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Dark as Day (Cold as Ice)by Charles Sheffield
It was hard to say which was worse: waiting for Seine-Day to arrive, or enduring the torrent of hype that preceded the event.
Alex Ligon stared at the output that filled the two-meter display volume of his Ganymede office. In that display the solar system was evolving before his eyes. The year showed as 2098, ticking along a steady daily tally of status: population, economic activity, material and energy production and use, and transportation and information flow between worlds. Any statistic was available for the asking. And every statistic, he knew from past experience, was likely to be wrong. For anything beyond a week, the predictions steadily diverged from reality.
It was not the fault of his models, he felt sure of that. It was simply that he was forced to run them with too-high levels of aggregation. Otherwise, a one-day prediction would be slower than real-time and take more than a day to run.
The Seine, once it came into operation, would cure that completely. He would be able to model each individual human unit, all five billion of them, together with data bank details from everywhere in the System. He would also, if the Seine's performances matched the promises made for it, be able to run at a million times real-time. He could sit back and watch his models blur through a century of solar system development in an hour.
"When I dipped into the future, far as human eye can see." Or well beyond, with a little help from the right computer. More than that, with the Seine's quantum parallelism you could vary any parameter and observe the effect of changes.
If the Seine's performance matched the promises.
Alex glanced at the bottom left-hand corner of the display, where media inputs were displayed. He had the sound level damped way down, but the picture was enough to tell him what was going on. It was another puff piece about the Seine, set against a background of a high-level entangling unit. A smiling woman with an unnatural number of teeth was doing the talking; a portly older man beside her was nodding confidently; and a thin woman with worry lines marking her forehead stood in the background--probably one of the engineers, poor bastard, who actually had to deliver the Seine's entangling and instantaneous data transfer across the whole System.
Alex turned his attention back to the main display. It was chugging along toward the end of 2099, almost two years from now, and the model showed a million tons of materials were being shipped daily between Ganymede and Rhea, Saturn's second largest moon. And if you believed that figure you would believe anything. Present shipping was less than a hundred tons a day. The model was diverging again. Higher resolution was a must if the results were to mean anything.
Alex swore and glanced back to the media corner. They were handling the return of the Seine as the event of the century, bigger even than the war that had disrupted and dispersed the original Seine. Maybe they were right. The original pre-war version of the Seine had linked the System, but it was primitive compared with its quantum logic successor. And Alex needed every bit of computing power he could lay his hands on.
The media corner switched without warning from a shot of the worried computer engineer. Kate Lonaker's face appeared, and the sound level changed. "Sorry to pull an override on you." She grimaced out at Alex, "But Mrs. Ligon is on the line."
"Shit. Will you tell her that I'm not--"
"No, I won't. She knows chat you're here."
"Tell her I'm working."
"You're always working. Come on, sweetheart, you can't refuse to talk to your dear old mother."
"But I'm right in the middle of running the model--"
"Right. And from the look on your face it's going nowhere, so you can afford to take a break. Here she comes. Be nice to her."
Kate vanished. In her place appeared a woman whose vitality and beauty seemed to burst out of the display. She smiled at Alex. "There you are."
"The young woman who put me through to you seems like a sweet little thing. Is she your assistant?"
"No, Mother." Alex checked that they were on Record. He wanted to watch Kate's expression when she learned that she was a sweet little thing. She would hate it. "Ms. Lonaker is my boss."
"Boss?" Lena Ligon's perfect face took on a startled look.
"Boss. I report to her."
"But that's ridiculous. No one in our family needs to report to anybody. Who is she?"
"She's division chief for Advanced Planning in the Outer System. She works for the government. Like me."
"The same as the last time you asked me. I build predictive models for the whole solar system--Inner and Outer." Alex glanced at the big display, where the simulation was still rolling along. Estimated shipping tonnages for 2101 had exceeded fixed-point range and were being reported as floating-point, with ridiculously large exponents. "Not very good models, I'm afraid."
"If that's what interests you, you could do it just as well by yourself without reporting to anybody. We're not exactly paupers."
"And you wouldn't have to work in a place like that." The single word covered all of Alex's spartan office, where the display volume left space for only a single chair and a small desk. The walls were neutral pale yellow, with no pictures or decorations.
"I know. Let me think about it. Maybe we can discuss this after the family meeting." Alex knew he was committing to something else he didn't want to do, but it was the easiest way to avoid an argument he couldn't win.
"That's why I called, Alex, to make sure you will be there. And don't forget about the other thing. I can make arrangements whenever you are ready."
"I won't forget." Alex studied his mother's image, seeking the invisible. "I've been considering it."
"Good. We'll talk about that, too. Tomorrow, then. At four."
Lena Ligon nodded. "Try not to be late, as you usually are." To Alex's relief she vanished from the display. He glanced at the main simulation, where half the variables now showed overflow. Gibberish. He touched the pad to terminate the run, at the same time as he heard the door behind him slide open.
It was Kate, he knew without looking. He could smell her perfume, which always made him think of oranges and lemons.
"Got a minute?" she said.
"The model run--"
"Is garbage." She took his arm. "I've been keeping an eye on it. Come on, sweetie, let's go to my office."
"I should change parameters and do another case."
"It can wait. Me, I think we could easily take the rest of the day off." Kate was leading the way along a narrow, dingy corridor. "If the Seine performs as advertised, tomorrow everything changes."
"The run results can't be any better than the models. The Seine won't change them."
"Runs also can't be better than their inputs. The Seine will draw from every data bank in the System, no matter where it is. At the moment we're starved for Belt data. Suppose that's the missing ingredient?"
They had reached Kate's office. It was twice the size of Alex's, and as cluttered as his was empty. In pride of place on one wall, where Kate would see it whenever she looked up from her work, was a hand-embroidered cloth. Within an elaborate floral border were the words, "Prediction is difficult, especially of the future."
Alex slumped into the chair opposite Kate, accepted a tumbler of her made-to-order carbonated drink, and said-abruptly, "What do you want to talk about?"
"You. How are you feeling?"
"Lie Number One. Every time you meet your mother or anybody in your immediate family, you can't think straight for hours. No, make that days."
"So why did you insist that I talk with her?"
"Suppose I'd put her off until later. Would you have been able to work, or would you have worried all the time until she did reach you?"
When Alex said nothing, Kate went on, "You know, your mother just offered you what most people who work here would die for."
"You tapped in to a private conversation!"
"I might have. Most of it I knew already. Anyway, you were talking in working hours, so I could claim the right. But don't let's get sidetracked. Me, I need to earn a living. I have to work, and I have to put up with bureaucratic bullshit. I even generate some myself, though I try to keep it down. But you don't. You could walk out tomorrow. You'd have the freedom to work on what you want, when you want, where you want. There'd be nobody like me to pester you for reports."
"You don't understand."
"Probably not. But I really want to. I'm a relatively recent arrival, but you've been here for over three years. Why do you stay?"
"You have the reason sitting right there on your wall." He pointed to the hand-embroidered sign. "I agree with Niels Bohr, prediction is difficult. What will happen in the next ten years, or the next fifty? We don't know. I just happen to think that it's the most important question in the solar system."
"I'm with you. And maybe the hardest."
Kate said nothing more, but sat waiting patiently until Alex at last took a huge gulp from the tumbler, swallowed hard, and burst out, "The models in use when I came here were useless. They couldn't even predict the past. They'd been run over and over for the years leading up to the Great War, and they never saw it coming until the Armageddon Defense Line was gone and Oberth City was destroyed, and by then it was too late."
"What about your models?"
"You saw today's run. You said the right word: garbage."
"But isn't that a problem of inputs, and of computer limitations? You designed the models to run with more than ten billion Faxes. That should be enough to include a simulation of every individual in the System, even if you let the prediction run for a whole century. You've always been forced to aggregate to a million or less. What do you think of the models themselves?"
"They're pretty good."
"I think I ought to call that Lie Number Two. I'm not able to judge what you're doing, but before I took this job I talked to people whose judgment I respect. I also love modest men, but tell me true. Don't you have an entirely new theoretical basis for predictive modeling?"
"I believe I do." Alex could feel the knot inside him starting to dissolve. Was it something in the drink, or something in Kate Lonaker? "At least, no one seems to have run across it before."
"That's what I've heard. Look, you must know by now that I'm not much of a techie. I've looked at your papers, and didn't get diddly-squat out of them. Can you describe what your models do in words of one syllable, so I'll understand?"
"I don't think so. Not unless you have a few hours to spare."
"I don't. But your models did predict the Great War?"
"Sort of. When I ran from 2030 on, they reached a singularity in 2067. That was the correct year, but of course you can't compute past a singularity of the time line. So there was no way of knowing the war's outcome."
"You predicted a cataclysm. That's good enough for me. Let's go on. I asked you to tell me true, now it's my turn to do the same. My worry list has three items at the top of it. First, I'm worried that you'll take your mother's offer, leave, and set up your own research shop."
"Not a chance."
"Why not--and don't tell me it's because your mother makes you nervous."
"She does, but that's got nothing to do with it." Alex paused. "You said you love modest men. This is going to sound anything but."
"I didn't say I didn't like immodest men. I've certainly met enough of them. Go on."
"All right. My models may be producing garbage, but every other long-range predictive model that I've ever seen, here or elsewhere, is garbage. My models have the potential to get it right. You say you don't understand what I do, but in a way you don't have to. Because if you approve my results, they go up the line, and with any luck they'll keep on going up to the point where the results lead to action."
"I hope so. Otherwise there's no point in either of us working here."
"Now suppose that I go off and do what my mother suggests. I'd have plenty of research funds--Ligon Industries is huge, and it's all in the family. Vast available assets."
"Richer than God, if you believe the media."
"So I run my models, and suppose they produce surprising results. I come here, and say, look what I've discovered. What happens next?"
"We'd have to verify them before we could act." Kate nodded. "Go on. I think I see where you're leading."
"You'd verify them. Of course. And verify with what? The other models you have floating around here, that I know are crap? No agreement, we can pretty much guarantee that. And it would be NIH for me--Not Invented Here. I could come in showing that the Sun would go supernova, and I wouldn't be heard. I'm working on the most important question in the solar system, but what's the point if I'm not taken seriously? And for that, I must be an insider. Does that take care of your first worry? I'm not going to leave, unless somebody higher up comes along and throws me out."
"Which conveniently leads me to my second worry. You told me that you can't easily describe your models in a way that I can understand."
"It would take hours."
"I believe you. But I can't accept that answer. Because I have faith in you and your models, and I assume that soon--maybe starting tomorrow--they will start producing meaningful predictions, results that we really believe. So I take them up the line to Mischa Glaub. And the first thing I'm asked to do is explain what's going on in a way that he can understand--and he has a lot less time to spend on this than I do. Then he has to brief his boss, Tomas De Mises. And he has to explain to anyone on the Council who shows interest."
"You make it sound impossible."
"If you talk about 'iterated multiple convolution kernels,' which is a snappy phrase I remember from your last paper, it is impossible. I want you do to something for me, and put it as high on your priority list as anything in your models. I want you to find a way to explain the models in a way that someone with no special training will understand."
"How can I do that?"
"Your problem. Use analogies, use pictures, use metaphors, I don't mind if you have to try poetry and dancing. But we really need this--or all your work will be ignored, just as surely as if it came from outside the organization."
Alex stared at her. He was feeling like a fool. She was right, and so obviously right that he should have thought of it for himself. "I'll do my best. But how will I know when I have what you want?"
"We use the Napoleonic principle." At Alex's raised eyebrows, she went on, "You'll brief Macanelly, from Pedersen's group. Do you know him?"
"No. But I've heard about him."
"Heard what about him?"
"That nobody likes to work with him. That he's conceited, and also that he's close to being a moron."
"That's what I've heard, too. He'll be perfect. Napoleon used to have a special officer, a very dim one, who read all outgoing dispatches. Unless a dispatch was clear even to that man, it didn't go out. Loring Macanelly will be our dispatch reader. When we have an explanation of what you're doing that he can understand and repeat back to me, we'll be happy. Won't we? You don't look happy."
"Kate, I want to work on theory, and I want to develop analytic models. I consider what we are doing supremely important. But I hate this other sort of stuff, simplifying work to the point where it's mote misleading than informative, and then feeding it to half-wits."
"You know what they say: God must be specially fond of half-wits, because he made so many of them. Will you do it?"
"I told you, I'll do my best."
"When you get something halfway ready, I'll be your first half-wit." Kate leaned back in her seat. "All right. That takes care of worries one and two. I'm not sure I have any right to ask you about worry three."
"But you're going to." Alex had been vaguely upset when Kate Lonaker was appointed as his boss. She was two years younger than he, and before the end of their first brief meeting he knew she had little technical talent. Now, bit by bit, he was realizing what she had instead. More nerve than he would ever possess, and an inexplicable charm that took the edge off whatever she said.
And one other talent. How could a person do that, make you feel that they liked you and found you fascinating, without saying a single word? She was sitting there now, smiling at Alex as though he was the most interesting person in the System. And Kate could do it with anybody.
"If you're going to ask me, then ask."
"I will." Kate glanced at her watch. "But I'm getting hungry. Can we talk and eat at the same time?"
"That's fine with me." Was she stalling? "What's the third worry?"
"I was watching your face when your mother said that you mustn't forget about the other thing, and she would make arrangements whenever you were ready." Kate's gaze, blue-eyed and sympathetic, was again fixed on Alex's face. "As I said, it's really none of my business, but I don't believe that people I'm fond of should ever have to look like you looked. What is the other thing that you said you'd consider?"
Copyright © 2002 by Charles Sheffield
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