John E. Stith's SCAPESCOPE Excerpt

Scapescope Copyright © 1984 by John E. Stith. All rights reserved.

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Chapter 1

Being summoned to Arthur Springer's office was probably a little like stepping into a dark elevator shaft. Right away I got a bad feeling, and, even though I couldn't see what was coming, there were strong indications that the situation would worsen. Arthur never called in any of his subordinates when good news was on the way.

What usually annoyed me about Arthur was that he was a GS-68 while I was just a GS-56. Today I would have been grateful to be merely annoyed, because something much worse was disturbing me.

It might all be starting today. I was afraid that Sal might have been right when she told me I'd be fired soon. And that wasn't the worst of it.

The narrow one-way slidewalk had almost carried me past Arthur's office before I realized how far I'd come. A quick step landed me in Arthur's beige-and-tan outer office. His secretary, Rob Tannoy, greeted me.

"Any idea how long it's going to be this time?" I asked him, even though I already had a fair guess.

"Maybe five minutes." Rob returned to his work. I would have asked him what it was all about, but Arthur wouldn't have told him. Arthur loved surprises, as long as he wasn't the last to know.

I had to admire Rob. No matter how unbearable Arthur was, Rob was always in good humor. Rob was a thin fellow, partway through his twenties and somewhere in his GS-30s. His straight blond hair and his shorts and T-shirt made him look as though he should still be in school. He was one of those people whose rating changed about as fast as his height, but he never seemed to let Arthur dampen his spirits.

Perhaps to counteract Arthur's negativity, Rob had started a graffiti collection and usually had one or two samples on his wall screen. Today's entrées were "Telekinesis is a moving experience," and "I'd give my right arm to be a cyborg." After I thought about it, I wondered if maybe they were more for the benefit of Arthur's visitors. Surely quite a few of them could use a little cheering up.

I sat down on a water-cushioned chair. Waiting was becoming one of my least favorite activities. It gave my mind time to wander. And to wonder when things were going to start heading downhill. At least scapescope said that my GS rating wouldn't start to drop for several more days.

After that, anything could happen.

It annoyed me enough that Arthur routinely made people with appointments wait. What angered me more was to have to wait after being called to his office. Still, my mood would have been better if that were the worst of Arthur's habits.

I might not have been feeling so frustrated if it hadn't been for the crank calls all night long. Some joker had found out how to override the normal filters for nonemergency calls and had kept me awake and highly irritated. Take the constant fear of Sal's predictions, add having to endure Arthur's habits while half asleep, and the sum far exceeded my irritation quotient.

Needlessly I checked my wristcomp for other appointments. It confirmed what I already knew: nothing on the immediate horizon.

Rob's voice brought me back to the problem at hand. "Hey, Mike. His Highness will see you now."

I looked up in time to catch his wink. "Thanks." I set my wristcomp to busy just in case I got any calls.

After a halfhearted attempt to push my lips closer to a mild grin, I slid aside the door to the inner office. I was tempted to call out, "Are you decent?" but neither my mood nor Arthur's sense of humor was up to it.

"Hello, Arthur." It was "Arthur," never "Art." I wouldn't call him "Mr. Springer," but I did make the smaller concession. As usual he put on his brief show of being incredibly industrious, so I looked around the office rather than look at the thinning spot in the unwashed brown hair on top of his head. I felt almost as comfortable as a patient being examined by an absentminded veterinarian. High on one wall, an electrostatic air cleaner hummed almost imperceptibly, trying to eliminate the stale odor.

His office barely held three straight-backed visitors' chairs in addition to Arthur's chair and desk. His rating entitled him to fifty percent more space than I had, and the extra seats took most of it. The walls were so sparsely decorated, I soon swiveled my gaze back to Arthur.

His ironic appearance made me suppress a grimace. The navy-blue T-shirt couldn't hide his ninety-kilo bulk. His weight not only placed him a couple of standard deviations above the norm; it made him look more like Santa Claus than any other man I knew. Arthur was short: short-tempered, shortsighted, and short attention span.

I was thinking about Sal when Arthur finally looked up.

"Hello, Mike." Never "Michael," never "Mr. Cavantalo."

I wasn't going to ask why he'd called me. He would tell me when he wanted to. And it was impossible to change his timetable.

With clipped, economical motions he placed a second screen on his desk and positioned it for me to see. Arthur had a genuine time and motion obsession. I liked to think of it as motion sickness.

He looked at me for the first time. "I have high standards for the reports that come out of this department." He paused. "This one doesn't come close." Arthur's brown eyes blinked as he talked, another sure sign of trouble.

He must have been referring to the thirty-day photonic engineering forecast. It was the only report that I had turned in during the last few days.

"Arthur, I busted my budget preparing that forecast. What don't you like about it?"

"Just the fact that it is sloppy, poorly worded, and it seems that you didn't even find time to proofread it."

"I think there must be some mistake."

In answer he spoke a command to his console. The header and the first few lines of my report appeared on the screen. He gave it another command and the text scrolled to page three.

"Have a look at the second paragraph," he said, and unnecessarily started reading it aloud for me. "I rrrrecommend that efforrrts be moved frrrrrom parrrrallel prrrrocessorrrrs to--"

His sarcastic rolling "r's" didn't improve my mood at all. "I think I can explain--"

"Oh, I do hope so." Arthur leaned back in his chair and rested his head on the wall. If he had been a cat, he would have played with his food.

"Somehow you've got my first draft. The voice recognition unit on my office terminal was having problems, and it hadn't been fixed then. My first drafts are very rough. What I don't understand is how you got that text instead of my final version."

"Even if I believed this is only a draft, why do you imply that this was my mistake?"

"Oh, no, I didn't mean to say that you've made a--Wait a minute. What do you mean 'even if you believed me'?" I was thoroughly puzzled. Why was he making such an issue of the mix-up?

"I mean the whole story sounds fabricated to me. Look, Mike. If you're too busy or too tired or whatever to finish your work, just say so."

Sometimes there was only a fine line between having deep-seated convictions and being opinionated. Occasionally it seemed as simple as whether or not a person agreed with my views, but objectively I knew there was more to it. Actually it mattered whether or not the person really listened to opposing viewpoints, and if he or she realized that a given individual perceived a situation in terms of personal values.

Arthur came nowhere near that fine line.

"Arthur, I don't know how this version got transmitted, but it's a genuine mistake. I'm conscientious about my work. You surely know that by now. I'll get back to my office and find out what happened. You'll have the right draft in an hour or two."

"I need it yesterday." Standard response number four.

A visit with Arthur was a little like taking a moon walk. He lived in a high-contrast world in which everything was black or white, clearly defined or unimportant. The way I saw it, he didn't have enough gray matter to evaluate subtle shades of gray.

"I'll get it to you as soon as I can, all right?"

"I'm going to be watching you closely, Mike. You'd better watch your step." Arthur pursed his lips, popping them and following up with a sigh.

I still didn't understand why he was so upset, but somehow the time didn't seem right to try to find out.

"I'll get it to you soon."

Arthur pursed his lips again but didn't reply, so I took that as a cue to leave.

On my way out I gave a mock salute to Rob. His wry smile seemed to say, "Have a good day in spite of him, if you can."

It must have been a quiet day, because the slidewalk was motionless when I stepped onto it. As it lurched gently forward, I canceled the hold on my calls. No one had tried to reach me during my audience with King Arthur.

This was one of the many times that I regretted the transfer that had brought me into Arthur's department late last year. Prior to the move, a couple of people had told me, "He's a really nice guy once you get to know him." That turned out to mean, as is sometimes the case, that he's inconsiderate and rude to everyone except the few people whom he likes well or needs. And it hadn't helped matters when he made the pass at Sal. But even allowing for his overbearing manner, this most recent development was excessive.

Why the overreaction, though? And how could he have received the wrong draft? My normal practice was to purge all early drafts as soon as the final looked good and I had copies.

Why is nothing ever easy? Surely there must be an easier way to earn (or at least get) a living. I was one of the eight out of every ten adult workers who were employed by Brother Sammy. It seemed like things must have been a little easier back when he was simply a more distant uncle. Good old B. S.

One of the nice things, however, about the number of civil service jobs was that, with as many jobs as there were, quite a few of them were bound to be interesting.

Despite Arthur's fits, my job wasn't a bad one. I was a photonics engineer/futurist. Which simply meant that I used my photonics education in conjunction with whatever scapescope could show of the future. Then I prepared reports that affected the direction in which current photonics research traveled.

Unfortunately scapescope was not confined to the sciences.

A fast circular elevator dropped me down to my level. The door opened onto a beige-and-brown corridor much wider and busier than Arthur's. I took the slidewalk to my office. The door slid shut behind me and I leaned on it for several minutes, rubbing my eyes. I left my T-shirt on despite the warmth in the enclosed two-meter-square space. My height wasn't above average, but the room felt small.

Still puzzled about what had happened to my report, I folded my desk down from the wall and told my office phone to start accepting calls again. I almost slid out my keyboard, but instead I found myself turning on my scapescope.

Not paying much attention, I set it for about a week uptime. For a few minutes I simply watched the rows of text, some of them fuzzy, some of them vividly clear.

Scapescope was an overwhelming tool. Celeste Newbury and André Kalmez had made the breakthrough less than twenty years ago, in the late 2130s. They had been investigating fields generated by some family of subatomic particles when serendipity stumbled in.

Scapescope had revolutionized too many specialties to count. And it did far more than that.

It let the human race see its future.

To be accurate, it let the human race see the futures. Anything might or might not happen, and every event had a probability associated with it.

What I mean is, it might be a tossup as to whether or not a flipped coin would land tails up, but it was very likely that the coin would fall. Via scapescope, events to come were visible. The trouble was that all events to come were there, superimposed.

The net result was that groups of improbable outcomes obscured one another, while foregone conclusions were startlingly clear. Events with probabilities between the two extremes were often visible. Subject to noise in the Newbury-Kalmez field, we could see quite a way uptime. When the noise was low, probable events could be seen as far uptime as six months.

What was bothering me right then was the cliche about no news being good news. I would rather have had no news than the news it provided about me.

I flicked off scapescope and uneagerly turned my thoughts back to the monthly report. A few minutes at the terminal were enough to show that my first draft had found its way into the file reserved for the final report. Not only that; there weren't any other drafts.

My only recourse was to revise the text. The work went relatively fast since the contents were still fresh in my memory and the initial text was still there. The voice recognition module was working better now. Occasionally the terminal would say, "Huh?" if I didn't pronounce a word clearly enough, but that was normal.

As I worked, my subconscious kept tugging me back to Arthur. He had always been the type of guy whose GS level was consistently exceeded by his BS level, but he had been intolerant today, even on his scale. I examined each of the items in the report as I reconstructed it, to see if any of them might have touched a nerve with Arthur.

Everything seemed fairly routine. Scapescope showed that the Anderson very-high-density optical character reader project would show significant results in less than six weeks. I had recommended that funding be continued. Jorgenston wouldn't be so happy. Scapescope indicated that his catalytic energy conversion efforts would be unsuccessful for as far as we could see uptime. Those funds could be transferred to other projects with better chances for success. At least we didn't have to funnel funds down a dead end like we used to.

I finished the text and, just to be sure, copied it into two other files and protected each of them with a unique password. Then I sent a copy to Arthur's office.

Once again drawn to the scapescope, I turned it on, set it for a month uptime, and peered at the characters displayed. Newbury and Kalmez had coined the term "scapescope," evidently while thinking about seeing future landscapes displayed on a scope. That must have been before they realized how little value it would have for that purpose.

The only views of the future that were of any use were not actual pictures. They were simple alphanumeric character strings. With the right equipment, physical actions could be seen for a few seconds uptime, but after that there were far too many variables. John Doe might scratch his nose at 1202:43, or maybe 1203:22. To solve the problem, the bright boys and girls had come up with the Current Events Display.

The CED was a daily summary of every significant event that could be listed by using a twenty-four-hour time frame. By knowing what time of day a particular summary was scheduled (for instance, deaths were scheduled for 0810:00), one could search for whatever information was available. Clear lines denoted the most probable happenings. Every day, a huge display was updated for everyone downtime to see.

Inadvertently I had called up the marriages section. I switched it off hastily. That was stupid. I already knew what wouldn't be there, even if Sal and I had been that serious before she got the news.

I also knew that I had to get out of the office for a while. My last act was to call Arthur to make sure he had got the correct report this time. Rob answered the phone and scanned the report before saying good-bye. I folded up my desk and left.

Quite a few people were already at the GS-50 through -65 cafeteria when I arrived. I picked up a few things at an idle dispenser. As I looked for a chair, Seldon Lanyard's wave caught my eye, so I joined him. He was as thin as ever, but he was short enough to make his proportions reasonable.

"Hey, Mike. How are you doing?" Seldon worked in weather engineering. His office handled most of the southern Maryland district. He was a good friend, but I hadn't seen very much of him for several months. Sal had taken up most of my free time, and since she left I had been hibernating.

"Oh, getting by."

"I haven't seen you or Sal for way too long. What have you been up to?"

I couldn't lie to Seldon, but the problems weren't something I felt like discussing. "Ah, there's been a snag. She moved out. Could we talk about it some other time?"

"Sure. I'm awfully sorry. Do you want to talk at all?" Seldon would never push. He had broken out of his tense, constant-pressure period. A few years ago, he had put in so much time at work that his wife almost expected to get a ransom note.

"How's the weather lately?" I said with brilliant originality.

"Business as usual. How's soothsaying?"

"Not very soothing sometimes."

"What now?"

"That's 'who now.' Arthur Springer. He's on the rampage because of a mix-up on one of my reports. And I can't find out why it's such a big deal. He's got his beltline up to his eyebrows, so he interprets almost anything I say as criticism."

"I thought he was like that all the time."

"Maybe a little, but this seems worse than ever." And maybe there was more to it than that.

"Well, let me know if you'd like to work some frustrations out on the courts." Seldon didn't look athletic, wearing his conservative trousers and slouching a bit at the table. He was almost ten years older than I, his hair prematurely graying, but he was probably in better shape. I liked to stay fit, but not when it seemed like work.

"Right. And thanks, Seldon." He was a good listener with sharp instincts. I probably should have gone, but at the moment I just wanted more time to puzzle out the whole situation with Arthur.

I ate the rest of my meal without saying much more. Seldon evidently sensed my need for quiet.

"Thanks for the company. I'll try to be more talkative next time." I rose to leave.

"Any time. Let me know if you want to talk."

"Thanks. Oh, say hi to Connie." I left Seldon in the cafeteria and went back to my apartment several floors up.

At home the reflections on the walls greeted me. The mirrors in the room were my attempt to conceal the fact that my apartment was only four meters square. My reflected alter ego looked tired. I pushed some blond hairs back into place, uncovering a few worry lines.

Emotionally and physically exhausted, I settled into the hideaway bed, flipped on the news, and widened the story-selection criteria. There were a few routine items. Petitions for a steeper population diminishment rate. Scapescope had revealed enough information to justify arresting a small group foolish enough to be planning a murder. Congress increased the maximum GS level to eighty-one--between longevity increases and inflation, the maximum seemed to climb at least one level every five years. A plaintiff in a big lawsuit was unlucky enough to lose, so he was having to pay the defendant the sum he had sued the other for.

One story caught my attention. Celeste Newbury was missing. Her scapescope brainchild had made disappearances like that predictable and therefore rare, but I guessed that a recluse could drop out of sight more easily than could a ten-to-fiver.

I wished I hadn't turned on the news. That last item reminded me of scapescope--the very last thing I wanted to think about. Make that almost the very last.

Sal was the very last.

Sal Vienta and scapescope. What a pair.

Like a bird swooping toward a light in the darkness and then slamming into a window, I felt my thoughts drawn to the pair, only to run into a scapescope screen.

It was less than a week since Sal had moved out--because of something she saw on her law-enforcement scapescope. Before too much longer, I was going to be fired. After that, my name would be found on a list of known political criminals.

And that particular line was absolutely clear.

End of Excerpt