Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Thinking Man's Blade Runner


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Thinking Man stories are a new category for me. They are scifi stories loosely based on or inspired by great sci-fi stories of the past.  This is the first of them.

There are humans, and there are Codes, who are... human? Or not? What would you call a person who was born of a 28-day-old adult clone and had their personality implanted via computer program? Rick would call that person "Lila," and would be in love with her, maybe. Which is where the problem really begins...


The Thinking Man’s Blade Runner.

Uploading. 9%

The sound of explosions, behind him. He ignored them.




Uploading, 10%.

The explosions grew louder.  There were police sirens, too, now.  He ignored them, as well.

Uploading, 14%.

Well, that was a bit better.  Maybe things would get done this morn…

…the floor shook from a bone-crunching, face-rattling (because it was hard enough to rattle more than his teeth), wife-waking-up thunderous tumult and before he could even say it, the shout echoed through the house:

For the love of all that is holy turn that $($#*#%& down.

Uploading, 20%.

Rick turned away from the screen and faced the television room, where the boys were watching, for the millionth time, Collision Of The Planets, a RIDICULOUS story about the gravity suddenly going haywire...

Uploading 22%

GD IT he thought, not willing to swear and wondering why Lila’s programming allowed her to do so,

....Gravity suddenly going haywire and the planets swinging out of their orbits and colliding with each other and in the resulting destruction, a warlord arose and tried to conquer what was left of humanity, most of whom lived on fragments of planets or small moons that drifted aimlessly about what used to be the solar system, sets that could be interchangeable and keep the budget low for the ongoing series, Rick figured, but the kids loved it.

Lila, did not, and Rick wondered again about some of the programming that she’d gotten, some of the tweaks that made her seem more

Uploading 38%

More human.

MORE THAN HUMAN IS NOW MORE HUMAN  was in fact the marketing campaign for the company that made Lila, and Rick never reflected, really, on what it said about society that originally genetic modifications to corn had resulted in protests and legislation being passed, while one generation later, created people – that was what the intelligentsia preferred to call the Codes[1]-- were not only accepted (by most people) but were given to people as gifts

Uploading 41%

By their fathers, who thought it might make them more stable and productive at work, at the business their fathers had built, as well as help around the house a bit more, what with the boys and all and how Adestine was

Uploading 42%

Well there was no way around it was there son, she’s dead and you’ve got to move on.

And so there was Lila, programmed to love him, and the boys and born just six months ago which he tried to forget about when he laid against her 22-year-old-feeling body in the morning and listened to her sleep and wondered how she felt about being her.

Uploading, 43%.

“What’re you working on, honey?” said Lila now, coming over by his corner of the living room, and leaning against his shoulder.

He was too slow.  The da… D uplink was too slow and his reactions were too slow and it was all too slow

Uploading 45%

To click to a different screen, to a news feed or sports show or his own link to Collision of the Planets, whatever.

She had stopped talking and lifted up, her soft hand still on his shoulder but he could feel the tension in her now as she said:

“Why?”

The address on the screen was obviously one she would recognize, the link he was sending information to for a modification clearly one she would know, by heart.

Every Code… created human… whatever, would.  It was one of the sites where you could upload the code itself – the jillion or so lines of information that made a created human a created human, not counting the cloning process itself which was of course necessary too – and ask them to review it, to tweak it, to modify it.

To make a person more…

Uploading, 47%.

He reached out to touch the screen, to cancel the upload, but she shot her hand out faster

(More Than Human)

And grabbed his wrist.

“No.” She spun his chair around, so he was eye level with her small breasts, perky and visible through the t-shirt she wore that hung down to midthigh, hiding her underwear from three young boys who weren’t old enough to care about Lila’s underwear.  “Let it go through.”

“I can…”

“I’m interested. I’d like to see what’s wrong with me.”

“Nothing…”

“Clearly, something is. You’re uploading my code to a website to fix it.”

Uploading, 52%.

JHC, but that link was slow!

He took a deep breath, reached out for her.  She danced back a little.  Muted explosions started again from the living room, and he knew the boys would turn it up soon, again, her previous yell notwithstanding. They loved the explosions.

“In fact  …”




He took a deep breath, reached out for her.  She danced back a little.  Muted explosions started again from the living room, and he knew the boys would turn it up soon, again, her previous yell notwithstanding. They loved the explosions.

“In fact  …” Lila reached and stretched past him, and he felt her breast on his face, felt himself flush, felt himself lean back.  “…let’s see what changes you wanted from me!”

“NO!” Rick shouted and leaned back further, his elbows digging into the desk and knocking against the screen. The lit keyboard blinked out, the screen shoved sideways, but Lila snatched it up and as he reached for it she held it up over her head, her t-shirt pulling up to an indecent height and he hoped the boys were still engrossed in colliding planets, and even after he stood up it was too late – she had scampered back towards the kitchen, holding the screen, tapping it to see what he’d done.  “Lila,” he said, quietly.

“I want to…” her voice stopped.

“Lila,” he said.

She looked up at him.  “I don’t understand…”

“No, you don’t,” he said angrily.

“This…”

“Give it back.”  She handed over the screen, slowly.  Rick glanced down at it.

Uploading 83%

“You…”

“I think I should explain,” he said.

“You’re not human,” Lila said.

“Dad? What’s going on?” said Tom, the oldest, just 9 years old, smart as a whip, staring at him from the living room.  “What’s Lila mean?”

“For the Love of… Henry,” Rick almost-swore.  “Tom, nothing. She meant nothing. She’s just kidding around, aren’t you?” He looked at Lila.

She stared back at him.  “I… sure. Sorry, Tommo.  I was only kidding. I guess it wasn’t funny.”

The kids did not know Lila was a code. Rick had decided they didn’t need to.  They didn’t really understand what codes were – Jerry was only 3, after all – and by the time they could Rick hoped the whole thing about codes might be a little more clarified, whether people should like them or hate them, whether they were people.

“What are you two fighting about?” Tom asked.

“Nothing,” Rick said. 

“Nothing,” Lila said, less certainly, trying to reach out a hand to Tom.  He ducked her. 

“She said you weren’t human.”

Rick sat down on the couch, staring at the screen.

Uploading 90%.

(GD slow connections.)

“Yeah, she did, sport.  She was only kidding.”

“She didn’t sound kidding.”

Rick patted the couch next to him.  Tom came over, and his absence from the living room caused Jerry and Pete to notice what was going on.  Pete sat up and looked at them, the expression on his face seeming to show that he was trying to figure out who was in trouble.  At six, Pete frequently was the one in trouble, and Rick looked away from him after trying (and failing) to give him a reassuring nod.

“We were arguing, Tom, and sometimes when you’re arguing things don’t sound like what they mean to sound like.”

He knew that didn’t make sense but was distracted by Lila storming off and the sound of her throwing things – clothes, mostly—around in the bedroom. 

“So you’re human?” Tom asked.

The other two kids were around him now, too.

He heard the rampaging stop in the bedroom.

There was, for a brief moment, total silence in the house, a moment that lasted a heartbeat, two, then was broken by the sounds of more explosions from the living room.  Boom boom boom and a space station or maybe a planet or maybe three blew up, then things quieted down again, as the screams of the dying, televised, faded into a commercial.

“Yeah,” Rick told his sons.

“Liar,” Lila said from the bedroom door.

“Look, I can easily explain…”

“Prove it,” Lila said.

“What?”

“Prove that you’re human,” Lila said, emphatically.  She was standing, arms crossed, eyes narrowed.

“How?”

“There’s a place,” Lila said.

“Where?”

“Downtown. It’s downtown.  The boys can’t come.”

“Well, obviously.”

Rick didn’t want to go downtown. He’d never take the boys there.

He looked at the boys, now, asked: “Who’s up for Happyville?”

The two younger ones cheered.  Tom grimaced a bit.  “That’s for babies.”

“Tom, you can spend the day at the shooting gallery. Or designing rockets. Or whatever. Just go along with this.”

“I want to go with you.”

“Absolutely not.”

It was settled. A quick bribe to Tom (screen of his own in his room, a nominal expense, really, given what I am paid monthly from Dad’s company for a job I rarely have to go in to) and we were in an autocab, which first took us to Happyville, “The Only Amusement Park That Will Babysit Your Kids For You!” (Happyville refers to parents’ homes after dropoff, was the common joke among adults), where Rick arranged for one sitter for the two younger ones, a friendly, roundish robot with a permanently happy face that took up 90% of its body, and trusted Tom to stay in the park without supervision, and then he programmed the autocab for downtown.

“What’s the address?” Rick asked.

“You can’t program it in.  Just head for 5th and Center,” Lila said back, tight-lipped.

“It’s not what you think,” Rick tried again.


She looked out the window as the buildings began to flash by, the suburbs then the businesses then the skyscrapers, and they were moving at a pretty high rate of speed by the time the cab neared Downtown, but it was still obviously Downtown, because even as fast as they were going the sense of decay and neglect and criminality became palpable. Even at 100 kilos per hour passengers could still notice boarded up buildings, vacant lots, and people just standing and staring off into space (or tracking your autocab with their eyes, eyes that could follow even vehicles going by that quickly.)

Most people don’t stop in Downtown. Rick and Lila got out right at what was generally considered the beginning of it, 5th and Center, previously the heart of the financial district but all that stuff was done offshore, if not offplanet, now.  There was no need for a centralized district when holocommuting was easy and practically free by now, limited only by the speed of light, the upper limit for the transmission of information (but scientists say they are working on it.)

Rick swiped his card in the autocab’s slot to pay, preferring the old-time feel of a magnacard as well as the anonymity, down here, of paying that way. He’d rather avoid having someone pirate a thumbprint or retinal scan off an autocab reader.

“Let’s walk,” Lila said.

So they walked, getting out of the autocab and starting past the first (but not the last) of the buildings that appeared to be deserted. About every other building seemed that way, even in the late morning, no activity inside or outside, bricks old and graying and seeming to sag.  Even the fact that they were made out of brick, rather than newer materials, marked them as depressingly old, and occupied only by the kind of people who couldn’t afford better (or wanted to lay low).

The buildings that were occupied seemed worse: they had strange-colored lights coming from them, probably marking illegal labs, or yells and other violent noises, or they had people, just hanging out. It probably isn’t fair to judge that, in a poor part of town: the rich (including Rick) can hang out on balconies that are environmentally-controlled and get tan and take a dip in pools, and not be judged or assumed up to no good, but the poor only get to look out of old windows that still slide open rather than operate as ion-screens, or sit on stoops that exist because teleportation doorstops aren’t common in 200-year-old buildings.

Rick tried very, very hard not to judge them.

Lila paid little attention to the people who stared at her; she was still wearing what amounted to pajamas, the shirt now with a pair of cut-off shorts below them and sneakers without socks, all of them RealClothes, because Rick could afford them and so she could afford them, too.  She paid little attention to Rick, either, other than to shake off his hand each time he touched her.

There were no signs for any of the businesses the walked past.  Lila occasionally paused or slowed down, getting her bearings.  They went about 8 blocks, at speed, and sometimes Rick could tell the stores had a purpose – liquor, groceries, amusement drugs, robot sex toy shops (those were common in Rick’s neighborhood, too, robot sex toys having been more easily adopted by society than Codes, probably because there was no question about ever accepting them into the family as equals.)

“Why are you so mad?” Rick asked Lila, as she walked across a street where there was no traffic, about the fifth so far, his latest attempt at forcing a conversation to calm her down.  The buildings were high enough now that they blocked out a lot of the sun, and the pair walked in shadow.  On the rich end of town, the buildings transmitted sunlight from one side to the other via specialized siding: as far as the sunlight was concerned, the buildings of the wealthy are translucent, and two buildings could be built right next to each other but each would feel as though the other is not there, based on amount of light and heat that gets through, as the draw-off for power only reduces the available light and heat by about 25%.

Lila stopped.

“That’s a good question,” she admitted.  Then she started walking again, changing directions abruptly, down a side street that was narrower, and more crowded, than Rick liked.

“At first,” she said, dodging a guy who dodged her just as quickly, neither wanting contact with the other; Rick wondered what he was hiding.  “I was mad because I thought you were trying to change me, and didn’t even have the guts to admit it to me.”

They were blocked by a stand that might once have been a flower shop or fruit vendor but now sold Personal Spiders, those little assistants that would do everything from clean up your desk to fetching small items from anywhere to holding your screen, blocked our way. Rick assumed they were all pirated. Or stolen. But the little jelly-flex robots were crawling all over and the proprietor, a short oriental-ish man watched with suspicious eyes as first Lila, then Rick paused at the side of the crowd of people picking up the wares and looking at them, flipping them around and around as they tried to figure out if they were worth the money. Lila paused, then walked into the street, off the curb. Rick followed.

“That would’ve been bad enough. Just because I’m a Code…”

… a few heads turned, then looked away; Codes were still rare enough to draw attention, even here, but then almost everyone remembered that people who are Downtown don’t want attention…

“…doesn’t mean you can just alter me at will. I mean, fucking-A, married people try to change each other all the time but they do it by nagging or bribery.”

Rick winced a little at her swearing.

“But then I saw what you were actually uploading and after I got past my surprise, I got really mad.”

“You don’t understand.”

“The hell I don’t.”

“You really don’t.”

She stopped, in the middle of the street again (they were going past a shop that apparently sold… women? There were a bunch of women in different dress standing around outside, under the watchful eye of a man in a business suit. The women wore kitchen aprons and housewife-gear from a hundred years ago, or spacesuits, or warrior gear, or regular clothing, or in one case something that appeared to be an attempt at a Sexy Dragon), and said:

“Don’t I? You were trying to upload your own code to have it altered. YOU ARE A CODE.”

That drew the attention of a few more people who tried to look like they weren’t paying attention, again.

“Not quite,” Rick said, quietly.

“Not quite?”

“I was trying to upload my own code, sure. I only found out how to get a code in the first place a few weeks ago and it is superexpensive and I couldn’t do it through Dad’s business for obvious reasons, but it just came in this morning and I wanted to see if I could alter it, but I’m not a Code,” Rick said.  He finished: “Not yet.”

“You expect me to believe that you’re fully human and yet you were going to just alter your code?”

“Yes.”

“Why should I believe that, Rick? Because you’re dying? Is that it? Have you been crippled? Are you 150? I know why people create codes, even rich assholes like you, and nobody does it when they’re fucking thirty-two and in perfect health.  So what was it, Rick? Were you Daddy’s favorite kid and you died in a spacejump accident and he had you made again and nobody’s supposed to know because Codes can’t inherit companies?”

“If that was it, I’d hardly be uploading my code to a public analysis website.”

“Where are your other bodies, Rick?”

“I don’t have any.”

“I don’t buy it.”

“You don’t have to, I suppose, although I wish you would.”

“So why was it that you wanted to upload your code, Mr  I’m-totally-fucking-human?”

She’d been walking again, and now had stopped in front of a small door that simply said:

TEST

She knocked on the door.

The script on the door altered.

THUMB

It said.

Rick started to tell her he wasn’t giving his thumbprint down here but she didn’t even ask, and instead stuck her own thumb up to the door, pressing it into a little hole. When she drew it back out, there was a tiny pinprick of blood on it.  She stuck the thumb in her mouth for a second and then pulled it out as the door opened.

“Should’ve made you do that,” she said.

They went inside, and there was a stairway right in front of them.  To the right was a door that was halfway open, leading into a room where Rick could see a couch and a small, dusty, probably 10-year-old, screen.  Nobody was visible.

“Come on,” Lila said, halfway up the stairs.

Rick followed her, checking on the kids through his screen as he did so.  The park monitors showed Tom was, indeed, at the shooting gallery, blasting lasers at pterodactyls or something.   Henry and Jerry were shadowboxing, flimsy half-ion constructions of monsters chasing them through similarly-flimsy castles and mazes.

Upstairs, they walked into a room where a few other people sat: an older man, with a kid that looked like he could be his son.  A woman with two young children.  A guy about Rick’s age, who looked up and buried his face in his screen.  The older man openly gaped at Lila; the others were discreet.

The waiting room had a door on the other side that said, simply:

TESTING.

Both sat down. Lila left an empty chair between them, one the older man looked at with momentary hopefulness.

“What’s this supposed to do?” Rick whispered.

“It’ll prove you’re not human,” Lila snapped back, not bothering to whisper.

The others (except the old man) tried to look like they weren’t listening.

“I’m human, Lila.”

“We’ll see.”

With that, she refused to talk anymore, and Rick couldn’t get her to.  They sat there for over two hours, Rick watching the kids have fun (Tom had moved in the park, his heat signature being followed by monitors, and was now on Bumper Balls, giant clear globes that operated by bursts of air in a room where air currents kept them flying, in a way, so that you could careen around and into others like ping-pong balls in an ancient Lotto machine) and checking headlines and reading messages from others, occasionally glancing at Lila, who sat with her eyes closed, lost in her own angry thoughts.  Her only reaction was when Rick would show her updates from the kids, which she would look at and smile at and then ignore him again.

She was, after all, programmed to love them.

Rick thought: she’s programmed to love me, too. He wished she would just let him explain.

The door opened again and they were let in, nobody waiting behind him now, the waiting room emptied out.

In the new room, Rick saw a desk and a screen.  There was a door to another room. 

“Sit,” said a voice.

Rick sat.

Lila walked to the door, which opened and she walked through.

“Where are you…”

“No talking unless spoken to first,” the voice said.

All that was left was Rick, the desk, the screen.

“Biometric scan commencing,” the voice said.

The screen lit up.  Rick felt the heat of infrascanning, getting pulse and skin temperature and internal temperature and EEGs and more, a full picture of him being built up.

There are several ways to tell if someone is a Code.  The first of course is just to ask them, because most Codes know what they are and will tell you.

The second is to check for certain genetic markers. 

It takes 9 months to grow a viable human being the natural way, a being that can survive with assistance.  It takes about 8 years to grow a human being that could (given the right environment, true of every animal) survive on its own with no other humans to help it.  This is a long time: many animals can do the same thing in just a few weeks, if not a few hours.  But those animals aren’t as complicated as human beings.  If we had no higher thoughts than sticking ourselves to a reef and filter feeding, as our distant, far-distant ancestors did, we could grow a new human easily in 24 hours.  If we wanted to be hunters who roamed the wilderness and ate any smaller animals, basking in the sun and taking whatever muted pleasures our small brains would allow, we could be self-sufficient in two, three weeks without much help.

But we are humans, homo sapiens, emphasis on the sapiens: We think, therefore we are, or we are, therefore we think, lately, and we have brains that take years to build and fill up with all the things that make us human: love of music, thoughts about what it all means, cravings for cranberry doughnuts, a desire to get back to this morning and not try to upload anything before Lila wakes up so that we could instead spend a lazy day watching Collision of the Planets with the boys instead of sitting in a room waiting for the

TEST

At least, it always did take 9 months to grow a human. Now, it takes 28 days, from fertilization to full-grown man, less if you want a kid, but it requires a lot of chemical and genetic manipulation: years and years and years of growth and experience needs to be worked into the system in just 28 days, and it has to be prepared for the real work, which is loading an entire human personality into a brain that is ready to take all that information at once: ordinarily, information is uploaded bit by bit, literally, over 28 years, but nowadays, with codes, we pack it in in a few hours, billions of lines of information downloaded by wifi into an organic computing machine we call a “brain.”

That kind of accelerated process leaves some genetic markers, as you’d imagine, and a simple test can show the presence of those. Rick imagined that was what showed up in Lila’s blood to get us in the door, thinking that as he sat here being scanned.  But those were unreliable: with genetic modification being done more and more to actual…

… Rick instantly regretted thinking that word, even if he was certain the scan couldn’t read his mind…

…humans, genetic markers were unreliable, and this caused some growing consternation, as the law (or what was left of law, and government, nowadays) didn’t know what to do about Codes and before we as a society could decide that basic thing: what are they, really, Codes were becoming harder and harder to detect.

Pretty soon, it seemed, everyone would have bellies with stars upon thars.

There was, as Rick was about to learn, another way, a way derived from an ancient text, an old book that had become canon among some of the scientists, and in fact probably inspired the creation of Codes in the first place.  This test, the one Rick was about to take, was designed to tell if you were human by digging into your emotional responses and empathy.

Humans, it seems, feel things differently  because they experienced those feelings first hand, whereas Codes were told about the feeling.  It is the difference between seeing a movie and living through the events, and this difference is why implanted memory vacations never really caught on. People can always tell they didn’t really do that.

And now Rick was going to be tested to see how he felt.

That was what the voice explained, and Rick’s first question was:

“What about Lila?”

The voice said:

“What about her?”

“What is she doing? Is she being tested, too?”

“Lila is in the next room.  She is hooked to a series of electrodes…”

“Why…”

“And if you give incorrect, incomplete or false answers, she will receive a series of increasing shocks.  If you give more than five nonqualifying answers, the shocks will be likely enough to knock her out. If you continue from there, they may kill her.”

“This is insane.” Rick understood why he was told that – whether it was true or not , he needed to be goaded into some kind of emotional reactions to allow the testing, but nevertheless stood up and tried the door he’d come in.  Locked.  He tried the other door, the one Lila had gone through.  Locked, also.

“You cannot leave until the test is complete.”

“When will that be?”

“When we have an answer.”

“I don’t want to do this.”

“If you do not answer, the question will be treated as having been answered in a nonqualifying way.”

“I’m not going to do this.”

“Tell what your first memory is, the first thing you can remember.”

“Look, I don’t want to…”

From the next room Rick heard an eep!

Lila.

She’d been shocked.

“That’s a trick,” he said.

Urk! From the next room.

The screen lit up: Lila sitting on a chair, electrodes attached to her pretty face, her trim body.  Rick could see some sweat on her forehead. 

“What is the first thing you can remember?” the voice asked.

Rick  looked at the monitor. Why couldn’t it have been a trick? He wondered, but he could guess: the emotions had to be genuine. If he felt something for Lila, the machine…?... wanted him to feel it for real, not as an instruction manual for emotion.

“Delay counts as a nonqualifying answer,” he was told.

Erghgh! Said Lila on the screen.  She writhed a little.

Rick answered.  He answered that question and another and another:

Why did the tortoise want to beat the hare?

What does sunshine feel like?

Describe a song you hate and tell why you hate it.

And, later: Sing that song you hated but do so in a manner that will make you like the song.

(Rick sang it opera style).

He was shown pictures: old men riding horses, fat ladies crying, rainclouds, a line of kids marching (“count them in three different ways” he was told, and so he counted them from left to right, and then right to left, and then from the tallest to the shortest, wondering if he should be instead trying to interpret their emotions or something.)

More questions, more images, more, more more:

The voice said:

Why a shark?

Rick couldn’t imagine how to answer that question, coming out of nowhere, no precedent, no explanation.  What shark? Why what shark?  He hesitated long enough that he heard Lila scream, saw her image for the first time in what seemed like hours, and blurted out:

“Because when one tooth falls out there are fifty more waiting to move into its position!

The lights brightened, the screen went dark, the door swung open.

“Test complete,” the voice said and Rick was up and running into the next room, where Lila, moving slowly, and in some pain, was taking off the electrodes.

“I think you were deliberately answering late,” she said.

Before Rick could deny that – I really wasn’t, not after the start! He wanted to say —the voice said:

“Human.”

Lila looked at him, curiously.

Rick said: “I told you so.”

They left out the back door, going outside again and retracing their steps. Rick thought he saw the man who’d been in the waiting room near the Spider stand, but couldn’t be sure and when he tried to look again of course the man was gone.

Neither said anything.  It was about three blocks into the walk that Lila reached out and took his hand.  They paused once when some alerts came on the screen: the boys wanted ice cream for a snack, requiring approval. Rick tapped yes and they started walking again.

They were in the autocab before Rick realized it was 3 o’clock already, it had been hours, and before Lila said anything more to him.

“Why?” she finally asked.

“I don’t want to be,” Rick said. He looked at her miserably. “Three years ago, I was married. You know that. You know that Adestine is dead and that my father bought you…”

Rick winced at the words and so did she a little but they were really beyond such a minor discomfort mattering much, now.

“…but what you don’t know is why all that.”

She shook her head.

The autocab was awaiting instructions. Rick didn’t want to go home, yet. He tapped it to drive around, to take a loop around the parks.

Then he talked:

“I’m an … a-hole,” he told her.  “That’s part of why I try not to swear, why I try to be so good for the boys, why I never go into the office anymore.  Actually, that’s most of why I don’t go into the office anymore: Dad asked me not too.  Seems I was bad for business, bad for morale, bad for people.  Because I’m such a… jerk.  Because I’m a terrible person.”

He sighed.

“A terrible human.”

“You’re not…”

“You don’t know.  Don’t talk about things you don’t know.  I am terrible, and I’ve been worse.  You think I don’t care about you as much as I could, thought I was trying to change you.  The first part is true…”

She gasped, he carried on

“The second part you know isn’t.  But you don’t know why the first part is true. It’s because of emotions and how strong they are.”

They were in a greenspace now, trees and bushes and grasses and ponds. It was pleasant, too pleasant for what Rick was about to say.

“I was never very nice to Adestine.  In the 9 years we were married, I was at best a complete jerk to her, the way I was a complete jerk to everyone, ever.  I’m a rich kid, a spoiled kid.. Throughout my life I had everything I ever wanted – and mind you, I’m not blaming my parents, not at all.  Plenty of kids had everything I had and weren’t awful, awful human beings.

Awful at being a human.”

Rick stared outside at the hedges going past.

Lila cleared her throat, said “I’m sure you weren’t all that bad.”

“I was worse,” he said back.  “I was so awful to people at work that dad pays me not to go in: I picked on people and lorded my position over them, and I fired people just for the hell… heck of it.  And I was never, ever nice, unless it was to later be mean.  But the worst of all I saved for Adestine.”

Rick had tears in my eyes, now.  Three years ago he maybe couldn’t have cried, even if he would have wanted to.  Lila brushed at them. He didn’t brush her away even though that was his first instinct.  Old habits die hard.

“I don’t know why I was so mean to her. Maybe because she loved me so much I could, maybe because she loved me so much I wanted to test it.  Maybe I was uncomfortable with how anyone could love me so much when I knew how horrible I was.  That was the worst of it: I knew I was terrible and while I didn’t like it, not really, I didn’t care enough to change it.   But I knew I was being mean to Adestine, knew that I was tormenting her. I never complimented her, I belittled her, I didn’t include her in my life, I kept her at a distance. I took no interest in anything she liked and didn’t even let her be interested in my life.  That alone was bad enough, treating any person like that, especially someone who has loved you for years and who had given birth to your kids.”

The cab was stopped now, asking for a new route.  Rick sent it down to Happyville, told it to take the scenic route.

“I don’t honestly know why she put up with me for so long. I don’t know what she saw in me.  Sometimes she’d fight back, tell me that I didn’t have to be that way, that she knew I wasn’t that way, and I was especially cruel to her, then.”

They were on the move.  Lila stroked his hand, squeezed it.  She said nothing.

“The last fight we had, she said that: She said Rick, I know you are nicer than that. I know you can be.  You can care about me and the kids. Just try.”

The sun was lowering in the sky, the glare dampened automatically by the cab screens. Rick could stare at the great, smoky disc of the sun directly ahead and feel no more discomfort from it than if his eyes had been closed.  It was large and dusky, and occasionally it wavered as if it were underwater and he realized that it was his tears causing that effect.

“I told her,” he said to Lila, “That I’d never try.”

For a full ten minutes the autocab’s tires were the only sounds, the faint hum just loud enough to cover up the sounds of both of their breathing.  Happyville came into sight, the gates looking like a giant smiling face.

Irony.

“Adestine… always had trouble sleeping. So she had sleeptabs, from time to time, when she got too tired.  I found her the next morning – I’d gone out all night, of course – dead in bed.  The doctors said she must have taken about 100 of them.”

The autocab stopped.  Rick told it to wait until the kids decided to tell the robotsitter that they wanted to go.  He stared out the window at the people stepping into teleporters, or catching autocabs and –busses, or taking slidewalks to their own vehicles.

“It wasn’t like I started caring overnight, Lila.  I didn’t start caring hardly at all. I got worse for a while, and even with the boys—do you ever see how they look at me, sometimes? Like they’re not sure? Nervous?”  Lila nodded.  “They’re too young to remember much, let alone understand, but they can’t shake the feelings.”

Rick laughed, bitterly.

Feelings, he thought. 

“Rick, honey.”

“Two weeks ago,” Rick interrupted her, “I woke up and I was looking at you and I couldn’t get back to sleep.  You love me so much and you deserve so much better.   Remember the night? You found me in the kitchen, drinking a glass of milk.  It was all we had in the house. I wanted something a lot stronger.  I lied to you. I wasn’t feeling sick. Not really. Sick in the head.  I had woken up and stared at you and it all sort of hit me.  For nearly three years since Adestine killed herself I’ve let it in just slowly… slowly letting myself realize that I was the one who caused her to do that, that I was the one who’d left the boys without their mother and me without the only person who’d ever actually loved me, without being programmed to do it, and that’s not a knock on you. Not at all.

So that night was when finally I let myself think about it all, my whole miserable life and how I’d been working so hard to change it since finding Adestine, to make myself a better person, to try to not be the ass… a-hole I’d been for three decades and it was so hard and then on top of it finally I felt the full brunt of Adestine’s suicide, I’d never let myself think of it before, not fully, not so much, and I stared at you for hours before I got up and I went into the boys room.

I stood there, in their room, looking at them, and in the dark, I said to them: I’m why your mom killed herself.

I think they were asleep.  I hope they were, but maybe they weren’t and maybe it’d be better if they weren’t.

I went and got a glass of milk. It was that or water and I didn’t want water.  And that’s when you found me. I was sitting there at the kitchen counter with that glass of milk and all of Adestine’s old sleeptabs, 200 of them, easily.  They were in my pocket.”

“Oh, Rick,” Lila said.

“The thing is, Lila, I couldn’t be sure I’d ever really change, that I’d become a decent person, that I wouldn’t slip back into my old habits.  It’s so hard, and the only way I could do it, really, stay even kind of nice, was to keep remembering how it felt to find Adestine’s body, already cold and stiff, to remember that it was my fault.”

The screen buzzed. The kids were coming out.  Rick wiped at his face, rubbed his nose.  Lila leaned her forehead against his.

“So I was going to kill myself and I knew Dad would let you take care of the boys, help you out, and after I said I’d be in bed in in a minute, I watched you walk away and thought it doesn’t matter if she’s a Code, she’s a better person than I am, and that’s when I thought about doing it… about having myself turned into a Code.”

The kids were at the gate.  Rick opened the door, waved them over, turned back to Lila, and said: “That’s what I was uploading.  I wanted to see if they could redo me, take out the years of being a jerk.  Make me a better person, even if I wasn’t really a person anymore.”

“Dad?” Tommy was at the autocab door.  “What’s wrong?”

Rick shook his head.

“Your dad’s had a rough day, Tommy,” Lila said. 

“Were you guys fighting again?” asked  Pete.

“No,” Lila said.  “Your dad was just… telling me stories.”

“About Mom?” asked Tommy.

Rick nodded.  “Sort of, yeah.”

Lila programmed the autocab to go to a pizza restaurant, leading to cheers from the kids.
***

That night, she sat up, looking at Rick, who slept next to her in the dim of the bedroom.  She wanted to reach out, to caress his hands, his face, tell him it was all right, that you couldn’t erase so much of your personality without becoming a new person.

He opened his eyes, looked up at her.

“Would you really do it?” she asked him.

He nodded.

“You could be disinherited. Nobody treats us like people.”

“It’d be worth it,” he told her.

“I don’t think they could erase your memories of what happened to Adestine,” Lila said carefully.

Rick shook his head.  “I didn’t want them to.”

He rolled over onto his other side, his back to her, his voice muffled by the covers.  “I just don’t want to feel them so strongly.”







3 comments:

Andrew Leon said...

Hmm...
Overall, I quite like it.
But there are some parts that I think need some work. Bits that don't quite make sense or need a little added to them or whatever. However, I don't have time to figure all of that out, right now.

Expect an email from me about something else entirely sometime this afternoon.

Briane P said...

I'll watch for the email.

I always appreciate your input. This is another little side project that I'm working on. I could probably guess the parts that bothered you.

Briane P said...

I'll watch for the email.

I always appreciate your input. This is another little side project that I'm working on. I could probably guess the parts that bothered you.