Paranoia (067 of 170)

—of —
by Joseph Finder
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Macmillan: Paranoia

Paranoia by Joseph Finder. Copyright 2004 by Joseph Finder.
All Rights Reserved. Sharing not permitted.

Part Three: 34 (Cont'd)

The transfer was to take place within the next three weeks. I was completely freaked out. The North Carolina site was for strictly back-office stuff. A million miles away from R&D. I'd be useless to Wyatt there. And he'd blame me for screwing up. I could practically hear the guillotine blade rushing down on its tracks.

It's funny: not until I walked out of her office did I think about my dad, and then it really hit me. I couldn't move. I couldn't leave the old man here. Yet how could I refuse to go where Nora was sending me? Short of escalating—going over her head, or at least trying to, which would surely backfire on me—what choice did I have? If I refused to go to North Carolina, I'd have to resign from Trion, and then all hell would break loose.

It felt as if the whole building were revolving slowly; I had to sit down, had to think. As I passed by Noah Mordden's office he waggled his finger at me to summon me in.

"Ah, Cassidy," he said. "Trion's very own Julien Sorel. Do be nice to the Madame de Renal."

"Excuse me?" I said. I didn't know what the hell he was talking about.

In his signature Aloha shirt and his big round black glasses he was looking more and more like a caricature of himself. His IP phone rang, but naturally it wasn't any ordinary ring tone. It was a sound file clipped from David Bowie's "Suffragette City": "Oh wham bam thank you ma'am!"

"I suspect you impressed Goddard," he said. "But at the same time, you must also take care not to unduly antagonize your immediate superior. Forget Stendhal. You might want to read Sun Tzu." He scowled. "The ass you save could be your own."

Mordden's office was decorated with all sorts of strange things. There was a chessboard painstakingly laid out in mid-game, an H.P. Lovecraft poster, a large doll with curly blond hair. I pointed to the chessboard questioningly.

"Tal-Botvinnik, 1960," he said, as if that meant anything to me. "One of the great chess moves of all time. In any case, my point is, one does not besiege walled cities if it can be avoided. Moreover, and this is wisdom not from Sun Tzu but from the Roman emperor Domitian, if you strike at a king, you must kill him. Instead, you waged an attack on Nora without arranging air support in advance."

"I didn't intend to wage an attack."

"Whatever you intended to accomplish, it was a serious miscalculation, my friend. She will surely destroy you. Remember, Adam. Power corrupts. PowerPoint corrupts absolutely."

"She's transferring me to Research Triangle."

He cocked an eyebrow. "Could have been much worse, you know. Have you ever been to Jackson, Mississippi?"

I had, and I liked the place, but I was bummed and didn't feel like engaging in a long conversation with this strange dude. He made me nervous. I pointed to the ugly doll on the shelf and said, "That yours?"

"Love Me Lucille," he said. "A huge flop and one that, I'm proud to say, was my initiative."

"You engineered ... dolls?"

He reached over and squeezed the doll's hand, and it came to life, its scary-realistic eyes opening and then actually squinting with the animation of a human being. Its cupid's bow mouth opened and turned down into a frightening scowl.

"You've never seen a doll do that."

"And I don't think I ever want to again," I said.

Mordden allowed a glint of a smile. "Lucille has a full range of human facial expressions. She's fully robotic, and actually quite impressive. She whines, she gets fussy and annoying, just like a real baby. She requires burping. She gurgles, coos, even tinkles in her diaper. She exhibits alarming signs of colic. She does everything but get diaper rash. She has speech-localization, which means she looks at whoever's talking to her. You teach her to speak."

"I didn't know you did dolls."

"Hey, I can do anything I want here. I'm a Trion Distinguished Engineer. I invented it for my little niece, who refused to play with it. She thought it was creepy."

"It is kind of homely," I said.

"The sculpt was bad." He turned to the doll and spoke slowly. "Lucille? Say hello to our CEO."

Lucille turned her head slowly to Mordden. I could hear a faint mechanical whir. She blinked, scowled again, and began speaking in the deep voice of James Earl Jones, her lips forming the words: "Eat my shorts, Goddard."

"Jesus," I blurted out.

Lucille turned slowly to me, blinked again, and smiled sweetly.

"The technological guts inside this butt-ugly troll were way ahead of its time," Mordden said. "I developed a full multithreaded operating system that runs on an eight-bit processor. State-of-the-art artificial intelligence on some really tightly compiled code. The architecture's quite clever. Three separate ASICs in her fat tummy, which I designed."

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