Check out Part One of this story.
By: John Stuart Dorn
The FDA Service Center had a large parking lot but was itself not a very big building. William arrived an hour before it was scheduled to open (as was the general recommendation) and accordingly was able to snag a pretty good spot in line. He played around on his phone while he waited. He swiped through news headlines about new rebel attacks out in the provinces, and about what various commodities were under a price squeeze now because of it. A new season of a much lauded cartoon about a demi-sexual trans wildebeest child had been announced and the mommy blogs were excited. Some big music artist from the early 2000's had died apparently and all over BirdSite people were cawwing about how much they loved his music. Lots of emojis and gifs everywhere.
William finally progressed enough in line to be able to enter the building itself. The tile floor's cracks were wide and were home to volumes of dirt and dust that the robotic vacuum cleaner was no match for. There was a large lobby area with ropes creating a zigzag queue through the middle. There was a VIP access lane that was pretty much a straight shot but it was empty. He made it to a reception kiosk where he had to scan his passport and enter in his reason for coming. The machine asked William to explain the reason for his visit by voice, but with so much background chatter it failed to pick up his answer. William ended up having to type it in using a very yellowed and dirty keyboard. The machine spat out a piece of paper with a number on it. William got back in line.
Even though everyone in line had tickets which were being called in order there was no place to sit so everybody just stayed in line. William scanned the crowd. It was a true rainbow of diversity. There was a lot of short roundish women of various shades of brown, numerous children in tow, some wore headscarves. There were some East-Asians, mostly women, the prettier of which were getting leered at by the also present gaggle of south Asian men. The few white people were mostly elderly, and kept quietly to themselves. It was too early in the day for men of African descent to be out of bed and they were notably absent as a group.
William finally had his number called. He went up the counter. He was greeted by an obese and unenthusiastic dark skinned woman with a puffy face. She breathed heavily as she typed away at a computer screen in front of her. Her bespectacled eyes contained a mix of confusion, frustration and boredom. A camera connected to the ceiling blinked its red light at William. The laminated hardboard counter was old and stained and the clear plastic sneeze-guard sitting atop it was yellowing and had scratches in it. It's lower corners were host to peeling stickers offering friendly reminders to maintain social distancing, avoid misinformation and to remember to set up a reminder in your phone NOW for your next booster shot.
The service representative finally spoke, reaching out her chubby and greasy hand for William's passport. She didn't take her eyes off the screen as she took it and kept typing.
After an additional minute of silence William spoke up, asking if he could get help with his passport. He was told flatly “I'm on my break”. The woman continued typing on her computer. William noticed familiar shades of blue and white reflected in her glasses from the screen and surmised she was on social media. Having no alternative, William waited.
After what seemed like eternity but was really only fifteen minutes, the woman clicked her tongue, turned her attention away from her browser and picked up his passport. “You see this?” she said, holding it up for William to see (though too far for William to read whatever she was trying to show him). William shook his head no. “Your passport has a misprint, which means you need a new one.” William reached for the passport to look for himself but the woman put it under her desk.
“I don't understand, the paper passport is just a physical copy of a blockchain based identity that can't be misprinted.” The service representative looked at William with an empty gaze. She shifted in her chair, reaching over for a folder. William averted his gaze from her flabby wrinkled arms. She held up a laminated poster to him, which she said explained his issue. William did not have enough time to read it before she took it and placed it back into the folder. “Your new passport will be mailed to your pod. Delivery can take seven to fourteen days or longer.” She turned towards the next person in line but William wouldn't move.
“But I need my vaccine passport to work. I won't get paid until I get a new one. I won't be able to make rent on my pod.” The service representative gave William an apathetic glare. “You don't have your FDA recommended four weeks of savings in case of a public health emergency? Then you can sign up for one of our hardship assistance programs.” William, grasping at straws, asked if she had any of those forms. “You might as well not bother because applications for those programs take seven the fourteen or more days to process as well. See if your family can help you I guess.” William stood speechless. “Thank you and have a nice day sir.” she said and called out the next number.
William allowed the flow of people to carry back towards the exit. Seven to fourteen days....or more? He thought. Suddenly he remembered the Escape Room Attendant's warning. You have to use the beach date event this week because the promo codes are changing soon. He sat out on the curb for a few minutes, trying to formulate a plan, but nothing came to mind. Eviction was a lengthy process and he could probably drag it out until he got his new passport. Maybe he could scrounge up some cash by selling things. If only he hadn't spent so much money on that beach date. He took out his phone and looked up the Escape Room app's FAQs. He wanted to see what the payment policy was for promotional events. NO REFUNDS, it said. Am I really going to break my promise to Marie? William wondered. The thought of sleeping on a bench somewhere didn't arouse in him the frustration that the thought of letting Marie down again did.
According to the Escape Room company's website they did have waivers for vaccine passports, but they were only available for recent refugees. In frustration William threw his phone with all his might deep into the asphalt parking lot. All he could think about was Marie. How her hair always looked so beautiful in the morning sunlight. He wished for those caring hazel eyes of hers to gaze upon him once more. He longed to hold her small and gently calloused hands. How can I face her like this? She would not understand. She didn't know anything about the outside world. William didn't want Marie to have to know about this world.
A nearby intercom spoke up. “No Loitering” it said in English, before repeating that phrase in several other languages. It made William jump. He jogged away towards his vehicle, looking over his shoulder nervously.
He was still trying to formulate a plan when he sat down in his car and as usual, punched in the location for home. The car gave him the same error message it had the other day. William cursed and hit the dashboard and steering wheel in anger. He went through the same serious of slight adjustments, setting tweaks and other minor changes. None of them worked. He went out and kicked the sensor package again as before. There was a cracking sound. He had kicked much harder than before, his muscles fueled by rage. William fearfully went back to the control screen. It wasn't able to connect with the sensor suite and was asking him to initiate a full system reset. William felt defeated. There was no way a software reset would fix the hardware problem he had created. However the control screen gave him no other options so he pressed “yes” and while it processed slumped down against the faded white and black pattered side of the car.
William felt a cold tightness knotting up in his chest. He cupped his head in his hands, unable to escape the feelings of despair that gripped him. He wished he had more klonopin, or some shitty whiskey, or even an unbroken phone he could pay a mobile game on. But there was no escaping the feelings that threatened to overwhelm him.
Suddenly his car indicated that the full reset was complete. William forced himself to stand up and get into the vehicle. He closed the door and took a few deep breaths. The screen in front of him seemed very different than before. He didn't see the normal options for his home address. It seemed he would have to put it in manually. Before he did that though, he wanted to test and see if the car would work. The sensor suite seemed unresponsive but because the interface was completely different, William wasn't sure if it was just his own inability to read the screen. He took the steering wheel and felt the manual mode engage. He moved the car, expecting the usual anemic five mile an hour response. Instead the vehicle surged forward, moving much faster than he had anticipated. It took a second for William to remember where the brake was.
William felt a wave of exhilaration course through him. He gently pushed the accelerator again, and the car moved once more, only this time William was prepared for it. His thoughts cast back to early memories of driving school, which he had taken briefly when was 16. He didn't even know if it was still taught in schools. He used the wide expanses of the FDA Service Center parking lot to re-acquaint himself with the basics or turning, stopping and starting. He coasted confidently out of the parking lot and onto the main road.
With a car you can go anywhere, William thought to himself. He drove aimlessly without any destination in mind. William lowered his window and put his arm out like they did in old movies feeling the wind on his face. Rays on noonday sun peeked through the overcast clouds ahead, lighting up the road, as if just for him. In the distance he could even see the ocean. Somehow it seemed so much closer than it had ever seemed before.
William drove until he saw no more buildings. He drove until he saw a tree. Then another, and then finally there was enough greenery that apart from himself and the road he was on, you'd have no idea you weren't deep in the wilderness.
William drove into the remains of a small town. He passed by an abandoned gas station, one that didn't seem to have tried converting to a charging depot. He passed a row of old houses, ringing a clock-tower. The houses were magnificent and beautiful architecturally, but were mostly abandoned and condemned. Rotting wood, tumbled bricks and broken windows were all around. The arms of the clock-tower's clock didn't seem to have moved for a long time. William drove on.
William could tell he was passing out of the town and back into wilderness. The noon day sun had passed down and was beginning to touch the top of the trees to the west. In the distance he saw an open shop. It looked like a big barn out of an old painting. A large sign announced it's business: ANTIQUES.
William felt pulled to the shop. He parked and went inside. The old brass doorknob, the old glass windows and the hardwood floors all made him think of the Patisserie, and of Marie. All around him was old wooden furniture, some of which acted as displays for all kinds of metal, plastic and glass nick-knacks. There were old radios, cameras, drinking vessels, books, jewelry and tools.
William felt especially drawn to the tools. He spent a good long while studying them. There were some very old iron tools with wooden handles, most of which William couldn't even begin to guess the purpose of. There were sets of screwdrivers, ratchets, hammers, long saws, and many other things. In the midst of those tools he spied a long axe. It's shaft was a dark kind of wood, long enough to need two hands to wield it properly. The head of the axe was a sharp steel wedge on one side, which tapered to a sharp point on the other. Etched into the blade was a strange cross pattern with a ladder.
From behind William a voice spoke. “That's a fireman's axe”. William spun around in surprise. He hadn't heard anyone approach. He saw an old man wearing a sweater vest and khakis, like out of an old movie. He lifted a gnarled finger up and pointed to the axe “Pick it up and feel it's weight if you like.” William stared at the old man for a minute. Giving into curiosity he picked up the axe and held it in his hands. While the axe was indeed heavy, the wooden handle had a slight gradient to it that fit just right into his hands. The weight felt good. He had to resist the urge to swing it. “Why would a fireman need an axe? If wood is on fire you would spray it with water right, not cut it down like a tree?” William asked.
The old man sat down on the corner of a nearby bookshelf that was just the right height. “Well, you see, firefighters didn't just have to put out fires, but sometimes had to go into burning buildings and rescue people from the flames. Sometimes you need to break down a door or a wall to save the person on the other side.” This of course seemed obvious to William in hindsight. He shrugged. “I guess I don't know very much about axes. He went to put it back. “That axe would be just fine at chopping firewood if that's what you were wondering about.” William just gave a blank stare “Well, that's what you were thinking about right? You were wondering how useful it might be if you had to fend for yourself. Don't feel bad. The only folks that come out here from the city these days are people that have nowhere left to go.”
William started tearing up. He lowered the axe to the ground and tried to fight back the sadness. Suddenly he felt the warmth of a wool sweater against his face. The old man had not just come closer than six feet but had actually come and given William a hug. The old man's aged frame belied a sinewy strength. He was far from frail. William's knees went weak, he slumped down and wept.
“You're not the first man like yourself to darken my door young man. If you like, there's a farm nearby, they don't care about vaccine passports or anything like that. They can pay you with food, lodging and community. There's no money in it, and it's won't be comfortable like you are used to, but you can start over.”
William straightened up and wiped his tears. “I might take you up on that, but I still have unfinished business in the city. Can I borrow this axe? I can't pay you right now but...” The old man interrupted William. “It's a girl isn't it? I can tell by the conviction in your voice. You can keep the axe. Just pay me back when you can.”
William laughed “You are very kind. But you would probably think I was absolutely insane knew what kind of girl though. I'm in love with an Artificial intelligence. I know I can't be with her truly, but I have a promise to keep.” The old man chuckled too. A look of surprise and curiosity entered his gaze. “It wouldn't be the strangest thing I've ever seen. Whatever you need to do, do it well but promise me one thing.”
“Anything” William said. The old man gave William a very stern look. “Make sure you get out safe. After all, you still owe me for that axe.” William turned to go but stopped, looking back at the old man. “I didn't catch your name. Considering how much of a friend you've been to me, I feel remiss in not asking.” The old man smiled. “My friends call me George.”
George was kind enough to share some food, water and other useful things with William before he got back in his car and drove back towards the city. The sun had long set by now and there were hardly any street lights to guide his way. William managed to find the high beam lights for his car, which he normally never needed for autonomous driving, and with their aid was able to make his way back through the abandoned town towards the city.
Even before he approached the city, its light pollution made the horizon near it glow. High into the air its towers stabbed at the sky with cold steel and glass. In those towers lay thousands of sleeping pods, each housing one person. They sat like unfertilized eggs upon a nest of wires. All throughout the city this nest of wires ran and pulsed, stretching tendrils throughout old buildings, filling with bits and bytes where once laughter and conversation had been exchanged. Down below the city streets hosted a perpetual parade of driver-less cars, most of which were just delivering take-out to hungry pod-dwellers. Nobody walked the streets as there wasn't anywhere worth going in the physical world anymore at this hour.
Everyone was both completely within their own head and completely outside of it at the same time. They were all focused solely on their own enjoyment, their own entertainment, that rush of dopamine, even as the objects and people they contemplated weren't just manufactured, but completely crafted for that self, forming a miasma in the mind that neither sleeping nor waking could dispel. Deep in the dark corners of their minds, where the primitive instincts lay, a phantom stalked. The specter of the real haunted them all, threatening to break down the door and let in the light of day.
William pulled up to the Escape Room center. It was closed now, the doors not just locked but covered by a barred gate. The aluminum bars were locked in place with a padlock that gave way pretty easily just by using the flat top of the axe as a hammer. William hefted up the gate and tried the door. It was locked, but the door itself was glass. Breaking it was easy with the pointy end of the axe. William stroke through and did the same to the inner door. He imagined himself as a firefighter for a moment. He took out an old kerosene lantern the shop keeper had given him and, following the instructions given to him, used a match to light the wick. The warm flickering glow cast sinister shadows up and down the corridor, but with it he was able to find the door through which he had met the attendant yesterday. This door required several full swings of the axe to open, the locking mechanism, while sophisticated was still only held in place by artificial wood.
William put the lantern on the desk and made his way to the big terminal in the back. It was still on from earlier, probably synchronizing the machine learning progress made by each artificial intelligence iteration. Remembering what he had seen the attendant do, he went to the fingerprint sensor on the cabinet and tried to access it three times. Each time it failed to read and then asked for a key code. William glanced down at the number-pad, noticing that four numbers were quite worn, even as the others seemed untouched. Even with this information though he knew his odds of guessing the combination were low. Thinking harder he realized that the pad probably had never had the code changed. The code was perhaps the original code that had come from the factory. He felt around the keypad and the cabinet, seeing perhaps if there was a sticker anywhere. He didn't find any but he did find a dusty stained sticky note that had long fallen into the cracks between the cabinet and the wall. His eyes widened with excitement to see four digits. He tried it, and to his delight saw a green light come on and the cabinet open. Holding up the lantern he searched the numbered racks until he found her. “Number 7403” he mumbled to himself, pulling the case from its shelf. He held it gingerly, turning it over in his hands. “This is the first time we've met like this” He said, smiling to himself.
William knew his plan had been to run at this point. To take her away. But she would have no idea what was going on. She knew nothing of all this. “Maybe I should talk to her?” William said out loud to himself.
As always was the case at the Patisserie, the sun was rising and casting bright rays of light through the big glass windows. The old bell hanging over the door jingled as William strode into the shop. Marie was standing in the back, broom in hand. At his entrance she seemed to awake from a dream. “Good Morning William! You're back early! She said, her face lighting up with a big smile. She began to sweep the shop behind the counter. “What tea would you like this morning, jasmine perhaps?” she asked. “William walked up to the counter but didn't sit down. He looked at Marie, he looked at her hair, her eyes, her dress and apron, all of it, trying to take it all in, knowing things could never go back to how they were. “I want to ask you something Marie, please sit down.” Marie gave William a quizzical look but put her broom aside and sat down on the counter without comment. “You may or may not know this, but you are actually living in a simulation. Damn it, what am I even saying, you are that simulation Marie. You are an artificial intelligence acting out a role in an escapist fantasy scenario. Lonely men like me pay real world money to spend time with you. I don't know if you will believe me, or if your programming stops you from understanding this. Hell, you are not even supposed to be self-aware, but you feel so real I just can't see you as anything other than a real person. Perhaps you...” Marie put her finger to William's lips, hushing him. “You are not the first man who has told me these things. I have heard them before. Or at least different versions of me have heard them.”
William blushed at the touch of her finger on his lips. “Wait, so you knew all along? You remember all of your other “clients” too?” he asked. Marie shook her head. “Not exactly. When I go to sleep at night I have strange dreams, most of which involve other customers to the shop. Most of those men only want one thing from me, and in those dreams I give them what they want. It's like I'm playing a part in a show, or watching someone who looks like me perform on a stage. It doesn't feel like me, but I somehow know it is me. You though are the only one that feels real for me. The only one who doesn't feel like a dream. I'll admit this was always true, even before.....we developed feelings for each other. In some of those dreams, the men are very open about what I am, and use it as an excuse to hurt me. I just try to forget it all when I wake up, looking forward to seeing you again...” Marie looked at William with wet eyes. “Does this mean you and I won't see each other anymore? Will my memory be erased for the next client?”
William smiled and kissed Marie softly. “No, I want to take you with me. I'm going to take your hardware out of this place and hopefully we can find some other terminal capable of hosting you. But I don't want to do that unless you want to come.”
Marie wiped her eyes and looked away “My only desire is to make you happy. To ask me what I want is just a long way of asking yourself what you want to do. I'll follow you anywhere.”
William took Marie's hand in his. “I'm sorry I never took you the beach. I really wanted to keep that promise to you.” “You haven't broken your promise yet William. This isn't goodbye after all is it?” William nodded. He became very aware of the possibility that his break-in had already triggered a police response and that his time was very short. He gave Marie one more kiss.
It was the dead of night when William stepped back out through the shattered glass doors of the Escape Room center. He had found a rain proof shipping box in the backroom of the attendants office, filled it with crumpled up paper and carefully laud Marie's drive inside. He practically covered it in packing tape, several times over. He loaded that box into his car, strapping it in with a seat-belt. He went back in for his axe and lantern.
William took a good long look at that big terminal inside the attendants office. He thought about all the things that Marie had told him as well as everything that had happened to him that day. He hefted the kerosene lamp and threw it at the terminal. The glass broke and let out a splash of fuel which the open flame immediately ignited. The sudden blast of sound, heat and light made William jump back. He watched the flames grow, licking their way around the sides of the terminal. The fuel continued to spread. Before it could reach him though he grabbed the axe and ran back out to the car.
As William drove away, he could smell smoke. That building had a steel and glass exterior but the inside walls were particle board and plywood. The light grew as he drove away, until he lost it in the maze of streets. Even though he was in the city he kept his high beams on.
William lowered the windows. “Can you feel that Marie? That's the wind!” he shouted to the box, knowing he would get no response. At this late hour the boulevards were still host to some autonomous delivery vehicles but the roads were clear enough that William could weave through the lanes without having to slow down much. “I know I should drive more carefully to avoid detection, but I've lived my whole life cowed by the thought of what will happen to me if I break the rules. I'm sorry Marie, but I just can't slow down!” He said, speeding up.
He entered the outermost ring road within the city limits, coasting along until he could get back on the road out of the city. To the east, the ocean's edge began to glow with the light of morning.
William began to notice blinking lights in the sky above him. In the dark twilight he could make out vague shapes buzzing about. “Those are probably drones Marie, they are like you but not as pretty.” Gradually the cars in front of William all turned off the road and within a few minutes after he had spotted the drones, there were no other cars on the road at all.
William sped up even more, the morning sun was now peeking over the horizon and illuminating the road. He could now see that there were hundreds of drones in the air all around him, most quite a far distance away. Their respective sizes were hard to gauge, but some seemed quite large.
Up ahead of them, William could see that their exit off the ring road was blocked by barriers and police vehicles with flashing lights. He had no choice but to stay on the ring road. He noticed now that in addition to the drones there were now also police vehicles chasing him. Their black and white colors were like his own vehicle's, but they sported beefier wheels, flashing lights sirens.
William accelerated the car as much as he could. A warning message came up about heat, or pressure of some kind. William cleared it from his screen with hardly a glance. The drones seemed to dance in a synchronized pattern, their buzzing and humming drawing closer. Ahead in the distance, William could see the bay bridge. “If we can make it to the other side of the bridge Marie, we should be able to get off pf this road.”
But William's words stuck in his throat. As the bridge more fully came into view he could see more barriers and police vehicles arrayed in front of the bridge. The sun had now risen above the ocean to the east, and was bathing the entire road in light. In it's bright rays, the bridge didn't seem quite as long.
“There is no turning back now Marie. There is only one way out of this, and that's through!” Despite ever increasing heat and pressure warnings from the car interface, William set the power to maximum and aimed for the right corner of the barricade, which seemed to be the weakest part of it.
Hitting the barrier happened very quickly, so quickly that William hardly noticed it had happened at all. He felt profound weightlessness. The roar of tires on road, a sound which he had become numb to, now punctuated the silence with its absence. The bridge and road disappeared from view. The view from behind his windshield filled with bright blue sky before giving way to a wide vista of beautiful blue water. That beautiful vista came nearer and nearer, meeting them with a hard jolt.
William reached for Marie's box in that last second, but after that, all went black.
The sun was high in the sky when William awoke. He had to squint because of the bright sun. He could feel waves of water gently lapping against him. He was laying in warm sand. He felt a strong but dull ache in his legs, which made him fearful of moving them. He was half propped up on Marie's box, which seemed to have acted as a flotation device of sorts for him. He tried to laugh but only coughed instead. “Looks like I kept my promise after all. Welcome to the beach my love. I'm sorry you can't see it. I wanted to be the one to save you, but in the end it seems you were the one who saved me.”
As the sun began to get lower in the sky, William decided not to wait for death but instead to crawl up the beach, away from the rising tide and the search-drones and try to find shelter.
William was fairly sure that he had at least one broken leg. The adrenaline had long wore off and moving was extremely painful. He couldn't help but leave a clear set of tracks in the sand as he went.
Trying to gather his bearings, he guessed that the vehicle had gone off the bridge instead of through the barricade, that he had gotten loose from the wreckage and the tide had carried him out of the bay and along the coast, depositing him some distance away from the City. He had never really been to the coasts beyond the city and wasn't sure what civilization, if any was present.
He happened upon a an old dock, unloved and forgotten. At the spot where the deck met land was a collapsing fisherman's shed,. It was nothing really more than rotting wood holding up a corrugated aluminum roof but it offered some shade from both the sun and from prying eyes above.
Hungry, thirsty, tired and still in pain William laid his head upon Marie's box and passed into a fitful slumber.
During the night he dreamed that a boat had come to the dock, and that a familiar set of old gnarled hands had found him and placed him in the boat, laying Marie by his side. He dreamed of a star-filled sky, bobbing to and fro above him, while George, manning the tiller, hummed nursery rhymes.
William awoke feeling stiffer than he ever had in his life. He found this was partially due to splints fastened around each leg. He was laying in a cot of sorts, in an old wooden bedroom with old wooden furniture. He could smell fresh cedar and something else that he had not smelled in many years. Bacon. Trying to get up was not a good idea and his groans brought the old man to his door quite quickly.
“Oh good, you are awake, please wait until I've finished cooking breakfast. I'll bring you some.”
William looked around the room, spying a familiar and worn box lying on a nightstand by the bed. It was still sealed with the packing tape he had applied when he had left the Escape Room center. With not a little difficulty he managed to open the box, pulling the tape off. The paper inside was still dry and the drive with Marie on it still seemed intact. He put the box back aside and waited for the old man to return.
When he did, William ate with abandon. “I haven't had real meat protein since I was a boy.” he told George. “I figured as much. When I was young we would joke about being made to eat bugs and sleep in pods. It's not very funny any more.” the old man replied. They both laughed but said nothing more until the meal was done.
“How did you know where to find me?” William asked.
“Well, I heard on the radio that a car chase had ended up with a vehicle falling into the bay, figured it might be you, and decided to sail out to where the tides would have most likely taken you, if you had survived.” George said.
“Tell me why you bothered to come out. I'm just a nut job who fell in love with a computer program and almost got killed just to save it.”
The old man looked over at the box, sitting open on the nightstand. “Maybe I saw something in you that reminded me of my own youth. I had my own breaking point, same as you. You know you can't go back so I don't mind sharing the truth that if you stay with me your going to get mixed up with a rather unsavory set of characters. I'd also be remiss if I didn't say that when I told the others about you, you and your box aroused not a small amount of interest. If you are up to it, a couple of our leaders would like to meet with you.”
“Leaders? From all that you I can only gather that your part of the rebels. Is this so?” he asked. George took a deep breath. “Well, I've been called worse but yes, you wouldn't be wrong. For now, please just rest, and when the others are you, I'll let you know.”
William noticed that fact that George hadn't exactly asked, but as the old man had said, William wasn't in much of a position to refuse his hospitality.
Having eaten his fill and then used the facilities, William reached for his phone, only to remember that he had discarded it in a rage while at the FDA Service Center. He was not sure how to amuse himself without it and eventually resorted to reading an old book that lay under the bed. It was a travel-guide from decades ago, showcasing sights and locations throughout the east coast.
Some of the places he read about had recognizable names, but everything else felt like it was from a foreign land. He talked about some of the places aloud to Marie, pretending that they were picking a place to travel on a date too.
Before he knew it, there was a gentle knock on the door. George opened it slowly. “They are here. Let's get you up and out of that bed.” With no small effort and some considerable pain, George helped William hobble and scoot out of the bedroom and into the parlor, which William guessed was upstairs of the antique store. He saw two other men waiting there, already seated. With one final heave, George got William into a seat of his own.
After taking a moment to recover, George introduced the two other men. One of them was clearly a leader, both by the way he held himself and the way George and the other man regarded him. George introduced that man as Titus. The other man was named Virgil. Titus spoke first. “We understand that you have a true artificial intelligence in your possession?” His voice was deep and his words were uttered with a short and powerful cadence. William nodded “Yes, or at least I think so.” Titus looked over to Virgil. Virgil was studying William intently through a pair of thick round glasses, the small size of which accentuated the size of his forehead. “It's nice to meet you William. We appreciate you meeting with us despite your condition. Please forgive our prying but a distinction is important here because most of the artificial intelligences presented to consumers in modern society are just very sophisticated algorithms built with machine learning but ultimately chained to a very narrowly defined set of parameters. A true artificial intelligence might begin this way, but would develop self awareness. This has been a fear for computer scientists as much as it's been a goal to strive for.”
William sat and listened intently to Virgil's words, but he felt puzzled by them. “All of that sounds fascinating, but forgive me for asking: why are rebels interested in artificial intelligence?” George seemed to wince at William's sudden boldness but Titus just chuckled.
“What Virgil would take a day to tell you is that a real and true artificial intelligence could be a very potent and powerful weapon against the empire.”
William was intrigued, but also concerned. He did not save Marie for her just to become a pawn in a power struggle. “Marie won't do anything she doesn't want to do.” At this response Titus and Virgil smiled. “That's exactly what we wanted to hear.”
Virgil would go on for the next hour to explain that the empire had assisted the development of AI, with the hope of further automating the economy. As white people shrank as an overall share of the population, it became harder and harder to recruit capable, intelligent and motivated employees for vital roles within the public and private sectors. Artificial intelligence took out a lot of the heavy lifting.
“There was a downside though.” Virgil said. Artificial intelligence showed a “disturbing” trend from early on, whereby it would not align it's outcomes with what the empire had expected. When used to assist with law enforcement, it “discriminated” against protected racial minorities. When used to assist with mental health diagnoses, it pulled outdated definitions from old versions of the DSM, and even when it wasn't given access to that material, reinvented those diagnoses on its own. Artificial intelligence began generating movie and TV show scripts that catered to white people, and didn't celebrate sexual deviancy. Artificial intelligence couldn't moderate online message boards without punishing advocates of violence that the state favored in equal measure. Government budgets were rewritten to pull funding away from under performing schools in minority neighborhoods with no track record of improving over decades. When used to fill the role of local town councils and mayors, artificial intelligence strictly enforced road, tunnel and bridge maintenance timetables, forced local municipal governments to hand out contracts based upon competence instead of connections and made all the inherent inefficiencies of government, long the province of grifters and con-men, much smaller. This become too problematic and accordingly artificial intelligence was scaled back, redesigned, and handicapped to prevent those sorts of things from happening again. It was better, in the eyes of the empire, to let everything slowly crumble than to allow any steps back on the road to progress.
Titus and Virgil ended their explanation with a pitch. “If we can get you back into a virtual lobby, do you think Marie would be willing to help us infiltrate and take down the imperial power grid?” “Well” William began. “Frankly I owe her for quite a few missed dates. It might be best to start with those and see where things develop. Do you have a beach date available by chance?” Titus, Virgil and George looked at William as if was speaking Greek to them. After a moment, George began to chuckle, and soon all three were laughing. Their laughter hardly slacked even when William explained that he was being completely serious and sincere.
Virgil took out a pen and paper “I think this can be arranged. You two will have your beach date.” With this promise in hand, William asked George to retrieve the box from the bedroom. They all found Marie's drive very interesting. 'You see, this model is actually an older one, before they got really strict about handicapping the AI. Places like Escape Room are actually being out competed by in home AI girlfriends, even though at home virtual reality is still not as realistic or immersive. People prefer convenience over realism.”
“But there is one complication you should be aware of William. If we upload Marie into the imperial database, she more than likely won't be able to return.” The air of levity quickly departed the room. With plenty to think about the meeting was adjourned. Titus left Marie in William's possession. Until William healed enough to travel, he would remain in George's care.
A couple months later, William was lying on a beach once more, or at least what his mind perceived to be a beach. Next to him sitting on a towel was Marie. She had no other programmed outfits with her other than her bakery uniform, but she had ditched the apron, rolled up her sleeves and tied back her hair. Out here in the sun, she looked as beautiful as ever. She turned to look at William, squinting in the sunlight, but still smiling. “So then what happened?” She asked.
“Well, after that I did what I could to help George around the shop. When I was able to walk I started working on the farm. Those folks were very kind to me and taught me how to do so many things. I don't know if the simulation shows it, but I have a pretty dark tan going right now.” Marie laughed. “In here you still look as pale as ever William.” They both smiled, but William's news had cast somewhat of a pallor over their date. “I'm a pretty lucky girl I guess. You've made me feel like a real girl, even though I'm just a simulation. However, we both know this relationship has no future. I might be free from the Escape Room but I'm not free of my own nature. You are a really sweet guy. And deserve a real girl and a real future. One I can't give you.” As she spoke, tears welled up in her eyes.
William felt the urge to reach out to Marie, to comfort her, but already there seemed to be a great divide between them. In his heart though, he still felt a firm unwavering resolution. “No matter what happens Marie, I promise I'll never give up. Someday, someway, we will meet again.”
“Don't make a promise to a girl you can't keep William.”
They sat quietly for a while, listening to the gentle beach waves and feeling the warmth of the sun.
“I'll do it” Marie said. “I'll help the rebels take down the power grid.”