An Improbable Reference - Second Draft

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AN IMPROBABLE REFERENCE

Gord McLeod

“Things aren’t always as they seem,” my daddy used to tell me. Early on he’d taught me that the books with the flashy covers might not be the most interesting, or that the movies with the colorful posters could be boring. Later it was the pretty girls, that sometimes they were the last ones you wanted to talk to. It was a lesson that sank in well, at least until the next flashy cover, colorful poster or pretty girl came by.

Those were always my biggest weaknesses; book covers, movie posters and pretty girls, and never more than the time two of ‘em worked together to make my life hell.

She was a beaut, maybe a year or two younger than I was, working at the new high-tech library downtown. Saw her walking down Main Street one day when she dropped a hair comb. Beautiful thing it was, delicate wood inlaid with what looked like gold to my young eyes. It was almost as beautiful as she was.

Of course I grabbed it and followed after her, thinking of how lucky I was to have a sure-fire way to introduce myself to her. She’d be grateful to get something like this back.

Naturally I did what any young smitten fool would do in my situation. I waited till she turned her head to the side and grabbed a pic with my phone while she was in profile. Then I spent a couple of minutes being one of those annoying jackasses that walks and fiddles with his phone at the same time. “Facial ID this picture.”

“Do you recognize any of these matches?”

“No. Facial ID this picture!”

“Do you recognize any of these matches?”

And so on. I was stubborn, but even I gave up after nearly walking into two poles and half a dozen people. Artificial Intelligence help systems were pretty primitive back then. Even today the AIs jus’ can’t compare to a real person. I was gonna have to ID her the old fashioned way.

I saw her head up the great front steps of the library and disappear inside, so I did the same. I’d never been there, it’d only opened recently. I have to admit I was pretty shocked to see it didn’t house any books at all. What kind of a library has no books?

The place was huge, with all kinds of sitting spaces and partitions I had to assume were for studying and reading. Maybe they were tryin’ to be the first all-digital library or something, I don’t know. I didn’t see the girl, and that was what concerned me the most. There weren’t that many people around, and I wasn’t that far behind her, shoulda been able to spot her easy.

“Welcome, library patron!” a voice said to me. “Is there anything I can help you with today?”

“Not likely. I’m tryin’ to ID a girl who just walked in here. Can’t get a match.”

“If you have an image of the girl you’re trying to identify, I would be pleased to assist.”

“You can do that?”

“If I have a visual record to match against, yes. There are several information terminals by the front doors. They are equipped with suitable cameras. Present your image to one of them.”

I looked around, and sure enough, a small bank of public access terminals lined one wall of the entrance. A curious series of tubes ran up the wall, one tube next to each terminal. They looked both strange and oddly familiar, like something out of an old movie, maybe. I made my way to the nearest terminal and held the screen of my phone up to it. There was a camera mounted in the bezel, and within seconds the voice said, “Ahh, yes, Ms. Barlowe. She is employed here. What is the nature of your business with her?”

As the voice spoke, the terminal displayed a list of ways to get in touch with employees you needed to get hold of, and I looked those up. There were the usual ways, you know, video chat, text message, even email, though nobody ever did that anymore. But the one that caught my eye was way older than email. Pneumatic tubes! That’s what they were. You used to see those in old TV shows and stuff. You put messages or small items in little plastic capsules and stick ‘em in a pressurized tube, and WHOOSH, the capsule was sucked away to wherever you wanted it to go. It was the best thing I’d ever seen!

There was one catch. A note beside the pneumatic tube option stated that in order to use the tube system, you had to be a member of the library. Well, of course that settled it. I wanted to talk to that girl, and the tube system seemed perfect. I could write her a note—the personal touch was always so much better than AI-relayed messages—enclose her lost comb, and tell her I was waiting out front. I had no doubt she’d be out right away to see me. It was perfect!

“Thanks,” I said. “I just need to return something she dropped to her. Guess I need to join the library first though.”

“If you require any assistance with the signup system, please don’t hesitate to ask,” the voice replied.

I started poking around right away and it wasn’t long till I was deep in the sign-up process, and believe me, it was quite the process. I’d gotten library cards before, but none of them had questionnaires quite like this one did. It was exhaustive, going over all of your reading, TV watching and movie-going habits; hell, it even wanted to know whether you wrote at all, and what you liked to write about, if so. The one that really caught my eye though was this: Would you like to share your knowledge and experience with other library patrons through our MindShare program?

“MindShare?” I wondered aloud.

“A most marvelous system. It allows patrons of the library to share the knowledge they’ve accumulated throughout their lives with others. It enriches the community and offers significant benefits over traditional AI expert systems.”

That one sounded a little weird at first, I have to admit. It gave me a funny feeling. I thought back to daddy’s words though; after all, what harm could sharing knowledge with others do? I could at least find out more about it, and make a final decision then. So I checked off that yes, I’d like join the MindShare program.

As soon as I touched that option on the screen, I felt the most curious jolt I’d ever felt in my life. It was like something snapped; I got real light-headed and dizzy, couldn’t tell up from down, left from right. My vision got funny too. Everything was kind of grey and fuzzy. Have you ever seen a really old TV, the kind from before streaming, even before cable, with the big antennas sticking up on ‘em like rabbit ears? They’d get all fuzzy and snowy-looking if they weren’t tuned to the right channel. My eyes felt like that for a while.

After a few seconds it faded though. That’s when I started to know that integration had taken hold, and that I’d been worked into the network with no trouble at all. I started to know other things, too. I knew that this was a new kind of library that didn’t need books to interface with all the knowledge humanity had to offer. That it did in fact carry almost every eBook ever published. That that girl I’d followed, Emily Barlowe, now knew me better than I’d ever known anyone before, and that I knew her just as well. And I knew that I would never be leaving the library again. At least, the copy of my mind I’d agreed to share wasn’t going to be leaving.

Through the library’s video cameras I saw myself put the girl’s—Emily’s—comb in the tube and send it off with a letter. I couldn’t tell what her reaction was; the Emily I knew was a copy, like me. I saw myself leave with her—the physical her—a short time later.

I can’t begin to tell you what that felt like. I couldn’t follow them. I mean us. I was, most improbably, one of the library’s living references, and the physical me wasn’t even aware of it.

“And that, dear patron, is how I came to be here answering your questions. Is there anything more I can help you with today?” I said to our latest guest.