A Day in the Life of a Classics Professor

The following story was published in the December 1984 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy ;and Science Fiction. When I read it after thirty five years, I was surprized by how close I had come to the world of intelligent machines that we are beginning to live in. I should also note that I have given copies of this story to a number of classics professors but none of them ever got back to me to say how much they liked it.

If you would like to comment on this story, you can do so just beyond the end of the story.

A Day in the Life of a Classics Professor

By Stan Dryer

When Professor Parker Colburn came awake to the persistent beeping of his alarm, he reached quickly over to flick it off. He got quietly out of bed, then paused to look down on the motionless form of the girl who occupied the other half of the bed, her golden hair cascading over the pillow.

Parker walked to the bathroom and shut the door silently behind him. With any luck she might still be asleep when he left for the University.

As he shaved, a pleasant reverie came over him. She had been sweet and young and surprisingly adept. From the moment she had approached him at the cocktail party the previous evening, he had known her motives. While little of the passion she had displayed last night had been playacting, when she awakened this morning she would probably feel she had him under her spell. Quite a mistaken assumption.

He stepped into the shower and turned up the water to a hot needlepoint. How nice it would be to find a woman he could trust. Since the sorry business with Marta he had kept away from any relationships that threatened to become permanent. Marta, lovely Marta. In a way he still grieved her loss. They had started out so well together. A woman with a mind as keen as his own and a most compatible bedmate. He had known that she had relished power, but he had had no idea what she was really after until she had made her play for old Isa Hernshaw, the Dean of Humanities. It had been a move worthy of Livia, the most insidious of Roman empresses. It might well have worked had not Hernshaw, who was a student of Rome in his own right, realized what she was after. “l’d like to think it’s my virile body she wants,” he had told Parker, “but that is not what she is lusting for. Give her the chance and she’ll be seducing President Watkins tomorrow.”

Parker stepped out of the shower. Despite the agony of the thought of losing Marta, he had acted swiftly and decisively. Even though she did not have tenure, her departure had been bloody enough. It had taken him a year before he felt he once again had the loyalty of his people.

He finished drying off and stepped into his dressing room where Hartwell had laid out his clothes. Now there was loyalty. Hartwell, the perfect manservant, always anticipating Parker’s needs, yet with the taste to know when he should fade quietly into the background. Parker had not imagined that human manservants still existed in an age when anyone could afford a service droid. Two years ago, Hartwell had appeared at his door just after the Midwestern team had taken the U. S. Classics Association Championship.

“The Alumni Association has employed me to act as your manservant,” was all he had said concerning his origins. Although Parker had his suspicions as to the individuals responsible, he had never pursued an investigation. Hartwell was too nice a fringe benefit to question. It was the kind of treatment that kept him on at Midwestern in the face of the most flattering offers from a number of professional teams.

Parker knotted his tie and shrugged into a Harris Tweed jacket. Then he stepped into the dining room. A place had been set at the end of the table and next to it was the morning New York Times, opened to the classics page.

Straight as a statue, Hartwell stood beside the sideboard. “Good morning, Sir,” he said.

“Good morning, Hartwell.”

“Will the young lady be joining you for breakfast?” Hartwell’s tone was as matter of fact as if he was asking if Parker wished more coffee.

“I think not,” said Parker.

“Very good, Sir,” said Hartwell. “Your eggs will be ready in a minute.”

Parker seated himself, took a sip of coffee and glanced at the headlines. The Detroit Throats had finished off the Philadelphia Golden Tongues in the Eastern Divisional Finals. So it would be Detroit and Los Angeles in the Super Forum. Quite a feather in his cap. The lead orators on both teams had trained under him at Midwestern.

He was halfway through his breakfast and the rest of the classics page when the door to his dressing room opened and the girl came in. Parker suppressed a frown when he saw she was wearing his dressing gown. It would, he knew, absorb enough of her musky perfume so it would have to be cleaned.

“Parker darling, I thought you were going to get me up,” she said, her round little mouth in a half pout.

“You looked so comfortable, I just couldn’t bring myself to awaken you,” said Parker.

“Would Professor Parker’s guest wish some breakfast?” Hartwell had eased into the room.

The young lady’s eyes popped wide. “Hey, wow, are you for real?”

“Very real,” said Parker.

“The subject of breakfast?” said Hartwell.

“Yeah, sure,” said the girl. “Juice, coffee and a couple of eggs over easy.”

Parker knew Hartwell must have inwardly winced at the commonness of this expression, but his face betrayed nothing. “Very good, Madame,” he said and left the room.

The girl sat down and moved her chair close to Parker. She leaned over and touched his arm with her hand. The dressing gown came open to present an excellent view of her firm and lovely breasts. “That was a lot of fun last night,” she said.

“Most enjoyable,” said Parker. If there was anything he detested it was an instant replay over breakfast of the sexual athletics of the previous evening.

“I sure hope it isn’t going to be the last time,” she said.

“I am sure it will not be,” said Parker, adding to himself, “but not with me.” How many times had he run through this script before? People still seemed to have the idea that a Professor of Classics was a particularly easy mark. Anyone with the slightest grasp of the history of Rome should have known that the classics gave the most thorough education in the venality of man.

“You are a sweety,” said the girl. “And I’m going to be a naughty and ask for one tiny favor from you.”

“Certainly,” said Parker, “whatever I can do.”

“I had a bad break on the team tryouts.” The words came pouring out in a rush as if she feared he would stop her. “I mean what kind of luck to get laryngitis the day of the trials. Could you be a doll and have a little tryout just for me?”

Parker tried not to let his boredom show. Couldn’t she even come up with an original pitch? Laryngitis my throat. She’d probably screwed up the first line of Caesar’s address to his troops. “That one I can’t help you with,” he said. “Rules are rules. We run the team tryouts twice a year. You can come back in September and give it another try.”

She pulled back from him, her face bare with anger. “You bastard,” she said.

Now the tears, Parker thought.

But Hartwell with his perfect timing reappeared with the girl’s breakfast. He calmly placed the dishes before her, then turned to Parker. “You wished your car for eight-fifteen,” he said. “It is now that hour.”

Good old Hartwell! Parker had ordered the car for eight-thirty, but his manservant had read the situation and spared him fifteen minutes of tears and supplication.

Parker rose. “Infinita est velocitas temporis,” he said. “Hartwell will see to getting you a cab when you’re ready to leave.”

University Boulevard, 8:30 am

Ars longa, vita brevis. (Life is short and art is long.)

Big Harley Wilson drove Parker’s limousine with a terrifying abandon, cutting in and out through the traffic of autocars at a speed that would have meant disaster for anyone with a shade less skill. Wilson had been a running back with the now defunct Green Bay Packers and he was very used to hurling himself through holes that opened up for only a fraction of a second.

As Wilson drove, he cursed. “No mech scab gonna cut me off.” “Eat monoxide, droid bastards.” “Furbin micro-brains.”

And, Parker thought, he had every reason to curse the mechanisms that piloted the other vehicles. They, or their brother androids, had destroyed Wilson’s most promising career. More than that, he knew the passionate love this man still had for football. In his time off he worked out with a group of students. What anyone saw in it Parker could not understand. The University did not even give Phys. Ed. credits for football. And yet there they were, memorizing the old play books and working through the drills in the one muddy corner of the playing fields that had not been put back into corn. A few nuts desperately believing that the glories of the past would someday return.

Yet that was the way most of his friends and relations had viewed him fifteen years ago. Parker Colburn, the wastrel son of one of the better Boston families, escaping from reality in his dusty tomes. His father had made his own feelings quite clear. In the middle of Parker’s Junior year he had summoned him over from Harvard, up to his law offices in the high rise on State Street. There, with Parker looking out at the spectacular view of Boston harbor and the airport beyond, Samuel Parker, Esq. had read aloud a letter he had just received from his son’s senior tutor, Professor Detros.

“The problem with your son is not that he lacks industry. He is a devoted scholar in the area of his interest, the study of Roman oratory. Unfortunately, his almost monomaniac interest in is subject has had a most deleterious effect upon the rest of his studies.”

His father had paused and looked up over his reading glasses. “Jim Detros would not have written to me if this was not serious,” he had said.

Parker had known that to be true. It was not usual for a senior tutor to give that kind of a report to a parent. Then Detros had been cox on the Harvard crew his father had captained the year they won the Sedgewick Cup.

“I sent you to Harvard to broaden you education,” his father had said. “That does not seem to be happening.”

Parker had squirmed in his chair and promised to try to bring up his grades. His :father had put down the letter and in a brief summation for the jury of all Harvard alumni had pointed out that a liberal education included far more than the classics.

The message had been clear. You got good grades, made the crew, joined the right club and you were on the road to a partnership in the firm and an office with its own view of the harbor.

Fortunately, Parker had, with all the stubbornness of youth, persisted in his folly. He had gone out for no teams, joined no clubs and graduated with only a Magna in Classics and a passion for oratory. His only kudos had been the Latin oration at commencement. In those days there had been no competition. He had done a magnificent job, although only he and perhaps a dozen scholars in the audience had even understood a word of it. How different it was today! Thanks to hypnotutoring, three hundred million Americans and half the rest of the world understood Latin like a native tongue. The competition to give the Latin oratory at Harvard was now incredibly fierce. That part of commencement was always televised nationwide and the orator was instantly snapped up by a major league team.

Yet Harvard did not give that great a classics education nowadays. They had dropped to the Class 2 League for years ago and had a rotten record there. They were even muttering about deemphasizing the classics as not being a true part of a liberal education. The truth was that those ivy-tower jokers did not know how to go big time. His best bit of good fortune had been when his application for Instructor at Harvard was turned down and he had taken the job at Midwestern.

Midwestern was a place that knew how to swing with the times. They had been one of the first universities to get out of football and into oratory. There had never been a problem about money, even when the oratory team was still showing a loss. Once he had started fielding winning teams, they had been most lavish in their appreciation.

Tires squealing, the limousine turned into the main quadrangle and braked to a stop in front of the Classics Building, a sparkling thirty story tower of glass and stainless steel. Across the way, the old football stadium had been torn down and on the site was rising the new Forum, a building designed from the ground. up for the business of presenting Midwestern team debates to a live audience of thirty thousand with twenty million more video viewers.

Parker knew he was on the way to the top. What pleased him most was that his father had shown no bitterness but was genuinely proud of him. The old man would probably be calling him up today about getting tickets for the Super Forum. There was only one possible flaw in the whole structure of his success. Fortunately, he might have detected it in time.

“Have the car here at five,” he said to Wilson as his chauffeur opened the door for him. “And bring Steve and Rollo. I have some special work for the three of you.”

Wilson grinned at him. “We gonna blow away some droids?” he said.

“Not exactly,” said Parker.

He entered the building and crossed the lobby to the elevator, raising his right hand to identify himself to the security droid at the desk.

Aside from a couple of adminidroids who stood politely silent with their paper feed trays, there were only two others in the elevator as they started up, MacLavish. one of the Assistant Coaches, and a young student in a pseudo-sixties outfit. Parker ignored the kid in his khaki shirt, bleached. levis and junk jewelry and made polite conversation with MacLavish, telling him how pleased the staff should be with the number of Midwestern orators on the Super Forum teams.

The student left on the fifteenth floor and, as he squeezed past, Parker felt the expected object slipped into the pocket of his jacket. MacLavish left at the twenty-fifth floor and Parker continued on to his penthouse offices at the top of the building. Leaving the elevator, he headed quickly for his office. Maria, his lovely flesh and blood secretary, smiled. at him as he came in.

Another bonus from the Alumni Association, she had replaced a secredroid with considerably better word processing skills. However, Maria’s effect on general office morale more than made up for a few spelling errors.

“You’ve got four messages on your screen,” she said.

“Gatch them in a minute,” said Parker. He entered his office, shut the door behind him and fished the message from his pocket. It was a rolled up scrap of paper with but one sentence written on it. “Project Underdog is for real and Cartwell is your man.”

Midwestern University Classics Building, 19:00 am

Duas tantum res anxius optat, panem et curcenses. (Two things only the people desire, bread and circuses.)

“We are most fortunate today to have the opportunity to be in the office of’ the man who has probably done more for the ;sport of oratory than any living American.” Stan Waterman stared into the television camera with the look of pure sincerity that made him America’s favorite sportscaster. “I am referring of course to Professor Parker Colburn of Midwestern University here in Urbane City. Good morning, Professor Colburn.”.

Parker gave the camera his most pleasant smile. “Good morning, Stan,” he said. “And please just call me Parker.”

“I guess this is something of a red letter day for you, Parker,” said Waterman. “Bill Morton and Nancy Hendrick, the lead orators for Detroit and Los Angeles, the two teams that will be going head to head in the Super Forum next week, are both All American Classics Scholars from Midwestern. How does it feel to have coached the top orators on both these teams?”

“It’s very gratifying,” said Parker. “Everyone in our whole coaching organization is very proud of Bill and Nancy, who as you know, are two very talented young persons.”

“Now,” said Waterman, “I’m not trying to catch you with a mouth full of pebbles, but where are you putting your money on the Super Forum?”

Parker knew this one was coming. “That’s a tough one, Stan,” he said. “With Morton orating at seven-eighty-two in the Cicero and Watson with an unanswered point average of six-fifty-seven, I’d have to give Detroit the edge in offense. But then you look at Hendrick’s earned rebuttal average of three-seventy-five and I can see some debate shaping up.”

“Well,” said Waterman, “I can see that the Fox of Midwestern isn’t giving much away. Let’s speak to this one from a slightly different angle. Cicero came on strong for the initial declamation and downp1ayed the rebuttal. Do you agree with this? Is the team with the stronger offense going to have the edge in the Super Forum?”

Parker thought quickly. Waterman was definitely misquoting Cicero, but it would be a big mistake to catch him up on it. Waterman was the living proof of the adaptability of a good sportscaster. He had been one of the top football play-by-play announcers, but the end of physical major league sports had not fazed him in the least. From somewhere he had gleaned enough surface understanding of the classics to fool the public. If oratory hit the skids tomorrow, Waterman would land on his feet. He’d pick up a smattering of whatever fad next caught the public fancy and be on his way. It would be a mistake to alienate anyone so resilient.

“At Midwestern,” said Parker, “we’ve always paid a lot of attention to what Cicero has to say about oratory. But we have to remember that our primary purpose here is not to train orators but to mold men and women. When our graduates step up to the podium of life, they’re going to have to be able to handle both the offense and the defense. Thus, we favor a balanced attack, both declamation and rebuttal.”

“Could not have said it better myself,” said Waterman. “I think the audience out there now has a little better idea why this young coach has three successive undefeated seasons behind him. But I see that our time is about up. Thank you so much for taking a moment to talk to us, Professor Colburn. I know you’ll be watching the Super Forum with every bit as much interest as our viewers out there in videospace.”

Durkett Memorial Gymnasium, 11 :15 am

Sic transit gloria mundi. (Thus passes the glory of the world.)

Parker opened the heavy metal door and entered the dusky vault of the empty locker room. As he walked through the room, there was no sound but his footsteps echoing from the rusting Lockers, quite a difference from the -days when these walls had reverberated with the victory cries of a thousand Midwestern teams.

He paused at a door with an opaque glass panel that read “Director of Calisthenics”. He tapped lightly on the panel.

“Come in.” The voice that answered betrayed a sad weariness.

Parker pushed open the door. The room was as he remembered it. The walls were covered with carefully framed pictures of Midwestern teams, all of them grinning out at him, a paradigm of young manhood now betrayed into oblivion. Behind an old metal desk, leaning back in his swivel chair was Jason Hobart, once the football coach with the best record in the Conference, now reduced to a sinecure poor in both spirit and renumeration. Parker had not seen Jason in over two years. He looked much the same. His hair was perhaps a little whiter, the frown on his face a bit more defiant. “Well, well,” he said, “Proressor Colburn. And to what do we owe this honor?”

Parker ignored the man’s belligerence. He understood too much about the slippery footings of power not to forgive the anger of a man whom the fates had brought low. “Hello Jason,” he said. “I wanted. to talk to you about Batridge.” There was no use in idle chatter; they both knew why he was here. By rules some thought archaic every student was required to participate each semester in an activity of benefit to his body. No standard of performance was enforced, only a minimum attendance. For those with no interest in aerobic dance or frisbee tossing, droids were provided to lead calisthenics twice a week. Len Batridge, the anchorman on the Freshman Oration Team had taken it into his head to defy these rules. He had missed enough sessions so that Hobart and his robot assistants were about to flunk him out.

The coach leaned back in his chair and smiled. It was not a smile of pleasure. “Young Batridge, ” he said, “seems to have forgotten one of the tenets of this university. Mens sana, in corpore sano.”

“There is nothing wrong with Batridge’s body,” said Parker. “He jogs eight miles a day.”

The coach raised his hand. “Enough,” he said. “Spare me the oration. I am not interested in all the good words you will put in for me with the administration. All I have left, after all, is my integrity. The rules are simple and they apply to Batridge. No gym credits, no oratory team.”

For a second Parker felt a touch of pity for the coach. Then his resolve stiffened. This man was not, after all, one who should be boasting about his integrity. “I was hoping that I would not have to remind you,” he said.

“Remind me?” Jason’s eyes took on a hunted wariness.

“Jim Wall,” said Parker. “All American. Played four years for the Oilers if I remember correctly. Likeable young man, but he had real trouble with his Latin verbs. A big mistake his taking Latin. Those were your words if I remember correctly. ‘A big mistake. Just edge his grade up from a D to a low C.’ “

The coach covered his face with his hands. “You bastard,” he said, his voice almost a sob.

“I was just an Instructor at the time. No tenure. And here was the man who had taken Midwestern to the championship asking just one small favor of me. What could I do but go along with it?”

Jason hunched forward over his desk, his face still masked behind his hands. “Get out of here,” he said in a hoarse whisper.

“In a moment,” said Parker. “I just wanted to remind you of a promise you made at the time. If I ever wanted a favor, I had only to ask.”

The coach’s hands became fists crashing down onto the desk. “Sure, what the hell. You own everything else. Why the hell not my honor. I’ll fix it for you. Now just get out of my sight before I kill you.”

Parker moved to the door. “I knew I could count on you,” he said. He went out and eased the door shut behind him; his last view was of the coach hunched sobbing behind his desk.

The Midwestern University Faculty Club, 12:30 pm

Carpe diem, Guam minimum credula postero. (Seize now the day, nor trust some later day.)

It was a small gathering in the Presidential Suite, President Watkins, a few selected Department Heads, and a couple of dozen wealthy old grads. The purpose of the meeting was the Biannual Update on University Operations, a euphemism, Parker knew, for putting the arm to the alumni.

This year’s special target was Arnie Hooper, the President of Universe Robotics. His seating at the head table between Parker and President Watkins was not a matter of chance. Parker knew his assignment: he was to drop a few pearls of wisdom about the Super Forum and Midwestern’s chances in the Diogenes Bowl and to listen with real or pretended enthusiasm to whatever Hooper might have to say.

Parker provided his pearls while Hooper wolfed down his roast beef. He was a hulk of a man with a ruddy face who never failed to let you know how many miles he had run the previous week. He polished off a piece of apple pie a la mode, took a swallow of coffee and turned to smile at Parker. “Your team sounds like it’s in top shape, ”he said.

“We certainly think so,” said Parker. “We’re seeing better talent every year.”

“Great,” said Hooper. “You covering all the other bases’?”

“The other bases?”

“Don’t ever drop you guard,” said Hooper. “Don’t ever think you’ve got it made in the shade. I almost got caught that way myself.”

“How’s that?” said Parker. He knew exactly what was coming, but he also knew roughly how many kilobucks Hooper would be good for in the next alumni appeal.

“I almost missed it,” said Hooper. “Four hundred thousand a year Detroit was paying me in those d.ays.”

“And worth every penny of it I understand,” said Parker.

“I sure thought so,” said Hooper. “I knew I was one of the best damn shortstops in the business. I was so busy thinking how great I was I almost missed the handwriting on the wall.”

“When was that?” said Parker.

“l remember the day,” said Hooper. “March 1988 it was. We were in spring training. Barton, the Manager, used. to let the android pushers come around as a kind of comic relief. He’d put Whitey Chisholm on the mound. Whitey would wing in a dozen or so of his ninety-five mph fast balls and we’d all have a good laugh watching the droids strike out. Then this kid shows up with his droid. It wasn’t much to look at. They didn’t flesh them out in those days. It walks behind the kid with a kind of slow shuffle.

Hooper paused and glanced around the table. All other conversation had stopped. Even though Parker had. heard the story a couple of times before, he did not need to feign his fascination. It marked, after all, a vital turning point in his own career.

“This time it was different,” said Hooper. “The droid stands there at the plate with a bat in its plexi-hands, not moving at all.

“‘Where you want him to hit it?’, the kid says, He wasn’t more than twenty-two, but he was dead serious.

“Barton smiles. ‘Just have him hit it out of the park,’ he says.

“‘Okay,’ says the kid. He goes over and opens a panel in the droid’s chest. The thing wasn’t even rigged for voice commands. The kid finishes his adjustments, backs away and nods to Whitey on the mound. Whitey puts the first one in easy. The droid swings the bat with a kind. of a jerk and the ball lofts up, clear over the fence in left field.

“No one says anything except Whitey. He pounds his glove with his fist. ‘Gimme another ball’, he yells.

“The next ball comes in hard, a vicious curve that cracks in over the plate but a little low. The android. lets it go. ‘What’s the matter,’ Whitey shouts, ‘its battery gone dead?’

“‘That was a ball,’ the kid says. It was a lesson the pitchers would all learn in a hurry. Draids never made mistakes over balls and strikes.

“Whitey throws again, this time his famous fast ball. The droid jerks his bat again and plasters a drive into right field that Henderson catches with his back against the fence.

‘Sorry,’ says the kid, ‘his adjustments drift a little.’ He tweaks up the droid again and we all stand around in silence while that machine puts six of the next ten pitches out of the park.”

Hooper paused to glance around at his audience again. “Now the reason I tell that little story is to make one point very clear,” he said. “In this day and age, never believe that you can’t be replaced by a machine. For myself, I didn’t think much about that robot until the middle of the next night when I woke up in a cold sweat. That piece of hardware was after my job! If you could make one that could hit, you could make one that could run, or field, or catch passes, or drop in swishers from forty feet out. It didn’t take me long to figure out what I had to do. I put together every penny of cash I could lay my hands on and bought into the kid’s operation. The kid is Ferrill, my Director of Research. And you all know the rest of the story.”

There was a moment of quiet and then President Watkins spoke. “I have to say that I agree with Arnie one hundred percent. In this day and age you can’t rest on the laurels of past accomplishments. And that’s part of the reason why we’re going to be devoting this afternoon to a look at our research facilities here at Midwestern. The best damn facilities of any university in the USA, or the world for a matter of fact. But we can’ t stop where we are. We’ve got to come up with the new ideas ahead of everyone else.”

Hooper Laboratory of Robotics Engineering, 2:35 pm

Frontis nulla fides. (Men’s faces are not to be trusted.)

Parker trailed along with the alumni, chatting with them about the oratory team. His presence here was not required. but he had very much wanted to have an excuse to check out this facility. As they moved along he kept his eyes and ears open. What they were shown was interesting enough. There were giant droids that were being designed to put together high-rise buildings in much the same way a kid would use an erector set. There was a genetic engineering robot that would design and glue together the bacteria of you choice in a couple of hours.

But what was of far more interest was what the glib young men in white lab coats did not demonstrate or speak about. Nothing was said, for example, about research in human accents and speech patterns, an area that had supposedly been one of the most promising two years before, just prior to the Field of Endeavor legislation. For mankind had become frightened enough of its machines that it was attempting to define at least a few areas where they would be forbidden entrance. And one such area was the arts. It was now illegal in the United States for anyone to program a computer in a manner that would replace a-human in an artistic enterprise.

Thus all robotic research on creative writing, on the visual arts, and specifically on Latin oration was supposed to have come to an end some two years before. But had it? Why had Dr. Fenmore, previously one of Midwestern’s most prolific publishers, stopped writing journal articles? Fenmore had been one of the most assiduous aspirants for funding, the most eager to show visiting alumni his new toys. Where was he today? And why were they carefully routed around one whole section of the laboratory where locked doors in the main corridors barred their way? What was the purpose of the filing cabinets with bars and padlocks he saw in some offices? And why did the little cliques of graduate students suddenly become silent as they approached?

Parker looked and listened and said nothing. He knew much about the illegal work that was going on, but he had no idea what level in the University supported this activity. It was entirely possible that President Watkins was in on the whole business. Parker also knew that exposing the activity could be a very big mistake. There were too many other unscrupulous individuals who would pick up the work if there was a buck to be made in it. On the other hand, he knew just how quickly Watkins would drop the project if there was to be no cash payoff.

Thus it would be better to attack this problem from a somewhat different angle, to fight fire with fire. And the time for action was now.

The Bit Bucket Lounge, 5:25 pm

Honesta turpitude est pro causa bona. (Crime is honest in a good cause.)

It was not the sort of place that Parker normally frequented. The droid behind the bar was an obsolete model that could only rasp the simplest of pleasantries in response to an order. The feedback was gone in half its servos and it jerked the beer mugs onto the bar, slopping out half the foam. The disks on the holobox were ancient and the projection of the naked dancer writhing on the end of the bar was half obscured in laser fog. It was the type of joint inhabited by the scum of society, codeleggers, pornadroid pimps and data hijackers.

Starkely was waiting for him in a booth in the back, the same young man who had dropped him the message in the elevator. Parker swallowed his disgust and gave him a pleasant smile as he sat down. If he had been able to find anyone else to penetrate Project Underdog, he would never have touched Starkley. Just one more punk who had thought he could make a bit on the side by point shaving on the oratory circuit. But the kid knew his oratory and Fenmore had been happy to pick him up for his illegal project, probably figuring that Starkley’s criminal record gave him some kind of hold over him. Too bad that Parker had grabbed hold first.

“You bring the money?” demanded Starkley.

“Not so fast,” said Parker. “I need to know a few details. Just who is this Cartwell and why should I be interested in him?”

“He’s just a super hack who’s writing the emotion subroutines for the oratory droid. Up till now no one’s been able to make any progress on them. The droid spoke okay, but it had no audience pull. Now all of a sudden Cartwell is beginning to raise the audience interest factor. No one knows quite how he’s doing it, but his subroutines seem to be working.”

“Okay,” said Parker. “Sounds like our man. I want you to finger him for me.”

Starkley shrank back in the booth as if he had been physically struck. “No,” he whined. “I’m not fingering any rubout job.”

“Not a rubout,” said Parker firmly. “I just want to have a little talk with him.”

“I won’t do it,” Starkley said. But his voice told Parker he would.

“An extra five hundred,” Parker said. He placed a wad of bills on the table between them.

Starkely reached for the money, but Parker swept it out of his reach. “Not so fast;” he said. “You get the cash when the job is done.”

“Okay,” said Starkley, “but no rough stuff. You promise me that.”

“No rough stuff,” said Parker. “Word. of honor.”

Parking Lot, Hooper Laboratory of Robotics Engineering, 7:45 pm

Oderint, dum metaunt. (Let them hate, provided that they fear.)

There were five of them in the limousine, Wilson and Starkely in the front and Parker, Steve and Rollo in the back. Parker felt dwarfed by the bulk of the latter two gentlemen who were former line-backer friends of Wilson’s. They all waited in silence as an occasional late worker came out of the building and crossed to an autocar.

Then Starkley spoke. “That’s him.”

“You sure?” demanded Parker.

“Of course I’m sure. I’d know that screwy walk anywhere.”

“Okay, take him,” said Parker.

The boys were out of the car in an instant, moving low and fast on an intercepting course.

“You better get moving,” Parker said to Starkely. “It won’t be good for your health if he knows you’re in on this.”

“The money?” said Starkley,

“Get moving,” said Parker. “You’ll get paid when we know we have the right man.”

Starkley disappeared into the darkness.

A half minute later Cartwell was sitting blindfolded beside Parker in the back seat with Rollo holding his arm persuasively behind his back. With Wilson at the wheel, the limousine swung out of the parking lot and headed into the countryside.

“What do you want?” Cartwell whimpered. In the light of a streetlight they passed Parker could see he was a mere boy of no more than twenty.

“Your name is Terry Cartwell?” Parker spoke in a tone that demanded no hesitation.

“Yes.”

“And you have been programming for Project Underdog?”

The boy let out a gasp.

“Well have you?”

“Yes.” Terror made his voice barely audible.

Now Parker spoke kindly, almost fatherly. “Gotten in a little over your head, haven’t you?” he said.

“The money,” said Cartwell. “You don’t know what they pay.”

“I know exactly what they pay,” said Parker. “I also know all about the last couple of jobs you did and what they paid. Disassembling a Big Blue operating system, for example. That’s good for five years in the cooler right there.”

“Who are you guys?” said Cartwell. “You’re not the cops. Who are you?”

“Never mind who we are,” said Parker. “Let’s just say that we’re very interested in Project Underdog going down the tubes. You get the message?”

“Okay, okay, I get it,” Cartwell whimpered. “I’ll quit. I can be gone tonight. Just no rough stuff.”

Again Parker assumed his fatherly tone. “No one is going to hurt you if you cooperate. But leaving the project is the last thing we want you to do.”

“What do you mean?”

“You are coding the emotional subroutines are you not?” said Parker.

“Yes.”

“And doing a very good job, I understand.”

“I sure am,” said Cartwell. “The audience response factor was up twelve points for my last revision.”

“Where it will stop,” said Parker. “You will run into some fundamental obstacles in your programming. You will discover that the approach you have taken has dead ended. And all of the variations you try will dead end also.”

“But I can’t do that,” said Cartwell. “That would violate my programmer’s credo.”

“Now get this straight,” said Parker. “Just forget your hypocritical little credo. You are a punk kid with a well-documented criminal history. If Project Underdog succeeds, you will be prosecuted and convicted for your last two little forays outside the law… after you get out of the hospital. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes,” The voice was faint, but Parker knew he had made his point.

“Okay,” Parker said to Wilson. “Let’s drop him off.”

The car slowed. “On your walk back to town,” Parker said to the boy, “you’ll have a lot of time to think. Just remember that we know exactly what is going on in your so called secret project. One mistake will be your last.”

The limousine came to a stop and Rollo shoved Cartwell out the door with a push that tumbled him into the ditch.

As the car gunned away, Parker calculated his chances. Let Cartwell hate him, the nameless power that now controlled his life. As long as the fear was stronger, Parker knew he would win out.

The Oratory Building Penthouse Suite, 8:35 pm.

Snectatum veniunt, veniunt spectentur ut ipasae. (They come to see, they come that they themselves may be seen.)

When Parker arrived, the reception was in full swing. Dean Hernshaw greeted him warmly as he entered. His greeting should be warm. Parker’s operation funded about three quarters of the Humanities budget.

He stepped into the room and glanced about. Everyone who was anyone on campus was there, the men mostly in pseudo-leather formal wear, the women in the simple tunics that had, for the moment at least, become de rigueur for a semi-formal party. How little humanity had changed in two thousand. years, Parker thought.

Then the first of his colleagues noticed his presence and he was caught in a whirl of congratulations. He moved about the room, little groups forming around him, anxious to hear the plans for next year’s team.

For an hour he played the pleasant host, and then, exhausted from the effort, excused himself and escaped to the open terrace at one end of the suite. It was cold with a biting wind but he stood for a moment looking down upon the lights of the campus. How soon, he wondered, would all of this belong to him? Hernshaw was retiring soon and Parker knew that the only question as to his moving up to Dean was who would replace him in Oratory. And the step from Dean to President? If Watkins was in on Project Underdog, and that project failed, he would be in a most precarious position. The right information leaked to the right people might just cause a hurried resignation.

Then Parker was aware of a young woman beside him. He turned and looked at her. In the dim light he could see the pretty oval of her face looking up at him. The wind tightened her tunic against her body revealing a figure that quickened his pulse.

“Well hello,” he said.

“Hello,” she said. “I’m Fern Whittington, the new Diction Coach. I’m working for Walt Stanhope.”

“Oh yes,” said Parker. It was a pity his department was so large that he did not have the chance to interview all the new hires in person. In this case, a real pity. He made a mental note to congratulate Stanhope on his recruiting.

“I’m really excited about working for Midwestern,” she said.

And then her smile opened into something close to an invitation. “And, of course, working with you. I mean, up at Harvard all they talked about in the Classics Department was what you’ve done for oratory.”

“Well,” said Parker, “not much of it is my doing. It’s mostly the coaching staff. But it’s awfully cold out here. Why don’t we go someplace quiet where we can talk a bit about what we’re planning for next year?”

“I’d like that very much,” she said. “Where do you have in mind?”

“How about my place?” he said and discovered that his heart was pounding with sophomoric anticipation.

“That sounds awfully nice to me,” she said.

University Paradise Condominiums, 11:45 pm.

Varium et mutabile semper femina. (A fickle and changeful thing is woman.)

Parker lay on his back in bed, with Fern asleep beside him. She was, he thought. a truly remarkable woman. They had talked for an hour over coffee and he had discovered in her an intellect that could challenge his own. She knew what she wanted, the opportunity to make her mark in Oratory. She obviously had her opinions and would fight to the death for what she believed. Yet she told him of her plans with an openness that precluded deception.

Then he had reached out for her and she had come to him willingly. They had made love with an innocence and freedom that had dissolved into bitter dust all of Parker’s memories of the one-night stands of the past.

Could this be the woman he had been waiting for? Would she be the end of his loneliness? And would she be the one to share his rise to the top? Already he could not conceive of any adventure into the future without her beside him.

Parker reached out and touched her back. She turned in her sleep, her hand grasping his and then relaxing. Parker stretched his body in the bed. “Not a bad day,” he said to himself as he sank into slumber. “Not a bad day at all.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: