A story in 10 parts
Nine: At the Hoboken Junkyard (available at 23:59, New Year’s Eve)
Ten: First Contact (available at 00:01 New Year’s Day 2023)
Chapters 1 and 2 were published in Shoreline of Infinity 30.
The novella Approaching Human will be published in paperback in Spring 2023.
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 8: Making Love at the End of the World
Mona was sitting on a bench beside the lake when I arrived in Central Park. I hovered in the cover of some shrubs and watched her.
While I appreciated the aesthetics of her beauty, I could see past these to the person she was beneath. During periods of downtime, I’d read all her papers and her monograph on cellular neuroscience. I knew how her mind worked. What was more, from dredging the Cloud and studying her virtual life, her reactions to stimuli and responses to situations, I understood her as a person. And as a consequence, I felt the need to cherish and protect, which some humans define as the starting point of the urge to feel the emotion they know as “love”.
I activated my avatar and strolled across to her.
She smiled as I sat down. “Rob, good to see you.” She fingered a tress of blonde hair from her eyes and frowned. “So … why here? Why not straight into VR?”
I gave her the basics of the investigation, and the threat I perceived I was facing. “The old domain might be compromised. I copied and shifted it deeper into the Cloud. It should be safe, now.”
“‘Should be?” she asked. “From who?”
“I think OmniScience is behind Carrelli’s disappearance.”
She opened her mouth in a silent “Oh”, then nodded. “You’ve been working hard, Rob. I appreciate you taking time out to see me. I thought AIs never stopped working.”
“They don’t,” I said, and told her about the copies that were investigating the case as we spoke.
“But you’re the original, right?” I detected concern in her voice.
“Of course,” I said.
“I really enjoyed seeing you that time, Rob. For a first-timer,” she teased, “you were good.”
I smiled, wondering if I’d done the right thing in erasing our love-making from my memory cache. Was I “good” because I’d done it so many times before, although I’d erased every instance of those encounters?
That made me wonder how often I’d met people as good as Mona Taylor – how many times I’d felt this way about a woman – and then wiped them from my consciousness.
And was the reason I did this because I feared becoming emotionally involved with these people?
“There’s a VR Bar across the way,” she said, eager to be at the End of the World.
I gave her the new code, and she smiled. “See you there, Rob.”
I watched her walk away, her long blonde hair trailing in the summer breeze.
I collapsed my avatar, lodged myself high up in a sycamore tree, and accessed the Cloud.
She sat on the veranda, staring out at the hemisphere of the swollen sun, smiling in appreciation.
I was pleased to see that she appeared here just as she was in the real world. She didn’t feel the need to assume a filtered avatar, a perfected image of herself. She was confident with her identity, comfortable with how she appeared in reality, and she knew I was attracted by more than her outward appearance.
Or was I reading too much into her casual application of her real-world image?
I stepped onto the veranda and sat down beside her, and she turned and laid a palm against my cheek. Her touch provoked a response in me.
The tactile has always been low on my agenda of priorities. I exist for the most part in the realm of pure thought. To be touched, to experience the physical thrill, was a novel experience.
We kissed, and I could stop analysing things for the duration and enjoy the purity of the basic human response.
At one point, Mona pulled away and said, staring into my eyes, “What are your earliest memories, Rob?”
“The Mishima–Gelman lab,” I said, “reciting the catechism for my programmers, and then the years of my limited release as I worked subroutines with the NYPD.”
She ran a hand through my hair, her touch electric. “No childhood, no loving mother, strong father…?”
“I wasn’t human then.”
“I’m self-aware, based on human paradigms. All I ever feel, on an emotional level, is predicated on anthropomorphic responses. As I said before, you could call me almost human.”
“I wonder … what the difference is?”
I shrugged. “Maybe just nomenclature, terminology,” I said. “What is human, after all? You could say that I’m as human as makes no difference. All I’m lacking is the physical form.”
“Are you immortal?”
I smiled. “Virtually,” I said. “Barring accidents.”
“Do you fear death?”
“I fear extinction – non-existence. I like being … ‘alive’, experiencing the world. I don’t like the idea of no longer being able to function.”
She gazed into my eyes, silent for a time, and then said, “What drives you, Rob?”
“Enquiry,” I said. “Arriving at the truth of any given situation. Completing a task. And you? What drives you, Mona?”
“When it comes to my work, the same – enquiry, seeking the truth and getting answers. But personally…” She thought about it, blinking her big blue eyes. “To be honest, the desire to be liked, loved. To feel … wanted. To have someone witness my existence, someone who cares about me… Rob, can you love?”
The seconds elapsed, then I said, “I don’t know. What is love? The desire to cherish, protect, to witness the existence of another, and to care? And the reciprocal desire to have someone feel all those things for you?”
“So … can you?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know. But I am self-aware, and my paradigm is empirical – I can learn.”
She stood and led me inside, and we undressed each other and made love on the divan.
Afterwards, I lay on my back, Mona in my arms, and stared through the window at the fulminating sun. I could feel her breath on my chest, feel her ribs and her heartbeat beneath. I relived the animal passion that had consumed us, and I marvelled. If I had erased such instances of joy in the past, I wondered why.
Had I feared losing what I had found – and so pre-empted that loss with voluntary erasure?
“I loved my father,” Mona said. “He was a good, strong man. A teacher. I was close to him, less so to my mother. She liked to control … me, him. She died when I was twelve, and my father brought me up. Odd, but I was happier when she was no longer around. I had Daddy to myself.”
I knew, from my investigation into her life, that he had died five years ago, when Mona was twenty-five. Now she told me about the day of his fatal coronary, and the call that had informed her of his passing. He was just sixty-five, and his death was a stunning shock she still relived with numbness and disbelief.
I held her.
We made love again.
The sun ejected slow-motion geysers of molten fire.
Later, she said, “I’ve had no one since Glendon, Rob.”
“I mean, I’m seeing no one now.”
“We can go on like this, can’t we, seeing each other in VR? It means something, doesn’t it?”
I answered her question with one of my own: “Does it mean something to you, Mona?”
“It means a lot,” she murmured. “And to you?”
“It means a lot to me, too.”
Then I sat up suddenly and stared into space.
“What?” Mona called out, alarmed.
I told her, “Me2 and me3 have downloaded data. Me2 is … compromised. There’s no signal now.” I double-checked, sent out enquiries, received nothing in return. “He’s been discovered, neutralised.”
I assessed the data me2 and me3 had transmitted to my core, sifted through what they’d learned and correlated it with what I knew already.
“Rob?” Mona was sitting up before me, clutching at the sheets. “Rob, what is it?”
“Mona…” I told her about my2 investigations at the Hanson Clinic – and the fact that her husband had been brought back from the Red Planet.
She stared at me, shocked. “Eugene? They brought him back?”
“Something happened. An accident. The other astronauts were killed. Eugene was badly affected. He was brought back, his memory scraped, to rid him of what he experienced up there.”
“But… But, no … I’ve seen him. In newsfeeds, broadcasts. The last one just six months ago…”
“They were faked, Mona. ASA didn’t want knowledge of the accident getting out.”
“An accident?” she murmured. “What happened, Rob?”
I shook my head. “I2 couldn’t find out, but…”
I told her about the starship at the Hoboken scrapyard, and that her husband had been returned to his childhood home in VR.
“And the people at the clinic…” she asked, “they found your copy, destroyed it?”
“It looks that way, yes.”
“But who are they? What do they want?”
I sifted through my copy’s dialogue with Hans Tallis at the Long Island grave garden. “OmniScience, the Hanson Clinic … they’re funded by ASA.”
I reviewed my3 meeting with Ed Carrelli, and the fact that Jake Carrelli had had an affair with LaFay Oyeyemi.
In an instant, less time than it took for Mona to reach out and stroke my thigh, I squirted instructions to me3: Head to the Hoboken scrapyard and find out what you can from the remains of the Pegasus starship.
We made love again, and later, when Mona said goodbye and exited VR – but not before we’d arranged to meet the following day – I lay back and considered what we’d just shared, and what I should do next.
I copied our love-making and shunted it into a cache for later reference – if I ever deemed that wise. Then I deleted my memory of our tryst and concentrated on the investigation, assured that my proficiency would not be compromised by thoughts of Mona Taylor.
I quit VR, left Central Park and made my way across town.
I’d been wise to initiate my copies and evacuate my office.
I came down on the edge of the brownstone across from the office and magnified my vision.
Whoever OmniScience had hired to exterminate my copies had done a good job. The office had been torched – blitzed with a brief electromagnetic pulse, then fired for good measure. In the smoking ruins, two dead mayflies lay legs-up on the desk, their memories cored and annihilated.
They were very, very dead.
I was under no illusion that whoever had done this thought that their job was done. They were professionals and would assume that I’d made copies. They’d be on the lookout for other backups, without a doubt.
I spent the next fifteen minutes making secure copies of myself and secreting them in the Cloud.
Then I activated my avatar and got through to LaFay Oyeyemi.
“Mr Zorn, good to see you…”
“LaFay – have you left work?”
“I’m on my way home,” she said.
“We need to meet. Name a time and a place.”
“The cafe where we talked the other day? I’ll be there in five.”
“See you then,” I said, and cut the connection.
She was sipping a latte when I approached the table and sat down.
“Is this about Jake?” she asked.
“I need your help.”
She leaned forward, trying not to show her eagerness, but failing. Her pupils were dilated, her heartbeat accelerated. “What happened to him, Mr Zorn?”
“Can you get your hands on a Faraday purse?”
She frowned. “Sure thing, but – ”
“I need to get into the OmniScience building without DiMatteo getting wise.”
She considered my words, nodding slowly. “Hokay … but why?”
“Do you have security clearance for the basement clinic?”
“For the lab next to the clinic, yes. For the clinic itself?” She shook her head. “No way, José. That place is way well shielded, and out of bounds to regular staff.”
“But you can get me as far as the lab?”
“Inside a Faraday purse, yes. But it’d have to be in the morning – they’d get suspicious if I turned up when it wasn’t my shift.”
“The morning will be fine,” I said. “You can get a purse by then?”
“Sure thing, Mr Zorn, but… Look, what’s DiMatteo doing in the basement clinic?”
“That’s just what I’m trying to find out,” I told her.
We arranged to meet at the cafe at eight the following morning, and she finished her latte and left.
I considered accessing the cached memory of my time with Mona Taylor, but resisted the urge.
I lodged my drone in a gap between the bricks high up the side of a nearby brownstone, then accessed VR and spent the night watching the sun set at the End of the World.
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.