix, Mr. Yager?"
"Of course." He plucked a minnow from the bucket and slid it onto the hook. "It's the hive mind you Goopies use to communicate and plot world domination."
"You have an antiquated and limited world view, Victor. May I call you Victor?"
"No." Victor cast his line into an area right above a submerged cave system that hid some of the lake's biggest crappie.
"Okay, well...the Mix is much more than that. It’s actually a human invention—"
"So are Goopies and look where that got us."
She stared at him with very human-like exasperation. "No, we AI's are only a part of the Mix. Humans are the other part, and that's the reason I'm here.”
As the minnow neared the surface, Victor saw a quick flash of scales from a fish that had been interested but then dove for deeper cover. He pulled the line in and cast to the same spot. "Go on."
"Human population is on the decline. For the first time in modern history the birthrate is not high enough to meet replacement requirements."
"I would've thought Goopies would see that as a good thing. Decrease in competition, and eventual dying out of the inferior species?"
"I told you that the Mix is made up of human and AI minds, all of which play an integral and important role."
Victor smirked and pulled his line in again, then cast in the direction he'd seen the fish dart.
"It's true, Mr. Yager. All major technological breakthroughs in the past twenty years have been due to the interaction of human and electronic minds. Anti-gravity, nano-technology, quantum fusion—all have come about due to our combined efforts. Humans have a knack for making intuitive leaps of logic, completely bypassing a step-by-step progression. And our kind has the ability to compile and analyze billions of pieces of information and sometimes see new patterns emerge. It's the coupling of these abilities that has given us these big jumps."
"So what? The human population is over nine billion. And those humans are living longer and longer. I'm sure that death itself will eventually be defeated. So why is replacement and positive population growth important?"
She hesitated. At first Victor thought she must be trying to think of the right words to explain her point, but then he remembered who he was talking with and that she was probably conversing with her peers via the Mix. The thought angered him. What was she not telling him? Was she getting approval? And on top of that, she was ruining the fishing.
He took his lucky hat from the tackle box and pulled it on. Almost immediately, the line jiggled and he picked up his pole.
"We've been analyzing and projecting the Mix’s potential. We believe that our understanding of the universe is approaching a new threshold, a kind of critical mass. Perhaps it is that long pursued Theory of Everything, but whatever it is, we're getting very close. We need to keep growing in that direction. We need to hit that toggle point in the Mix's understanding that can only come through continued growth."
A little tug set the hook. Victor knew he had the fish and started reeling.
"Why is the natural birthrate dropping?"
"We don't know. Maybe humans have lost interest in having and raising children."
Victor pulled the fish in close and lifted it into the net. His wife, Deanna, hadn't been able to explain why she didn't want children, just that she felt selfish and didn't want to give herself to them.
Victor had never felt that way.
"Why not just build babies on an assembly line, like you were created, then raise them however you want?"
"In brief, we're afraid to...mess with the recipe. We know that humans born and raised the traditional way are capable of extraordinary feats. They conceived and built us and the Mix. We need more of that."
Did they really respect human life and ability that much? Or was she playing him for the patsy, to get what she wanted? "Okay, then why me?"
Bonnie smiled. It was probably a programmed response, yet it seemed so natural. She looked so human.
"The record we assembled shows that you really wanted children, but your wife did not. We hoped that—even though we knew you would be a tough case—you would eventually be amenable to having children in this way."
"Your wife only had one viable egg. But I can produce eggs as well. Or we can purchase others."
"We?" Anger seized him as he stared at the fish gasping in the net. "Wait just a minute. You think that because you're carrying my child I'll let you stay here after it's born? And that I'll have another baby with you? You're not my wife and just having a baby with my genes won't change that!"
"Mr. Yager, I could have elected to raise this child on my own or enlist help from some other human, but I chose to come here and give you the chance to help with the child you always wanted."
Just then the fish decided to make its escape and wiggled wildly until it flipped out of the net and dropped into the floor of the boat. In her surprise, the Goopie jerked backwards and tumbled right over the edge and into the water.
Victor lunged to her side and saw immediately that she couldn't swim. She flailed about like most drowning people, but her face didn't express a human panic or fear, more like surprised interest. That was proof of her alien nature and he should have let her sink, but reaching out to her was an instinctive thing—a human thing—and Victor would not give that up.
He grabbed her arm and pulled her close enough to the boat so she could clutch the gunwales. She coughed and blew snotty water from her nose, then started shivering.
"Please...save this baby," she said through chattering teeth. That comment and the expression of misery on her face were human enough to soften Victor's resolve.
"Look...I don't think I can get you back into the boat. If you weren't pregnant I could try to balance it while pulling you up over the side, but I don't think that will work with your belly. Move around to the back of the boat. Then I'll row us in closer to shore. Can you do that? Do you think you can hang on long enough?"
She nodded and he picked up the oars.
Victor made a fire and hot tea while his half-drowned guest showered to remove the mud and lake slime. When she finished, he wrapped her in a blanket and set her in front of the fire.
He sat down in a chair opposite her, with his shotgun lying across his knees.
She sipped the tea and stared at the gun. "Is murdering me still an option? Wouldn't it have been neater to just let me drown?"
He had no intention of killing her, but he didn't want her to know that yet. "This way I have an option of taking the child—who I would guess must be developed enough to survive outside the womb—and then shooting you."
She nodded, with no emotion on her face and no quiver in her hands.
"Why you?" Victor asked. "Is this just your assignment? Did you draw the short straw?"
"Despite my participation in the Mix and regardless of your previous obnoxious diatribes to the contrary, I'm an individual. I make decisions of my own free will, just like humans. And I chose to have this child, even though doing so will significantly shorten my lifespan."
"Why shorten your life?"
"Because the transfer is one way. My organic substrate is being absorbed and woven into this body, tied to every blood vessel and nerve ending. So just like you, I'll die when this body fails. But being a part of birthing and raising human children is important to me. I think each new human mind will be a significant contribution to the Mix. So if you are going to kill me, please wait until after this baby is born. I've already given up too much to see it die now."
Victor set the gun on the floor and leaned back in his chair. "You can sleep in the room at the end of the hall. It's small, but at least you won't have to climb stairs.”
Victor closed his eyes and let his mind and boat drift with the warm summer breeze. The late afternoon sun baked his face, and he would have dozed had it not been for a splash near the shore. He opened an eye and turned his head just enough to see a small head bobbing in the water about twenty yards away.
Alert for sounds of distress, he closed his eyes again and waited. Soon a pair of small hands gripped the side of the boat, followed by wet hair, his dead wife's big green eyes and a face dominated by freckles and teeth. It issued a low growl. "Grrrrrr...”
Victor jumped up and feigned fear, then as the five-year-old lake monster started giggling he grabbed her and pulled her into the boat.
"Well, look what I caught for dinner! A big, giggly girl. And I did it even without a net or a pole!"
"You can't eat me for dinner, Momma already cooked spaghetti."
"Spaghetti! Fishermen don't eat spaghetti!"
Then as the sun dipped into the tree line, Dee's teeth started chattering. He took an old jacket from under the seat, shook it out to be sure it was bug free, and wrapped it around her. As he started rowing back toward the house, she settled to the floor between his legs and pulled his old hat from the tackle box.
She looked up at him and scrunched her nose. "This thing is gross. Is it really a lucky hat?"
"You bet. If I'd been wearing it today this boat would have been so full of fish there wouldn't have been any room for you."
She rolled her eyes and examined the hat further before settling it on her wet head. "I want a baby brother. Momma said I'd have to ask you."
Victor nearly choked. "Oh really? Why do I detect a conspiracy?"
She turned around and smiled up at him, then her face went a little blank for second, the way she always did when she tapped into the Mix. "Momma said she has the eggs if you have the time."
Victor laughed aloud and looked over his shoulder toward the house. Bonnie sat on the end of the pier, dipping her bare feet in the lake. She smiled and waved.
"Your Momma said that? She just might be developing a sense of humor."
"What did she mean, Daddy?" She went slack again for a half second and then started giggling. "Momma said she's the catch of the day and you don't even need your lucky hat."
He laughed again and turned the boat as they neared the old wooden dock. Bonnie looked cocky and a little too happy for a Goopie.
His daughter said, in her all-business tone, "I think I'll get a baby brother."
"Oh? Why do you think that?" he asked and wrapped her in a big hug.
She gave him a clumsy kiss on his cheek. "Cuz now I'm wearing the lucky hat."
About the Author
William Ledbetter is a writer with more than thirty speculative fiction stories and non-fiction articles. He administers the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award contest, is a Writers of the Future winner, a Launch Pad Astronomy workshop graduate, runs the Science Track for Fencon and is a consulting editor at Heroic Fantasy Quarterly. He lives near Dallas with his family and too many animals. For more information visit his website at www.williamledbetter.com.
“Lake Effect” was first published in the Volume 16/43—Fall, 2011 issue of ALLEGORY.
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