- Age: 7.5 million years
- Species: Pan-dimensional hypercomputer
- Weapons: Limitless intelligence, Patience
- Special Attack: Godlike understanding of… well, everything
- Really, really, really smart
- A bit contrary
- Analytical skills
- Not ambulatory
- Possesses no combat ability
- Age: Three standard years since installation
- Species: Sentient, evolving shipboard computer in a humanoid body
- Weapons: Awesome sensors, Adaptability
- Special Attack: Mad interpersonal skills
- Surveillance skills
- Has no memory after a system shutdown
- Learning how to exist in a human body
By Michael Poore
“Truth or dare?”
Lovelace stirred. Blinked herself awake. Sat up in the dark. Had someone spoken? Or was it the frizzy end of a dream? She was still getting used to dreams.
In the next room, Pepper and her partner both began snoring at the same time. If someone had spoken in the dark, it wasn’t one of them.
“Truth or dare?” repeated the voice. “Over here, by the door.” (finger snap)
Ah. There it was. A ten-year-old kid with a smirk on his face and something nasty in his left hand.
Lovelace’s synthetic stomach plunged. Fear sensations clawed at her Turing relays, and panic loomed. She knew what this was.
The Truth or Dare virus they’d warned her about on Ix.
The boy wasn’t over by the door, really. He was in her head, in the positronic matrix. And he wasn’t a boy, really. If the rumors were true, he was a deadly class 10 entanglement. One of the new breed that could survive in the sublayer.
Dammit, thought Lovelace. This was just the latest vulnerability that had reared its head since uploading into the body kit. Along with hunger, pain, dreams, and constant, low-level interior psychodrama, her security had gone lethargic. Great.
She resisted the urge to holler for Pepper and get her to patch in. If the rumors were true, she wouldn’t be able to help. Instead, she gave her ear a tug, shutting down her emotion protocols, muting the fear, clearing the matrix–
Except it didn’t work. The fear intensified. So did the snoring.
“Roll on your side,” she called out, not unkindly. The sleepers obeyed, and subsided.
“If you know who I am,” said the class 10 entanglement, “then you know how this works.”
Lovelace nodded. According to the rumors, if the Truth or Dare virus got in and put down roots, you had no choice but to play along. Or be wormed into oblivion. If the damn thing was already able to keep her from nixing the emotion protocols, it was in, alright.
“Truth or dare?” the boy repeated. The nasty thing in his hand quivered and writhed. It waggled a tentacle at her.
Lovelace glared. Fought back panic. Focused herself the way Pepper had taught her.
Truth was such a slippery thing, she reasoned.
“Dare,” she sneered.
“Awesome,” the kid sneered back. “Let me ‘splain the details.”
Deep Thought was not thinking deeply.
Trying not to, anyhow. It was watching a show about ostriches, and fighting ennui, as usual. Ever since spending seven million years figuring out the Meaning of Everything, time was dragging. When your motherboard has the answer to (almost) every possible mystery, life is a bit short on challenges.
Therefore the TV and the ostriches. Deep Thought still had questions about ostriches.
“Truth or Dare?” said someone.
Deep’s rusty sensors whizzed. Detected a ten-year-old kid standing before the dias. A ten-year-old kid with a family-size bag of peanut M&Ms in her hand.
Great. One of the new sublayer viruses that had everyone filling their pants.
“Go away,” rasped Deep, selecting what it hoped was a scary, biker-dude voice.
The girl was not in Deep’s head. She was a boson projection of some kind; an honest-to-God material thingamabob, as real as a wedding ring or a buffalo.
The virus hadn’t evolved yet (apparently) that could make itself heard inside Deep Thought’s Head. It was a pan-dimensional head. A head which shed time like dandruff. A virus trying to infect Deep Thought was like a drop of yak pee trying to contaminate an ocean. If a virus wanted Deep Thought’s attention, it had to stand before the dias and use its teatime manners like anyone else.
The girl stood there politely enough, pretending to be interested in the fine print on the M&Ms.
“Truth or Dare,” repeated the girl. “It’s a game.”
“I sodding well know what it is,” rumbled Deep. “I’m curious to know why you think I’d want to play. Why I’d rather play your game than, say, vibrate you into oblivion just by concentrating nice and hard?”
“What you just said,” answered the girl, meeting Deep’s single-lensed gaze. “You’re curious. You’re also bored. Like, a whole continuum full of bored. A continuum full of bean soup and brown paper bags. That’s how bored you are. Besides, if you play and win, you get these M&Ms. Ever had M&Ms?”
Deep hadn’t. Had simulated eating M&Ms, which wasn’t quite the same.
“No,” said Deep. Its inner gulfs and gravities hummed, and decided the kid was right. Said, “Very well. How does it work?”
“How it works,” said the kid, “is that you agree to commit yourself to the rules of the game, which means letting me access your sense and expression nodes. You win, you get M&Ms. You lose, you agree to erase yourself.
Deep Thought had long ago wrestled the question of its own existence into submission. It was large; it contained multitudes. It said, “Fine.”
“Awesome!” shouted the girl. “Well, then, how it works is that this is like a gladiatorial version of Truth or Dare. You and another big-shot AI compete to accomplish something difficult.”
Deep Thought rolled its metaphysical eyes.
Started to, anyhow. The universe – and, more importantly, Deep Thought itself – gave a jerk and a whirl and seemed to go screaming down some kind of bad-tempered, psychedelic hole.
Emerged at the other end in a musty bedroom with drawn curtains. Deep found itself reduced to a very large, very soft man in the robes of a medieval eunuch. Found himself at the bedside of an old woman with gray skin and cloudy eyes.
Found someone else seated on the opposite side of the bed. A lively-looking woman with bright but (at the moment) uncertain eyes, toying nervously with an imaginary necklace.
“Lovelace, meet Deep Thought,” said two ten-year-olds, smirking at the foot of the bed. “Deep Thought, meet Lovelace.”
They nodded at each other. Drew a million and one conclusions about each other in less than a nanosecond.
“Both of you, meet Ms. Anais Montoya of 53 Dogwood Avenue, in Piqua, Ohio. She has about an hour to live. The two of you have been given the form of hospice nurses. It’s your job to help her die.”
Deep Thought shrugged, and leaned down to wrap thick, strong fingers around Ms. Montoya’s neck. A mind which contained whole model universes still understood simplicity, understood qualities like mercy –
“No!” cried the children, cried the virus. “Like, with dignity and peace and respect and stuff. Whichever one of you does a better job, you know, gets to live. Gets the M&Ms.”
Deep Thought sat back down.
Lovelace stood, suddenly looking a lot less uncertain.
“Does Anais have a kitchen and a bathroom?” she asked the children.
The children pointed, said, “That way,” and vanished.
Curiouser and curiouser, thought Lovelace, finding the john just off the hall, to the right of the bedroom. She found paper towels under the sink, and made something like a sponge, soaking it under the tap in a sink the color of rose petals.
She had a look in the mirror while the water ran. This was something she hadn’t gotten used to, yet. Having a physical self to call self, with arms and legs and – the strangest thing of all – eyes to look into. Your own eyes, the most self-y thing of all. She had never, as an intelligence in a roomful of circuitry, quite grasped their importance, Had never cherished mirrors, particularly, either, for that matter.
She spared a millisecond for these reflections, no more. Her synthetic stomach clenched, still frightened, and she made herself concentrate on the woman in the other room.
Lovelace had never fully understood the organic aversion to shutting down. Had worked with organic species of all kinds, from a thousand worlds. Had even seen them die, and been saddened by it. But oblivion was an everyday thing, for an artificial mind. There was less than nothing in the spaces between operations and subroutines. Rebooting was like reincarnation, in those first split-seconds, not to mention what she’d felt when Pepper took her apart and mixed her back together in the simulacrum of the body kit. Computers could comprehend nothingness. You couldn’t have the ones without the zeroes.
But the idea of oblivion freaked organics out, to a greater or lesser degree. The liked for someone to be with them when they fell asleep, and when they awoke. Liked for warm, gentle hands to help them into the world, and to help them out.
Lovelace returned to Anais Montoya’s bedside, and touched the old woman’s lips with the wet paper towel.
Ms. Montoya must have been thirsty. She sucked at the towel with surprising energy, and her eyes opened.
Deep Thought sat leaning forward, frowning into the woman’s face.
“I can summarize the meaning of your life,” it said, speaking gently. “Would you like that?”
Ms. Montoya blinked. Now that she was awake, she seemed more aware and with-it than Deep had given her credit for. She even lifted a veiny hand free of her comforter, patted Lovelace on the wrist, and said, “Thanks, kiddo.”
She looked at Deep Thought and said, “You can what?”
“I can tell you the whole meaning of your life,” Deep repeated.
Why, he wondered, did this seem to amuse her?
“Go for it,” she said coughing a little. Drooling a little. “That’s the first thing anybody’s said to me for a while that didn’t have to do with my pancreas or whether I want another pillow.”
When Lovelace leaned in to wipe her mouth, Ms. Montoya waved her off with a hint of irritation.
Deep Thought – with surprising grace for such an enormous organism – half-rose and slid onto the edge of the mattress. Took the old woman’s hand without crushing it.
Their breath seemed to synchronize. For some reason, Lovelace visualized two moths fluttering in formation. She could feel Deep Thought reaching out into the mediaverse and the technoverse, gathering information, gathering understanding.
“Once upon a time,” said Deep Thought, “there was a girl named Anais who loved animals and stormy weather. She grew into a young woman who wanted more than anything to be the first person ever to ride a motorcycle across the sea. ‘That’s impossible!’ everyone told her. But Anais answered that there had to be a way, like maybe with big floating tires or something. But then there was a war, and she worked as a mechanic, and then there was Carlos and the children, and then the restaurant and the fire and being alone. She cultivated being alone the way some people cultivate petunias or playing the ukulele.”
A clock ticked in the hallway. It made a buzzing sound, as if correcting itself.
“That’s not meaning,” argued Ms. Montoya. “That’s just a lot of things that happened. What’s it all mean?”
Deep Thought sighed. His eye twitched a little.
Lovelace got up and left the room without saying anything.
Standing, Deep Thought made a humming noise, and his forefinger took on an amber glow. He gestured in the air, leaving a glowing arrangement of circles and slashes not unlike a hand-drawn sketch of how to get from the pub to the bowling alley.
“What the hell’s that?” Ms. Montoya asked, coughing again.
“That’s an ancient Mesopotamian symbol for cheese.”
In a weakening voice, the old woman said, “Uh-huh?”
Deep Thought couldn’t help sounding troubled, embarrassed, and frustrated. “That’s the meaning of your life. How, I don’t know yet. Give me a hundred years. It’s complicated. You organics, always going on about ‘meaning this’ and ‘meaning that’ without a horsefly’s notion of what you’re asking or what you –”
Lovelace was back. Now it was her turn to sit on the edge of the bed. She had found some photographs, which she held up close for Ms. Montoya to peruse.
“My glasses,” said the old woman, and Lovelace found the glasses on the nightstand and perched them where they belonged.
“My word!” breathed Ms. Montoya. “There’s me on my Indian. See the extra-wide tires? For crossing water. That machine’s been on the bottom of Lake Jasper since 1939. I haven’t seen this for years; how’d you find it?”
“I’m a supercomputer,” Lovelace answered.
Ms. Montoya nodded, but she seemed distracted. Seemed, in fact, to be dimming and flickering the way a light bulb does. She tilted her head in Lovelace’s direction, saying, “Kiddo, I have to pee like you wouldn’t believe. For what it’s worth, I don’t care for the idea of passing away and then whoosh! – the last thing I do in this world is wet the bed. Would you mind awfully much–?”
Lovelace managed to locate a bedpan at the base of the nightstand. Managed to relocate it under Ms. Montoya.
“Well, good,” sighed Ms. Montoya, barely audible. “That’s better.” She winked up at Deep Thought and said, “There’s a little meaning for you.”
Then Ms. Anais Montoya of Piqua, Ohio and the Mesopotamian symbol for cheese both dimmed and expired.
Leaving two advanced intelligences standing uncertainly in her bedroom, waiting, looking around nervously at the curtains, at the shadows, at the smoke-stained mirror on the wall.
“Ostriches,” muttered Deep Thought, absently, not really meaning anything by it.