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The white rectangle blinked patiently in the blackness of the command window. Point, tap, resize. Onscreen, the pointer dragged the upper right corner of the window down to reveal another window behind it, currently displaying an amorphous mass of smoky greys.
Jackal watched it for a moment, seeing ghostly cities rise out of the mist only to melt into the darkness of deep sea, punctuated by the phantom lights of monstrous fish that never saw daylight. Each image unraveled just as it approached the point of clarity. It was, he thought, the aggravating phenomenon of memories escaping, words fleeing from the tip of the tongue— it was that feeling come alive in the capricious pixels of the monitor.
He switched his gaze back to the other window that was still waiting for user input. Fingers tapping across the keyless keyboard (really a pressure sensitive screen) he watched as the alchemical grey paused— in confusion, one might have imagined— and burst, shredded by spears of color that now shot across the screen. Jackal was an operator, not a programmer, and he had never understood why this program had been made this way, with almost organic sequences that seemed more for aesthetics than any practical purpose. He could not imagine why the transition from grey to color would necessitate such a dramatic display, or even why the grey mass should be there, rather than a simple black screen, at all.
The colors had finished arranging themselves into the image of a park in springtime, green and flowering. Cars rushed by on the street behind the trees, and the shapes of tall buildings were visible in the distance. A few people wandered across the screen, walking dogs and children. It all seemed quite commonplace except for the boy in the center of the screen, who gazed back at Jackal with the unabashed stare of youth.
He looked about eight, still baby-eyed but no longer baby fat. Blondish hair and clear blue eyes the color of the sky gave him an angelic appearance. Aryan, Jackal thought, though he could not remember where he had heard the word or whether its connotation was positive or negative. Vaguely, he recalled something about swastikas, but was it to do with Nazi Germany or Buddhism? History had not been his strong suit and anyway these days it was about the future, not the past. He checked the cables and wires, neatly color-coded, that ran between the console and the helmet on his lap, checked his gloves, checked the straps that held him safely in his seat. Then he double checked them. He restrained himself from checking a third time only with considerable effort. There was something about the child that still unnerved him, and he was reluctant to initiate the test.
Not quite steady hands slid the helmet to fit snugly over his ears and the back of his head. Silence. The subtle noise of life from the surrounding workstations was completely muted by the helmet. A tinny yet fully inflected voice cleared a non-existent throat and spoke in his ear.
“Station oh-six A, operator Jackal, beta Alexander, test thirty-six. Confirm?”
He watched as the visor hidden inside the helmet slid out of one side, arcing around to glide into the receiving slot on the other.
“Ready to initiate test thirty-six?” queried the computer.
“Initiate test thirty-six,” he sighed, torn between appreciation for the natural tones of the computer’s voice and irritation with the tedious process which could just as easily been accomplished with a few jabs of an enter key. It was almost as though the computer was showing off.
The clear visor filled with the image on the screen. The same sort of technology that allowed teenagers to play tennis or perform skate tricks on gaming consoles by moving their controllers allowed Jackal a three-sixty view of his virtual environment as he turned his head. He went through the routine preliminary tests, turning in progressively faster jerks, checking for any pixelation or fragmentation of the image. No problems there. He turned back to the boy, Alexander. The eyes still watched him curiously.
Did he ever blink? He couldn’t decide which would be better anyway. AI was huge these days— he was lucky (and grateful) to have this job, on the forefront testing new technology— but he still felt that there was just something wrong about it. The closer they got to whatever they hoped to accomplish, the more fine lines were being erased, comforting lines that had once defined the boundaries of reality. But now everything was bleeding together, virtual and real, and ethics were a tangled mess between and within all faiths.
The message in his inbox this morning had mentioned that Alexander’s program had been tweaked for more interaction, more emotion. There were no further specifics, nothing even about any possible glitches to watch out for. People used to think it was philosophers with their heads in the clouds, but these engineers could give them a run for their money; holed up in private office suites, surrounded by Dictatypes and the constant hum of machines, they were modern hermits dreaming up the next impossible feat.
He wiggled his gloved fingers, found the smooth keyboard by feel, and keyed the commands to walk forward and kneel. A full-body suit was in the works, but at the moment only the helmet was fully functional in communicating his motion to the console; all other actions had to be keyed in. It was certainly odd, being able to raise and see his hands waving about while feeling his substantial fingers typing away— like having an extra set of phantom limbs.
As soon as he moved, Alex’s expression changed. He smiled, cheeks dimpled, and his eyes brightened. His arms reached out impulsively.
“Daddy! What took you so long? Come on, I wanna show you something!” Small hands were gripping his, he could feel them through the gloves even as he typed.
He stiffened, disbelieving. “Daddy”? This was the “tweak”? But it was his job to go with the program—to test it but not break it. Play the part, he told himself, reaching back to his one-time career as a small-time actor.
“Hey, kiddo, slow down. What do you want to show me?” The AI responded to his chuckle, bouncing on the balls of its feet.
“Over here,” Alex called, already running off toward the middle of the park. Jackal’s fingers rattled across the keyboard as his virtual body stood and jogged after the child. Alex wasn’t the only thing that had been updated; he felt the age in “his” body’s movements, the creak of joints and the strain on muscle, as he hoisted himself up from his kneeling position. So this is what it feels like to get old, he thought.
Alex was crouched by a woman and her daughter, a girl roughly his age, stroking one of three puppies that were rolling in the grass. Jackal slowed his last few steps and crouched down next to Alex, hearing his knees complain as he did so.
“Well, hello there,” he said, reaching out to pat a furry head. The sensation of warmth and downy fur started him; he had never encountered animals in the construct before and, assuming it to be a new development, had expected only a rough approximation of reality. He could feel the puppy’s breath and its small chest rising and falling in rhythm. It rolled over and gnawed at his fingers playfully. He pulled his hand away and turned toward the woman.
“Hello,” he said, keying a friendly smile. The woman smiled back and her daughter glanced at Alex shyly.
“Lisa,” she said, reaching out and shaking his hand in a firm grip. “And my daughter’s name is Allison. This is the puppies’ first time at the park.”
He watched Alex play with the puppies, listened to his open laughter, and talked with him in a haphazard fashion, just a father spending a lazy Saturday with his son at the park. And all the while his face inside the helmet felt tighter and tighter, like a mask, and he could feel his heart rate speeding up; it all felt wrong today. The weather, the scent of grass, Alex’s motions and expressions—everything was so perfect, so real. He felt betrayed.
He was only slightly appeased by the fact that Lisa began to repeat her greeting as he got up to leave, cutting herself off with “goodbye” only after he said it first. A minor glitch, but he felt a little better all the same. After all, Alex was the real star; all the others in the park were only background extras—NPCs, as his kid brother would have said. They shouldn’t have felt so real, not yet.
In his hurry to log back into the real world, he initiated the shut down procedure without going through the ritual that would put Alex back into a “sleeping” state. Instead, the energetic voice was cut off mid-sentence as Jackal keyed the exit command and the visor went clear again and slid back. His forehead was wet with perspiration as he pulled off the helmet and peeled off the gloves. He checked his watch, undid the straps and headed down to the food court for lunch.
Dave was already at the table when Jackal had gotten his food and turned to survey available seats. He sat down across from the other man, a tall beach-blond type who seemed to belong more on a sports team than in an office building. Dave half-waved a greeting, his mouth full at the moment.
“Test forty-seven,” he said, swallowing and taking a long drink of water, “on Cecily. That girl is driving me over the edge.” He shook his head and smiled wryly. “They told me teenagers were the most difficult to handle, but I always thought they were joking, teasing me for being the youngest in the company. But Cecily, she makes me wonder why I’d ever want kids. Man, I’ll be glad to clear her files— only three more tests to go.”
Jackal bit into his burger to avoid responding. He thought of Alex, like Cecily, just a set of files on the computer waiting to be executed. Executed— yes, in both senses of the word. Each operator was assigned a beta to test for only fifty tests, after which they were sent to be tweaked again by the tech team or, if there were still major problems, sent for further testing by another operator or simply scrapped altogether. Whatever happened though, the program—the person—that they had become familiar with over those fifty tests would be gone. Changed into someone else or deleted entirely. Executed.
“Still working on Xander, huh? What test are you on, Jack?”
When he applied for this job, they had questioned him about his concerns regarding the ethics of the enterprise. He had been so confident then that the money would be worth whatever weird moral complications might arise. He had been so sure that practicality could beat mental and emotional qualms into submission. He had needed that money so badly.
“Jack? Hey, it’s okay if you don’t want to say. Or if you’re behind on it. I mean, I’m not gonna report you or anything, man.”
That feeling of wrongness had been growing for a while now; today’s changes had only been the catalyst for his realization about what exactly had been bothering him. It wasn’t, as he had thought, that the programs were awkward and imperfect imitations of reality. Rather, their imperfections were too perfect, approximations of reality that had approached reality almost to the point of being indistinguishable. But the fact remained that they were only fragments of realities controlled by the point and click of human hands. The company was, in essence, creating life—and taking it away. Every beta that was sent back to shop for tweaking or overhauls died and was reborn, just as every person is a slightly different person between one day and the next. What did anyone really have of themselves but memories? And if the AIs all had memories they believed were true, what did it matter that they were programmed? In fact, were all the memories he remembered so clearly really part of his past? Had he really done that stupid trick last winter and broken his leg? He could recall the pain, but it was only really the idea of pain; nothing in memory could ever be real again. Did it even matter if it had really happened if he believed it had? If they created an AI right now, with all his memories, how could he say it wasn’t just as much him as he was? How could he say it wasn’t real?
He set down his burger, even though his stomach was growling, and pushed back his chair.
“Sorry, Dave,” he said, dumping his tray into the trash. “Spaced out on you there. I just remembered something I’ve got to do. See you later.”
Back up the elevator, through the rows of work stations, to the console sitting on his desk, still warm. He went through the motions again, faster this time, feeling a strange rush of adrenaline as he waited for the program launch.
“Improper shutdown,” the computer admonished. “Retrieving data now.”
“Retrieval complete. Please follow protocol next time. Thank you.”
He almost laughed aloud at the stiff irritated-phone-operator tone. Then the program finished loading and the he was back in the construct.
“—get a dog, pleeeease?” Alex was saying, short legs taking large strides to keep up. He was six steps forward before he realized his father wasn’t next to him. He stopped and turned.
“Why’d you stop?” he asked, nose crinkling in confusion.
Jackal felt his throat constrict. No time had passed for Alex; to the boy, he had never left. The company and all the others like it were playing God, toying with reality, and it didn’t matter if it was only the reality of digital entities. He knew, anyway, that they wouldn’t stop there; if AI and VR technology were fully realized, it was only a matter of time before real people started spending all their time jacked into consoles, unable to tell reality from fiction and perhaps preferring one over the other anyway.
“It’s nothing, kiddo,” he said, catching up, “I just thought I saw a four-leaf clover and I was going to get it for you. Because you’re special, you know that? Real special.” He mussed up the blond hair, and Alex swatted his hand away, laughing.
He did his best to remember his own childhood, what had impressed his younger self and what he had enjoyed doing with his father. They got ice cream, strolled down the street and wandered into shops, went down to the beach and picked up shells. He pushed Alex so high on the swings he was afraid he might fall. He didn’t wonder what would happen if Alex did fall, whether he could get hurt or even die. He let himself flow into the role, forgetting the fingers flying across the keyboard in his work station, becoming the older man, the father of the exuberant boy.
The sky was darkening with evening when Jackal set the helmet back down on the desk, feeling a combination of peace and sadness. Fishing out a disk from his drawer, he slid it into the computer and keyed the command to copy the files. He wouldn’t keep it with him—he wouldn’t know what to do with it—but he could hide it somewhere safe. It was strangely comforting to know that the Alex he had met today, imperfections and all, would be preserved regardless of whatever alterations the company made to him in the future. He slid the warm disk into his jacket pocket, laid the gloves on his desk, and walked out to the elevator.
As he walked out the main lobby of the building, he stopped to grab a resignation form.