Telzey studied the pale profile again. Her skin began prickling. It was a most improper notion, but there might be a quick way of checking it. Some minds could be tapped easily, some with varying degrees of difficulty, some not at all. If this woman happened to be one of the easy ones, a few minutes of probing could establish what she was—or wasn’t.
It took longer than that. Telzey had contact presently, but it remained tenuous and indistinct; she lost it repeatedly. Then, as she re-established it again, a little more definitely now, the woman finished her snack drink and stood up. Telzey slipped a pay chit for her lunch into the table’s receptacle, waited till her quarry turned away, then followed her toward a terrace exit.
A Martri puppet was a biological organism superficially indistinguishable from a human being. It had a brain which could be programmed, and which responded to cues with human speech and human behavior. Whether something resembling the human mind could be associated with that kind of brain was a point Telzey hadn’t found occasion to consider before. She was no Martriphile, didn’t, in fact, particularly care for that form of entertainment.
There was mind here, and the blurred patterns she’d touched seemed human. But she hadn’t picked up enough to say it couldn’t be the mind of a Martri puppet. . . .
* * *
The woman took an airtaxi on another terrace of the shopping complex. As it rose from the platform, Telzey got into the next taxi in line and told the driver to follow the one that had just left. The driver spun his colleague’s car into his screen.
“Don’t know if I can,” he said then. “He’s heading up into heavy traffic.”
Telzey smiled at him. “Double fare for trying!”
They set off promptly in pursuit. Telzey clung to her contact, began assembling additional data. Some minutes later, the driver announced, “Looks like we’ve lost them!”
She already knew it. Distance wasn’t necessarily a factor in developing mind contact. In this case it had been a factor. The crosstown traffic stream was dense, close to the automatic reroute point. The impressions she’d been receiving, weak at best, had begun to be flooded out increasingly by intruding impressions from other minds. The car they’d been pursuing must be several miles away by now. She let contact fade, told the driver to return to the shopping complex, and settled back very thoughtfully in her seat.
Few Martriphiles saw anything objectionable in having puppets killed literally on stage when a drama called for it. It was an essential part of Martri realism. The puppets were biological machines; the emotions and reactions they displayed were programmed ones. They had no self-awareness—that was the theory.
What she’d found in the mind of the auburn-haired woman seemed less important than what she hadn’t found there, though she’d been specifically searching for it.
That woman knew where she was, what she was doing. There’d been scraps of recent memory, some moment-to-moment observations, an intimation of underlying purpose. But she appeared to have no personal sense of herself. She knew she existed—an objective fact among other facts, with no more significance than the others.
In other words, she did seem to lack self-awareness. As far as Telzey had been able to make out, the term had no meaning for her. But the contact hadn’t been solid enough or extensive enough to prove it.
* * *
On the face of it, Telzey was telling herself an hour later, the thing was preposterous. She’d had a wild notion, had tried to disprove it and failed. She’d even turned up some evidence which might seem to favor the notion. It remained wild. Why waste more time on the matter?
She bit her thumb irritably, dialed an information center for data on Martridramas and Martri puppets, went over the material when it arrived. There wasn’t much there she didn’t already know in a general way. A Martri stage was a programmed computer which in turn programmed the puppets, and directed them during a play under the general guidance of the dramateer. While a play was new, no two renditions of it were exactly the same. Computer and puppets retained some choice of action, directed always toward greater consistency, logic, and effect. Only when further improvement was no longer possible did a Martridrama remain frozen and glittering—a thing become perfect of its kind. It explained the continuing devotion of Martriphiles.
It didn’t suggest that such a thing as a runaway puppet was a possibility.
The Martri unit which had put on the play she had seen was no longer on Orado. She could find out where it was at present, but there should be simpler ways of determining what she wanted to know immediately. A name had turned up repeatedly in her study of the Martri material . . . Wakote Ti. He was locally available. A big man. Multilevel scientist, industrial tycoon, millionaire, philanthropist, philosopher, artist, and art collector. Above all, a Martri specialist of specialists. Wakote Ti designed, grew, and merchandised the finest puppets in the Hub, built and programmed the most advanced Martri stages, had written over fifty of the most popular plays, and was a noted amateur dramateer.
A Martriphile relative of one of Telzey’s friends turned out to be an admirer and business associate of Wakote Ti. He agreed to let Telzey know the next time the great man appeared at his laboratories in Draise, and to arrange for an interview with him.
* * *
“The legality of killing a puppet is regarded as unarguable,” said Wakote Ti.
A college paper she’d be preparing on the legal niceties involved in the practice had been Telzey’s ostensible reason for requesting the interview.
He shrugged. “But I simply couldn’t bring myself to do it! They have life and a mentality, however limited and artificial they may be. Most importantly, they have personality, character. It’s been programmed into them, of course, but, to my feeling, the distinction between puppets and humanity is one of degree rather than kind. They’re unfinished people. They act always in accordance with their character, not necessarily in accordance with the wishes of the composer or dramateer. I’ve been surprised many times by the twists they’ve given the roles I assigned to them. Always valid ones! They can’t be forced to deviate from what they are. In that respect they seem more honest than many of us.”
Ti gave Telzey an engaging smile. He was a large, strongly muscled man, middle-aged, with a ruddy complexion and grizzled black hair. There was an air of controlled energy about him; and boundless energy he must have, to accomplish as much as he did. There was also an odd gentleness in gesture and voice. It was very easy to like Ti.
And he had a mind that couldn’t be touched by a telepath. Telzey had known that after the first few minutes—probe-immune. Too bad! She’d sooner have drawn the information she wanted from him without giving him any inkling of what she was after.
“Do you use real people as models for them?” she asked. “I mean when they’re being designed.”
Ti shook his head. “Not any one person. Many. They’re ideal types.”
Telzey hesitated, said, “I had an odd experience a while ago. I saw a woman who looked so exactly like a Martri puppet I’d seen in a play, I almost convinced myself it was the puppet who’d somehow walked off the stage and got lost in the world outside. I suppose that would be impossible?”
Ti laughed. “Oh, quite!”
“What makes it impossible?”
“Their limitations. A puppet can be programmed to perform satisfactorily in somewhere between twenty and thirty-five plays. One of ours, which is currently in commercial use, can handle forty-two roles of average complexity. I believe that’s the record.
“At best, that’s a very limited number of specific situations as compared with the endlessly shifting variety of situations in the real world. If a puppet were turned loose there, the input stream would very quickly overwhelm its response capacity, and it would simply stop operating.”
“Theoretically,” said Telzey, “couldn’t the response capacity be pushed up to the point where a puppet could act like a person?”
“I can’t say it’s theoretically impossible,” Ti said. “But it would require a new technology.” He smiled. “And since there are quite enough real people around, there wouldn’t be much point to it, would there?”
She shook her head. “Perhaps not.”
“We’re constantly experimenting, of course.” Ti stood up. “There are a number of advanced models in various stages of development in another part of the building. They aren’t usually shown to visitors, but if you’d like to see them, I’ll make an exception.”
“I’d very much like to!” Telzey said.
She decided she wasn’t really convinced. New technologies were being developed regularly in other fields—why not in that of Martri puppetry? In any case, she might be able to settle the basic question now. She could try tapping the mind of one or the other of the advanced models he’d be showing her, and see how what she found compared with the patterns she’d traced in the mystery woman.