Read an Excerpt
Word came backstage that the king and queen of Spain had taken their places with the President and First Lady in the audience on the south lawn of the White House. Lucia del Mar waited offstage, in the wings, with the other members of the Martelli Dance Theatre.
And then the show began.
They first performed selections from Manuel de Falla's Ritual Fire Dance. A man's flamenco solo came next, followed by a lyrical Spanish ballet. Then Lucia was alone on the stage, the audience a wash of color before her, the sky a blue arch overhead. In the breezy golden afternoon, wind tickled her skin. Even a few years ago she could never have imagined she would someday dance for presidents and royalty. To the daughter of a small desert town in New Mexico, this stage had been as far off as the stars. Now, alone before the audience, she froze.
The opening chords of Lecuona's Malaguena swept up from the orchestra--and she had no memory of the steps. Nothing.
But what her mind forgot, her body remembered. Without conscious thought, she spun into an arched-back turn. Her layered skirt swirled out, gold with red lace. Notes shimmered in a waterfall over her body, and her supple arms swayed above her head. As she moved, her fear evaporated. She skimmed across the stage, lost to the music and the pure, blissful joy of the dance.
One by one, the other dancers whirled onto the stage. Then Malaguena slowed, melting into long notes while the dancers shifted in tableaus. Lucia spun among them on her pointe shoes, performing a meld of classical ballet and flamenco. The music built and the dancers built with it, through passage after passage, their steps becoming ever faster, until it seemed Malaguena would lose control. Finally it did, its powerful chords soaring while the dancers exploded across the stage. With a crashing crescendo, the dance thundered to its finish.
They were done.
And the audience was silent.
In the stillness following the last note, Lucia stood rigid on the stage. They had given their all for a stratospherically select audience--and the response was utter, complete silence.
Then a tidal wave of sound surged up from the audience and swept over the stage. Suddenly people were on their feet clapping, cheering, shouting "Brava!"
After that, Lucia's vision blurred. She felt the tears on her cheeks. Someone put roses in her arms, but the rest was a haze. Her friends later told her she had four curtain calls. Although that terrifying instant of silence, what reporters later called "an awed hush," had felt endless, it actually lasted no more than a few seconds.
What she remembered most was relief. They had done their best, and the audience appreciated it. As an artist, it was one of her most gratifying moments.
She had no idea then that it might be the last performance of her life.
Lucia walked out of the bathroom in her apartment, drying her hair with a towel. She picked up the robe on her bed and slid it on, letting the terry cloth soak up excess water on her body. She felt peaceful, pleased the performance had gone well this afternoon. More than well.
She still had a few hours before tonight's dinner. Wishing she had someone to share her success, she gazed at the photograph in a silver frame on her bureau. Her parents smiled in the faded picture: her father, a vaquero, a cowboy who worked the ranches in New Mexico, and her mother, a Spanish teacher. Homesickness brushed her heart. She had grown up in Hachita, population seventy-five, where the desert stretched in great open spaces dusted with sagebrush and mesquite, a land that belonged more to the giant tarantulas, rattlesnakes, and bandolero scorpions than to humans. Its silences embraced the sky. If she stood on a hill and gazed out over the vast land, she could hear the grumble of a truck on a road that edged the horizon. She knew the angles and steps of that desert, the crisp midnight wind, the honey scent of night-blooming flowers.
Her first dance teacher, Ellen Vasquez, lived in Deming, about an hour's drive from Hachita. Ellen had danced with the New York City Ballet and performed in Spain. She taught Lucia all she knew, in both ballet and flamenco. Lucia's dark hair and large eyes evoked the Gypsies who had created flamenco, melding their Eastern heritage with the influences of Moorish Spain. Born as a cry of pain from a people persecuted throughout their history, flamenco could also brim with audacious joy, a refusal of the human spirit to bow under adversity. It was emotion at its deepest, the passion and vigor of a wandering race.
Eight years ago, when Lucia was sixteen, her parents had begun to fear her intense focus on dance would burn her out like a candle left to flicker too late into the night. They borrowed a computer for her, hoping to expand her interests. So she learned to wander the World Wide Web.
Now, with a few hours to fill, Lucia sat at her computer and started up a program called Websparks. A large white square appeared on the screen. The border that framed the square was gorgeous, a mosaic of stylized flowers that repeated in geometric, interlocking patterns. Gold and bronze, with flashes of deep turquoise blue, the border brought to mind a grotto gilded by the sunset over the Mediterranean Sea. Centered in each corner, an eight-pointed starlight pattern radiated intricate, repeating designs. She often wondered about Webspark's maker, what sort of mind could both design such a sophisticated program and create such beautiful artwork.
A pleasant voice spoke. "Good evening, Lucia."
"Hi, Miguel," she answered, using the name she had given her copy of Websparks. The program was available with either a male or female voice. She had picked this version because it reminded her of her father, Enrique Francisco del Mar.
Websparks was a Web browser. It guided her around the Internet and World Wide Web. The Internet was a world-spanning net of computers, all in communication with one another; the Web consisted of places on the Internet she could visit, either to explore or to talk with other people, like an electronic gypsy traveling the landscapes of an electronic universe.
She liked Websparks because the program talked, not to her, but with her. Four years ago, it had hit the market like fire on a gas-soaked field. Three camps formed: those who loved the garrulous browser, those who loathed having their computer try to chat with them, and those who didn't care a whit either way but who found it entertaining to watch debates flame between the first two camps.
At first she had wondered if Websparks was an artificial intelligence. AI had long been an interest of hers, ever since she researched it at sixteen for a school project. To her disappointment, Miguel didn't qualify. He could interpret and speak several languages, using his huge database of knowledge. But he didn't "think" about what he said. He simply applied rules his human designer had given him. It was true that when she asked him to find her a good vacation spot, he knew better than to list billions of places. Instead, he asked questions such as: Which did she find more restful, beaches or mountains? But his apparent leap of understanding, that humans took vacations to rest, didn't really qualify as thinking, either. He was just applying another rule.
The problem was, Miguel had no common sense. She had to teach him all sorts of things she took for granted, such as that cinnamon toast smelled better than rotten eggs. When she asked him how he thought she should render her performance of the princess Aurora in the ballet Sleeping Beauty, he suggested she buy a graphics program. He interpreted "render" to mean creating computer images rather than the artistic expression of a dance. In that case she didn't try to explain. She had found that if she gave the program too many facts and rules, his response times slowed until he could no longer hold a normal conversation.
No matter what, he always spoke in the same pleasant voice. To Lucia, whose life was intricately bound up with the expression of emotion, that lack of variation showed, more than anything else, that Websparks wasn't alive. The program had no feelings. Nor was it aware of itself. It had no conscious identity. Yet despite that, Lucia always thought of Miguel as "he."
From the Paperback edition.