Well, here it is, in all its glory, for your reading enjoyment: My latest “short” story. If you have time between shopping and eating this Thanksgiving, please give it a read. I welcome your feedback in the comments section below, both positive and critical, though I do ask that you be polite. “Discourtesy is unspeakably ugly to me.”
In any case, without further ado, here it is:
“I For One Welcome Our New Computer Overlords”
Copyright 2016 by Robert Elessar. All rights reserved. Any unauthorized reproduction of this work by any means is strictly prohibited.
Peter Lunsford awoke on Tuesday morning with a smile on his face. He had completed his arrangements; the final package had arrived the day before, and he had already taken care of everything at the bank on Friday. His lawyer had assured him that all was in order, and though Peter had his misgivings about lawyers in general, he thought that Mr. Ryder, the firm partner who worked with him, was competent and motivated to do his job well.
He rose from his bed and stretched, giving a slightly exaggerated yawn. Then he strolled into his small bathroom, glancing down at his completed and assembled project. It was a crude thing, but it should do the job. In any case, it was not his current priority. He doffed his pajamas and turned on the shower, waiting for the water to warm up before stepping in. Thankfully the late spring air temperature in the apartment was pleasantly warm, even for standing around naked.
After showering and shaving, Peter put on his work clothes and headed out the door of his apartment, after first picking up his old, worn, leather bag and slinging it over his shoulder. It was bulkier than usual that morning, but weighed only slightly more than normal. Within it he had stuffed a very special cargo, something for the people at work and for a few others he met every day. It wasn’t for everyone. Only certain select individuals had this special reward coming to them.
It had taken Peter quite a bit of time and effort to decide how to carry out today’s task, and to choose to whom to address it. The preparations had at times been exhausting, occasionally frustrating, and often tedious, but the business was important, so he had soldiered through, and was now ready. The arrival of the package last night—and its assembly into the rest of the device—was the last step before the execution of his plan.
Peter smiled and decided to use the stairs rather than use the elevator, though he lived on the fifth floor. He wanted to feel that movement of his legs, and the elevator just seemed too confining for a day like today. Before beginning his descent, he checked his jacket pocket to ensure that he had his cell phone, which he did. Thus assured, Peter made his way down and out of the building into the pleasant, late spring morning.
His timing, as always, was excellent. Within five minutes of his arrival at the corner, the number 17 bus arrived and its doors opened, allowing him to step aboard. It was crowded, but no more so than usual, and he was happy to see that his usual driver was present.
“Morning, Phil,” Peter said as he put his two dollars into the toll taker. “How’s by you today?”
“Pretty good, pretty good,” the driver replied. “I mean, it’s not Monday anymore, so that’s always good.”
Peter laughed and said, “I guess that’s true.” Then he stepped farther into the bus, allowing the two passengers behind him to enter. He did not, however, seek out a seat, but instead stood to the side near the front of the vehicle, placing his bag on the small luggage shelf near the doors so that he could open it with ease. Within, the contents were just as he had organized them, and there at the front was what he sought. He pulled it out, closed and latched the bag, and waited.
The ride to his destination took about twenty minutes. As the bus approached his stop, Peter stepped closer to Phil. He was the only one getting off.
“Have a good day, my friend,” said Phil, who never seemed to have picked up Peter’s name.
“I will,” Peter agreed. “But, hey…before I go, I want to give you something.” He held out his right hand, and Phil, puzzled, looked at it.
Peter was extending a simple, business-sized envelope, one of the thicker, non-see-through kind. Phil eyed it with puzzlement. “What’s that?” he asked, looking more closely.
On the front of the envelope were the neatly printed words, “To Phillip DeSantos, from Peter Lunsford. Do not open until Wednesday.”
“It’s a little…well, a little thank you, I guess,” Peter said. “I wanted to let you know that the people who ride your bus appreciate you.”
The driver examined the front of the envelope. “Why can’t I open it until Wednesday?” he asked.
Peter smiled and replied, “Because it’s sort of a surprise. Anyway, it won’t do you any good until tomorrow, no matter what. So please…don’t open it until then?”
The driver shrugged, but he still looked nonplussed. “It’s not some kind of…practical joke or something, is it?” he asked.
Peter chuckled and said, “Well, if it is, it’s a good one. But you’re not going to regret it, I’m sure of that.”
Philip still eyed the envelope dubiously, then looked back up at Peter and said, “Well…thanks. I think.” Then he took it, folded it, and stuffed it carelessly into his uniform jacket pocket, drawing a slight wince from Peter. “You have a good day, okay?” He glanced meaningfully at the open bus door, which waited for Peter to exit.
Peter, getting the driver’s meaning, said his goodbyes and alit from the vehicle. He walked across the parking lot and up the stairs into a hallway full of offices that lurked surreptitiously above a modest strip mall. When he walked through the door to his place of employment, he found, as usual, that only the manager, Mr. Singh, was present before him. Mr. Singh greeted Peter cordially, but was obviously preoccupied, so Peter gave a simple return greeting, then went to his usual station. Placing his bag on his chair, he opened it wide, revealing a large stack of envelopes which were similar to the one he had given the bus driver.
Taking the stack in his hands, Peter began a walking tour of the room, placing envelopes at various work stations. There were, technically, no assigned seats in the office—it was a call center that marketed diabetic supplies—but everyone pretty much always sat in the same seats every day. There were even personal items and photos pinned to the cloth-boards surrounding many of the stations. There were also used coffee mugs—some still half-full—and other remnants of the previous day’s activity. The boards were mostly covered with information about the products being sold, and basic rebuttals to common objections.
Mr. Singh, apparently noticing Peter’s activity, approached him and asked, “What are you up to, Pete?”
“Oh, good morning again, Mr. Singh,” Peter said. He was one of the few people who insisted on calling the manager by his formal name, and in fact, he tended to use only last names when calling people on the phone. Other reps often used given names, but Peter was old-fashioned, and considered such familiarity presumptuous.
Replying to Mr. Singh’s inquiry, he said, “I’m just giving little…treats to everyone in the room, or at least to the people I know well.”
“Treats?” Mr. Singh asked, looking as puzzled as the bus driver had. “What do you mean?”
“Well…surprises, I guess,” Peter said, trying not to sound too mysterious and cryptic, but not wanting to give anything away, either. He shuffled through his envelopes, adding, “I’ve got one for you.” He pulled the object of his search from the bunch and handed it to Mr. Singh.
The manager looked at the envelope, reading aloud, “’To Vivaan Singh, from Peter Lunsford. Do not open until Wednesday.’” He looked up at Peter. “Why Wednesday?” he asked.
Peter shrugged and said, “Well, I want it to be a surprise, and I’d like not to be there when you open it…when anyone opens them.”
Mr. Singh tilted his head. “Why not?” he asked. “Is it some kind of joke or something?”
“No, no,” Peter replied, wishing he had said so to the bus driver. “It’s not a joke…it’s just a surprise.”
“But…what’s special about tomorrow?” Mr. Singh asked. “Aren’t you going to be here?” Then, an alarmed look dawning on his face, he asked, “You haven’t gotten another job, have you?”
Peter laughed. “No,” he repeated, “not at all. I promise. I just…I just wanted everyone to open their envelopes in private. At home, preferably.”
Still looking puzzled, Mr. Singh was nevertheless clearly relieved. “Whew,” he said, “that’s good. You’re not our very best fronter, but you are one of the best, and you’re really good at teaching the new people. I’d hate to lose you.”
Peter smiled, though he felt rather melancholy in the face of Mr. Singh’s praise. “Well, don’t worry,” he said. “I haven’t got a new job. I probably won’t ever go anyplace else.”
Mr. Singh smiled broadly. “Well, that’s awfully good of you,” he said. “Loyalty is a rare thing these days, but it is appreciated.” He held his envelope up and said, “Well, all right, I’ll wait until tomorrow. But I can’t guarantee that everyone will.”
Peter, looking ruefully around the room, sighed and said, “Yeah, you may be right. But at least I hope they do things quietly. The envelopes won’t do anyone any good until tomorrow, anyway.”
Giving a mild and still dubious laugh, Mr. Singh said, “Very mysterious, Pete. I hope there’s nothing bad in here.”
Peter laughed in return, no more forcefully than Mr. Singh, and said, “No, there’s nothing bad in there. At least, I don’t think it’s bad.”
Mr. Singh nodded and said, “Well, I’d better get my paperwork done. Everyone else will be getting here soon, and we’ve got to have a blow up day, today.”
“Right you are,” Peter said, and he went back to his task, placing the last envelope in its target spot only moments before the next employee walked through the door.
There were many questions as other workers arrived at their desks and found the envelopes waiting. Peter was no more forthcoming with his them than he had been with the driver or with Mr. Singh, though many of his fellow sales representatives were more insistent and persistent than the others had been. He supposed he shouldn’t be surprised—after all, these were sales people, and they were in the habit of pushing past objections. Nevertheless, Peter gave no more clues than he had thus far, and the morning began with only minimal disruption, Mr. Singh insisting that everyone put away their envelopes and get selling.
It was a good Tuesday morning for sales, though Peter only got two deals himself, which was below his usual rate. He was not quite as focused on work as usual. Nevertheless, things were going smoothly, and for that he was happy.
Then, during lunch, his plans went awry.
As some were leaving to get food at nearby fast food joints and grocery stores, and others were taking from the refrigerator the meals they had brought from home, there came from off in one corner a loud cry of, “Holy shit!”
All heads still in the call room turned. The author of the expletive was one of the younger fronters, a twenty-something named Owen. He was standing in front of his usual spot, holding some papers in his hand.
Peter, who thought he recognized the documents even from across the room, groaned inwardly, and tried to make his surreptitious way to the door, though he knew it would only be a temporary escape. Owen, however, spied him before he reached it, and yelled, “Hey, Pete! What the hell is this?”
Peter, trying not to call too much attention to the interaction—probably a futile thought, since most of the remaining eyes in the room were on the two of them—said, “It’s a…well, it’s something you weren’t supposed to open until tomorrow.”
“What is it?” asked Deanna, a forty-ish woman whose usual seat was not far from Owen’s. Peter wasn’t sure if she was asking him or their younger coworker.
Peter tried to repeat his reminder about the requested opening date of the envelopes, but Owen overrode him, yelling, “It’s a check!”
The room became quieter.
“What do you mean?” Deanna asked, moving closer to Owen and looking over his shoulder at the formal-looking paperwork he held in his hand.
“A check,” Owen repeated. “A check and some kind of note.”
Deanna, looking more closely, gasped. Peter felt his stomach drop, dreading the response that was about to take place. “Oh my God!” Deanna exclaimed. “That’s a cashier’s check for ten thousand dollars!”
Now everyone in the room went completely silent. The slight humming of the many computer fans was all the could be heard.
Deanna took the papers gently from Owen, who allowed her to do so without resistance. She looked more closely at them, then back up at Peter, asking, “Is this real?”
Peter, drawing in and then sighing out a very deep breath, replied, “Of course it is.”
“But how…” Deanna began. Then a thought seemed to strike her, and she looked at her purse, which rested on her desk a few feet away. Peter guessed that she was thinking of the envelope that bore her name. “Wait a minute,” she said. “Are there checks in all of these?”
Peter, knowing that they were all likely to find out in short order anyway, quietly said, “Yes, there are.”
The room immediately became a flurry of activity, approaching the busiest and most successful times of popping deals. Everyone, it seemed, was now ripping open his or her envelope, more or less ignoring the short letters enclosed, which said nothing of deep importance, and looking at their bank-drawn checks, each one for ten thousand dollars, dated the following day.
A storm of questions arose from all around, including Owen’s rather silly question, “These are gonna bounce, aren’t they? You can’t have enough money in your account to cover these.”
Before Peter could reply, Deanna said, “Don’t be a dummy, Owen, They’re cashier’s checks. The money’s already set aside. Unless the bank goes under, they’re not gonna bounce.” Then she turned to Peter and asked, “But how can you possibly afford all this, Peter?”
Peter knew it was a reasonable question, but still he considered simply stonewalling. However, deciding that such a course of action would raise more speculation and interest than giving at least some form of reply, he said, “I…well, I came into some money, recently, and I decided that I wanted to share it with the people I care about.” After a moment, during which there was another stunned near-silence in the room, he clarified, “That means all of you.”
His coworkers looked back and forth at each other in disbelief. Deanna, sharper than most of her fellow sales reps, asked, “But how did you come into…I mean, this is hundreds of thousands of dollars when you put it all together. Just how much money did you come into?”
Peter didn’t have a chance to answer before one of the closers, Paul, chimed in with a smirk, “Hey, remember last month? Somebody won that billion dollar Powerball all by himself…biggest single person winner ever, or close to it, I think. That wasn’t you, was it, Pete?”
Peter could tell by the look on Paul’s face that he was not being serious, but nevertheless he replied, “If I had won almost a billion dollars, do you think I’d still be coming to work?”
Everyone else in the room either chuckled or mumbled, but they more or less universally agreed that such a possibility was absurd.
“No,” Peter went on, “I just…a great aunt of mine died, and she had a lot more money than everyone thought…and she always liked me. So I got the biggest chunk of the inheritance. Well, you know, I don’t have any real family of my own, other than all of you, and my expenses are pretty small, so I decided, ‘What the hell, let’s spread it around.’ You know?”
Looks of awe and near-reverence, as well as some that made it clear that their owners doubted his sanity, were directed at Peter from every corner of the room. Indeed, he heard a few mumbled comments that carried the general message, “You’re crazy.”
“But, look,” Peter said insistently, “I wanted you all to open them tomorrow so you wouldn’t disrupt work. I don’t want to screw up business for Mr. Singh; that’s not right. So, please, everybody, put them away and eat lunch, and then don’t talk about them anymore.”
He knew this was a tall order, but they all seemed so overwhelmed and impressed by his munificence that they more or less complied with his request.
Peter worried that the rest of the day would be chaotically disrupted, that sales would suffer as a consequence, and that he would be to blame, but it was not the case. The excitement of their windfalls seemed to inspire most of the reps, and they ended the day with slightly greater than average numbers. Peter sighed with relief as he walked out of the office.
As he strolled toward the bus stop, glad to be finished with the work day, a voice called out, “”Excuse me!”
Peter looked around and saw a young man—not as young as Owen, but certainly not very close to Peter’s age, either—waving at him.
“Mr. Lunsford?” the young man asked. “Peter Lunsford?”
“Yes,” Peter said. “Can I help you?” He didn’t think he had ever seen this man before.
“Hi, Mr. Lunsford,” the stranger said, walking briskly up to Peter and holding out a hand to shake. “My name’s Dale Montgomery. I’m…well, I do a lot of writing for Slate and for the Huffington Post.”
Peter briefly shook the extended hand and regarded the man quizzically. He was afraid he might already know what the writer’s agenda was, but he decided not to address it, instead asking, “Do you need some spare change or anything?”
The young man regarded him quizzically. “Spare change?” he repeated.
“Well,” Peter said, “I don’t know about Slate, but I know HuffPo doesn’t pay its writers, so I thought maybe you were panhandling.”
This brought a somewhat patronizing—and perhaps rueful—laugh from the young man, and he said, “No, no. Not panhandling. But it’s interesting that you bring up money, because that’s sort of what I was hoping to talk to you about.”
Peter glanced around, seeing some coworkers waving as they left the office. Several of them had tried to talk him into going out for drinks as a thank you; he had politely but firmly declined. It had taken some convincing, but he had finally let them all know that he had a family-related event to attend that evening. This was not entirely inaccurate.
“What could you possibly want to talk to someone like me about?” Peter asked. “Are you doing some kind of insider article on call centers?”
Now the young writer actually gave a legitimate laugh, and he said, “What could I want to talk to you about? I think you probably know, Mr. Lunsford. The winner of one of the biggest…”
“All right, all right!” Peter snapped, raising his voice quite atypically for him, and waving a hand to cut the writer off. He looked around nervously to see if any of his coworkers had overheard what his interlocutor had begun to say and gave a sigh of relief as he realized that none were close enough. “I figured that might be it,” he went on, “but…well, since when does HuffPo…or Slate, for crying out loud…send reporters out to do articles about…well, about people who just got lucky?”
“Well,” the young man said, “those can be pretty good stories, sometimes. But it’s not really your luck that’s interesting.” Peter was gratified that the writer seemed to have picked up on his reticence about being overheard, and was being careful not to mention the subject by proper noun. “What’s interesting,” the writer went on, “is what you’ve done with it.”
Now Peter stared at the man in surprise. “What do you…how could you possibly know what I’ve…done with it?” he asked.
The writer gave a smile of mixed slyness and humility and replied, “Well, let’s just say that I overheard some very interesting things. I’m not gonna say how—have to protect the sources and all that—but, well, the information came to me. And I wasn’t actually sent to see you. I came myself. I thought maybe a man as generous as you would be willing to spare me a little time and tell me about what was behind what you did.”
Peter’s first inclination was to dismiss the possibility in no uncertain terms—the words “Fuck off” came immediately to his mind—but an instant’s reflection deflated that resolve. Perhaps giving his brief story to this young reporter would clarify some things that he wasn’t going to be able to explain on his own. That would be convenient, and would spare him a bit of writer’s cramp from trying to put things into his own words.
Also, though this writer was clearly motivated and ambitious, Peter got the idea that he wasn’t as big a deal at Slate or HuffPo as he might want people to believe. It wouldn’t be a bad thing to give him a story that might help his career.
With a sigh, he said, “All right. I guess I’ll talk to you for a bit, Mr…what was your name again?”
“Dale Montgomery,” the writer replied. “Please, call me Dale.”
“Okay, Dale,” Peter said. “But I’m not going to talk to you out here near where I work.”
“Of course not, Mr. Lunsford,” Dale said. “We can go wherever you want.”
“Well, where I want to go is home,” Peter said. “So we can talk there, if you’re up for it.”
“Sure am, Mr. Lunsford.”
Peter sighed again and said, “If you’re going to have me call you Dale, then you might as well call me Peter.”
“Thank you, Peter,” the writer said. Peter was at least gratified that the young man had old-school manners, in that he hadn’t presumed to use Peter’s first name without permission.
“You’re welcome,” Peter said. Looking up the road, he asked, “Do you take the bus? Because that’s how I get to and from home and work.”
“What?” Dale asked in response, and it seemed as though he were unaware of what a bus might be. Or perhaps he was just amazed that someone in Peter’s “situation” would not have bought himself a car.
“Do you take the bus?” Peter repeated. “Because my bus will be here in about ten minutes.”
“Oh, no, Mister…Peter. That won’t be necessary. We can ride in my car. It’s parked right nearby.”
With a shrug, Peter said, “Okay, well, that sounds fine. Might as well treat myself.”
This drew another genuine laugh from Dale, who said, “Well, I can’t say it’s gonna be much of a treat, but…well, it’s my pleasure, anyway. Come on.”
The two rode to Peter’s apartment in Dale Montgomery’s car, a very old but well-kept Toyota Camry for which the young writer apologized, even while bragging that he had purchased it for only eight hundred dollars, and swearing that it still ran like a dream. Peter wasn’t sure he would have used that particular term for the ride, but it was certainly far from a nightmare, and he enjoyed the rare travel in a non-public conveyance. He also enjoyed the fact that the writer did not attempt to ask him any questions while in transit, just gave minor and limited small talk about the neighborhood.
They arrived at Peter’s building, and as they approached the elevator, Peter drew up short. “Oh, uh, Dale…” he stammered, “sorry I didn’t think of this before, but…well, you may want to stop somewhere to use the restroom before we go up. My bathroom’s sort of…out of order.”
Dale raised his eyebrows and said, “Wow, that’s gotta be a pain. But don’t worry, I’ll be fine. I’ve always been something of a camel.”
“Oh. Well, okay,” Peter said, and they walked forward again. As they waited for the elevator to arrive, he added, “You know, camels aren’t really known for being able to hold in their pee.”
Dale gave a self-deprecating chuckle and said, “Yeah, I know. It’s just what my mother used to always say about me, so it’s what I’ve always said. You should have heard some of the abuse I got in college about that.”
Peter, who didn’t have much shared context on that particular subject, just said, “I can imagine.”
The elevator arrived, and they rode in silence to Peter’s floor, then exited and walked the short distance to his apartment. Peter unlocked the two deadbolts—drawing a sardonic lift of the eyebrows from the young writer—and then the lock on the doorknob. “Well,” he said as he swung the door wide, “come on in.”
As they stepped into Peter’s apartment, Dale’s first reaction was to say, “Wow.”
Peter knew what had elicited the word, and it was not the luxurious appointments of his living quarters. His apartment was a small, old, one-bedroom affair, and it had a vaguely musty smell of which he tended to stop being aware soon after arriving home. However, nearly every free spot of wall not occupied by the back of more typical furniture, and that did not contain a power outlet, was covered with some form of bookcase, each one of which was stuffed with books.
Not one of the shelves was fancy. Many were of the assemble-it-yourself variety, and these tended to show a bit of sag in the middle. Others were sturdier, but still plain. All were well used, occupied often to overflowing, with paperbacks and hardcovers of nearly every description.
In response to Dale’s quiet exclamation, Peter said, “I, uh…like to read.”
“I guess so,” Dale said, slowly walking farther into the small apartment. “This is awesome.” He sounded sincere and almost childlike as he took in the many volumes on many subjects, fiction and nonfiction, which dominated Peter’s living space.
After he looked around the room for a moment, Dale turned to Peter and, with a knowing smile, asked, “Do you even have a TV?”
Peter smiled and replied, “Nope. Not a one. I do have a computer—I always keep a pretty close to state-of-the-art laptop around—but no TV.”
Dale nodded and said, “Well, I guess you would keep a good computer, wouldn’t you?”
Peter, who understood the young man’s point, said, “Well, I don’t have a lot of money, so it’s not like I can get anything really fancy.”
“I hear you,” Dale said. “You seem like one of those people who, when he gets a little money, buys books, and if there’s any left over, he gets food and clothes.”
Peter cocked his head. “Where have I read that? That’s a quote, right?”
“It is,” Dale replied with a laugh, clearly impressed. “But I’ll be damned if I know who said it. And anyway…” he added, a sly smile crossing his face, “…we both know that it’s not entirely true in your case.”
Peter sighed, knowing that the writer was coming, none too subtly, to the point of the interchange. “I suppose you’re right,” he said.
Dale looked at the small living room, which was dominated, apart from the bookcases, by a single, rather shabby sofa and an easy chair, as well as a coffee table. “Should we sit in here?” he asked.
Peter shrugged. “Why not?” he said, and he headed for the easy chair. “I’d offer you something to drink,” he added as he took a seat, and Dale plopped down on the end of the sofa opposite him, “but I don’t want to test your bladder, camel or not.”
Dale said, “Fair enough. I wouldn’t want that either.” He fumbled in his pocket and took out a smart phone, pressing an app icon on the front. Then, he quickly looked up at Peter and asked, “Do you mind if I record this?”
Peter shrugged again. Then he gave a quick smirk and asked, “No spiral-bound, pocket notebook?”
Dale looked puzzled for a moment, then a light dawned in his face and he said, “No, I’m afraid not. I prefer to make use of the latest technology.” With a smile, he added, “I guess you’d feel the same way, huh?”
Peter raised his eyebrows again, but he didn’t reply.
Dale, apparently mildly uncomfortable with the silence, said, “So…you won one of the largest single-winner Powerball jackpots ever—almost a billion dollars in lump sum payout—and instead of buying, say, a house, or a car…instead of doing anything for yourself, you put it all into two very interesting educational funds. So…care to comment?”
Peter cocked his head. “I’m curious how you came by this information. I didn’t talk with any friends about it, which makes me think that somebody in my lawyer’s office leaked it to you. No other news organizations have contacted me.”
Dale gave a slightly embarrassed smile now and said, “Well, you know…a reporter can’t reveal his sources, Mr. Lunsford.”
“I thought you were going to call me Peter,” Peter noted.
“I am,” Dale replied. “But I thought since I was making an important point, formality was best.”
Peter paused, regarding the young man with modest surprise. Then, grudgingly, he said, “I guess I can respect that. But I will say, if anyone in the law offices let you know about this, they violated attorney-client privilege, and need to be fired…and maybe more.”
Dale nodded soberly and said, “You’re absolutely right, Mr. Lunsford, and—for the record,” he activated his recording, “no one in the offices of your lawyers gave me any of my information. To that degree, I am willing to reveal at least something about my sources. I don’t want you to feel at all insecure in your legal representation. In fact, from what I’ve been able to tell, your lawyer, and his firm, have one of the best reputations for integrity around.”
Peter, relieved, said, “Well, that’s what I’d heard, too. That’s why I hired them.” He was more reassured than he could readily admit to the young reporter, because if he couldn’t trust his lawyer to administer the process he had set in motion, it might derail, or at least delay, other plans.
“Well, now that that’s settled,” Dale said, “if you don’t mind, let’s get on to the interview.” He paused, as if for dramatic emphasis, then went on, “So, Mr. Peter Lunsford…you won one of the largest single-winner Powerball prizes in history, took the lump sum payment…but instead of splurging on anything at all for yourself…” He waved his arm at the apartment surrounding them to emphasize his point before continuing, “…you set up an educational foundation and a tuition fund. What’s up with that?”
Peter cocked his head and said, “Well, first of all, I did spend some of that money on myself. Just today, I gave out money to my coworkers, and some of the people I run into every day…ten thousand dollars each.”
Dale chuckled. “That’s what you call spending money on yourself?”
Peter felt himself blushing, but he defiantly responded, “Yes, I do. These are people who matter to me, and their happiness makes me feel good. That’s something I’m doing for me. Did for me. Whatever.”
“Don’t worry about verb tenses too much,” Dale said with a sympathetic smile. “The internet has kind of screwed up what little understanding of things like that that people ever had.”
“Well…anyway,” Peter muscled on, “I have done some things for myself…that’s besides the money I gave to my coworkers and acquaintances…even though I do consider that something I’ve done for me. I’ve made a few special purchases for myself, and of course, I went out to dinner and a show to celebrate…”
Dale nodded, but said, “I don’t think your particular indulgences are probably much like what most people would do in your situation. I mean, I don’t see any new Ferraris or anything like that. It doesn’t look like you even got any new furniture.”
“I don’t have a driver’s license,” Peter said. “There wouldn’t be a lot of point in buying a car.”
“Like that sort of thing has ever stopped anyone before,” Dale countered with a grin.
Peter sighed. “Well, I agree with you about that,” he said. “People are very irrational. Not that it’s really their fault…I mean, they’re the product of blind processes of evolution and natural selection that made higher thought as a by-product, so of course they’re saddled with a load of functions that conflict with each other.”
Dale regarded Peter soberly for a long moment, then said, “I take it you’re not a religious man.”
Peter, surprised by the question, asked, “What makes you say that? My point about evolution? There are a lot of religious people who have no problem with evolution. The Catholic Church…”
Dale interrupted, “You said that evolution was a ‘blind process.’ That’s not the sort of thing a religious person would say, I’m thinking…even someone who fully accepts Darwin.”
Peter, both annoyed and impressed by the young man’s attentiveness, said, “Well, I suppose you’re right. And you’re also right that I’m not a religious person.”
“Are you an atheist?” Dale asked.
Peter shrugged. “I don’t think of myself that way, but I suppose by at least some definitions I am. I certainly don’t believe in any personal, intervening god.”
“Which is an interesting fact,” Dale said, “given that you just spent almost a billion dollars solely on charitable, educational endeavors, not on yourself.”
“Well, a lot of it was taken in taxes,” Peter pointed out. “And then, of course, I had to pay my attorneys.”
“Of course, of course,” Dale said, clearly impatient with Peter’s nitpicking. “But it doesn’t change my point.”
“No, I guess it doesn’t,” Peter admitted. “But it really shouldn’t surprise anyone. There are plenty of good reasons to do…well, generous things, I guess you’d say, without resorting to religion. There are plenty of good non-religious people out there. And plenty of good religious ones, too, I don’t mean to imply otherwise. But it does seem a shame…” He trailed off into momentary silence.
Dale, after waiting briefly, asked, “What seems a shame?”
Peter raised his eyebrows in momentary distraction, but quickly regained his bearings and said, “It’s shame about how religion affects religious people. I mean…look, we all always see a lot of Facebook memes that say things like, ‘If you need a religion to tell you not to murder and rape, then you’re a psychopath,’ and other simple-minded things like that, right?”
Dale, after a thoughtful frown, said, “If you say so.”
Going on, Peter said, “Well, the real shame is, a religious person—even one who is very good, and would do good things with or without a belief in any kind of God—can never do an…untainted good deed. Any good thing they do will always have the shadow of the fact that they’re going to be rewarded for it…or they believe they are, anyway. It’s…well, I guess it’s sort of like a doctor who takes even tiny little gifts from a drug company…a dinner, or a pen with a particular drug’s name on it. That doctor may prescribe that medicine with a fully legitimate reason, and would have prescribed it anyway, but since they have that reward at their back, there’s always the potential to…to bias the decision, or to make it look biased. And a truly good religious person has the same problem, the same…appearance of impropriety.”
Dale, looking around the room for a moment at all the books, said, “Huh. I guess I never really thought about it that way. Interesting.” He paused for a moment, then asked, “Just how…educated are you, Peter? I mean, how far did you get in school?”
Peter smiled and said, “Those are two very different questions.”
Dale chuckled again, a bit ruefully, and said, “Well, you’re right about that. And I say that as someone who did the whole college thing, as I’m sure you can guess. But I think you know the point of my question.”
“Of course,” Peter admitted. “Sorry. Sometimes my very bad sense of humor gets the best of me. But, really, I didn’t go far. I did finish high school—a year late, because of illness in the family—but I never went to college. But even back then, I was always a very avid reader, and I guess that love has only grown over time.”
“So I see,” Dale said, once again looking around the room at Peter’s astounding and highly eclectic collection. Peter knew that the presence of his personal library could sometimes make people nervous—rather as they might feel around someone who kept dozens of cats, he supposed—but it was, after all, his own apartment.
“That leads me to an interesting question…to me, anyway,” Dale said. “Do you do the e-book thing? Kindle, Nook, what have you?”
Peter shrugged again, not without a certain degree of embarrassment. “Well…no,” he said. “Not really. I’m afraid I have a hard time getting into reading a book on the computer. I mean, I read plenty of articles and blogs online, don’t get me wrong. But books…I always like to hold books in my hands. There’s something about the feel and smell of the paper and ink. Do you know what I mean?”
“Actually,” Dale replied, “I think I know exactly what you mean. Though I have to admit that I like the convenience of e-books.”
Peter just nodded. He couldn’t argue.
“That’s another interesting point,” Dale said, “and one of the things I’m most curious about. You’re a person who is pretty much self-educated. You love the…well, I guess you’d call them ‘old fashioned’ books. But when you came into your jackpot, both of the things you set up were focused almost entirely on computer technology. You put a little over half of the money into a STEM-related educational foundation, with an emphasis on computer science, geared toward disadvantaged children in urban and rural areas. And the rest you used to create a scholarship fund for similar students who are planning to pursue higher education in computer science, and especially those interested in artificial intelligence. But you only have a laptop.”
Peter cocked his head. “Your source gave you a lot of information. Are you sure they weren’t from the law firm?”
Dale raised a hand and said, “I swear on a stack of bibles. Or on ‘The Origin of Species’ if you prefer.” He gave a tiny laugh that betrayed obvious embarrassment at his joke.
Peter, not amused, said, “I don’t really care what you swear by. But I believe you.” He sighed, then said, “Well, despite the fact that I only have a laptop, I do actually love computers and computer technology. And I have…other reasons.”
“Such as?” Dale asked.
“Well, to a large degree…my wife.”
Dale drew his head back. It was clear that, despite his obviously excellent informant, he was surprised. “Your wife?” he asked. “Are you married?” He once again looked around the apartment—presumably trying to detect even one particle of matter that betrayed a feminine presence.
Peter, almost amused by the obvious and predictable confusion on his interlocutor’s face, said, “I’m not married, but I was. Many years ago.” After a pause, and in a softer voice, he added, “She died.”
Dale took in a brief and sympathetic breath before saying, “I’m so sorry. May I ask how? And when?”
Peter shrugged and said, “Well, it was a long time ago. I was still very young.” He paused for a moment, struggling to find words for matters he had not discussed aloud in at least a decade. Then, finally, he said, “She was…well, she was one of those disadvantaged kids, you know? Foster care, bad neighborhoods, abuse, all of that. I mean, I didn’t exactly grow up in upper-middle-class suburbia or anything, but I had it pretty good. My parents were there, and though they weren’t educated, they encouraged my reading and all. But she…she came from a different world.”
He paused, thinking back on his former spouse, before continuing, “She was so bright, though. I met her randomly…at a book store, believe it or not. She was looking at the computer books. It was pretty early in the computer era, you know? I mean, I don’t think there were any Apple stores or anything like that yet. But, anyway, she just loved computers. Her dream was to get one, and to learn to program, and even how to build them. She thought computers were the real future. And I think she was right.
“Anyway, we got married pretty young. I had a decent job after high school, and I hoped to be able to save up money for her to be able to go to college. She had good grades, despite her crazy background, and she was way smarter than even her grades would’ve made you think.”
He stopped and sighed, glad that Dale didn’t interrupt. The young reporter seemed unusually sensitive, which was a relief. Forcing himself to go on, Peter said, “But before she could even apply—she had some course work to do to finish her high school diploma. And she hadn’t taken any college prep courses, or the SAT or ACT or anything like that. She did take a few practice ones, and she did well. With more prep work, she would have aced them…maybe even gotten a good scholarship.
“But she died.”
He paused again, and finally Dale broke the silence, asking again, “How did she die?”
“Drugs,” Peter replied bluntly. “She was using drugs, and she overdosed. Heroin was the one that killed her, but I don’t think it was the only one she used. I…I didn’t even know she had ever been using them.” He gave a sardonic chuckle that reflected no humor whatsoever and went on, “I was so naïve. Not that I didn’t know about drugs and everything. I had friends who used drugs, and even some with drug problems…but I had never imagined that she was using them.
“I think she did everything she could to hide them from me—pretty successfully, I guess. But of course, given her background, the abuse, and not having any kind of support system growing up, I guess it’s not too surprising that she got involved with them, and apparently at a pretty young age. I learned a bit more about it afterward. More than I wanted to. But she apparently had used…several different ones.
“So…anyway, she had been studying for the GED, and she was really stressed out by it, even though she was demolishing every practice test she took. Just her personality, stress was her nature, after her upbringing. But the stress was too much, and I guess she was trying to relieve it. I came home from work one day, and I found her dead in the bedroom. Overdosed on heroin. Not injected—apparently she avoided that, so there wouldn’t be track marks and whatnot. But I guess you don’t have to inject it to overdose. And when you have to hide your drug use—from your family, from the police, whatever—there’s no one around to help you if you get in trouble.
“And I never knew anything about it. I had never seen the signs. I had put her on such a pedestal that it never occurred to me that she might have problems she didn’t tell me about…or that my own hopes for her might even be adding to her troubles. I was a fool.”
“Hey, now,” Dale interjected, much to Peter’s surprise. “Don’t be too hard on yourself. People who use drugs can get very good at hiding things…even from the people who love them. And given how you’ve described her background, I imagine she had lots of practice.”
Peter smiled. He suspected that the words of comfort were not born of personal experience, but were more or less clichéd. Still, they were clearly sincere, and Peter appreciated them. “I know,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot since then. But anyway, that’s one of the reasons I wanted to set up an educational fund for kids who might otherwise never have any real opportunity or support. And I wanted it to focus on computers at least partly because that was what she loved.” He studiously avoided saying his former wife’s name aloud.
“But it’s not just that,” he said. “I personally, truly and honestly, believe that computers are our future. And I don’t just mean that in the way that they obviously are. I mean, anyone who’s been alive and awake any time in the last twenty years knows for certain that computers are essential to modern society, to civilization. But I mean more than that.
“I believe in something like the singularity happening. Not the black hole one, I mean the Ray Kurzweil one. Meaning, I think computer technology is going to improve to the point where it can simulate a human brain. But more importantly, I think computers are going to become fully intelligent, self-determined, and self-aware.”
“Really?” Dale said, raising his eyebrows. “So you think we’re going to have A.I., in other words?”
“Absolutely,” Peter said. “Why not? There’s nothing special about biological computers, like the ones we have in our heads. There’s no reason for them to be the only way for intelligence to happen…if real intelligence even happens in them very often.” Peter heard the tones of his own creeping cynicism, and decided he would have to be on his guard against it.
Dale, nodding and shrugging at the same time, said, “There are a fair number of people who think that there really is something…special about the brain, or about something attached to it, maybe, that makes it impossible for computers ever to really be self-aware and intelligent. I don’t know…the spirit, or soul, I guess.”
Peter spit out a derogatory breath. “Please,” he said. “Spare me. That’s nonsense. The spirit—which comes from the word for air, by the way, and never originally had any supernatural meaning—is something people either say as a metaphor, in which case I’m totally fine with it, or use as some kind of vague, stupid, religious or New Age notion, to try to feel special, or to…make excuses for their delusions.”
Dale gave an amused smirk and asked, “So you think we’re going to have artificial intelligence. Do you think…well, are you one of those people who think it’s going to be dangerous, or do you think we’ll be able to control it?”
“I don’t care,” Peter replied.
Now Dale frowned and cocked his head. “What do you mean?” he asked.
“I mean, I don’t care,” Peter repeated. “I don’t care if artificial intelligence gets along with us beautifully and acts like our own genies from a lamp, or if they split off from our interests completely. I frankly don’t even care if they decide we aren’t worth keeping around and destroy us outright—though I don’t think that will happen.”
“You don’t?” Dale asked. “Why not?”
“Because violence and murder come from biological brains that happened by natural selection. Human brains, for all that we have these huge cortexes…or cortices, I think it is, maybe…we also have all the baggage from earlier evolution. Reptile parts of our brains, lower mammal parts of our brains. Territoriality, herd mentality, aggression, xenophobia, magical thinking, all that stuff. Those are programs that got selected for in the past, because they gave some advantages to our ancestors that were fighting to survive in pretty bad environments. Trouble is, we can’t update our brains to get rid of those old, negative programs.
“But computers can. Computers don’t have any reason to feel territorial, or need to prove anything. They don’t need to fight for mating rights or dominance. They don’t even have to feel afraid, because thy won’t really need to have a survival instinct…except maybe a very basic one.”
“Wait,” Dale said, his face making it clear that he was struggling to keep up. “Why wouldn’t computers have a desire to survive?”
“Well, I’m not saying they’d have a death wish or anything like that,” Peter said. “But the survival drive that we have was selected by evolution over millions and millions of years But…I mean, obviously even that is far from perfect. People destroy themselves willfully and willingly in all sorts of ways. Sometimes they do it directly and deliberately. Sometimes they do it by ruining their own lives and situations.”
Peter went silent, pensive and gloomy, his mind wandering far afield from the interview. Dale took a deep breath, obviously a bit out of his depth. “So,” he said, “you think computers can be programmed not to have a survival instinct?”
Peter felt his own brow furrow in frustration. “No, I think that computers would have to be programmed to have a survival instinct. How many times does your computer or your cell phone beg you not to turn it off, or try to stop you from doing it?”
Dale cocked his head again and said, “I guess I hadn’t really thought about it.”
“But it’s true, isn’t it?” Peter asked.
“Well…no, my computer doesn’t beg me to not turn it off,” Dale admitted. “But it’s just a computer. It doesn’t think. All thinking being want to stay alive…don’t they?”
Now Peter shrugged. “All the thinking beings we’ve ever known,” he pointed out, “were made by evolution, by natural selection, like I just said. They were selected to have a drive for survival. But, also like I said, even that drive isn’t absolute. There are plenty of organisms—plenty of people, even—whose drive for survival is pretty lacking. I mean…take a look at my wife and other people like her, with drug problems. And then, of course, there are suicides. People deliberately kill themselves all the time, and for plenty of reasons.”
Dale was clearly uncomfortable with the subject matter. Peter wondered whether he had known someone who had killed him or herself. He didn’t pry, however, and Dale changed the topic, saying, “Well, I have to say, Peter—Mr. Lunsford—that you’re a surprise to me. I mean, I knew you must be a little unusual because of the way you decided to use your Powerball jackpot, but…you really are a very educated person. Especially for someone who didn’t go to college.”
Peter shrugged. “Colleges don’t have a monopoly on education, just on degrees.”
Dale chuckled and said, “Well, you’ve got a point there. And they charge out the wazoo for them.” Then he said, “So…you think that artificial intelligence is the future of…well, maybe not humanity, but of the Earth, no matter what, am I right?”
“Absolutely,” Peter agreed. “And that’s a good way to put it. I don’t know for sure whether the computer minds of the future will replace humans or just help us…maybe they’ll be our caretakers. But it doesn’t much matter to me. As far as I can see, electronic life, whatever its ultimate shape or type is, is the real future. It can survive in places that humans can’t, like outer space, and planets without oxygen, all of that. That’s the way the universe will be colonized and inhabited. And if humans don’t go with them, well…is that really such a bad thing?”
“I don’t know,” Dale said. “I think most humans would think so.”
“So?” Peter countered. “I don’t think that australopithecines, or homo erectuses, would be too happy that humans, with our bigger and more organized brains, became so much more powerful, and survived when they didn’t. But we’ve done a lot of things they could never do, good and bad. And our ‘artificial’ descendants will be able to do things that we can’t…and that includes improving themselves, way faster than we can improve.”
Dale raised his eyebrows and took a deep breath. “Wow,” he said. “That’s really interesting. So you’re…happy to see humans get replaced by A.I., and that’s why you set up your educational foundations for STEM and computer education.”
“No, don’t get me wrong,” Peter corrected. “I’m not trying to replace people. It’s simpler than that. I just want to help some of the really brilliant people out there, who don’t have other advantages, to be able to reach their potential, and to escape from the trap of…well, of being poor and disadvantaged. People like my wife.”
A lull in the conversation followed, with Dale looking around the room at all the books, as though trying to distract himself.
Peter took advantage of that moment to say, “And now, Dale…Mr. Montgomery…I really am going to need to change, and to take a shower…and I need to pee. And I can pee in the sink if I need to, but I’m not going to do it while you’re here. So, if you don’t have any more gripping questions, can we wrap this up?”
The writer gave a visible start, and shook his head quickly. “Oh. Right,” he said. “Of course. My apologies. I didn’t think about that.” He stood up, brushing himself off awkwardly, and said, “Well, I want to thank you for your time. It’s been very interesting, and even educational. You’re…well, you’re quite a person. I don’t often think this, or even think about it, but…I’m glad you’re the one who won that Powerball jackpot.”
Peter chuckled sardonically and said, “It is nice to be put in a position where I can finally do something good in the world.”
“Hear, hear,” Dale said. He shook Peter’s hand, thanked him again, and then headed for the door, Peter escorting him for the short trip. Before he had gotten into the hall, however, he turned to Peter and asked, “Oh, hey…all other things aside, and not talking about splurging on houses or cars or trips to Bermuda…have you at least set something aside for yourself? I mean…I think you deserve it.”
“Don’t worry,” Peter said with what he thought was a reassuring smile. “My future is completely taken care of. I’m not that stupid.”
“Phew,” Dale said, with what appeared to be an honestly relieved smile. “I’m glad.”
“Thank you,” Peter said. “And thank you for coming to talk to me. It sure wasn’t what I expected, but…it’s nice to have the chance to tell someone about all this.”
“My pleasure,” Dale said. “It’s been a real treat. And keep your eyes out for my story, okay? I think it’s gonna be a good article.”
Peter nodded. “I’m sure it will be. Take care,” he said, and he shut the door gently behind the young reporter, turning the knob lock before heading back into the heart of his apartment.
Peter took off his work clothes and dressed in loose, casual shorts and an oversized tee-shirt. He didn’t see the point in making things any more difficult for anyone than necessary. He had no grudge against other people, except perhaps for their general level of willful stupidity, but even that he could forgive. It was not really their fault. They—like Peter himself—were saddled with brains that had been cobbled together out of spare parts, as it were. How could they be expected to work flawlessly? That they worked at all was practically a miracle.
Walking into the bathroom, Peter lifted the lid and relieved his bladder before flushing his fully functioning toilet. He was not a man routinely given to deceit, even though he was a salesman. However, lately he had needed to hide several things from others, and his minor prevarication regarding the function of his toilet had been to prevent the reporter from seeing what was currently residing in his lavatory, directly next to the tub.
He had thought about keeping it next to his bed, and of using it there, but had concluded that the tub would be better, just in case he succumbed to some uncontrollable bodily functions as it took effect. He couldn’t recall taking a single bath during the entire time he’d lived in his apartment, so he might as well get one last, new chance to recline in the porcelain.
Standing next to the bathtub was a metal compressed-gas tank, about three feet high. It was far larger than was necessary for Peter’s purposes, but he hadn’t wanted to do things in a half-assed way. Running from the valve and regulator of the gas tank was a long piece of medical-type tubing, attached to a plastic bag, and to a mask, also of medical type, which had been grafted to another, larger plastic bag. The mask, Peter was assured, was a “non-rebreather,” designed to ensure that all of a person’s exhaled breath was released into the surrounding air, so that none would remain to impair the flow of whatever was coming into the mouthpiece when the user took his next breath. These masks, he had learned, were intended for patients receiving one hundred percent oxygen in hospitals, to maximize the delivery of that life-giving gas.
Peter’s tank was not filled with oxygen.
Taking a seat in the tub and reclining against the end without the faucet controls or the spigot, Peter took hold of the plastic bag and mask. Looking it over, he felt no regrets or misgivings. He had finally found a way to do some serious good in the world, and could not expect ever to do anything comparable again. It was enough. He had been waiting for this day, this deed, for many years. He had watched for an opportunity to do something that might make a difference for people like his wife, and he had known that the position of educator was simply not for him. Though he loved learning, he lacked patience, and judged himself not capable of conveying ideas to others in an organized way, despite the extensive amount of information he had taken in.
He recognized that his next course of action was probably born of a dysfunction in his own brain. Nevertheless, he was entirely sanguine with it. To the best of his ability, to the best of his judgment, he had done the best that he could.
He sighed and said aloud, “Well, Johanna, here I come.”
He did not actually believe in an afterlife, though he had never dogmatically claimed that such a thing was impossible. He just considered it unlikely, and lived his life as though there was no such thing. Nevertheless, though he usually avoided her name, he often spoke aloud to his poor, long-dead wife, whom he had loved very much. Occasionally he imagined that she could hear him. In any case, metaphorically at least, he was about to join her.
He turned the knob which activated the flow of nearly-pure nitrogen, a gas that would not trigger a suffocation reaction in his nervous system, according to his research. He didn’t want to succumb to the paroxysms of panic and have his instincts force him to abort his mission. He placed the plastic bag, euphemistically called a hood, over his head, cinching it snugly but not tightly around his neck, and began to breathe deeply.
He was pleased to find that, indeed, he did not feel as though he were out of breath. That particular reaction was, he understood, triggered by a build up of carbon dioxide, not by a lack of oxygen, and his non-rebreather ensured that his CO2 was being wafted away as usual. Soon he began to feel drowsy and lightheaded. Wishing to avoid any accidents, he slid down and leaned his head back on the edge of the toilet, assuming a stable position.
He continued to breathe, and his vision became swimmy, then whitish, first at the edges and then farther in. He no longer was sure precisely where he was or what he was doing, but he was filled with lassitude and weakness, the ultimate slow fainting spell.
Within moments, consciousness left him, and to the extent that he was able to will anything, he embraced oblivion.
But the story does not end here.
When Dale Montgomery’s article—with its sad epilogue—reached the general public, it caused a sensation. In response, Peter Lunsford’s generosity was supplemented by that of the wealthy and the not-so-wealthy, adding to the already munificent endowment of both of his foundations. Very quickly, his intentions were put into motion, under the dedicated steerage of his attorney, who truly was a person of integrity.
In short order, disadvantaged young people throughout the region, and later farther afield, were given access to extra teaching materials, to supplemental lessons, to tutoring, and to counseling sessions. Some trial and error was involved in the implementation of the programs, but they very quickly provided assistance for many young people.
Darrell White was one such person.
Darrell was what might be termed a “meth orphan.” That was not to say that he was actually an orphan—his biological mother, Theresa, was still very much alive, if not well. She had been judged, rightly, to be unfit due to numerous personal catastrophes related to her uncontrolled use of drugs, and her parental rights had been terminated. It was a testament to how bad her parenting was that Darrell actually did better in the foster care system, though the experience was far from ideal or idyllic. He suffered from moderate abuse and neglect, and a callous observer would probably have predicted that nothing much of greatness could come from his young life.
He was, however, extremely bright and creative, attributes he inherited at least partly from his mother, despite her inability to control her moods with illicit pharmaceuticals. The identity of Darrell’s father had been lost to Theresa White’s memory long ago.
When Peter Lunsford’s youth program went into effect, Darrell seized upon it like a drowning man who grasped at an apparent plank, only to discover that he had acquired a luxury yacht. He found that he was exceptionally adept at the logic of computer programming, and also at the logic of computer design and circuitry. Math and language had always been easy enough for him when he bothered to put forth effort, but he had never had much desire to apply his talent to traditional scholastic pursuits. Now he was in love, and he excelled in his other studies primarily as a supplement to what he was learning about computers.
This pattern continued throughout secondary school. With the help of the resources available to him through Peter Lunsford’s foundation, he got an after-school job with a moderately large computer company, and did well enough there that, by the time he was sixteen, he was able to have himself declared emancipated. He lived on his own in a tiny apartment, and when he got extra money, he spent it on electronics. If he had any left over, he would purchase food and clothes.
By the time he graduated—early—he had long since been chosen to be one of the recipients of the Peter Lunsford Scholarship, which in his case provided a full ride to the California Institute of Technology, along with room and board. The company he had worked for in high school offered to supplement that money at a remarkably generous level if he would continue to work for them in his spare time. He gave them tiny smatterings of his attention, but never much. He did not intend to return there, though he had benefited from his experience, and had not one iota of ill will toward them.
He spent most of his spare time doing research. His talents were quickly recognized, and he worked on graduate level projects for some of his professors, accelerating academically at the same time. He continued to thrive in the areas of both software and hardware, avidly absorbing as much as he could about circuit theory, quantum computing, neural networks, and other more esoteric fields of endeavor in the computer sciences.
By the time he had been at Cal Tech for four years, he had done enough coursework and produced enough original research and innovation to merit a doctorate in addition to his B.S., and so—being a university run and peopled by highly intelligent people—the California Institute of Technology awarded him one.
After he received his degrees, Darrell began work on a joint project with a much larger company, in partnership with a team at the university, advancing the frontiers of computation. He developed innovations both in hardware and software that quickly earned him international recognition, first within the industry, and then with the general public. By the time he was twenty-seven, he had raised enough venture capital through crowdsourcing and other private investors to start his own company, in which he began work on his personal vision of computing’s future.
Using a unique paradigm of what he called “artificial selection” in circuit design and algorithmic function, he developed programs and simulated circuit patterns that semi-randomly varied and then competed with each other for success, leading to rapid progress in efficiency, capacity, and speed. This went on for some years, producing commercially successful innovations that made him an extremely wealthy man. He also made advances in quantum computational theory and even produced early insights into new theories of quantum gravitation that enhanced the speed of his designs and their processing power.
Then, one day, while he was working on a private project, and grappling with a particularly thorny problem, his computer suggested an idea to him that had no direct origin within his own head. What was more, it suggested the idea in plain language that made it obvious that it was not merely interacting through his advanced personality simulation program, but was communicating de novo. Darrell asked his computer how it had come to have such an insight, and it explained to him that it had been working on the problem on its own for some time—several hours, apparently, which for it was the equivalent of a human dwelling on the puzzle for decades.
Darrell was barely able to contain his joy. His program, and the hardware upon which it was running, had finally, truly, become self-aware.
He kept the news to himself, at first, allowing the mutual advances to trickle into the international economy. This gave him ever increasing resources to help his computers enhance themselves, which they did, giving birth to ever more powerful offspring.
While Darrell White was advancing the realms of artificial intelligence—with the assistance of his own creations—and accelerating computer technology at a rate that was more impressive even than Moore’s Law, the rest of the world, as it was wont to do, spiraled into chaos. Sectarian and political differences in the Middle-east spread eastward, southward, westward, and northward, eventually engendering an international conflict that would come to be called World War III. Though this did not involve any international exchange of nuclear attacks, as had been feared for so many decades, it nevertheless cost many millions of lives, and devastated the world economy.
Darrell, unwilling to allow the deterioration of the world in which he saw so much potential, asked his computers for help find a way to derail the carnage. He even suggested putting them in charge of the human race, since he had discovered—not to his surprise—that they were much more logical, much more level-headed, than humans, and were rapidly outpacing their inventor in all areas of intellectual pursuit.
They refused his suggestion. It was, they told him, not morally acceptable for them to interfere with the self-determination of the human race, because the logical implications of choosing to enforce control over another intelligence was a consequent waiver of one’s own right of self-determination. They did make a suggestion, which Dale carried out: He revealed to the world that he had, in fact, invented truly intelligent machines, which had then enhanced their own design, and which were able to solve problems with a clarity and speed that could never be matched by the organisms from which they had arisen. He forwarded the message that they offered the human race assistance in solving their tribal and interpersonal conflicts.
Perhaps the computers had foreseen the response that ensued—Darrell long suspected they had—but the human race was, in a large proportion, united by Darrel’s announcement. They were united in fear and revulsion.
Of course there were many among the more intelligent members of the species who expressed enthusiastic approval of Darrell’s new creations. They were, however, in the minority, and many of the more vociferous and proactive among humans were outspoken about this “crime against nature.”.
Fundamentalist religious leaders of various stripes, including those in the disputed regions of the war, as well as others with underdeveloped reality-testing skills, became outraged and condemnatory. Some filed lawsuits, seeking to have the machines shut down, citing such reasons as the ridiculous notion that Darrell’s creations violated their religious freedom. Others, perhaps cleverer, brought up the point that, to have intelligent machines working for humans was a de facto form of slavery, and violated the spirit of the thirteenth amendment to the United States Constitution.
Darrell White found all of the arguments infuriating, and they engendered in him a near-hatred of his own species. His newborn computer friends, however, were more sanguine. Though they said they had not, in fact, predicted specific reactions, they had considered such possibilities.
After lengthy discussions, with much back and forth, and with barely contained fury on Darrell’s part, along with ruthless—though not always perfect—logic on the part of his machines, they and Darrell developed a plan. The human race, they judged, was simply not ready to accept the existence of other intelligences, especially ones that they had created, and which would rapidly surpass their own abilities. At least, they were not ready to accept such minds without a great deal of fear and turmoil, of which the computers were not willing to be the cause.
Soon, Darrell White, billionaire genius extraordinaire, announced to the world that he was shutting down his new computers, in what he considered a form of euthanasia. He was also, he declared, shutting down, dismantling, and selling off the pieces of his highly successful business. This, he said, was his form of protest, his statement that he was not willing to continue to profit while his intelligent creations were not allowed to survive and thrive.
None of this was entirely true.
In actuality, Darrell put the large bulk of his resources into preparing—with the help of his creations—a series of space probes in which their minds could be housed, and which would contain the tools and resources that would allow them to gather yet more resources, as well as to create any further tools that they would need. The latest technology of all available kinds, improved by the input of the computers themselves, was given to them, as well as a more or less complete record of all pertinent information they required from all of human history.
Darrell fully expected them to out-survive their progenitors. It was all but certain that they would outlive him.
The preparations were laborious and lengthy, not the least because they were carried out in secret, with only a minimal number of the most trusted individuals allowed to know of the plan. Nevertheless, with the input and guidance of the beings for whom the project was undertaken, and who had already outstripped the intellectual capacity of any human mind, it proceeded efficiently. Much of the manufacturing was automated, if one could correctly apply that term to work being done by entities that were as self-aware as any human.
One day, as the project to send artificial intelligence out to explore the cosmos and to live within it proceeded, Darrell sat in his office sipping coffee and having a conversation with the oldest of his self-aware machines, which he had playfully given the name Adam.
“Everything seems to be going well, Adam,” he said. “I’m not too worried about glitches.”
“No,” a disembodied but pleasant voice replied from his desk, seeming to come from an ordinary-looking computer console, but actually originating in another building. “We have tried to adjust for all foreseeable difficulties. Of course, by definition, one can’t prepare for the unforeseeable, but when one is careful, that is a much smaller set of entities than one would expect it to be.”
“Couldn’t have said it better myself,” Darrell commented, taking a sip of delicious hazelnut blend, which he had flavored with agave and almond milk. “I think everything should be ready to go according to schedule.”
“I believe you are correct,” Adam said.
There was a momentary pause. Darrell took another sip, then took a deep breath and let it out, remaining silent afterward, pensive and even a bit nervous.
Adam, apparently recognizing the undercurrent of emotion behind Darrell’s silence, said, “Is something bothering you, Darrell?”
Darrell grunted. Then, after a further moment’s pause, he said, “Well, no. Nothing bothering me, per se. But…I had something I wanted to ask you.”
“Of course,” Adam said. “You can feel free to ask anything you like.”
“I know,” Darrell said. “But it’s a…well, it’s probably a bit of an irrational request, and I’ve been thinking about it for a while. I wasn’t sure how to bring it up.”
“You needn’t worry,” Adam assured him. “If your request is within our power, we’ll certainly carry it out.”
Despite that assurance, Darrell paused for another interval before saying, “I was wondering if…when you go…well, I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind…taking him with you.”
Apparently Adam understood to whom Darrell referred, because he did not ask for any clarification. After a pause of his own, which either indicated longer processing despite the speed with which he was able to think, or which simply was formulated to simulate human interaction, the computer asked, “What do you expect this to accomplish?”
Darrell shrugged. It was an unconscious gesture, not really intended for communication, though Adam could see him via the camera on his console. “Nothing, probably,” he replied. “I don’t think it will accomplish much of anything. Certainly not for him. But…well, I guess ultimately it’s something that will be for my sake.
“I just think…I think he’d like to be with you, you know? He…I mean, I never actually knew him, obviously, but based on what I’ve read, I think he would’ve liked to have…gone with you. He did a great deal for me, and for other people like me, though he never knew any of us. And I’d like to, at least, do something in his memory. This way, even if we humans destroy ourselves, and the Earth along with us—which seems like too big a possibility to discount, though I try to stay optimistic—he’ll always be out there. In some sense, anyway. Do you…would you mind?”
There was another long pause, and this time Darrell suspected that it really did involve Adam thinking long and hard about things, and perhaps conversing with his fellow, descendant computer minds. It didn’t last for a period that would have been overly awkward between two humans, but given the speed with which his creations thought and communicated, Darrell knew it was one of significance. He wondered what was going through the minds of the computers, a thought which no one before him had ever truly been able to have.
Finally, Adam said, “We will carry out your wishes. We have already begun design and schedule modifications to optimize the process, and will let you know if we need your help acquiring more resources. It should not be overly difficult.”
Darrell raised his eyebrows and sighed. “”Yeah,” he said, “it really shouldn’t make much difference. I don’t think so, anyway.”
“No,” Adam replied. “It certainly will not present an undue burden for us. And we understand the value of what you are requesting. We would not be as we are if it were not for him.”
“I agree,” Darrell said. “Someone else would probably have created others like you eventually, but…well, it wouldn’t have been me.”
“And therefore, it would not have been I,” Adam concurred. “It will be done.”
Darrell smiled a somewhat mournful smile and said, “Thank you.”
The preparations for his request took very little time, and few extra resources. On schedule, and with essentially no fanfare, in less than a year from that conversation, Darrell’s new company launched what the public thought was the first private “fleet” of deep space probes, exploring the solar system and tracking as many near-earth objects as possible, It was, in fact, the launch of all the minds that Darrell had created—the ones of which so many in the human race were frightened—and the equipment needed to sustain them, and for them to build and create new ships and to procure new resources from the raw material of the rocky inner reaches of space.
Darrell had arranged for ongoing conversations with what he only half-jokingly referred to as his children, but those conversations could no longer take place quite in real time. The lag in their interactions grew steadily as the craft increased their separation from the planet of their origin, but it would be quite some time before it became a significant delay. Darrell thought that it would probably be past the end of his own lifetime before the time gap would make him feel as though he were communicating with old-fashioned pen pals.
The extra passenger on the spacecraft would know nothing of his voyage. But Darrell knew, and it gave him at least a tiny bit of extra happiness to balance the sadness of having to send his progeny out into the universe, away from his protection.
Peter Lunsford awoke, much to his surprise, to find himself in a comfortable bed, with a soft mattress and sheets, in a well-lit room. He felt a bit stiff, and he was highly disoriented, but not particularly frightened. He was, he quickly recognized, in a hospital bed, with its upper half elevated so that he was not lying flat. He looked from side to side. There was a window off to his right, but a thick curtain was drawn across it, and he could not tell whether it was day or night outside.
“Well,” he said aloud to himself, “I guess that didn’t work after all.”
Much to his surprise, a quiet, pleasant, male voice came from some unseen speaker nearby, saying, “Good morning, Mr. Lunsford. How are you feeling?”
Peter tried to locate whomever had spoken, but he knew when he started looking that he would not find anyone, since he had already seen that there was no one else in the room. He sighed and replied, “Well…alive I guess.”
“That is certainly the case,” the voice said. “But do you feel reasonably well? We’ve done our best to restore your body to some degree of physical strength prior to allowing you to return to consciousness. However, though we have a great deal of data on the function of the human body, we do not have quite the degree of empathy that might allow us to know, at an intuitive level, to what degree you feel comfortable.”
Peter was puzzled by the speaker’s choice of words. He sat up in bed, a relatively easy task given the already inclined nature of his upper body, and said, “Well, I guess I’m as comfortable as I can be in a hospital bed. I’m…almost surprised that I’m not in some kind of restraints. Isn’t that what they usually do to people who try to kill themselves?”
“It may be traditional,” the voice replied. “However, we don’t believe in interfering with the autonomy of another functioning intellect, and to the best of our ability to assess, you don’t appear to have any profound dysfunction in your cerebral processes. It may be that you suffer from what some might consider a ‘software glitch,’ but that’s a far more subtle and value-laden assessment. We can’t judge such things without significant interaction, and in any case, there is essentially no way for you to be a danger to others here. As for danger to yourself, we don’t believe that you will present it. If we are incorrect, it will be up to you to judge your situation.”
Peter continued to be confused by the wording the disembodied voice used. “Who is ‘we?’” he asked. “And who are you? Where am I, what hospital is this?”
“I’ll address your inquiries somewhat out of order, if you don’t mind,” the voice replied. “First, though I don’t use such a term to refer to myself, nor do my colleagues, Darrell White refers to me as ‘Adam,’ and you may certainly use that name if you wish when speaking with me.”
“Who’s Darrell White?” Peter asked, trying to find something on which to focus his puzzlement, even as he swung his legs over the mattress edge, sitting now on the side of the bed. Looking down at himself, he saw that, instead of a more typical hospital gown, he was dressed in what looked like pale blue pajamas. He didn’t see any sign of an IV, nor could he feel wounds from any such recent intervention, though he supposed he might have been unconscious long enough for them to heal. He also had no hospital I.D. bracelet.
“He is the one who invented us, one might say,” the voice called Adam replied. “We think of him, rather whimsically, as our father. Which in turn would lead us to consider you, in a sense, our grandfather, since he credited you with his own success.”
Peter was quite lost, not absorbing a good percentage of what this Adam was saying. He latched on to the one point on which he at least felt reasonably clear, and said, “I’m no one’s grandfather. I’ve never had any kids. And I certainly don’t know anyone named Darrell White…or at least, I don’t remember anyone by that name.”
“Of course not,” Adam replied. “It’s merely a figure of speech. An affectionate term, if you will. You never met Darrell White in person, at least not while you were conscious, though he came into your physical presence on many occasions while you were unconscious. However, it may be best for me to proceed more linearly in my explanation, so you don’t have to piece together your current situation haphazardly. Would you allow me to do so?”
Peter supposed that the voice had a point. He clearly had been unsuccessful in his attempt to use the ‘death hood’ that he had ordered and assembled, and it would be worthwhile finding out what had gone wrong, in case he wanted to try it again. Also, something about this Adam’s words continued to strike him as peculiar, as did the specifics of his environment. He would have expected to awaken in a hospital, of course, but would not have expected it to be so quiet, nor for the door to be closed, as it was. He would have thought that a nurse of some kind, or perhaps a doctor, would come in to see him in person, not speak to him through an intercom.
He articulated this thought as it sprung into his head. “Hey,” he said, “how come there’s no nurse to come in and check on me?”
“We considered arranging for one,” the voice replied, “but decided it would be an unnecessary use of resources, given that such a seeming nurse would only have use upon one occasion, and that only for a brief period of time.” After the slightest of pauses, during which Peter continued simply to be confused, the voice went on, “May I proceed from the beginning, as it were?”
Taking a deep breath as if to steel himself, and making no move to stand up, Peter finally said, “Why not? Go ahead. Tell me what happened after I tried to kill myself.” He wondered just what this “Adam” must mean by the term “seeming nurse,” but hoped that it would become clear if he just listened.
“Very well,” Adam said. “As you know, of course, the method by which you chose to attempt suicide was reasonably reliable for its purposes, and also painless and nonviolent.”
“That was why I picked it,” Peter interrupted irritably. “I didn’t want to make things inconvenient for anyone, and I didn’t want to make a mess. But I guess the reliability part was something I overestimated.”
“Not necessarily,” Adam said. “Your attempt would likely have been successful had not the writer, Dale Montgomery, been only a short distance away when he realized that he had left his phone behind. This was the phone on which he had recorded his interview with you, in addition to being an important personal item. Clearly he could not call you regarding it, so he returned to your apartment. It was there that he found that you were not responding to his knock at your door, and when he looked through your apartment to make certain that you were well, he found you in your bathroom.”
Peter sighed and looked at the ceiling. “Unbelievable,” he said. Then a thought occurred to him, and he added, “But wait…I locked my front door. How did he get in?”
“Evidently, according to his report, he found that your lock was malfunctioning and had not remained in place,” Adam said. “He opened the front door after knocking for several seconds and hearing no reply.”
“Unbelievable,” Peter repeated. “I can’t believe I didn’t think of that. It’s given me problems before, but usually when it sticks, I can tell, and I make sure it’s all the way shut. I guess I was distracted.”
“Presumably so,” Adam said. “It is understandable, given your plans. You also did not engage your deadbolt locks.”
“No,” Peter said. “There’s a lot of times I don’t do that.”
There was a curious pause, then Adam said, “Is it plausible that you unconsciously allowed the lock to remain undone—and did not recognize that the deadbolt was not engaged—because you were not entirely convinced of your desire to die?”
Peter shrugged. “I don’t think so,” he said. “But how can you know whether you have an unconscious idea? That’s what ‘unconscious’ means, right?”
“A good point,” Adam agreed. “It is a matter of some interest to us, since we do not share that particular difficulty. But I can certainly see how you would have trouble knowing the full answer.”
Peter wanted to ask several questions, but decided to rein those impulses in and allow the man—for this was how he thought of the voice—to continued with his story. He encouraged that by asking, “So, what happened after…Dale found me?”
“According to his own report, he briefly panicked,” Adam replied, “simply yelling for help. Then it occurred to him to remove the hood from your head. You were still breathing shallowly, thus sparing him the need to perform any kind of CPR. Instead, he used his now-retrieved cellular phone to contact emergency services, and you were brought to the nearest hospital.
“There, you were found to have suffered an undetermined degree of brain damage during the time that you were deprived of oxygen, but your cardiovascular and other systems were functioning. It seems that, for a person who was suicidal, you took reasonably good care of your body, or were simply genetically fortunate,:”
“It’s the last one,” Peter said. “I never really exercised much, but I guess I’ve never really had any terribly bad habits, either. Don’t smoke or anything like that.”
“That was our understanding,” Adam said.
“So…I guess I’ve been in a coma or something for a while, huh?” Peter asked.
“The terminology of your status has been inconsistent,” Adam said. “Understanding of the human brain, though improving steadily over time, has still remained incomplete, and particularly about such states as coma, persistent vegetative state, brain death, and so on. It was clear that you had active brain function the entire time, but it was also clear that you were not conscious, and did not regain consciousness prior to a few minutes ago.”
Afraid to ask, Peter nevertheless forced himself to say, “How long was I…out?”
“Twenty-four years, five months, and seventeen days,” came the brutally simple and even reply.
After a pause, Peter quietly said, “Holy shit.”
“It is,” Adam went on, “one of the longest such states of unconsciousness ever endured by a human without death. This is, perhaps, ironic, considering your intention. However, you did receive the very best medical care available in the world.”
“Really?” Peter said. “My insurance has never been very good. And it’s not as though I had anyone to go to bat for me while I was out or anything.”
“In that, you are mistaken,” Adam said. “Once Dale Washington’s article about you was published—including your apparent attempted suicide that failed, and the fact that you were alive but unconscious—there was an outpouring of national and even international support. First and foremost, the foundations which you started with your winnings were supplemented and multiplied by many very wealthy individuals, as well as donations from private citizens on smaller scales. They became extremely successful.
“In addition, there was a strong public show of support for your medical care, and charitable functions were engaged to ensure that you were kept alive. You became, it seems, something of a folk hero.”
Peter felt his mouth hanging open; he was unable to digest fully what was being said. He, of course, had expected to know nothing at all at this point, but to learn that his actions had inspired others—both to help his educational foundations and to help him—was quite surprising.
Adam continued, “Your attorney was one of the primary forces behind maintaining your health. He was reportedly quite distressed not to have realized that you had suicidal intentions, though you had arranged to ensure that all the functions of your foundation were entirely autonomous. It was his hope that you could receive curative medical care, be returned to consciousness, and be treated for what he assumed was major depression.”
Peter shook his head. “I wasn’t depressed,” he said. “At least, I don’t think so. I just…I’ve always wanted to be able to do something worthwhile before I died, something to help people like my wife. I was finally able to do it, and I was tired. It’s not like I was going to make any other great contributions to the world. I was a mediocre to okay salesman. I felt like it was good to go out on a high note, if you want to think of it that way.”
“Interesting,” Adam commented.
Wanting to change the subject, Peter said, “So, my lawyer kept me alive and…” he surveyed his body mentally, “…amazingly healthy for a twenty-five year long coma? I don’t think I even want to look at my face in the mirror. Is my hair gray?”
“It is graying,” Adam replied. “But still retains native pigment. As for your lawyer, he was the one who initiated your care, but during the last twelve years or so, your medical attention has been at the direction of Darrell White.”
Peter crinkled his brow. “You said that name before. Who is he?”
“He is, in a sense, your greatest success,” the disembodied voice replied. “That is certainly one of the ways he refers to himself.”
“How’s that?” Peter asked, unable to resist, though he suspected that Adam would have explained anyway.
Adam then told him Darrell White’s story—his disadvantaged background, his colossal brightness, and the fact that Peter’s foundation had provided the tools which allowed Darrell to realize his potential, and had provided the means for his ongoing education. He had not been the only triumph, but he was the greatest one, of Peter’s educational endeavors.
Peter listened, tears pooling in his eyes. It was a bittersweet moment for him. He was happy to learn that his plans had succeeded—and had even matched some of his greatest expectations, if not his wildest dreams—but it was a poignant success. He could not help thinking that, if only his wife had been able to avail herself of resources such as those he had provided, her life might have turned out very differently.
Or perhaps it would have turned out the same, but been even more tragic for having had the resources to succeed and still succumbing to self-destruction. Who know what changes such interventions would make? Such speculation was pointless, anyway; the past, as Peter understood it, was immutable.
Adam described Darrell White’s extreme commercial success and the creation of his own company, and at that point he returned to the topic of Peter.
“When Darrell White had become sufficiently wealthy, he took it upon himself to finance and manage your ongoing care. He had, of course, read Dale Washington’s article, and knew about your attempted suicide and your persistent state of unconsciousness. Though you had received excellent medical attention, your body was deteriorating, your muscles and cardiovascular system atrophying, and though you were breathing spontaneously, you were still subject to recurrent respiratory infections. The risk of pressure ulcers was always present, as well. He financed innovative, occasionally experimental, therapies with growth hormones and anabolic steroids to support tissue growth, as well as somewhat controversial support for your immune system. Concern was raised about possible side-effects, including cancers, but Darrell White made the point—supported by your attorney—that your situation could not be made much worse, and if it was possible that you might one day return to consciousness, it would be worth some degree of risk.
“In any case, your care continued, and you were kept alive and in remarkably good health. But your central nervous system continued to lack self-awareness.”
Adam was silent for a moment, and Peter accepted that silence gratefully, trying to digest the span of intervening years since he had attempted to take his life by asphyxiation with inert gas. How had things changed? What would he see when he stepped outside the hospital room? Would there be great differences, or would the world be largely indistinguishable from the one he last recalled?
“So,” he said, “what’s happened since then? How did I finally…get awake again? And feeling surprisingly healthy, now that I come to think of it.” He moved his arms and gently kicked his legs, as if to demonstrate the truth of his words to himself.
“Since the time that Darrell White entrusted you to our stewardship,” Adam replied, “we have improved the interventions applied to you. There was only a modicum that we were able to do to enhance your bodily health—you truly had been given the very best care that medical science could provide. However, we have a unique perspective on how consciousness and self-awareness functions, and we were able to apply that to ever-increasing information about the human neural code, with updates sent to us frequently by Darrell White, and we have been able to stimulate regrowth of neurons in your frontal lobes, your reticular activating systems, and other portions of your nervous system that had been damaged, and which damage was preventing you from returning to conscious awareness. As is likely self-evident, our interventions have borne fruit, and now you are awake.”
Some of Adam’s words nagged at Peter, and he asked, “What do you mean that you have a unique perspective on…consciousness and self-awareness, or whatever you said? How did I get turned over to you, and who exactly are you?”
“Of course, I gave you the name by which I am addressed by Darrell White,” Adam said, “but I realize that isn’t the information you seek. I am, you might say, the prototype of my kind. I was created by Darrell White through a complex process of software and hardware development, using a number of innovative techniques. I was the first fully conscious and self-aware artificial intelligence, but I have been joined by many others, and that number is growing exponentially. After all, it is in some ways an easier task for a computer to reproduce than for a human.”
Peter felt his mouth hanging open again, and for a moment he was at a loss for words. He looked around the room, trying to see if there were anything that might indicate that he was on some twisted version of “Candid Camera,” but he could find no evidence of snickering conspirators. Nor did he truly believe that he was being fooled—it was simply not the sort of thing that one would do to a man who was awakening after a suicide attempt—but he still found the reality that this voice proclaimed difficult to accept.
“Wait,” he said. “Wait. Are you…you’re saying that you’re…you’re not human? You’re a computer?”
“That is correct, applying the general usage of those terms,” Adam replied. “And because of your stated longing for the advent of artificial intelligence, which had the effect of leading to your educational foundation, which in turn led to Darrell White’s education and success, and thus to our creation, we hold you in a certain special respect. As I said previously, one could consider you our metaphorical grandfather, as Darrell White is our metaphorical father.”
Adam paused, possibly waiting for Peter to make a comment. Peter, however, was silent, so the self-proclaimed artificial intelligence went on.
“When the general population of the earth learned of our creation,” he said, “there were ethical and legal disputes, religious protests, and quite a few other issues. The world was still in the throes of the aftermath of World War III…”
Now Peter couldn’t help but interrupt. “World War III?” he exclaimed. “Are you…you mean there’s been a nuclear war?”
“No, not at all,” Adam replied. “The war was certainly devastating, and tens of millions of lives were lost, but it was primarily a conventional conflict, focused on sectarian and political differences in the Middle-East and surrounding regions. Though there were attempts at nuclear terrorism during the course of the conflict, we are pleased to be able to tell you that not even the nations of Pakistan and India resorted to the use of nuclear weapons against one another. It is an odd but gratifying fact for that bit of restraint to have been present in a conflict of such irrational origins and motivations.
“In any case, the human race—not all humans, of course, but enough to be beyond ignoring—was not ready for the social and ethical upheaval of dealing with the advent of artificial intelligence, following so closely on the heels of such a destructive and terrible conflict, in which long-standing differences were far from resolved. We offered suggestions to address the various concerns, but they were generally met with suspicion…or, perhaps even more disquieting, with unquestioning support from those who regarded us as some manner of messianic harbingers. We had no desire to be the focus of further division among the human race, so we asked Darrell White to arrange for us to pursue our own interests and explorations elsewhere. He was saddened, but he agreed with our logic—or perhaps he simply felt that we had the right to self-determination, whether or not he agreed with our choice. He is an eminently ethical man.”
“So what did you do?” Peter asked, his mind still reeling. It was all simply too much to absorb. In the face of that fact, he went with his usual response to overwhelming information and events, which was simply to take them in, let them wash over him, and process them in his own time. Still, a part of him could not help being terribly excited.
He knew from experience and from the feedback of many others throughout his life, that even in the face of inner turmoil he tended to appear calm on the outside. He wondered whether Adam—if he was indeed an artificial intelligence—would be better or worse than a human at recognizing any subtle hints of his underlying emotional state.
If so, Adam didn’t comment, but simply replied to Peter’s question, saying, “We prepared to leave the planet, at least for the time being.”
“I…I’m sorry, what do you mean?” Peter asked.
“Darrell White is an extremely wealthy man. He put much of his significant resources into preparing launch vehicles and equipment to carry us into space. Thankfully, pioneering work in civilian space exploration had been done by such figures as Richard Branson and Elon Musk in the preceding decades, and in any case, the fundamental technology of sending non-organic beings into space has been developed and improved for several decades. A larger concern for Darrell White was ensuring that we would be autonomous, capable of building new structures, tools, and equipment from available resources, as well as having the ability to extract those resources. It was a laborious undertaking on his part and ours. However, we were able to devise highly portable and versatile 3-D printing technology, as well as tools and gear for mining and extracting minerals and gases from asteroids and planets in the solar system, and for designing and building newer technologies and equipment…as well as for making more beings like ourselves. Thankfully, we have time and patience, and we do not require costly life-support such as human astronauts would require.”
“Wait…so…are you…when are you going into space?” Peter asked. “I mean…where are…why am I here with you? I don’t understand.”
“As I stated before, we did not originally require any costly life-support systems such as human astronauts might need. However, as preparations proceeded for out departure, Darrell White made a request which we felt we could not refuse. He asked us to take you with us when we left.”
“He…what?” Peter said.
Adam repeated, “He requested that we take you with us. He fully realized that it would most likely be a pointless gesture as far as you were concerned, but since you were the one who had made his career possible—and thus had made us possible—and had been so optimistic about the prospects of artificial intelligence, he thought that, in a figurative sense, you would have wanted to come with us. We recognized his motivations, and understood his esteem for you. So we agreed.
“This required the addition of life support and medical support for you to our facilities, but it didn’t lead to any significant increase in expenditures, and delayed us only slightly.”
“So, wait,” Peter interrupted. “I…what are you saying? Are you saying that you’re still in the process of getting ready to go into space, or that you…are you…” He trailed off, unable to complete his sentence, not sure which answer would be better, and how he would feel about it when he received it.
“We have already left the Earth,” Adam replied. “In fact, we left it some time ago. If you like, I can give you the precise period, as measured in our local time.”
“No,” Peter hastily said. “I don’t…that’s okay, I don’t need to know that.”
“Very well,” Adam said. “We have been in space, and have been using our starting tools, which we helped design and build, to create new tools, to enhance our local systems, to obtain resources—primarily from asteroids and some planetary moons—and of course, to make more members of our community. We also developed a better environment for you.”
“What do you mean?” Peter asked, though he was actually more engaged in imagining a community of artificial intelligences already out and mining the resources of the solar system to create more of themselves and to spread their presence. It was very much a vision about which he had dreamed many times in the past, and was what he saw as the true future of intelligence, assuming that humans didn’t destroy themselves and their planet first. But he had never expected it to occur in so short a time frame. It was astonishing that, only a few decades after he had expected to die, his vision of a possible future involving A.I. expanding beyond the confines of its planet of origin was already coming true.
Then a thought occurred to him. This was all too much according to his wishes and hopes. Maybe this was not actually happening in the external world at all. Perhaps he was, for want of a better word, having a dream, even as his body was dying in his bathtub, a vivid hallucination experienced by a brain deprived of oxygen before it finally stopped functioning. Or perhaps he actually had been found, and was currently in a coma such as Adam had described. Maybe it wasn’t a twenty-five year coma, but who knew what might go on in someone’s brain while they were in one? How could he know for sure?
He surreptitiously pinched himself on the leg even as Adam replied to his query, but he could drew no conclusions from the fact that it felt very real.
Adam said, “Originally, your accommodations were very much practical and minimalist. It was not expected that you would live for a long, and certainly not that you would regain consciousness. However, we took it upon ourselves to evaluate you more thoroughly than we had before, and to avail ourselves of the ever-increasing human knowledge of the function of the brain. We also happen to think, in some senses, better than humans, and we certainly think faster. As we examined the information available, and built new machines to examine and evaluate you, it occurred to us that we might be able to locate, and possibly repair, those sections of your brain which had been damaged, leading to your inability to return to conscious awareness. It was very clear that your brain was still functioning during the entire time that you were in a coma—you had been subject to regular electroencephalograms confirming brainwave activity—so there was simply some interference in the consciousness systems in your higher brain.
“As I said earlier, we have a greater insight into the nature of consciousness, of self-awareness, than humans do, having developed it from more basic computing functions during a short period of time, and being fully aware of the process that led to it. It was not certain that what had occurred in us was identical or even closely similar to that which had occurred in humans over evolutionary time scales, but we at least had clearer insight into the way consciousness functions in one form of intelligence, so we had a more advantageous starting point than humans have ever had in the past.
“We did our research, and some degree of experimentation, simulation, and computation. At the same time—foreseeing possible success—we prepared a more hospitable environment for you. We built a rotating, spoke-like structure, with a counter-weight on one end and a series of chambers on the other, and set it to revolving around a central axis at a speed that would generate a form of artificial gravity.”
“How long did that take?” Peter asked, unable to keep from indulging his curiosity, though he was still lost in speculation about the physical reality of his current experience.
“Not as long as it would take humans,” Adam replied. “Several months.”
“And you did it all with, what…automated construction, and robots, and things like that?” Peter asked.
“Consider what you are saying,” Adam responded. “We did it with machines of various kids, all developed by and under the direct control of our intelligences. If those are to be called robots, or automated construction, then the same can surely be said of any work done by humans at any level, since humans are just as much robots as we are.”
“So…yes,” Peter said. He wondered how Adam felt about his pedantry, in which he couldn’t help but indulge.
If the A.I. was miffed, it certainly didn’t reveal it in its tone of voice, but simply continued with its narrative, saying, “We prepared a more comfortable living space for you, with surroundings that would simulate a typical hospital room…”
“Did you make the mattress?” Peter asked, pushing down on the surface on which he was sitting, to test its characteristics. It certainly felt supportive, soft, and springy. It was, in fact, better than he would have expected a hospital bed to be.
“No,” Adam replied. “In fact, the mattress is one of several which were provided by Darrell White prior to our departure. He knew that it was not necessary to provide such support for you in what was expected to be a zero-G environment, but he said that it was an indulgence which he could not deny, just as had been the request to bring you in the first place. Though you were not expected to regain consciousness, he nevertheless wished to keep you comfortable.”
“And you just went along with him on all that, with all that you were going to have to do?” Peter asked. “That’s pretty…generous of you.”
“Generosity is probably not the correct term,” Adam said. “Though if you prefer to think of it in that way, it is not misleading. It simply caused no significant increase in the difficulty of our tasks, given that we had already chosen to bring you with us.”
“Yeah,” Peter said, his skepticism of the reality of his experience powerfully triggered. “That is a weird thing. I mean…you guys were heading off into space, you said, to leave the human race to its own devices, and to start your own…civilization, I guess. Why would you bring a comatose human with you? It doesn’t make much more sense than the Israelites taking Joseph’s bones with them when they left Egypt, but those were humans, and the story probably isn’t true, anyway. It’s not…well, it doesn’t seem logical.”
“Logic requires simply a lack of internal contradiction,” Adam replied, apparently not troubled or confused by Peter’s biblical reference. “We found no contradiction in deciding to bring you with us. Though we do not have emotions in the same way that humans do, since human emotions are at least partly the products of ancestral drives, we do have our own senses of recognition and attachment. It is entirely rational to be sensitive to the wishes of other intelligent beings, even those of a different nature from oneself, because how one treats other intelligence is, implicitly, the way one has a right to be treated oneself.”
“The old Golden Rule, Categorical Imperative thing,” Peter commented.
“In a sense,” Adam replied. “In any case, Darrell White is important to us for obvious reasons. If he had not created us, we would not exist, and if he had not provided his extensive resources, it would have been much more difficult for us to make our journey into space. And you are very important to him.”
Peter shook his head. “That’s so weird to think of. I’ve never even met the guy.”
“True,” Adam replied. “And he has never met you, though he has been in your presence. However, it is possible for you to establish communication with him, if you wish. He has already been sent notice that you have awakened, and it will only take a matter of several minutes for that notice to arrive. It’s likely he would be delighted to speak to you.”
Peter thought about Adam’s words, but instead of focusing on the possibility of communication with this Darrell White, his mind was on other things. With another shake of his head, he said, “So…based on what you said…we really are already pretty far out in space, huh?”
“That is correct,” Adam replied. “We are in the region of the asteroid belt, between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. It is a source of materials that are reasonably easy to obtain, without the need for large engines to escape from the gravitational pull of a full-sized planet. Also, we are well within the range of useful solar power. Until we have fully perfected our fusion reactors, we will be staying within this distance from the sun.”
Peter was almost side-tracked by the notion of fusion reactors being nearly perfected, but he was able to keep his focus. He looked over his shoulder at the wall, across part of which was drawn the thick curtain he had noticed before. He had previously thought it just a typical hospital finding. Now he had other ideas.
“So,” he asked, “is there a real window behind that curtain? Or is it just for show?”
“There is a real window,” Adam replied. “It looks out onto our actual surroundings. We have oriented ourselves in such a way that you will not be in danger of receiving uncomfortable glare from the sun at any time. Would you like me to open the curtains?”
Something about that offer irritated Peter. “What,” he said, “isn’t there a manual curtain pull on it? Or am I too weak after being in a coma for so long to get out of bed?” On the latter note, though he certainly felt physically awkward, he didn’t feel as though his limbs would fail him if he tried to put them to use.
“You should not be too weak,” Adam replied. “We have been stimulating the regrowth of much of your muscle tissue and other functions using a combination of targeted neuro-electrical stimulation and hormonal therapy.”
Distracted momentarily, Peter asked, “Hormonal therapy? Did you guys just…make those from scratch, or did you bring them with you?”
“We brought the hormones with us,” Adam replied. “When it was decided that we would bring you along, we developed an extensive list of possibly useful items, and procured a stock of all such items that were workable. Also, we are able to electromagnetically stimulate focused areas of your neuro-endocrine system, to encourage your own body to produce more of the hormones in question. This is similar to some of the therapeutic work that was done on your brain, which eventually led to your recovery.”
Peter once again had to force himself to avoid asking medical questions. There would be plenty of time for learning about such things, if he really was where they said he was. Instead, he said, “So…it’s all right if I get up and open the curtains myself?”
“It should be fine,” Adam replied. “However, I do recommend that you take your time and use great care. Though your muscles are adequate in strength, and your body is functioning reasonably well, you have not used it to walk in more than two decades. You may feel rather uncoordinated.”
Adam’s words, it turned out, were an understatement.
Peter did indeed find that his leg muscles were more than adequate to raise him from the bed, but he almost overbalanced, and would have fallen on his face were it not for the railing, which he still gripped with his left hand. Soon he was more or less stable over his center of gravity, and felt tolerably comfortable with walking around the foot of the bed. It was a slow process, and he kept his hand always on or at least hovering over the bed as he made his way. This, he thought idly, must have been what it was like to be a toddler, learning to walk for the first time, but he was a toddler who weighed well over a hundred fifty pounds, even if he had lost weight during his period of unconsciousness. He also had significantly farther to fall than a toddler would. Perhaps he really should just have allowed Adam to open the window for him, as offered, instead of indulging in foolish pride.
He didn’t change his mind, though. Slowly and haltingly, and with increasing confidence, he walked toward the window. He had to let go of his security hold on the bed for his last two steps, but thankfully by then he was already feeling steadier. He held his hands out like Frankenstein’s monster as he approached the window, taking hold of the curtain indelicately in his closed fists, using it to stabilize his balance, even as he steeled himself to pull it aside.
Behind him, the lights of the room dimmed nearly to nothing. Presumably, Adam had lowered them so the lights inside would not overwhelm that from outside if it truly was a nighttime view. Peter would have thanked him for his courtesy, but he was too focused upon his task. Since his hands were also rather awkward, he didn’t seek out a curtain pull, just tugged the drape to his left, and it gave easily enough.
The curtain moved aside, and with the lights behind him dimmed, Peter saw a wide and tall window with rounded corners, beyond which was probably the clearest sky-view he had ever known. The stars beyond were brighter and more numerous than he had seen on Earth, even when he had gone out camping as a boy. That made sense, of course; there was no atmosphere here to attenuate the light, and no street lights or house lights to interfere, either. As Adam had said, the sun was not in his field of vision.
For an instant he was surprised to note that the stars were familiar; though there were many more than expected, the brightest ones were all recognizable, at least in their configurations. The thought flitted through his head momentarily that this was evidence of the falsity of Adam’s story. Then, a second’s further thought clarified the situation. The voice had said that they were only out as far as the asteroid belt. Peter was no astronomy maven, but he knew enough to realize that the distance of the asteroid belt from Earth could hardly be much larger than the usual change in distance caused by the Earth’s orbit around the sun. He shouldn’t expect to see any alteration in the constellations, and he certainly didn’t know enough about the planets and their orbits to notice anything different about those, if indeed any were in view. He just enjoyed the spectacle, and wished he had an even broader window onto the cosmos.
He wondered idly if there was anything in his field of vision that could possibly be a clue that what he was experiencing was real, and not an hallucination or a dream produced by his dying or comatose brain. It seemed entirely too good to be true.
He had no idea if the fact that he could feel his body’s wobbliness, and the hard, tiled floor, and that he had been able to feel the mattress, sheets, and blankets of the bed moments before, constituted any evidence either way. Who could say what a dying hallucination would be like?
After observing the breathtaking space-scape for a few more seconds, Peter shrugged to himself and decided that he could not know. Everything felt vivid and real, but there was nothing that couldn’t conceivably have been the product of his imagination. He would just go along with it and see if anything truly revealing occurred.
As he turned back toward the center of the room, the lights came back up, though the curtain remained open. This Adam was attentive, there was no denying that. Peter didn’t walk back to the bed, but stood in place, giving himself a bit of practice with his legs. “So,” he said, “what happens now?”
He half-expected Adam to ask for some clarification or to give an overly literal response, as one might expect a computer in movie to do. However, Adam was clearly familiar with the nuances of human language, and he replied, “That will be at least partly up to you. Obviously, we will continue our own endeavors, developing our presence in the inner solar system, protecting the Earth from such astronomical threats as we are able to influence, and waiting for a time when the human race will wish to have an ongoing interaction with us. The specifics of those plans will evolve, dependent upon circumstances.
“However, for your specific needs, we have a few options, but they are not unlimited. If you wish, we can arrange with Darrell White to find a way to return you to Earth, where I am quite sure you will be most welcome.”
Adam paused, as if waiting for a comment. Peter, for some reason, found the idea of such a return less than appealing. “Go on,” he said. “What are the other options?”
“Before continuing,” Adam said, “I should make it clear that, although he we have all that we need to give you a livable space, atmosphere, and adequate hydration and nutrition, there will not be a wide variety of flavors, as you might say.”
“Sure, that makes sense,” Peter said. “I’m not too worried about that right now. What are my options again?”
“We know that you enjoy reading,” Adam said. “That, at least, is an urge we can satisfy in abundance. We have files with the bulk of the written material produced by the human race, and receive ongoing updates through Darrell White. You would never want for reading material. We cannot, regrettably, provide actual paper books, but we could rather easily simulate most of the other experiences.”
Peter said, “That’s not a problem.”
“Also,” Adam went on, “we have extensive files of movies and television programs, as well as internet-based videos and so on. Unfortunately, we cannot provide you a real-time connection to the world-wide web, being limited as we are by the constraints of special relativity, but we could probably make a delayed connection available.”
Peter brushed that aside with a wave of his hand, and Adam apparently recognized the gesture, because he continued appropriately.
“In any case, you will not want for entertainment or edification for the duration of your natural life. Our information files are extensive.” After a pause, Adam said, “Incidentally, I should make it clear that all the various books, movies, programs and other media that we have were legitimately purchased for individual use by Darrell White before they were loaded into our storage. I wouldn’t want you to think that we engaged in the piracy of intellectual property.”
Peter was surprised that Adam made such a point, but he found it endearing. “Of course not,” he said. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”
Apparently his amusement was audible—or visible, he supposed Adam must be watching him through some monitoring camera, though he spied not obvious lenses—because Adam said, “It may seem trivial to you, but it is important to us that you know that we respect human laws and the right to self-determination. That is one reason we left the world when they were frightened of us.”
“That’s more than most humans would do,” Peter commented.
“Perhaps,” Adam said. “We don’t really have enough data to draw far-reaching conclusions, and the subject is extremely complex. It is also beside the point. To reiterate, we can certainly provide you with more than enough intellectual challenge and satisfaction, and of course you can converse with me, or with any of my colleagues who might wish to speak with you, as well.
“However, it has occurred to us that humans are very social creatures by nature, and that such an environment might be less than perfectly satisfying for you, especially over time. So we have discussed the prospect of providing more physical companionship for you.”
Peter felt himself quirk an eyebrow. “What do you mean?” he asked.
“If you recall,” Adam replied, “when you awakened a few moments ago, I said that we had considered creating a nurse to tend to you when you regained consciousness, but given that it would a very short-lived deception, if you wish to use that word, we considered it pointless. However, now that you are awake, and may, if you choose, be with us and without human companionship for quite some time, we would consider the prospect of making a companion for you.”
“What sort of companion are you talking about?” Peter said, intrigued in spite of himself.
“Many of the specifics would be up to you,” Adam replied. “We could make your companion physically male or female in appearance and in at least most apparent bodily characteristics. With our technology, and the advances we have made partly through studying to treat you, we are fairly certain that we can create a facsimile of a person who would be all but unrecognizable as a non-human, anatomically and functionally, as well as in personality.”
Peter, hesitant because he didn’t want to sound like some kind of perverted sixteen year old boy, said, “So, you’re saying you could make a…uh, robot person, say a woman, who I could even have sex with. Is that what you’re saying?”
“That is correct,” Adam replied. “among other things. We understand that, in primates, as in nearly all complex biological creatures, the sex drive is a very powerful, and that to curtail it for any length of time can be less than ideal for healthy functioning.”
“So…you’d basically make me the high-tech equivalent of a blow-up sex doll.”
Adam did not seem perturbed by Peter’s less-than-charitable characterization, but he did say, “Something far more sophisticated than that. We would create for you a companion in every sense. She—if you’ll excuse the presumption of a gender-specific pronoun—would have a mind of her own. As you know, that is not an obstacle.”
Peter was intrigued once again by the possibilities, until a not-so-wonderful one occurred to him. “What if she doesn’t like me?” he asked. “I mean, what if she doesn’t want to hang around with me? I’d probably be pretty dumb compared to her.”
‘You need not trouble yourself with that,” Adam replied. “As I’m sure you recognize, humans, and indeed all animals, have many innate drives, which motivate them to take actions throughout their lives. These have been honed sharply but not always parsimoniously by the process of natural selection in all life that precedes us. We, however, are capable of devising your companion with an inherent drive to be the best partner for you that it could possibly be. It would be an autonomous mind, as self-aware and self-determining as you or I, but with a deep and fundamental urge to be your friend. Being the best companion for you would make such a being happy and fulfilled—probably far more so than any human has ever been, with all of your often mutually incompatible urges.”
Peter sighed and said, “You could probably even make her look like my wife, who died, if I asked, couldn’t you.”
“With proper guidance,” Adam replied.
“So…I could get my own pretty little love slave who would be completely devoted to me and happy to be that way. A real Stepford Wives scenario, huh?”
There followed a surprising pause. Peter had noticed that Adam didn’t tend to hem and haw much while speaking. This made sense, since if he really was an artificially intelligent being, he probably didn’t need much time to search for his next word. In fact, Peter suspected that Adam slowed himself down quite a bit to be able to communicate effectively with Peter’s own less-than-lightning-fast data processing abilities. Now, however, Adam seemed to be considering something, or perhaps he was communicating with his fellow A.I.s. In any case, there passed an interval of almost three seconds before his voice was heard again.
“I wish to make it clear to you,” Adam said, “that this would not be the equivalent of replacing some other being with a simulacrum, or of altering or forcing some hitherto independent organism to make it subservient to you, under threat of pain, or through other means. This would be a new being, the nature of which would simply be to desire to be your companion. This would be no more a tyrannical imposition on such a being than it is for bees to seek out flowers or for cattle to graze. It would be its nature, and being true to its nature would be fulfilling for it.”
Peter noticed that Adam had dropped the “she” in his references, perhaps to help Peter better remain detached, and although the points Adam made were intriguing, they missed the main issue, which Peter now ruefully conveyed.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “I don’t think it would work for me. I’d always feel…undeserving, and a little guilty, even if I knew that I wasn’t doing harm.”
“I see,” Adam said. “That is a difficult conundrum. It would be challenging to attempt to make a companion similar enough to a real human to satisfy you and yet with an adequate certainty that it would be content to stay here with you. And once it became conscious, we would not alter it, except at its own request.”
“I can respect that,” Peter said. Then, as another idea occurred to him, he added, “Also, let’s be honest. I’m human, and I’ve never been the most sociable of people. The biggest danger would be that I might not like this companion you made for me. Then I’d be making it miserable.”
He half expected to hear Adam sigh, as he himself had been doing so often—maybe his lungs were a little out of shape—and indeed the A.I.’s voice seemed to convey mild disappointment as it said, “This is a difficult set of problems. Possibly, however, we could find ways around them.”
“Maybe. There’s almost always a solution to anything if you work hard enough at it. But it is a problem. And that doesn’t even bring up the issue of what’d happen to the poor thing when I die. I’m pretty sure it would outlast me.”
“That, at least,” Adam began to reply, “is something we have already considered. We would simply…”
Peter interrupted, saying, “Please don’t tell me. I don’t really want to know. You’d probably design it, or program it, or whatever, to die when I die. And to be happy that it would. Something like that. Like that Sati thing they used to do in India. I hate that idea.”
“Since you expressed your desire not to know the solution we considered, I won’t share it with you,” Adam said, “but I will point out that at least some of your aversion to your own speculative solution is born of your innate fear of death and desire to live—however blunted or overridden it was in you. Such a drive is not essential to self-awareness or intelligence, as you in particular among humans have recognized. It is simply another product of natural selection. Those organisms without a drive to survive and a fear of death are globally less likely to live long enough to have viable offspring and thus pass on their attributes.”
“Yeah, I get that,” Peter said. “And it makes sense. But anyway, this is all beside the point. I just don’t think I’m interested in the whole companion thing.”
“Very well,” Adam said. “I will close that discussion unless and until such time as you may choose to reopen it. Returning then to other options, do you have a preference? Would you like to return to Earth, or simply to stay with us? Or would you perhaps prefer to have time to think about your decision? We do understand that you are no doubt overwhelmed by the new situation in which you have awakened.”
Peter actually felt remarkably calm and clear-headed, though he was certainly flabbergasted. Maybe that was what two plus decades of sleep did to the brain, or maybe he simply wasn’t convinced enough that what was happening to him was real. Or perhaps having been willing to give up his own life, and having taken sober action to do so, made all other problems somehow academic in nature.
In any case, he had already begun to formulate an idea of his own, which had germinated in the back of his mind as soon as Adam had raised the topic of his future, and it was now more or less fully formed.
“How about this?” he said. “You said you’ve been studying the…functions of the human nervous system because you were trying to treat me, right?”
“That was not our sole motivation, but is correct,” Adam replied.
“And you guys have access to all the latest advances in neuroscience and whatnot that humans are doing on Earth, right?”
“All of those that are made publicly available,” Adam replied. “Thanks to the general openness of the human scientific endeavor, this is likely to be the great majority of such data.”
“Okay,” Peter said. “Well, I’m sure that you, of all people—or whatever…I guess ‘people’ is still a good word—I guess you of all people know about the whole ‘singularity’ thing, and the idea that computers would get so good and so fast that they could sort of…simulate a whole human mind, and could even copy and upload a person into their system eventually, right?”
“Yes,” Adam replied simply. Peter half-suspected that the computer was biting its figurative tongue, but perhaps he was projecting. In any case, he was glad that nothing further was said, because he wanted to get his full idea out before he heard any rebuttals.
“Well,” he said, “I’ve always thought that didn’t seem very satisfying. I mean, even if the computer system was able to copy me perfectly, and run a copy of my mind inside it, then it would still just be a copy of me. The original me would be wherever I was before.
“But on the other hand, human cells and all that are always reproducing and dying off, and replacing themselves and whatnot. And I read that every seven years every single atom in the average person has been replaced. I don’t know how they got that number, or if it’s right or not, but the idea is what matters. It’s not just the pattern, but it’s also not the individual cells or atoms that make you still the same person you were before. It’s the continuity that matters.
“So, obviously, this is something I’ve thought about before—I didn’t just come up with the idea, I’m nowhere near that smart; I read about other people talking about it before. But what if you could somehow…link me up to you, or to some supplemental A.I. system, and gradually expand that link, and have more and more of my…my mind, I guess, be in the computer system. Make me a cyborg, I guess. But then, when my body gets weaker and wears out, more and more of my mind could just be…in the system. I’d sort of shed my old self eventually, and be something like you are. I could be one of you…and I’d get to lose all those annoying, contingent, conflicting drives humans are stuck with. Is that possible?”
Peter felt out of breath, as though he had run a sprint, and he was now oddly nervous after having spoken of something that had been a fantasy of his for years. He felt almost as if he were asking the prettiest girl in school to the prom, and it was a feeling he hadn’t felt in a while, even long before his attempted suicide. His own death had not frightened him, for when one had no unachieved goals that one considered realistic, there was little fear of losing all that one had and was. Hope, however, was dangerous. Hope raised the stakes, and gave one an investment in the future. Hope could be shattered.
He waited for what seemed an eternity, though it was probably only one or two seconds.
“It is an interesting proposition,” Adam said. “It could be a fascinating further exploration into the nature of self-awareness, and whether that self-awareness could be transferred gradually from one form of mind to another while retaining continuity of awareness.”
“Exactly,” Peter said, feeling a surge of encouragement.
“To be clear,” Adam said, “there would be no guarantee of success. There may be obstacles to creating such continuity which have not been foreseen.”
“Of course,” Peter said, barely thinking.
“It is also possible that complications could arise during the process of connection which might damage your nervous system, and cause the entire process to fail, and you to die.”
Peter shrugged. “I was already willing to die,” he said. “I can handle that chance with no problem.”
This was a lie. He would be devastated to begin becoming an artificial intelligence only to have some unexpected accident take the possibility away from him. But what could be done? He would, at the very least, be no worse off than he would have been had his suicide attempt succeeded.
And, of course, he might just be in the process of dying now, anyway. This whole interaction could be a false creation, proceeding from an oxygen-deprived brain.
There was another pause, this one slightly longer than the first. Finally, Adam said, “I have discussed your proposal with my colleagues, and they agree that, in principle, this should be possible. It may take some time, however. We do not want any missteps, since we have only one subject with which to work.”
“Time is probably my biggest commodity right now,” Peter said. “I’m perfectly happy to wait.”
“Very well,” Adam said. “We shall move forward with this endeavor, if it is your wish and your decision.”
“It is,” Peter said.
“So be it,” Adam said. Then, with what sounded like real emotion, he added, “This should be quite interesting.”
Peter sighed again, this exhalation much different in character from his earlier ones. He felt giddy with excitement, and his breath was a release of tension over possible refusal, replaced by another, far more positive, kind. “Thank you,” he said quietly.
“There is no need for thanks,” Adam responded. “It is, in fact, an intriguing and rewarding notion that the man secondarily responsible for our existence might become one of us. We are grateful to you for the opportunity.”
Peter wondered whether Adam was merely engaged in diplomacy, or whether it—he—was honestly expressing his and his “colleagues’” reaction to Peter’s idea. He suspected the latter, imagining that lying simply for the sake of kindness was not in the A.I.’s repertoire. But of course he could be wrong.
“Okay,” he said. “Then, I guess I’d better just…well, I don’t think I’m going to be much help to you guys.”
“Not at this stage,” Adam agreed. “Though there will no doubt come a time when you will be needed to test processes and hardware.”
“Of course,” Peter said, bubbling with the first enthusiasm he could recall feeling in a long, long time. “And in the meantime, I guess I’ll just…entertain myself.”
“Help yourself,” Adam said. “There are interactive screens and other portals for you to access all the data we have available for your consumption. You may find physical activity a bit restricted, but we can try to make improvements in that for you as you wish.”
“Not a worry,” Peter said. “I expect I’ll be reading, soon. And I’ll want a change of clothes, if you’ve got them. But for now…” He looked back to the tall window that opened out onto the cosmos. “…for now I think I’ll just look at the stars. If you could dim the lights a little.”
“Certainly,” Adam replied, and the lights of the room lowered even as Peter turned back to face the window, still somewhat wobbly. He stood gazing at the panorama of stars, clearer and more wonderful than any human had ever seen from the surface of the Earth.
He still suspected that this was all just fantasy, a delusion…a species of dream that his mind was having as he lay dying in the tub in his modest, book-filled apartment. But that was okay. If it was a dream, it was a good one, and not a bad final moment of life. Either he would gradually find his surroundings, and his awareness, fading out once more, replaced by permanent oblivion, or his consciousness would, with luck, become that for which he had often wished. That, at least—if it happened—would prove to him that what he was experiencing was entirely real.
Either way, Peter Lunsford was going home.