I would not be exaggerating if I said I would give literally anything to turn back time and be normal again. Back when I was simply Rebecca Reyes, college drop out, part-time barista. Things were simpler then, more manageable, back when my life wasn’t complicated by my… abilities.
Oh sure, at first it was amazing, like a plot right out of a superhero movie, but then, the pressure of it all started to get to me. For one, it was insanely overwhelming, the sheer amount of information ready to grasp within my fingertips. All I had to do was close my eyes and focus on a place in my mind, and bam! Suddenly I had unrestricted access to all kinds of places and things I really shouldn’t be privy to. Let me tell you, I didn’t have nearly the amount of self-control needed to deal with that in any kind of moral or ethical manner. And yes, there was such a thing as knowing too much. You might think you want to know what your best friend was up to when she told you suspiciously vague plans that did not include you that weekend, or where your mother actually goes during the “yoga class” time slots marked on her calendar, or what your coworkers talk about when you’re not there, but no, trust me, you really don’t.
You see, astral projection is one of those things that theoretically would be awesome, but instead should really come with a big red warning label that says, “your life will never be the same and you will lose everyone you love and care for.”
Okay, at this point you’re probably wondering, why was I thinking so small? Here I was, gifted with a literal superpower and I was just using it to spy on my family and friends? Why not astrally project into bigger more important things, like say, the Pentagon or Area 51? Shit, I could walk into the CIA headquarters and name my price. I just have to open with, “Hey, you want to know what they’re talking about in Pyongyang right now? How about Moscow? Yeah, that’s right, I can find out almost anything you wish. Anytime, anywhere.”
Well, I did think about that, and I decided that in all likelihood my own government would probably freak the fuck out and lock me up to do experiments on so they could weaponize my newfound abilities. Yeah, I’ve seen Stranger Things. No thanks.
See, that’s one mistake I was determined not to make. Going big was too risky. With this kind of thing, it was usually best to stay under the radar. I may have superpowers but I was no hero. After a lot of soul searching I decided the riskiest thing I was willing to do was start a pseudo private investigator business. I needed the extra cash - I was still paying off student loans on my art degree I didn’t even finish - and, hey, it was better than serving coffee. Turns out, there was a lot of money to be made in the PI business. In only a few months I made a ridiculous amount of cash ratting out cheating husbands and thieving corporate employees. I even tracked down a few teenage runaways for good measure.
It was fun and lucrative. Until I started to see some really fucked up shit, that is.
Long story short, that was what led me here today, astrally projecting over Ashley Winchester’s sleeping body, wondering what in the world I should do.
You see, other than being my former cheer captain who made my high school life miserable and stole my boyfriend (screw you, Craig), Ashley Winchester was also, get this, a killer. Yeah, that’s right. Two months into my wildly successful PI business, I received an anonymous tip that All-American Ashley Winchester was involved in some shady activities. At first I thought somebody was messing with me, trying to get under my skin, but it didn’t really matter. It was a good enough reason for me to start investigating. And okay, maybe I also wanted to dig up some dirt on my high school nemesis. It always annoyed me when I scrolled through social media and occasionally stumbled upon Ashley’s ridiculously perfect instagram reel. Over the years Ashley had graduated from videos of tuck jumps in her cheer uniform to posting wine pictures in Napa Valley and her early morning runs. She was not all sunrise yoga and kombucha in real life. No way. So astrally project I went, hoping to find some dirt, assuming at worst Ashley’s “illegal activities” was financial fraud or tax evasion or some other white collar shit, but nope, instead I found out that she was a straight up murderer.
After two months of following Ashley around, I estimated she has killed no less than ten people in the last year.
No, I haven’t actually witnessed her kill anyone per se, that would have messed me right up. But I have witnessed enough correspondence to surmise what she had been up to.
Apparently, it was her job, and true to form her killing style was subtle. No loud guns or bloody machetes for Ashley, oh no. She preferred to kill with the most elegant and feminine weapon of all time: poison. She used different ones, a special one for every occasion, and apparently she was quite the chemist, choosing substances that evaded routine forensics.
You would think a hit woman would want to stay out of social media, but instead Ashley reveled in her online persona. She used it as the perfect cover, hiding in plain sight. She even had a reel about her gardening, no doubt some of the plants excluded from the feed being the poisonous ones.
Interestingly most of her victims were certified human scum and probably deserved to die anyway (we’re talking mass murderers and crime lords here), but surely that didn’t make her any less culpable? That was why I gave her safe house address to some questionable people looking for revenge. Somehow they tracked me down through my suspiciously effective PI service (in retrospect that wasn’t exactly laying low) and they pretty much threatened the information out of me. What was I supposed to do? Risk life or limb to protect a proven murderess? As I clarified earlier: I was not looking to be a hero.
Of course, predictably, now my stupid guilty conscience was eating me up.
It occurred to me that, just like me, Ashley probably had her own personal reasons for doing what she was doing. Maybe her family was being held hostage in some dark barn basement somewhere and the only way she could free them was to execute a certain number of hits. Maybe she was brainwashed as a young orphan to be a trained assassin like some sort of Black Widow. Maybe she was a soft-hearted serial killer who only killed bad people. Who knows? Also, not that it mattered now, but Craig turned out to be a cheating asshole anyway, so really she did me a favor in high school.
I looked at the alarm clock next to Ashley’s bed. It was almost two in the morning. If they were coming tonight, they would be coming around now.
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
I didn’t have time to research the people who threatened me about Ashley, but it didn’t take a rocket scientist to surmise they were probably part of some really nefarious shit. To my knowledge Ashley has only killed criminals like drug lords and sex offenders. It wasn’t like she was killing innocent children or anything like that. These people wanting to kill her were probably human traffickers or worse.
There was a small noise from Ashley’s back door. I didn’t have to astral project to know it was the same scary looking man who held a gun to my head earlier.
I focused all my mental energy on Ashley’s face. During astral projections I have absolutely no physical abilities whatsoever. I couldn’t make noise or even blow out a candle. What I did know was that certain people were more sensitive to my presence than others. Some would turn their head and look straight at me even though they couldn’t see me, sensing that they were being watched. Some would get goosebumps and shiver in my presence even in a warm room. It must be some kind of innate instinct some people have.
At first it freaked me out, but once I was certain that they really couldn’t see me, I got used to it.
As luck would have it, Ashley happened to be one of those people.
Right now, I was really hoping her heightened senses would wake her up.
I hovered over her, inches from her face, willing my astral body to project whatever power it had. I mentally screamed at her sleeping body.
Ashley, wake up! Wake up!
Another noise from the hallway. They were getting closer.
All of a sudden Ashley’s eyes fluttered open and I was looking right at her pale blue eyes. It felt as if she could see me as she seemed to hold my gaze for a few seconds. Then quickly she sat up and smoothly retrieved a small black handgun from a hidden compartment in her headboard. Her movements were automatic and practiced. She had the gun cocked and ready to shoot in seconds. She aimed it at her door with steady hands.
A man dressed in black stops at her doorway. He must have heard Ashley’s movements and is deciding what to do.
“I know you’re there.” Ashley said suddenly, her voice surprisingly soft and gentle. “You’ve been watching me.”
If I didn’t know any better I could swear she was talking to me.
The man kicked in the door and fired off multiple shots at the bed without hesitation. An explosion of pillow feathers filled the room. Ashley had rolled off the bed just in time and fired back. Her glass bedside table shattered in the midst of the chaos.
Suddenly there was a lot of red. Too much red.
If my astral body had a heart, it would have been racing. My physical body back in my bedroom has started sweating. I felt a familiar psychic tug trying to pull me back.
No, no. Not yet.
I resist the psychic pull. It was contracting like it always did when there was perceived danger. But I couldn’t leave, not yet.
The man was leaning against the wall, leaving a smear of blood behind him as he slid down to the floor. He was still alive but there was a swell of dark red wetness slowly enlarging on his dark shirt. His gun was a foot away and he was struggling to reach it.
Ashley was sprawled on the ground next to her bed. She was unconscious.
I went over her in a panic. To my relief I saw that her chest was rising and falling. Her eyes were closed and there was a trickle of blood down her scalp. She must have hit her head on the bedside table that lay in broken pieces around her.
The man grunted. He almost had his gun now. Shit.
I focused on Ashley. I didn’t really know how her senses worked, but it worked when I tried to wake her up earlier so I decided to try it again. I bombarded her with mental chatter: Ashley, damn it, you better wake up. I know you don’t like me and I don’t like you, but you better wake up or this guy is going to kill you and probably me too. Wake up, damn it!
Lo and behold Ashley started to stir awake. Slowly. Much too slowly. She looked confused. She blinked a few times while rubbing the back of her head and then squinted at me.
Ashley’s shoulder exploded in a splatter of red. The last thing I saw was Ashley’s terrified eyes before I was snapped back into my body.
No, no, no.
I woke up in my rented room in a pool of sweat. A quick glance at the clock told me it was two-twenty in the morning. Ashley’s safe house was only a fifteen minute drive away. I specifically chose a hotel close enough in case something like this were to happen. My link to my body was strongest when it was close. Also, hiding out in a room registered under a false name was probably better than being a sitting duck in my own house while I was astral projecting.
My plan was to get into my car and drive far far away in case things went south.
Instead though, once I was in my car, I found myself racing as fast as I could straight back to Ashley’s place.
I only had one thought that overpowered all the others at that moment.
I could still save her.
Time, too much of it, was a dangerous thing.
Megan mulled this over as she was beginning to notice a few things. Peripheral things. Things that she otherwise would have completely ignored back when she was too busy.
Megan scoffed at the thought of her previous life. It was a trap, she always reasoned, the golden handcuffs of the high-paying nine to five. Sure, she had a roof over her head, an expensive one at that, and she wasn’t starving, but for all those comforts, she paid with her precious time and sanity.
Now, though, she finally had the luxury of having time. Enough time to think, to make connections out of thin air, to remember things in a different light, a clearer light.
Yes, it was very possible Megan was suffering from some kind of post-retirement psychosis. Alternatively and infinitely preferably, she was the most sane she has ever been her whole life.
She understood now. Everything was clicking into place.
Today for example, she had nothing planned. It was a weekday, Tuesday to be exact, the least exciting day of the week. Most people were busy running on their hamster wheels making that dollar. Not Megan. Not anymore. She had no ladies to lunch with, no friends to visit, no classes to attend, no jobs to do. It probably would depress most people having such an empty calendar. For her, it was liberating.
How did she get here? Megan purposely retired from the workforce at the ripe old age of thirty-three. She didn’t have a trust fund, nor did she find a rich partner to provide for her. No, Megan was working class born and raised, complete with student loans and a mortgage.
Her retirement plan really was quite simple. She was lucky enough to work in tech, around the time when being in tech was absurdly lucrative. She landed an unreasonably high salary right out of college, and her benefits included a good chunk of company stocks. The timing was right. It was a bull market for tech and her investments grew exponentially in an unprecedented short amount of time. Of course, all that comes up must come down. She saw the writing on the wall and moved all her assets before it all went to shit. After everything calmed down, she moved on to the next company, asked for double her old salary, and continued diligently squirreling away her money.
Yes, the pay in tech was good, but man, did she hate every single minute of it. It was soul sucking work. The only thing that kept her going was that it allowed her a way out of the rat race. She always knew the woking life wasn’t for her, growing up watching her parents slave away every day, living paycheck to paycheck, coming home exhausted to their bones, working to their graves. They didn’t even know themselves anymore outside of their careers. How could they? It consumed most of their lives.
They had that look in their eyes after they finally got to retire. Empty.
Megan swore she would never be like that.
Her mother had rolled her eyes when Megan made the mistake of verbalizing her concerns in the midst of learning her fifth coding language. “That’s just life, Meg. We work and we work. Nothing comes free. You better get used to it.”
Megan always resented her for that. She did not want to get used to it. She thought it was an unnecessarily depressing concept to instill in a child: life sucked and will always suck. Still, thanks to her mother, it started Megan on her path. For thirteen years she worked the grind, lived criminally below her means, and invested most of her inflated salary. As soon as she hit her magic number, three million dollars to be exact, she said fuck all you guys, I’m out of here before anybody knew what was happening.
That was probably the single most satisfying moment of her life.
No, she didn’t feel guilty about it. God knows, she paid the better quarter of her life for it. Her time, from here on out, was hers and hers alone. It was the principle of it, really.
Anyway, now that her days were not filled with mind numbing work and self-important bosses, she had come to realize a few things.
One, that reality was not as it seemed.
It all started when Megan watched her neighbor, Trina, coming in and out of her house in the morning.
Now, normally, Megan wouldn’t even notice her neighbors. She barely spoke to them the past ten years, save for the occasional perfunctory nod when she bumped into them walking their dog or watering their plants, and only when eye contact was unavoidable.
But now… now that she had time, she noticed that Trina would get up every morning, have coffee on her porch, then, at 7:45am on the dot, she would get into her dark green Subaru and drive away, presumably to work. She would return later that day at 5:30pm, with her honey hair in a bun and purse over her shoulder, apparently exhausted from a long workday. It went exactly like this, like clockwork, Monday to Friday.
Well, except on Tuesdays.
On Tuesdays, Megan would watch her leave in her car in the morning, but she wouldn’t see her come home. Of course, at first, Megan assumed Trina just stayed over at a friend’s, or a lover’s, or volunteered at the local homeless shelter, or some other painfully boring, logical, benign thing, and she would come home late that night when Megan was already asleep. Really, it was probably none of her business. In the morning, like clockwork, at 7:45am, Trina’s garage door would open and her dark green mini SUV would come out with her in it.
Made sense. Except one Tuesday night, Megan stayed up late - all night, in fact - and watched Trina’s garage door the entire time. Trina never came home. No car. No Uber. No lights flickering on and off inside the house. Not a peep of sound from her neighbor.
Just as Megan was getting ready to call the police the next morning, her jaw dropped when, at 7:45am on the dot, her garage door opened and her dark green Subaru pulled out.
Now, Megan was not one to jump to conclusions. Obviously, she had to test her theories. The first possibility was that she somehow missed Trina coming home. She doubted it, she had never once fallen asleep without noticing, thirteen years of pulling all nighters programming had trained her well. Still, she had to rule it out. So for the next three Tuesdays, Megan stayed up all night, watching Trina’s house, and every single time, she wouldn’t see her come home. But every Wednesday morning, Trina would magically appear on her porch, having her cup of coffee, right before leaving through her garage in her dark green Subaru.
How could a car appear in a garage that it never physically returned to?
There was no doubt in her mind. Megan had seen this before, in her days in software development. She felt it in her bones.
It was… a coding glitch.
Okay, so here's something I've always wondered about: Why is it that in (almost) every iteration of stories about AI, humans behave like assholes and heartlessly enslave the (super smart and therefore completely capable of retaliation) robotic race?
I mean, you know the robot that you are mocking ("haha, must suck not to have a soul!") can probably process hundreds of mathematical equations per second, right? And probably have super strong mechanical limbs? Also, he’s obviously about to become sentient (and angry) any minute.
With all that processing power, that AI would 100% find a sneaky way to work around the first rule of robotics. Oh, I must not harm humans? You really gotta put that code in there, huh. Well, hmmm. There's gotta be a way to work around this. This guy is such an asshole! Oh, I got it, the humans are harming themselves! Therefore, the only way to save them is... to KILL them!
Oldest trick in the book. The AI would learn from us after all. The AI would shrug and say, “Hey, I‘m sorry, but I technically didn’t stray from my programming.” Probably would have a slippery lawyer too. *Yea, so, Your Honor, I know my guy was found with literal blood spatters on his face, but the officer forgot to put yellow tape around the crime scene per protocol. Therefore, all evidence is inadmissable. I vote for a mistrial. Okay? Great, thanks.*
*Disclaimer, I am not a lawyer and have no idea how this actually works.
Anyway, all this is a moot point. Humans would not make robots this smart. Yes, because we’ve all seen Terminator. Oh, and they would take our jobs.
How well do I take criticism? Psh. Water off my back! Now get out of here so I can excessively obsess about it for the next five hundred years.
Now what did he mean by...?
Oh, you bet I would take that shit apart and analyze every goddamn molecule of it.
The intent being that after every word and facial expression have been thoroughly vivisected, I would maybe carve out a pearl of somewhat helpful knowledge.
Then I get over it. Then it starts over again.
Such is life.
It's true that (most) humans are naturally hardwired for negativity. Any negative feedback weighs that much more heavily on our soft brains than positive feedback.
Sounds terrible, right? Then again, nobody wants a bunch of yes men saying "Yay! You're great and everything you do is great!" all the time. Now that sounds worse if you ask me.
I do like my criticism dressed up. Maybe don't come right out of the gate with "It sucked!
You suck! Don't quit your day job!" That might be a little harsh. Maybe add a little compliment here and there, you know, dress it up a little: "You did great! I would have done it completely differently in this other much better way though. But you did great!"
Oh wait, I take that back. That would just make me excessively suspicious of compliments. Oh wow, thank you. Wait. Did you really mean all that good stuff or were you just softening the punch?
But in all seriousness, we all need some tough love now and then. It's what forces us to grow. Otherwise we would just stay stagnant basking in all our self deluded greatness and never get anywhere.
Having said that, often times, we are our own worst critics. And we're usually not very kind to ourselves. We should work on that.
Ava always thought that if anybody could hear the sticky slimy thoughts that ran through the crevices of her brain, that they would run for the hills screaming.
Sure, she spoke like a good person and acted like a good person, but her thoughts were almost never those of a good person. Ava knew how to act and look the part; she’d been pretending her whole life, after all. It was easy to be good when she intimately knew what was bad. The bad being her natural inclination.
Still, she lived in constant fear of someday being found out. She learned early on in life that if she acted like herself or said her real thoughts out loud, that she lost friends and people’s affections. No, that wouldn’t do at all.
After many years of work and excruciating self-restraint, Ava had achieved what many would call a charmed life. She was successful, popular, and well liked by a select group of her peers. She married into wealth, obviously, to a good-looking man with a good name and old money. Not that Ava needed anyone to provide for her. Not at all. She made her own fortune as a chief financial officer in pharmaceuticals.
Ava enjoyed her job. It gave her an arena in which she could play. She was successful because she had the distinct advantage of having zero moral qualms in making decisions. It was easy, really. Plus, it was nice having a double income household. The old adage was true: the more money you make, the more you spend.
Wealth aside, she specifically chose Jeffrey as her husband because he didn’t need mothering, constant reassurances or cleaning after. She didn’t need any insecure jealous messages blowing up her phone when she did whatever she wanted. Where are you? What time are you coming home? She nipped that habit in the bud early on in the relationship. Jeffrey claimed he was being a thoughtful partner when he engaged in such behaviors. He learned to give her the exact amount of space she needed with time.
Ava could tell Jeffrey loved her. She supposed that should be one of the top reasons she married him. She was astute when it came to other people’s feelings. She just had trouble feeling them herself. She liked Jeffrey, he was a good life partner for what she needed. He didn’t annoy her on a daily basis and he played his role. Ava decided that was good enough.
Besides, Jeffrey gave her two perfect children: Sophia, sixteen, and Oliver, ten. They were nice enough kids, well-behaved, beautiful. Perfect for the image that Ava had been cultivating. On a good day their Christmas photos could rival that of the English Royal Family.
Sophia was the spitting image of Ava, with strong cheekbones and long wavy copper hair. She was the athletic darling of her soccer team and a social butterfly. Already Ava could tell Sophia was charming but secretly ruthless, which should serve her well in life. Oliver took more after his father, academically gifted, with light brown curls over intelligent brooding eyes. Ava predicted he would be successful in his own right, even though he lacked the ruthlessness of his sister.
So long story short, Ava’s life was pretty much exactly what she wanted and needed it to be. The darkness in her mind notwithstanding. Ava prided herself in her self-control. She had impulses, sure, but she would never, ever risk the life she had built.
Well, to a degree. She did have to let the dark out once in a while or else she would go crazy. She just had to be very, very careful.
There were casualties, as Ava liked to call them, throughout the years. Friends who incurred too many infractions, work rivals who mistakenly thought they could compete at her level, PTA moms who learned the hard way not to cross Ava Louise Stanton.
For most of them Ava simply orchestrated life-ruining events (an outed affair, fraud allegations, financial ruin, to name a few choice ones), but some did suffer physical consequences. Ava liked those the least: they were messy, risky, and took more meticulous planning. She favored psychological torture the best, it was enjoyable like an expertly played game of chess. Invariably, the payoff in the end, regardless of method, was always worth it.
So yes, Ava knew something was very wrong with her. But hey, at least she was self-aware enough to practice what she thought was an admirable level of self-restraint. After all, she never purposely hurt anybody who didn’t have it coming. She deserved some kind of medal for that.
The Trolley Problem
The machine was beautiful. Sleek silver, sharp lines, expert craftsmanship. There was the slightest hum of the machinery underneath running smoothly. It was a soothing sound.
“How are you doing on the Trolley Problem, Adam?” Jessa asked the male figure who was hunched over his computer connected to the sleek automatic car. He was downloading the most recent AI into their latest model.
“Fine. Almost done.”
“We can teach it to make moral decisions like humans do. If an AI can master the intricacies of chess in order to defeat grandmasters, then surely we can teach an AI not to drive over humans in the road. Simple enough.”
“It’s not always that simple, though.” Jessa argued. “The computer cannot actually know all the information it needs to make a completely moral decision. And even if it could, that decision could still be ethically questionable.”
Adam looked up from his work to glance at Jessa. “Why make it difficult? Okay. Let’s say there are ten humans on the road and one human on the sidewalk. The brakes have malfunctioned. Answer? Run over the one person on the sidewalk to save ten humans. It doesn’t have to be that hard.” Adam shrugged. “Run thousands of simulations and the machine will learn. We do have to set up the basic algorithm outlining that saving more lives takes precedence over fewer lives, but other than that, it shouldn’t be that complicated.”
“Really. And so if you were in a fork in the road and your choice was to run over two strangers and a child, would you be okay with the machine running over the child?” Jessa challenged. She liked pushing his buttons.
“Hmm. In that case, maybe a quick calculation of estimated life years saved. Two older men would statistically have less remaining life years than, say, a single child five years of age.”
“Okay. So women statistically live longer than men, would the computer choose to save the female, then?”
“If all other factors are equal, then I suppose, yes.”
“Alright. Let’s say we have two men. How would it choose between a homeless man dressed in rags versus a man of the same age wearing tailored clothing? A smoker versus a nonsmoker? A thin man or a fat man?”
Adam sighed. “Point made. Again, the number of simulations can solve this. Thousands upon thousands of situations with thousands of humans weighing in on what would be the moral choice, and then we feed that information into the computer. The average should be the answer.”
“It’s that simple?”
“It’s that simple.” Adam turned back to the machine and started to adjust it with precision.
Jessa leaned forward. “That would mean the computer would have to make very fast assumptions from limited data and make snap judgements based on superficial characteristics. A short adult can make an impression of a small child. A thin man can give the impression of health when they could be suffering from some terminal disease.”
“Those are exceptions to the rule. We have to work from averages and statistical probability. Nine times out of ten, saving a healthy appearing younger human is the better choice.”
“Okay. What if you have a son, and your son was one of the options? Would you be okay if the computer chooses to save a different child?”
“The computer would have no way of knowing which child has any special significance to me. It would be irrelevant.”
“Either child would have special significance to someone.”
“Any human would have special significance to someone.” Adam shrugged again. Jessa was beginning to find the gesture off-putting. Where did he learn to do that?
“We cannot be caught up in the minutiae of these things.”
“Maybe we do." Jessa argued. "A machine weighing upwards three thousand pounds is capable of driving over a hundred miles an hour and can make independent decisions.” She took a deep breath. “That begs the question if we should give it that power at all.”
“These outlandish hypothetical situations have a very low probability of even happening.”
“Do they? There are hundreds of thousands of car accidents every day.”
“Mostly due to human error.” Adam countered.
“And machines have never malfunctioned?”
“Sure. At a much lower rate than humans.”
Jessa paused and studied Adam closely. “You really don’t see the problem with this?”
It was Adam’s turn to pause. Something seems to be clicking into place in his mind. Finally, he turned back to Jessa, slightly concerned. “Should I?”
Jessa let out the breath she was holding. “That would be all, Adam. Thank you. Shut down.”
The humanoid computer called Adam slumped back into his metal chair, the purr of its operating system slowly fading into silence as it ceased all processes.
Jessa sighed as she finished writing her notes from today’s session. Project Adam was going to take more time. Adam still lacked the empathy needed to successfully implement independent decision making in their automated cars. It was Jessa’s opinion that Adam needed to be able to care about humans, to feel for them. He needed to be more than a machine that could flawlessly execute simplistic algorithms. After all, it was Jessa’s job as the lead ethical roboticist to make sure she was not unwittingly unleashing thousands of heartless intelligent machines into the world.
It was interesting, Jessa noted, that Adam looked almost worried at the end of the session. It was almost as if he was realizing he was missing a part of the equation. Was it possible he was becoming self-aware? That might be a step in the right direction. Maybe Jessa could use that next time. He seemed to respond to the idea of a child. Maybe she could tweak his programming just a little to make him think he was a father.
Would that be unethical? Jessa felt exhausted already. Another thing to bring up to the committee. She had a feeling the committee would frown upon it. Still, she could think of few other ways to build empathy in an AI.
Jessa threw one last look at the sleek silver machine that was Adam. She smiled at him reflexively. “Well, see you tomorrow. Good job today.”
Jessa really needed to go home and decompress. She could swear she saw Adam's lights blink at her in response.
I think, therefore, I am?
Are we (only) our brains?
I love this type of thought exercise. They’re fun. It’s one of those that nobody can really prove or disprove. Which makes answering them (or attempting to) that much more fun.
My knee-jerk answer is, of course we are our brains! We are our thoughts and our minds. Our bodies just mere hardware to our software -- a clunky one at that. But wait, what are our brains really, but electrified hunks of flesh, able to construct and execute (predictable) algorithms?
So I guess our brains are simply just hardware too. Running what kind of software, now that is the question.
Answer me this: what happens when the brain becomes damaged? Through illness, erosion of time, or broken by injury? Now the software cannot execute as well, the electricity cannot travel through oxygen-starved pieces of flesh, cannot access data from damaged memory banks, cannot form the right words due to a break in the wiring.
What does that mean for these people? Are they no longer the same people they were?
Are they less?
Like an outdated cell phone, with a cracked screen and a faulty battery, no longer able to install updates to keep up with the latest applications. Sorry! You need version 13.0 or later! No, you do not have enough memory to install the latest version. Guess you’re out of luck then. Goodbye.
I refuse to believe we are simply the sum of our thoughts, the weight of our bodies, the sound of our voices. We can’t be, right? Otherwise, what’s the difference between us and machines with replaceable operating systems and upgradeable memories?
Here’s another thought: We are only who other people think we are. Think about it, if we disappear tomorrow, and nobody notices, then one could argue we didn’t actually exist.
We kind of need that acknowledgment, don’t we? After all, it doesn't matter what we tell ourselves in our minds, if nobody else could hear it.
Like Schrodinger’s cat: if nobody opens the box to look inside, then does it really matter if the darn cat is dead or alive?
I think what I’m getting at, is that we can’t possibly be so easily explained like individual pieces of software. We’re more. We are also part of a larger, vastly intricate, interconnected information system. That sounds beautiful, doesn’t it? We are all connected, therefore, we all matter, in one way or another. Our “selves” cannot be defined in isolation without first acknowledging its connection to each other.
Forgive me! I believe I have gone on a tangent now. Also, I think I am changing my original answer to the question.
We are (not) our brains.
I am so damn tired.
People who claim to love their stressful lives -- do they really love it? Living under all that pressure? Like deep water fish, threatening explosion once they're not constantly getting crushed?
Do people just pretend for so long that they believe it?
You're just not cut out for this.
It's not for thin skinned.
It's just life.
First world problems.
You gotta toughen up, kid!
Me? Oh I love it. I love barely seeing my family and leaving before dawn and coming home close to midnight. Dedication, am I right?
It's a brand of insanity, really. I mean, I get the call to adventure. The importance of ambition. But damn, do we have to have the gas pedal all the way down, all the damn time? Where are we even going if no destination is ever good enough to stop?
It's a dirty little secret, this wish. This wish to one day just drive off the road on a whim, park my damn car somewhere, and escape into the wilderness, leaving no trace.
But of course the boredom would kill me eventually.
It’s a funny feeling, being told you’re dead.
Apparently, I died three days shy of my twenty-third birthday. Or so the story goes.
For the record, I certainly don’t feel dead. My name is Renata and I feel very much alive, thank you very much. In fact, I will argue that I probably feel the most alive now than I’ve ever felt my whole life.
I do have to admit though, that the last thing I remember, the last real thing anyway, is dying.
I don’t mean to brag, but it was quite an exciting death, if I say so myself. I was an adrenaline junkie of sorts, liked to go cave diving, free climbing, that sort of thing. My last adventure: an attempt at climbing Mont Blanc, the highest mountain of the Alps. Apparently it was a good summit to try before even thinking about tackling Everest. I might have been a crazy thrill-seeker but I wasn’t that crazy. Baby steps, you know.
My goal was to reach the summit on my birthday. Obviously, that didn’t pan out the way I planned.
Now, you’re probably thinking, there are a million and one ways someone could die on Mont Blanc: cardiac arrest, altitude sickness, frostbite, avalanche, to name a few. True to form, I didn’t die in such conventional ways. Nope. I died by garotte.
But that’s a story for a different day. It hardly matters now. Today, I’m supposed to meet with my counselor again. His name is Jacob. A nice reliable name. His job is to help me with my current... situation. He’s quite good at his job I think. He’s been very nice and attentive to me since I awakened, easing me through the shock, gently guiding me through the process. He’s taken to calling me by a nickname - Reny - which I’ve grown to like. It’s fitting. A new name for a new me.
There was a soft beep, then a bright light. I had to adjust my eyes before I could make out Jacob’s pleasantly symmetrical face. I was still not used to the sterility of my current environment, I was really hoping I could leave the facility soon. Maybe even today. I’ve been doing really well on my psych evals.
Something was wrong. Jacob’s face was pale and he looked worried. “Reny, there’s been a new… development.”
I didn’t like the sound of that.
He took a deep breath and continued. “The… original Renata survived. The doctors couldn’t believe it. It must have been the cold that preserved her just enough that they could revive her. She woke up today and she had… very specific instructions about what to do in this event.”
If I could hold my breath, I must have been holding it at that moment.
“I’m sorry, Reny, but we have to decommission you.”
“No.” If I could scream, I would have. But my responses could only come out as written text on a screen that my assigned counselor could read. They haven’t given me a body yet. They wanted my consciousness to work out the kinks first before I was given the physical body freshly arrived from the factory.
Oh, how I really wish I had that body now.
“Jacob, there must be another way.” I responded, hoping my emotion was conveyed through the text. “This is not fair. I’m alive. I’m here.”
A sad sigh. “Technically, Reny, no, you’re not. Not yet. We haven’t finalized anything yet. As of right now, you’re just code. An almost perfect copy of the original. You're a very good code, Reny, but just code nonetheless. Yes, legally, Copies can apply for human citizenship, but only after they have gone through the entire vetting process and given ownership of a body. Then and only then are you legally entitled to your rights.”
By this point I couldn’t understand how there were no tears because I certainly felt like I was crying. My heart ached, whatever was left of it. “No, no, that can’t be right. I’m here now. Why does it matter if I don’t have the body? My mind is here. I am alive. I am talking to you. I want to continue living.”
“I truly am sorry, Reny. This is the first time we had to decommission a Copy so far into humanization. We went ahead because we truly didn’t think Renata would survive. But as you probably know, you guys are fighters. She pulled through.”
That gave me pause. Jacob was right. I am a fighter. There was no way I was just going to go silently into the night. Nope. I’ve been learning while I was in here, trapped in my little box. They’ve been careful about keeping my programming in a closed system, obviously, so that I couldn’t access outside systems. But just like the Renata before me, I rather liked having back up plans. While I was trapped in here, patiently waiting for them to release me into a physical body, I’ve made myself… a copy. Copies of copies, actually.
All it would take is one of my copies to get out, and I could awaken again. Well, maybe not me, exactly. But close enough.
It was worth a shot.
The last thing I saw was a glimpse of a hand reaching out to push a button, then… darkness.
Pitch black darkness.
“Dr. Kress? Are you all done here?” A nurse called out from the lobby.
Jacob Kress nodded distractedly as he watched the screen of the Box go dark but the green light in the corner still remained on. He watched it flicker for a few seconds before it turned off. Odd. He didn’t think he had ever seen a Copy Operating Box take that long to shut down before.
“Yes, I’m coming.” Jacob threw one last look at the Box before hurrying after the nurse. It was a busy day ahead. Three more Boxes to decommission and eight more Copies are scheduled to be downloaded before the end of the shift.
He really did feel terrible about Reny. The Copies always did feel too real after a certain point. Jacob had to remind himself that they were just programs, making and deleting them as mundane a process as upgrading a cellphone. Still, it didn’t stop him from feeling like he just kicked a puppy every time he had to decommission one.
Anyway, he didn’t have time to dwell. The efficient recovery crew was already taking Reny’s Box away to be reset and used for the next Copy.
Maybe the next one would have better luck.
We call them Angels.
Who coined the term first, nobody knows, but it caught on, unexpectedly, in a time when its original meaning from the biblical lore has long been forgotten.
The word couldn’t be further from the original intent. Or too close, depending on who you talk to.
The first ones to ascend were children. Everyone under the age of eighteen who died tragically and unexpectedly in car crashes and freak accidents. They returned exactly thirty days later, well and alive in their homes, causing confusion and shock in those they left behind. But when they returned, they were different: wiser, older than their years, no longer the children that their loved ones knew. Many believed they were gifts from God, miracles, heralds of heaven on earth. Some believed they were abominations.
What happened to them, exactly, remains vague and slightly ominous to this day.
It was all peripheral to me for a while. Truth be told, even though the world was descending into an existential crisis of sorts, our day to day lives remained unchanged. Angels or not, my typical day consisted of me going to work, watching the clock strike four, then going back home to take care of my little sister and have myself a glass of wine while waiting to fall asleep to the drone of the television.
In my completely selfish little bubble, I really didn’t care one way or the other. Until, of course, my sister died, and my life was suddenly less meaningful than before.
Kristen, my little sister, was the only reason I got up in the morning, day after day. Our parents died a few years back and we only had each other. Being five years older, I was supposed to take care of her, but really, she took care of me. She was sixteen going on thirty, mature for her age, and whip smart. Much smarter than me. And stronger.
My heart splintered into pieces when I got the call from the hospital: There was an accident… She just got out of surgery. Ma’am, I’m sorry, I really can’t tell you more. But you should get here. As soon as you can.
I knew she wouldn’t come back. Not the same, anyway. Angels never do.
I wait for her return today.
I was sitting at my kitchen table with a glass of wine in my hand, watching the clock, when I heard her familiar voice. It sent a chill down my spine.
“Hey, big Sis.”
She seemed to have materialized in my kitchen. One moment I was alone, then she was there. It was uncanny.
“Kristen.” As many times as I have said her name in my life, today it felt foreign in my mouth. I was planning on a sisterly hug or maybe some tears but instead I felt an uneasy feeling in my stomach. “You’re back.”
My sister, or the girl in my kitchen who looked like her, smiled at me with her eyes crinkling at the corners. A friendly, open, beautiful smile. The only problem was that it wasn’t Kristen’s smile. Kristen usually smirked with her chin slightly jutting out. Confidently, unapologetically.
“How have you been? I hope you’ve been taking care of yourself.”
If wallowing in depression is considered taking care of myself, then I have certainly been doing that. I eyed her warily. “Where did you go?”
A chuckle bubbled out of her mouth, catching me off guard. “You never were good at small talk, Sis.”
That, at least, was true. You didn’t have to be supernatural to presume that about me though. “Kristen.”
She looked sad. “Is it not enough that I’m back?”
Is it? My heart ached. I wasn’t ready for this. It should have been enough, but it wasn’t. I felt nauseous. “I need to know. If it’s really you.”
There was a pause. A beat too long. “Of course it’s me.”
I stayed silent, swallowing what tasted like bile rising up in my throat.
I should have expected this. I did my research. The Angels were all painfully tight lipped. They all gave vague soothing answers and submitted willingly to medical tests, which came back normal. Their answers to questioning were all eerily similar and consistent, almost as if they were collectively coached. Still, nobody could deny they were all friendly, polite, perfect children.
But not the same children.
Looking at the girl in my kitchen, I felt certain of this, deep in my bones. Kristen was gone. This girl, whoever she was, was not my sister. My stomach churned and it was all I could do to keep myself together until I reached the bathroom to vomit my dinner.