A story in 10 parts
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 4: Partially Human
The following day, Ella Carrelli contacted me.
“I’d like to see you, Mr Zorn.”
“I’m free any time.”
“Real world or VR?”
“There’s a VR bar along the block. See you in an hour?”
I told her an hour would be fine, and she gave me the code of her private domain.
“Jake and I came here when we needed to get away from it all.”
“Here” was a spectacular Himalayan valley. A snowy massif reared to our left. Before us, a green valley descended to a vanishing point, its steep sides decorated with pink rhododendron blooms. We sat on folding chairs outside a simple timber shack.
“How’s the investigation coming along?”
“It’s proceeding,” I temporised. “You wanted to see me?”
“I’ve been going over the past few weeks, what Jake said, who he met. Trying to work out what…” She gestured, pulled a lopsided face. “I was in his study last night. I recalled he took a couple of mornings away from the lab two weeks ago when he booked a flier south to Staten Island. He’d said he was meeting some scientist. So I checked his online diary yesterday, and found the name of a private clinic there, a date and an appointment time.”
“And he said nothing at all about why he might have been going to Staten Island, other than to meet a scientist?”
“Nothing.” She hesitated. “Do you think…?”
“I’ll follow it up,” I said, “and get back to you.”
We exchanged small talk for another minute or two, and then I left.
I did my research and dredged the Cloud, but found very little information about the Hanson Clinic. It existed in name, but its purpose, its function and what went on behind its real-world walls were hidden behind a cyberstockade of state-of-the-art firewalls.
They had something to hide, that much was obvious.
I flew south, and thirty minutes later, was in Rosebank, Staten Island.
I found the clinic in a leafy street beside the bay, a big mock-Tudor building and a series of chalets in gated grounds extending over a hectare of landscaped garden.
A dozen men and women sat or strolled in the grounds at the rear of the clinic. They were plainly all patients.
I flew closer to a strolling couple. The woman had a small patch of her auburn hair shaved at the base of her skull, where a subdermal jack sat flush with her flesh. The man had undergone more extensive surgery. In place of hair, he wore a cranial nexus like a cat’s cradle on his tonsured scalp.
I made my way across the lawn to the clinic itself. A French window stood open and I slipped inside. I made my way through a recreation room, a lounge and a library, and came to the business end of the operation, a series of offices on the first floor overlooking the lake.
I paused, hovering outside a door marked “Director Johan Szabo”.
I lay my abdominal speaker to the panel and transmitted a knock. When the director opened the door, I slipped into the office.
He returned to his desk, scowling, and pored over a medical paper on his softscreen.
The private program on his screen was encrypted, but its security code was days out of date and I cracked it in two seconds.
I trawled the data until I came across the name Jake Carrelli. I tried to dig deeper, but all I found was the day of his initial appointment at the clinic, which I knew already, and a follow-up date. There was no information at all as to what procedure Carrelli had undergone here.
One interesting thing I did learn while rooting through a subsidiary accounts file was that Jake Carrelli’s treatment had been financed by OmniScience.
Here was something, I thought, that Angel DiMatteo had not told me.
I left the clinic.
I might be an AI, at ease anywhere in the Cloud, but I have my favourite real-world haunts, and one of them is my small Manhattan office. Its familiarity is a comfort, a balm. I’ve spent a lot of time between these four walls, considering the conundrum of my existence.
Now I thought about two people, Professor Mona Taylor and Director Angel DiMatteo.
I called Mona Taylor first.
I caught her at the end of a lecture, and she was free to talk. “I was wondering…” I said. “You mentioned a drink.”
“That would be nice, Mr Zorn.”
“I’ll be frank – I need your help.”
“I’m intrigued – an AI PI in need of help. Well, I owe you one. Real world or VR?”
“How about the latter?” I suggested, and gave her the code to the End of the World.
She came as herself, small and blonde and smiling.
We sat on the veranda, and she admired the view, the swollen sun, its erupting hydrogen bursts. I poured her a pink gin and she sipped.
“Has Connelly been in contact, since…?”
“That creep? Sure he has. Constantly.”
“Have you spoken?”
“Briefly. Very briefly.”
“Did you tell him that you knew what he did in VR?”
“I said I’d found out, and was through with him.”
“He claimed that what he did in there meant nothing, was just a game. A release. He wanted to see me again, to make up. I told him to go to hell.”
“And did he take the hint?”
“People like him,” she said, “have thick skins and insult-proof egos. They can’t take no for answer. They think one’s refusals are merely self-denial. His arrogance! I should have been clued-up enough to see through him earlier, but…”
I shrugged. “We can all be wise with hindsight, Mona.”
She looked across at me. “Even you?”
“Even me,” I said. “Why not?”
“Because … you’re not human,” she said.
“Right. Or rather … I suppose you could call me partly human.”
She tipped her head. “How so?”
“I’m built on a partially human paradigm.”
“Ah, the Bueler–Sarkosian Parameter?”
“You’ve heard of them?”
“Only their names. Tell me more.”
I sipped my drink and stared at the dying sun. “They were the cyberneticists responsible for the breakthrough in AI consciousness, the creators of the self-aware relay. They knew that to base a race of artificial intelligences on a human template, without safeguards, would be … dangerous, let’s say. So they compromised.”
“Hence the ‘partially human’?”
I nodded. “They grew an AI consciousness, but without the drivers that impel some human behaviour – so no territorial imperative, no ego, no recourse to emotions like hatred, selfishness, acquisitiveness. That was what won their case in the courts world-wide, a decade ago, when they filed for AI equal rights. They argued that artificial intelligences should be given the same rights as human citizens because by their very nature, even though AIs could feel love and compassion and empathy, they could not bring themselves to hate – or to injure, hurt or kill.”
She stared at me, nodding. “So you can feel love, compassion… But you can do no harm, right?”
I smiled. “And the paradox is that, although I have empathy, what I cannot emotionally comprehend is what drives human beings to act out these base imperatives as they do.”
She was watching me. “But … but when you told me about what Connelly did in VR, you understood he was like that because of how he was treated by his mother.”
I interrupted. “Textbook stuff, Mona. I can assimilate it intellectually, but I can’t feel it.”
Smiling, she swirled her drink. “So … you’re good?”
“By human criteria, then yes, I suppose I am. But I can’t personally take any credit for that, can I, if the attributes of moral rectitude and goodness are hardwired into what passes for my psyche?”
She nodded. “I suppose not. But…”
“But it sure makes you good to be around.”
I raised my glass. “I’ll take that as a compliment, Professor.”
We sat in silence for a while, enjoying our drinks and the view.
A little later, she said, “You said you wanted my help, Mr Zorn.”
I told her about Jake Carrelli’s disappearance, and that he’d undergone some kind of neurological procedure at a Staten Island clinic.
“Have you ever heard, in a professional capacity, of someone called Johan Szabo?”
She looked at me, wide-eyed. “I’ll say!”
“He’s a neuroscientist – or was, rather. He lost his licence due to professional malpractice about ten years ago. I know of him because he taught at Caltech a year before I began my studies.”
“Malpractice? What did he do?”
She frowned. “I don’t know the details, but I heard lots of rumours at the time.”
“So try me with the rumours.”
“Illegal neurological experiments, coercion of patients, falsification of experimental data. He was, by all accounts, driven, ambitious and brilliant – a dangerous combination.”
“Odd,” I said. “Very odd.”
“When I found out he was running the clinic, I trawled the Cloud and came up with nothing. Not a thing. Nada. Now that,” I went on, “suggests that he’s powerful enough, or wealthy enough, or influential enough, to be able to expunge all data from the Cloud – and believe me, that’s no mean undertaking. Or that he has friends in high places who did it for him.”
“Quite,” I said. “And it makes me wonder just what the hell he’s doing in that clinic of his.”
“And what he did to Jake Carrelli, right?”
“And why he did it.”
All with the backing, the funding, of Carrelli’s employers, OmniScience.
We sat in companionable silence for a long while as the sun belched its silent flares in a spectacular show that was just for the two of us.
A little later she said, “Mr Zorn?”
“Do you have a first name?”
“I do, but I never use it. Robert,” I said, “but you can call me Rob.”
“Well, Rob … here’s the thing. Back when I first saw you in your office, towards the end of the meeting… I just wanted to reach out and touch your hand, hold it, to say thank you.” She shrugged. “But I couldn’t, could I? Because you were just an avatar.”
“That’s right, yes.”
“But…” She swallowed. “But now I can, can’t I, here in VR? Because we’re both just as real as each other in here. I can reach out and touch your hand just as if it were real flesh and blood.”
“So … I was wondering – would you mind if I did so?”
I knew where this was leading, but I didn’t know how I felt about that.
“No,” I said, “I wouldn’t mind.”
So she reached across the space between us and took my hand, and her touch was warm, vital and electric.
“I was wondering something else, Mr Zorn – I mean Rob.”
“Ah…” She nipped her bottom lip between her teeth. “Do AIs have sex?”
I swallowed. “Some do, I suppose.”
I hesitated. “I’ve never experienced sex,” I said – which, to be honest, was not strictly true.
She stood quickly and moved before me, and pulled me to my feet. She reached behind her back and unfastened something, and stepped from her dress.
She stood before me, naked.
Later, when she’d left, I wiped the memory of our love making from my cache, but not the fact that we’d done it.
A little later, I received a simple message from Professor Mona Taylor: That was wonderful, Rob. It meant so much to me.
I hesitated before replying: Me too.
Then I contacted Angel DiMatteo and requested a meeting.
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
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.