Igms issue 15, p.1
IGMS Issue 15, page 1
Issue 15 - November 2009
Copyright © 2009 Hatrack River Enterprises
Table of Contents - Issue 15 - November 2009
* * *
by Mary Robinette Kowal
by Geoffrey W. Cole
The Report of a Doubtful Creature
by Ian Creasey
Sweet as Honey
by Bradley P. Beaulieu
Aim for the Stars
by Tom Pendergrass
by Orson Scott Card
Get out of Gym for Free
by David Lubar
InterGalactic Interview With Vernor Vinge
by Darrell Schweitzer
by Mary Robinette Kowal
Artwork by Howard Lyon
* * *
Saskia leaned into the darkness above the stage, only vaguely aware of the wood rail against her hips as she retied the left headstring on her marionette. On the stage below, the Snow Queen's head eased into balance. The marionette telegraphed its stance back up the strings to the control in Saskia's hands. She ran the Snow Queen across the set to check the repair, barely conscious of her own body on the bridge above the stage. It was almost like being immersed in a VR suit.
One of the techies called up. "Hey, Saskia? There's a detective here for you."
She stopped abruptly and the marionette continued its motion in a long pendulum swing. Detective? At the foot of the ladder, the techie stood next to a stocky man, maybe Indian, maybe South American. She'd never been good at guessing.
The man wore A.I. interface glasses.
Saskia shivered; A.I. always made her edgy. They were like puppets in reverse -- a soul without a body. She took her time hanging up her puppet before she descended the ladder.
"Ms. Dorlan? I'm Agent Jared Patel with the FBI." Patel's eyes flashed over Saskia's shoulder. She glanced back before realizing that he was looking at the A.I. in his interface glasses. It gave her the creeps. "I need to talk to you about eDawg."
"My fans are usually a little younger . . ." She tried to use humor to lighten the tension, but Patel's lips barely curved in response. Saskia had done the motion-capture for eDawg in the series eCity, but she could not, for the life of her, figure out why the FBI would be investigating the puppet. They hadn't filmed a new episode in over a year.
Unless, holy crap, unless this was about one of the toys the series had spun off. Maybe one of their tiny terrier brains had gone rogue and killed some rich kid. It had to be a rich kid; they never investigated the deaths of poor ones.
"I realize this will seem like a strange request. Your producers agreed to loan us the eDawg puppet, but only if you oversee its care. They said the controls are customized to you and they didn't want to risk it with someone else."
"I'm stunned that they would let the puppet out of the studio at all. You must have a heck of an insurance waiver."
"We're the government." He let that sit between them for a moment, then smiled. It was not comforting. "We'll compensate you for your time, of course."
The word compensate changed everything. He wasn't investigating eDawg; he was offering her a gig. "So you want me to work the puppet?" She itched to get back into the suit again. She loved traditional puppetry, but nothing compared to motion-capture work.
"Our A.I. will handle that, don't worry; you're just there as a formality."
"Look." She caught herself before she could start a rant about A.I. driving puppeteers out of film and video work. "Even if I were willing, it's not going to look right."
"What do you mean?"
"When you recognize someone from a distance, it's not just their height and weight, it's how they move. Give the same puppet to different puppeteers and it'll look like different characters. That's why they had me do the motion-capture work when they made the toy versions of eDawg." She stopped suddenly, wondering why they needed the puppet at all. "Can't you use one of the toys? They look just like eDawg and there are like, thousands of them"
"We need to have more control of eDawg than a toy would provide."
"You can have control, but you won't have eDawg. Not unless it moves like me."
Patel shifted his gaze to the spot over her shoulder. His jaw worked in silent conversation with his A.I. partner. Crazy machines had no idea how people thought or moved, yet they thought it could do the job.
Patel looked back at her. "Our agent feels confident that she'll be able to match your movements."
"Is this something you can force me to do?"
"Then I can't see any reason to help someone else do my job." She grabbed the ladder to climb back up.
Patel leaned forward. "Do you know Hamilton Cruise?"
"Personally? No. Seen him in the news, yeah."
"His son, Wade, has been kidnapped. The kid's toy eDawg was the only witness. We've got the thing torn apart trying to access its memory without wiping it, but the kidnappers just told us that they want the ransom delivered via eDawg. You say 'no' to this, we don't get to use the puppet. You say 'no' and that kid's life is thrown up in the air."
Crap. A kid. Saskia stopped where she was on the ladder and rested her head against the rung. "Okay. Let me tell the stage manager where I'm going."
At the FBI field office, the motion-capture rig dominated the space like a bizarre piece of gym equipment.
In the early days of motion-capture, the performer roamed the studio trailing wires, but the new technology used a universal treadmill floor to allow performers to simulate covering ground while remaining in a single location. In the center of the rig, almost obscured by cables and rods, was the carapace Saskia wore when she performed. It looked like a wire-frame rendering of eDawg. In addition to controls for eDawg's ears and tail, the carapace had sensors built into it so that when Saskia moved, the system translated her movements via a wireless interface to the puppet's limbs. Patel's A.I. partner would hack into the signal and bypass the rig.
A holo of a woman's head and shoulders materialized over a desktop interface. She smiled with almost Victorian purity. "I'm Metta. Sorry I couldn't introduce myself earlier."
"That's fine." Saskia had been in no hurry to meet the A.I. then, and would be more than happy to skip it now.
For the next fifteen minutes, she watched the smooth purple titanium dog spin through a series of movements, all of which looked indistinguishable from her performance. Even the bark sounded like her. It was uncanny, like the first time she had seen one of the toys activated. Except then she had been watching a three-dimensional recording of her performance. This was different; the A.I. could replace her. Heck, the A.I. could be her.
When Metta finished, she turned to Saskia and said, "Am I convincing as eDawg?"
She was convincing as a bitch, yes. But Saskia nodded. "That all looks really good."
"Thank you." The A.I. looked unsurprised at Saskia's praise. "Would you watch us role-play the scenario for dropping the ransom money?"
Patel held the door open. "We'll have eDawg start as if it were on the street outside the drop location."
eDawg sniffed the air as it leaned forward, with its ears held upright and tail wagging. The movements looked familiar. They also looked wrong. Saskia said, "That's from the episode with the eTreats, isn't it?"
"Yes," Metta said.
"eDawg was searching for treats then. She shouldn't be excited here. Think 'scared.'"
The sniffing changed instantly. eDawg crouched and shivered. She lifted her nose and sniffed twice. Saskia's jaw dropped. It looked exactly like eDawg emerging from her doghouse in the thunderstorm episode. "Are you doing this by rote?"
"I'm mimicking your movement."
Saskia glared at Metta. "You can't just copy what I did in episodes, you'll make inappropriate choices."
Patel pursed his lips and turned to Saskia. "Can you teach her?"
The taste of "no" filled her mouth, but a kid's life was on the line. "How long do I have?"
They wanted her to teach fifteen years of experience in two hours. Not possible. She bit her lower lip and tried to focus on the problem at hand. "What's your cue to enter?"
"The kidnapper gave us the address; Mr. Cruise is supposed to drop eDawg off a block away."
"eDawg wouldn't understand it if you told her to go to a specific address. You could point her in a direction or tell her to 'go home,' but that's about it." This was stupid. There was no way she could teach Metta everything she needed to know about the character in time.
Patel's jaw worked subtly as he subvocalized. Metta gave no outward sign of having a private conversation with him, instead she said, "What sort of signals might eDawg look for?"
"A whistle, a trail of eTreats, a ball . . . Someone familiar? I don't know. Look --" Saskia caught herself before she could offer to perform eDawg for the ransom drop. She might know puppetry, but there was no way she should be involved in a kidnapping investigation. "You'll have to hope it's obvious."
"Will you show me the correct response to each of those?"
Saskia's neck stiffened like someone had shoved a control rod through her spine. There was not enough time. "Do you want me to just perform the puppet?" She wanted to call the words back as soon as they were out of her mouth, but she didn't see a choice if they wanted to get this kid back.
Patel looked at her and smiled. "We were just talking about that."
"And what have you decided?"
Metta raised her chin. "We're still discussing it."
"I think having Ms. Dorlan work the puppet may be our best option." Patel tugged at the cuff of his shirt and avoided looking at Metta's interface.
Metta's nostrils flared, for all the world as if she'd taken a deep, angry breath. "I can learn this."
"Look." Saskia raised her hand. "It's not that I don't think you can, but it took me fifteen years to get to where I am --"
"With all due respect, I learn faster than you can." Metta rocked eDawg back on her heels in a perfect match of Saskia's movement. "I simply need the right instructions, which I am not getting."
"Excuse me if I don't offer to upload my brain for you. But, gosh. I can't. You want to learn this. You have to practice it. And you have two hours. So do you want to practice or do you want me to work the puppet?"
Patel's jaw moved but he said nothing that Saskia could hear. At her feet eDawg lay down and powered off.
Patel cleared his throat and turned to Saskia. "So you're willing to work the puppet?"
Saskia ought to have felt vindicated that they recognized her skills, but there were still so many things that could go wrong with this role. But there was this kid, Wade, and underneath that . . . she loved working eDawg. She loved the purity of motivation in the character and the simple trust of being a dog. "What would I have to do?"
"Not much. You'd carry the money in saddlebags and wait for the kidnappers to send you back with instructions. We'll use the cameras built into the puppet to map the location." Patel seemed to sense Saskia's unease. "It's extremely unlikely that Wade will be there. Typically, the kidnappers keep the victim at a safe distance from the drop location."
Thank God. The possibility that a mistake might get the kid killed had slowly been making its way to the front of her brain.
Patel gestured to the puppet. "Want to practice?"
"That's okay." Puppetry came as easily as breathing. Saskia frowned, remembering all the quirks of the rig. "I think you'll have to put it in a truck."
"What? Why?" Patel said. "I thought it was designed to work remotely"
"It's designed to work in a studio; the farther away I am, the more likely you are to have a delay or interference with the wireless signal."
"Ah. What else do you need?"
"I need a picture of Wade." The toy's tiny brain would have learned to recognize Wade as its owner and part of eDawg's character was all about strong loyalty. If she was going to do this part, she was going to do it right. Speaking of doing it right. "And you'll need to talk to my agent."
While Patel oversaw transferring the rig to a truck, Metta briefed Saskia on what they knew about Wade's kidnapping, which was very little. Wade had disappeared from the family home two nights previously. The housekeeper had found Devon Taylor, Wade's bodyguard, on the floor of Wade's rec room, dead from a gunshot wound to the chest. Ballistics showed that he had been shot by his own weapon, but it had not been self-inflicted. The forensic evidence suggested that the gun had been fired while the assailant was trying to get it away from Taylor.
The security tapes were erased. There were no signs of forced entry.
The following day, a ransom e-mail had arrived from a free account.
If Wade's father had carried a kidnapping policy on his insurance, they might have considered him as a suspect, but he didn't, so he stood to gain nothing. Currently, they were expecting that Saskia would see someone related to a household staff member, but not one of the intimate family members.
"But," Metta stressed, "I'm only telling you this so you can have appropriate reactions as eDawg. You are not here to investigate. We'll monitor what you see and evaluate that."
Saskia nodded and stared at the holo of Wade that Metta was projecting. According to the A.I., the boy was thirteen years old. His black hair was slicked back in the latest style and looked like it had a week's salary worth of styling products in it. But he smiled at the camera with remarkable openness and held eDawg in his lap.
Patel poked his head through the doorway. "We're ready for you now."
A thrill of butterflies tingled in her gut. It had been years since a show made her nervous. Not that this was really a show, not in the traditional sense.
From the outside, the truck looked like it belonged to UPS. Inside, it was a studio in miniature.
On a small table, the puppet lay waiting for Saskia's manipulation to bring it to life. Metta's virtual-head floated over a desktop interface in the corner of the truck. Boxes were stacked at the front of the rig to shield it from casual view through the truck's windshield.
The act of strapping herself into the rig soothed Saskia the way she imagined others might feel about yoga. As much as she enjoyed traditional puppetry, motion-capture was the closest she got to actually being something else.
When she was suited up, with a sensor at each of her major joints, and the vowel capture next to her lips, she tweaked the carapace to get the right amount of resistance. A motion-capture rig had a higher level of articulation than a standard VR suit, but it required finer calibration.
Saskia dropped the VR headset in place.
When the feed on the headset went live, Saskia had a moment of disorientation as she adjusted to looking through eDawg's eyes. Inside the carapace, she flexed her left hand to activate the ears. With her right, she triggered the control that manipulated eDawg's tail. Then, with each joint, she stretched, checking the range of movement. Saskia's mind shifted as her consciousness of the puppet's body became greater than her awareness of her own.
She stood on the table and Patel towered over her. Wagging her tail, she barked for attention.
He jumped, and then, as if he couldn't help himself, Patel patted her on the head. The rig pushed against her head as it readjusted to the puppet's new position. It felt as if her head were being patted.
She wagged her tail in a frenzy of pleasure.
Patel grinned sheepishly and looked over to the side. "I know it's a puppet, but you're really good."
Saskia turned her head to follow his gaze and saw herself.
She looked away. The image of her body twitching in a web of cables and rods was not
Another agent climbed into the truck with Hamilton Cruise behind him. Cruise was lean and sinewy. His eyes were red and his entire body leaned forward as if he wanted something badly.
He examined her, strapped into the rig. "What's this?"
Patel said, "Ms. Dorlan is the original puppeteer for eDawg. She's agreed to --"
"The kidnapper asked for Wade's eDawg. I wasn't informed about this."
"It's a decision we reached this morning."
"I will not have you taking chances with my son's life!" The veins in his neck stood out like control cables gone wrong.
Metta said, "Mr. Cruise, we believe that Ms. Dorlan's participation is the best chance to bring your son out unharmed. She is a professional puppeteer and knows this character better than anyone."
Saskia stopped fiddling with the sensor at her elbow and stared at Metta. That could not have been easy for the A.I. to say.
"I don't care if she's Lassie! I object to this in the strongest possible terms. I demand that you send in Wade's toy."
"Sir, even if that were advisable, the toy is currently disassembled as our technicians try to retrieve its memory without wiping it. It is not possible to send the toy in."
Cruise's face strobed through a spectrum of color -- white, red, and ended in purple. "If anything happens to my boy, you'll hear from my lawyers. This is gross incompetence." Scowling, he thrust a pair of saddlebags at Patel. Saskia assumed they contained the ransom money.
Patel strapped the bulging bags to eDawg. When he was finished, he patted her flank. "Break a leg."
Metta whispered in her ear. "I'll be riding your signal. If you need anything, subvee and I'll have an agent take care of it."
"Will do." Saskia's heart pounded like this was her first time on stage. "Let's kick some puppet butt."
Cruise carried her out to his car like she was covered with mange instead of plastic. As they drove to the rendezvous point, Saskia kept the puppet alive, looking around at the buildings, cars, and pedestrians with the random curiosity of a dog.
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