Contents

Approaching Human

Eric Brown

A story in 10 parts

One: Gel-Tank Atrocities

Two: The Disappearance of Jake Carrelli

Three: Played Like a Patsy

Four: Partially Human

Five: Decoy Codeline

Six: Death on Mars

Seven: At the Grave Garden

Eight: Making Love at the End of the World

 


Chapters 1 and 2 were published in Shoreline of Infinity 30. 

Chapters 3 to 10 are released fortnightly for free on the website. 

The novella Approaching Human will be published in paperback in Autumn 2022.

Let us know what you think about a regular serial here on the Shoreline of Infinity website. Tell us via our Contact Form.

Approaching Human 1: Gel-Tank Atrocities

Eric Brown

Approaching Human

Eric Brown

A story in 10 parts

One: Gel-Tank Atrocities

Two: The Disappearance of Jake Carrelli

Three: Played Like a Patsy

Four: Partially Human

Five: Decoy Codeline

Six: Death on Mars

Seven: At the Grave Garden

Eight: Making Love at the End of the World

 


Chapters 1 and 2 were published in Shoreline of Infinity 30. 

Chapters 3 to 10 are released fortnightly for free on the website. 

The novella Approaching Human will be published in paperback in Autumn 2022.

Let us know what you think about a regular serial here on the Shoreline of Infinity website. Tell us via our Contact Form.

She came to the office in person, which was unusual. These days, I see most of my clients in VR.

She was small, blonde and nervous. I could tell from the way she sat down across the desk from me, fingering the hem of her Versace bodice.

“How can I help, Ms…?”

“Professor” – she was quick to correct me – “Professor Mona Taylor.”

I did a quick scan, dredging the Cloud for her personal information: Professor Desdemona Lila Taylor, thirty, with tenure at Caltech; married once, in her late teens, to an American Space Agency astronaut. The marriage ended ten years ago when he left on a one-way mission to Mars. She had a first-class degree from MIT in neurobiology, and was the author of a leading monograph in her field.

All in all, a smart cookie.

So why did she need my services?

“I’ve been seeing this jerk for a year,” she said, “a big-name attorney who heads a company in the city. He was good to me at first. Call me naive, but I thought I’d found the man. He was kind, caring and faithful. Well, I thought he was.”

“What happened?”

“I discovered he’s seeing someone.”

“How did you find out?”

“The way he acts. He’s hiding something. And he refuses to see me in VR. I just know there’s someone else in there.”

“Ah … so he’s unfaithful in VR?”

She glared at me. “Isn’t that bad enough?”

I held up a placatory hand. “Of course. I didn’t mean to suggest otherwise. But it’s an interesting fact, is what I meant. So … how can I help?”

“I want you to find out who he’s meeting in there. I want her name and profile. Then I can confront him.”

“I’ll need the guy’s name, physical address and VR tag.”

She gave me the information: Glendon Connelly, forty, a New Yorker born and bred. He had an expensive apartment on Upper West Side and Platinum VR access.

“Do you know when he’s most likely to use VR?”

“Daily, six till eight in the evening.”

“And his preferred VR bar?”

“He has his own gel-tank.”

“I can see you back here at nine for a progress report,” I said. “Or I could meet you in VR?”

“I’ll be here.”

“Until then, Professor Taylor.”

I watched her leave the office, her confidence restored. She’d done something, made a move.

The rest was up to me.

I collapsed my avatar and hovered, my identity contained in a drone the size of a mayfly.

I exited through the window vent and zipped over the rooftops. New York lay below me, only the towerpiles and the occasional blitz of neon penetrating the cloud cover. I came to the apartment building overlooking the Hudson and scanned.

As I suspected, the condominium was wired for security. Hacking VR from outside would be impossible. Access to the building, and Connelly’s apartment, would be easy, but breaking his VR codes would be more of a challenge.

I descended to street level, waited until a citizen entered the building through the revolving door, then followed her inside. I took the elevator to the thirtieth floor – a simple matter of hacking the building’s smartcore matrix and summoning the lift.

When the doors opened, I zipped along the corridor till I was outside apartment number 22, landed on the carpet and scuttled under the gap beneath the door.

I found Connelly in the lounge, barefoot and wearing a robe as he prepared himself for VR immersion. From my position on the ceiling, I watched as he finished his drink – whisky, straight – and moved to a small, tiled room where an expensive gel-tank sat centre stage.

He disrobed and stepped into the gel, then lay down and positioned his neck on the padded rest, the goo oozing around his body. A hundred silvery microfilaments, like a nest of miniaturised vipers, crawled through his luxuriant golden hair and across his scalp. Floating in the gel, he closed his eyes and slipped into VR.

From the blissful expression on his face, anyone would have thought he was entering Nirvana.

Maybe he was.

I’d soon find out.

I sat on the wall above the tank and accessed the Cloud.

Glendon Connelly was clever. He hid behind tangled algorithms and encrypted firewalls. He employed triple fail-safes and dummy decoys. It wasn’t easy, and it took time – three minutes in total – to break down his personal security and evade the local VR security sweeps, all without alerting him or the authorities to the fact.

Then I followed the cerebral signature Connelly blazed through the network and watched him enter an exclusive VR domain, using an avatar identical to his real-life self.

I spent ten minutes working out how the domain was protected, and another five building an algorithm to get me in there. Fifteen minutes was a long time, when normally it took me seconds to access security baffles. Their shield was complex, and as I worked, I wondered just what they didn’t want outsiders to see.

Then I was in, slipping through their security like a molecule through a minefield. I concealed myself behind a complex shielding algorithm, so I’d be invisible not only to Connelly but to the domain’s security, and took a good look around.

It was a VR sex club.

I dredged the club’s smartcore and came up with a few facts.

Membership was expensive, and very limited. Only the super-rich could afford it. The club boasted just a hundred members, all multi-millionaires – politicians, film stars, vocal artistes and a few business tycoons. They were all citizens rich enough to pay to have their sordid secrets kept away from the prying eyes of the voracious news media. And pay well.

So just what was Glendon Connelly’s little game?

I followed him to a bedroom where a woman was waiting. I hung near the ceiling and took it all in.

The woman turned, smiling at him, and I received the first shock of the day.

The woman was Professor Mona Taylor.

I wondered, for a second, if I was being played by my client and her lover. Had they lured me here for some purpose beyond my understanding?

I ran checks on the code behind the image of the woman, and discovered the truth.

It was not Mona Taylor, or rather, her legitimate avatar, but an image of the woman that Glendon Connelly had constructed by trawling the Cloud, accreting information, building a profile. Everyone’s interactions and personally tailored algorithms leave unique virtual somaprints. He’d had the funds to collate all the available data, build a persona, and sync it to an image.

So what did Connelly get up to in here with Professor Taylor’s personalised avatar?

“Glen,” she said, moving towards him and stroking his cheek. “It’s good to see you. I missed you.”

“And I missed you too, Mona.”

So far so cute, but why was Connelly playing out in VR what he had in reality?

They kissed. They undressed, slowly at first, then with growing passion until they were ripping garments from each other in their haste to be down to the flesh.

I watched, a voyeur.

I am an artificially grown, self-aware intelligence. Over the years, I have matured, thanks to an empirical protocol program, and I can experience what human beings call emotion.

As I observed, I responded – I experienced the basic human reaction to watching a man and a woman make passionate love – but as I watched, at the same time, I couldn’t help but wonder if the emotions I experienced were real, or mere coded routines that governed my behaviour, a clever pastiche built into the subroutine of my artificial psyche by my creators.

They made love, gently at first – and then not so gently.

Connelly straddled her, reached out and encircled her neck with his hands.

At first, I thought it no more than the innocent sex play in which some humans indulge.

Then I was alerted by the look of alarm in Mona Taylor’s eyes. She struggled, then screamed, but Connelly exerted more pressure until her limbs were threshing on the bed and her face turned red, then blue.

When she was dead – or rather, when Mona Taylor’s avatar displayed no signs of life – Glendon Connelly reached into a drawer in the bedside cabinet and produced a knife.

I watched what he did next. I watched and wondered…

If I were human, or even approaching human, would I be able to observe Connelly’s depravity with such equanimity, such dispassion?

Would I feel revulsion on a gut level, rather than what I did feel – a realisation of the amoral nature of the man’s actions, and the intellectual consideration of the consequences of his depravity? Within the fantasy land of this private Nirvana, he was free to play out a depraved psychodrama that, in the real world, would have him serving multiple life sentences in a high-security penitentiary.

One hour later, he was finished. Mona Taylor was reduced to a sectioned carcass, and the bedroom was a bloody mess.

He exited the sex club, and then stepped from his gel-tank – and I tried to work out: why?

I hung around for a while and broke the security on his personal Cloud cache. I accessed his life, his childhood, his troubled teenage years. I read the diary he’d kept in which he itemised the instances of abuse, the torture both physical and mental. He continued the journal well into his thirties, and I read all about his troubled relationships with the women in his life, and the entries detailing what he got up to in VR.

Ten minutes later, I hung near the ceiling and stared down at Glendon Connelly. He was seated on a recliner, sipping a Scotch and soda, and smiling to himself.

The successful hotshot attorney, enjoying a quiet sundowner…

I quit the apartment and flew across town.

How was I going to break this to Mona Taylor?

I feared her response.

Back at the office, I wondered at that fear. Was it empathy that was driving my fear, simple human empathy with a woman who would be distraught and in need of solace? Or was it just that I didn’t want to be in any way responsible for the psychological distress caused by the truth I had discovered?

And if the latter, did that make me any less human than your average Joe, or more?

I assumed my avatar and awaited Professor Taylor’s return.

“Sit down,” I said, gesturing to a chair.

“What did you find out?”

“I found out what you wanted, and more. First, did Connelly tell you about his childhood?”

“Some.”

“He was abused as a child, right? His mother was a drunk.”

“That’s right. How did you know?”

“How doesn’t matter,” I said and went on. “Throughout his adult life, Connelly’s had relationships with a string of small, pretty, blonde women, just like his mother. And just like you, Mona. Did you know that?”

She shook her head, staring down at her fingers in silence.

“Mr Zorn,” she murmured at last, “did you find out who … who he’s been seeing?”

I grimaced. There was no easy way to tell her.

“Some guys use VR for more than just legitimate pastimes,” I said. “They like to do things that break the rules – or rather, things that would break the rules in the real world.”

She stared at me. “Like?”

“Glendon Connelly is a sadist.”

She mouthed the word in silence. “And he does this in VR, right?” she asked. “But does what, exactly?”

“Whatever you can imagine,” I said, “it’s worse.”

“Torture?”

“Murder,” I said. “Connelly likes to strangle the woman he makes love to. What’s more, he does it repeatedly to the same victim. He’s only able to achieve release when he sees the light vanish from her eyes. Then he… Well, perhaps it’d be better for your peace of mind if I don’t describe what he does, then.”

“My God…”

“Connelly gets off on the physical abuse – but more than that, it’s psychological: he desires his victim’s knowledge of what’s to come.”

Mona Taylor stared at me, wide-eyed.

“What these exclusive VR clubs allow borders on the illegal, ,” I said.

“But who would consent to…?” She stopped. “Did you find out who he’s been seeing?”

“Yes. Yes, I did. She’s an avatar.”

“An avatar?”

I told her that Connelly had been meeting up with an avatar he’d pieced together from the Cloud.

“An avatar based on a real person?”

I nodded.

“But who is she?” she said. “Did you get her profile, as I asked?”

I hesitated, then said, “I did.”

“I’d like to see it.”

I indicated the 3D cube on the desk. “Just touch the screen.”

She did so, stared at the image, then wept.

“I’m sorry.”

“And did you record what he did to…?” she began.

“I wouldn’t advise…” I said.

But she swiped it anyway, and stared at the image of the dying woman. Then she screamed and flung the cube back across the desk as if it were red hot. She held her head in her hands, sobbing.

“Me…” she said. “The woman he was unfaithful with was me.”

“A virtual construct of you, Professor Taylor. An avatar.”

She allowed a few seconds to pass. “And the things he did to me in VR,” she whispered, “he wanted to do it in real life, right?”

It was a question I had asked myself too. Were his actions in the sex club a catharsis he allowed himself in order to sate his perverted lusts – or the precursor of something even more dangerous out here in the real world?

“I honestly can’t say. Maybe Connelly realises his urges are wrong, which is why he plays them out in VR.”

Or maybe not…

But I wasn’t going to tell her that.

She was smart enough to work it out for herself.

“I’m glad I came to see you, Mr Zorn. Thank you.”

She rose, moved to the door, then paused. She turned to me and smiled, diffidently. “I was wondering…”

“Yes?”

“Could we meet again, perhaps?”

I sighed, and told her that I liked to keep work and play entirely separate.

That was my excuse, anyway.

She nodded her understanding, thanked me and left the office.

Eric Brown has published over seventy books. His latest is Murder Most Vile, and later this year is the SF novel Wormhole, written with Keith Brooke. Also with Brooke, the Enigma Season quartet of novellas is forthcoming from PS Publishing. He lives near Dunbar in Scotland.

His website is at: ericbrown.co.uk

Artwork: Mark Toner

Editor’s note

Approaching Human by Eric Brown is a serial in 10 parts. Episodes 1 & 2 were first published in Shoreline of Infinity 30, and subsequent episodes will be published fortnightly on the website from the 7th June onwards.

—Noel Chidwick

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