Learning Curve

Learning Curve

By Andrew Rucker Jones

Andrew Rucker Jones is a former IT dweeb and American expatriate living in Germany with his Georgian wife and their three children. His greatest literary achievement to date is authoring ninety-eight iCloud reminders for every household chore from cleaning sinks to checking smoke detectors.

Author Website: http://selfdefeatistnavelgazing.wordpress.com/

Listen to more of his stories: https://talltaletv.com/tag/andrew-rucker-jones/

 

Sylv’s consciousness floated in a corner of her dorm room and watched her body wake. Smooth vines entwined her and sang in tight harmonies that made her stomach clench. A gray sloth that smelled of sweat hung close to her face. She waited. By and by, the dissociation subsided, and the vision faded. She was behind her own closed eyelids again. She was nude in a tangle of bedsheets with her pillow jammed between her legs. If only at least the sloth had been real, she wouldn’t be alone.

She opened her eyes and rolled onto her back, right into Archibald’s face hovering over hers. She shrieked and pulled the blankets over her. So the sloth had been real. Almost.

“You were moaning.” Archibald’s brow pinched above his nose. “I was worried.”

“Get out, you senile idiot!”

Archibald scurried out of the room and shut the door behind him.

Sylv’s digital beacon spoke from ubiquitous speakers. “Good morning, Sylv. I’ve had your dorm prepare two scrambled eggs, toast, and orange juice for your breakfast.”

Sylv winced at the word “juice.”

“What does my day look like, Meg?” Lonely or not, Sylv refused to engage in pleasantries with her digital beacon. It was only a computer. She could dismantle its sorry-ass AI and reassemble it any way she pleased. She hauled herself out of bed and dressed in a plain black t-shirt and blue jeans.

“You’re leading a federally mandated daily assist at the Babbling Creek Retirement Community in forty-three minutes. Following that is your test in Machine Learning 305, for which you were juiced during the night. I am required to warn you that if you fail this test as well, you will be dropped to a lower career track at a trade school.”

Well, she was supposed to be able to dismantle its sorry-ass AI and reassemble it any way she pleased. In truth, artificial intelligence was not her strong suit. Nor data structures. Algorithms were a “so-so.” Sylv didn’t want to be top in her field, but a lower career track meant leading daily assists, or worse, for the rest of her work life, and that was a harsh purgatory. She’d better pass that test today and bring her grades up.

Her graying, balding roommate leaned forward in his seat at the kitchen table and spooned bran with milk and a slice of banana into his thin mouth. Then he leaned back, spine straight. His pajamas looked like a business suit, complete with lapel and breast pocket. He chewed seven times and swallowed. “Good morning, Sylv. I started without you.” His demeanor and blank expression betrayed no acknowledgement that he had seen her naked. She wasn’t sure whether it comforted or disturbed her that he seemed not to recognize her sexuality. Maybe his libido had disappeared with age. Or overage juicing.

Sylv slurped her sourish orange juice.

Meg’s voice came over the speakers again. “The intensity of your dissociation and phantasmagoria following a nocturnal juicing indicates your neuroplasticity is atrophied. This leads to low post-juicing knowledge retention, ergo low test scores and grades.”

Robin emerged from his room shirtless, his gut and breasts sagging.

“Oh, God! Put that away!” Sylv put a hand in front of her face, but she sneaked a glance between her fingers.

“Morning, Sylvia. I added a nagging mother routine to Meg last night. Pro bono.”

“Is ‘Sylvia’ a new name preference I should adopt?” Meg asked.

Sylv glared at Robin. “No!” He did that just to mess with her digital beacon. Sylv was ambivalent about her name. On the one hand, it exuded the stale odor of soirées, tea and crumpets, white lace gloves, and tinseled social laughter. On the other hand, it was derived from the Latin silvanus, meaning forest—a place of solitude in the companionship of trees.

When the crush of social contact overwhelmed her, she pictured herself as a woodland nymph draped in strips of hunter green cloth that revealed more than they hid, peeking between the leaves of a stout oak bough deep in the woods, guarding her sylvan burg from human interlopers.

Sylv had settled for the first syllable of her name: hacked off, almost invisible. It began on sibilant iciness, ended in a buzz like a bare foot over a frozen lake, and dissipated like breath in winter.

A transport bot hovered a bowl of Lucky Charms, a Snickers, and a can of Mountain Dew to the table. Robin popped the can open.

“How do you defeat the health safeties?” Sylv asked through a mouthful of toast.

Robin threw his sleep-sculpted mass of sandy blond hair back and chugged, then belched. Heat rose in Sylv’s chest. Robin poured the rest of the Mountain Dew over the Lucky Charms. “Juan’s relaxed that way, right Juan?”

Si señor Jackson,” came the voice of Robin’s digital beacon.

“He knows we’re a burden to society after retirement. The impending collapse of Social Security and all that. Forty-five isn’t that far away, so—” he ripped the wrapper from the Snickers and bit off half, “—carpe diem.”

Meg continued. “Also, the sexual content of your dreams spiked last night. A liaison would improve your neuroplasticity. Shall I arrange something?”

Sylv dropped her fork on her plate with a clatter and threw her arms in the air. “Hasn’t anyone heard of privacy?”

Robin retrieved a tattered, white t-shirt from the couch. “What kind of liaison, Meg?”

“Her photographs and private streaming indicate a predilection for overweight males. Geographic proximity and budget make you the best option, Robin.”

Robin raised both eyebrows, put one hand behind his head, the other on his hip, and gyrated his pelvis.

“I watch one fat guy porno because I think it’ll be funny, and it gets wedged in the algorithm for all time.” Sylv stalked off to brush her teeth and hide her scarlet cheeks.

“If you will not agree to a liaison,” Meg said, “I suggest you make a friend.”

“Who says I don’t have friends?” Sylv yelled through her toothbrush. “Robin! You’re my friend. Tell Meg I have friends.”

“I think we’re ‘roommate friends,’ but I’m totally open to Meg’s idea.”

“What does everyone have planned for today?” Archibald asked.

“How about you, Archibald?” Robin asked. Sylv felt his stare while she ran a brush through her long, straight hair. It was the perfect shade of chestnut for blending into foliage, and she was growing it down to her hips. She stuck her tongue out at him. He licked his lips.

“Oh, you know,” Archibald said, spacing his answers out after swallows. “Class.” He was one of few retirees who started a new career. The only jobs his generation qualified for didn’t require juicing to keep up with the pace of progress—the idiot jobs. A direct information dump into the brain required a higher neuroplasticity than retirees had. There were rumors Archibald used to be highly intelligent and a quick thinker. Then he had illegally self-juiced. Now Archibald was aiming for a degree in philosophy.

Sylv searched the common area for her bag.

Robin shoved the rest of the Snickers in his mouth. “Where are you going?”

“To hold hands with the senile old farts we’re propping up. No offense, Archibald.”

Archibald’s head swung back and forth. “None taken, Sylv.”

Robin grunted. “Lucky you. I have yoga for neuroplasticity right after breakfast. I hate yoga.”

“I’d rather be with you,” Sylv said and checked under the kitchen sink for her bag.

Robin raised his eyebrows again.

“At yoga, I mean! Christ, what is it with you and Meg today?”

Robin gave her an exaggerated nod and winked. She scowled and ducked into the bathroom to continue her search. She got so confused around Robin. Sometimes she felt like maybe not all human interlopers to her sylvan burg were bad. Even among trees, it got lonely sometimes.

“I don’t envy you youngsters, you know,” Archibald said, as he did every morning. “Waking up like that, not knowing where you are and what’s real. Dreadful business, this juicing.” He scooped bran into his mouth and chewed seven times while Sylv threw the cushions off the sofa. “I’m delighted you lead daily assists to help us set up and, and calibrate, and, oh, parametrize, and God knows what to keep us retirees—” More bran.

“—from falling off the edge of the Earth because you’re too old and slow to keep up,” Robin said.

Chew six. Chew seven. Swallow. “Exactly.”

“Are you looking for this?” Robin pulled a black leather bag with long shoulder straps from underneath his behind and waved it. Sylv hissed, snatched it from him, and raced out the door while he called, “I think I farted on it!”

Humans, thought the nymph in her. Irritating, marauding, sexy humans.

Ten minutes later, Sylv rushed into Babbling Creek Retirement Community with her head down. It was a home for the upper crust, but in Sylv’s experience, privileged old people were just as crotchety as poor old people, if not worse. At least the wallpaper was not discolored, the carpeting was thick, and there were two thoroughbred Siamese cats wandering the lower floor.

The receptionist, whom she didn’t recognize, guffawed at a sitcom. She stood at the desk a full two minutes before the receptionist noticed her, and Sylv had to fight the urge to find an oak tree to jump behind. But Meg had told her in so many words if she didn’t make a friend, sitting behind that desk might be her future, so she had better try conversation.

The receptionist’s name tag hung from her crisp, white uniform at an angle that made it impossible for anyone taller than Sylv to read the name “Cooper.” Ms. Cooper, who looked to be just short of retirement, smiled at Sylv. “I just love Early Retirement. Do you watch?” The reception area carried a whiff of coconut, a relief from disinfectant and sponge-bathed, decaying skin.

“No. I, uh … the algorithm in the scripting AI is parametrized for a humor density too high for my taste. I prefer a lower humor number and a smidgen of ennui, like Juicers Anonymous.” Sylv tried a small smile, but her neck stiffened.

Ms. Cooper wrinkled her nose above her smile. “I don’t get technobabble, but I don’t find Juicers Anonymous all that funny. And it’s kind of depressing. But hey,” she shrugged, “live and let live, right?”

Early Retirement was escapist drivel for the weak-minded, but she made mental allowances for Ms. Cooper. Retirees and aging employees lived in constant uncertainty. The world was changing so fast—technology was changing so fast—they never knew where they stood. When the present-day elderly were still children, a company could pull its employees through until retirement at age sixty-five with retraining every decade. It was cumbersome but profitable. While those children grew and went on their first dates, hundreds of millions of engineers innovated a generation of grandparents into helpless early retirement. A decade later, those dates were spouses, nine-to-five replaced cramming and bar-hopping, and the erosion of the legal retirement age was underway.

“I suppose I like it so much because I can’t wait for retirement. I hate technology. I hate that my job requires a beacon—no offense, Mavis.”

“I don’t take offense,” came the voice of Ms. Cooper’s beacon.

Ms. Cooper rolled her eyes heavenward to the speakers. “I wish you would.”

“Are you leading the daily assist today, young woman?” An elderly man with a full head of white hair huffed up to Sylv—a marauder in her burg of isolation. “Seat me as far from my wife as possible.”

“What’s Bea done this time, Clive?” Ms. Cooper asked in a tired voice that Clive seemed not to register. There was no assigned seating for daily assists.

“That woman—” Clive turned in the direction he had come to point a finger at his wife.

While his back was turned, Ms. Cooper rolled her eyes at Sylv. Sylv reciprocated with the tiniest smile she thought socially acceptable.

Clive had found his target: a hunched woman with a walker and jittery movements. “—claims I wasn’t any help around the house during our entire marriage. I brought home the bacon for forty-five years!” He stabbed his chest with his finger. “Mine was the last year to retire at sixty-five, and I don’t know how I kept up with the changes. But with her it’s, ‘You never cleaned,’ or, ‘It took you five years to buy me a cooking bot.’ ”

“Clive,” Ms. Cooper said, “you’re going to be late.”

Derailed mid-rant, Clive scowled and waved a hand at Sylv. “Can’t be later than her.” His slippers scuffed along the carpet as he shuffled off. Sylv exhaled and relaxed a little.

Ms. Cooper tsked. “Clive is a decent man, but he doesn’t know how to care for a relationship. If he smiled every now and again maybe I would listen to his raving. And I know he takes Bea for granted. Speaking of which, what’s your name, honey?”

“Sylv.”

“Well, Sylv, are you free for coffee afterward?” She gave Sylv a warm smile. Everyone here smiled like that. It made Sylv queasy.

“Um…” She never drank coffee—the nymph in her empathized with exploited coffee harvesters. Plus, it was a nasty, bitter drink. But for the sake of her neuroplasticity, maybe she could bend her ethical guidelines this once. “Sure, I guess. Meg, set a reminder.”

Meg didn’t respond. Ms. Cooper looked toward the ceiling.

“Meg,” Sylv enunciated, “set a reminder for coffee after the daily assist.”

A man with a black beard peppered with silver, angular features, and a trim form swooped up. He had a scheming-evil-duke vibe that made Sylv want to see him in a doublet. He also looked familiar. “Ladies, if I might interrupt your pleasant discourse, the building’s network is down.” He dissolved around the corner again.

Sylv and Ms. Cooper rushed to the daily assist room, where Ms. Cooper unlocked a computer rack in the wall, then shooed the retirees back to their rooms. Sylv switched the lights off. Windows along one wall caught ambient light from the courtyard, and a few short office trees leaned toward it. The room hinted deep woods at midday. She was alone and in her element.

She pulled up a foldable metal chair, tore open an envelope taped to the inside of the rack, and logged in with the authentication credentials printed there.

“Perhaps I can be of assistance.”

Sylv startled. The man who had reported the malfunction brooded on the other side of the rack. Sylv had overlooked him standing there like an oak.

“I doubt it.” Sylv pegged him for freshly retired. They were eager to prove they weren’t out of the loop, but it started slower than they recognized.

“I’m Vincent Barado.”

That could explain why he looked familiar. Sylv searched his face for mockery or falsehood.

Vincent drew himself up taller. “Co-inventor of juicing, savior of mechanized society, and the reason you don’t know your ass from your elbow in the morning, if you’ll pardon my French.”

“And an infamous hacker, I’ve heard.” Sylv leaned back in her chair. Despite being retired, he wore black slacks, an ironed black dress shirt, and a thin, silk tie, also black. His grave demeanor completed the effect of aloof elegance.

Vincent waved a hand. “Ancient bygones, I assure you. The recklessness of youth and all that. But it was of great value to me later. Juicing amounts to hacking the human brain.”

Sylv shrugged and called up a holographic console for Vincent. He grabbed a chair. They typed, scanned output, and typed some more. Between commands, she watched Vincent’s comely face, deep in concentration. After a while, she asked, “What on Earth landed you here?”

“Retirement, dear lady, what else?”

It seemed impossible that a giant in the field of neurocomputing would be put out to pasture. Surely this man was still a great asset. The leaps in productivity through rapid technological advancement were all that kept the lowered retirement age in balance.

He scowled along well-defined creases in his face. “God knows I fought it. I argued in court that retirement age contained a safety margin, and my neuroplasticity was better than most. I could take the learning curve.”

Vincent checked the output of a command. “The court disagreed. I am thrown to the wall by the social centrifuge of my own creation and clumped with invalids while my mind is yet sound. I stifle my intellectual drive moment by moment. I think thoughts no one wants to hear anymore.” He locked eyes with Sylv. “An intelligent young woman like yourself can scarce imagine the sense of uselessness retirement engenders in an active soul. I hope you escape this treatment. May my invention keep you in the workforce as long as you wish.”

Sylv bit her lip. Retirement sounded worse than a life of leading daily assists. “If only we could slow the centrifuge down. It all started with computers, then the Internet—everyone wanting to do more faster.”

Vincent raised an eyebrow. “No, my dear. It started earlier, and it’s been building so long, it would rend the world with its sheer inertia if we tried slowing it. It began when a homo sapiens cracked a nut with a rock.”

Sylv snorted, then caught herself. She didn’t wish to offend him. “Isn’t that stretching it?”

Vincent’s weary look gave Sylv pause. “It was the first time humans solved a problem with technology. But technology solutions create new problems, bigger and more complex, which require bigger and more complex technology to solve them.”

“Then why did that first caveman pick up the rock?”

“The alternative was starvation.”

Before Sylv could return to her console, Vincent cried, “Eureka!” He spun his terminal to her. An incompatible version of the health metrics module hung the system. He erased the module with a flick of his finger. The system noticed the missing module and fetched the latest version over the network. “Isn’t it just like technology to stab you in the back?”

“Meg?”

“I’m here, Sylv.”

Sylv smiled. “And for once, it’s good to hear you.”

“Shall I proceed with a liaison with Robin this evening?”

Sylv’s lips squeezed into a thin line. “Well, that’s over.”

Vincent dismissed his terminal. “Digital beacon mucking around in your love life?”

Sylv rolled her eyes. “What there is of it.”

After a beat, Vincent waved a hand and leaned forward to stand up. “Well, it’s none of my business.”

“Do you …” Sylv began, and Vincent paused. “You’re a tech guy. People think we’re all recluses.”

Vincent grunted. He leaned back and rested his chin on one hand.

“Do you ever imagine you’re somewhere else. Or some…one else?” She related her fantasy of being a nymph alone and happy in her woods. She was afraid he might laugh. His fingers covered his mouth, so it was hard to judge his reaction, but he didn’t look amused. He looked sad.

“Fantasies change over a lifetime, Sylv. Recently, I imagine myself as King Kong.”

Sylv laughed, then turned crimson. She had reacted the very way she feared he would. “I’m sorry, Vincent. It was … I imagined you grabbing me and climbing the retirement home.”

Vincent dropped his hand and smiled. “Kong fell for beauty. If this old ape still had it in him to scale a building, then for you.”

Sylv blushed again and looked at her keyboard. “So, why King Kong?”

Vincent’s face fell. “Highly intelligent, highly sensitive creature snatched from his environment who goes on a rampage so society will listen, but they don’t? Doesn’t ring any metaphorical bells?”

He stood. “Sylv, I admire you. I think we’re both a couple of lone wolves, but even lone wolves meet under a full moon. Let’s have coffee after your next daily assist, which will hopefully be less eventful than this one.”

“Make it orange juice and I’m in.” Sylv smiled.

“Done.” He bowed, one arm in front, the other behind. “Oh! As a token of our new friendship, don’t sweat the outage report to central. I’ll write it after bingo, which I fear I’m tardy for.” He winked and swooped out the door with such a flourish, she wished he wore a cape.

“Central administration requires an immediate report,” Meg said. “What shall I write?”

“Bunch of nervous ninnies. Don’t write that.” Sylv returned her attention to her console. “Incompatibility with obsolete health module. Assistance given by Vincent Barado. Origin of obsolete module …” Sylv scrolled through the system change log. Probably someone in central had fat-fingered an upgrade, and this wasn’t the only retirement home affected.

“Please note,” Meg said, “your test starts in twenty minutes.”

It took Sylv fifteen minutes and correlation across three logs to reconstruct the faulty software installation. When she did, her ears burned. The initiator wasn’t “SYSTEM,” as it was for automatic upgrades.

Sylv slammed the rack closed and raced down the hall, as if jumping branch to branch. She caught Clive’s voice saying, “That woman—!” but ignored the rest. Ms. Cooper looked confused. “Coffee?” Sylv sprinted out the door. It never would have worked anyway; Ms. Cooper was an incompatible module in Sylv’s developed world view.

Only universities had juicing facilities, so she ran to campus and straight to the room Meg said was unoccupied. The bare concrete room, which housed fifty juicing pallets around the walls and sported no decorations anywhere, was empty but for one figure lying stiff on a pallet at the back.

“You played me, you asshole. You tricked me into handing you superuser privileges, then you stabbed me in the back.” Sylv tapped the console next to his pallet. The power slider skirted the bottom of the screen. At least he had been reasonable.

She touched the slider on the cold, glass terminal to kill the power but halted. When he came out of it, he would still be a bitter castoff from the world he built. He didn’t seem like a man who learned his lessons.

Sylv’s finger hung on the power slider.

“Well, Vincent … you want it, you got it.” She boosted the power to full. For a person with her neuroplasticity, it would be well within safety tolerances.

She summoned campus security and sat on the next pallet. “Meg, arrange a liaison this evening—”

“With pleasure.”

“—for Robin. But not with me.” Let him find happiness in the rat race of relationships, she thought, constantly maintaining, upgrading, debugging, but only ever creating bigger problems. The alternative was loneliness, but it was a price she would pay.

“Your test started five minutes ago. You must hurry, or you will have insufficient—”

“I wouldn’t have passed anyway. Guess it’s goodbye to this university.” And goodbye Robin.

Vincent’s eyes blinked open and he inhaled deeply. His head lolled toward Sylv. “Sylv. You grew a thorax.” His head flopped the other way. “I always thought you were missing a thorax. Hot women always have a shapely thorax.”

“Aw, I’m touched, Vincent.” Maybe Archibald’s sexual obliviousness wasn’t from overage juicing after all.

His head rolled back toward her, his eyes unfocused. “Sylv? Something isn’t right. I can see myself, like I’m not even there. I mean like I’m somewhere else. Like … you know.”

“Snap out of it, Vincent. It’s dissociation and phantasmagoria following a juicing. You should be used to it.”

“Sylv!” Vincent stage-whispered.

“What!” she stage-whispered back.

Vincent’s face contorted as he tried to focus. “I don’t … like … apple juice!”

“I wasn’t offering!”

Vincent gasped in horror. “No!” Then he snapped back into focus briefly. “I mean … I’ve never been juiced!”

Sylv blinked. “You invented juicing. Of course you’ve been juiced.”

Vincent shook his head through its full range of motion. “I was too wizardly. Wizened. Whiz? I think I have to take a whiz. Pardon my french fries.”

Sylv jumped to her feet, grabbed one of Vincent’s arms and pulled. “Up you go. The toilet is down the hall.”

“Toilet? For what?” Vincent focused on her forehead. “I’m too old for the toilet. You gotta start young on that.”

It clicked for Sylv. “You were too old for juicing when you invented it.”

A muscular young man and a young woman who looked like she could break boards with her forehead rushed into the room and hefted Vincent between them. Too bad the guard doesn’t have a few extra pounds on him, Sylv mused.

“Are you all right, ma’am?”

Sylv cringed at being called “ma’am” but nodded.

“Rabbits! Now there are four. Soon?” Vincent’s head swooped to the woman and bobbed. “How many?” He narrowed his eyes. “The proof is left as an exercise for the reader.” He swiveled his head to the man and lowered his voice to a silken, sultry hum. “Hey there, Mr. Rabbit.” He wiggled his eyebrows.

“Is he going to be okay?”

“Overage juicing.”

The guards nodded. “So this might go on for a while.”

Sylv squinted at Vincent as if she might see into his brain. “It might never wear off. Have a nice retirement, Kong. Watch that first step off the Empire State Building.”

Vincent beamed at her and waved as she retreated out the door and into her forest.

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