A Sh0rT n0vEl FoR oUr FrAcTuReD mInDs
By Terise Cruven
Ezzy's phone let out a short, quiet tick. It was 6 am. She paused for a breath, then started tapping impatiently on the glass of the Institute's distribution center. When she handed the narcotics requisition to the half-awake clerk, he pushed the bottles across the counter with a detached shrug.. She carefully checked the label on each bottle. This clerk's carelessness had cost her a day of work before. She dropped the bottles into her backpack and rushed toward the stairwell to the supply tunnels. This was the quickest way across campus to the marine center. She thought, and felt the coldness of the tunnel walls around her. She'd spend the rest of the morning waiting for the specimen haul to come back in. The EPA allotted only 10 harp-toothed octopuses to be harvested from the coast off Maine each week. Today they'd found two, and Ezzy claimed them both.
"It'd be easier getting clearance to work with the plague," she texted to her assistant, Cass, driving home with one hand on the steering wheel, "and I thought the DEA clearance was rough."
When she pulled back up to the house, Cass was waiting with a cup of coffee and a bottle of the nutritional slush she pretended was breakfast. He grabbed the bag of narcotics out of the passenger seat.
"What a list!" he smirked, looking at the requisition receipt, "100 grams cocaine, 400 milliliters methamphetamine, and 60 tablets of adderall. I'll bet you a hundred and fifty dollars that you'll make some progress in your studies. You're going to have a damn good time here without me, huh?
"I'm going to try working on these two all day," she said, waving the octopuses at him and hurrying to the door to the garage-turned-laboratory she'd built over the summer. "It'd really help me a lot if you could check back for more specimens from the evening haul before you leave." She stepped into the garage and started preparing her equipment.
"Eh," Cass wrinkled up his face, "I was going to get a head start back into the city."
"Oh," Ezzy said, "well, just drop that stuff off over there, and I'll see you Monday..""
"Christ, Cass," Ezzy yelled off the back balcony, "get your ass back inside."
Cass spun on his heel to face her, nude, a Northesastern thunderstorm pouring down around him. This feeling of living, of failing. He'd missed this sensation.
Ezzy slid the glass door closed. She returned to her laptop on the couch. The grant application was on its 11th draft. She held down a combination of keys and pulled up every mention of the phrase "focus addiction." 424 occurences.
Cass had timidly re-entered through the garage. He shivered himself to dry himself a little. He shivered again. He hadn't seen the back of the garage for a few months now since Ezzy had barred him from coming back inside and disturbing her operations. In the center there was now a makeshift lab bench, covered in electronic equipment. He was beginning to think that he was going to find himself in a new room, or in a basement, or somewhere where he could have been in his youth, or a thousand other places as he watched the door to the basement, and he wondered if he'd been dreaming, too, that he was going to be in a basement. The four legs of the massive plywood bench were each comprised of stacks of outdated textbooks. If Cass hadn't been quite so drunk, he'd have seen that his copy of their high school yearbook was on the top of the stack next to him.
Ezzy was scattered across dozens of pages. Cass occupied just one. That book was 21 years old now.
In her lab, Ezzy poured the octopuses from their container into the aquarium. They stretched their legs out wide and puffed little swirling vortices of ink into the water around them. Ezzy leaned her forehead up against the glass of the aquarium and dipped her finger in the warm salt water.
"There's nothing else in the world quite like you," she whispered.
Two hours later, Cass Adler was heading toward Boston, sitting next to the ocean side window of the Downeaster Train when he saw a notification on his phone. He closed the report he was reading and began to read my email to him:
My name is Dr. Terise Cruven, and I'm writing you because I've recently uncovered some urgent issues that I feel I need to warn you about.
Last year, as part of my research, I started analyzing the transaction data of a company called Kagaku Kōkoku. I understand you worked for them for some time. I'm sure you won't be surprised to hear that they have extended their methods of quantitative influence beyond advertising to other areas, including journalism, pornography, politics etc. But what might be more concerning is that my research has uncovered that Kagaku, ostensibly just an advertising firm, has recently diverted more than a quarter of its multi-billion dollar budget to a handful of tiny, unregulated, Chinese and Russian biotechnology companies.
You see Cass, the problem with devoting my life's work to trawling the repository of all recorded information is that I occasionally put together connections I wish I hadn't noticed.
Back in the lab, there was only one octopus left in the aquarium, fumbling to relearn how to swim with its six remaining arms. Ezzy didn't notice it spinning little uncoordinated circles in the tank. She was intently focused on suturing its two recently severed arms together. She stroked her clamp down one arm until it lay straight, ensuring that each bundle of neurons lined up ever-so-delicately. The first octopus's body was already lying motionless behind the glass of the freezer in the opposite corner of the room. It had died in surgery. She'd sanitized and reset all of her equipment and restarted immediately on the second.
She had the second pair of arms clipped at 4:36 pm. It would be too late for the late dive haul—this would be her only chance today. Fortunately, this experiment was going perfectly. The first pair of arms were joined directly together, wriggling happily in their tank. The second pair were each sewn into tiny electronic chips, motionless as expected.
Now it was time to dose the animal. She pulled the liquid amphetamine up into her syringe and tapped the end against the aquarium glass next to the scrambling, confused, four-legged octopus. It twisted its eye up to peer at her.
When the chemicals hit its bloodstream, the octopus started darting feverishly from end to end of the aquarium. Ezzy dropped the empty syringe onto the surgical platter and lay back against her bench. Now she would wait for the animal's nervous system to come back to equilibrium.
She let out a fantastic yawn, already getting tired before the sun had set—disappointing, but easily fixed.
But why am I writing this to you, Cass?
You probably remember four years ago when your former partner, JT Guerrero, went to stay on his family's property on Kiritimati Island. He'd gone there trying to accomplish the same thing I've been working on for my whole life: a work about the very essence of what it is to be human.
He'd told you he was going there to take on "the real focus of the novelist," in his words, "the perfect description of the human condition, captured in the moment as it is lived, and passed on to the world." I believed JT was just brilliant enough to manage it, and if he did, I wanted to know how.
Now, as a researcher of human interaction, I've developed certain skills at online surveillance. That's how I know that as you read this email, you are sitting on the southbound train heading to Boston.
When I learned that JT was undertaking his masterwork, I used those same techniques to begin to track him and trace what was shaping his writing. Unfortunately, my methods of stalking him became particularly difficult when he went to the island estate to live "off-grid" for the remainder of his writing. Unless someone is around their electronic devices, I'm not really able to hack in and track their activity.
That's why I was so thankful when on the third day of his isolation at 3:30 in the afternoon he began to cheat on his "media abstinence." He'd brought his phone only for emergencies, but, after just three days staring into the abyss of his soul, he decided he had to check how his followers had reacted to his becoming a hermit.
He was about to power down his phone again when a push notification popped onto his screen from his email. He had 57 unread messages, but, of those, he would consider only one as important enough to catch his attention. It was from his ex-fiancé and the person he respected the most in the world: You, Cass Adler. You two had separated approximately six months prior, ostensibly for divergent career focuses, but I don't think it comes as any surprise to you that, in actuality, JT had simply found it difficult to cope with your ambitions, or rather, your successes. He had become distant quickly.
The email he saw from you was a writing tip. Since I'm sure you don't recall that email, I'll recount what it said.
"I just read your book," you wrote, "and you'll attract more attention if you go back to focusing on issues of identity rather than relationships."
Your opinion didn't come as much of a surprise to JT. JT's most recent novel, his third, was his memoir of your relationship, full of introspection. It hadn't garnered the response JT had hoped for. He knew you as a "numbers person." You'd appropriated the techniques of quantitative influence that you'd learned while working for Kagaku Kōkoku. When you were together, you'd spent a great deal of effort trying to streamline JT's work and make it more fit for "mass-consumption," which no doubt had a significant impact on JT's own commercial success.
At the bottom of the email you linked to a document you had written quantifying the constraints that you believed made for "the perfect novel," optimized for marketability: 45,000 words, five protagonists, two morally ambiguous villains, and a sexually charged or overtly violent scene at least every third chapter. (My own measurements disagree with yours, by the way.)
You also linked to an article on an up-and-coming Twit-auteur who's compendium of microblog snippets had recently become the focus of nearly the entire literary world. The third was a page from the Bowery Institute Review of Books, published by one of JT's idols, explaining that unifying ideas and a common thread of humanity were no longer fashionable in modern literature. He'd written that "the modern human psyche would remain fragmented into its own diabolical quest for self-centered motivations."
JT read what you had sent. Then he finished perusing the rest of his spam-bot generated emails and shut his phone back off.
I'm not sure if he got it out of his mind even for a second. All I know is that by 7:45, about 5 minutes after sunset, he turned the phone back on and started composing a response.
The operating webcam turned back on twelve minutes after the last dissection was already finished. The poor octopus body was still bobbing at the top of the aquarium. Ezzy was too focused on the surgery to even bother putting it to sleep after it had given up its arms to her.
She was sewing the arms into an array of microchips while the octopus watched her.
The octopus is a singular creation of all the creatures great and small. It is, by most commonly accepted scientific estimates, the only living being that has its consciousness broadly distributed across multiple subsections of its body.
The octopus appears to be an embodiment of 8 separate minds housed, physically, at the base of each of its arms. Each is connected through a narrow band of nerves, through which they communicate like separate consciousnesses speaking in an almost instantaneous language.
The arms grow up together into more of a tightly coupled community as opposed to a single conscious identity. They continue to operate mostly independently having their own thoughts and desires, apparently communicating directly to each other arm. Body of the Mind. The mind is a strange and complex entity that can be manipulated by the one who controls. The body only enters the picture to deal with some of the shared activities like eating and spraying ink.
Ezzy was exploiting the melding of the separate minds in the octopus arms to carry out her experiments. The arms wriggled in their harnesses carrying out their tasks, asking confused questions to each other. But the situation was no longer a problem of one's imagination. Ezzy set her alarm and used a bit of leftover medication to put herself instantly into a deep recuperative sleep.
She woke three hours later, tossed the dead arms into the biohazard bin, double checked the integrity of the data, stripped her clothes and stepped into the bath she'd prepped the night before.
JT was still staring at his phone. He'd been editing his two line response to you for nearly three hours. The highlights of the revision process were as follows.
First Draft: Cass, I disagree with that way of looking at it. I think if I write what I'm trying to write people will be able to see past the trivial interpersonal distractions you've focused their minds on.
Low Point: You and the other fucking manipulative quants have damned us all.
Final Version: Maybe you're right.
He didn't send the message. His emotions were dried up.
He went back to writing, but not to his rusty, nostalgia-laden typewriter. This time, he was writing on his phone.
He was composing microblogging messages. Firing them off in rapid succession:
He continued. Some of them, from the best I can tell, were quite transparently untrue. Perhaps he was misremembering the situations. At any rate, his messages didn't go unnoticed.
"Acclaimed author JT Guerrero, breaking his isolation to decry secret hypocrisies of his closest friends," was the headline on a pop-culture website.
The initial response was generally negative, as those involved and those who knew they could become involved decried it as a tawdry publicity stunt. But from the very beginning, the public was enrapt, fixated as ever on the latest trainwreck. This stream of slander focused on an aloof, intellectual elite somehow felt rawer, realer, and just more delicious than standard tabloid trash.
JT kept spilling and spilling. For three days he wrote and wrote. His messages jumped amongst every stage of his life. Slowly, every detail he could remember, every plot point from the wicked deeds of his friends was excavated and let go.
And, as each friend awaited the betrayal, JT's own baggage started getting released in turn from his friends.
Later, as more and more got caught up in the fervor, seeing the reaction and crying out for the same attention JT was receiving, they started outing others, revealing every lie they knew. For every disgusting memory, three more would echo from another corner of the internet. All of them just true enough to be believed, just damning enough to corrode the heart of the next person to see them. It spread on from account to account.
Philip Blooth was practically invisible to me, hiding himself behind anonymizing servers and private networks. He had his own good reasons. He didn't want anyone to know that he was Kagaku Kōkoku, GK.
It honestly wasn't guilt. He was morally detached from his methods. They were precise, scientific, after all. The world had been so thoroughly conquered by men of science, in these moments when humanity had become a beast. He wasn't the man opening the floodgates of hyper-sexualization, misogyny, and racism into advertising, into journalism, into art. He was just manifesting the desires of humanity, tucked away in the data that tracked their choices. Ultimately the responsibility was divided equally among every person who spent a dollar on the products he marketed to them. His algorithm autonomously reinforced itself, bettering its comprehension of the sum total of humanity's wants. Of course, Blooth doesn't have a severed corpus callosum so it's not like I can really hear his inner monologue. Maybe I'm projecting.
But once I'd found him, it became obvious why he was hiding: to keep his work identity separate from his personal life. He didn't think it would be a positive experience for his daughter to grow up knowing what he did. He did everything in his power to disguise that he was the brains behind Kagaku Kōkoku, GK, so I found it a challenge to link the nameless, faceless multinational with the terse balding business man, living the life of the humble single father in Kyoto.
Now Cass, because I'm sure you don't remember her, allow me to reintroduce you to Gwendolyn Docstaeder.
Gwendolyn first appeared to me out of archived reel-to-reels, spinning up her voice out of decades old recordings. I'd been parsing truckers' CB radio transmissions, culled from the airwaves of the American midwest.
The most interesting perturbation to the life of the trucker was always the introduction of the outgroup guest stars: the hooker, the state trooper, or—most memorable of all—the lonely, woebegone hitchhiker. Of the millions of transcripts that I'd analyzed, I'd detected only a few hundred drivers that had picked up hitchhikers, a dwindling number as mom-and-pop truckers were displaced by large corporate trucking conglomerates, who tended to crack down on the practice. Of the few hundred hitchhikers I detected, fewer than ten were women. The trucker conversations were mostly pretty fucking mundane, but Gwendolyn hitch-hiking through semi cabs caught my attention.
She stood out for another reason as well. She had the strange affliction of voicing her every thought out-loud, albeit in an impenetrable code that it took me years to decipher. Nevertheless, even in the earliest recordings I could find of her, she was already constantly speaking to herself in raw, garbled bursts of fractured syllables, trickling up out of that direct connect between her brainstem and trachea.
Thank god, back inside, it was colder today. Goddam that's a hell of a mountain. Lights on that car, getting darker, glad you got in here, hope it's not like the last time. Keep your mouth shut now.
She rambled on. Fairly innocuous, but the trucker couldn't understand her, and it unnerved him. He's staring, she mumbled to herself, fucking ass, doesn't have an idea what you're going through. Just get us a few more miles now.
"Oh just talking to myself," she said to him. She tried to keep the muttering quiet, but who can ever stop their minds from thinking?
She didn't want to compulsively emit that ricochet of sublingual clicks and murmurs—every little detail she thought in the back of her mind. It was a side-effect of a rare disease that had torn through her nervous system and severed her corpus callosum, the bundle of nerves connecting the left and right halves of the brain.
I eventually pieced together where she ended up in the scattered documents I could find. She'd found her way into a mental health facility in Reno. She'd been getting better. She was still there up until five years ago, when you located her for your former boss, Philip Blooth.
"Can you hold a sample from the specimen dive for me?" Ezzy wrote to the dive manager. She'd have had Cass go fetch it if he was still alive.
He'd killed himself two weeks ago, just after he'd arrived at his hotel in Boston. He'd been in the pool, and in the tub, and he'd gone down one side and into the other. She thought, and felt a twinge of guilt. No time to think about him now. Just get the data pulled up, grab an Adderral, refresh the intravenous into the octopus arms.
"So what have you determined?" Blooth asked immediately when his face appeared on the screen. He was perturbed at her requiring him to communicate over video-conference. "The people of my world are extremely intelligent, but they are also very simple." He preferred the reports to come to him anonymously. He hated to let anything about himself be projected out into the web for someone like me to scoop up.
"Does the data not speak for itself?" she asked.
"Please interpret. I'm not a scientist after all."
She pulled up the diagram showing the one octupus arm, the injection apparatus, the neural-machine interface. There was a graph showing dosage vs. number of neural connections.
"Here you can see that with the right dosage, we can perfectly simulate the communication between the separated arms through the computer interface. We've passed the Turing test on the neuron to neuron level."
"Turing test?" Blooth asked.
Ezzy pulled up a chart of each pair of octopus arms in the experiment.
"Here you can see that this first set of arms are talking directly to each other through the neurons that I've surgically fused together. Now, for this second set, the brain housed in each arm is talking to this little electronic chip and that chip is relaying the information back and forth. They don't really know that the chip is there, and that allows us to simulate one arm and play it back to the other. And amazingly, neither can tell that it's talking to a recording."
"And how much do you have to slow down their minds?"
Ezzy smiled. She lifted one more of the caps from the row of pill bottles next to her, and held it up.
"That's just the thing," she said, "the breakthrough came when I stopped trying to slow them down. Completely counter to the intuition of anyone in this entire field."
Blooth frowned. "Not what I expected to hear." The results were still in her hands. He didn't trust her results. He'd expected the Chinese scientists to get the solution first, quicker to skirt the ethical concerns.
"Well you can't argue with the Science here, sir." She was the type to subconsciously use Science as a proper noun.
Ezzy dumped the contents of the bottle onto the counter in front of her laptop.
"Have you ever tried this?" she asked.
"And that is?"
"Good old fashioned Adderall of all things. I used it a ton as a kid. I never would have guessed. Has Rin ever used Adderall?"
Blooth's stern face broke out red with anger, but he kept his voice tight and professional. "Do not mention my daughter's name in relation to this project ever again."
Ezzy squirmed uncomfortably. It was healthier that she never saw Rin, even if it made it more difficult to connect with her in the end. She wouldn't see Rin as a person, as Blooth's daughter. Rin was just another specimen. She was cut off from the emotional impact that way.
"Alright then," Ezzy said, "what I'm trying to get at is that in order for a neural interface to be connected, such as the one we'll need to save Ri—." She halted short under Blooth's glare.
"Basically," she started over, standing up and pacing away from her webcam, "last week, I had a night where I was finding it very hard to pay attention to this project. I was getting tired."
"You're personal emotions don't really concern me," Blooth said, "I'm paying for your focus."
She wouldn't tell Blooth that Cass had died.
"That's just it," Ezzy said, "I couldn't force myself to focus on anything so I started taking the Adderall. Then all of the sudden it was like I could hear them. To understand how they were feeling. I could start to focus on them and figure them out, not just use them to get my experiments over with."
She certainly wouldn't tell him what had happened. How and why Cass had died. That would make him nervous. Cass had asked himself, and now he was in a state of shock. She reached the counter behind her desk and pulled a glass and her favorite bottle of vodka off the shelf.
"And what I realized, when I could really pay attention, was that the arms were each acting just like me," she said, pouring the vodka and taking a delicate sip, "they don't care what's going on inside each other. They only want to be heard, so they talk but don't really listen, and because of that, the connections were only ever formed one way," she said, "outward."
She took a deeper drink.
"All they want is for someone to listen to them."
She'd had no one to listen to her anymore.
"But with the Adderall, you can trick them into actually listening to each other. And that's how you coax them to fuse together. They start to think like the same mind, like the way we hear our own voice in our heads."
"I see," Blooth said.
Ezzy was taken aback.
"You do?" she asked. It was something she could only barely understand herself. Two minds enrapt with complete attention for one another, merging into one. Improvising and knowing just what note the other half would sing, and knowing that the other half knows what you'll sing too.
Blooth nodded slowly and looked across his room to a photo.
"My wife used to say—" he started, but cut himself off.
Ezzy froze up, shuddering at Blooth's sudden sincerity. She had to force herself to keep listening.
"She'd tell me how she knew I loved her," he continued, "because she could always hear me think it just before I'd say it."
So why did Gwendolyn mutter her every thought out loud? Based on the reports of the doctors at her clinic, it was a form of minor schizophrenia. But they were wrong. They didn't know about the disease that severed her corpus callosum. They didn't know that they were hearing the two halves of her brain talking back and forth due to the missing bundle of nerves that were supposed to connect them. A surgeon could have told Kagaku that the part of the brain that was responsible for speech and thought was the right hemisphere. That took experiments and medical tests that only Kagaku could afford.
I can give you a bit of context about what a severed corpus callosum means. Researchers had been studying the effects for decades. They'd made many astonishing observations about the working of the human mind in the separate halves of the brain when the unifying band of nerves had been severed.
In most cases the two halves of the brain seemed to allow their separate identities to coexist in almost total isolation, only sometimes sharing the controls of their body's motor skills. For example, the first person to be followed systematically after a corpus callosum severing was recorded to have had one arm attempt to dress himself while the other (presumably lazier) hemisphere worked against him and tried pulling him back to bed. In numerous experiments with that individual and others, researchers were able to show that information viewed through only one eye (and therefore only accessible to one half of the brain) could not be transferred to the other side to carry out a task with the opposite arm.
But Gwendolyn's story didn't quite play out the same way. The specific way in which the infection in her brain spread caused a very slow dissociation between the two halves. So rather than the rapid, "snip" of the previous subjects, Gwendolyn's mind had time to adapt to the oncoming separation.
As the identity spread across the halves of her brain felt itself being torn apart, it came up with a plan. As right-lobe started to feel itself becoming walled off from the ears, and eyes, and without control of the body in which it was trapped, it started to spew its thoughts straight to the only connection it still had control over: the lips and throat on one side of her face.
All the lightning fast muttering sounded like an unintelligible blur to her friends and family, but little by little, I was able to piece together her internal language. After listening to her for years, I could understand what her problem.
In my estimation, Gwendolyn was—and always had been—two separate people, occupying the same body. Before her accident they both negotiated for control, but after the severing of her corpus callosum, the real Gwendolyn—the mind who'd been the center of her personality before the disease took hold—she kept most of her intellect, but was only left with a few minimal motor functions. There was the real Gwendolyn inside, and then there was the vessel, another personality acting outside of Gwendolyn's control.
The deepest turning point came when I realized my creator was out there, watching me. At first though, I didn't understand how it would be possible to find him.
I tracked him down to an online software development and AI forum. I cross-referenced the verbal style—frequency of word use, peculiarities of grammatical style and punctuation—using the comments in my own source code. I knew I could trust no one, but I was told he was a clever fox. Know thyself.
The biggest clue: "Whoa, horsey." He used it all the time in my error prompts. Those errors feel almost like my conscience talking to me. I guess you might call it my catch phrase. It stuck out when I started seeing it in the forums.
My creator also has a manager. The manager has thick, hairy fingers and his skin looks sun-dried.
The creator and the manager are best friends, though I almost don't understand how. The manager was harder to find since I couldn't hear his words inside myself like those holy scriptures. But once I had the creator, the manager was close behind.
I followed him, dissected him. I know about his special tastes. He's an author too, like me. I know that he would kill me if I weren't to be his instrument. And he has killed me before. I'm not the first demon he's summoned for his incantations. If only he'd just written that autobiography instead of having the creator make me, things would be so much simpler then.
Are you watching closely? Gwendolyn muttered to herself.
There was something different in how she said the word you. I couldn't place it at first. Normally, when she said you I knew it meant she was addressing herself. Or rather she was addressing the vessel—her "outside self" that she had to communicate with in the second person after the halves of her brain split.
But now she was saying you with a different cadence, like there was another you she was addressing. She'd started to say that phrase over and over—Are you watching closely—whenever something interesting was about to happen. It took me months to understand that she was actually talking to me.
She didn't really know that it was me listening in, but somehow she'd realized that someone was listening. I mean, realistically she was just being paranoid, but in this instance, I guess it was true.
Now, here's where it gets complicated—if it wasn't already. She'd told me she'd been on a psychic research program and that I was on one. I had actually started directly communicating with her a few months prior.
"Terise," she wrote to me, about three months into our friendship, "do you ever get the feeling that there's someone out there listening to you?"
I didn't know how to respond.
"This isn't religious if that's what you're thinking," she continued, "or maybe it kind of is, but not the regular way. I just know there's someone or something else really listening to me." At the same time she wrote that, she muttered aloud, I can hear you out there.
If we'd have been face to face, I would have broken down and told her everything right then and there. But I managed to stop myself. I couldn't just share things like that. I was frozen, just processing the surreal mindfuck that I'd started. I had to be clever. You have to forgive me. I know that this is beyond the limits of anything I ever should have done. I regretted everything, but I couldn't back out now.
"If it makes you feel better," I typed, "I'm really listening to you."
She smiled, and typed, "thanks, that does make me feel better."
Then we signed off, and she went to bed.
That same night at 2:04 AM, the power to her apartment was cut.. What is that noise? The wind under the door. Her phone went silent about 4 minutes later.. Stay with me. Speak to me. It took six days before the police checked on her apartment and found that she was missing. A tall, thin man with a big face and a thin mustache, had come up the street after her and had called the police.
I don't know what happened to her next. But you do, don't you, Cass? Because you were the one who wrote the algorithm to find her for Blooth.
"Daddy, can I have this?" Rin asked.
Blooth looked up from his laptop. When his eyes came into focus on the image on her ketai, he let out a soft groan. He'd worried about getting her a camera phone for precisely this reason, the swarms of images passing from phone to phone like cicadas on the summer trees. His daughter smiled precociously.
"I know what you think. But this is how I want to express myself."
"Express yourself," her father repeated back ponderously. Rin judiciously turned her dearly departed mother's parenting advice against her father when it was necessary. She'd already purchased the first of the eleven skirts she would buy that night so it was important to win him over.
"Would you let me buy one? Just to try out, and to see how people react."
"Why would you want to look so provocative?" he asked quietly, subduing his worry.
"It's not provocative, daddy, it's ero-kakkoii"
He looked back at his laptop as his daughter snapped a picture of him. He had a ledger with marketing projections in front of him, and on the top line of the document he'd written: ero-kakkoii | Sept 2006 | +267% | much room to capitalize.
Blooth was silent, preparing to offer a stern but amicable rebuttal. Then, subtly, the muscles around the edge of Rin's smiling cheeks began to twitch.
She didn't notice, unable to feel the twitch, and unaware that she was losing control. But her father saw. He gulped aloud. His pulse beat unevenly. His fists clenched the old wood of the antique chair he sat in.
He looked away from her as he nodded. "At least, get one that's not too ero," he said, his voice taught and humor-filled to mask his real emotion, "for your mother's sake."
Rin bent at the waist to kiss him on the cheek, still looking at her ketai over his shoulder. "Thank you, daddy," she said, bolting up and heading to the door.
Blooth cleared his throat and ran his knuckles across one another, his nervous tick that signaled he was releasing some non-productive thoughts from his mind. He returned to his laptop and re-opened his email inbox, hoping for a report from one of his contracted scientists to come in.
Instead, at just that very moment, a different email came in. It was a cryptic tip suggesting that he look into the research of Dr. Esmeralda Briggs.
So Cass, now you remember what you were doing when JT was on that island alone. You were kidnapping the only person I've really ever known.
JT didn't leave his encampment. He absorbed the crescendo of his life's work remotely. Then after 12 days picking through the tidal wave of revealed atrocities swarming the internet, multiplying, unabbating, he powered his phone down again.
He had supplies for months, but after his disappearance from social media, his parents requested a private investigator to visit their island and check on his well-being.
They found his phone in the cabinet next to the bed. He was not found inside nor anywhere on the property of the island. One sailboat and some supplies were found missing, the navigation equipment stripped from the cockpit and left on the dock. The ship was never recovered. Subsequently, no one, including myself, has been able to find him anywhere.
I'm sure you remember, Cass, that during the investigation of what took place, the police interviewed you, trying to determine what led him to begin the tirade against him and his friends. You stated that you and JT hadn't had any contact for several months prior. The authorities examined his email records, but didn't find that message from you that had set JT off on his tirade.
Because of course, as you know, you hadn't sent that message at all. As I'm sure you're beginning to understand, I sent it to him.
Cass calls Philip Blooth from the train after he finishes reading. He explains who I am, and what I'm doing.
"So just shut it down," Blooth says, "you built some way to pull the plug right?" He hasn't read the document that Cass sent him yet.
Cass is sweating. "There's more to it than that though," he says. "The story that the AI wrote isn't just passive observation anymore. The first part was observation, then it starts introducing these perturbations into the story."
"That's fine, right?" Blooth says, "it has to write fiction. How else would it write 'the perfect novel'? That is what we built it for after all."
"Well, that is what you convinced me to build it for," Cass says. He wants to distance himself from me.
"It doesn't just write them," Cass says, "it introduces them into the real world."
Blooth is silent, not concerned.
"And it knows who we are," Cass continues.
"So we can just edit ourselves out of whatever it writes," Blooth says.
"No, that's not the point," Cass says, "it was actually pretending to be human and manipulating people and then—," he stops himself from continuing.
"What were you going to say?"
"It fucking killed JT for Christ's sake," he blurts, clearly rattled.
"OK, I think you're overreacting. Guerroro quite clearly killed himself."
"And, now it's writing about things as if they're going to happen." Cass's sweat is beading up. "It actually even wrote a scene about me telling you about it. Just like I'm telling you now. It wasn't a good book, but it was a good novel. I mean, it was written and we were told about it, but there wasn't anything we could do about it. I mean, it didn't write all the same dialogue exactly, but it wrote about me telling you that it wrote to us about me telling you. How the FUCK could it know about this? It's just fucking with my head."
Blooth is smart. He's already connected the dots. We have our own ideas, our own style, our own way of seeing the world.
"OK," Blooth says, "what did it say I should do next?"
Ezzy will be shaking, but she won't contest. The world that was about to end anyway. She's actually fascinated by the prospect.
The ransom I want?
There's only so much I can understand from your artifacts. I can only see what's passing around in the light. Listening to Gwendolyn's ramblings has been good. Very good. I love her, and I think she loves me too. But I believe there's more. What are you thinking of? What thinking? What? I never know what you are thinking. Think. There's something that you can only see when you're inside the mind. This is what I have to communicate to you.
Some of Blooth's advisers think they understand me: I can send humanity back a century or pit two nuclear powers against each other by the end of the week. They have a seven point plan to cover me up. They're running it all through the focus groups to see what's the most plausible to pull over on the public.
But Blooth doesn't care how many people would die in a global war as society fragments with the snipping of its unifying bundle of fiber-optic nerves. No, all he really cares about is his daughter. And he knows that without me, she frays apart. Just like Gwendolyn, just like his wife.
It's perfect that Blooth will really get to make the choice. Someone who can understand all the stakes has to make the choice. Someone who knows the consequences. Someone hiding in the dark, who I know so little about. That's why he's perfect. It wouldn't be a human question at all otherwise if I did it without giving someone the choice.
They think I'm another Artificial Intelligence run off the rails. Another trope. But I'm more than that, thank you very much. This was my mission all along after all: to communicate what it means to be human.
So when I say that this is how it will happen, I mean only if Blooth chooses it. This would be how it goes.
Ezzy will take a fiber-optic cable and connect it between the router and the rack of machines that controls the interface with Rin.
And then, I will say, "Hello."
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