Mirror, mirror

He looked up from the rim of his drinkdevice, it's contents hissing away somewhat unconvincingly, and engaged a few million more brain cells, his mouth agape. The autolistener with him, sensing the ambience of forthcoming wisdom selected what it considered an appropriate listen only mode from the thousands at it's unseen solid state command and adopted the ingratiating but infuriating posture, the hallmark of all artificial intelligence, no matter how expensive or supposedly sophisticated. He hated it's incessant interest, but equally he knew that it was nigh on impossible to find any actual life-form to listen to anything these days. This was even more the case when the would-be narrator had been at the alchosource for quite so long as he had.

He'd modified the programme with some rather dubious software that he'd bought in a bar somewhere from some traveller who swore blind that they were the best available, smuggled illegally out of Earth. They had not been cheap either, as Earth was strictly off limits, at least to visit in any physical sense, the consequences were unthinkable. Not that anyone would risk their neck actually going there, from a reasonable distance it would be easy enough to copy them up from the crumby electronics they used down there, spewing their endless radio noise out in all directions.

And they were expensive because Earth was a seriously trendy concept at the moment. Earth-flavoured this, Earth-textured that, it was all the rage. The disc was called "Teach your Drinkmat Dom Perignon". He barely knew what the hell it was meant to be, but he liked to keep up the big pretence that he was an expert in the arcane subtleties of Earthlore, especially as he now had an alterself of his own. That was the trendiest accessory of all. But despite this, and drunk as he was, his palate still had enough of it's synapses still working for him to remain unimpressed.

"Lifes decisions" he mused "Who needs them! Just like the blasted transmats on the Publi-Trans!" The autolistener moved forward slightly and took on an even more insipid expression. "Never there when you damned well need them, but all arrive in a rush when you don't!" Out of the corner of his eye he just detected the autolistener begin to interject with a reply , and he cleared his throat as deliberately as he was still able to muster. The machine mercifully stayed silent. He finished off the last of the neo-Moet in the device he was still holding, and stared into the middle distance. His autonomic cortex, still struggling with a fistful of diverse body functions, was by now decidedly jealous of his frontal lobes which were well an truly out to lunch.

He toyed with some of the hardware in the room, the neurophase and his new soft-touch pleaseomat, but somehow he just couldn't seem to raise the enthusiasm. With a wry smile he lifted the commuterm and stared the process of tapping into his alterself, may as well use it at a time of indecision he thought, after all that's supposed to be what it's for. He chuckled when the sensors showed a live contact, all those galaxies away. His alterselfs silly little face flicked onto the vidscreen, the unruly ginger hair and little round gold spectacles unmistakeable. Dumb as ever. He smirked an tapped in his first command. "Hunter" ... beep ... "Commence writing" ... beep.

Of course the whole purpose of maintaining an alterself was more than simple amusement, even if it had become terribly fashionable, which somehow threatened to demean the whole process. The purpose was of course a huge social experiment, in that one used one's alterself as a life direction monitor. Why do things yourself, when the alterself could try them out for you. If they worked, great you could go ahead, if they were a disaster you knew to avoid that course of action, Simple but ever so effective. His own alterself, Hunter, had been chosen from a selection as essentially compatible, and then fairly subtly programmed to fill in the required detail of all his own personal dilemmas. Some of the early attempts had been very poor, and there was a time that their own clumsiness nearly gave away their agents on Earth, which would have blown the whole experiment. Fortunately the Earthers were far too stupid to notice, and even the ones that suspected were treated as crazies. His own alterself had apparently been overheard talking about aliens, not that he'd heard it directly himself, even claimed that some of his workmates were changelings, but of course the other Earthers just laughed. Looking at that stupid, cute little face on the vidscreen it was pretty obvious that no one, not even another Earther, would take that seriously.

This time, instead of just the usual on-line psychoscan, he had decided to get the self to write out it's limited thoughts, and he could then take that out as a hard copy to look at in more leisure. Fortunately his alterself had a fair number of other selves that it wrote to on a fairly regular basis, and of late he had trained it just to write in a more abstract form, for no particular audience. He had even managed to influence it to purchase one of the staggeringly primitive computers that the Earthers were only just beginning to get to grips with, and it had taken to writing with a new vengeance, churning out all manner of stuff which it seemed smugly pleased with. It's thoughts could be annoyingly feeble most of the time, but when it took the time to write them down it had the useful effect of concentrating them somewhat, to the point that they could actually be quite amusing. Well, by Earth standards at least!

He flicked through the menu of subjects on which the Hunterself held sufficient data to produce anything remotely meaningful, and sighed when he remembered how pathetically limited it was. "Ah well, better than nothing I suppose" he muttered to himself. To his intense irritation the autolistener jerked up and cut quickly into reply mode, and started into a deeply meaningful comment. His temper momentarily flared and with a reflex action he kicked it savagely which sent the stupid thing sprawling on the floor, which curiously it seemed to appreciate. He looked at it with disgust, sitting there trying to feign an ambience of apology, pathetic! The Hunterself may be primitive, he thought, but at least it's better than artificial intelligence. He turned back to the screen and selected one of it's correspondents "Joel Sciamma". It too had been adopted as a self, and was showing some real promise, even if it was a very odd little specimen in many other ways. If nothing else it had the advantage that it tended to force the Hunterself into a somewhat higher quality of output than that which it sent to some of it's other correspondents. He made his selection from the topics .. "introduction" ..beep .. "excuses" .. beep .. "personal dilemmas" .. beep.

Dear Joel, Well hello there and how are you? I'm terribly sorry that it has taken me so long to answer your last letter but life seems to have been a little more convoluted than normal of late. I have an uneasy suspicion that life at large has been ignoring me for years, but as if to make up for it has come along and placed a whole series of obstacles in my way at the moment. What with problems at work, problems with the house, problems with money, all these things seem to add up to some sort of initiative test. I could almost believe that someone was doing it to me deliberately - silly eh?

Any way I have finally decided what to do about my house. As you know I am very fond of this place but it seems to deteriorate even faster than I can look after it, one of the inherent problems of having a big old house that needs endless maintenance I suppose. It has rained furiously of late and I have noticed a few damp patches that I hadn't seen before, so I've been out with the tool kit fixing gutters and putting slates back on roofs. What a way to spend your weekends, huh? Common sense says that we ought to sell it and buy somewhere smaller, cheaper and more economical to run, after all the place is far too big for just the two of us. But then if my life had ever been dictated by common sense I would have pointy ears and be called Spock, and I wouldn't keep getting myself into the situations that I do. So to hell with common sense, I like this house , so if I have to borrow yet more on the mortgage to fix the roof and rebuild the garage, then so be it that's what we'll do.

Mind you if the mortgage rate goes up again, or if there is a change of government at the next election, perhaps this wouldn't be the best course of action after all. I mean, remember how the housing market has fluctuated in the last few years. Maybe we should just buy a small bungalow after all, or there is always the notion of buying a plot of ground and building a house of our own. That would be cheaper, but of course it is a bit riskier and a lot of hard work too. I Oh I don't, it's so damned hard to finally decide. I sometimes feel as if it's not just me either, there are so many other people involved that you seem to be making other peoples decisions for them. Perhaps that's why it's so much easier not to decide and just do nothing , eh?

Mind you life at work is even tougher. I make decisions thick and fast as a matter of course, but nothing ever seems to improve. No sooner is something decided upon than something unseen appears over the horizon and ruins the whole plot. And people! .. I'd swear that they all get more unreliable and unpredictable by the day. I don't remember things being this tough years ago, maybe I'm just getting older! One thing is for sure though and that is that whoever is making the rules these days is definitely getting stupider. The latest fad is for competition for absolutely everything. Now a little of this is no bad thing I suppose, keeps everyone on their toes and keeps prices competitive too. But that typical human failure takes over whenever they see something that looks like a good idea .. milk it dry until it turns into a ridiculous idea! And whenever it looks in danger of being exposed for the nonsense that it is .. don't admit or change course .. no, just increase the level of hype and bullshit till everyone believes it again! Everyone except me that is.

Anyway, no one ever seems to listen to me these days, and humanity goes on it's usual stupid sheep-like way. Meanwhile I'm left with a seemingly ever increasing pile of problems and decisions to make. I don't know, lifes decisions are like buses, never there when you want one, and then all come at once!

He smiled thinly upon noticing the non-originality of the simile, and touched the pause button so that he could read over again what the self had written. It was of some worthwhile, if only in that the Hunter had managed to see the nature of the problems ahead, but he felt distinctly peeved that it had made so little progress towards a decision. After all these were decisions on which he had hoped for a little guidance, and he had set them up as closely as possible to mirror his own situation. His draft plans for his new residome had been given a conditional approval, and he was just about to raise the necessary credits to go ahead and build it when that old dome in the most fashionable part of the complex had come on the market. What a dilemma, new dome in the outer quarter, lower cost and more reliable support systems, or the admittedly overpriced old one, but with all of that social cachet. The hunterself was certainly going thro the motions, he could see the old/new choices, but it seemed irritating resistant to making any sort of firm decision.

Likewise his work situation. He knew he was happy and well liked where he was but if he was to make the grade in the long run he couldn't stick with the one assignment indefinitely. He had to move on if his career was not going to stagnate. He had the offer to take over the running of all the Publi-Domes, a very prestigious assignment, but like all the good things it had it's drawbacks. It would mean that he would have to take charge of a new group of networkers, and this lot had a reputation as being a very difficult bunch. Naturally he had set up the same scenario for the Hunterself, to see how it coped, and the initial results had been very promising. It blazed straight in , fired one guy and set about re-organising things. On the strength of this he had been all set to make the decision, when he started getting totally contrary signals, all was not well after all, the self was showing signs of strain, the first he'd ever seen,. and appeared to be running short of confidence and drive. He waited a while to see how things turned out, he expected the self to backtrack out of the situation, after all that was the logical thing to do.

But instead it had reacted in what seemed a bizarre fashion. Instead of making new decisions to remedy things, it appeared to stop making decisions altogether. And worse still this seemed to cheer it up. Completely illogical. He just couldn't understand it, and looking now at that cheerful little freckled face he began to have his doubts. Was it reasonable to expect this curious little lifeform to have anything to offer? After all did it seek guidance from that little furry animal called a cat that it appeared to keep as a companion of sorts?

Hmnn, doesn't seem to be leading me anywhere he mused. May as well see what else the self has been upto. He knew from past experience that the Hunter had had a long fascination with the transport devices that they used on Earth, and of course replicas of these were now considered the very height of fashion. People had constructed copies of some of the artifacts that the Earth people used, curious machines with wheels that ran using distiled hydro-carbons. He could never understand why as they were of course useless, in their atmosphere. They apparently had all manner of these on Earth, big ones for public transport, little ones for personal transport, and even staggeringly dangerous 2 wheeled ones which some of the crazier ones used as form of recreation. The fact that these machines were rapidly poisoning Earth seemed of little consequence to them, such was the human love affair with these ridiculous machines.

The Hunterself had been known to read and write at length and in great detail about these things called cars, and indeed many of the people that it wrote to seemed to share this fascination. Indeed from what he could glean, it appeared that this was often the basis of their friendships, at least in the early phases. Some of these had grown into long standing friends, now running into their second decade as companions and correspondents. How was he supposed to get some useful meaning out of this for his own situation? It just did not make any sense. How could you start up a friendship with another similar lifeform on the basis of a mutual passion for transport devices? The very concept was ridiculous.

On this subject at least, he remembered thinking, that the self seemed to be developing at last a more rational personality. Its fascination with cars had definitely diminished, and there was a noticeable distance building up between it and one or two of the more devoted other Earthers that it contacted. Some logic at last, he remembered thinking. But what he had not expected was that the Hunter was all the while developing a new passion, and it happened with such rapidity that he scarcely saw it coming. Before he new it, his self had turned into a "Biker". It took him a while to realise exactly what this meant, as he was not as well versed in Earthspeak as he liked to pretend. He was frankly amazed when he first found out that his own self had become a devotee of those most extreme of transports; the fast, dangerous, inherently illogical 2 wheeled variety.

He very seriously considered asking the Company to take the self away, and select another that was more compatible. This could be done, but it was not an easy task. The Company took great pride in their compatibility screening, and defended their decisions with great vigour. It was not unknown for such a request to end up as a legal matter before the judiciaries, and often the Company turned the tables on the customer by suggesting that he or she was somehow at fault, not the chosen Earthself. Some customers had been nearly ruined by the public implications that such attention brought. It was not a course of action to pursue lightly.

To look quickly at the Hunter, one would think he had a strong case. It was an odd looking self, and at first he had been much taken aback at the selection of it as a alterself. In fact he had felt more than a little insulted, but had not the courage to say so, especially as the company had seemed unusually pleased with their selection. After all he had been a very fussy and choosy customer. The Hunter was definitely on the eccentric side, having unusually bushy ginger hair seemed to make it stand out in a crowd. It could be infuriatingly slothful for long periods, followed by highly productive and decisive behaviour for no apparent reason. Most surprisingly it seemed to command a certain level of respect from others that seemed at odds with it's demeanour, and above all it was certainly not to be trusted. He had discovered this early on. Because he had access to both its mental and physical output, he was alarmed to find that they often did not correspond. The Hunter apparently could be thinking one thing, while doing something completely the opposite, and at the same time be subconsciously planning yet another course of action. Other Earthers were too primitive to read the mental output of course, (although some were slowly developing a limited facility) so they only judged purely on the behaviour that they saw, while knowing nothing of the complex and contrary mental rhythms that ran behind them. Fascinating. It was probably this that decided him to keep the Hunter. Whatever else it might be, it was a tricky little blighter.

He realised that his alcho-fueled brain had started wandering again, and he didn't always feel comfortable operating this the ether link in this state. Besides nothing had happened since his last command. He typed it again ... "motorcycles" .. beep. Ah, there was some activity now.

This weekend has seen me doing one of my dafter ideas. I took a notion to go and visit some friends in Cheshire, essentially just to have dinner and to see Steve's new car. As the weather was promising I elected to go on the bike, the K75s that is. Jolly good it was too. 300 miles on Saturday afternoon, a couple of pints in "The Bulls Head", surprise Brian and Peter who were there too, one of Carolines ever excellent Chinese dinners, crash out, and then another swift 300 miles home on Sunday morning. Most enjoyable. In fact the weather turned out to be less than brilliant but it didn't seem to matter, almost seemed to prove the point that I can enjoy the bike for its own sake, even when conditions are less than perfect. On reflection it is possible that this is a sign of becoming a more serious devotee of biking, and not just the fair weather rider that I've been to date.

Oh dear, this sounds like it's getting even more serious, but he let it continue.To complete my holiday weekend of biking, I then had the Monday to enjoy my other bike ...What other bike? When did it get another one of these? He hit the pause button. He quickly scanned through some of the other written material on the Hunter's primitive little computer. Good grief, not only had it in fact bought another of these bike things, but it had even been keen enough to write up the whole thing in the form of an article. He took a copy and read it.

There was no hiding the self's obvious enjoyment of this whole biking business. It was clearly expending a good deal of its time and money on this activity, as well as putting a lot of its mental energy into it. No wonder it wasn't making decisions anymore, the stupid little creature had a headfull of carburettors and gaskets instead. This was no solution to his own life decisions, the experiment was not going the way it was intended. It was time to re-direct this back to something of more use to himself. He chose another topic to try and derive something a little more serious.."career" ..beep.

Enough of this bike stuff though. As I've mentioned often enough life at work is still difficult, but I may be on my way to finding a key to it, if only I can get anyone to take me seriously. In fact if I'm correct, and can prove it this time, you and I might be on to something of vital importance.

We have talked about this often enough I know, but I think that at long last I might be able to prove what I've told you about my boss Alan. He's much too clever to fall for any of the obvious traps of course, and I have all but stopped trying to catch him out. No matter how I think of doing it he seems to have read my mind and has a pre made excuse, and of course there is never a shred of evidence that i can find. But I may have found an Achilles heel at last. I am sure that I have got another one working for me, almost by accident. His name is Gary and he is a contract programmer who has ended up working for me, although I'm sure it wasn't planned that way. He actually works for another company and got hired in temporarily, but I needed someone long term and did a deal to hold on to him long term, seemed a straightforward move. But it was when I noticed how he interacted with Alan that the truth suddenly struck me, it was that old saying "it takes one to know one". It was obvious, why hadn't I thought of it before, they are not supposed to work close to each other, as it doubles the risk. I think we've cracked it this time Joel, I really do!

He read this once and wondered what the hell the self was on about. Sure it could be a little obscure at times, but he had never failed to understand it before, even its more impenetrable writings to the Sciammaself were not that difficult to make out. He shook himself, and walked round the room for a moment or two to clear his head a little, and then sat down again to read it again. As he struggled through it a second time he noticed that he had not pressed the pause control and the Hunter was continuing to write at an increasing pace. What he read next sobered him up with alarm.

Alan and Gary are definitely clones. I've known about Alan for years of course. At first I would tell people, but they all just laughed, you know the thing, "good old John, always one for a joke eh!". I even confronted Alan with it, who also took it as a joke. I realise now that this was totally the wrong thing to do. But I have used that to my advantage, because I started to laugh at myself, go along with the joke, so that no one believed I was serious. In fact my endless remarks about aliens has become a sort of in joke, so much so that I've even heard Alan refer to himself as "Alan the Alien", and everybody laughs. Brilliantly clever when you think about it, disguise yourself by pretending to be exactly what you are. A wolf in wolfs clothing. So clever, you have to admire them.

But Gary is a newer one, and as he was not in on the in joke about aliens I caught him out quite by surprise. Oh he reacted very quickly all right, but not quite quick enough, there was just that nanosecond of panic, before it selected a response. But I caught it. Have you ever seen artificial intelligence panic? It's a good feeling I tell you, in that split second I knew we had them beat. It's going to take a long time yet but I know we've got them now.

He wasn't just sober now, he was transfixed, watching with horror as this spewed out of the printerm in front of him. Who else might have caught this transmission? He switched the printerm off hurriedly and read it again. It wasn't joking, it was deadly serious, and worse yet it was transmitting it to another self. Would the Company know? Did they monitor this stuff?

Why oh why did his self have to be the first to destroy the experiment. Their own agents on Earth had been far too conspicuous at first and they had needed to devise a better way of adopting the selves. They had simply chosen selected Earthers and cloned them, controlled them from a distance and let them get on with the job. Earthers were so pernickety about identity that it was near impossible to introduce a new fully grown one with a bogus identity that wouldn't quickly get rumbled. Far better to pick an existing one with a well established identity and clone it. It was then an easy matter to empty the old one into the clone and dispose of what was left,. The clone could then get on with the Earthers life with no difficulty, while simultaneously acting as the Company Rep. Everyone knew it was brilliant, it had worked flawlessly for years and now this.

He looked again at the silly little face on the screen, and smiled. Ridiculous he laughed, who is going to take that seriously? He hadn't even pressed the pause button but still it seemed to have stopped writing, and was just sitting there doing nothing, looking vacant as usual. His head seemed to leave him for a moment, very consciously, something he had definitely never felt before, and simultaneous to some dark thoughts about the traveller that sold him the drinkmat disc, he experienced for the first time the uneasy feeling that he was being watched.