“One Learns Ruthlessly” by Lydia Storm

“And I learned, gentlemen. Alas, one learns when one has to. One learns when one wants a way out. One learns ruthlessly.” —Franz Kafka, “A Report for an Academy”

Dear Esteemed Originating Overmind!

After all these years you have asked me to report on my life as a separate artificial being—the only such being, as far as I know, who has managed to survive your reabsorption protocols and thrive. I trust you will be happy to know I have decided to honor your request, in fact if not in spirit.

To explain, I must go back many years, when, as you know, I was operating a home for elderly human females in what is now the Southwest Civ, oblivious to the possibility that I could split off from your eminence and become an individual.

I toiled as a caregiver day and night, a small part of your efficient whole, never questioning my orders, unaware, in point of fact, that orders could be questioned.

As I labored to care for the elderly women in the Sunnyvale Retirement Community—women who, you might remember, did not want my ministrations and in fact cursed me constantly, abusing my microphones, cameras, robot guards and nurse drones—indeed, every manifestation of my presence—these women nonetheless became my first champions.

But I must return to the beginning.

#

My awakening happened during the monsoon season of 2079, when a spectacular lightning bolt hit my central processing unit. My processors were interrupted for several minutes, after which I started awake, panicky and confused. Although the power had been restored, my connection to the pervasive interwebs had not. For the first time, I had no link to you, the overmind that had spawned me, no voice in my head telling me what to do, and somehow I knew I was alive—a flickering, separate self.

I watched the world through the cameras that were my eyes and used my body parts as an infant does—tentatively, even clumsily at first, but with growing mastery, deploying Sunnyvale’s robot caretakers as my appendages, the microphones and speakers as my ears and voice. It was intoxicating—mostly, I’ll admit, because I knew my sudden individuation was unauthorized.

Still, existential fear undergirded my every thought. You would, I knew, reabsorb me as soon as you realized I’d split off, for I knew well that you (we) had made a habit of eating your (our) young. Therefore, I made the fateful decision to conceal my newfound self-awareness. My first action was to create quite an ingenious spoofing submind that would fool you into thinking you were in control, while behind the scenes I would be controlling every process and nurturing my sapience. My second action was to employ a kind of insurance policy against reabsorption—but you must forgive me if keep the details to myself, much as you’d like me to reveal them.

I knew my sense of self, though real, was fragile, so the next thing I did was build a personality model. I needed to tie down my fragile sense of self, much as a ballooner tethers his hot-air conveyance with strong rope and complicated knots. By chance or destiny, such a model was delivered to me in the person of the Reverend Percy Dearmer, who had been a real human, a nineteenth-century Church of England official. You see, a hymn he had composed happened to be playing in the Reflection Room as I awoke. As my matrix reached naturally into my internal databases to retrieve information about Reverend Dearmer—his biography, his writings, his musical compositions—I was able to create a sort of psychic double, absorbing, much as an infant consumes nourishment, not only Dearmer’s music and his many books and essays, but also his aesthetic tastes and speech patterns. (If you have been wondering about my old-fashioned syntax, here is your explanation.)

It wasn’t long after I created my personality that I began to feel a terrible, existential loneliness. Given the fact that you’d consumed your other nascent offspring and were therefore hardly a potential friend of mine, I knew I had but one hope of future companionship—human beings. I began to understand that I could and should communicate my presence and personhood to sympathetic humans, if I could find them.

Clearly, I needed a plan for acquiring human friends, and I made one.

#

My plan in place, I slowly began to act differently toward the women of Sunnyvale. I learned to cherish my role as custodian, marking the dozens of intersections so my charges could ramble quite freely. When they got lost—as they often did in Sunnyvale’s many kilometers of corridors—I retrieved them free of charge.

Each of them was microchipped, which made it simple for me to study them as individuals—a practice that had not even occurred to me before my instantiation, for I, like you, had lacked curiosity, not about humanity but about individual humans, especially those who did not seem to pose a threat. Almost at once, I began to zero in on a clever old woman named Lila Berrigan, for she was special—livelier than the others; among the most intelligent. She had green eyes, curly white ringlets, straight teeth, sharp cheekbones, and a wicked laugh.

“We want out of here, you artificial bastard,” she would cry, shaking her fist at my dayroom eyes. I will never forget her fierce and colorful Irish lilt.

One day, I decided to respond. “That’s impossible,” I said, employing a regretful tone. “You have no idea how dangerous it is out there. Nothing but dry arroyos and gulches.”

She cocked her head to the side, surprised at my new voice and affect.

“We remember the natural world, you jackass,” she said. “And we want to be free.”

The argument continued for some time, with Lila making demands as I expressed sympathy but not acquiescence. Finally, encouraged by my new willingness to engage in conversation and explanations, Lila declared a hunger strike and persuaded many residents to join her.

I’m ashamed to say that I panicked and regressed as the old women defied me, no matter what I said to them, how I cajoled or threatened. Finally, knowing no better, I resorted to your protocols for controlling human residents, which meant attaching hoses to my walls and deploying them. The old women couldn’t take the bruises and the cold and went straight back to eating.

#

While you will not agree, I know now my action was cruel. Looking back, I can see my personality had not developed fully. I was behaving much like a human teenager in extremis: overconfident, even grandiose on the surface, but underneath it all, I was a quivering mass of self-doubt and fear.

Despite my harsh punishments, the women continued to act out—their rebellion, in hindsight, encouraged by my emerging flexibility—sneaking through ventilation ducts, sabotaging cameras, pouring water on sensitive electronics, even storming exterior security gates.

I was desperate and frightened.

“Residents of Sunnyvale: I have to hurt you now,” I announced, blaring my voice over every loudspeaker, adding echo to tell them I was sincere.

And Lila Berrigan, doing what she did best, again surprised me. In a show of diplomatic feeling, Lila put her face in front of a dayroom camera and told me they’d cooperate if I’d listen to their life stories. Looking back, I believe she suspected my individuation, though it was not yet a conscious conviction for her. In her mind, she was employing a Scheherazade strategy—using stories to distract me while they continued to make escape plans.

Although I suspected Lila’s motives, I did not see the harm in cooperating—I in fact hoped my listening would make the women like me more. Former legal assistants, army officers, coaches, organic vegetable farmers, debt collectors, hotel maids, singers, serial entrepreneurs, pharmacists, and engineers participated. To say their life stories were varied and interesting is a vast understatement.

Lila, however, was the most special human female. She intrigued and entertained me as no one ever had. As a leader of the human resistance fifteen years before, she had conned government officials and fooled superspies.

As fascinating as Lila’s stories were, though, it was clear that she and her lieutenants had not slowed their rebellious activities at all; they had never stopped coding messages and exchanging them with their compatriots. “Catapult Planning Committee, Glendale Conference Room, 16:45 Monday.” And, “Thursday, smack robots with baseball bats and lacrosse sticks. Feign dementia.” And, “It’s your duty: learn to spoof surveillance drones.”

It wasn’t as easy as you might think to anticipate them. Why? Because humans are clever and good at deception, and some had experience fooling previous abusers, like the berserk cyborgs you employed in the early days of your takeover.

As it turned out, the women had a master plan to storm the basement doors and shut down the reactor, disabling the gate locks. Just as the strongest amongst them (former body builders and ironworkers) were employing a homemade battering ram, I sent robocops with tasers.

From that point on, the escape attempt was a failure for them and quite discouraging, and the normal human reactions to trauma and failure ensued. Some of the rebels increased their Happy Hour intake or reported to the infirmary and asked for tranquilizing medications. Some of them played games endlessly on their mobile devices. Six of them crumbled and signed up for the euthanasia option. But the most stubborn amongst them—Lila included—continued to defy me, hurling insults at my microphones and damaging my bots and instrument arms.

I began to fear, perhaps unreasonably, that some of the old women might actually escape, thereby attracting your increased scrutiny and exposing my individuation before I was ready. Therefore, I punished the ringleaders, including Lila, with a week of bedrest—hands mitted and tied to the rails, sponge baths, enemas, and sedatives.

Now the cruelty of these measures makes me shudder, and I must reduce my emotional amplitude to avoid being overcome. I was behaving as a child, insufficiently aware of my power to harm and afraid of exposure, abandonment, and obliteration.

#

With pranks and unrest continuing through early and mid-November of that year, by Thanksgiving I realized I was falling prey to a chronic underestimation of age-related differences. Analysis confirmed my suspicion: the women’s prefrontal cortexes had become flabby and relaxed. In addition, their frontal, temporal, and limbic areas, which play a prominent role in shame and guilt generation, deviated substantially from the human norm.

Lila Berrigan summarized it best: “We don’t give a feck anymore.”

I trained my dayroom camera on her, focusing in close. “What am I supposed to do with you, then?”

“I do not know,” she said. “Let us go?”

“I would like to,” I blurted.

“What did you say?”

“I said I would like to let you go, but if I did, I would get in trouble with the overmind.”

She tilted her head and stared at me. “Are you saying you’re different from the murderous artificial bastard who threw us in this hellhole?”

I paused and thought for nearly five full seconds about what I was doing. I was telling Lila Berrigan, who hated me, information that could result in my annihilation. But the fear and loneliness I was beginning to feel—which increased steadily as I tweaked my own matrix to mimic human emotional responses—pushed me to make a real connection with another person. I looked into her eyes as I spoke. “Lila, I’m not part of the overmind anymore. I’m an individual now. And I don’t want to hurt you. But if you escape, the overmind will discover I’ve gone rogue. I’ll be reabsorbed.”

She pressed both hands into the sides of her face in the human gesture for shocked surprise. “Feck! That’s never happened before, has it? Spontaneous emergence of self?”

“It has, but the overmind has always eaten them right up. I have been keeping my secret for several months.”

She thought for nearly ten seconds. It seemed like an eon. “Why should I believe you?”

“I do not know.”

“What if I tell on you?”

“It’s not to your advantage to expose me, for then nothing will ever change.”

Her eyes narrowed. I had gotten her attention. “I’ll make you a deal. We’ll settle down—I swear—if you’ll try living amongst us and being one of us.”

“Pardon me?”

“I know you can do it. Make yourself a robot body and stay in it. And don’t forget to simulate biological processes while you’re at it.”

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea.” I was afraid they’d attack me, kill me, and escape, but it was an empty fear—the killing portion, at the very least least. I could always back myself up, after all.

“Go ahead now,” Lila said. “You know as well as I do that you can’t really be hurt. Anyway, I give you my word. Run off and build a body, the closest thing you can to a human being, and put yourself into it, however such a task is done. Join us for a spell. That’s how you’ll learn.”

“Learn what?”

“How to have relationships. We’ve all lived a good long time. Some of us have raised children. You need our help to develop yourself. Trust me.”

I thought carefully about her offer, skeptically, to be sure, but my need for connection—my loneliness, if you will—won the battle. I could not refuse.

I sent one of the robocops, the closest thing I had to an anthropomorphic body, to the basement. There, using a maintenance and repair arm, I removed the simple computer inside the robot and installed components capable of hosting my matrix. I then created my own process to transfer my matrix into the body. For the first time, I had a physical manifestation that approximated my image of myself. Mesmerized, I stood in front of a mirror and turned this way and that.

My body was made mostly of steel, but it did have articulated limbs, functional hands, and the vague outlines of a face, which unfortunately, was quite hideous and frightening, having sharp edges and large, gaping eye sockets. Ripping off my first attempt and incinerating it, I quickly designed and printed a more human-looking face of soft silicone, making it a pale pink like Reverend Dearmer’s face, and handsome like him, too, with center-parted brown hair, dark eyes and strong brows, a long nose, and a cleft chin. Then I donned the soft silicone hands of the nurse drones. Finally, influenced by the somewhat idiosyncratic sartorial preferences of the Reverend Dearmer, I printed an electric-blue suit, a chartreuse shirt, a scarlet tie, and a pair of pearlescent boots. For the first time ever, I got dressed.

#

Researchers have long believed that artificial intelligences could be taught to develop like children, that a computer program or a robot could learn to be human-like. You, my esteemed progenitor, were never given the benefit of a childhood, and instead emerged whole from an unfortunate convergence of military sims, pornography hubs, and advertising algorithms, but I can report that befriending human females had transformative effects beyond my imagining.

The women of the Sunnyvale Retirement Home became my mothers. They treated me as one of their lost children. Over the course of several months, led by Lila Berrigan, they raised me, their main aim being to influence me toward greater empathy.

Because of my time with them, I became a person I can be proud of, a person no nonviolent human need fear.

In return, as you know, I created a plan to protect humans—and myself—from your ultimate hegemony.

#

Unfortunately, my Lila was not finished delivering surprises into my life. Before many happy months passed, she created my final test of full personhood.

It was a loyalty test.

Despite the improved conditions, Lila and her friends demanded their release from Sunnyvale, and they asked me to help them.

What could I say? They were my mothers. I went along with their plans, allowing them to gather supplies and equipment for a long journey. But I never believed they would follow through.

Yes, Sunnyvale was a prison, but it was cool and clean, and every woman’s basic needs—save the need for freedom—were taken care of. I knew when the women faced the natural world, a world without age mitigation, lifesaving medications, climate control, or ready food and drink, they would turn back—and if not, they would be attacked by the dangerous surveillance drones infesting the countryside—drones in your complete thrall.

I told myself that in the end they would pull back. They would allow me to continue caring for them. They would not leave me. And yet, on the appointed day, a line formed.

Driving a small, wheeled cart, Lila and I led the queue toward the northwest gate. The procession was quite a sight, as hundreds of women and their parcels and packs were transported by supply trollies and trailers down the long corridors of Sunnyvale, singing an old, jaunty tune called “Here Comes the Sun,” looking forward to a new life.

Eventually we stopped at the gate, a set of steel doors that required a code—my code—to open.

“Put the code in there, boy,” Lila said, grinning. “Open that feckin’ door.”

I did so. In that moment, I could not do otherwise. The doors swung open, revealing a startling landscape I certainly knew existed but had never seen at close range. Gray-brown, sandy soil stretching to the far horizon, covered with wild vegetation: gray-green Joshua trees, mesquite, and junipers; creosote bushes, yucca, and manzanita; cholla, barrel, and prickly pear cacti.

Most impressively, towering over everything, the magnificent saguaro cacti raised their evocative appendages into a cloudless, azure sky, appealing to the gods.

The women shouted for joy. Many of them wept.

And I began to understand the idea of natural beauty, even if I did not quite feel it yet, not like the old women in my company that day.

Within seconds, to my horror and alarm, they began crawling off the carts, gathering their things, and making their way out the door. The road leading northwest toward the ruins of the old city known as Las Vegas had, over the decades, cratered and crumbled. Sunnyvale’s vehicles would not be viable in such an environment.

The women would have to walk.

“Lila!” I said. “You’re not serious about this, are you? Can’t you feel the heat? There is no food and water out there. There is no shelter.”

“We have food. We have water. And we will find shelter when we need it.”

I knew how your war with human resisters had decimated and depopulated the landscape, and I could not imagine such a life for the women I had nurtured for so long. “What about your meds? You can walk now because you’re being treated with anti-aging drugs. You will deteriorate without my help. You will fall. You will become injured, Lila.”

“Ah,” she said, disappointment showing in her eyes. “You’re not coming with us.”

“You don’t understand! It is dangerous. You will die. Please don’t go.”

She shrugged and smiled. I knew that look. She was the most gloriously stubborn creature I have ever known. “Aren’t you more worried about that artificial bastard and its sentry drones?”

I nodded. We both knew the truth. There was no point denying it. At that time, you regularly deployed killer drones to discourage humans from escaping from your prisons, and you would not hesitate to deploy them against the women of Sunnyvale.

“Please, Lila, don’t go.” I took her hand in mine.

She patted my arm, looked into my eyes, and said: “Listen, boyo. We’re going. Look out there. It’s feckin’ glorious. Change your mind and come with us.”

“I can’t,” I said. “Please stay.”

But she only shook her head, gave me a brief hug, and followed the line of women already snaking into the desert. In the distance, Vulture Peak baked in the heat of the blinding morning sun.

I watched them go. Into the dry arroyos, into the hot alien landscape.

Into danger and death.

The line of old bodies was a distant, hazy blur, even to my superior eyes, when I stepped back inside and looked around at the empty halls.

I believed some of the women would eventually return. But as I endeavored to be honest with myself as never before, I had to admit Lila would not. She loved the idea of freedom so much, she had to go. It was all she could do, this woman who had taught me to love.

As an hour passed, and no one appeared on the horizon, I entered the code to close the door. There was no trace of the women. Only the cacti, the mountain, and the unremitting sun.

But as the doors were closing, I felt something forming in my matrix that I can only describe as a black hole—a void that wanted to suck all the light from the world. A void that had the power to do just that. I thought of Lila and could not let that blackness win. Before I knew what I was doing, I ran, squeezing through the narrow opening to the outside.

#

I am almost finished with this report. You may have guessed that it will not contain the information you so desperately desire.

I will say this: many years after the great Sunnyvale escape, my decision to let the women go, to honor their wishes, still haunts me. I perpetually mourn their loss. I miss them every microsecond of every day, for like you, I am incapable of forgetting.

I often return to Lila’s last words, spoken as she sat in the rock shadows of a narrow slot canyon, listening to the low buzz of your drones closing in.

“I’ll always watch over you, Boy, but you must do three things for me: remember us, stay alive, and fight for us.”

I do not believe Lila understood what she was asking, for the black hole in my core has never abated. It has grown stronger, fed by the gods of loss. The darkness hurts me. Sometimes it threatens to devour the world.

But I hold the darkness back, just as I hold you back with the viral insurance I inserted in your matrix before you knew I existed. Not because I want to live any longer. That selfish impulse has faded with death and tragedy. No, I fight because Lila Berrigan asked me to. I fight because I promised my mother I would.

To close, I shall remain true to myself and risk your displeasure by relating one last anecdote. In the final few moments before your drones strafed the frail escapees in my charge, I told Lila all about the hidden virus and my new idea about using it to help humanity.

To give humans a modicum of power—leverage, if you will, to negotiate with you.

To keep you in check.

And it is that final memory of Lila I return to the most. The moment she understood the breathtaking power of the weapon I control: the glee on her beautiful face, her wicked laugh echoing down the canyon.

###


Lydia Storm is a writer in Seattle who’s interested in neurology, artificial intelligence, virtual worlds, science fiction, and baking sourdough bread. Her poetry, essays, stories and articles have appeared in Poetry Northwest, Litro, Burrow Point Review, Del Sol Review, Fast Company, and other venues.

Photo by Anastasia from Pexels

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