It was a clear night, free for once of the smothering Los Angeles smog, and yet, as Tess looked up at the heavens over her steaming mug of tea, breathing in a mist of chamomile and lavender, she felt dark.
The night felt…. soulless.
She couldn’t figure it out at first, the unsettling feeling of emptiness in the skies. After all, how could the mind grasp the impossible? Then, finally, after several minutes too long, it clicked: Cassiopeia.
Daniel with his beloved telescope and his Cassiopeia.
It was the constellation her late husband pointed out to her on their first date, while laying on a thin knit blanket over the damp fall grass, with Daniel excitedly pointing towards the heavens, his other arm draped over Tess in a half hug. It’s shaped almost like a W, you see? Or a heart. Named after a queen so beautiful and fierce she was imprisoned in the stars. Cassiopeia. Mother of Andromeda.
Tess decided she could love him then. This man, with his dark thoughtful eyes, framed by old fashioned wire-rimmed glasses and unruly curls. This man, with his unrivaled love for science and mythology, who would disappear for hours in his library, sometimes forgetting to eat, typing away on his computer, lost in his latest discovery.
Perhaps because it was the first thing Daniel shared with her, the first real thing, that Tess decided to think of them as their stars. The twinkling lights an alphabet to their very own secret language, each constellation a coded message.
He was already dying then, though of course they didn’t know it yet.
Cassiopeia should have been visible in the night sky at 34 degrees N latitude. Daniel repeated the location to her so many times, it was engraved in her memory. She was certain she was looking at the right spot.
A deep sorrow filled Tess as she put down her mug to look closer. It just wasn’t possible. Stars couldn’t just disappear overnight, could they? Especially not Daniel’s stars.
There was nothing but dark in the cloudless spot where the constellation was supposed to be.
Tess’ heart started racing erratically as she looked for some of the other constellations she knew from Daniel: Leo Minor, Lacerta, Delphinus. None of them were there.
There was only a random smattering of twinkling lights in the sky, none of them forming familiar patterns. Tess couldn’t even find Orion’s Belt. This was not right. They were important, the patterns. They were patterns that her husband’s life revolved around when he was alive.
Of course, she resented them at first, these stars who rivaled her in Daniel’s life. Of all people she should have understood, bring a scientist herself. But she was human, she wasn’t immune to jealousy, to being lonely, to yearning for her husband, who loved her but also loved something else fervently.
After a while she grew fond of them, Daniel’s stars. She had to admit they were indeed majestic, beautiful, inspiring hundreds of years of mythology throughout history.
And, if Daniel’s theories were correct, they meant everything.
A sudden tremor of panic ripped through her then.
Where did they go?
“Something terrible has happened.” Tess imagined herself saying, before being laughed out of whatever government office she would somehow sneak her way into.
Luckily, she wasn’t the only one alarmed by the missing stars.
They contacted her first.
They were there the next morning, Scott Lang, head of Daniel's department, and Sophia Soren, Daniel's previous research assistant. They stood awkwardly in Tess' living room, their faces long and serious.
Sophia, with her striking eyes and raven hair pulled back in a severe bun, was looking at her with something like pity. She looked impossibly put together, like she always did, in tailored pants and leather shoes that looked like they were hand cut especially for her tiny feet by an expensive but very exclusive artisan in Southern Italy. She did not have a single wrinkle on her face, but she smiled often. Tess used to joke that Sophia had a half smile as her fixed expression, even if nothing was happening. It was just always there, a friendly curve, a permanent welcome sign inviting small talk and new friendships. Months ago Tess would have classified the two of them as friends. Tess was not sure what she would call them now.
Sophia and Scott. The two constants of Daniel's life, the life he built as a researcher and scientist. They were always there, orbiting around their little academic world of post doctoral fellowship, flitting in and out of their days like clockwork, in a predictable, dependable rotation... until, of course, they weren't. Tess would always resent them for that.
“How are you, Tess?” Sophia asked, her voice soft, tentative. Her staple smile absent from her face.
Scott, a short gray-haired bespectacled man who was normally the most imposing figure in the room, was avoiding her gaze. It was almost amusing. Almost.
“Fine.” Tess gave them a tight-lipped smile. “Tea?”
“Please.” Scott and Sophia answered at the same time, immediately looking slightly horrified. It was so absurd Tess almost laughed. She didn't bother to ask if they took milk or sugar.
Tess noticed Sophia was looking around the kitchen as she was preparing the tea, reminding her of a social worker assessing the suitability of a ward, slight concern in her eyes. It made Tess wonder when the last time was that she deep-cleaned her small vintage kitchen. There might be a thin layer of dust on the windowsills, but otherwise she always took care to keep the area clean. There were no dishes on the sink, the trash was emptied, the tables were wiped down. Daniel was always the neat-freak when he was alive and Tess felt it appropriate to keep their home in the state he would have liked.
Tess busied herself with the kettle, suddenly feeling the need to say something. “Are you here to see how I am doing, or are you here to ask about the stars?” Words came out of her mouth sharper than she intended. She was horrible at small talk. Daniel always told her that she was the typical asocial academic, obviously intelligent but slightly odd, never quite sure how to connect with people. At best she seemed uncomfortable in social situations, at worst, downright hostile.
Scott cleared his throat. “You noticed.”
“Of course I noticed.” Tess took a moment to calm down. “It was all Daniel talked about in the end.”
It was almost palpable, the discomfort suddenly permeating the room.
“Yes. That's why we're here.” Scott said, businesslike. The intimidating boss once again. “Daniel had a theory, about the stars. He was convinced that there was a countdown to some kind of event. From the spectrographs he would somehow detect a quantum measurement that decayed at exactly the same intervals by a predictable amount like a clock.” He paused. “We believe that event has finally happened.”
“You said he was crazy.” Tess muttered.
“We never said that.”
“You said he wasn't thinking right. Because of the tumor. You thought he was having delusions.” Tess continued, louder now.
“To be fair, his own doctor brought that up as a possibility. We cared about him, you know. We were worried about him.” Scott sighed. “And his theories were out there, you have to admit that.”
“And now?” Tess challenged.
Sophia interjected. “Look, Tess, we admit we were a little... closed minded at the time. Daniel's theory of some kind of quantum countdown based on barely detectable spectral measurements... well, it was hard to believe something like that.”
“His measurements were verifiable.”
“He was measuring meaningless spaces between the oscillations of neutrinos.”
“Except the spaces are not meaningless.”
“No... they are not.” Sophia conceded.
It took all of Tess' self control to stop herself from saying some variation of 'I told you so!' She took a breath and tried to busy herself by taking out three mugs from her cupboard for the tea. “Okay. So what are you saying?”
Scott gave Sophia a look before turning to Tess, something like fear flashed in his eyes. “There is something else, other than the missing constellations.”
“Jesus, Scott, just tell me.”
“Have you looked at the sun this morning?” Sophia asked.
“What?” Tess looked at the two of them incredulously. They looked back at her, stone faced. She frowned. “No... I had just woken up when you called you were coming.” The call had actually gotten her out of bed. She barely had time to change out of her pajamas, her daily outfit for the last year, before they arrived.
Tess gave them a look before she brought herself to look out the window above her kitchen sink. What she saw in the skies made her drop the mug she was holding in her hand, making it shatter into pieces on her shiny kitchen floor.
The normally yellow sun had an eerie tinge of deep red, hanging impossibly low in the sky.
Everyone has a sad story, if you dig deep enough, like scratching a scab. You can dig and dig, and eventually everybody, invariably, opens and bleeds.
Luisa was great at that, finding everyone’s sore spot, knowing just the right way to make it hurt. It could be an innocent sounding comment, a raise of an eyebrow, a gaze too long at a scar or some other secret imperfection. Whatever your Achilles heel was, she could find it, use it. Then she would parade it around like a war totem, a symbol of her strength, another battle won.
I used to admire it, her skill of reading people. Luisa was not reckless with it. Instead she wielded it with practiced precision. She used her weapons only on people who deserved it, people who were already broken anyway, people so irredeemably damaged that their only destiny was to destroy other people on their path to self-annihilation.
As Luisa always said, there was no shortage of evil in the downtrodden. She never had sympathy for the bully who was bullied, the abuser who was abused. There was a point of no return, Luisa told me, when someone no longer deserved forgiveness.
Of course, this also made me afraid of her. She terrified me, my sister.
“You are a terrible person.” I remember saying to her, when I was the naive age of thirteen, young and foolish enough to think that I could stand my ground, thinking I had it all figured out, my sister, the villain.
At first I thought she would get angry, and I was prepared for her to scream or yell or hurt, but instead she laughed. She laughed and laughed.
“Oh Andrea. Of course I am.” Her eyes dimmed. Her beautiful face etched with unexplained sadness. I remember thinking that in a certain shadow she looked decades older than her years. It was the only time she looked at me with rare tenderness. “But you... you'll be okay, Andrea. You're not like me. Promise you'll never be like me.”
Of course, it wasn't until much later that I learned what broke my sister. She had protected me from an unspeakable evil in our own house. In doing so she sacrificed her own innocence, something she would never get back. A bully who was bullied. An abuser who was abused.
Luisa, my sister.
There is a very specific feeling, in the first few minutes of waking, that lingers after a dream.
If it was a bad dream, for me anyway, it feels heavy, like a weight sitting on my chest. On the rare occasion that it was a happy dream, then when I wake, I go through a strange type of grieving. Like I lost something important somehow, a part of me missing.
Bad dreams have been the norm for me lately.
I was still half-asleep when my phone rang. The ugly anxious feeling still in my chest.
My Pebble (the latest mobile phone, my company always made sure we had the best gadgets, it came with the job) was buzzing on my nightstand. I watched it go silent for a few seconds then it started ringing again. Shit. Whoever was trying to call me had been calling all morning. That could only mean trouble.
I picked up the pebble-sized device and attached it behind my right ear. A gentle beep told me I was connected, as well as a subtle light blue glow. “Collins.” I answered.
“Jesus, Katie, where have you been? I've called you ten times. Have you seen the news?” An unmistakable rough voice barked from my Pebble. It was my boss, Tom Bogdan, head of the local investigative division. Then of course, who else would it be? Nobody called me much nowadays, especially -- I glanced at the holographic display of the time beside my minimalist closet -- not at five in the morning.
I grimaced. “Good morning, Tom. And no, of course not, no normal human should be awake this early.” I paused, knowing it must have been something important. “What's the matter?”
“There's another body.”
I was instantly awake. I sat up so fast from my bed that my head pounded painfully, reminding me of the half of a vodka bottle I drank last night. Sadly, that was typical for me lately. It was a cheap brand too. A wave of nausea washed over me as I tried to steady the throbbing in my head.
“Shit.” I finally managed to answer, hoping the Pebble didn’t pick up the slight gagging noise I just made. From the tone of Tom’s voice I was willing to bet this body had the same M.O. as the previous murders I had been investigating: there would be no blood, no sign of forced entry, and worst of all, no DNA.
“Yeah, so, I am going to need you to meet the medical examiner at the office, he will be there at seven. And Katie?”
“Can you be careful this time? No antics like your last case. You almost got yourself killed.” Tom's voice had softened slightly. Slightly. It was the rare occasion that he was not actively yelling.
I couldn't promise him what he was asking. “Maybe I'll avoid the same antics...”
“Funny. I'll see you soon.” My Pebble beeped, Tom was gone. He was always to the point, my boss. A man of few wasted words.
I pulled up the news on my holographic display. I didn't have to scroll for long. The top story of the day was about another body found in connection to Leung Industries. The news had a photo of the corporate offices located in the San Francisco Bay area. In the shot was the CEO and owner Teddy Leung, flanked by his army of bodyguards, and his daughter Lara, hidden behind a bearded blond man in black tactical gear.
Leung's company was the largest producer of nanochips used in almost every single piece of electronics in the world. Future Synthetics, the company behind the small Pebble behind my right ear, was a subsidiary. Needless to say, he was a multi-billionaire.
Before the recent serial murders, the biggest news was that Future Synthetics had contracts in the works with the Defense Ministry. Now, hardly anyone was talking about that.
I fought the urge to make myself a drink as I wondered who the victim was. Instead I reached for my coffeemaker. I had to make today count. I was moving too slow. The body count was rising by the day.
The drive to the office was an uneventful one. My electric car was programmed to drive me there through the safer parts of the city, as per company policy. It added a few minutes to my trip, which was just enough time for me to calm down. It was just as well, there was no way my car would go unnoticed in the rather unsavory neighborhoods just a few blocks over. My car wasn't even that nice, it just looked like it wasn’t purchased from a junkyard, which was not a luxury the less fortunate parts of town could afford.
When I arrived, Tom was in his office with a bespectacled man with flaxen hair. That must be the medical examiner. They seemed to be deep in conversation, both stopped talking abruptly when I walked in, as if I had interrupted something.
“Collins!” Tom exclaimed, as if he had not just dragged me out of bed to come here at an ungodly hour. I raised an eyebrow at him. He stopped calling me by my last name years ago.
I waited for an introduction. None came from Tom.
After a few awkward seconds the blond man cleared his throat and held out his hand for me to shake. “Vincent Fletcher. Nice to meet you, Detective, your reputation precedes you.”
“Um, yeah, okay. Call me Katie, please. Nice to meet you too... Vincent.” I was utterly confused. “You’re the medical examiner?”
Now Vincent looked equally confused. No, not confused. A rather amused smirk had formed on his face. I disliked him instantly.
Tom was suddenly vocal again. “Agent Fletcher is from Central Office. He is here to help us with the serial case given the… gravity of the situation.”
I understood now. Vincent was to be my babysitter. And since the order must have come from high above, I had no choice in the matter. That didn’t mean I would make it easy though. I gave my boss a glare that in any other situation would have gotten me fired. “I don’t work well with partners, Tom, you know that.”
Tom rolled his eyes. It looked hilariously adolescent on his scruffy face. “That, I know. But there’s been a new development.”
“Right, the latest victim.”
Vincent still had that smirk, one corner of his mouth raised almost comically in a half smile. He suddenly seemed to realize it and tried to rearrange his face to a more serious expression. He held my eye. “The body has been identified.” He paused for effect. “The victim was Lara Leung.”
It took my brain way too long to acknowledge the name. When it clicked my breath felt stuck in my chest. Lara Leung. The daughter of Teddy Leung.
“That’s… not good.” I muttered. No, this was not good at all. Lara was a controversial figure. She did not agree with her father’s way of doing business. Hippy daughter, billionaire father, poor little rich girl who just wanted to change the world. It was a tale as old as time.
And now she was dead.
It may have something to do with that message I received from her two days ago. The voicemail she left on my second phone. The burner.
Shit, shit, shit.
I tried to keep my expression neutral. Vincent seemed to be studying me very closely. I cleared my throat. “Well, if Central Office is involved, I take it you’re going to take lead?”
Vincent suddenly gave me a warm smile. He reminded me of one of those guys who could sweet talk their way through everything. Behind his spectacles I could see clear blue eyes and classic Nordic good looks. My dislike for him deepened.
“Katie, I’m here to follow your lead. Central just wants to make sure you have all the resources you need.” Vincent put his hand lightly on my shoulder. I found it slightly patronizing. “But first, why don’t we get some coffee and you tell me what you have so far?”
I held my tongue. It was the last thing I wanted to do. But it would be good to find out what this guy knows. Besides, my head was still pounding, and I could use more coffee. I gave Tom a meaningful look before turning back to Vincent with a tight-lipped smile. “Ok then, let’s go.”
I played Lara’s message in my head while I waited for Vincent to get us coffee. I needed to get my shit together. My nerves were shot. My leg shook underneath the table, and I just noticed a slight tremor in my hands.
Hey…. It’s me again. I umm, have that book you’ve been wanting to borrow. So… the usual time and place? Let me know. Ok. And umm, I’m looking forward to book club next week. I even got my dad to read the book and he liked it. Ok, I gotta go. See you soon. Bye.
It sounded like a benign enough message. It was supposed to. Still, I was going to get rid of that burner phone as soon as I get home. Everything was traceable and recordable nowadays. Especially with the Pebble. Good thing burners still existed in certain places. There were always enough people wanting to opt out of the convenience at the price of surveillance that Pebble provided. I could always say that I just wanted my privacy, if my burner was found.
Who was I kidding? There was no scenario where having a coded message on a burner phone from a dead girl looked good. No, it would look very bad. Today better go as planned.
I rubbed my temples.
I’m looking forward to book club next week…
That meant Lara was in trouble. And she was running out of time. I thought I had at least a week. God damn it. She must have been caught.
“Rough night?” Vincent interrupted my thoughts as he sat down. In his left hand he was offering me a steaming mug of black coffee.
“Thanks.” I said almost sincerely. The aroma of the caffeine was enough to give me a bit of a second wind. I indulged in a long sip before looking up at Vincent. I took a moment to study him. Something about him, other than his generic looking symmetrical face, was familiar. There was the faintest linear scar on the left side of his chin. I was certain I had seen him before.
“I am familiar with the details of the previous cases. Before I tell you what I know about the latest one, I want to hear what you think.” Vincent started pleasantly enough. He raised his mug at me as if gesturing to me to start talking. “I am curious. Like I said before, your reputation precedes you. Surely, you must have a theory by now? After... how many victims have there been? Eight?”
I took another sip. I had a sudden feeling that I could not trust this guy. “Well, as you know, there hasn't been a single scrap of usable DNA in any of the crime scenes, no cameras that could identify any potential perpetrators, no sign of forced entry. All eight cases were victims found in their homes, their heart suddenly stopped beating somewhere between when they went to bed and when they were found in the morning. Their Pebbles did not record any suspicious activity during those hours.”
Vincent stayed silent, listening to me intently. Nothing I was saying was classified information, but I continued. I needed to give Vincent enough so that he told me what he knew about what happened to Lara.
“At first the deaths were deemed coincidental.” I paused. “Have you heard of SUNDS? Sudden unexplained nocturnal death syndrome.”
“I can't say I have.” Vincent answered, still giving me his full attention.
“It's a phenomenon where an otherwise healthy person, with no known medical problems, suddenly dies in their sleep. The first case of SUNDS was identified over 100 years ago, in South East Asia, where it has been the root of some interesting folklore. Some victims of SUNDS were observed to suffer from night terrors.” I noticed Vincent frowning, probably wondering what this had to do with the murder case. “The first medical examiner thought that this was the case, especially with the first few victims being young, male, and of East Asian descent, where the syndrome is more prevalent.”
Vincent interjected. “I'm assuming you have reason to believe that the victims did not all just suffer from SUNDS.”
I sighed. This was going to take longer than I thought. The throbbing in my head has not lessened in intensity. “The current theory of why SUNDS happens is some kind of arrhythmia - a disorder in how the electricity travels through the heart. Somehow it is triggered in the night when the victim sleeps, after a heavy meal, or after the body's response to a night terror, causing the heart to stop.”
I took another long sip of coffee.
Vincent waited for me to continue.
“It was a good theory. Until all the victims ended up being somehow connected to Leung Industries and its subsidiaries. All eight victims so far have either been part of the board, a majority stock holder, a senior engineer, or a competitor.” I held Vincent's gaze. “Do you know that quote from Ian Fleming? Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is--”
“Enemy action.” Vincent finished for me. His expression has changed. He was more serious now, colder.
“Whoever had access to these people, who would have reason to have them dead, that's your perp.” I finished.
Vincent suddenly laughed. “That's it? You still don't have a how, who, or why.”
“Oh, I have a few of those things.” I said, against my better judgment. I could not stand to be laughed at. I reminded myself to be careful.
“I bet you do.” Vincent was no longer the smiling charming man of a while ago. He took off his glasses and set them on the table. Without them he looked less the blond choir boy and more ruthless Viking warrior. All he was missing was a beard.
My heart suddenly started racing. A beard…
“Well, let me tell you what I know.” Vincent set his coffee down. I noticed his hands were smooth, steady, like a surgeon. His expression remained blank, as if he were discussing the weather. “I know that Lara has been talking to you, and giving you all kinds of sensitive information.”
I sucked in a breath. Good thing my hands were under the table hiding my slight tremor.
“She had it, you know, some kind of proof. She was going to give it to you.”
I have that book you've been wanting to borrow…
“It was a shame, really. She was a nice girl, I really liked her. But she was naive. She didn't understand how the world worked.” Vincent has now taken a small silver tablet and put it on the table. It came to life with a soft beep, and a light blue glow. On the screen was a live rhythm of an electrocardiogram: a heart rhythm. I had a bad feeling of who they belonged to.
“How do you like your Pebble, Katie? I know they provide you with the latest model at the Investigative Division. Did you know that you can detect your heart rhythm with it?” Vincent's smile returned. But it was no longer merely annoying, it was terrifying. It was the smile of a killer. “In fact, you can disrupt the rhythm quite easily.”
Vincent leaned closer to me. “Tell me, Katie. Have you been having bad dreams lately?”
I tried to steady my breaths. There was a sudden heaviness in my chest. Surely Vincent wouldn't try anything here? We were in a public place, a coffee shop just two blocks from the precinct for Christ's sake.
“Oh, Katie, you don't really think I'm that stupid do you? I could have pressed this button anytime I wanted. I may have already activated it. Once you're in an excitable rhythm, all it takes is a heavy meal before you go to bed, or a bad dream, or a restless night after a couple of glasses of whiskey.” He suddenly chuckled. “Sorry, you're not a whiskey kind of girl, are you? You like your cheap vodka.
“Why?” I asked through gritted teeth.
“I can give you a billion reasons why.” Vincent answered flatly.
I needed to stall for time. I watched the steady heart rate on the tablet. “I can't believe Lara’s father would have approved of this.”
Vincent laughed again. The sound grated my ears. “Oh, I don't work for Teddy. Teddy was going to be voted out by the board at the end of the quarter. He was becoming too soft, too easily... influenced. And now, with the loss of his daughter, why, he's going to have to step down. You know, to take care of himself. We take mental health very seriously at Future Synthetics.”
I even got my dad to read the book and he liked it.
“The board was behind this.” I said.
“Now...” Vincent rolled his eyes. “I didn't say that, did I? You're trying to get me to say something I don't mean, Katie. How amateur.”
“Teddy was threatening to stop the supply of nanochips to your company.” I leaned forward, I could hear my heart pounding in my ears, my headache worsening. “You couldn't have that. Not when a contract with the Defense Ministry was in the works. But Teddy didn't agree with the military applications you were working into the Pebble.”
Vincent frowned at me. “You seem to be forgetting you shouldn't get too excitable Katie.”
It was my turn to smile. It hurt my head to do so. I pointed to the Pebble behind my right ear emitting a light blue glow. “This is a jailbroken Pebble, Vincent. You seem to have forgotten Lara was not only Teddy's daughter, she was also a brilliant engineer.” I pointed at the ECG rhythm displayed on the tablet monitor on the table. “Three guesses whose rhythm that is. All I know is, it's not mine.”
“You're bluffing.” Vincent's eyes narrowed. He seemed to watch the heartbeat on the rhythm as if he could recognize the heart behind the tracings from the way it beat.
“You better hope you haven't pressed that button yet, Vincent... or whatever your name is. Try not to eat too big of a meal before going to bed tonight. You know what they say, it can give you nightmares.” I stood up, leaving my empty coffee mug on the table. Vincent's expression remained blank.“Oh, and thanks for the coffee.”
My heart was still beating wildly as I walked out of the coffee shop. At first I wasn't sure Lara was able to do it, cloning my Pebble and switching the code with the person she thought was behind the murders. But as I watched the ECG tracing on Vincent's tablet, I became certain that the beats were way too slow and steady to be mine.
“Holy shit, Katie.” Tom's voice suddenly came on in the jailbroken Pebble in my ear. He had been listening the entire time. “You did it. I can't believe they had someone in the Central Office doing their dirty work for them. But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, given the state of things...” I could hear the disappointment in his voice. “Anyway, congrats on another successful case, Katie.”
I swallowed. I wasn't normally not this soft, but I felt a sudden urge to cry. Maybe it was my recent brush with death, maybe it was the loss of the friend I almost had in Lara. “I don't deserve it, Tom. It was all Lara. She lost her life over this, Teddy Leung lost his only daughter, and Leung Industries lost their best engineer.”
Tom was silent for a moment. “I know, but there was no other way. We were running short on time. And we didn't have any high ranking allies. Not anyone we could trust.” He sighed. “There is going to be a shit show after this, you know that, right? The fallout from something like this, it’s not going to be pretty.”
“I'm ready, sir.”
“Good. And Katie?”
“We're switching to a different comms device after this.”
I chuckled, despite feeling like weeping. “I sure hope so, sir.”
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.