Just one hour ago, I had been warm and calm and comfortable, swaddled like a baby, high in the skies in my aluminium cradle. From LA to JFK, I had boozed and snoozed across the continental divide until the thump of the wheels on the runway cleared my gin fogged head. Now, driving north on Broadway, the billboards whispered to me in the darkness of the night. No PowerPoint needed, they pitched their deal in compelling fonts of pink and neon, their unique selling point a fragile, desperate promise of intimacy amongst the city millions. As I left the rental in a parking lot, the pavement released its heat into the late evening under my feet, fanning my senses with the sweet perfume of tarmac and the acrid taste of cement dust. I set off towards the brightness of the lights, ready to settle amongst the other moths, thirsty to drink the nectar of companionship.
I was on my third Manhattan when the blonde breezed by - her sky-high heels heartache red to match her lips, hair tumbling onto her shoulders in a way that made Niagara look like a shy rain shower. She paused and then poured herself onto the bar stool next to me.
I was not surprised. My Alan David suit, Gucci diamond cuff links and old school Paul Molé razor cut all signalled - 'I have it all -- come flutter with me'. She was just another moth, trapped by the gaudy lights of the city.
‘What will it be?’ I said.
She let me take in the full view before replying. I added up the numbers – just under six feet in her four inch Jimmy Choo stilettos - waves of blonde hair lapped gently on her shoulders. Her Pearl Rose cut-out tulle gown did not so much clothe as embrace and caress her perfect hour-glass figure. For a moment the image of a blonde angel formed in my mind. Or maybe a blonde Satan. But Satan couldn’t be blonde, nor female, could she?
‘Vodka, straight, one ice cube.’
I nodded at the bartender, and then, pinned to the moment by the piercing cornflower blue of her eyes, I rolled the dice and said:
‘Beware of her fair hair, for she excels
All women in the magic of her locks;
And when she winds them round a young man's neck,
She will not ever set him free again.’
She frowned for a moment, her eyes half closed. Then with a half-smile she asked:
‘Close, but no cigar - Goethe, actually.’
‘Well, either way, it’s an interesting opener. I rarely get propositioned in verse.’
I felt this was going to be easy. My first mistake.
‘And am I propositioning you?’
‘I’d be disappointed if you weren’t.’
‘Don’t you think we should be formally introduced first?’
‘Naturally. Sophia, thirty two and unattached. By day, I’m an associate professor in Algebraic Mathematics at Columbia. I teach number, space, quantity and arrangement. My speciality there is the dynamic assessment of chaotic distributions.’
‘So now you know everything.’
‘Well almost everything - what do you specialise in at night?’
‘Let’s just say I like to study human nature.’
‘Funny, I thought you might be in fashion, or the theatre, movies. Maybe even real estate. That’s a fabulous dress. Worn with great savoire faire, if I may say so.’
‘Indeed, you may.’
’But a professor - I’m intrigued and bit abashed. They say appearances can clearly be deceptive. Clearly my preconceptions are unreliable. If I’m honest, I may be a little unnerved too.’
‘I sometimes think that honesty can be over-rated. It makes a man so - uninteresting. Now it’s your turn.’
‘Roger Prendergast. Thirty five. Twice attached and equally twice detached. Eastern sales manager for Derringborn Agricultural Machinery. I specialise in helping my customers spend their money – but in a good cause – mine. Our model 3500C harvests more than 90% of the blueberries in New York State – that’s kind of impressive too.’
That was my second mistake, but it would be some time before I realised it. My excuse was that I was distracted by the disarming way the end of her nose tilted up as she frowned back at me:
‘Now you do disappoint me. And so soon, too,’ she said.
‘Really? I’m sure I could change your mind, given the opportunity.’
‘Now you do disappoint me. And so soon, too. You’re no more Roger Prendergast than I’m Marilyn Monroe.’
‘Ah, now you disappoint me. Blueberries are a nice healthy business. Lots of anti-oxidants, plenty of fibre, vitamin C, K – a bit of manganese….’ The sales pitch was falling flat - I sensed from her glowing complexion she already had access to a reliable supply of vitamins.
‘Somehow I don’t think you’re called Roger. And I don’t see you being a Prendergast either. Goethe and Prendergast don’t seem to be very plausible bed-fellows.’
‘Well, as I said earlier, appearances can be deceptive.’
'But honesty is so uninteresting – you said it yourself,’ she said.
‘Ah, but maybe I was being dishonest, when I said that.’
‘Well, that would be rather contradictory – but then logical paradoxes are part of my mathematical specialities.’
‘But how about this…. If I say I’m dishonest then how can I be – because I would be being honest by saying I was dishonest.’
‘I think maybe I need another drink, before I work on that one.’
I looked up and nodded at the barman, while I considered my next move. I did not think it strange he now had the head and body of a Labrador. Fortunately, his paws seemed to give him no difficulty when mixing the drinks. I did however find it a little distracting when he wolfed down my brandied cherry.
‘So, if you’re not Roger’ she continued, ‘then would you like me to tell you who you really are?’
‘Be my guest, my analyst has been trying to do that for some time.’
‘You are in fact, Joe Cortana. Thirty five – ‘
‘There you go, I wasn’t completely dishonest.’
She gave me the coldness of her cornflower blue stare for a full ten seconds, as the price of my interruption. For a moment, I was back in 5th grade, outside Mr Stuckelhymer’s office, the day I hacked the school computer and gave everyone in my year straight A’s.
‘As I was saying, Joe. Thirty five. A PhD in Natural Language Simulation using Coherent Artificial Intelligence Engines at MIT then an MBA at Yale followed by five years on Wall Street. Then CTO in a Silicon Valley start-up. Half a billion turnover in 2 years. A little better than blueberries, I think.’
She was good. I waited to see what came next.
‘Don’t worry, I won’t tell a soul,’ she said.
‘I told you, I’ve a soft spot for dishonesty.’
‘Is that the only reason?’
‘Well, what is dishonesty, really?’
‘I would have thought that would have been pretty obvious,’ she said.
‘Wikipedia would say it was a lack of probity, cheating, lying, or deliberately withholding information, or being deliberately deceptive or a lack in integrity, knavishness, perfidiousity, corruption or treacherousness.’
‘That sounds pretty comprehensive to me. But I get the feeling you’re going to tell me that isn’t the whole story.’
‘Well, what happens if Wikipedia itself isn’t honest? It’s only a machine after all.’
‘Ah, but it has a bunch of honest humans behind it.’
‘How do you know they are honest? As Macbeth says, according to Wikipedia, “There is no art to see the mind’s construction in the face”, and in fact you can’t even see their faces, so how can you possibly know they are thinking? How can you know they are honest?’
Again, there was the tilt of the nose, and the furrowed brow, but only for a few milliseconds. Then, as she considered her answer, her scarlet lips briefly formed a little heart shaped pout, a definite bonus score as far as I was concerned.
‘They’re honest because that’s the consensus,’ she said. ‘If someone puts a rogue description up, then the community will remove it or correct it. Everybody’s watching, so you can’t be dishonest.’
‘Maybe the probability is that the description is true. But there is no absolute reality surely? Perceptions change. New things are discovered. Society moves on. A while ago we all were certain the Earth is flat, that there were canals on Mars and the moon was made of green cheese. Now we live in a different reality.’
‘You know you really do have a rather unique way of propositioning a girl.’
‘And how is it working for you?’
She gave me the cornflower blue eyes again. This time though they’d come down from the glacier - they made me think of the blue sky on a clear Alpine morning in April. As she leaned forward, her hair rippled with hints of buttermilk and butterscotch.
‘I’m wondering if you want me to be Lady Macbeth, given that you are quoting Macbeth’ she said.
‘Hmm, that would probably be better than one of the three witches. They had an interesting take on reality too – “Fair is Foul, and Foul is Fair” I recall.’
The conversation came to a natural pause. To be honest, we were not getting very far. But that did not matter. It wasn’t even the point. It was the interaction that was exciting, the open possibilities, the unsaid invitation, the uncertainty, the ambiguity. The arrival had no real interest for me, it was the travelling that I found arousing.
‘So, are you going to tell me what you really do?’ she asked.
‘You might say I’m in the reality business. Occasionally people get confused and ask me to sell their house for them, but then I explain their realty is not my reality. It rarely gets a laugh. I’m all about truth, in all its forms.’
‘There are two sorts of truth. The truth that describes the hard, cold world we live in and the other truth, the truth that you can’t touch or taste or see - the truth that warms the heart. The first of these is science – that’s your hunting ground. The second is art. That’s where I come in. I provide a little warmth when people get a little too cold in the harsh reality of the every-day world. I find them a truth that they can believe in.’
Our glasses were empty again. I signalled the barman. He had discarded his Labrador costume, and for an instant I thought he looked like an Aardvark. But maybe it was just his big nose.
‘You make it sound very attractive. Everyone needs a bit of comfort these days. But it doesn’t really tell me what you actually do. What would do if you I asked you to comfort me?’
Again, I fell into the gentle blues of her eyes – this time I recalled summer hay, and the warmth of the sun on my back.
‘I’m an imagineer.’ I said. ‘You might even say a cultivator. I harvest people’s ideas, desires and aspirations and re-engineer them, and give them back. I sell people their dreams. It’s a compelling product – when you can have whatever your heart desires’.
‘And my dream is?’
‘I sense you need a little warmth too.’
We were just two slices of prime meat, perched on our stools, gently sparring as we gradually got to know one another, already knowing how it would end, enjoying the journey as much as the destination. Of course, I would soon find out I was wrong, probably as wrong as I’ve been. This would turn out to be the most unusual night of my life. It was only when I was locked away in an eight by six county jail cell two years later, that I realised how big a mistake I had made. By then she was long gone, her departure leaving a trail of destruction like some capricious tornado, tearing up the foundations of my life and leaving me sucked dry of breath and thought. I looked through the rusty bars at the flaking plaster on the wall opposite and wondered where she was now. I determined then that I would track her down, even if, as seemed likely, it was the last thing I would do.
But that was all still in my future. In the bar, I was simply caught up in the moment, my senses alternately dulled by the bourbon and aroused by her perfume.
‘Shall we go somewhere a bit quieter?’ she said.
‘I’d invite you to my room, if I had a room.’
‘Not checked in yet?’
She put a hotel key on the bar.
‘There’s an alley back onto the main drag. The kitchen is next to the John. I imagine the sanitation inspector is not that happy about that, but it makes a nice discreet exit. I’ll see you at the hotel shortly.’
‘Surely, that would be rather ungallant, to leave a lady at the bar.’
‘Maybe, but I think I recognise the two Feds that just walked in…’
And so it started….
* * *
He hits the reset button. After the technicolour visions of the last half hour, the room seems to be painted in monochromes. Olivia is still leaning back in her chair, peering sightlessly into the distance.
‘What do you think?’ he asks.
She can’t hear him, so he turns his microphone back on and says it again. She reaches up and untangles her long blond hair from her headset. Blinking in the room’s artificial light she says:
‘I still think it’s a pile of sexist rubbish, Jon. But it’ll sell well. Because it’s sexist rubbish, even though that is more than a bit annoying. There’s a bug at 3:42 where the AI repeats itself – it’s where Sophia says she’s disappointed. Or maybe the AI is just telling the truth for once …. The Labrador was a bit surreal – but I think we should leave that in – it was kind of fun.’
‘I’m still getting a headache though when Joe’s thoughts are played back over mine.’
‘Maybe it would help if I knock 3 dB off the induction amplitude in the headset. What do you think? And I don’t really like the way they keep quoting stuff off Wikipedia. Maybe we should disconnect the conversation engine from the internet – it’s not great pillow talk when they keep quoting Shakespeare or Goethe at one another. Would that be a turn on for the average thirty year old? Somehow I doubt it.’
‘Yeah, that sounds good. Let’s take a break and call in a pizza.’
‘Then we can go over the conversational subroutines again.’
‘Right, shall I get a large New Yorker then?’
‘Naah, go for a Hawaiian, I’ve had enough of New York for the time being.’