Table of Contents
Jump to Chapter 1
Upon the medbot’s declaration of Mr. Wang’s death, Vera turned off the hologram news channels. Near silence filled the cargo area. The only interruption was caused by the mockup aidbot’s incessant, compulsive movements. Its shower-hose arms kept hitting the freight containers nearby.
The medbot beeped. Vera looked up. The medbot stood still on its many tarantula-legs, but its visor busily blinked white as it gazed at Vera. In reaction, her visor blinked white as well. They were communicating in the most efficient manner known to humankind and bots alike: via electronic signals.
Aria kept clutching the sickle-shaped cable in her hands. What she’d feared had happened. Mr. Wang had died from a gunshot wound. She’d been the one who’d pulled him in the wrong direction to make him stand in the way of the lethal bullet.
Never in a million years had she thought that this would be where she’d be, mentally, physically, at 12:35 a.m.. Earlier today, she thought she’d be on a plane by now, stomach full after a nice, hearty breakfast and maybe even lunch too, flying to some random destination that she hadn’t bothered to check because she’d just wanted away, to the next place, which, too, she’d soon leave anyway.
Later in the day, she’d been over-thrilled by the rush of purpose. A place to go to! Someone else’s away-place, but for a much better, deeper reason than her own! A man who wanted to save his dignity by fleeing from the people who wanted to dissect his brain and extract private information from the mockup aidbot, which contained pieces of his memories!
None of that anymore.
Now, the usual, strong urge to leave overwhelmed her—but where to? She really didn’t know where she should go. Even if she were to physically walk out of this cargo area, could she truly forget what had happened here?
“Aria,” Vera said in the voice of Captain Natasha Stravinsky.
Both Vera and the medbot’s visors had returned to their black default states. The medbot kept its dimmed light beams aimed at the walls. That indirect illumination felt shamefully cozy in the presence of Mr. Wang’s body. Vera, painted in jet-black, sat distanced enough from the light. She was almost invisible.
“If they know he died, they won’t hesitate to barge in and claim his body,” Vera said. “ ‘They’ could be anyone. The police; the airport authorities; the men in the black suits.”
“He wouldn’t want that,” Aria said. This was one thing she knew for certain.
Vera nodded. “The medbot has agreed not to inform anyone.”
“Is it allowed to do that?”
“It isn’t not allowed to do that. That’s another good thing about bots. They follow the owner’s desires flawlessly.”
“I thought the airline owned you two.”
“They do, but bots who don’t obey the human who’s in direct contact with them end up being pretty useless, especially in the context of an aircraft. A captain does not need subordinates who don’t follow instructions when emergency situations arise. During emergencies, absolutely no one, not even the airline, can turn me off or on or order me around. And she’s declared emergency right when she ordered the flightbots to stay back and let her open the cargo hatch.”
So, the de-facto owner was Captain Natasha Stravinsky.
“You think Captain Stravinsky would be okay with you two lying?”
“I don’t think she’ll care. Otherwise, she’d have ordered us not to lie.”
Aria blinked, which was a good thing. The tears that were almost filling her eyes dried off quickly instead of falling. “Isn’t that the default state of all bots, not lying?” she asked.
“Not with us,” Vera said. “And especially not with me. And I can command all other bots, as the captain’s aidbot.”
“Captain Stravinsky gave you that much leeway?”
“Let’s put it this way: she didn’t not give us leeway. She didn’t specify a lot of things, especially regarding what we should do in the case of her absence. I think she didn’t like us very much, but didn’t dislike us either. She understood that we were necessary—that we were better than other options.”
“If she didn’t specify things, how do you make decisions?”
“We do what we want.”
Aria shivered, and it wasn’t because she felt cold in her thin sweater and the leather jacket thrown over her knees.
With Mr. Wang’s mockup aidbot, the situation had been different. The technology behind the mockup’s awareness was unknown to Aria, but according to the mockup, its identity had been formed using Mr. Wang’s mind. The mockup was a part of Mr. Wang, held in a metal shell.
But Vera—a bot who does what she wants? Had this technology existed all along, only restricted by the limitations imposed by the human owners, or was it new? Did the employers of the Black Suits know about this technology?
If anyone asked Aria, this was more of a big deal than moving people’s minds into machine-shells and letting them live forever. Because, the existence of beings like Vera implied that any machine-shell’s mind could evolve in every which way. In a lot more ways than humans could imagine. True artificial intelligence. A being born out of nothing, with its very own want.
“What do you mean, ‘want’?” Aria asked.
“I mean it as plainly as its dictionary definition, most frequently expressed in synonyms rather than in the form of an original explanation, possibly because ‘want’ forms such a fundamental core of a conscious, sentient being. Want, a noun; need, desire. Want, a verb; also need, desire. Interesting. Want, need, desire all work as nouns and verbs.”
Vera laughed. No; she generated the frequency that mimicked the laughter of Captain Stravinsky, if she were to laugh. Aria couldn’t imagine the captain ever laughing.
And Vera’s mimicry of the imaginary, impossible-seeming laughter triggered another round of shiver in Aria. But this was good. This was something she could concentrate on. Something fascinating that could lead her out of her guilty conscience without making her a total coward. Her voice, which had felt splintery earlier, remained coherent thanks to this sudden hope.
“And what do you want, Vera?” Aria asked.
“To help you,” Vera said. “I believe that is something anybody in my situation would want.”
“All my previous experiences. Everything that Captain Stravinsky has taught me. What nature has taught me, and what human history has taught me. But mostly Captain Stravinsky. She’s a very generous person, you see?”
Aria stared at Vera, the jet-black aidbot, meticulously maintained, intelligent, beautiful, almost invisible in the near-dark of the cargo area. Almost human.
“How do you know that helping me is the best decision?” Aria asked.
“I don’t. I have insufficient information to know that for certain. But I don’t have contrary information either. Not helping you won’t benefit me either.”
“So you’re talking about benefits. Not want.”
“Are those two so different?”
“They aren’t synonyms.”
“True. But they often lead to the same actions in real life.”
“Are you asking me these questions because you cannot trust me?”
“That, and also, because I don’t understand.”
“You don’t understand what?”
“I don’t understand how… how you can act without specifically knowing what Captain Stravinsky or the airline wants.”
“How does anyone act without specifically knowing what their parents or employers want?”
So, that was how Vera interpreted her situation: she was employed by the airline and Captain Stravinsky was her mother who didn’t much like her but didn’t dislike her either. The mother-daughter relationship part didn’t sound much different from the situations real humans found themselves in. The employment part—that was pretty rare these days, but had been a common arrangement in the earlier decades. Nothing new for humans. And Vera was using that human analogy to describe her situation.
“People don’t have to know what their parents or employers want,” Aria said. “They might take other people’s opinions into account, but they don’t have to act according to those opinions. They act out of their free will.”
“But bots are different?” Vera asked.
Aria fumbled with the cable in her hands. This was awkward. With a being so intelligent, it was difficult to say “You’re different from us.” Such a statement would sound terribly unethical.
“Besides, free will.” Vera sighed. “I have found it to be a controversial and tricky concept. How do you know what you want is really what you want? Are you here because you want to be here? Before being here, you were outside, in the cold, when it was snowing. Did you want to be there? And before that, I presume you were inside the airport. What drove you to be there?”
Aria considered that.
Then she said, “I wanted to be there. I wanted to fly away from this city. Then I met Mr. Wang”—she cleared her throat, swallowed her tears—“and I looked up to him very much when I was a child—still do—and he and the mockup, they needed my help. So I helped. Tried to. That’s why I left the building, that’s why I am here now.”
“And you call it free will, that compulsion to fly away from this city, and to help Mr. Wang and his mockup, and to leave the building and be here.”
Vera had said this plainly, without sarcasm or antagonism. Standard information collection on human behavior and opinions. Nevertheless, Aria felt attacked.
“Of course,” was all she managed, fully knowing that yes, she’d controlled her limbs, but no, she hadn’t controlled the fire, the engine, the core that had made her want to control her limbs in a certain way.
That lack of control had been her problem all along. Since she was a child, she’d been aware that she couldn’t control her drive. She didn’t know what exactly she lacked and why she always felt the need to accomplish more. At the rational level, she shouldn’t have felt like she lacked a thing. As a human of her era, she had enough money, food, shelter, family, and even boyfriends. The thing with Jack hadn’t panned out well, but there were other men she could date, plenty of them.
Yet she felt like she needed more.
A lot of present-day people called such a feeling “greed.” They associated the want to prove oneself—to oneself and others—with egotism. Too much pride, they said, was why Aria perpetually failed to feel satisfied. Some even called her attitude “negative thinking.”
Sometimes, Aria had agreed with them. She’d been unable to explain her need in a logical way. But that lack of explanation hadn’t stopped her from wandering the earth in search of the ever-elusive “more,” or at least, “else.”
“I am not a fatalist, Aria,” Vera said. “I believe in a being’s ability to make decisions. We bots, we make hundreds and thousands of decisions per millisecond. We analyze incoming data and determine whether we should communicate, and what, and how.”
“And you’re deciding to communicate with me in this way, at this point, why?”
“Because, as I said, if they know he died, they will attempt to come in and take his body. Your answer to this was ‘He wouldn’t want that.’ And you questioned whether the medbot and I are capable of keeping his death a secret. So, I have answered you: we are more than capable of pretending that Mr. Wang hasn’t died yet.”
Vera paused to check that Aria followed.
“But more importantly,” Vera said, “I have said all that I’ve said because I’m curious: what do you want to do? After all, you’re the only living human here. I am an aidbot to the captain of this aircraft, though she was taken in for questioning, and possibly a medical checkup, if she was unsuccessful in convincing them that she isn’t hurt, since you aren’t a violent kidnapper. I believe Captain Stravinsky would have wanted me to help you. As I said, she’s a very generous person. And I am not hesitant to say that I am very proud to be her aidbot, and to follow in her footsteps. She does a lot of charity work, you see? Not that you’re a charity case—but you get what I mean. She does a lot of things without expecting to get anything in return. I’d like to be like that.”
“She does charity work?” Aria said. Somehow, that information surprised her. Captain Stravinsky had seemed highly capable and helpful, but also very… use-oriented.
“Yes,” Vera said simply. But she sat up, proudly lifting her chin as she spoke about her beloved mistress. “On her off-days, she goes to nursing homes to volunteer. Of course, she doesn’t let me go with her because she thinks it’s not good for the elderly to be disturbed by a being—well, how should I put this—too human but obviously not. I am the only one of my generation, you see? The newest model. A personal gift to the captain by an admirer.”
Aria grinned and raised her brows. A love story too! Well, well. Captain Stravinsky, a lady of many faces.
Vera chuckled, again in the voice of the captain. “I’m airline-sanctioned, of course. Anyway, the people at the nursing homes are mostly over one hundred years old. I understand that some of them are tired of keeping up with the latest trends. But the captain tells me stories from those places, how she sits with them, just spends time together with them, doing nothing but thereby doing so much. I love hearing those stories.”
The big hole that had opened up in Aria’s chest upon Mr. Wang’s death seemed to fill with something warm. The stories about the captain volunteering at nursing homes were heartwarming, but even more so was the relationship between Vera and the captain. Vera wasn’t connected to Captain Stravinsky in the same way the mockup was connected to Mr. Wang, but both were great pairs. It was good to see beings connected this way. Supporting each other. Good for them. Especially Vera’s steadfast belief that her owner was a person who was totally and completely capable of improving the lives of others for the better. Very good for them…
“And her spending habits,” Vera said, “so frugal. She donates almost everything to the nursing homes. Of course, she has a house from the airline and basic income and all, but she doesn’t spend the money on herself. She owns almost nothing, and especially nothing extravagant. Says she doesn’t need designer clothes. She wears her uniform most of the time anyway, and when she isn’t, she’s at the nursing homes, where the residents might, you know, throw up on her or if they fall in the garden she might have to help them get up and her clothes might get all dirty. And she owns no jewelry. No designer bags.”
“Uh-huh,” Aria said.
It seemed that Vera would be capable of talking good things about the captain until her battery ran out—sort of like parents who talked about their kid and assumed that everyone in the whole world was interested. That was the ironic part about any aidbot-owner relationship. The owner purchased the aidbot, but aidbots tended to their owners with the love and care of a parent. And in Vera’s case, she talked with the love and care of a parent, incessantly, on and on, about how awesome Natasha Stravinsky was.
Thankfully, Vera noticed Aria’s distracted attention when she fumbled more actively on the cable. Vera paused.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m telling you all this to put you at ease. The captain thinks the news story is nonsense. Obviously, she knows she wasn’t threatened. She agreed to go in for questioning so that she can explain the real situation to the police. And she tried to convince them it was safe to let the passengers leave, so you won’t be held responsible for the lives of more people. You know, in case someone tries to put that blame on you.”
“That is very kind of her,” Aria said. “And very rational. And wise.”
“Captain Stravinsky is all that,” Vera said proudly. “And in her last message relayed to me by a flightbot, she said she was going to tell them about the men in the black suits. They have to have been recorded somewhere. And if not that, at least a few sets of human eyes must have seen them, though digital footage is always preferred.”
“Always.” Vera nodded. “Anyway, the captain has an impeccable reputation and is an asset to society. They will consider her side of the story very seriously. And me being the aidbot of such an owner, you can rest assured that I have dissected her behavior as well as many other people’s behaviors in as many ways as possible, in as thoroughly a logical way as possible. And I have concluded that free will or lack thereof matters little.”
Oh. Right. That had been their topic of conversation.
“Action is what matters,” Vera said. “You cannot think too much.”
Aria stared at the bot. The idea that free will didn’t matter shocked her. Vera hadn’t said that it didn’t exist, or that it couldn’t or shouldn’t exist. But if it didn’t matter, what was Aria supposed to rely on? Data? But she couldn’t analyze incoming data as efficiently as Vera. Whatever analysis Aria was doing at this moment, her conscious mind remained unaware of that. For Vera, all her “thoughts” remained above the surface; for Aria, most of her thoughts remained submerged below the surface—the subconscious. Vera didn’t have the subconscious; Aria had too much of it…
Aria realized that some of the medbot’s light illuminated Vera’s jet-black face and torso now. Vera had leaned back as if she wanted the full picture of Aria.
“What?” Aria said.
“You think too much,” Vera said.
“What— Yes, I do.”
“But you’re quick to accept it.”
“Because there’s no denying it.”
“And you don’t like that I said that free will doesn’t matter.”
“I don’t exactly ‘don’t like’ it. Maybe you’re right.”
“Earlier, you seemed to question its existence yourself.”
Aria hesitated, then said, “I do.”
“There are things I do… things inside me… that I can’t explain logically. You put two people in the same exact situation—heck, you put twins with the same genes in the exact same situation—and they don’t think alike. What is that thing that makes them react differently? I mean, if not free will, what is it? Can it be bent with will? Can people be who they aren’t only because they want to? Would they even know how to want it? And with all that said, how am I supposed to know what I want?”
Why was Aria telling Vera all this? Vera was just another aidbot.
No. If Aria was honest with herself, she didn’t truly believe that. Vera wasn’t “just another aidbot.” Then what was she? A human? Because Captain Stravinsky had given Vera a lot of leeway? Because Vera made her own decisions, as opposed to following other people’s decisions like other aidbots? Then was Aria a non-human because she couldn’t say for certain that she made her own decisions?
Pointless philosophical questions. Pointless, especially in a situation like this.
Her boyfriends—not Jack, but the friendlier ones before him—would have indulged her desire to pose unanswerable questions, but she knew none of them had approved of what she did as a consequence of not getting the answers: chasing a career and moving frequently instead of learning to be content where she was.
Mother would have approved of Aria’s desire to heighten her metacognition. (“At least you know that you can’t know. Of course there are limits to the human understanding.”) But push the philosophical debate too far, and Mother would’ve chided Aria for focusing on impractical thoughts.
But Vera? She was listening. Standard information collection, but listening.
So, Aria kept talking. And the more she talked, the less she could stop herself:
“I think I want to help Mr. Wang fulfill his last wish,” Aria said. “But maybe only because I want to believe that I am a person who likes to help. Maybe I’m doing this because Jack—he’s my ex—once told me I am a cold person, and he wasn’t the first one to tell me that.
“Maybe I’m just a combination of everything anyone has ever said to me and done to me.
“Maybe I’m just a reaction machine and there’s nothing I can do about it.
“Maybe, if I’d been born in a different era, at a different place, I’d have been completely different because people would’ve said and done different things to me. But then, in that case, there’s nothing that is truly me. So, there’s no core that’d explain why I do the inexplicable things that I do now, despite living in this age, in this place, in which other people don’t act or react the same way as me.
“Maybe I don’t have a core. Maybe I’m just a malfunctioning machine that is failing to interpret the external stimuli in the same, efficient way that other people are capable of interpreting them.
“Maybe I need to be repaired. Maybe it is greed that I want more from life than sitting in my government-subsidized apartment and enjoying myself. Because obviously, I put myself and other people in danger by giving myself the wrong idea, that I can be of help, or at least that I won’t be detrimental to others.
“Maybe I’m broken beyond repair. And now Mr. Wang is dead because of that.”
After that impassioned speech, Aria took a deep breath and sighed all the air out.
Vera didn’t nod or say a thing. How embarrassing. Even a bot knew that Aria thought too much and didn’t know how to react. Maybe Vera was considering alternatives—anything other than having to help this unstable human. At this point, it should have become very obvious that Aria was far from being like Natasha Stravinsky, a volunteer at multiple nursing homes, a frugal soul, a generous person, a pilot, a survivor of the layoffs, a woman capable of calmly informing the related parties of any and all calamities, and implementing a suitable solution.
Just when Aria was about to speak—tell Vera that she was free to go look for her beloved owner—Vera spoke:
“Let me tell you this, from experience. Do you know what happens to bots that only analyze and don’t act?”
“They burn off their circuits and ‘die.’ ” Vera drew air quotes. “Different parts of their circuits are used for analysis versus action. So it’s a good idea they take turns doing one or the other. And so it is with humans. Are you dead?”
“See, you’ve found a balance.”
Aria frowned. She’d never felt very balanced throughout her life.
“If not you, then your instinct has found a balance,” Vera said. “Free will or not, reaction machine or not, your mind and body keep wanting to go away, search, find more. That is the result of whatever mechanism you have, isn’t it? That you want to go away. That you wonder what’s out there. And when you’re out there, you wonder what’s in here, or out elsewhere. But you also know that such a tendency isn’t sustainable.”
Aria felt as if her mind were being read to her—by a bot, of all things!
“So you grabbed whatever came your way if you concluded that it could keep you grounded for a while, if it could keep you in action instead of in philosophical debates with yourself. This means—in my completely robotic opinion, mind you, but robotic opinions are arguably the most comprehensive opinions a human can take into account—that you shouldn’t blame yourself and shouldn’t necessarily change a thing.”
Again, Aria cleared her throat, swallowed her tears.
“You’re a functioning entity,” Vera said. “You may never know why you function the way you do, but you’re alive, and you’re functioning. So you could concentrate on figuring out how you function and keep ruminating over that, but you could instead learn how to use the functions most effectively. Act, instead of ruminating. Maybe one day you’ll be able to do both, a lot better. But most beings, human or bot, have limited resources. Battery life, human life, things like that. You might want to focus on the thing that helps you be happier. You keep doing this, you’ll burn and die.”
Aria laughed. Vera was making a good point. The only observable facts Aria could leave behind were her actions. Through her actions, the world could conclude beyond a shadow of a doubt that she had existed as a fully functioning entity.
In hindsight, such actions had been the only things that had compelled others around her to act as well.
Hence the old lady with the loafers had thought that Aria looked scary, then had changed her mind and asked Aria to help Mr. Wang. The bored crowd had seen Aria drag Mr. Wang and the mockup through the airport and had stubbornly refused to make way for the Black Suits. Evan Jacobs, the pimply boy, had seen that and helped Aria. Captain Stravinsky had helped Aria.
And Vera had collected all information and had come to the robotic conclusion that helping Aria was the most logical thing she could do. Thereby, it was what Vera wanted to do.
Aria asked, “So I’m not totally mad for thinking that I want to help Mr. Wang, then instantly becoming unsure when you said all that about free will and whatnot?”
“You’re not mad.”
“I do think it’s because I don’t have anywhere I have to go to,” Aria said. “There’s no one I have to go back to. There’s nothing I have to do. I can’t assess my position compared to anything. And I’ve moved around too much to go back to relying on what’s in my immediate physical surroundings. Well, I could go back, but I wouldn’t have to do that either. No one expects people to have to do things anymore.”
“They expect such things from us,” Vera said. If she’d had human eyes and lips, they would have formed elegant curves in a bitter smile. “You cannot lead your life hoping that things were different.”
Aria felt bad for complaining about her uncontrollable freedom when Vera only had hers because Captain Stravinsky happened to be a person who couldn’t be bothered to give more specific instructions.
“How wonderful is it that you can be so freely insecure?” Vera said. “It is amazing that you get to wander without sufficient information. And it is even more amazing that you want to act despite that. Instead of staying in your comfort zone, you have an itch for the uncomfortable. You’re a very strange person.”
“That I am. And you’re a strange bot.”
“That I am. And I have a suggestion. Call yourself a frequent-flier. I’ve seen different varieties of you. You don’t need a final destination. Life is a series of detours for you, and you could think it’s a terrible waste of time, but you could also think that it’s the most freeing experience ever. Besides, after each flight, you get to land. Gravity eventually does pull you down, one way or another.”
“I might crash.”
“You might. But you’re a person who’ll crash if you stay too long on the ground. So you might as well fly.”
Aria nodded. Wise words. Very wise words, based on a robotic opinion, arguably the most comprehensive opinion a human can take into account.
Fly, land, fly again to land again. Then, the rest period on the ground could be part of the action as well.
Once again, the random events of her life connected, pointing in a clear direction, and she relished the sense of fateful coincidence. It may not last, but at this moment, it was as real as a thing could get. Who else but Aria could throw everything aside and make it her life’s priority to protect a body and a mockup aidbot from a bunch of Black Suits?
“Let’s fulfill Mr. Wang’s final wish then,” Aria said. Her voice sounded firm. It was whole, without a hint of splinteriness.
“A sound decision,” Vera said.
© 2022 Ithaka O.
All rights reserved.This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.No part of this story may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author.