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


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 2: The Disappearance of Jake Carrelli

Eric Brown

I spend most of my time in VR, that playground suburb of the Cloud.

I’ve constructed myself a personal retreat, a place where I go to get away from all the noise. I call this haven the End of the World.

It’s a projection of how things might be five billion years from now. The sun is a pulsing cinder sending out its dying heat to an Earth from which most of humanity has fled to the stars. Life gathers around the temperate equatorial region. The landscape has mellowed with age: sweeping green pastures and ancient oak forests and mossy manses where the last old families of humanity dwell. There is no industry, no mechanisation, no production.

I have a small lodge overlooking a saddle-shaped greensward on which timorous deer-like animals graze, and birds call from the woodlands. The planet has slowed in its turning; a day lasts for thirty-five hours now, and the afternoons are long and balmy.

I sit on the veranda, sip sundowners, and admire the view.

I was taking it easy at the End of the World when the black cat I call Sable leapt up onto the veranda rail, arched his back and miaowed. This meant I had a potential client in VR.

I could have quit my retreat and met him or her on neutral VR territory, but I was loath to leave the End of the World. I allowed entry to my realm, and a second later, a figure materialised on the grass before the veranda.

“Nice place you’ve got yourself here.”

“Ed,” I said. “Good to see you.”

“And you, too, Zorn. How’s things?”

“I can’t complain.”

“May I join you?”

“Be my guest.”

He stepped onto the veranda and settled himself in a wicker easy chair.

Ed chose to be himself when he visited me in VR, which I always took as a compliment. He was a big, silver-haired New Yorker, invalided from the NYPD five years back when a crazed gunman made mincemeat of his legs. He’d recovered, moved on, embraced his disability, and became a bigger, better person. Hell, even his avatar walked with a limp.

I’d done some undercover work for him when he was in the Force, and we’d kept in contact since his retirement. He knew I was an AI, but he wasn’t prejudiced. I liked him for that.

“Drink?”

“One of those would be nice.”

I poured him a long, cold sundowner, and he drank.

“How can I help, Ed?”

He stared across to the setting sun, a great fulminating hemisphere straddling half of the far horizon. Slow ejecta of molten fire erupted from its ruddy hemisphere. I always found the sight soothing, soporific.

“Did you know I had a brother?” he asked.

“I didn’t.”

“Jake. Ten years my junior. A neuroscientist with an outfit called OmniScience. We were close.”

Were

“He disappeared, close on a week ago. His wife thinks some rival tech outfit has grabbed him for what he has up here.” He tapped his head. “I pulled a few favours, contacted old colleagues.” He grimaced. “Nothing doing. Not a trace. He vanished into thin air.”

“No one vanishes,” I said, “without leaving a trace.”

“Jake did. He was last seen leaving his place of work just before four on Tuesday afternoon and entering a bar. After that, nothing.”

“I’ll do what I can,” I promised.

“I’ll make sure it’s worth your while, pal.”

I shook my head. “I don’t want paying,” I told him. “This one’s on me.”

“I insist.”

“Payment,” I said, “wouldn’t make me do a better job. But doing it for a friend, gratis, will.”

“I owe you one, Zorn,” he said.

“You owe me nothing, Ed. Now, the details…”

I knew pretty soon that it was going to be a real-world case.

I’d dredged what I could from the Cloud, but such was the nature of Jake Carrelli’s job – top-secret, hush-hush – that I kept coming up against encrypted security bulwarks and data caches protected behind impregnable firewalls.

So I did some investigating in the real world.

An hour after Ed contacted me, I assumed my avatar outside a plush upstate villa, walked down the garden path, and rang the bell.

Ella Carrelli opened the door, smiling. “Ed told me to expect you,” she said. “Please, come in.”

I settled in an open-plan lounge with a view over an acreage of lawn which told me that Jake Carrelli had earned big money.

“I’ll do everything I can to help,” I said, “but I need some information. I’ve dredged the Cloud, but found little.”

“I’ll tell you what I can…”

She was small, dark-haired, nervous. She wound the rings on her fingers and shot me quick, darting glances. I knew, intuitively, that she was hiding something.

“Did your husband seem worried at all before he disappeared? Concerned about anything?”

She shrugged, pulled at her wedding ring. “Not that I noticed. He could leave work at work, enjoy what we had here. His work was cutting-edge, high pressure … but it had been like that for years. He could live with it.”

“Do you know what he was working on?”

I’d asked Ed the same thing, but he’d just shaken his head.

Ella nodded. “He told me a little about it, yes.”

“And?”

She licked her lips. “He was working on consciousness paradigms.”

I trawled the Cloud and had it in a nanosecond. “Cerebral templates? Cortex analogues?”

She nodded. “That kind of thing. It was his specialism.”

“He was a Mechanist?”

She twisted her lips into a bitter smile. “He didn’t like that word. He said it was reductive.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “What word would he have preferred?”

“He would have said that his philosophy couldn’t be reduced to one neat, pat word or phrase. Put simply, he believed that the human mind could be likened to an AI consciousness. He saw no difference between a biological human brain and a manufactured, sentient, self-aware cognitive nexus.”

I smiled, wondering if she knew she was talking to just one of those.

I said, “It’s a position that’s gaining ground. Did he ever talk to you about how he applied his philosophy to his everyday work?”

She smiled. “He did, once or twice. But he soon lost me.”

We talked a little more about his career; how long he’d worked at OmniScience, how he got on with his colleagues. I asked the usual questions. Did he have enemies, envious colleagues, co-workers in the same field who might want him out of the way? She gave the same answer every time: “Not that I am aware.”

“Ed said you thought a rival tech firm had— ” I began.

She interrupted. “That was just after … just after Jake went missing. I said whatever came into my head. I wasn’t thinking straight.” She stared at me with tear-filled eyes. “I don’t know what happened to my husband, Mr Zorn.”

As I rose to leave five minutes later, Ella Carrelli stopped me. “There is one thing…”

“Go on.”

“A month ago … he came home one evening, very excited. He said something about a breakthrough, a ‘parallel lattice’ or something like that. I must admit that it meant nothing to me.”

I trawled, but came up with nothing that made any sense.

“He said that he was interviewing someone who might collaborate with him on a project.”

“Someone?” I said. “Did he mention a name?”

She nodded. “Jilpa Chiang.”

I thanked her, promised that I’d do all I could to find out what had happened to her husband, and quit the villa.

Her personal com pinged as I left, and she took the call. I hacked the communication and listened in as I walked away from the villa.

The upshot was that Ella Carrelli had a lover, and was meeting him in an hour.

As I turned the corner and collapsed my avatar, I admitted that her crocodile tears had taken me in.

I had a couple of hours to kill before I was due to meet Jake Carrelli’s boss at OmniScience, so I decided to concentrate on Jilpa Chiang.

A quick trawl gave me more than I could assimilate in a few seconds. It took a full two minutes before I’d taken on board her biography, and another three to parse the resume of her scientific achievements. I pride myself of keeping abreast, but Chiang’s work was way out there.

I accessed her VR code, put in a polite request to speak to her about the disappearance of Jake Carrelli, expecting to be fobbed off with a terse rebuttal. World-famous scientists of Chiang’s stature didn’t waste time with AI investigators, self-aware or not.

So I was surprised, a minute later, when I received an affirmative, accompanied by a private access code and a message: “I can see you here for ten minutes at noon.”

I made sure I was there on the stroke of midday.

I know that VR is just a virtual projection of the human psyche, and therefore, nothing in there should shock me – but it did. What Glendon Connelly got up to in the sex club, for instance. And what I found in Jilpa Chiang’s private VR domain.

I materialised on a perfect lawn surrounded, in the distance, by pagodas and fir trees. The lawn was peopled by old men in loincloths, all of them iterations of the same bent, grey-haired, haunted-eyed individual.

And then I saw the little girl.

She was seated on a straight-backed chair in the centre of the lawn. She wore a white dress, and her feet were bare. I judged her to be perhaps eight years old. As I approached her, I saw that her face was flawlessly perfect, her huge jet-black eyes set flush with her high cheeks. Her little toes hung inches above the grass.

A whip lay across her lap, gripped in her fists.

All around the lawn, the old men stood in poses of abject apprehension.

“Jilpa Chiang?” I asked.

“Mr Zorn.”

Her expression lacked all emotion. She stared at me from the perfection of the avatar of the little girl she had been.

“About Jake Carrelli…”

“I read about his disappearance.”

“I understand he contacted you, perhaps a month ago?”

“We were discussing the possibility of working together.”

“On…?”

She stared at me. “You’re an artificial self-aware entity built on a Zakinthos substratum, running on linear prime directives within Bueler–Sarkosian parameters.”

I blinked, flattered by the depth of her knowledge.

“I too do my research,” she said. “What I mean is, will you understand me when I get … technical?”

“Try me.”

“Carrelli and I were discussing the possibility of synthesising our specialisms, and working together on a paper correlating recent research on syncretic mind-body theories, concentrating on Carrelli’s duality theories and my own post-Bueler hypothesis.”

Then she got technical.

I listened, taking it all in.

Five minutes later, she finished and sat in prim silence, smiling at me.

“So…” I said, “let me get this straight. The bottom line is that Carrelli thought that the human mind could be copied, just as the content of an AI mind can be – and is – copied?”

“Crude, but more or less correct.” The little girl twinkled her jet-black eyes at me patronisingly. “This was the logical assumption, entirely in line with the beliefs of a Mechanist like Carrelli.”

“And you agree with him?”

She tipped her head from side to side. “Let’s say that I was willing to give his theories serious consideration.”

“So I suppose what I’d like to know, Ms Chiang, is whether his theories might have anything to do with his disappearance?”

Surprising me, she slipped from her seat and stood before me.

“That,” she said, “I would not know. I am a theoretician. I exist in a realm of pure thought and rarely consider what you might term the ‘real’ world. I would advise you to question his colleagues about his disappearance.”

“I’ll do that,” I said.

“By my calculation, your ten minutes have elapsed,” she said. “Goodbye.”

I thanked her. As I was about to exit her domain, she stepped forward and cracked her whip viciously.

An old man screamed.

“You will obey my every word!” the little girl called out.

Angel DiMatteo, the CEO of OmniScience, was a small silver-haired woman in her sixties.

In the steel and obsidian lobby of her corporation, she had her security system check my credentials. Then, satisfied, she gave me a tour of the labs.

She called them labs, but there wasn’t a test tube in sight.

It was a hermetic environment with studious techs poring over softscreens and interfacing with smartware cores via headsets. DiMatteo explained the set-up as we went along, but told me nothing I didn’t already know.

On a gallery overlooking a lab where cyberneticists were conducting state-of-the-art research into AI consciousness, we paused, and I fired the usual questions. Was Jake Carrelli liked and respected at OmniScience? Did he have enemies? Was he happy in his work?

Carrelli was loved at the company, she replied; he didn’t have an enemy in the world, and he lived for his work.

“He was a brilliant theoretician whom we valued highly,” she said.

“I understand he was working on syncretic mind-body theories, concentrating on his own duality hypothesis?”

“Based on his Mechanist theories.”

“In short, he believed that the human mind could be copied?”

Again, she nodded. “That’s correct, Mr Zorn.”

“In your opinion,” I asked, “do you think it’s possible that his disappearance might be in any way linked to his work here at OmniScience?”

She hesitated, and I interpreted her hesitation as suggestive. “If you would accompany me to my office, Mr Zorn.”

Intrigued, I followed her.

Installed behind the silver arrowhead of her desk, she steepled her fingers before her stern face. “The day Jake went missing,” she said, “OmniScience suffered an unprecedented security breach. We were hacked. I pride myself on having all the latest security software in situ

“All it took?”

She pulled a face, pained at having to make the confession. “To blitz a data cache.”

“And by blitz, you mean…?”

“I mean wipe, eradicate, ensure total and irrevocable erasure.”

“It must have been a pretty damned important cache for someone to have gone to such lengths.”

She regarded her steepled fingers for a long time, considering something, and then said, “Mr Zorn, shortly before he disappeared, Jake Carrelli made a breakthrough.”

“In…?” I prompted.

“We succeeded in copying the content of his mind, uploading his entire cognitive assembly to a smartcore within our largest mainframe.”

She stopped there, staring at me.

Had I been human, I might have been sweating by now.

“And the data cache that was blitzed?” I asked.

“The hackers ignored everything else – data of considerable value, I might add – and concentrated on just one cache. The cybernetic copy of Jake Carrelli’s cerebral identity.”

I stared across the desk at the woman. “They wiped it,” I said. “But you had backups, I take it?”

She looked uncomfortable. “We made backups, copies, and lodged them in various locations in half a dozen smartcores in the Cloud.”

“Don’t tell me…”

She nodded. “Whoever did this, blitzed every single one of them, Mr Zorn.” She hesitated. “And the three copies that we lodged in cores that were not connected to the Cloud, that were totally independent, were erased too. We’re looking at the possibility that that was an inside job.”

I digested all this, then said, “Of course, the reason for this blitz was that”

She interrupted. “That’s right. They wouldn’t have gone to all the trouble of blitzing out smartcore without first copying, for their own purposes, Jake Carrelli’s cerebral identity.”

That evening Ed Carrelli and I sat on my veranda at the End of the World, and stared at the bloated sun on the far horizon.

“So let’s get this straight,” he said. “Some hacker, for some reason, blitzed the OmniScience smartcore, but not before they copied my brother’s cerebral identity – and a few hours later Jake went missing?”

“‘For some reason’, yes,” I said.

He sipped his sundowner. “So … what’s next?”

“DiMatteo gave me all the data she had on the firestorm raid,” I said. “I’m in the process of sifting through the information. I have no doubt that the copying of Jake’s cerebral identity, and his disappearance, are in some way connected.” I hesitated. “I just have to work out how, exactly.”

We sat in silence and drank.

Before us, the sun flung solar flares through its magnetosphere in gorgeous, slow-motion arabesques.

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

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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