Dark Hunger


Chapter 4


I flopped down on the bed, and flicked on the TV.

There was only static, and then I realized the DVD player was still turned on, interrupting the cable transmission. I hit the remote button, and the disc in the machine began to play. It was Julia's demo, from several days before.

The camera moved through the bloodstream, and into the heart. Again, I saw that the liquid of blood was almost colorless, with bouncing red cells. Julia was speaking. On the table, the subject lay with the antenna above his body.

"We're coming out of the ventricle, and you see the aorta ahead ... And now we will go through the arterial system ..."

She turned to face the camera.

"The images you have seen are fleeting, but we can allow the camera to cycle through for as much as half an hour, and we can build up highly detailed composites of anything we want to see. We can even pause the camera, using a strong magnetic field. When we are finished, we simply shunt the blood through an intravenous loop surrounded by a strong magnetic field, removing the particles, and then send the patient home."

The video image came back to Julia. "This Xymos technology is safe, reliable, and extremely easy to use. It does not require highly trained personnel; it can be administered by an IV nurse or a medical technician. In the United States alone, a million people die each year from vascular disease. More than thirty million have diagnosed cardiovascular disease. Commercial prospects for this imaging technology are very strong. Because it is painless, simple, and safe, it will replace other imaging techniques such as CAT scans and angiography and will become the standard procedure. We will market the nanotech cameras, the antenna, and monitor systems. Our per-test cost will be only twenty dollars. This is in contrast to certain gene technologies that currently charge two to three thousand dollars a test. But at a mere twenty dollars, we expect worldwide revenues to exceed four hundred million dollars in the first year. And once the procedure is established, those figures will triple. We are talking about a technology that generates one point two billion dollars a year. Now if there are questions ..." I yawned, and flicked the TV off. It was impressive, and her argument was compelling. In fact, I couldn't understand why Xymos was having trouble getting their next round of funding. For investors, this should be a slam dunk.

But then, she probably wasn't having trouble. She was probably just using the funding crisis as an excuse to stay late every night. For her own reasons.

I turned out the light. Lying in bed, staring at the ceiling in the dark, I began to see fleeting images. Julia's thigh, over another man's leg. Julia's back arched. Julia breathing heavily, her muscles tensed. Her arm reaching up to push against the headboard. I found I couldn't stop the images.

I got out of bed, and went to check the kids. Nicole was still up, emailing her friends. I told her it was time for lights out. Eric had kicked off his covers. I pulled them back up. The baby was still purple, but she slept soundly, her breathing gentle and regular.

I got back into bed. I willed myself to go to sleep, to think of something else. I tossed and turned, adjusted the pillow, got up for a glass of milk and cookies. Eventually, finally, I fell into a restless sleep.

And I had a very strange dream.

Sometime during the night, I rolled over to see Julia standing by the bed, undressing. She was moving slowly, as if tired or very dreamy, unbuttoning her blouse. She was turned away from me, but I could see her face in the mirror. She looked beautiful, almost regal. Her features looked more chiseled than I remembered, though perhaps it was just the light. My eyes were half-closed. She hadn't noticed I was awake. She continued to slowly unbutton her blouse. Her lips were moving, as if she were whispering something, or praying. Her eyes seemed vacant, lost in thought.

Then as I watched, her lips turned dark red, and then black. She didn't seem to notice. The blackness flowed away from her mouth across her cheeks and over her lower face, and onto her neck. I held my breath. I felt great danger. The blackness now flowed in a sheet down her body until she was entirely covered, as if with a cloak. Only the upper half of her face remained exposed. Her features were composed; in fact she seemed oblivious, just staring into space, dark lips silently moving. Watching her, I felt a chill that ran deep into my bones. Then a moment later the black sheet slid to the floor and vanished.

Julia, normal again, finished removing her blouse, and walked into the bathroom. I wanted to get up and follow her, but I found I could not move. A heavy fatigue held me down on the bed, immobilizing me. I was so exhausted I could hardly breathe. This oppressive sense of fatigue grew rapidly, and overwhelmed my consciousness. Losing all awareness, I felt my eyes close, and I slept.

DAY 4

6:40 A.M.

The next morning the dream was still fresh in my mind, vivid and disturbing. It felt utterly real, not like a dream at all.

Julia was already up. I got out of bed and walked around to where I had seen her the night before. I looked down at the rug, the bedside table, the creased sheets and pillow. There was nothing unusual, nothing out of order. No dark lines or marks anywhere. I went into the bathroom and looked at her cosmetics, in a neat line on her side of the sink. Everything I saw was mundane. However disturbing my dream had been, it was still a dream. But one part of it was true enough: Julia was looking more beautiful than ever. When I found her in the kitchen, pouring coffee, I saw that her face did indeed look more chiseled, more striking. Julia had always had a chubby face. Now it was lean, defined. She looked like a high-fashion model. Her body, too-now that I looked closely-appeared leaner, more muscular. She hadn't lost weight, she just looked trim, tight, energetic.

I said, "You look great."

She laughed. "I can't imagine why. I'm exhausted."

"What time did you get in?"

"About eleven. I hope I didn't wake you."

"No. But I had a weird dream."

"Oh yes?"

"Yes, it was-"

"Mommy! Mommy!" Eric burst into the kitchen. "It's not fair! Nicole won't get out of the bathroom. She's been in there for an hour. It's not fair!"

"Go use our bathroom."

"But I need my socks, Mommy. It's not fair."

This was a familiar problem. Eric had a couple of pairs of favorite socks that he wore day after day until they were black with grime. For some reason, the other socks in his drawer were not satisfactory. I could never get him to explain why. But putting on socks in the morning was a major problem with him.

"Eric," I said, "we talked about this, you're supposed to wear clean socks."

"But those are my good ones!"

"Eric. You have plenty of good socks."

"It's not fair, Dad. She's been in there an hour, I'm not kidding."

"Eric, go choose other socks."

"Dad ..."

I just pointed my finger toward his bedroom.

"Shees." He walked off muttering about how it wasn't fair.

I turned back to Julia to resume our conversation. She was staring at me coldly. "You really don't get it, do you?"

"Get what?"

"He came in talking to me, and you just took over. You took over the whole thing."

Immediately, I realized she was right. "I'm sorry," I said.

"I don't get to see the children very much these days, Jack. I think I should be able to have my interaction without your taking control."

"I'm sorry. I handle this kind of thing all day, and I guess-"

"This really is a problem, Jack."

"I said I'm sorry."

"I know that's what you said, but I don't think you are sorry, because I don't see you doing anything to change your controlling behavior."

"Julia," I said. Now I was trying to control my temper. I took a breath. "You're right. I'm sorry it happened."

"You're just shutting me out," she said, "and you are keeping me from my children-"

"Julia, God damn it, you're never here!"

A frosty silence. Then:

"I certainly am here," she said. "Don't you dare say I am not."

"Wait a minute, wait a minute. When are you here? When was the last time you made it for dinner, Julia? Not last night, not the night before, not the night before that. Not all week, Julia. You are not here."

She glared at me. "I don't know what you're trying to do, Jack. I don't know what kind of game you are playing."

"I'm not playing any game. I'm asking you a question."

"I'm a good mother, and I balance a very demanding job, a very demanding job, and the needs of my family. And I get absolutely no help from you."

"What are you talking about?" I said, my voice rising still higher. I was starting to have a sense of unreality here.

"You undercut me, you sabotage me, you turn the children against me," she said. "I see what you're doing. Don't think I don't. You are not supportive of me at all. After all these years of marriage, I must say it's a lousy thing to do to your wife." And she stalked out of the room, fists clenched. She was so angry, she didn't see that Nicole was standing back from the door, listening to the whole thing. And staring at me, as her mother swept past.

Now we were driving to school. "She's crazy, Dad."

"No, she's not."

"You know that she is. You're just pretending."

"Nicole, she's your mother," I said. "Your mother is not crazy. She's working very hard right now."

"That's what you said last week, after the fight."

"Well, it happens to be true."

"You guys didn't used to fight."

"There's a lot of stress right now."

Nicole snorted, crossed her arms, stared forward. "I don't know why you put up with her."

"And I don't know why you were listening to what is none of your business."

"Dad, why do you pull that crap with me?"

"Nicole ..."

"Sor-ry. But why can't you have a real conversation, instead of defending her all the time? It's not normal, what she's doing. I know you think she's crazy."

"I don't," I said.

From the backseat, Eric whacked her on the back of the head. "You're the one who's crazy," he said.

"Shut up, butt breath."

"Shut up yourself, weasel puke."

"I don't want to hear any more from either of you," I said loudly. "I am not in the mood." By then we were pulling into the turnaround in front of the school. The kids piled out. Nicole jumped out of the front seat, turned back to get her backpack, shot me a look, and was gone. I didn't think Julia was crazy, but something had certainly changed, and as I replayed that morning's conversation in my head, I felt uneasy for other reasons. A lot of her comments sounded like she was building a case against me. Laying it out methodically, step by step. You are shutting me out and keeping me away from my children.

I am here, you just don't notice.

I'm a good mother, I balance a very demanding job with the needs of my family.

You are not supportive of me at all. You undercut me, you sabotage me.

You are turning the children against me.

I could easily imagine her lawyer saying these things in court. And I knew why. According to a recent article I had read in Redbook magazine, "alienation of affection" was currently the trendy argument in court. The father is turning the children against the mother. Poisoning their little minds by word and deed. While the Mom is blameless as always. Every father knew the legal system was hopelessly biased in favor of mothers. The courts gave lip service to equality, and then ruled a child needed its mother. Even if she was absent. Even if she smacked them around, or forgot to feed them. As long as she wasn't shooting up, or breaking their bones, she was a fit mother in the eyes of the court. And even if she was shooting up, a father might not win the case. One of my friends at MediaTronics had an ex-wife on heroin who'd been in and out of rehab for years. They'd finally divorced and had joint custody. She was supposedly clean but the kids said she wasn't. My friend was worried. He didn't want his ex driving the kids when she was loaded. He didn't want drug dealers around his kids. So he went to court to ask for full custody, and he lost. The judge said the wife was genuinely trying to overcome her addiction, and that children need their mother. So that was the reality. And now it looked to me as if Julia was starting to lay out that case. It gave me the creeps.

About the time I had worked myself into a fine lather, my cell phone rang. It was Julia. She was calling to apologize.

"I'm really sorry. I said stupid things today. I didn't mean it."

"What?"

"Jack, I know you support me. Of course you do. I couldn't manage without you. You're doing a great job with the kids. I'm just not myself these days. It was stupid, Jack. I'm sorry I said those things."

When I got off the phone I thought, I wish I had recorded that. I had a ten o'clock meeting with my headhunter, Annie Gerard. We met in the sunny courtyard of a coffee shop on Baker. We always met outside, so Annie could smoke. She had her laptop out and her wireless modem plugged in. A cigarette dangled from her lip, and she squinted in the smoke.

"Got anything?" I said, sitting down opposite her.

"Yeah, as a matter of fact I do. Two very good possibilities."

"Great," I said, stirring my latte. "Tell me."

"How about this? Chief research analyst for IBM, working on advanced distributed systems architecture."

"Right up my alley."

"I thought so, too. You're highly qualified for this one, Jack. You'd run a research lab of sixty people. Base pay two-fifty plus options going out five years plus royalties on anything developed in your lab."

"Sounds great. Where?"

"Armonk."

"New York?" I shook my head. "No way, Annie. What else?"

"Head of a team to design multi-agent systems for an insurance company that's doing data mining. It's an excellent opportunity, and-"

"Where?"

"Austin."

I sighed. "Annie. Julia's got a job she likes, she's very devoted to it, and she won't leave it now. My kids are in school, and-"

"People move all the time, Jack. They all have kids in school. Kids adapt."

"But with Julia ..."

"Other people have working wives, too. They still move."

"I know, but the thing is with Julia ..."

"Have you talked to her about it? Have you broached the subject?"

"Well, no, because I-"

"Jack." Annie stared at me over the laptop screen. "I think you better cut the crap. You're not in a position to be picky. You're starting to have a shelf-life problem."

"Shelf life," I said.

"That's right, Jack. You've been out of work six months now. That's a long time in high tech. Companies figure if it takes you that long to find a job, there must be something wrong with you. They don't know what, they just assume you've been rejected too many times, by too many other companies. Pretty soon, they won't even interview. Not in San Jose, not in Armonk, not in Austin, not in Cambridge. The boat's sailed. Are you hearing me? Am I getting through here?"

"Yes, but-"

"No buts, Jack. You've got to talk to your wife. You've got to figure out a way to get yourself off the shelf."

"But I can't leave the Valley. I have to stay here."

"Here is not so good." She flipped the screen up again. "Whenever I bring up your name, I keep getting-listen, what's going on at MediaTronics, anyway? Is Don Gross going to be indicted?"

"I don't know."

"I've been hearing that rumor for months now, but it never seems to happen. For your sake, I hope it happens soon."

"I don't get it," I said. "I'm perfectly positioned in a hot field, multi-agent distributed processing, and-"

"Hot?" she said, squinting at me. "Distributed processing's not hot, Jack. It's fucking radioactive. Everybody in the Valley figures that the breakthroughs in artificial life are going to come from distributed processing."

"They are," I said, nodding.

In the last few years, artificial life had replaced artificial intelligence as a long-term computing goal. The idea was to write programs that had the attributes of living creatures-the ability to adapt, cooperate, learn, adjust to change. Many of those qualities were especially important in robotics, and they were starting to be realized with distributed processing. Distributed processing meant that you divided your work among several processors, or among a network of virtual agents that you created in the computer. There were several basic ways this was done. One way was to create a large population of fairly dumb agents that worked together to accomplish a goal-just like a colony of ants worked together to accomplish a goal. My own team had done a lot of that work.

Another method was to make a so-called neural network that mimicked the network of neurons in the human brain. It turned out that even simple neural nets had surprising power. These networks could learn. They could build on past experience. We'd done some of that, too. A third technique was to create virtual genes in the computer, and let them evolve in a virtual world until some goal was attained.

And there were several other procedures, as well. Taken together, these procedures represented a huge change from the older notions of artificial intelligence, or AI. In the old days, programmers tried to write rules to cover every situation. For example, they tried to teach computers that if someone bought something at a store, they had to pay before leaving. But this commonsense knowledge proved extremely difficult to program. The computer would make mistakes. New rules would be added to avoid the mistakes. Then more mistakes, and more rules. Eventually the programs were gigantic, millions of lines of code, and they began to fail out of sheer complexity. They were too large to debug. You couldn't figure out where the errors were coming from.

So it began to seem as if rule-based AI was never going to work. Lots of people made dire predictions about the end of artificial intelligence. The eighties were a good time for English professors who believed that computers would never match human intelligence. But distributed networks of agents offered an entirely new approach. And the programming philosophy was new, too. The old rules-based programming was "top down." The system as a whole was given rules of behavior.

But the new programming was "bottom up." The program defined the behavior of individual agents at the lowest structural level. But the behavior of the system as a whole was not defined. Instead, the behavior of the system emerged, the result of hundreds of small interactions occurring at a lower level.

Because the system was not programmed, it could produce surprising results. Results never anticipated by the programmers. That was why they could seem "lifelike." And that was why the field was so hot, because-

"Jack."

Annie was tapping my hand. I blinked.

"Jack, did you hear anything I just said to you?"

"Sorry."

"I don't have your full attention," she said. She blew cigarette smoke in my face. "Yes, you're right, you're in a hot field. But that's all the more reason to worry about shelf life. It's not like you're an electrical engineer specializing in optical-drive mechanisms. Hot fields move fast. Six months can make or break a company."

"I know."

"You're at risk, Jack."

"I understand."

"So. Will you talk to your wife? Please?"

"Yes."

"Okay," she said. "Make sure you do. Because otherwise, I can't help you." She flicked her burning cigarette into the remains of my latte. It sizzled and died. She snapped her laptop shut, got up, and left.

I put a call in to Julia, but didn't get her. I left voice mail. I knew it was a waste of time even to bring up moving to her. She'd certainly say no-especially if she had a new boyfriend. But Annie was right, I was in trouble. I had to do something. I had to ask. I sat at my desk at home, turning the SSVT box in my hands, trying to think what to do. I had another hour and a half before I picked up the kids. I really wanted to talk to Julia. I decided to call Julia again through the company switchboard, to see if they could track her down. "Xymos Technology."

"Julia Forman, please."

"Please hold." Some classical music, then another voice. "Ms. Forman's office."

I recognized Carol, her assistant. "Carol, it's Jack."

"Oh, hi, Mr. Forman. How are you?"

"I'm fine, thanks."

"Are you looking for Julia?"

"Yes, I am."

"She's in Nevada for the day, at the fab plant. Shall I try to connect you there?"

"Yes, please."

"One moment."

I was put on hold. For quite a while.

"Mr. Forman, she's in a meeting for the next hour. I expect her to call back when it breaks up. Do you want her to call you?"

"Yes, please."

"Do you want me to tell her anything?"

"No," I said. "Just ask her to call."

"Okay, Mr. Forman."

I hung up, stared into space, turning the SSVT box. She's in Nevada for the day. Julia had said nothing to me about going to Nevada. I replayed the conversation with Carol in my mind. Had Carol sounded uncomfortable? Was she covering? I couldn't be sure. I couldn't be sure of anything now. I stared out the window and as I watched, the sprinklers kicked on, shooting up cones of spray all over the lawn. It was right in the heat of midday, the wrong time to water. It wasn't supposed to happen. The sprinklers had been fixed just the other day. I began to feel depressed, staring at the water. It seemed like everything was wrong. I had no job, my wife was absent, the kids were a pain, I felt constantly inadequate dealing with them-and now the fucking sprinklers weren't working right. They were going to burn out the fucking lawn.

And then the baby began to cry.

I waited for Julia to call, but she never did. I cut up chicken breasts into strips (the trick is to keep them cold, almost frozen) for dinner, because chicken fingers were another meal they never argued about. I got out rice to boil. I looked at the carrots in the fridge and decided that even though they were a little old, I'd still use them tonight. I cut my finger while I was chopping the carrots. It wasn't a big cut but it bled a lot, and the Band-Aid didn't stop the bleeding. It kept bleeding through the pad, so I kept putting on new Band-Aids. It was frustrating.

Dinner was late and the kids were cranky. Eric complained loudly that my chicken fingers were gross, that McDonald's were way better, and why couldn't we have those? Nicole tried out various line readings for her play, while Eric mimicked her under his breath. The baby spit up every mouthful of her cereal until I stopped and mixed it with some mashed banana. After that, she ate steadily. I don't know why I never thought to do that before. Amanda was getting older, and she didn't want the bland stuff anymore.

Eric had left his homework at school; I told him to call his friends for the assignment, but he wouldn't. Nicole was online for an hour with her friends; I kept popping into her room and telling her to get off the computer until her homework was done, and she'd say, "In just a minute, Dad." The baby fussed, and it took a long time for me to get her down. I went back into Nicole's room and said, "Now, damn it!" Nicole began to cry. Eric came in to gloat. I asked him why he wasn't in bed. He saw the look on my face, and scampered away. Sobbing, Nicole said I should apologize to her. I said she should have done what I told her to do twice before. She went into the bathroom and slammed the door. From his room, Eric yelled, "I can't sleep with all that racket!"

I yelled back, "One more word and no television for a week!"

"Not fair!"

I went into the bedroom and turned on the TV to watch the rest of the game. After half an hour, I checked on the kids. The baby was sleeping peacefully. Eric was asleep, all his covers thrown off. I pulled them back on him. Nicole was studying. When she saw me, she apologized. I gave her a hug.

I went back into the bedroom, and watched the game for about ten minutes before I fell asleep.

DAY 5

7:10 A.M.

When I awoke in the morning, I saw that Julia's side of the bed was still made up, her pillow uncreased. She hadn't come home last night at all. I checked the telephone messages; there were none. Eric wandered in, and saw the bed. "Where's Mom?"

"I don't know, son."

"Did she leave already?"

"I guess so ..."

He stared at me, and then at the unmade bed. And he walked out of the room. He wasn't going to deal with it.

But I was beginning to think I had to. Maybe I should even talk to a lawyer. Except in my mind, there was something irrevocable about talking to a lawyer. If the trouble was that serious, it was probably fatal. I didn't want to believe my marriage was over, so I wanted to postpone seeing a lawyer.

That was when I decided to call my sister in San Diego. Ellen is a clinical psychologist, she has a practice in La Jolla. It was early enough that I figured she hadn't gone to the office yet; she answered the phone at home. She sounded surprised I had called. I love my sister but we are very different. Anyway, I told her briefly about the things I'd been suspecting about Julia, and why.

"You're saying Julia didn't come home and she didn't call?"

"Right."

"Did you call her?"

"Not yet."

"How come?"

"I don't know."

"Maybe she was in an accident, maybe she's hurt ..."

"I don't think so."

"Why not?"

"You always hear if there's an accident. There's no accident."

"You sound upset, Jack."

"I don't know. Maybe."

My sister was silent for a moment. Then she said, "Jack, you've got a problem. Why aren't you doing something?"

"Like what?"

"Like see a marriage counselor. Or a lawyer."

"Oh, jeez."

"Don't you think you should?" she asked.

"I don't know. No. Not yet."

"Jack. She didn't come home last night and she didn't bother to call. When this woman drops a hint, she uses a bombsight. How much clearer do you need it to be?"

"I don't know."

"You're saying 'I don't know' a lot. Are you aware of that?"

"I guess so."

A pause. "Jack, are you all right?"

"I don't know."

"Do you want me to come up for a couple of days? Because I can, no problem. I was supposed to go out of town with my boyfriend, but his company just got bought. So I'm available, if you want me to come up."

"No. It's okay."

"You sure? I'm worried about you."

"No, no," I said. "You don't have to worry."

"Are you depressed?"

"No. Why?"

"Sleeping okay? Exercising?"

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