(Written by Ace Dreamer; posted 18 July 2012)
December 2008 - Saturday 14th February 2009, Dublin.
As usual, it started with delegation. Arthur was at the end of the chain. The brief: build three 'Angels'. Like "Charlie's Angels". The implied brief, they'd better beat anything Stellvia had.
Arthur had some history of success with handwavium and AI. His clock-radio sang to him every morning, with the perfect tune to wake him up - all he had to do in return was compliment its singing. He was a reasonable electronic engineer. And, he knew a few people who knew a few people, if you know what I mean. They were starting to get nasty about his gambling debts...
His first attempts, with store dummies, and photographs of the original three Charlie's Angels pasted onto their faces totally failed. Not a twitch. Though, he sometimes wondered if they moved when he wasn't looking. Interestingly, they didn't come to pieces any more, and you could only pose them in realistic looking postures. He'd sold them, on the quiet to a clothing store, who seemed to be doing pretty good, these days.
Trawling the Internet, he read everything on handwavium and AI. Most AIs seemed to live in waved PCs, often as part of cars or vans. Not much use to him. But, didn't he have some old PC mother boards? And, apparently you could influence their skills, by feeding the handwavium with books and other media.
Conscious of the pressure, and that he'd get no more advances for 'materials', Arthur combed the second-hand shops and markets of Dublin. He wasn't quite sure what he was looking for, so he went by instinct. And price. A few late night drinks with science fiction fans had helped. Speculating on the practical problems of living in space.
With a bit of luck, a friend in a sex shop told him about a trick with handwavium and sex dolls. He tracked that down, and burned his last favour with an ex-girlfriend into the occult. Now he had the dolls, three wigs, three motherboards he'd last used in 2000, and six buckets of handwavium. He'd even scavenged a trio of hard drives, from a skip at the side of a school.
Piles of videos had been dissolved in the handwavium. At least two tapes from the original "Charlie's Angels" series in each of three buckets; he'd picked-up some nearly intact boxed sets. A Bruce Lee "Enter The Dragon" tape in each for the martial arts. James Bond for the spy action.
It occurred to him he should look up 'Stellvia'. It seemed to be an obscure Jap cartoon, with lots of cute girls in short skirts doing things in space. Strange hair colour, but that gave him the idea of a blonde, a brunette and a red-head wig. No luck finding anything on that, second-hand. Cheap enough, anyhow. But, each girl was good at different things, though they were all pilots. So, a pirated copy of "Microsoft Flight Simulator" in the handwavium for each of them.
He'd labelled three buckets 'blonde, 'brown' and 'red'. Red got "Wild Wild West" and a home video full of science stuff from "Discovery Channel". Brown got a load of accountancy, admin and business legal training videos he'd been lucky enough to find in another skip. Blonde, he'd thought a lot about, and reluctantly rejected the 'adult' idea, so she got "Legally Blonde" and "Terminator 2", because he'd really liked Sarah Conner in that.
The other three buckets were all the same. He'd dissolved tatty "Legion of Superheroes" comic books in them, for the invisible spacesuits and the flight rings. Also, old Golden Age science fiction, with women in transparent space suits on the covers. Well. Black-and-white printouts of them, from the Internet.
Arthur had a good feeling about this, so he went the whole hog, and rented a (cheap) hotel room. He laid a salvaged plastic sheet on the queen-sized bed, put on his spray mask, and did all the work there. An hour later he'd finished, and was sitting in the cramped en suit bathroom, in the dark, with his suitcase and six empty buckets. Physically and mentally crossing his fingers.
"What happened?" came a woman's voice, from out in the room. "Something died in my mouth", replied another voice. "Urrg. Why are we lying on a plastic sheet?" said a third. 'Opps' thought Arthur.
"Pay attention", he said, in his best 'Charlie' voice - he'd practised for hours. "You're going undercover, deep undercover. All three of you. No contact with anyone you've previously known. And, this time you're going out into space."
He took a breath, "You'll be working for the boss of the O'Neill space station. You need to appear totally loyal to him. It could be a long time, but I'll contact you with further instructions. All your papers and tickets you already have."
"Is that clear? Now, get going!"
End February 2009, Dublin.
Arthur was concerned. All his gambling debts, paid off. He had a company, an assistant. He was in danger of becoming... prosperous.
This was a new experience. Mr O'Neill was 'satisfied' with the three girls he'd 'recruited'. So satisfied that Arthur was now running a recruitment agency. "Hire me some more, sixty or seventy should do."
Even that wasn't enough. He now had a 'line manager'. Ms Jones was tasked with ensuring 'everything went smoothly'. When he'd explained he worked best in a 'freelance, creative fashion', she looked him in the eye.
"I did the job interviews on those... young ladies. Brilliant from a skills perspective, a human resources nightmare. You didn't recruit them, you didn't 'discover' them, you literally built 'Angels'. If you're a HR consultant then I'm Princess Di."
Arthur considered calling her 'Your Highness', but it didn't seem really safe. Ms Jones, a lady in her late forties, walked with a slight limp. While her skin hinted at Mediterranean ancestry, he sometimes detected a hint of Glasgow in her voice. Her neat trouser suits implied business practicality not anything resembling glamour. And she could write an email that'd slice the meat off your bones.
Because he was no fool, Arthur asked for the project brief. And, the real brief. It was Stellvia, again. Attractive young women were required. Skilled, useful, ones. Dedicated. Loyal. Had he mentioned attractive? Once or twice he wondered if that was a pitying look Ms Jones gave him.
For a brief, mad, moment he considered starting an 'exotic' recruiting agency. Employing women who'd given up hope. Had no self respect. Wave them into heart-stopping beauty. Force useful skills into their heads. But, even he had his limits. And there was probably a law against it.
OK. It came down to skills and glamour. And, he guessed, education. He wasn't making more Angels. He'd had a chance to think about it and realised how lucky nothing'd gone badly wrong. But, glamour. All those beauty parlours did it. Surely he could come up with something?
Single women. At least one relevant skill or hobby. Willing to travel. Eighteen to twenty-five years old. Physically active. No major health issues. Who was he? A 'Big Brother' recruiter?
Self-reliant? Minimum education? Driver's license? He was totally out of his depth, here. People were just waiting for him to fail. Loyalty, dedication? Nothing like the 'Charlie' trick would work again.
Stick to what he knew. He started with a tanning bed. There were new regulations, and some of the older beds had been ruled unsafe. So he got one cheap; he could fix it.
Ms Jones controlled the purse strings, too. Or, at least, she checked his purchases with an eagle eye. Insisted on seeing all the original receipts. Cheap wasn't a problem, but there had to be clean accounts.
A teacher friend his aunt knew. Mrs O'Hare. Husband left her, terminally shy. Almost afraid to leave her own house. But brilliant at personal instruction, clear English diction, writing and presentation skills. Supposed trained to be an actress, but ended terrified of audiences.
If he could get it right, he'd get eager girls, sorry, 'young women', sharpen their skills, glam them up (teeth whitening?), and throw them, sorry, 'present them', to Ms Jones. A bit of a thin plan, but best he could think of. He needed all the help he could get.
His assistant, 'Rod' he liked to be called, was a youth in his late teens. Tall, skinny, a slight stammer, and someone who looked at fatty food and sprouted a crop of pimples. Still, he was good enough to take-over Arthur's TV and electronics repair business, and do most of the simpler work, unsupervised. A good job, as "Lagrange Recruitment" was taking all his time.
Why him? He wasn't a business man. He just liked playing with machines. What if they found him out? Still, he'd got a return invite from those science fiction reading students.
Maybe one of them would have a good idea?
Start - End March 2009, Dublin.
Arthur'd heard of something called 'colour therapy'. If he could combine that with a health-boosting tan. Maybe something with mirrors... His mind kicked into overdrive, and he experimented with blending different sorts of handwavium, in a surplus paint mixing machine; 12,000 possible varieties!
Exhausted one night, from fruitless interviews and the latest failed handwavium blend ('paisley'), he plugged-in the microwave, nuked himself a pasty. Then, he thought, plugged back in the extension for kettle and toaster.
In the morning he discovered it was the paint mixer and sun bed, somehow both using the same extension lead, that'd been on all night. Two drums of blended handwavium had emptied, and the two machines combined, into something with too many angles, and a chrome finish. The 'chrome' was explained by some distorting mirrors, ex-fairground, also incorporated. And his multi-colour lamps. He didn't like how his features reflected off the surface. And, it hummed, even after unplugged from the mains...
Pushing it behind a partition, with items left by previous owners of the premises (ancient hair driers, even older production machinery), he cleared-up, or at least hid the problem. Recent recruits had accents he could cut with a knife. He thought the Job Centre was sending 'no hopers' his way. Ms Jones required a positive progress report in two days, three at most. How?
Mrs O'Hare, the teacher scared of pupils, had been giving Rod some free instruction, after hours. Meant someone was in the premises, anyhow. Ms Jones had been insisting Arthur take off at least two evenings a week, no matter how much work needed to be done. He wasn't sure why, but it gave him a chance to relax, and seemed to blunt his gambling cravings.
Mrs O'Hare had been paid to talk into an experimental 'teaching machine' that Arthur'd waved-up. From an old dicta-phone and a teleprinter. But, he'd junked that two days ago, as it seemed to be going no where, and dumped it in the back.
Arthur woke in the night, knowing something was badly wrong. He rushed downstairs to the workshop - sleeping above had cut his rent bill, and was good for security. As there'd once been a small factory on the back, the sound insulation wasn't bad, though ancient. There were Mrs O'Hare, and Rod, slumped under old-style hair driers, no sign of the partitions, an immense machine looming behind them.
They quickly revived, and Mrs O'Hare seemed far less timid than she often was. Rod opening his mouth was the big surprise. His stutter was totally gone, and he spoke with Mrs O'Hare perfect diction. Mrs O'Hare strode across, picked up the exercise book, and thrust it at Rod. Word perfect.
Rod said he was jumpy about leaving home the next couple of days, and while his stammer remained gone, his speech mostly returned to normal, but with a clearer accent. Mrs O'Hare said they'd not seen the machine, just a couple of old hair driers, and she'd told Rod how she always used to feel relaxed under them. Then things got strange.
Arthur experimented. He found The Machine seemed to be able to fade into the background (camouflage?), though other times it loomed, shiny and disturbing. Two more drums of raw handwavium, that were, he thought, well separated, were empty, and an old roller conveyor system had been absorbed. His electricity bills indicated the machine was somehow tapping the local power grid.
Ms Jones was not pleased. Weeks of effort and all he had was a mysterious machine. And no usable recruits. Still, the accident with Mrs O'Hare was worth following-up. Maureen, an interviewed 'no hoper', joined them, as a receptionist, and general dogs-body; she'd failed Ms Jones recruitment test for 'going up'. Rod seemed to quite like her.
It took Arthur quite a while to untangle what happened. Rod had told Maureen about his speech improvement. Maureen, who appeared to be an amateur radio ham, had 'played' with the equipment, and been disappointed to find it did nothing for her. Then, she persuaded Mrs O'Hare to do a hair drier teaching session.
The other thread had been Ms Jones deciding to do a late evening inspection; maybe that's why Arthur got evenings off? And Ron coming in, because Maureen had said she'd see him later. Ms Jones was standing horrified, just inside the door, looking at two slumped figures. Ron threw open the door, and Ms Jones went onto the conveyor belt.
Into The Machine.
Frankenstein meets French Farce, thought Arthur. All it needed was a Wardrobe and a Man With No Trousers. And a bolt through his neck.
Ron couldn't stop the machine, or get anyone to respond; half an hour later teacher and pupil revived, and a transformed woman came out the far end. Ron later said the machine almost held him hypnotised.
Only then did they phone Arthur. He'd been having a quiet evening drink with his science fiction friends. He was slowly conceding some of that stuff was quite a good read.
Ms Jones looked years younger, and when she opened her mouth her slightly crooked teeth were perfect and white. Her diction was Mrs O'Hare at her best, and her limp was gone. Even her skin was perfect, no blemishes at all, and her hair. A crowning masterpiece.
She didn't even have bad breath. Arthur leaned close enough to check.
Maureen was speaking far more clearly, but she was enthusiastic about the 'Full Treatment', that Ms Jones had got. As Ms Jones was dazed, and Rod totally opposed, Arthur ruled they wait a few days, to check for ill effects. And, he pressured Ms Jones to get a full medical check-up.
Making a swift recovery Ms Jones reluctantly explained that she had an artificial leg. This was now a perfect fit, and similarly perfect were her teeth. The doctors said she was in excellent health, and a minor skin complaint was gone. She wasn't actually younger, just as well as she could be for her age. Her smoking habit was gone. A specialist clinic said she tested negative for biomod.
It appeared she could now hide her Glasgow accent, though she didn't seem to have any other new abilities - her writing and presentation skills were already excellent. She did report temporary agrophobia.
A few previous interviewees were invited to return, and agreed to sign full non disclosure forms. It appeared that the machine only worked if Mrs O'Hare, no one else, was wearing one hair dryer and someone was sitting in a second one. Then the machine did its half hour treatment. Arthur could have sworn a small smile appeared on Mrs O'Hare's face when this was revealed.
Maureen was the third volunteer, and afterwards looked radiant. Rod was very disappointed when she made it clear she was 'going up'. Without him. Ms Jones fully recovered in three days and was her old self, though she now had perfect teeth, and no limp. Her skin and hair returned to a smart but business-like look.
Arthur did more tests. After a while the machine stopped working, and he found it needed feeding, with make-up, glamour magazines, and 'magic smoke' that it obtained by cooking integrated circuit boards to death. He didn't think it was intelligent, but it seemed to have an large animal-like presence.
Arthur knew it would happen. They insisted on taking away the (now named) 'Hollywood Machine'. It was going up to O'Neill Station. Mrs O'Hare was happy with her new permanent job. A 'Kelly' arrived to supervise the move. Arthur did his best to avoid her, and spoke at least one octave above his normal pitch, in her presence. Apart from a few strange looks, he thought he got away with it.
What was next? He'd had a strange dream before they took The Machine away. He'd fallen onto the belt, and come out, with frothy pale lace on his shirt cuffs and collar, and a slick hair-do. A Glam Metal Detective? Was he still male? He'd been unchanged, in the morning.
But, after all, they hadn't tested The Machine on Men, had they?
Start - Late June 2009, Dublin.
Arthur thought they might leave him alone. They'd taken the Hollywood Machine. They'd hired a HR professional, now they'd got good employee criteria. He ran Lagrange Recruitment. Rod was in college. Arthur was on a retainer.
Maybe they were afraid he'd work for Stellvia? Fat chance! They'd much better people than him. He'd been shown the dossiers. It'd be fun to work alongside some of them... But, retainer. Then, the latest demand.
They'd found the logistics limits of the Hollywood Machine. Which was partly about how hard it was sensible to ask Mrs O'Hare to work. Arthur wasn't happy about the addictive side of the machine. He hadn't planned it. In fact, he hadn't planned any of it.
Actually, they wanted AIs. The brief was for more attractive women who could run the infrastructure, 24/7. But the skill requirements were quite unreasonable. No, he refused to try and make more 'Angels'. They were a disaster waiting to happen.
Hmm. The trick would be to make them heterogeneous, three different processor architectures running compatible software. That'd give some protection from crude instruction-set specific attacks. He'd need to read some more security stuff.
If the AIs had remote control of humanoid bodies, that'd satisfy the need for 'attractive women'. But, he didn't trust his ability to navigate the Uncanny Valley, never mind manage 'attractive'. Also, with their own bodies they could unplug their processors and leave the station, if they really wanted to. He'd been reading about AI slavery - nasty.
Ms Jones wasn't currently watching him, but he expected she'd want to see all the receipts. He knew some computer recyclers, and he was sure they'd have something good. And, those ex-school RISC PCs he'd tucked away. Then, there was that Mac fanatic, he knew, who'd kept those Power PC boxes, his design firm got rid of. Old x86 boxes would be trivial. Then, he just needed something really weird for emergencies.
Just for fun, he'd put them in colour-coded boxes. Red, white and blue - should be good for even colour-blind technicians. Though, seeing as he expected female staff, much less risk of that. Black for the tenth one. When he'd been poking around in the occult, to get the bits for the Angels, he'd made a few interesting contacts. 'Dave Mathers' he called himself. Mad as a hatter, but a genius at making sane AIs.
Mathers came through, with ten install discs, one per AI, four processor architectures. He'd had the boxes soaking in some special handwavium, left over from the Hollywood Machine project; 'paisley'. He was pretty sure that'd got things going, and his discipline in saving samples of all handwavium strains he'd made paid off. Pity he didn't have the paint mixer any more.
His science fiction friends had filled him in on real world robotics. Air muscles were apparently the thing. Optical fibre meshes for touch and temperature sensors. Medical latex skins for realism. Human hair if you could afford it. But, there was no way he could construct ten humanoid bodies, all with 640+ muscles, on any realistic time-scale.
Hence, the Body Builder. Constructed in his own time, with his own paid-for materials, seeing what happened with the Hollywood Machine. He didn't like it, it scared him. But, he'd built it, and they'd taken it off him.
He fed-in all the raw materials and parts. This was a wonderful example of a waved device doing a complex task that could in theory be done by hand, and not contaminating the result with handwavium. The link from AI cores to remote robot bodies was paired hacked cell/mobile phones, which if he'd got it right were doing all the anti-jamming and anti-hacking tricks possible. Waved Li-on batteries for AI and robot power supplies.
So, he had ten robot bodies, all slightly different, untouched by handwavium. Credible appearance, but still well in the Uncanny Valley. He ran test routines, using a jury-rigged VR system, and fixed the few glitches. But, he was reluctant to boot the AIs.
Brain wave. (No pun.) No handwavium, no mods, so, maybe... Would the Hollywood Machine glamorise them? Worth trying. Ten days later, he had them all ready. Perfect. Maybe not movie-star quality, but better than average.
Apparently didn't even need Mrs O'Hare in the seat, took five minutes each. The rest of the time was shipping and admin. And, reading between the lines, a reluctance to ship them 'back down' to him. Pity he'd kept the AI end of the remote links.
They were now in neat uniforms, presumably morphed versions of the sports wear he'd shipped them in (with underwear, of course!). While he was curious what the underwear might have morphed into, it seemed unwise to check. Their latex flesh looked human, even down to fine hairs on the arms.
Final checks. The VR rig ran even smoother than before, and he couldn't hear even a faint hiss from the compressors. He could see breathing, and when he looked closely, a pulse in the throat. Wait a minute. He hadn't fitted the waved Li-on batteries.
Simultaneous AI Boot!
Ref: AI Crew
Master Of All
Mid - Late July 2009, Dublin & L5.
Arthur felt a bit better in himself. Since he completed 'Project Infrastructure'. Maybe felt a little in control. And he thought he sensed an air almost of respect, from Ms Jones, when she came and checked his accounts.
"You do seem a bit senior, Ms Jones, to be doing work like this" he remarked. When he thought about it later he realised she hadn't quite answered that, and shifted to inquiring where he got his accountancy training. She wasn't completely believing when he mentioned a single college term, and, that after all, it was pretty straight-forward.
Looking back, he supposed Ms Jones wasn't his first manager. That honour went to Kevin Wright, an 'investment manager', whose talent for taking small 'business development' loans and turning them into regular income streams was arguably impressive. Arthur got his repair business, via him, as an elderly engineer retired due to ill health. Called him the "Wright Stuff". Where'd he gone?
Arthur had been reading his contract terms more carefully. And, consulting a retired friend of his aunt, who'd taught the subject. Yes, the retainer meant he couldn't work for competitors, but it specifically permitted his repair business. That gave him some leeway, and work, seeing as Rod was still in college.
Making sure the Body Builder was his had helped. Handwavium, particularly with the moral panic around it, scared a lot of people. He supposed he was a bit fatalistic. He couldn't stop himself dying, maybe tomorrow, in a car accident. So, why worry? If you treated it with respect you were probably OK, and wouldn't wake-up with a tail and a particular fondness for fish.
The humanoid robots made by the Body Builder were handwavium-free. He'd got certificated proof of that, and, always checked it himself with a gadget he'd waved up. Seeing as a hand and arm reportedly sold, on its own, for $100k to the space industry, selling his complete robots for $50k looked quite feasible. He already had a number of enquiries. Yes, conventional batteries didn't give much untethered running time, so they could fight their consciences about buying his waved Li-on ones, good for a few tens of hours.
The latest request from above seemed a bit... hurried. It was also simpler than anything they'd previously asked. Survey robots, for use in the asteroid belt, that could work with minimal supervision. They didn't even need to look like cute girls.
It took him a little while, but he found out what happened to Kevin Wright. The man was in his early fifties, but he'd had a stroke. After a year and a half of recovery and therapy he could talk, reasonably clearly, again, and walk with the aid of a stick. He might never regain full use of his hand. He'd never had a pension, and was effectively retired. While he didn't say so, Arthur was pretty sure his savings were running out.
Arthur saw red. He pulled an all-nighter and built a custom nursing robot from scratch, using the Body Builder for the easy bits. His time, his parts, his money. Then, spent a few evenings looking at Mather's AI discs, or his copies of them, anyway (the originals were in a bank vault). The man was a genius, but there were things about the file-names, even the directory structure, that disturbed him. And there were PNG files of ritual diagrams, some of which hurt his eyes to look at.
Next, he bullied his way on board O'Neill Station, for an inspection tour. Checking the installed AIs, and the Hollywood Machine while he was there. He found a few things to criticise, too. Demanded new procedures to protect power systems from overloads, in case of faults. Walked straight past Jane Dow and didn't even flinch.
He got his fifteen minutes with The Machine, unsupervised, to run his tests, and when it tried to intimidate him he growled back. Interesting to watch it try and camouflage itself against the bulkhead. Nurse Blake came out perfect. He had a full set of readings of her glamorisation process. When they complained he pointed out that he'd provided test materials at his own expense, and that it'd be on his invoice.
Arthur was shaking when he got back to his office. The adrenaline was gone, and he was wondering if he'd ever work again. But, he had proven skills. The package from his lawyer was there, waiting for him. "Wright Stuff Mechatronics" would soon be a going concern. Nurse Blake seemed quite happy with the idea of working to assist Kevin Wright, and her AI core would live in Kevin's car.
Later, after the "Master Surveyor" was finished, which proved a reasonably trivial job (though he'd only waved up one complete set), he sat and thought. He couldn't claim that the 'good guys' won. He wasn't sure there were any good guys. He wasn't one. But, if they existed, Kevin Wright certainly was.
And now, Kevin'd have the money to get his lawyer to look really hard at his own new contract terms. Arthur wanted him to be sure he wasn't being cheated.