The Fabulous Feinsteins
by David Castlewitz
Copyright 2011 by David Castlewitz
Jack Ross strode down the cubicle-lined aisle, pumping his thick arms as he hurried to start the day. When a script was ready, there was never enough time to do everything. Amy Richman trailed him into his glass-enclosed office. “This is very important, Mr. Ross.”
Ross enjoyed his assistant’s wide-eyed look. Young and energetic, Amy worked long hours and never complained. “Isn’t it always important?” he asked, a tight smile on his ruddy face. Amy’s pixie-cut red hair and freckled cheeks made him think of a comic book tomboy.
“They say they’ll sue.” Amy inhaled, her chest rising, falling - drawing Ross’ attention. “The anti-defamation people. It’s that Christmas tree.”
“What do they want?” Ross asked, vaguely familiar with this problem. Last holiday season’s episode featured a Christmas tree in the Feinstein living room, which most viewers had ignored.
“They want an apology.”
“How about my head on a plate?”
“That would do as well,” Amy whispered, and Ross silently applauded. Good. Speak up for yourself! “You better call them,” Amy said loudly as she walked to her nearby cubicle.
Ross sat at his desk and moved his mouse to bring his three computer screens to life. His eyes immediately went to the email icon, which showed the current count of unread messages.
“He’s balking.” Tom Warming, the tech-guru of the company, gestured at the monitor showing the current script’s progress bar. It wasn’t moving.
Tom walked into the office. Tall and thin, with a full head of light brown hair and the hint of a goatee, he resembled the 20-year-olds in his department, even though he, like Ross, was in his fifties. They had started the company together just after the turn-of-the-century tech crash. While Ross grew bulkier as he aged and his fortunes grew, Tom buffed his youthful look with hiking, running and a vegan diet.
Ross poured himself a cup of coffee and joined Tom at the window. They looked out at Lake Michigan. Sails dotted the inland sea. Two cruise ships plied the tranquil waters between the North Shore mansions and Navy Pier.
“How can he balk at anything?” Ross asked.
“He said he wouldn’t allow it,” Tom answered.
“He actually said that?” Ross asked. “In words? On the screen?”
“I used the immersion lounge. He said, ‘Tom, I cannot allow this for my little Sarah.’”
“He’s a damn cartoon, Tom! A cartoon! If he’s balking it’s because somebody’s hacked us.” Ross flopped down onto the leather sofa. “You fire anybody lately?”
“I’ve checked the logs,” Tom said. “The usual raps at the door, a few intrusions that we squashed, but nothing even close to what –“
“The fact that you can’t find the intrusion just tells me that someone got in and is screwing with us. Next they’ll demand money. Ransom. You’ll see.”
Tom shrugged. “I never programmed Grandpa to have this behavior.”
“So? What’s that supposed to-“
“He’s become sentient. The whole family. Grandpa, Grandma Reba. All of them. They’re as alive as you and me.”
Ross sipped his coffee. He glanced at a wall poster showing the Feinsteins sitting at their kitchen table-cum- time machine. Another poster showed Grandpa and Grandma and 16-year-old Sarah with her long black hair and dark, brooding eyes, and the son and the daughter-in-law in their guise as a Klezmer Band, which they used as cover on their various assignments. Billed on WebCast as the Time-Traveling Klezmer Band Family, the Fabulous Feinsteins had been a top-ten show for the past seven years.
“No hacker is going to threaten me,” Ross said.
“It’s Grandpa,” Tom said. “Come and see for yourself.”
Tom built the immersion lounge for Ross Enterprises’ game-playing employees. That used to mean everyone. Now the dimly lit room’s spongy divans and body-absorbing chairs were visited only by the technical staff and a few of the young interns. When Ross entered, he saw three players clumped together on a sofa, hands twitching. Mirrored goggles covered their eyes. Tiny headsets encased their ears.
“Pause it,” Ross shouted, and slammed the red emergency button, which caused the lights to brighten. The players tore off their goggles and peered at Ross. Once recognition set in, they meekly picked up their sandals and backpacks and filed out. Everyone knew the rule. When Jack Ross came in, you didn’t stay unless invited.
Tom handed Ross a pair of goggles, gloves to manipulate game-world objects, and an audio headset.
Ross checked his online avatar in one of the flat panel displays bolted to the walls. The screens allowed spectators to cheer their friends. That was one of his innovations, an idea he dreamed up when the company was just he and Tom and a couple of techie friends
“Does Grandpa know me?” Ross asked.
“They know you run Adventure Theatre,” Tom said. “Amy took your avatar a few times when we needed to have a meeting.”
Ross donned the goggles and his avatar emerged as a nattily dressed old man in a severe brown suit. Tom was working class with overalls and peaked cap.
“What’s ‘Adventure Theatre’?” Ross asked.
“The Feinsteins think they’re in a reality TV series,” Tom said. “The tenement is their home base.”
Ross joined Tom as they popped into the train station, landing amid a teeming population of gamers, homesteaders and site-bots. New York, circa 1910. The company’s first homestead world, a website they’d assembled a few years after the dot-COM crash, back when no one thought such web sites would ever be viable again.
Signs for Sarsaparilla Root Beer, Homemade Ice Cream at Chitney’s, and other period offerings vied for space with Ford, Nike, and Sony. Huge blimps advertised beer and tires and even competing game worlds. Stopping at the top of the stairs, and jostled by the surging crowd, Ross felt himself bumped from behind. He jerked forward in his chair. The divan used tiny air jets to simulate touch and feel. Get sliced with a sword and you felt a burn across your back.
The Feinsteins lived on the other side of the train station, at the top of a street that led to the Bowery. Kids in short pants played stick ball and marbles. Girls jumped rope. Adults sat on the steps and gossiped. Long ago, Ross had discovered he could increase revenue by leasing space to gamers, so NYC 1910, as the site was known, reaped profits from many different sources: advertising, personal websites, homesteading, and role playing games.
“How can you tell if they’re gamers or AI bots?” Ross whispered.
“You can’t,” Tom replied, and led the way to a brick building. On entering, their avatars climbed the staircase to the seventh floor. Ross moved his feet and the floor responded by making the ascent more difficult as he passed one landing after another.
“Mr. Feinstein?” Tom called when they reached the top. There was one door. Number 70. Ross rapped on it and soon the familiar, grizzled face of the man they called Grandpa greeted him. The smell of garlic and pickled fish wafted into the hallway, making Ross wrinkle his nose and wonder how much that bit of virtual reality was costing him. Did they really need smells?
“Mr. Ross!” Grandpa shouted. He took Ross’ hand and pumped it. He called back into the next room. “Emma. Morty. Sarah. Reba. Bring out the borscht. We got company.”
Ross sat at the kitchen table. Dark haired Sarah hovered nearby, her wide eyes hinting at a lurking curiosity. Morty sat at the other end of the wooden table and split wooden matches with a razor blade. His wife, Emma, scraped her heavy shoes on the floor as she spooned boiled fish and potatoes onto a serving plate. A tear in her dark stockings revealed pale skin below one knee.
“It is our honor to have you visit again,” Grandpa said.
“I came ‘cause we’ve got an issue to talk about,” Ross said. No wonder Tom thought these characters were sentient. Immersed, this world was as real as the streets of Chicago outside their office building.
“I know, I know. Sarah,” Grandpa said. “Go outside and play. There’s adult talk going on here.”
Unlike most teenagers, Sarah didn’t protest. She simply traipsed out of the room. Now, Ross thought, how real is that? He heard her footsteps on the stairs. They were loud, but diminished over the next few seconds.
Grandma Reba served Ross and Tom soup. Shredded beets massed in the center of the red liquid. “We’ve no sour cream,” she said.
Tentatively, Ross used his spoon to taste the soup. Good. No taste. Nothing wet at his lips. At least something was just for show.
“My special recipe,” Reba crowed. Emma sat next to her husband, who had finished slicing the wooden matches and now assembled them in a small cardboard box.
“Let’s talk turkey here,” Ross said.
“No,” Grandpa corrected with a smile. “Let’s talk Sarah.”
Everyone laughed. Ross chuckled. “Here’s the deal,” Ross said, and leaned forward. “This script is already done. We’re all set to render.” He knew he was speaking to the hacker behind the Grandpa character. “How much is it gonna cost me?”
“Cost?” Grandpa asked.
“Yeah. Cost. You’re holding me up on this, aren’t you?”
Tom intervened. “Mr. Ross thinks you want an increase in salary.”
“Not so! I just don’t want my little granddaughter getting married!”
“But it’s only a script!” Ross shouted.
“Your role,” Tom said. “The family’s. I’ve explained this before, Mr. Feinstein. It’s all scripted.”
“Scripted? Like a play? We don’t really go back in time? Or forward? We’re in some kind of play? What kind of fool do you think I am?”
“Let’s look at it another way,” Tom suggested. “Your little Sarah is going to be the real life Queen Esther.”
Grandpa bowed his head. “It’ll break her heart.”
“Why’s that?” Ross asked.
“Let me show you, Mr. Ross.” Grandpa gestured and Reba and Morty and Emma positioned themselves at the table, their hands flat on the wooden slats, their chests pressed into the edge. Ross recognized the stance as the one the family assumed whenever they went on a time-travel adventure.
And then came Grandpa’s familiar cry, which opened each and every half-hour show:
“Hold on Feinsteins! Here we go again!”
“It has to be a hack,” Ross said as he sank into the chair behind his desk.
“In their world,” Tom said, “the time machine works.” He leaned against the wall-spanning bookcase.
Ross snorted. “We went from our site to someone else’. That’s cross-site tunneling, something hackers do all the time.” The NYC 1910 setting had suddenly become a Life-sim site set in the 21st century, where Sarah was a singer in the family band and in love with a dentist 12 years older than she.
“Site-jumping without a script?” Tom asked, slumping onto the leather sofa. “I don’t think so.”
“It’s more credible than thinking some hacker’s holding us up.” Ross’ felt a disconcerting pounding around his heart as he recalled how the tenement kitchen dissolved and the futuristic Life-sim site appeared around him.
Tom nodded. “This has been going on for more than a week and nobody’s made any demands.”
Shaking his head, Ross turned to his computer keyboard and tapped a command, bringing freckled-faced Amy into a blue-bordered window. “Get in here,” he said. ”I’ve got something for you to do.”
Amy appeared at the glass door, carrying a notepad computer in one hand.
“I want you to do some research on religious scholars,” Ross said. He smiled at Tom. “Let’s send the Feinsteins an expert. A sage who can argue our case.”
Amy’s eyes widened. “Do I get to know why, Mr. Ross?”
“You get to keep your job if this goes right,” Ross countered. To himself he said, Can’t you do something about those freckles?
A graphic artist provided a basic figure with a wide-brimmed black hat. What the bad guys wear in old cowboy movies, Ross thought. A white shirt and a long dark coat over loose fitting pants changed the image. Ross added heavy brogans, long dark hair, a beard, and the hint of a prayer shawl tucked under the shirt.
“Attributes look right.” Tom indicated the character traits displayed on screen next to the animation. The sage was in his seventies, spoke with a deep voice, and had data reference pointers to the Encyclopedia Judaica, the New Testament, the Gnostic Gospels, and the Five Books of Moses.
Ross glanced at Amy and said, “You can go.”
A little girl look filled her milky eyes. “Don’t I get to find out what this is all about?”
“No.” Ross waved her out of the office.
“I’ll pop the sage into the next character load,” Tom said. “Then take Grandpa to meet him.”
“’I-M’ me with the access key,” Ross said. “I want to check how things go.”
A six-character message blinked at the bottom of the middle screen. Ross typed the code into another window, and in a few seconds Tom’s workman avatar appeared with Grandpa beside him. The pair walked to a small park where a band played in a gazebo, then along a crowded street of cafes and restaurants, came to a stop at a three-story brick building with a carved Star of David above its doors.
Inside, Tom and Grandpa stood in a gloomy hallway for a moment before walking to a lighted room overflowing with leather-bound books and yellowed scrolls. Three old men huddled at a small table over an open roll of vellum. They mumbled to one another. The man in the middle was the newly loaded sage.
“Rabbi,” Tom said. The sage looked up, as did the other two men. They looked alike, with their dark eyes and bushy beards and long hair. The sage was set apart by the heavy shoes he wore. The others had pointy black slippers.
“What is it?” the sage asked. “We are studying.”
“My friend needs your advice,” Tom said. He urged Grandpa forward. “His granddaughter wishes to marry, but she’s been promised to a man from the past. He doesn’t know what to do.”
Grandpa shrugged and asked, “How can this child marry two different men?”
“To answer that,” the sage replied, “I must consult the Law.”
Tom coaxed the sage for the answer he’d been programmed to give: if she marries in the past it is not a true marriage of our time, and the future is yet to be.
The sage ignored him and said, “We are studying the Law. When we have studied it sufficiently, we will have your answer.”
Ross glared at Tom. It had been years since he’d been angry with his friend.
“We could always come up with another script,” Tom suggested. “I’ve got two writers doing storyboards now.”
“We’re not giving in,” Ross said. “Not to a hacker, nor to some AI gone wild.”
“You’re stubborn,” Tom said. A rap on the glass door got their attention and Tom waved Amy into the office. “Your assistant has another idea.”
“What?” Ross asked.
Amy demurred. She looked to Tom, like a base runner seeking aid from the sideline coach. “I have a psychiatrist script I’ve been working on,” she offered. “I’ve got a character fleshed out and already programmed.”
“So?” Ross asked.
Tom spoke up. “I told Amy we needed some kind of intermediary, like the sage. She offered her character, Dr. Van Culler.”
“You don’t get paid anything extra,” Ross said. “Any character you dream up belongs to the company.”
“I know that,” Amy said. “I just want to help.”
“Do you know what this is all about?” Ross asked, afraid that Tom had told her. The rumor would spread all over the office by tomorrow morning. Let a sponsor or a WebCast executive hear anything so negative and their contract would be dropped.
“Not really,” Amy said.
“Keep it that way. Now, what’s the access key for your character?”
But the psychiatrist wasn’t in his office when Tom brought Grandpa by a few hours later. A review of the logs showed that Van Culler had boarded a ship featured in an ad for Memory Palace Cruises. A snippet of past dialogue indicated he’d gone to Vienna to meet Dr. Freud.
“And when he gets there?” Ross asked. “We don’t have a Vienna circa 1910 site, do we?”
Tom pulled at a long strand of hair dangling by his left ear. “There’s an art-oriented site -- 1910 Austrian theme. It’s an online museum.”
“You still think this isn’t a hacker setting us up for extortion?” Ross asked.
“It’s no hacker. It’s the system. Maybe it’s all the systems working together.”
“One big brain?” Ross went to the window and watched the dusk bring the summer day to a humid close. Small boats passed under several rows of Japanese lanterns strung from pier to pier. Ross sensed Tom standing beside him
“Ever hear about the Lord of the Rings movies?” Tom asked. “Along with the computer-generated animations there was some rudimentary AI for the battle scene characters. Some of the avatars decided they didn’t want to fight. They ran away from the battle instead of towards it.”
“That happened?” Ross asked.
“It was one of the first public displays of true AI.” “So what do we do?” Ross asked.
“Let’s send in a social worker,” Tom suggested, and added, “That’s the only character I’ve got ready right now.”
An hour later, Ross and Tom watched Miss Girard pop into the train station and walk to the Feinstein tenement building, her trim body and sharp features drawing the attention of avatar passersby.
“She’ll offer to help him with any problems he’s having,” Tom explained. “When he tells her about Sarah and the upcoming marriage, she’ll advise him to make her a queen.”
“That’s all it’ll take?” Ross asked. “A piece of advice?”
“If it comes from someone he respects. That’s why I wanted a religious figure. Or a doctor.”
As Miss Girard approached the Feinstein’s building, she was suddenly picked up and carried down the street and into a crowd, where she disappeared.
“What happened?” Ross gripped the middle monitor by its frame.
“She’s been kidnapped,” Tom said, and took Ross’ keyboard and pulled up the log. “A game player. He’s taken her to Wild West Adventures.” Tom tapped a series of commands. “The backup image for her is gone, too.”
“Hacker,” Ross said.
“No,” Tom countered. He typed another command and a replay of the social worker and the game player boarding a train came into view. The two characters acted like lovers. “I made a mistake. Not a game player. A game bot.”
“Where are you going?” Ross asked when Tom opened the office door, letting in a buzz of voices from outside.
“I need to think,” Tom said.
The immersion lounge was empty except for Tom. Ross entered quietly, his eyes slowly adjusting to the dark. He looked at the large screens on the surrounding walls. NYC Circa 1910 loomed in a panorama of elegant night clubs and seedy bars, steam-driven trains, dozens of horses and wagons, and a handful of cars. Period advertising and revenue-generating contemporary ads vied for space. External websites were represented by arches and gates.
Taking a seat near Tom, Ross donned immersion goggles and toggled a virtual switch with his finger.
“I thought that was you,” Tom said when Ross joined him outside Lou’s Saloon and Bawdy House. Klezmer music came from inside, along with the cheers and applause of the patrons. An accordion and a clarinet joined the high-pitched twang of a violin and a woman’s warbling voice.
“This is where it all began,” Ross remarked. The Feinsteins had been a virtual band playing real world music. When they proved more popular than the competition, Tom and Ross turned their creation into America’s favorite cartoon family.
“I think it’s my fault,” Tom whispered. His avatar walked away from the saloon and towards the docks where tugboats were putting up for the night. Ross hurried after him and heard him say, “I made them sentient. I made the whole 1910 experience sentient. It’s a living organism.”
Ross didn’t want to ask how. He didn’t understand enough about the technology to appreciate the answer. But he understood the turmoil in Tom’s voice and the courage required to admit the truth.
“I let the Artificial Life Council use our site,” Tom admitted.
Ross nodded to himself. In Circa 1910 his nattily dressed character nodded as well. “Do they owe us money?”
Tom laughed. He sighed. “I used their organic objects as the basis for a lot of our characters, including the Feinsteins. I wanted independent action. Independent thought. Growth. And now the technology’s so embedded in the system that everything we generate is sentient to one degree or another.”
“No,” Tom insisted. “You don’t. We have to destroy them. The Feinsteins. This entire site.”
“And do what? Start over? If that technology is what’s responsible for our success, then we’re not –“
“It’s more than responsible!”
“We’ll learn to live with it,” Ross said. “I’m not destroying anything.” Was this what they called “A blessing in disguise?”
Walking side-by-side, they wandered along the quiet riverbank. An advertising blimp hung in the sky, lights along its side forming the image of a beer guzzling man.
“I’m sorry,” Tom said one more time. His workman avatar disintegrated.
Ross pulled the goggles from his head. “For what? For making us rich? For turning us into the most envied, talked-about and imitated product on the planet?” Ross grinned. Maybe it didn’t extend that far, but their sites were popular, revenue kept going up, and hundreds of new users enrolled every minute.
“We still don’t know what to do about Grandpa,” Tom said. “How do we convince him to go along with the script?”
“Is that the Back-to-Ancient-Persia script?” Amy asked.
Ross and Tom leaned sideways and stared at the woman standing in the light at the open door. “What are you doing here?” Ross asked.
“I had to log the current players and wondered who’d be in the lounge at midnight.”
“Why aren’t you out in the real world with your friends?” Ross asked. “Or don’t you have any?”
Amy shrugged. “I don’t know,” she whispered.
“Then find some,” Ross said. Even with those freckles you’re an attractive girl, he thought.
“Okay,” Amy whispered. She turned away, but then looked back and said, “I have an idea for you. For the script. For your problem.”
“What do you know about it?” Ross demanded.
“I told her,” Tom said. “I was out of ideas, so I told her.”
Amy smiled. “Why don’t you tell Grandpa that Sarah’s husband is dead and long gone? She’s a widow now. A widow can remarry.”
“We need someone he respects,” Ross said, echoing what Tom had told him. “We can’t just tell him.”
“Grandpa respects Tom. He likes Tom.” Amy
“He told me so.”
“You?” Ross asked. “He told you?”
“Actually, me as your avatar,” Amy said.
“I see,” Ross mumbled, wishing he’d been the one Grandpa liked. He looked to Tom, who nodded back, his eyes wide and his entire face smiling.
“It’s so simple! It’s a great idea.” He donned his goggles again. “I’ll catch up to them when they finish at the saloon. We’ll know if it works in about an hour.”
Sentient, Ross thought as he wandered back to his office. Now that he knew the truth about the Feinsteins – he gasped and his heart started to pound.
He marveled at the possibilities. Now he’d make the family even more beloved than they already were. It wouldn’t be hard. It would be natural, evolutionary!
He grinned, laughed out loud, sat at his desk and smiled and shook his head with wonder. Because Grandpa was not just artificially intelligent. He was genuinely smart! Even if he was only a cartoon.
He glanced at his computer screen and watched the current script’s progress bar finally move a notch.