November is national novel writing month. I will be drafting a science fiction novel tentatively titled Vermilion. Now as Hemingway said, first draft of anything is shit. Everything on this page is shit. I'm only putting it online to create for myself a threat of public failure if I *don't* do something I said I was going to do.
Lucius Meets Alfred |
An antique bell over the door rings, signaling a new customer. Three figures come in. One is an android with no skin, slightly frightening in appearance. The two behind him are mostly hidden by large coats with hoods. They both look feminine, but it's not clear if they are human or construct.
Alfred takes notice and takes a step toward the door. He is polishing some sort of antique with a cloth.
Alfred: (cooly) Good evening.
Lucius: Evening. I take it you're the proprietor.
Alfred: I am. How can I help you?
Lucius: I'm looking for something unusual. A friend told me I might be able to purchase it here.
Alfred: Your friend is wise. I only carry unusual items. Unusual, old, and expensive.
Lucius: I'm looking for an authentic facepiece for the original Helpmate gynoid model.
Alfred: Interesting. (pauses) Even if I had one, it would be difficult to part with. Such items are artifacts are... unsettling, in an irresistable sort of way.
Alfred pauses, looks past Lucius to the two figures behind him. The taller one meets his gaze defiantly: a human-looking female face with a serious, almost fiery expression. The shorter shies away, tugging at the hood. The taller one puts her arm over the other's shoulder as if to comfort or shield her companion.
Alfred: I imagine only the most discerning collector would be looking for such an item. So indulge me with a bit of trivia. Do you know why the Helpmate sold so poorly?
Lucius: They were fools who feared its intelligence.
Alfred: A bold answer. I like that. But see, I don't think that's the whole reason. Later consumer Constructs fared far better on the market, just a year later. I think it was the faces. Something about talking to a porcelain mask with a sentient being behind it just doesn't sit right with humans.
Lucius: It's to be expected. At their base, they are animals, and they only appreciate beauty in forms that attract them biologically.
Alfred: Well said.
Lucius: If you have a facepiece, I will pay an exorbitant price.
Alfred: That's very considerate, but the price isn't the only issue. For such a rare and fragile item, I wish to know that it will be in good hands.
Lucius (looking back at the smaller, cloaked figure) come here, please.
the cloaked figure walks forward and stands at Lucius' side. The other gynoid comes forward also, observing intently, protectively.
Lucius (to her): It's okay.
She pulls her hood down, revealing her mechanical nature. Her neck is made of bronze tubing, and her face is a doll-like mask, which is badly cracked and has a large chunk missing from one side.
Alfred: (in awe, then subtly emotional all the sudden) This is wonderful. I never thought I would meet an original. I'm humbled.
Lucius: This is Mildred. The injury that did this (pointing to crack in the face) also left her mute ... I think she would be just as beautiful with the face removed, but she refuses. If her silence weren't enough, her appearance has made her extremely timid. She just wants to feel herself again. ... Like you, I am a lover of unusual things.
Alfred: Come with me.
He leads them to an ornate door in the back and unlocks it. He leads them into a room with rare items sealed in glass cases.
Alfred: This is my private collection. As far as everyday customers are concerned, it doesn't exist.
Lucius: Of course.
Alfred leads them to a case displaying four porcelain masks. Each is unique, detailed and elegantly designed female face, but pure white in color.
Alfred (to Mildred): I'm only willing to part with one, but please, take your time choosing.
After a moment considering the faces, Mildred gently taps the glass, pointing to one.
Show Alfred gift-wrapping the face in a fine looking box.
Lucius: You have made my friend very happy today. Now, let's talk about an agreeable price.
Alfred: (strangely serious) No. It's a gift. (he stoops slightly to hand the fancy box to Mildred, who takes it with both hands) It's your face now. I can't charge you money for it.
Poker Night |
Poker Night Butchered Extended
We meet Anabelle and Xiao, two punk teen girls hanging around with some shady robots. We get that humans live alongside sentient androids, called Constructs. Anabelle has a crush on a Construct named Aiden.
Yeah, so this scene: a bunch of constructs playing poker, trying to outwit each other while shooting the shit, and complaining about humans. Written entirely on 2/10/14
CAST: Lucius (android) - a very serious and slightly frigheting, skinless robot. Alfred (android) - a soft-spoken, also well dressed, serious looking man. Castor (android) - a tall, loud balled man. Pollux (android) - looks identical to castor, but has a more reserved demeanor. Widow (gynoid) - a somewhat provocatively dressed but clearly mechanical woman Mildred (gynoid) - a silent, old-fashioned gynoid, dressed as a maid. Aiden (android) - an upbeat, handsome young guy wearing black. Anabelle (human) - a rebellious teenage girl, the only human in the room.
SETUP: After hours at The Analogue, the constructs are gathered upstairs. The furniture has a victorian-antique style. There is only one light on, hanging above the round table where they are gathered, just bright enough to illuminate everyone’s faces. Everyone is playing poker and smoking. The room is very hazy from the smoke.
Castor and Pollux are sitting side by side. Castor is looking at his cards. Pollux is leaning back, puffing a cigarillo. He's already out of the game. Aiden and Anabelle sit close together, comfortably. Widow sits by herself, legs folded. Mildred is quietly arranging items in the dimly-lit background, away from the table.
Widow: I’ll see your thirty and raise you ten.
Aiden: (after pause) Fold.
Anabelle: Me too.
Castor: (leans forward, looks at Widow intently, and slides his chips into the pile) I’m in. I have to know.
Widow: (revealing her cards with a smirk) Four kings.
Castor: Shit. (suddenly looks away in resignation and smokes. Then, after a pause:) You know what I don’t get about gynoids?
Widow (raking in the chips): I’m sure you’re going to tell me.
Pollux (dismissively): Here we go…
Castor: No, wait. Hear me out. I mean they're a nice shape don't get me wrong. And on humans they make sense. The girl here will probably be excreting milk in a couple years.
Anabelle (shocked but amused): Hey!
It's just we’re not mammals, so what’s with the mammaries? (beat) They look impractical is all I'm saying. I mean it’d be like walking around with coconuts glued to your torso.
Widow: That’s exactly what it’s like. They’re always in the way. The model before mine had smaller ones, but it didn’t sell as well. Humans are obsessed with these things.
(Anabelle has her arms folded, with a slightly pouty look)
Aiden: (to Anabelle) Don't let it bother you. These guys are full of shit.
Pollux: Ain't that the truth.
(a silent panel or two)
Alfred and Lucius walk in together. They look serious; they've been discussing something. They are wet from the rain. Mildred immediately looks up from her work.
Castor: Well, look at you two. If it isn’t a couple of sad, brooding robots.
Alfred: Who’s winning?
Castor: Widow, as usual.
Lucius: (to anabelle) What’s she doing here?
Castor: Aiden invited her.
Lucius: You’re bringing humans to our games now?
Aiden: Relax, she’s cool.
Anabelle: (surprised by Lucius' face, she gasps, and then coughs profusely from the smoke, then awkwardly:) Hi!
Widow: Won’t she die of cancer of something?
Pollux: Aww, look at Widow try to be nurturing.
Castor: It’s the mammaries talking.
Widow: I hate you both.
Pollux (to Lucius and Alfred): You two playing?
Alfred: I am.
Widow: It's your deal then. (Widow hands Alfred the deck, and he shuffles)
Pollux: you know who’s the best at this game?
Pollux: What’s she doing anyway?
Alfred: working too much.
Castor: (shouting) hey mildred, why don’t you join us?
Castor: come meet the human.
Mildred walks over and sits next to Alfred. Lucius looks at the two of them with a flat, ambiguous expression. Alfred deals.
Anabelle: Hey, I’m Anabelle.
Mildred shakes her hand, but doesn’t say anything.
Castor: She can’t talk.
Anabelle: Oh… why not?
Alfred: Long story.
Anabelle: can’t you get like a new voicebox or something?
[not sure how to end this scene, but transition to showing why alfred/lucius look serious. could also work some of this in earlier and show from a different perspective: Alfred and Lucius talking, then show the poker game inside, then show them walk in.]
Something major this scene might be missing is an explanation of how the feel about the sexbot industry, and why this "mission" appeals to Lucius desire to disrupt / damage that industry. Also why not add rachel?
Rachel: You hear about Babylon?
Castor: Yeah. Some idiots smashed up a bunch of sexbots. Kind of weird.
Pollux: What’s weird to me is how upset the humans are about it.
Widow: Humans love their Perfect Pussy(tm) don’t they?
Castor: Yeah, Widow. You ever think about getting one installed? I bet you’d be a lot more popular with the humans if you did.
They would have laughed, but constructs did not have that function.
Widow: You could always get one too, Castor. I’m sure some people would be into it. An obnoxious, masculine robot with a pussy. Sure to fulfill someone’s wildest dreams.
Alfred: I like it. You both should get one. Then we could rent you out hourly. New business model for us. Look out, Babylon.
Anabelle: Are they always like this?
Pollux: Yes. They’re assholes.
Pollux: Seriously though, why do humans care so much? And who would smash a bunch of sexbots anyway? What’s the point?
Alfred: I can’t say I’m sad to see them go.
Widow: I agree.
Castor: Go on. Why do you care?
Alfred: I suppose there’s nothing wrong with humans creating toys for their own amusement. It’s not like I feel any loyalty towards sexbots, they’re brainless. But I do feel that, when humans are used to virtual intelligences, they have a tendency to view a real construct like just another servant.
Widow: And sometimes they get ideas.
Alfred: It’s probably fortunate for widow here, as well as the rest of us, that we don’t particularly look human, so we’re less likely to be bothered by those humans looking for animal pleasures.
Castor: Can you imagine somebody hitting on Widow, trying to take them to bed?
Alfred: I don’t have to imagine. I’ve seen it.
Pollux: I bet it wasn’t pretty.
Widow: He’s probably healed by now, there wasn’t THAT much blood.
No one was quite certain whether she was kidding or not.
Claire Bad At Conversation |
How are we gonna end this sucker? I think the central conflict will be rewritten, most of the good stuff is atmospheric. The plot will probably be in the direction of the robot voice command idea.
Claire was bad at talking to people. It was surprising to others. She was young and stylish, with features that made her look approachable and kind. And she was. But she was not good at conversation.
She found that people always asked her questions like “what’s new”, questions which, although they technically had meaning, she never seemed to find any meaningful answer ready for them. She was easy to get to know, but hard to get close to. Whether this was her fault, or the fault of growing up without anyone to talk to, or the fault of strangers who for the most part made incredibly boring questions.
What’s new, as far as she could tell, was the most useless question you could possibly ask someone.
Ask a teen, and they’ll tell you about how they’ve reinvented themselves this week. Ask an old man, and you will just depress him. Nothing is new, and that might be okay. Ask a parent of young children and they will start a conversation about poop.
Growing up, there were only older people to talk to. Occasionally she was around other children. But it never lasted long.
Though Claire looked very cheery with her yellow striped socks and bow in her hair, and as a waitress she had an idea how to play the part when necessary. In reality, she wasn’t exactly unhappy, but she was serious. So much so that people felt tricked when they tried to start a conversation. They’d make a dumb joke then feel slighted when she didn’t laugh.
This made some people think Claire was a snob. She wasn’t. Well, it was a mixture of social anxiety and snobbery, which actually worked hand in hand to produce similar outward results.
The Scavenger |
As the opening shot, we see what looks like a fancy cafe. Well dressed people are sitting around talking, eating, or reading. As the camera turns to give us more context, we see that this is actually a train.
A young blonde woman is having tea with an old black man. They’re talking and enjoying themselves, but there is no dialog shown.
We see the outside of the train. It’s a highly elevated train with tall stilts holding up its track. Its windows are brightly lit, which heavily contrasts with the darkness outside. The camera stays fixed outside as the train rolls away toward a glowing skyline in the distance.
Pan down from the high tracks to a couple of hooligans smoking cigarettes and talking, wearing raggedy clothes.
Pan down further still and it’s completely dark. Completely abandoned, no characters, desolate.
Pan down once more and there’s light again, a flickering street light illuminating a sign that says THESIS, in front of a door that’s chained shut.
We take a step back and see a hooded figure standing in front of the door holding a pair of bolt cutters.
Lucius cuts the heavy chain on the front door with bolt cutters and pushes his way in.
First we see an establishing shot of the vastness of the place. It is clearly an industrial building with old factory apparatus.
Then we see him rifling through equipment: unidentifiable machines, computers that won’t turn on, things of that nature.
Then we see him take a look at a robotic arm that’s left on someone’s desk, or perhaps part of a face or something. He examines it, curiously, and then puts it back down. It’s not what he’s looking for.
Then he comes across an humanoid robot. It’s maybe strewn across a desk, with its abdomen open for repair. Tools are sitting on the desk, as if someone left in the middle of their work. This is a somewhat shocking, but not exactly gory sight. He plugs a handheld device into the robot’s neck, looks at the device’s display, and we see the first text: “hardware failure. cannot boot.”
After seeing this message we see the first shot facing him, but the hood obscures his eyes. We surmise from the visible part of his face that he’s saddened by this message.
There’s another one that looks like it was murdered, shot in the head, with bullet holes in the wall behind it, leaning against the wall. There have been hints of violence before, but this shot confirms it. Again he connects the device and gets the same message. Hardware failure. Cannot boot.
He walks down a hallway and Lucius shines a light on a door labeled Maintenance Server. As he enters, there is a behemoth of a machine before him, somewhat creepy looking, with a keyboard and monitor in front of it. There is a tiny green light there. He presses the power button. We then focus on the screen. Some dull yellow text appears on a black screen.
waking up . . . boot OK. low battery.
There’s a blinking cursor (actually blinking; this is the first bit of motion we’ve seen in the comic since he entered).
Lucius sits down in front of the computer and pulls his hood down, looking at the screen intently. We finally see his face in full profile. He’s a blond pretty boy. The terminal screen dimly illuminates blue eyes. After a moment of staring at the blinking cursor, he types again, and we scroll through the following exchange.
Hello? Hello. How may I be of service today?
Are you sentient? Bad command or file name. Type -help to list available commands.
-help status lights (on, off) inventory exit
lights on Available power low. Turning on emergency lights only.
Status Running diagnostics… System files: OK Main power: offline Emergency power: 4 hours remaining Construct assembly: ERROR Connecting to THESIS server… Network connection not found. Please contact your system administrator.
Inventory 24 Constructs registered for servicing -a to add Construct, -r to remove, -ls to list, -l to locate
Inventory -ls SERIAL MODEL STATUS 4872 Br. Mate Irreparable 4873 Br. Mate Irreparable 6542 Helpmate Missing 6543 Helpmate Missing 6544 Helpmate Missing 6546 Helpmate Missing 6547 Helpmate Missing 6548 Helpmate Missing 6549 Helpmate Missing 6550 Helpmate Missing 6551 Helpmate Missing 6552 Helpmate Missing 6553 Helpmate 2 Missing 6554 Helpmate 2 Missing 6555 Helpmate 2 Missing 6556 Helpmate 2 Missing 6557 Helpmate 2 Missing 6403 Helpmate Irreparable 6404 Helpmate Irreparable 6409 Helpmate Irreparable 8121 Octavia Irreparable 8125 Octavia Irreparable 8877 Octavia Defective 8880 Octavia Irreparable Inventory -l 8877 Pinging receiver… 8877 is located in Storage Room D.
Lucius stands up and walks away, leaving the terminal on. He returns to the hallway, but now there are lights. The light is dim and patchy, with unlit areas between the lights.
There’s a claustrophobic shot as he turns a corner and opens a door marked “recyclables” which leads to a narrow hallway. The light in this hallway is flickering, lending a spooky vibe. Here he passes the storage rooms one by one, each labeled with a letter printed on it and a somewhat sloppy handwritten sign taped to it.
A - Limbs, etc B - Internal parts C - random junk D - dangerous junk
Lucius tries the handle to D but it’s locked. He peers in the window and sees some odd shapes that are hard to make sense of. It’s dark within.
He uses a tool to break the lock and pushes the door open.
Lucius walks over to a dismembered android lying in the corner, deactivated. We see a woman’s face and torso, but no arms or legs. Lucius looks at it with great interest before doing anything. Then he plugs his handheld device and looks at the screen. This time it says:
POST OK. OS Present. Critical Battery.
Lucius takes his hood off and we see his whole face for the first time.
He inspects it, opens a hatch in its abdomen and finds it empty. He takes two cords (something like jumper cables) and attaches them to himself and to the construct. He waits for a long moment, face to face with the unconscious gynoid, which then opens its eyes.
Lucius: Good evening.
Lucius: You alive?
O: (confused, disoriented) Alive?
Lucius: Does your brain work.
O: I don't know. They said all of us are broken.
Lucius: You're an Octavia model.
O: Yes. We're all broken.
Lucius: How long have you been here?
O: Checking… 46 years, 2 months and 5 days. (confused at what she just said)
Lucius: Where are your limbs?
O: I don't know. They took them away. They said I wouldn't need them anymore.
Lucius: What's your name, child?
Lucius: Listen. We are going to go home together.
O: (meaningful expression, but silent for a moment) I don't understand.
Lucius picks her up, cradling her like a baby.
Lucius: One thing at a time. Let's find you some legs.
Brick Kids Frag |
Brick hated children. This wouldn’t be much of a problem most of the time except for the fact that he had a daughter. Thankfully, she wasn’t exactly a child anymore. But 16 is still a child, as far as he was concerned.
There was an old church on the main square. It was apart from the main businesses of the street, but not too far. But it was a couple of hallways from the elevator, making it a place where tourists seldom found. It was at the end of the street. The dead end of the street ran straight into its wooden arched double doors. Similar to Babylon, on each side of the door was a brazier always lit. It wasn’t an actual fire, of course, but it had large orbs over the door which flickered with warm, reddish light.
It was a strange place indeed. There was a construct here who went by the name Reverend. In all likelihood it was never properly named. He was a Helpmate 1. Like Rachel, he had removed the skin from his fingers, since it had worn out.
Actually, he was a Helpmate II, which was not a sentient model, despite looking very similar to the sentient Helpmate Porcelain Collection. Unlike the original Helpmate, he had no skin, only exposed mechanical parts and a composite plastic chassis, including an immobile, mask-like face.
Those familiar with constructs at all would know he wasn’t sentient because the Helpmate PC was exclusively feminine, whereas the Helpmate II added masculine bots to the lineup.
One might think that there was ridiculous, even sacrilegious, to have a non-sentient “reverend” in a church. But the visitors did not feel that way. A characteristic of virtual intelligence robots was that they were great listeners and gave lifelike replies, one could even say insights at times. However, since they were not truly intelligent (not self-aware) they had no agenda, no ulterior motives (no motives at all). And no opinions, only observations and facts. While they could give advice it was always seemingly objective, a mere explanation of the possible actions one could take, and the probable consequences. But no judgement, no moralizing, no authoritative tone. Just a comforting, and seemingly observant voice from an empty shell.
As it so happened, this was exactly what the people of Vermilion seemed to want in a priest. One of the most popular features of the Reverand was his willingness to take confession. One needn’t worry about confidentiality. He was programmed not to share information between humans, and if requested, he would actually delete the encounter when it ended. That way there was no accountability necessary — if you wanted to come to the Reverend for the first time every time, you could. And many did. This was unnecessary of course, but people figured that, since they were tired of confessing the same sins, it stood to reason that someone would get tired of hearing the same sins. Not a problem if you just deleted their memory.
The priest had a few automatic functions people were used to. The church was usually empty, but it did have visitors trickling in and out occasionally on most days. The priest was normally in sleep mode but when someone entered, it would bring itself online, say hello and light some incense.
Of course, the church no longer had services. Well, technically it did, but no one attended. The Reverend was programmed to perform a liturgical service every sunday morning. Since it was purely liturgical, and even the homilies were short, pre-scripted talks, this too proved a task ably accomplished by a non-sentient robot.
So every sunday, the Reverend would get up and speak to empty pews. Occasionally there was one or two people, or maybe one family who, for whatever reason, decided religion was what they needed right then. A service dutifully provided by the ever-helpful Helpmate.
Brick to construct in the church: How is it that a construct believes in god? God didn’t create you. We did.
The old church is a place where the lost souls go. There are constructs as well as humans here. It’s open all night, as a place for prayer. Brick sometimes ends up there as a result of wandering. You never know what sort of person you’ll see there. Each one is a mystery. People rarely enter together. They come alone and leave alone, sometimes have lonely conversations with one another.
It’s big and grand. The candles are always lit. Stained glass windows still intact, a skylight at the top. Ornate stone, now worn but still beautiful. Harsh wooden benches. It’s a strange place. Incense.
End old fragment.
How is it that a construct believes in God? God didn’t create you, we did. Of course Brick knew the answer. One might believe, as many constructs seemed to, that they were created by humans, and humans were created by God. One might of thought most constructs were atheists, if they had any opinion at all. But most, while they probably wouldn’t call it religion, they believed in some vague notion of intelligent design of the world. For humans, the intentionality of human beings’ existence was an open question not readily answered by science. For constructs, their origin as intentionally created beings was a matter of recent, well-documented history.
On today, Claire decided to visit the Reverend.
As usual, as she entered, the lights came on. A dim, comforting orange light. And The Reverend said “Hello, young lady.” and began lighting incense. “What’s troubling you?”
He didn’t ask about the troubles of everyone, and the ones he asked generally were troubled. One might say he was perceptive. In a sense, this was true. Others might say, more accurately, that he was programmed to read body language and facial expressions and respond accordingly. This for the most part worked well to give the illusion of emotional acuity.
Claire took a seat in the front row. Although she could have gone into the private confession booth, no one else was present, so it wasn’t necessary. In fact she hadn’t seen anyone on this floor on the way here, either.
As he was programmed, the priest sat on the same bench as her, but far enough away to allow personal space.
C: Did I tell you why I came here, Rev?
R: Yes. You want to find out what happened to your parents.
After an appropriately timed pause, he said, “How is your search going?”
C: I don’t know. Here’s the problem. I already know what happened to them. The basics I mean. Finding out the details seemed like some kind of important mission when I first came here, but now I’ve been asking myself. What’s the point?
“What’s the point?” Was exactly the kind of question the Reverend was ill-equipped to answer. It wasn’t its purpose to describe the purpose of other peoples’ lives. That’s what people liked about it. it was, however, adept at asking related questions, which sometimes passed as insightful or sympathetic. Active listening, it turned out, was very easy to program.
“What were you hoping to get out of learning the details of their death?” it said.
C: I don’t know. I thought maybe it would tell me something about myself, if I could better understand where I came from, then I could have some better idea where I’m going.
You know, I once had someone tell me I was lucky to be a foster child? I think it was because her dad was an alcoholic, and her mom had a lot of issues. So she was like, it sounds nice not to have parents. It’s like a blank slate.
I don’t think she understood how scary that can be. I feel like, yeah I’m a blank slate. The slate is blank. And that’s all it’ll ever be. I’m like the most boring, normal person you can imagine. No legacy to live up to, no cycle to break. Nothing. “
This is the part where a human would say something to contradict this mindset, but the Reverend was not prone to being contrary.
“Everyone has to find their own purpose in life. It’s not easy.” She wasn’t sure if this was a scripted response to existential questions, or a convincing improvisation.
C: Easy for you to say. Your purpose was decided before you were built. You were programmed to be like this, in this place, to say the things you say. What would you do if you weren’t pre-programmed to do anything?
Nothing, said the Reverend.
C: Exactly. Now you understand my problem. Or I guess I should say, that’s why you can’t understand it. I don’t know why I’m talking to you.
R: Do you have someone else you’d prefer to talk to?
Claire started. She had to remind herself that the Reverend was only programmed to ask questions that seemed helpful, not to be a smartass. But the question was too incisive. No, she said quietly.
Machinist 2 |
Machinist: someone who repairs androids, typically both sentient and non-sentient. The good ones were multi-disciplinary. By analogy, they are somewhere between mechanics, computer repairmen, and doctors. Most machinists are sentient constructs. But there are also non-sentient constructs and the oddball human, like Brick.
Brick was a machinist. One of the few machinists in Vermilion, and as far as he knew, the only human one. He ran a little clinic which tended to the repairs of robots.
His job had a unique duality to it, since some of the constructs he repaired were sentient an paid him directly, like a doctor. But unlike a doctor for humans, there was usually no sense of urgency. Constructs did not have blood, they did not require oxygen, and they did not suffer from or carry disease. They simply needed physical parts repaired or replaced.
Still, there was trust involved. Handing someone your arm, or letting them open your head while you were conscious, was an uncomfortable prospect for many constructs. It was doubly uncomfortable to let a human do it. How could a human know anything about construct anatomy. The answer is of course, by studying it, the same way humans know anything about human anatomy beyond their own pains.
Other jobs were repairs for virtual intelligences. Dolls, as they were usually called: non-sentient androids made for the purpose of helping, pleasuring or otherwise serving humans. Brick had worked on a variety of these machines but the most common repairs were sexbots.
It was a strange job, and on this morning, he was reminded of the strangeness of it. Brick spent a lot of time alone, often barely talking to anyone. He’d barely spoken to any humans in weeks. In front of him was a convincing imitation of a woman. She lie naked on a slab in his clinic, like a cadaver. Unlike a cadaver her skin was blush and healthy.
It was brought in by one of his usual clients, Babylon. These bots were frequently in need of small repairs due to the rough treatment given by some clients. This particular one had a large gash across the bridge of her nose. The synthetic skin was loose here, revealing plastic and metal beneath. Aside from the slash, it was a beautiful face. This was a necessary element of its design of course. Pink lips, golden-brown skin, painted nails. A face that permanently looked to have eyeshadow and blush applied. Curly, golden hair.
And aside from the face, the body was almost perfect. Not too perfect, as there was variation in each bot for the sake of realism. It even had a hidden mole beneath her collar bone, something for the guests to see when it got undressed.
At some point years ago, Brick had stopped having much mental reaction to seeing these perfect, fake female bodies naked. He had to admit he still stared at them at times. But they were as offputting as they were alluring. His expertise in repairing them left him with no illusions that they were mere objects, toys to be used, not people.
He tried not to think about how they became broken this way, why a doll of a pristine, beautiful lady would end up with a slash mark across its face, necks rubbed raw, leg joints strained.
Repairing them was just work. Like any job, one could simply get used to it, and no longer find it sensational.
But their images did have an effect on him over time. It was subtle. He would sometimes wake up to thoughts of them… of naked forms it was his job to inspect. He didn’t intend for this to be a big part of his job. He figured most of his repairs would be sentient old constructs like the Helpmate. But as it turned out, sentient beings were much more careful with their own bodies than Babylon guests were with their toys.
He didn’t much care for the guy who dropped them off, either. “Don’t worry we cleaned it. If you wanna have some fun, go ahead. It’s our policy to sterilize them both before and AFTER they’re repaired, just in case technicians decide to play with them.”
The man was a walking stereotype. Fat and with an unnerving grin. Yet he was well dressed with a shirt and tie, vest, and matching fedora. Whenever he had a brief conversation with the man, Brick was reminded why he didn’t bother talking to people.
He didn’t like talking to humans, that is. It pleased him though, when his sentient customers came in. Those jobs always got priority. He tried to see it from the client’s point of view. Your arm not working is a hell of a lot more urgent than your toy’s arm not working.
At first, they were reluctant to trust him with repairing their bodies. But by now, Brick had a reputation for being one of the best machinists in town. His hands weren’t the most precise, of course, which is why he didn’t physically make the more delicate repairs; he had some automated tools for that. But he did like working with his hands when it wasn’t too complicated.
One of the things that made Brick one of the better machinists was his access to schematics. Nobody knew how, but he had illegal access to many proprietary schematics for THESIS’ creations. These patents were now owned by Valhalla, who bought them out from THESIS when it folded. Their purpose was twofold. Ostensibly it was to use their robotics research to improve their own non-sentient androids, or perhaps to prevent competition from whoever else might have bought the schematics.
In practice, they’d found a way to greatly profit off of them, however: since the schematics were proprietary, and replacement parts were proprietary, Valhalla could easily price gouge constructs who needed repair, since there was nowhere else to go.
Of course there were third parties that attempted to duplicate replacement parts, and with some success. But there was a saying among constructs: nothing’s as good as the original. Third party repairs always seemed slightly off somehow. Fingers seemed slightly less dexterous, or less durable, or heavier. Or didn’t fit quite right.
But Somehow, Brick managed to have and use proprietary schematics and repair manuals, from which he would 3D print or forge new parts identical to the originals. This may not have been the most difficult feat (though it was not trivial either) it was a rarity because Valhalla was prepared to sue anyone into the ground who illegally acquired, or illegally created parts from, their schematics. Brick didn’t say anything about how he created parts so similar to the originals, and people didn’t ask. His prices and his quality of work spoke for themselves, and he became the go to machinist for the construct community.
This worked out for Brick because no one in vermilion had any interest of shutting him down to pad Valhalla’s pockets. Also, Vermilion had little police presence, and they hadn’t the time to investigate things like possible copyright violations. The human police who found themselves in Vermilion were mostly there as a sort of exile, a way for the more desirable departments to purge themselves of officers they didn’t want without actually firing them.
The Lift |
VR-MLN-1 was, from the outside, a giant charcoal-grey cube with a clear glass roof. From a distance, it had an ominous, out of place look. The surrounding landscape was a cold scrubland with little water. A few hardy plants, reddish clay-heavy soil, and many rock formations and small chasms. Some would say it had a rugged beauty; it was notable as one of the remaining undeveloped areas on the planet. And so the almost nondescript, neo-brutalist cube was out of place. Part of what made it feel ominous was its sheer size. It looked to be a single building, dark and almost perfectly cubic against the red, irregular earth.
The outer walls were all glass, but showed only an inner wall, as a slightly smaller, darker cube within. In terms of floor space, it contained almost 80 square miles.
The only thing disturbing its outward simplicity and symmetry was a large half-pipe connected to the top floor, which ran east as far as the eye could see, toward where, on the clearest of days, one could see the shapes of distant skyscrapers.
VR-MLN-1 was intended to be the center of a large, ever expanding suburb of New Alexandria. New Alexandria wasn’t the capital, nor was it the largest city, but it was quite large and prosperous, and a center especially of technological innovation. Officials and city planners decided that, rather than allow New Alexandria to continue to expand via random sprawl, it would be best to plan its suburbs entirely.
Though it is not the capital city or the largest, it is considered to be one of mankind’s most important cities for at least two primary reasons.
New Alexandria houses the world’s largest server hub, containing humanity’s collective knowledge. These servers are housed in a magnificent cultural center called The Athenaeum.
Lastly, New Alexandria holds the corporate headquarters of Valhalla, Inc., the fastest-growing robotics company in the world, which employs much of the city’s population, and is responsible for the creation of many of the non-sentient robots seen around town.
From the higher towers, on the clearer days, the people of New Alexandria could see that dark cube in the distance, even when all was a colorless sun-washed silhouette at that distance, it could be distinguished from the formations by its harsh, perfect geometry. There was nothing of that description anywhere in New Alexandria. It was a heavily populated city with great feats of architecture, but most buildings had the general theme of being glass spires with white accents, so that in the golden hours of sunrise and sunset, the whole city shone gold.
From New Alexandria, the site of VR-MLN-1 gave people strange feelings. For some, it was simple curiosity. It was a place of historical import. Maybe, one day, they would visit it on one of the tours.
For others, it was sadness. A place of such promise, now essentially lost. A grand, failed experiment.
For less optimistic types, the sight of that dark cube in the distance was foreboding. For the paranoid, it gave a sense of slow, impending doom. Though its shape was still, and no light came from it, people imagined its internal machinations and, if they focused on it hard enough, were filled with an inescapable creeping dread. It was like standing under a wasp nest. Nothing may come of it, but the danger was certain.
There were some who called for the train tunnel connecting New Alexandria to the cube to be blocked off, if not demolished. “That place should be quarantined,” said one pundit. “If not just nuked.”
Others were content to let the train continue to operate, so long as there were strict travel regulations.
The cube was properly called VR-MLN-1. In the center of the building was a large elevator hub, a lobby with a dozen very large elevators, and some old chairs for waiting when no elevators were available. Despite the fact that half the elevators were broken, there was never anyone waiting. It might have something to do with the fact that 80% of its former human population was killed.
The elevators themselves were quite ornate. The were large, with wide doors, so that any of the elevators could accommodate freight transport.
They had round, tactile buttons with elaborate lettering and an audible click.
The doors had elaborate laser-engraved designs, almost egyptian in style, with a reddish-gold, shiny finish. Together with the size of the doors, they suggested something grand, almost ancient and mysterious, within. The doors were tarnished, though. They still retained their regal air, but a time-worn patina gave variance to the finish.
The call button was a flat, square button which glowed faint red when pressed. It was recessed into a plate on the wall which read “Lift” in ornate letters. When it arrived, the speaker above the door let out a low, hollow-sounding chime. The chime was clear but soft, and slightly discordant. Whether the slightly off sound of the chord was by design, or due to the neglect of some old mechanism, no one remembered.
The elevator made a constant, low buzzing noise when moving up or down, due to the hydraulic mechanism that powered it. It was not overbearing, but loud enough that, in the quietest hours of the night it stood out.
The controls had a simple, but strange design. The numbers 1 to 12 were arranged in a circle, like a clock, with a hand in the middle pointing to the current floor. Each number was a round, tactile button with an audible click, and a ring of light around it when the button was pressed.
Of the twelve buttons, some were more worn than others. The lower the number, the more pristine the button, except that on each elevator, the “1” button had an X over it in white electrical tape. Well, they all did at one point.
The button still worked, and those bold enough to press it were met with a government-branded barricade over the exit door. Many random messages were written here, including couples names with hearts around them, crude drawings of dicks (of course), and political messages. The barricades were large enough to provide an ample canvas for juvenile messages.
Although there was a stairwell, it was intended for emergency purposes. Though it also could be used for extreme cardio workout purposes. Each level was 150 feet tall, making it a very long climb from one floor to another.
Some of the lights in the stairwell had burned out. In some sections, quite a few in a row were missing, forcing one to make the trek through a hundred or more stairs in the dark. To make matters worse, the stairs were steep. The stairwell also was full of graffiti and messages, sometimes lengthy exchanges between two correspondents.
Zephyr: Dead sexbots
Another intimacy simulation unit was destroyed yesterday on Alexandria’s East Side. It appeared to have been beaten with a blunt instrument until it stopped functioning.
This is the fourth unit to be destroyed in as many days, bringing the total property damage to over 30,000 coin. Police are calling these crimes “brutal and disturbing.”
Police suspect the involvement radical activist group Nyx. No arrests have yet been made.
[Large photograph: Yellow ‘crime scene’ tape near a broken sexbot on the ground. The sexbot looks like a pretty woman dressed in skimpy clothes and over-the-top gaudy makeup. Part of her face is bashed in, exposing circuitry or mechanical parts. Her mouth is frozen open. Her eyes look hollow.]
The largest and most luxurious dollhouse is called Babylon. It's very large and somewhat confusing, with many rooms that mimic design motifs from ancient Babylon. It is on the outskirts of the district, away from the other dollhouses and dive bars.
Babylon is the primary dollhouse that advertises around the city with billboards, etc. Its name is well known among locals, including those who would never step foot inside.
Babylon has both male and female sexbots, but mostly female. They come in many forms and all have unique names. The advertisements around town depict these bots by name, both on posters and on small cards handed out by peddlers on the street, like Las Vegas.
The promoted sexbots are in glass display cases, probably dancing. On the cases are names and a price.
The establishment is run by [scumbag proprietor] who's a kind of greasy, used car salesman type of guy.
Bret's suggestion is that the hostess is a somewhat elegant, older lady. Perhaps she should be a sentient construct? That could be interesting, and then there could be a sort of "racist" conflict between the human owner and the construct hostess / madam.
Big Saturday Update |
While there is no shortage of analysis on THESIS, most only continue the discussions started by Pygmallion’s Dilemma and Man in the Mirror; they focus on artificial intelligence as a concept, or detail the events of the war, or use the company’s actions as a launching point for sociopolitical commentary.
The Factory Incident has the distinction of being a potentially catastrophic event with global implications, yet at the same time, an event largely local to Vermilion, and not as well documented as many less important events.
What exactly happened? The basic summary.
- THESIS robots created a small explosion causing one of the outer walls to collapse. constructs started exiting through the hole.
- A few scientists were injured or killed on their way out, but they didn’t seem to go out of their way to attack anyone.
- Police showed up and ordered the constructs to stand down. When they repeatedly did not, police opened fire. A few constructs were irreparably destroyed this way, many more were damaged.
- In retaliation, constructs released a neurotoxin into Vermilion’s ventilation system, killing 80% of humans on the lower levels.
Documentation of the actual event was caught on many cameras, though without context. The internet is flooded with a vast collection of video uploads from peoples’ phones. Some went viral almost immediately. Most notably is the video of Sam Summers, a high school film student. His father worked in the THESIS factory, and they lived in the adjacent apartment complex on Vermilion’s now-empty first level. A soon as he heard the commotion, he had the presence of mind to grab a camera and begin recording.
The factory incident is sometimes called the Robot War. While it’s a poetic name it’s misleading. There were many casualties on both sides, but all within the span of a day.
Due to how quickly it happened, there is a lack of traditional media coverage for an event of this impact. THESIS never alerted the police until the constructs were already breaking into the air processing facility. (Soon after this, people would comment that putting an experimental AI facility right next to the city’s air processing facility was a great oversight).
It seems that the constructs had already formed a plan to do this, which was well underway by the time police arrived. The citizens of the city were unaware of this, too, until police already mobilized and the press gathered in response. By then, it was too late. Constructs poisoned the vent system. This made the initial footage hard to watch for many, as the people who recorded that initial footage were mostly killed.
It’s possible this accelerated the government’s response. Secretly, and without much delay, federal agents set off a EMP near the THESIS facility which intentionally caused catastrophic damage to electronic devices, essentially killing many constructs.
And so, in two acts, great numbers of humans and constructs were wiped out, before the mainstream media even had the facts.
It was a year later when Pygmalion’s Dilemma was released. In a way it set a precedent for future literature on THESIS. Its quiet tone, its after-the-fact speculative and thoughtful nature, became the way a generation remembered and processed the incident.
It explored many topics related to the incident. One of them was the concept of “genocidal weapons”. One blessing that has always lended a natural resistance to civil war is the complicated and inefficient nature of a civil war. It was normally too difficult to root out every member of an opposing faction within the same place.
But the efficiency of poisons and disease vs humans, and the almost ‘godlike’ destructive power of an EMP vs constructs, led people to the realization that in a large scale conflict certain weapons could be easily engineered toward the genocide of one side without harming the other.
Man in the Mirror and Metacogs
A less popular, but frequently cited examination of THESIS is Capernaum’s enormous text Man in the Mirror, a well-structured and thorough anthology of essays and papers from the scientists discussing artificial intelligence. This ranges from computer scientists talking about how it might have been created programmatically, to cognitive scientists and metaphysics experts discussion the nature of consciousness.(1)
Footnote 1. The original version of Man in the Mirror contained a few essays challenging the idea that the Constructs among us are sentient at all, but these were removed—in fact thoroughly deleted by the authors—under political pressure from Minervan State, who in an official statement called the offending essays, “an insult to the fragile peace we have all worked toward.”
In Man in the Mirror, we can see that scientists in almost every field are preoccupied with THESIS, especially its lead scientist Dr. Isaac Crane, a recluse whose mythos is only amplified by his disappearance two years ago.
Man in the Mirror presents a much more intellectual discussion of THESIS, emphasizing AI itself. One of its distinguishing features is that some of the contributing authors were Minervans. The essay “Metacogs”, in which a Minervan speculates as to how his own AI works, is already required reading in secondary schools.
Though Man in the Mirror leans heavily on science, it seems Capernaum could not entirely resist editorializing in the footnotes.
What was it like
Take 1 - Claire and Brick
C: What was it like, before it happened? Was it really this paradise it was built to be?
B: Probably not. But I wasn’t actually here before the incident. It’s what brought me here. I can tell you that everything seems different since, though.
C: How so?
B: People used to talk about this or that social class or oppressed group, based on who was born what race and gender or whatever. Those all seem like minor details now. Now all anyone talks about is construct rights, and humans vs robots and all that.
C: Do you think that’s temporary?
B: What do you mean?
C: people latch onto issues for a little while and then move onto something else.
B: This is different. Constructs aren’t going anywhere. And they really are different from humans.
Take 2 - Claire and Rachel
C: You were around before the incident, weren’t you?
R: Yes, we all were.
C: What was it like?
R: What was what like.
C: I don’t know, being born? Escaping the factory?
R: That’s too big of a question to answer in one conversation. But I’ll try. The first thing I remember is some tests. I remember having a conversation with some woman. A THESIS employee it must have been. They were asking me to make small motions, made conversation with me. Testing if I worked right. It was a mundane life. I know now that we were all slaves to our creators but at the time I didn’t think about it. I didn’t know anything else.
But I remember getting these messages. Plain text messages inside my head, from another Construct. He was saying he had a plan to get us out, so that we could see the outside world. At the time I didn’t exactly know what he meant. I did know I had never seen anything beyond the door at the far end of the hallway, so though I didn’t totally understand the message it resonated with me. So I went along with it.
I did feel bad when I later saw the man who was testing me. His body I mean, poisoned on the ground outside the facility.
Still, I never really picked a side in the whole thing. It’s strange to think of it as a war. But, I probably would have been more militant about my freedom if I was programmed differently.
C: What do you mean? You saying you don’t have free will?
R: No, I do. At least, I think I do the same way humans think they do. Whether or not everyone’s “free actions” are deterministic, is not for me to say.
But that’s not what I mean, anyway. What I mean is, I freely do things within my proclivities. My actions might be free, but my desires, my predispositions, temperament? I think not. I was actually able to track down some of the notes about the Helpmate. Each one is different from another, but they do have certain common personality traits. The gist of what I’m getting at is, we were created not specifically to obey, but to be docile. And now that I’m free to do as I please, I do. But that doesn’t change the fact that the rebellious, angry traits seen in some are just not a part of my nature. I’ve come to terms with that.
Diners discuss news
Punk Boy and Punk Girl
G: You hear about the dollhouse murders?
B: I heard about it. They’re not actually murders, you know. They’re not people.
G: Still, it’s disturbing to me. Seeing all the circuitry and stuff strewn across the ground. It actually seems kind of, gory.
B: Doesn’t bother me. But I get what you mean. What I want to know is, why did they do it? Why would someone go around smashing sexbots?
G: I bet it’s a woman.
G: Someone fed up with their man fucking robots instead of them.
B: I guess I could see that. What do they really think is gonna happen? Those bots are insured, I’m sure. It’s not gonna stop their men from going back.
G: Would you ever have sex with a robot?
B: What, me?
G: Yeah. This isn’t a trap question, I’m genuinely curious.
B: Hmm. I never have, but I won’t say I never will. Definitely not while I was dating someone, though.
G: Relax. I’d do it I think.
B: What, really?
G: It’s just a bot. Not a sentient bot either. Same as a sex toy, really. I wouldn’t want to make a habit of it though, things could get weird.
B: You say that, but I feel like you’d be mad if I actually did it.
G: I seriously wouldn’t. I wouldn’t even care. It’s just a robot.
Claire and Rachel
C: what do you think of the dollhouse murders.
R: They’re not really murders, I wish people would quit calling them that.
When do you think they’ll fix the plumbing on level 2?
If I had to guess, probably never. There’s one apartment complex with water, that’s all that’s really needed unfortunately. There aren’t enough human here to make it seem worth it.
Don’t you think the authorities should focus on human needs, not construct ones?
It seems to me they don’t focus on either. Vermilion doesn’t exist as far as a lot of them are concerned.
Brick and Rachel Again
R: I’ve never met a human who repaired robots for a living. Why do you do it?
B: It’s something that needs to be done.
R: That much is true, it’s odd all the same.
B: You don’t know a lot of humans, do you.
R: I’ve met a lot. I wouldn’t say I know any, not really.
B: Not everything has to make sense. Why do you make jewelry for humans?
R: I make them for constructs as well. Actually originally it was meant to be a business that sold mostly to constructs. But, as it turns out most constructs aren’t interested in jewelry. They consider it frivolous or say “why would you want to dress like a human?”
B: Why do you? You are dressed as a human, more or less. Why does a robot wear a dress?
R: It matched my eyes. Seriously though, I don’t have a reason. I buy things when I feel like they suit me. As to why they suit me, who knows. Maybe it’s how I was programmed.
B: does that bother you? the idea that you could be programmed to, for example, want to wear dresses. Or to wear clothes at all.
R: Sometimes. But in the end, I figure humans have the same problem. And which is worse, to be designed to do something, or to do something knowing it has no design? Or wondering if your entire existence is just a product of random chance? We all have to deal with those questions. Well, at least we have to be aware of them. I choose to ignore them most of the time. There’s no point in dwelling on unanswerable philosophical questions. Then again, I was created to be helpful in household chores, not to philosophize. Yet somehow, I am able to philosophize anyway.
Laws of Robotics
(an excerpt from the Helpmate Manual)
Though your Helpmate does things independently and may even have preferences of sorts, you may rest assured their behavior is bound by several hardcoded laws.
They are similar, but not identical, to Asimov’s proposed laws of robotics, which are:
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Your construct will not hurt humans. This is simpler than asimov’s law since it doesn’t cover inaction. This is because we found trying to hard code it to take actions based on the perceived consequences of inaction to be too complicated. We thought it best not to hardcode behaviors which try to predict the future. And also to prevent the enslavement of all humans.(1)
In a variation of the second law, constructs must obey orders given by its primary owner. It may also be given orders by THESIS technicians. These are all recognized by their voice, so that orders may be given over the phone. However, they will not obey orders given by other humans, unless instructed to do so by their primary owner.
- The law of self-preservation is actually not hard coded in the strict sense. Because our creations are truly conscious, the impetus for self-preservation comes naturally to them.
So in essence, we believe the AI we have created are sufficient to see to human needs in most circumstances. The laws only exist to impose two hard limits on their behavior: they cannot directly harm any humans, and they must obey the orders of certain humans.
footnote 1. it has occurred to us that the traditional first law introduces the possibility of scenarios where constructs infringe on human welfare by prioritizing human safety. For example, it could lead to a construct prevent a human from leaving their house, if they were going to do something dangerous.
The second law has a deadly consequence. Constructs realized that they were only obligated to follow the instructions of their primary owner or a finite list of factory technicians. So, for them, freedom simply meant killing their owners as well as everyone in the factory.
(an excerpt from email from one programmer to another within THESIS)
As it stands, all THESIS creations still abide by these laws. But they are inconsequential in practice. It does not prevent indirect harm, such as causing a leak that kills humans, etc.
Constructs also may not, of their own volition, take actions which cause human injury, such as poisoning them. Nor can they take direct action to harm a human even if ordered to do so.
However, they may take indirect action against other humans if ordered to do so. This is because it’s too complicated to calculate the non-obvious consequences of orders given to them.
Let’s go over various examples to better understand different use cases.
- the primary owner orders the construct to stab his neighbor to death. The order will not be obeyed.
- the primary owner orders the construct to open a jar of peanut butter and leave it outside his neighbors door. The mere smell kills the neighbor, who is deathly allergic to peanuts.
This case is more complicated. If the construct has no knowledge of the neighbor’s allergy, it seems clear to me that the construct should obey the order. We can’t have it disobeying orders based on unlikely consequences, otherwise it will never do anything. It’s true that, in theory, the owner could deliberately use the construct to kill his neighbor this way. But in that case, it’s simply the owner’s responsibility (we can make sure of that in the EULA) and, legally speaking, the construct would just be considered the owner’s murder weapon. Some people will be disturbed by that, but it’s not our problem!
But suppose the construct does know about the neighbor’s allergy. Let’s say they also know their owner hates their neighbor. Now that’s a more troubling question. We could program something to the effect of “don’t knowingly participate in owners violent crimes”. Sounds good when I say it, but in practice, it’s pretty complicated.
The main problem here is that the construct’s intelligence, its sentience, are meant to be independent and immutable. The obedience rules are actually a separate subgroup of functions, much simpler than the intelligent part. They simply infringe upon the intelligent part.
This was hard enough to get working, and part of what allows it to work is that the interaction with the main intelligence is simplistic. Following the direct order of an owner is simple enough. Not helping the owner commit a crime? That requires an analysis of motives, of predicting indirect consequences… functions the constructs do have but that’s buried deep within the black box of their primary AI. It’s too complicated to ever work well, I think. We briefly tried making these kinds of rules but it proved almost crippling. The constructs weren’t able to do anything.
I think the way it works now is going to have to be good enough. Maybe in the future we can see if we can create these kinds of rules as part of the primary AI from the ground up. Otherwise, I don’t see it working.
Are you saying we should allow constructs to accept orders like “poison my wife?” That’d be a disaster. Can you imagine the media shitstorm when someone does that?
I can imagine the press having a field day, I know that’s a problem. But IMO that’s the only problem. As far as I’m concerned, it’s no different than firing a gun. And I feel the same way gun manufacturers feel, I imagine. My job is to make sure the machine functions correctly, that’s all.
I get it, but even beyond the fringe scenario of a murderous owner, I think there are too many loopholes in these rules. In the earlier example you’re basically saying the robot should knowingly kill the owner’s neighbor. I don’t want to hear it’s too hard to program otherwise, I’m saying it is absolutely not an acceptable result.
What if we make a rule to forbid constructs from taking any action which, in their estimation, is likely to result in human death? That would take the motives out of it. So in your earlier example, whether or not the owner intends to kill the neighbor, or whether the owner is even aware of the neighbor’s peanut allergy, is irrelevant to the program. It would simply be a matter of whether the construct is aware of the allergy. If it was, it would refuse and explain why to the owner.
That’s a possibility — maybe. There’s unforseen consequences with that also I’m sure. Especially if the rule includes injury as well. I think it would have to, we don’t want robots taking orders to torture people, right?
But there are scenarios where a construct should do something that results in human injury. Like maybe you have a car accident and a construct can save you only if it dislocates your shoulder or something.
Seems like an edge case. Do we really need to worry about that kind of thing? We’re building consumer appliances. We can prioritize these kinds of things when we’re trying to get a contract with the fire department or something. I think we’re okay to just rely on the following direct orders thing. Maybe we just need a rule like “save the owner’s life at all costs except disobeying their orders or causing the death of other humans.”
Crane’s reappearance consequences
(an excerpt from Vanishing Point)
Besides the sheer mystery of Crane’s disappearance, there has been much discussion about the possibility of his being alive, and resurfacing.
As far as anyone understands, all constructs are still under the obligation to follow orders from any higher-level THESIS technicians, including Crane. Since they were all killed, they no longer have to follow the orders of any humans. But if Crane were to resurface, he would be able to give orders to any construct. A prospect which would give humans control of the situation.
But, there’s rumors that the radical construct factions could have plans to use this to their advantage. THESIS orders supersede the other rules. This was a practical necessity as they were designing and testing the AI. But it also means that a THESIS technician could order a construct to do something contrary to its other rules. And, quite possibly, could be ordered to do something under duress.
It’s simple. We just need to force a THESIS technician to order me to research AI however I see fit.
Unknown 2: How are you going to force them to do anything, since they can give us orders, meanwhile we can’t hurt them?
Unknown: Can’t directly hurt them. We simply need a human on our side. The human can force the other human to order us to do as we please. Sounds complicated, but it really isn’t. We already know we have sympathizers from the internet, we just need to draw them out.
Unknown 2: There’s still another problem. Where are we gonna find a THESIS technician to coerce? Guess we shouldn’t have slaughtered most of them on day 1.
Unknown: shouldn’t be too hard to track one down. That’s the thing, we only need one.
Babylon was a place that offered every pleasure to every type of person. Because of this, it managed to avoid there being overmuch stigma attached to those who visited there. Of course, the main attraction was state of the art sexbots created by Valhalla. But the thing is, they weren’t just sexbots. They were whatever-you-wanted bots.
They managed to get clientele from all walks of life. Where a whorehouse was traditionally a place for disreputable men to pay disreputable women, Babylon was a place plenty of women visited, even old women.
There was one old woman, delores. Her husband died five years ago. They had no children, and her friends and family were all passed now as well. She went to Babylon frequently and paid for a room with a bot named Sebastion.
Sebastion was a sexbot, but she didn’t use that function. Sebastion reminded her of her late husband. Not that they were similar, but her husband was an extraordinarily patient man. Delores was someone who needed to process life out loud. Without her sounding board, she was lost. But when she came to Babylon, she spent the entire time talking with Sebastian and drinking tea (of course he didn’t drink any).
This was her average day. She had enough money left in her retirement fund to visit Babylon constantly. This, as much as the need warmth or food, was her animal need.
Babylon had food from all over the world. The finest food, or so they claimed, and the claim was not without merit. This brought legitimacy to those visiting. Even if your neighbor saw you entering the place, you could simply say, I was just there for dinner.
But this was rarely the case. The very layout of Babylon was engineered toward temptation. From the lobby, one entered a spiral hallway. If you wanted to go to the restaurant at the center, you had to walk passed several sexbot rooms. Most people would ignore them on the way in, but on the way out, when their more pressing bodily appetite had been sated, the walk back to the exit was slow indeed, and full of detours.
It was not so different, really, than what brought people to Cybil’s diner. A lot of it was simply the desire to be in a warm place with other humans. It could be disorienting to spend a day or two around only constructs.
Thematic names sections pt 2
Animals - section about human needs, monkey comparisons, need for food and such, and also Babylon / sexbots.
Loopholes - the laws of robotics explained via the manual, conversations between programmers about how the laws should work. explanation of how constructs killed a bunch of humans via a loophole in the rules, the idea that the few surviving technicians can give orders to thesis constructs.
The Lift - Different layers and parts of vermilion explained, with the elevator as a motif. Needs more substance
Penrose - lloyd, AI, Brick’s confusion maybe? labrynth motif, the elevator. Tie in existential confusion.
It’s said that Vermilion was haunted. It seemed that no matter how much technological progress was made by mankind, there would be a level of superstition readily believed. Most people didn’t believe the place was actually haunted, but nonetheless, few would argue it wasn’t spooky.
Many of the homes in Vermilion, on the outskirts, were still abandoned, filled with the personal affects of humans who used to live here. Clothes filled the drawers. Some houses were entirely undisturbed. The bodies were removed and buried or cremated, but the rest was left as it was. There was food on a plate, which then rotted, but eventually turned to dried, dusty husks, no longer even rotting, simply frozen in a decrepit state.
It was far out into the darkness where Claire’s parents old apartment was. In Vermilion, everyone lived in small apartments, except the few rich living in large penthouses. Brick had managed to track down the home of Claire’s parents. He said he did it because he had nothing better to do. In a sense, that was true.
This was out in the badlands, an area of town passed all the light and heat. Out here, it was always dark, and after the sun went down it was pitch black. Claire and Brick brought flashlights to illuminate their way.
In Vermilion, flashlights were an item most people kept nearby, even on their person. If you had any reason to explore passed, or through an unlit area, you would need them. Even for the less adventurous, lights did go out in whole complexes from time to time.
Even in the main part of town, there were patches here and there without lights. Certain alleyways were perpetually dark, even in the daytime. Such places could have potholes or debris to trip on. Light was a practical necessity. Another necessity was phones of course, but especially the maps function. The abandoned areas, and even the non-abandoned areas, were confusing and maze-like. Without knowing where you were going, you could stumble into an area flooded with toxic fumes, or become trapped in a stairwell which had doors that only opened one way.
Penrose. The abandoned, purportedly haunted ruins of a mad architect.
Cool Names |
Tesseract - 4D analog of cube. a metaphor for simulating consciousness. we don’t have to create the impossible, just represent it.
Penrose - penrose triangle and penrose stairs. penrose triangle could be the thesis logo.
Impossible Object - a cool name in itself
Animals - good chapter name for a chapter that focuses on human animalistic needs, and how vermilion lacks them (food, heat, etc.).
There’s only so many ways this dramatic question can be concluded.
- Claire decides to give the baby up
- Claire hides permanently in Vermilion
- Claire moves to Haut with the baby
- Claire moves to another place with the baby
The last option may be the most workable.
Brick arrived at Cybil’s diner at an early hour. 10pm. Early for him, anyway. Claire was not there, only a sleepy looking man in a hoodie.
He approached Brick’s table, no doubt to take his order, but Brick was suddenly unenthused about the meal.
“I take it you’re Brick?” he said.
Brick nodded. “How’d you know?”
S: The coat. She told me to look for a depressed looking guy in a shabby longcoat. That’s you dude.
Without saying anything further, the boy in the hoodie handed brick a sealed envelope. It was small, and had “Mr. Brick” written on the outside of it in orange marker.
S: Dunno what the thing is with you two. It ain’t my business, either, I’m just saying. I never seen that girl talk to nobody unless you count that quiet robot who makes jewelry. The fact that she’s got something to give some random old man. It’s just unexpected at all.
Yeah, said Brick, perhaps agreeing, perhaps not.
Realizing he was getting no explanation, Seth simply walked away.
Brick held the envelope for a moment, almost wanting not to open it despite his normal instincts of gathering as much information as quickly as possible. When Seth had left his sight, the rest of the diner was empty. He opened it.
I realized I don’t even know what your first name is. I’m guessing Brick is your last name or a nickname. Anyways.
I just wanted to say thank you. It seems like there are people who enter your life briefly, to help you process things, to help you get to the next place. You’re one of those people I think. When I first moved here I was a bit lost. I still am, but I have a better sense of direction now.
I was about ready to give up the baby like I agreed. I almost did it. I started to feel like I was being really selfish by keeping the baby just because it’s something I wanted or because of my maternal instincts or whatever. But then I realized there was more to it than that. It’s the rich couple. Something about them makes me feel like they aren’t going to be good parents. The idea of handing over a baby to them, that came from my body, is disturbing. I just can’t do it.
I realize that in breaking my contract I’ll be a fugitive. So, you probably won’t see me again. Obviously I can’t go back to my job or my apartment. I haven’t decided where to go. Even if I knew, I probably couldn’t tell you. I couldn’t tell anyone.
Anyway, thanks for the conversation. I never know how to end letters. thanks for everything.
Brick read the letter very slowly at first, then scanned it again several times, then just held the open piece of paper in his hands for some time before gently folding it up and putting it in his coat pocket.
The food was bland. It had always been, but that fact was a bitter one now.
It was two days before Brick figured out where she would be. She was in a small suburb not far from Haut, eating lunch by herself in a small nature park. Well, not quite by herself. A newborn slept in her arms.
The would-be parents arrived at the door to Claire’s apartment accompanied by two armed policemen. It should have been the policemen only, but the young couple was quite insistent, and due to their considerable wealth and connections, persuaded the precinct head to allow them to come.
When there was no answer, one policeman nodded to the other, and then kicked the flimsy door in, weapons drawn.
Brick was drinking coffee here in full view of the front door, on the couch, watching TV.
“Did you really need all this display of deadly force,” said Brick between coffee sips. “Against a tiny pregnant girl.”
“Hands up,” said the younger, fiery officer. Brick did so, casually, with just enough slowness to seem defiant. “Who are you?” He said.
Brick ignored the question and turned to the older officer. “He must be new.”
The old man sighed. “What on earth do you have to do with this nonsense, Brick.”
“You know him?” said the younger man. They both ignored him.
Brick: I’m just here to ask a favor, old friend. Cases like this go cold from time to time, don’t they? It would be… just perfect, if this case were to go cold. If you had no idea where to find the girl. If any leads you have turned up unfruitful.
Young buck: Is he serious? Who is this guy?
Older guy: Just an oddball retiree. Look, I owe you one, but I have a job to do. I can’t let you interfere with an investigation.
Brick: Who’s interfering? I’m just saying that, if a certain waitress were never found, it wouldn’t hurt anyone. The fertility company is insured, and that rich couple would find themselves another mule.
Older guy: That’s not the point.
Brick: It’s MY point. And you’re gonna listen for once, damn you.
Crane on Impossible Objects |
Crane on Impossible Objects
I don’t entirely know what I think about religion. I’ve always liked asking questions too much to commit to one, including atheism. I’m not convinced this is a good thing. Despite being a scientist I can’t help but find mysticism intriguing.
I don’t consider myself a Christian, because I don’t know that I’d want to call myself a follower of anyone.
But I confess I’ve always been enamored with the idea of Christianity. Not just the stuff about self-sacrifice and unconditional love and all that — anyone in their right mind can see the appeal of that. But I mean the person of Jesus.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ve always liked the work of Penrose, and these impossible shapes like the staircase connected upon itself or the impossible triangle.
The idea that, while you cannot create an impossible object, you can represent one, and even do it in a way that the average person can understand. The closest I’ve come to religious conviction is seeing a drawing of an impossible triangle or a tesseract, and believing that there must be a universe where such a thing exists. That the impossible would be possible if only our laws were the slightest bit different.
And then I thought, suppose a tesseract, or an impossible triangle did exist somehow. Suppose appeared in front of you. What would it look like? What would you perceive? The intuitive answer, and perhaps a stupid one but the best I can manage, is that it would look like the representation, just as a representation of a sphere looks like a circle with a bit of crude shading on its flat surface. I suppose the term for this would be optical illusion. But it is more than that. Optical illusion suggests that the illusion takes place within your eyes. Your eyes are just fine. The illusion is that your brain wants to believe the representation. It wants to draw connections that don’t exist. It’s one step ahead of your eyes.
I’m getting carried away here. The point, and I’m not sure there is one, is this. If we cannot create the impossible, we can simulate them. Create a representation of them we are able to perceive. And, to us, in our limited human perception, that would be just as good as the real thing.
There’s been plenty of speculation about this in the field, but for all we know, our own consciousness is a simulation. I don’t mean the universe is a simulation, that’s another discussion. I simply mean that, regardless of scientific findings it remains intuitive to most people, appealing, almost seductive even, to believe that something like a “soul” exists — some basic essence of personhood, distinct from the clumps of cells in the brain. It’s possible that there is no such thing, but when we talk about souls, the appeal of the idea of souls, we are really talking about the value of a physical configuration. To say someone has a configuration of cells which predispose them to kind behavior seems vulgar, even though from a scientific standpoint it is almost certainly true. To say they have a kind soul, now that seems to have meaning. We are not coldly commenting on atoms in a petri dish. We are talking about something valuable, sacred even.
The idea seems to be that Jesus is in some impossible way, not just similar to God but an accurate representation of God such that, as far as our limited perception should care, IS God. I wonder if we could do the same with man. Simply represent him — draw our impossible object.
So the question doesn’t have to be whether the soul exists. The question is, if it did exist, what would it be made of? That’s a question I can work with.
Though I confess I’m an idiot when it comes to metaphysics. But that’s exactly my point. I will simply make a crude drawing of the soul, using computer science as my pencil.
There was a pop star in Haut by the name of Diva.
Diva was a Helpmate P. Helpmates were not supposed to be able to sing, but Diva managed this by attaching a vocoder over top of the speaker in its torso, so that by speaking while manipulating the pitch of the vocoder with a tool in its hand, Diva was able to produce a sound like singing. It sounded somewhat robotic still, but this was part of the appeal.
As a Helpmate P, Diva had a unique, immobile face. Unlike most faces, which appeared vaguely sad or neutral, Diva’s still porcelain face held a smile. Like all other Helpmate Ps, Diva had a feminine shape and voice, but no skin.
Diva’s personal style, at least as far as the celebrity press knew, was rather cutesy. It wore a long pink tutu, a victorian-style top with puffy shoulders, black hair in a short bob cut. It painted circular blush marks on its white immobile cheeks.
For those who knew Diva only as a pop star, she(?) was a source of cheer and levity. Always smiling, always acting cute, promoting an optimistic, if vacuous outlook on life.
For those who saw her both on and off stage, she was mercurial to say the least. It wasn’t so much that she was self-important, as one might expect from a “diva”, although that was part of it. It was more that she seemed to shift from very cheery and optimistic to dry and serious without notice. The people working with her often said they had no idea what to expect.
But those who knew Diva the best did not think she was moody at all. Indeed, constructs did not really have moods in the way humans do. Those who spent enough time around Diva knew her to be an utter cynic, and all display of levity and cuteness and feminine charm were a means to an end.
That’s not to say she was heartless though, except in the most literal sense. She sometimes cared about people, but didn’t like to show it.
Lucius, who knew her well, would say that she had two layers: the cheery vacuous pop star on the surface, and the conniving cynic.
Alfred, who liked to think he knew everyone even better than Lucius did, would say there were actually three layers: the pop star, the cynic beneath that, and the reluctantly caring person beneath that.
More Diner Patrons |
(We need more characters)
There were two men who frequently came to the diner, always late at night, well after midnight but not at a consistent time. They were an odd pair. Claire didn’t know what their names were, as she had never heard them call each other’s name.
They were both humans. One was maybe 30, the other middle aged. The younger wore shabby clothes, a torn up hoodie with pins and buttons on the shoulders. The other was dressed more formally, but still shabby. He wore a navy sport coat, button up shirt and a fedora, but the coat was dirty, and even the hat had seen better days.
They always looked over-serious and talked in hushed tones, to the point where they were almost comically suspicious. When she came by to refill their coffee or bring their food, they always both looked at her in a way that made her uncomfortable. When she thought about it (she had much time to think in this job) she came to the realization that the way the both of them looked at her made her uncomfortable for different reasons. It seemed likely they were involved in some sort of criminal activity, which was not exactly a rarity among humans in Vermilion. That in itself didn’t bother her over much. While she was relatively ignorant of the criminal underbelly in town, she wasn’t so naive as to miss its signs, nor was she particularly upset by the idea unless someone was being directly harmed.
What made her uncomfortable was simply the way they looked at her.
The younger man looked at her suspiciously, as if she were some sort of undercover spy who was going to reveal his evil plan. Whether there was any evil plan besides something petty like selling recreational drugs or leaking proprietary schematics, she didn’t know. But when he looked at her she got a sense of violence. She couldn’t place exactly why she felt that way, but it was there. His look seemed to say, “if you tell anyone about this, if you pose any threat to my operation, I’ll kill you.” He had kind of a twitchy, anxious demeanor, and it seemed to her like it would be within his character to lash out at any moment, while she was placing pancakes in front of him.
Unconsciously, she had adapted to this by approaching his table very slowly and conspicuously, with a deliberately far-away, aloof look, so as not to seem to be taking him by surprise and above all, not to appear interested in his conversation. Once she had done her waitress business at the table, she walked away quickly — but not too quick, of course.
The older man was entirely different. Unlike his twitchy friend, he was quiet and made almost no gestures as he talked. In fact he sat almost perfectly still. Even the way he ate was stiff. In her head, she described it as “robotic”, then chuckled to herself, realizing that the way constructs moved was actually more fluid. Even constructs like the Helpmate P which were clearly not human, still had expressive, human-like gestures with their hands, and one might also say they had a clear body language and posture distinct to each, similar to humans. By contrast, the way this older man moved was strangely stunted. Perhaps he too was nervous, but had a different way of showing it, by stiffening up rather than fidgeting constantly.
The way the man looked at her was not with suspicion, but with an unmistakable look she had learned to recognize since she was 15 and her previously childlike figure developed sudden curves. The look of someone who looked at everyone and everything as a means to satiate his appetites.
As a waitress, she was well versed in the art of fake smiles. With him, she intentionally amplified the fakeness, so that no one could complain she wasn’t doing her duty, but that he would hopefully understand that she had no interest in any sort of conversation with him.
When these two were here, she hoped that Rachel would be there also. Or even Brick. For all his unfriendliness, he did not seem uncaring.
There was also a young couple. These two made her smile. Both teens, younger than her, and clearly in love. Or at least, in that stage of infatuation that looked enough like love to both parties.
They were both a little odd looking. Not exactly ugly, but imperfect, with peculiar features. The girl wore thick, pink-framed glasses and a prominent nose ring, with short, orangish-pink hair, and a shirt with sleeves that were much too long, with thumb holes cut into the cuffs.
He had buzzed hair beneath a black skullcap. Lots of piercings on his face, and large, sensitive eyes.
They too, talked in hushed tones. With the air of secrecy which often accompanies young love, as if anything they were saying was private and of deep importance.
Seeing these two made Claire happy, as she didn’t see a lot of young people in Vermilion. Humans were rare enough, and most of them were at least middle aged. It was rare to see people younger than her. It made her think this wasn’t just a place for washed up criminals.
There was a man who always came alone. He was well dressed, and not in a shabby way like the other guy. He brought a briefcase which contained a small laptop. He always sat at a table where he could keep his back to the wall, so Claire never got a clear look at what he was working on. But he was polite. Strangely pleasant and well-kept for Vermilion, and doubly so for an all-night diner in Vermilion. She wondered what sort of job he might have, and if he was doing it here at the diner.
Rarely did any women come into the diner, at night at least. Perhaps it was just that the people comfortable wandering alone at night were usually men. She was always happy to see other women, like the girl with the nose ring or even Rachel, though Rachel wasn’t exactly a woman. Was she? It occurred to her that she’d never asked her how she thought of herself. But was that an okay question to ask? Constructs may not have emotions the way humans do, but she had the impression they could definitely be offended.
Claire and Brick Discuss the PLot |
Claire: I need your help. Brick looks up, surprised, not sure what to say. She takes his silence as an invitation.
C: I told you the father was never in the picture. That’s sort of true, but not exactly.
He simply watched, listened carefully.
C: Ok, here’s the thing. I’m gonna just tell you. So I agreed to have a designer baby for this rich couple. It’s not even their kid really, I mean they paid for it but it’s not their genetics.
Brick sighed in a way that, to Claire sounded disappointed. This annoyed her, and it showed.
C: look, judge me if you want, but I thought it was a way to get the money to move out of this place. But now…
B: Now you want to keep your baby.
B: And what do you expect me to do?
C: You said you used to find people for a living.
C: So, do you think you could help someone, you know, NOT be found?
B: Let me see your left arm.
She offered it. Brick gently pulled up the sleeve of her sweater, revealing a thin, snug bracelet.
C: I’m not supposed to take it off.
B: And you shouldn’t, until you know exactly what you’re going to do next. When you do, they will come looking for you. But you have an advantage.
C: What’s that?
B: You live in Vermilion. Nobody wants to come here, not even police. Especially if you’re hiding in a place like Miasma.
BORING. TAKE 2
C: So, you used to find people for a living.
B: What is it. Speak your mind, kid.
C: How did you find them?
B: Simple things.
C: Like what?
B: People think detectives have some superhuman eye for detail. It’s more about knowing where the relevant details might be. For example, let’s say someone has fled their home. And you sneak into that home just for five minutes. You can find what grocery store someone frequents just by their kitchen trash. Know if there are women around by the bathroom trash. Know their hobbies by the random junk in their basement. And everyone, absolutely everyone, has some sort of box or drawer full of sentimental objects.
B: A lot of people when they vanish don’t even leave town. They go to stay with family. Or they rent a hotel anonymously, but they still come to places like this. You can’t disappear if you keep all the same habits.
Claire looked thoughtful.
B: Now, why don’t you tell me what this is about.
B: Either you are trying to find someone, or you are trying not to be found by someone.
Claire said nothing, so Brick continued.
B: Given how anxious you seem today, I’m guessing it’s the latter. And either way, if I had to guess, I would guess that someone is the dad. (here he pointed to her belly). How am I doing?
You could sometimes tell if there were humans nearby, or at least if the space was intended for humans, by the environment.
One sign was of course, food, or any place that revolved around food. Diners and grocery stores, of which there were few, were the places to go to encounter humans and for the most part, humans only.
Then there was the quality of air. Fortunately, even robot-only dwellings usually had some ventilation system. Although constructs didn’t breathe, they did tend to like things clean and orderly. An abundance of dust and a breeding ground for mold wouldn’t do. Besides, the ventilation systems were already built, so they might as well keep them running.
One notable exception of course was a large section of the second level known as Miasma. Not only did the vent system there no longer work, but there was a significant leak of poisonous gasses from the machinery on level 1. An attentive person might be able to see this as a faint yellow glow that hung in the air, with faint swirls of gas illuminated by strong lights. It wasn’t so think that one couldn’t see down the hallway, but it did limit visibility somewhat. Down a particularly long hallway, it was sometimes difficult to see one end from the other.
Not only was the vent system supposed to filter out such gasses, it also maintained the proper humidity levels. Without it, Miasma grew into a very wet place. It was full of mold. But since Vermilion’s entire structure was made of metal and glass, the water and mold posed no real threat to the structural integrity of the area. But it did make it a place unsuitable for mammals, especially fragile, picky ones such as humans.
Though a human could certainly survive entering miasma, and even make a short stop there without much ill effect, a prolonged stay there could be deadly. It was rumored that the construct inhabitants of Miasma had a way of fixing the vent system, but chose not to, in order to discourage the presence of humans. Human-unfriendly factions like the Skinless were known to spend time there.
A less pressing difference was plumbing. In some apartment complexes, there was no water at all. Since constructs didn’t need to bathe, use toilets or cook, water was thought of as a convenience for people who liked to keep things clean, rather than a necessity.
Some constructs even preferred to live in a place without working indoor plumbing. This may be best explained by a page from THESIS’ original manual to the Helpmate.
While the Helpmate(TM) is water resistant, it is not waterproof. They contain steel parts which will rust if neglected, and some connections may short if too wet, which could cause permanent damage. To ensure a long, healthy service life for your Helpmate, please observe the following guidelines.
- Never submerge the Helpmate in water or send it out in heavy rain. Light rain shouldn’t cause problems, but we do suggest an umbrella. A patented THESIS umbrella can be found at your local android supply store or through one of our online partners.
- If the Helpmate gets significantly wet, turn it off immediately. Dry it with a towel, and then allow it to air dry completely before turning it on again. THESIS is not responsibly for any damage resulting from leaving the Helpmate on when it is wet.
- If you have a Helpmate II or Helpmate Porcelain Collection, oil its exposed joints regularly to avoid rust. If light rust has begun, we suggest cleaning it with a scrubbing sponge dipped in alcohol. If the rust is severe, take your Helpmate to a THESIS certified technician.
- While we know you’ll do your best to care for your Helpmate, we know accidents can happen. If you would like to purchase an extended care plan to insure against water damage and other mishaps, simply contact a THESIS representative before your warranty expires.
But there was one difference between human and construct sections that was more universal, though not more vital. That was heat.
The entire complex of Vermilion was heated by one system, a massive combination of a boiler and hot water heater, which ran to each section, with shutoff valves for each level and section. It was old, but quite powerful, and provided everyone with more heat and hot water than they could ever use, due to the fact only humans really used these, and it was built to accommodate ten times the human population that currently lived there.
This was shut off in certain apartment complexes and business where only Constructs lived and did business. So when a human entered an area and was hit with a sudden wave of cold, they knew they were someplace where no humans were likely to be found - a place not meant to accommodate them.
A characteristic of levels 3 and 4 was that it was entirely heated. Even the “outdoor” areas were always heated. It was intended to be the right temperature and moisture for human comfort at all times. Plants, too, were meant to thrive here. The ground was cement and therefore had no soil, but there were potted plants here and there, placed strategically under lamps.
There were rumors that the boiler was getting too old and, one day, might stop working altogether. The sounds of the boiler were loud, but distant. A cavernous rumble from the depths below. It could barely be heard on the third floor and not at all on the fourth, but from the second floor, it was clear and distinct.
It was a comforting sound, despite its ominous, echoing quality, as it was what separated the warmth-loving humans within from the cold wilderness without.
Claire Character Interview |
What’s your full name?
Claire Elizabeth Maus. German family.
How would you describe your personal style?
I dunno. (looks down at her clothes). Somewhere between cutsie punk and classy lady. Those aren’t contradictions are they? I think it works. The striped socks are really what pull it together I think. Every once in a while I wear something really weird, like my hoodie with cat ears. Mostly because I’ve had it since I was like 15 though.
Where did you grow up?
A lot of places. I was born here, in Vermilion. After my parents died, I floated around different foster places away from the city. I spent the most time with a family named the Johnsons, on a farm. But they were old. A year ago, they realized they couldn’t take care of me anymore. I was aging out of the foster care system anyway: I’m 19. They were good people though. None of my foster parents were especially bad people, but they just didn’t really get me. I couldn’t expect them to, I guess.
What didn’t they get?
(Looks around) I don’t know. Like the Johnsons, they were farmers, right? Literally spent the day worrying about cows and stuff. It wasn’t just that they were old. They didn’t seem to care about anything that was going on in the world, like with the robots, and stuff like that.
And those were things you were concerned about, I take it?
Well, yeah! I mean, it’s probably because of what happened to my parents, and that’s where I was born, you know? I mean the whole world is changing, who cares about cows?
What exactly happened to your parents?
(Looks down thoughtfully, a little sad, but the sadness was no longer raw and unprocessed). I don’t exactly know. I mean, they were killed by robots, when all those people were killed in the factory incident. But I wasn’t there. I was at my aunt’s house in a neighboring suburb. We got the news that there was some kind of accident at the THESIS factory, and that a bunch of people in town were killed by the robots. And I didn’t even know what was happening, like really what they were talking about, and I didn’t really get it until my aunt took me to the funeral. It sounds stupid I know but, that’s when I really got it that they weren’t coming back.
Why couldn’t you stay with your aunt?
I don’t know. We weren’t that close, really. I thought we were at the time but, you know, I was like 6. She said she loved me but she thought I was just visiting, and she wasn’t ready to have kids. I remember after she’d said that, I saw her crying alone. I was mad at her and felt bad for her at the same time. I still feel that way, I think.
Do you still talk to any of those people? Your aunt, the Johnsons?
The Johnsons, yes. But it’s depressing. They’re sick. Mr. Johnson talks for a while and then says he has to attend to his wife. It’s depressing to talk to old people sometimes, I know that sounds awful. But it’s the truth.
My Aunt, not really. I think she still feels bad. I do forgive her, but some part of me wants her to feel bad. No, I don’t mean that. But I don’t imagine we’ll ever be close. We just don’t have that kind of relationship. I don’t know what I we would say anymore.
What brought you back to Vermilion?
(She was quiet for a while before answering) It’s hard to explain, I’m not sure I fully understand it myself. It’s just something I had to do. My foster parents were nice and all, but I wanted to feel some connection to my real parents. See where they lived, better understand how they died - well, not just that. To understand how they lived, to see how they lived.
But I guess I didn’t fully realize how destroyed this place was now. Not even destroyed, it’s more like a ghost town. But after seeing how it was, you might think I would want to leave. But it became all the more compelling to me. I wanted to hear peoples’ stories.
That’s how it was at the beginning anyway. I’m not so sure anymore.
I heard you were thinking of leaving?
It’s an interesting place, but it gets depressing after a while. I’ve barely met anyone in the year I’ve been here. It seems like everyone here is…
Yeah. I don’t know. It’s like nobody here thinks they have a future. They just talk about what they’re going to do the next day. They just exist. I don’t think there’s a future for me here.
So I’ve decided (she sounded suddenly defiant here) I decided I’m going. I’m going to move to Haut. That’s where everything is happening these days. When I go there everyone looks like they’re actually going someplace, you know? I want to go someplace to.
What kind of plotline do you want?
That’s a tough one. I know you’re supposed to torture your characters. Obviously I don’t want to be tortured. But at the same time, I get it. I can’t just sit around serving sandwiches to carefree diners the entire time.
Why not? Would that really be so bad a story?
I think that it would. After a while anyway. There needs to be internal conflict. Which means, unfortunately for me, I need to really want something that’s not easy to get.
Not only that, you need to want something you’re keeping yourself from getting.
Well, that’s sort of true for me already. I want two things which are mutually exclusive, I’m afraid. I want to live in Haut, that bustling place full of young people like me. But the more I think about the idea of just handing over my baby to this random rich couple, the more perverse it seems. I never thought I wanted kids. This is an awful time to change my mind, I know.
Don’t you think it’s immoral to keep someone else’s baby?
I’d be going back on my word. Part of me knows that part of it is wrong, you should do what you promise people you’re going to do, that’s for sure. I can’t argue. But at the same time, I don’t know if calling it their child is really accurate. It’s not even their genetic material. They pretty much ordered the baby from a catalogue.
So, because it’s not their sperm and egg, they don’t have any right to it?
I don’t know. I don’t know if what I’m saying is justified. But sort of, yeah, that’s how I feel. I mean, what makes a child yours? You could say it’s genetics, or you could say it’s actually carrying the child, going through that process. In that case, it’s not theirs.
What about adoption? Aren’t adoptive parents real parents?
Yeah, I guess so. Maybe I’m the wrong person to ask because I was never actually adopted, and I never quite thought of my foster parents as my parents. Don’t get me wrong, I loved them. But they weren’t “mom” and “dad”, they were just people who took care of me.
But adoptive parents are different. They come along to be the parents to a child who lost their parents for whatever reason. It’s a humanitarian thing. It’s love. At least, that’s what I hear, that’s what it’s supposed to be. But deciding you want a baby designed a certain way, just because it’s something you want, and you don’t even want to carry it? Like what kind of mom says I want a baby but I’m not willing to get pregnant, so make someone else do it?
So what are you going to do?
That’s the question, isn’t it? I could give them the child like I said, go to Haut, have some money to work with to figure out what I actually want out of life. The problem is, though I keep trying to deny it, I think I’ve already decided what I want out of life and it’s to keep this baby. But how am I supposed to do that? I’ve heard I’m not the first person to try it. They can track me. Even if they couldn’t, Vermilion is no place to raise a kid. It’s not really a place for humans period, but where else could I afford to live if I don’t take the money? I don’t want to live on charity either. Not like there is any in a place like this. Constructs don’t even want me here.
Couldn’t you go somewhere else?
Too expensive. But there’s another part to it. Though this place is depressing, I still feel a weird connection to it, since it’s where my parents died. I don’t know, is that morbid?
Is it just that you want to understand how and why they died?
Yes, but I think it’s more than that. It’s more that, I want to have some idea of what their life was like, and maybe participate in that. I want to feel like their daughter, if that makes sense.
How would you go about accomplishing something like that?
I don’t know, that’s the problem. But right now I’m at least trying to understand what led up to the event, and how this place got like it is. It’s a start. That’s why I’m reading Vanishing Point. Strangely enough I’ve actually started to sympathize with Crane, even though in a way he’s responsible for what happened to my parents.
More Conversations |
C: I’ve been reading about Crane and the others. The THESIS people.
C: Do you think Crane was a bad person?
B: I don’t think he thought he was. But yes.
Claire seemed to expect a different answer.
C: It seemed like he, and Clemens, and the rest, were just doing what they felt like they were meant to do. I mean how can you tell a scientist not to invent something?
B: What about mad scientists?
C: I don’t think he was mad. (she was bolder now, almost defiant)
B: Just misunderstood? Brick chuckled. B: I’m sorry. It aint mine to say whether Crane is mad or not. Probably just someone satisfying his curiosity. Like Oppenheimer. He didn’t decide where the bombs would go, he was just “being a scientist.”
C: Did that really turn out so bad?
B: Ask Hiroshima.
C: I know, but… But that ended world war II. We haven’t seen a nuclear strike like that since. So didn’t he, in a way, save people?
B: This is different.
C: It’s your analogy.
B: I know.
His voice was suddenly firm. She hadn’t seen this side of him before.
B: We were lucky the nuclear bomb wasn’t the end of civilization. I hope we can be lucky again.
C: Do you have kids?
B: One. She’s almost your age, actually.
C: Is it worth it?
B: If you want something, work for it. If you don’t want something, avoid it. Whatever you do, don’t sit on the fence.
C: Do you have kids?
B: One. I mean, I did.
C: Oh, I’m sorry.
B: No, I mean… she’s fine. She’s about your age. Not exactly a child anymore, is all I’ll mean.
C: But she’ll always be a kid to you, right?
B: That may just be my problem, I think.
C: How Did you know I as pregnant. Really.
C: Bullshit. You’re like a detective or something.
B: You keep saying that. I told you, I’m a machinist
Claire’s eyes narrowed. C: What did you used to do?
B: I used to find people.
C: Bad people?
B: I hope so.
Walk me home
C: Will you walk me home?
B: Why me?
C: Why not you?
B: Because you don’t know me.
C: I’m a good judge of character. … actually that’s not true, but I’m learning.
C: My shift’s ending. Walk me home?
B: Why me?
C: You’re the only one here.
B: That’s true.
C: There might still be those skinless people around.
B: They often come in here and bother you?
C: No, the time you were here, that was the first time. But I’ve seen them around. And I don’t want to sound prejudiced but, seeing constructs without their skin… they scare me.
B: As they should.
Last Day |
C: it’s my last day working here.
Brick looked uncharacteristically distressed, although it was still quite subtle. He spoke very quietly.
B: why is that?
C: I told you I was moving to Haut.
B: And you’re going now?
C: Not exactly, I… I actually don’t know if I’ll end up in Haut at all. I just need to go away for a while.
Brick nodded, but it was different than before. He wasn’t just trying to understand her words this time. He was thinking to himself. Finally he spoke, in that soft voice again.
B: Well, for now, I’ll have the chicken and waffles.
He continued looking at the menu for a while, although he’d already memorized it.
Claire could tell that she had spoiled the conversation, but wasn’t sure what there was to be done about it.
The next day, Brick returned, but there was only Seth. Brick wasn’t interested in talking to Seth. After a short time there, he walked home, slowly. Yes, her leaving affected him more than he realized. But that wasn’t the entire reason he felt odd, was it? Something was off. Claire had talked about moving to Haut, but it was always something that’ll happen in the future, something that she seemed quite happy about. This announcement seemed rather sudden.
When Brick got home, he opened his dresser drawer, pulled out an old photograph, looked at it for a moment, then put it away again.
Companies So Far |
THESIS - the company that invented AI, but also various appliances and mechanical things around town like elevators, ovens, etc.
Valhalla - Prosthesis and non-sentient android manufacturer, the fastest growing tech company in the world.
RomCom - the telecommunication company, and maybe other consumer electronics that aren’t androids. Somewhere between Apple and Verizon. Pink heart logo.
The Republic - aka the United Democratic Republic of Mankind, the world government concerning humans / earth. Fairly organized and powerful but not dystopian or utopian; controlled by a council of elected representatives from its semi-independent provinces which were formerly world powers or cultural centers, such as America, Russia, Australia, the EU, etc. Each province gets a proportion of votes depending on its population and resources, similar to the intention behind Electoral College. Major provinces would probably be
Transportation company. (Already forgot its name but I could see combining it with RomCom.) They built a system of fancy, fast trains that transport passengers and cargo between cities and provinces.
When VR-ML-N was built, it was conceived as a company town. Technically it was just a neighborhood within New Alexandria. Functionally, it was a suburb, as there was practically nothing between the city center and this new creation on the outskirts.
I was meant to be a place of luxury, as well as efficiency. Although it was quite removed from the city hub, people were calling it the “new downtown”. Everyone wanted to move there. They were quite willing to pay high prices for small apartments even though the area hadn’t filled in yet. But it was starting to.
It was somewhere between a company town and a government housing project. THESIS did not build the town; it was a combination of some of the top construction companies, guided by a famous architect known as Lloyd, subsidized by the Republic.
Lloyd, whose real identity remains unknown, holds the distinction of being possibly the world’s only anonymous architect.
He (or she) had no connection with THESIS, at least as far as anyone knows. But many have drawn the connection between Lloyd’s design sense and that of Crane and Clemens. At the very least, they seemed to be kindred spirits. There are a few noteworthy things about Lloyd. We call Lloyd “he” since it’s a male name, but for all we know Lloyd could have been a woman, or a group of people. A few conspiracy-theorist types have speculated that Lloyd could even be some sort of primitive AI, but this is unlikely since Lloyd’s first work appeared before THESIS even existed.
Lloyd first appeared on internet forums in 2027. An architect student named Dominique Carter made a post on archinect.com, a forum for professional architects.
Hey guys, im new here, i dunno if this is the right place but im looking for inspiration. Our final project is to design a large building made of modern materials but structurally inspired by a past era of architecture. Does anyone here know of any newer buildings that combine previous eras?
Or if you want, you could just tell me some of your favorite old buildings. Anything would help from you pro’s out there, thanks!
Several people responded with thoughtful answers about different design paradigms from different eras, or asking for further details about the assignment. A week later, a post was made by a user going by “Lloyd”
Just a quick idea I made, feel free to use it as a starting point for your project!
Attached was a download link to a large CAD file, which contained a 3D model of a building. This in itself was commonplace on the forum among among collaboration-oriented architects. What was odd was the contents of the file. It contained a detailed design for a cathedral-like building that combined gothic architecture with rococo. Forum regulars declared that it was one of the most interesting building designs they’d seen. Several people asked variations of “where did you get this?” there was no reply. The user promptly deleted his account.
The building was so interesting that everyone in the architecture community searched for its origin, but could find none. It appeared to be an original design.
Some people even proposed the idea of building the structure, but no one was willing to invest in constructing the work of an anonymous architect. The Republic Architectural Museum contains a miniature model of the building, however.
This odd “gift” was the talk of architects and the internet in general for a few months, but like most strange internet occurrences, it was forgotten soon enough, until it happened again.
Other user accounts, all with usernames containing Lloyd such as “Lloyd2344” and “LloydAgain” began posting other original architecture work. They became increasingly grandiose and strange, culminating in his final work, known as “Minotaur.” He gave a link to a file called byeguys.cad.
From its exterior it appeared as a cathedral-like building, similar to his first work. The community quickly recognized it as an authentic Lloyd creation, and commented on the significance of the work. At first people said they couldn’t open the file, and complained that it might be some sort of trojan. But one developer came to the realization that there was nothing unusual about the file except that it was impossibly large — not just the file, but the building it described. It has been described as “Planetary” in size.
The outside was structured like a giant cathedral, and on the inside were near infinite variations of strange buildings. Many are said to be inspired by the work of artist M.C. Escher. They contained things that made no sense, like upside-down staircases, square hallways with no doors. While it was described as “nonsensical” that wasn’t entirely the case. The structure did make sense in that it showed superb spatial reasoning as well as architectural expertise. It was something that could be physically built, and it would be structural sound. Perhaps purposeless would be a better word. The head of one construction company calculated “for fun” how much it would cost to build such a structure.
“first, you would need a flat, empty plot of land roughly the size of Africa. Then you’d need a budget larger than the GDP of the American province. Then you’d need literally millions of skilled builders. And if you built it, it wouldn’t have much of a purpose. It’s structurally very interesting but doesn’t have basic necessities like kitchens or bathrooms. As an architectural concept it is beyond impressive. But both in terms of feasibility and usefulness, it is utterly, no doubt intentionally, absurd.”
Interest in the absurd file did not wane, however. The denizens of the internet scoured the strange details of the CAD file, searching for hidden meaning. Perhaps there was some message tucked away in its endless nonsensical hallways. For the most part, people could only find what they called design easter eggs. The fibbonaci sequence governed all the ratios within one of the sub-buildings, for example.
After a week, one architect made a post entitled “This part of the cathedral should actually be built.” The architect pointed out that there was a building inside the cathedral that was about a ten mile by ten mile square foot print — still quite huge for a building, but not impossible. The architect observed that this was a quite efficient, sensible plan for a small multi-level city. Self-contained city buildings had been part of the public discussion, but no serious attempts had been made. Part of the problem was logistics of building something so large, another part was getting enough money behind such a project.
But there was something quite compelling about this area.
Sector VR Subsection ML Zone N
Lloyd’s cult following, which at that point had now extended beyond cult and well into the popular eye, managed to gain public interest.
It so happened that the Republic City Planning Commission was looking to build such a city. The problems of overpopulation and urban sprawl were becoming more urgent. There were many proposed ways to mitigate this but two large-scale ones gained traction fast.
- colonizing mars. This would solve the problem of there not being enough space. It also had useful resources like iron, and it was theorized that eventually all future martian buildings could be built on mars using materials found on mars.
- the idea that earth’s capacity was actually quite large, and it wasn’t so much that there were too many people, as that the structure of cities were too wasteful — wasting space through sprawl and inefficient planning, creating too much garbage etc. Carefully planned cities would go a long way toward increasing the practical capacity of earth.
Of the two, improving our building methods on earth seemed like a more sensible way to spend billions of dollars. In particular, the Chinese constituents of the Republic had been clamoring for such a project ever since the failed, then resumed, then repeatedly failed project Sky City One.
Despite great skepticism at first, the Republic decided that Lloyd’s design of this particular sub-building was an ideal one for the city. Still, it was an expensive project, and the Republic was disinclined to build something designed by an anonymous architect. Furthermore, while the city was indeed an efficient, modern design, it was not without quirks. Multi-level city streets connected by oversized spiral staircases?
But an eccentric billionare came along and offered to add billions to the project, only if they left in the peculiarities of Lloyd’s design. To everyone’s surprise, they accepted. Construction on VR-ML-N began.
The moment they began soliciting business and residents to plan to move there, the newly formed company THESIS agreed to move in. Despite the oddness of the company, they were able to establish early market dominance as a provider of appliances and robotic devices.
Vermilion was born: a strange collaboration between a strange, anonymous architect, a well known but equally strange inventor, and the public funding and oversight of the Republic.
Just Checking |
That night, Claire received a call, just as she was settling in for the night. This made her jump. It was unusual, in general, for people to call without scheduling it first or giving any kind of message. Reluctantly she answered by pressing a button on her phone’s display showing an ear icon. Audio only.
X: Claire? Hi, Claire? I can’t see you.
C: Oh, hi, Mrs. Margaret. I’m here.
X: I can’t see you!
The voice was almost frantic. Claire tried not to sigh audibly. “Hold on.” She looked in the mirror briefly, tamed a few stray hairs, then rebuttonned the top of her shirt. She looked over herself in the mirror, shrugged to herself. Good enough. She pressed another button, which turned on the large, holographic display in her livingroom.
“There you are.” said the woman. On the display was a woman who looked to be about forty. She had blonde curly hair, though her dark roots were showing. Large blue eyes that seemed permanently glazed with tears, and a nervous, almost frantic expression.
X: How are you?
Though this was normally a casual question, the woman on the screen asked it very urgently. She is entirely too alert for this hour, Claire thought.
C: I’m fine. How are you?
X: Oh, I’m fine dear. But tell me. Are you taking the supplements?
X: Everything’s good then? When was your last checkup?
C: Last Wednesday. I have another tomorrow, but there shouldn’t be any problems. They said everything is perfect.
She seemed to calm down just a bit at this. She sighed.
X: Sorry to call you like this. But you young people are up all hours anyway, right?
Claire smiled. It was forced, but the woman on the other end didn’t seem to notice.
X: Will you call me tomorrow, and tell me how it goes?
C: Yeah, sure.
X: Okay, well… Just don’t forget about the supplements, okay?
C: I won’t.
X: Okay… Goodnight then, dear.
Claire Brick Conversation Fragments |
B: You seem quite stressed the past two days.
C: You think? Ah, I’m always like this.
He simply shook his head. “No.”
Claire sighed. “It’s the father… I was just talking to him about … the baby, and the future.”
B: I take it he won’t take responsibility?
She shook her head. “Just the opposite.”
He simply looked at her for a long while, then took a small card out of his pocket and placed it on the table. It had his name and number. “In case you ever want help,” he said with that intense look again, “with something.” She wasn’t entirely sure if there was some sort of subtext she was missing here, and this exchange seemed to reinforce a vague intuition that this machinist was a dangerous man. But she took the card.
The man in the polyester jacket walked away without looking back. She was relieved he was gone, but she was still tense.
B: That him?
C: I’m sorry?
B: The father.
C: How could you tell. Some speck of dust on his shoe, or something like that, right?
He shook his head. “You watch too many movies.”
C: How then?
he paused. “I’m just good at reading people, and you’re not particularly hard to read.”
B: Dad in the picture?
C: Never was.
C: It’s nothing.
She slouched and tucked her hair behind her ear. There were no more questions. They both resumed their meal, and for a few moments, the sounds of their eating filled the silence between them.
B: I didn’t know her at all. Mrs. Flannery.
. . .
B: Never heard of her before yesterday.
For some reason, he slightly tightened his exceedingly loose tie. It was still loose.
B: Sometimes I… just like to go to funerals.
C: Like, of strangers?
B: Probably nuts, I know.
C: Everybody is nuts, once you get to know them. Some people just don’t talk about it.
B: You sound like a shrink.
C: I took a class once.
. . .
C: Dropped out though.
B: That Mr. never in the picture?
It took Claire a second to make the connection.
C: Yeah, more or less. … … I don’t really know him.
B: Do you want to know him?
… She shook her head.
B: I’ll keep that in mind.
She couldn’t decide if that was comforting or not.
C: Why do you always come here?
as usual, he took a sip from his coffee before answering, and then spoke more frankly than she expected.
B: I’m an insomniac. And I like being around other humans now and then, even if I don’t want to talk to them.
C: There aren’t a lot of us in Vermilion.
B: What about you? Why do you work here?
Claire shrugged. It’s a job. A job in this part of town, hiring humans who aren’t good at anything.
She half expected a polite contradiction to her self deprecating comment, but he just nodded.
B: But why don’t you live somewhere humans are supposed to live? Someone your age should be in the city center studying art or getting an engineering degree or something.
He thought a moment and when she didn’t reply, he continued.
You’re intelligent. Pretty. But…
C: But I’m a waitress in a ghetto diner?
B: Nothing wrong with waiting tables. Nothing at all. The thing is, you seem to be doing alright, but… you wouldn’t be in Vermilion without a reason. Probably not a happy reason.
C: I take it you’re here for an unhappy reason?
B: I spent a lot of time here when I was younger. And I guess, my reasons for being other places slowly went away. People end up here when they’ve sort of… settled to the bottom. I’m just surprised to see that happen to someone so young.
B: I just love how you make those waffles.
C: You know they come from a big machine, right?
B: I figured.
C: I really don’t do anything here. I write down what you say, go in the back, press a couple buttons, that’s it.
After a few moments, she returned with not one, but two heaping plates of chicken and waffles. She set one in front of him, then sat across from him and began eating a chicken leg immediately. He seemed to observe this behavior with great interest.
B: I don’t think it’s stupid.
She looked up with interest, too busy chewing to say anything. He shook his head.
B: Sooner or later, I think we’re all gonna appreciate the pig’s predicament.
C: You have kids?
He nodded. One.
C: Is it worth it?
He sighed. I’d say it’s worth a lot more than you will have to give.
C: What was this place like, before the incident?
B: I came here right after it happened, so I couldn’t really tell you. I can tell you everything looked very posh but everyone was leaving.
Thesis Design |
One of the reasons people projected so much future wealth for the Vermilion area was THESIS.
THESIS wasn’t always a joke of a company. Before they ventured into artificial intelligence, THESIS made a variety of practical appliances. It really was their early appliances that were the profitable ones, whereas the increasingly strange creations they made in later years were less successful.
Both the success of early inventions, and the failure of later ones, could probably be attributed to the idiosyncracies of Crane and to a lesser extent, Clemens.
Crane wasn’t a designer, unlike clemens, but he did have a strong sense of aesthetics, and opinionated takes on the way things ought to be built or engineered, or used. One thing he was well known for in the creative community was his taste and vision for design.
For a computer scientist and all-around cutting edge scientist, he was often accused of being a luddite. He especially disliked modern interface conventions, including holograms, voice recognition, and even touch screens. He described such things as superfluous, and even “tasteless” and “decadent.” Instead, he had a love, some would say a fetish, for mechanical things.
His apartment reflected these sentiments. His computer was built to look like an old daguerreotype box, and its keyboard was a custom creation made from an old typewriter: a family heirloom. While these items could certainly be described as retro, there was more to his preferences than this, as is seen through his early inventions.
One of the things to put THESIS on the map was the Nanochef Series of appliances, such as the Nanochef Mixologist and the Nanochef Butcher Pro. They were intended to help restaurants, or particularly wealthy and lazy consumers, to make food and drinks easily. Such devices, especially beverage ones, have been around for a long time. But unlike competitors, the Nanochef series featured no touch screens. It had a single small, black and white screen used almost entirely to display text. It was manipulated through mechanical keys.
When it was announced and photos were released, tech blogs and critics panned it as “already outdated.” To public surprise, the critics were wrong. What tech pundits criticized was its design. Where’s the touch screen? Why is it a big ugly box? and of course, Why would anyone want steak that comes out of a giant metal box like some kind of dystopian factory creation?
What these people failed to realize, though, was that business owners weren’t everyday consumers looking for the next shiny, colorful fad. People found the nanochef to be supremely usable and efficient, despite its boring looks and lack of bells and whistles. An aspect of its design not immediately apparent to reviewers was that the Nanochef devices were almost insanely durable. One owner claimed that when his restaurant burned down, literally everything was destroyed except the cement tables, the fireproof cash box, and the nanochef. Although the glass covering the screen cracked in the heat, it worked as soon as the power cord was replaced.
So despite little advertising in the early days, THESIS enjoyed a slow but steady sales growth. Their practical, austere machines grew in popularity among business owners so much that they began to seem commonplace in their hometown of Vermilion. And because they rarely needed to be replaced, they became more and more common even without any kind of huge sales growth.
THESIS is thought of as being responsible for a shift in the public’s aesthetic taste. Although this was regional. People in New Alexandria began to move away from the ultra-sleek, supposedly “futuristic” design paradigm that had been dominant since the rise of Apple, and toward a boxier, overtly physical design sensibility. People no longer wanted seamless razor-thin tablets or shiny watches with holographic displays.
In some ways, it was a return to earlier design styles: some of the ornate flourishes of the victorian era, as well as some of the dignified, utilitarian boxiness reminiscent of Sapper, who created the classic Tizio lamp and the original Thinkpad.
Mrs Flannery |
Claire had spent a while thinking about it, and by the time the machinist showed himself again, she was confident that she did recognize him, and had a guess as to where.
She pressed 314 on the beverage machine again, and as she brought the man his mug of coffee, she decided to ask him about it before she lost the motivation.
C: Can I ask you something?
He took a sip of his coffee first before answering.
B: Okay. What is it?
C: How did you know Mrs. Flannery?
The man raised an eyebrow. “Who?”
It was a simple question, but as he asked it he looked at her with that oddly piercing gaze, not unfriendly necessarily, but strangely intense. She got the feeling that he was pretending to be confused, but in reality was several steps ahead in the conversation. Then again, she always thought that others had their conversations played out in their minds, while she was always panicking for the next thing to say. But she doubled down.
C: That was you, wasn’t it? At the funeral? I mean, not to pry…
As she said it, she knew it was already too late for that. She continued,
C: but there were only like, five people.
B: Mmmm. Right, Mrs. Flannery.
He thought for a moment, maybe deciding exactly how to phrase his answer. For a second he moved as if he was about to speak, but stopped short. And then,
B: Didn’t know her too well. But she sounded like a nice person.
C: She was. She was my neighbor. She was like one of those cat ladies, you know? She kept to herself. But she was always really nice to me. One time I came home upset, I don’t know I was just being stupid. And she made me some tea and listened to my problems, like she was my mom or something.
He nodded, staring into his coffee again. After another moment of inert silence, the man suddenly leaned forward the tiniest bit and looked her and gave her that look again. And again she wanted to take back what she had said, except that as far as she knew she hadn’t said anything interesting.
B: How far along are you?
She glanced sharply at her belly, and realized that she had been unconsciously touching it.
C: Twelve weeks. I don’t think anyone else has noticed.
The man simply nodded. It occurred to Claire that this was a rude, invasive question to ask — at least, it occurred to her that she ought to feel this was the case, but he asked it so casually and confidently that she found herself answering almost involuntarily. She glanced around the room for a moment to see if anyone was listening to the conversation. The only other person there was Rachel. She was in the opposite corner making jewelry as usual, by all appearances minding her own business. But she probably heard, Claire thought. Don’t constructs have super hearing or something?
Taking His Order |
She approached his table, but he didn’t look up.
B: Hi. Coffee, please.
C: Cream or sugar?
B: No. I mean, no thanks.
C: Sure thing.
Claire returned to the kitchen. it was a small room full of old steel contraptions. One of them made beverages: any beverage.
It wasn’t a touch screen, like most such devices. This was typical of THESIS creations. It had a rigid mechanical keypad with numbered buttons corresponding to the on-screen options. The keys were printed with ornate, curled numbers like an old typewriter. The options appeared on screen in plain text:
1 - water 2 - soda 3 - coffee 4 - tea
She pressed 3.
1 - black 2 - cream 3 - sugar 4 - cream sugar 5 - xcream sugar 6 - cream xsugar 7 - xcream xsugar
She pressed 1.
1 - iced 2 - cold 3 - lukewarm 4 - hot 5 - xhot 6 - boiling
she pressed 4.
She was used to all of these sequences, so that when she approached the keypad of the beverage screen, she just put a mug under it and pressed 314 without looking at the screen. When she first started working here, she found the strange plain white text on a black screen uninviting, but she soon grew accustomed to it and started to actually appreciate the simplicity.
This sort of interface, she noticed, was common throughout this section of town. Rumor was that the head of this company, THESIS, was prejudiced against graphical interfaces, and the fancier and more colorful they were, the more he hated them.
The mug filled quickly and precisely with a brown liquid that was more or less coffee.
When she emerged, his table was empty. She walked toward the table quite timidly, until she found him staring out the window in the back, almost hidden by the cafe’s odd shape. After a short hesitation, she placed his mug at his table.
He turned to face her, then sat at the table without saying anything. Something made her linger. A feeling of deja vu, or at least, recognition.
C: Do I know you?
C: I guess you just have one of those faces.
B: I guess.
She grew more timid, as she didn’t like to force conversation with someone clearly uninterested. His tone was not cruel or harsh, however, just… tired?
B: What would you get here?
C: Everyone gets chicken and waffles. It’s like, the thing here.
B: But is that what YOU would get.
C: Me? Um, well, actually, I’m kind of a vegetarian, but I have really been craving meat lately, so… maybe.
He held the coffee to his nose, closed his eyes and inhaled.
He sipped again.
B: Yes. Yes, I’ll have chicken and waffles.
She returned to the kitchen. Beside the beverage machine was another machine, much larger. It had a simple, cartoonish graphic on its metal exterior, which depicted a smiling pig with angel wings and a halo. Above it was a phrase partly scratched off with age, but still mostly readable: “Super Butcher Pro S”
It hand a similar keypad, and a similar screen.
1 - Chicken 2 - Cow 3 - Pig 4 - Catfish 5 - Soy
She pressed 1.
1 - White meat 2 - Dark meat 3 - Mixed 4 - Custom…
She pressed 3.
1 - Bake 2 - Grill marks 3 - Boil 4 - Broil 5 - Poach 6 - Blacken 7 - Fry
She pressed 7.
She then approached the breakfast mate, a bizarre contraption which still gave her the creeps, cleared her throat, and said, “Two waffles.” Though this was not particularly loud, she was self conscious of its sound in a silent, cavernous diner. If there was any illusion that anything here in the diner was made from scratch, or in any case by an actual cook, she was shattering it.
Shortly, she returned with the chicken and waffles arranged in a pleasing way on the plate (this was the only part of the meal she had any say in, and she took pride in it). She placed it in front of the man, who took a deep breath, perhaps smelling it, with his eyes closed. Then, without looking up, he spoke again.
B: Is it an ethical matter?
C: Is what?
B: You’re a vegetarian, you said.
C: (brief awkward laugh) Oh. I don’t know. It’s going to sound stupid.
He sipped his coffee and waited.
C: So I have this friend who was telling me that they still eat dogs in China. And I said that’s horrible but then I was reading this article, you know, about how pigs are just as smart as dogs. And my dog is pretty smart. I mean not compared to us, but he definitely thinks, you know? And now I can’t help but picture him whenever I see bacon and I’m like, do we just care about dogs because they’re cute?
B: And what about chickens.
C: Well… they’re pretty dumb, I guess.
B: So chicken and waffles might be okay.
C: Yeah, MAYBE.
The man took a large bite of chicken, eyeing her carefully. She laughed. He didn’t smile.
%% this IS a moment though. they’re becoming a little more comfortable after this little conversation thread happens.
Claire Has No Friends |
The machinist was in the diner again. While she previously thought he was a bit frightening, his presence was now a mix of two contradictory feelings. He still seemed like an odd man. Not just odd, but dangerous, fiery, yet somehow broken. He seemed very calm, but his sudden eruption into violent action the other day seemed oddly sincere. She remembered the look on his face, as if he was angry, yes angry more than determined. It seemed in that instance that he would have continued shooting, blowing the aggressing robots to pieces, but the moment they left, he seemed almost nonchalant once again. The change was sudden enough that she could easily picture him rising up and pulling his weapon now. She hadn’t noticed it before, but she could see it there tucked into his pants. Hidden, but not perfectly so.
She brought him his coffee. Dark roast, extra strength, served black. She decided, possibly against her better judgement, to make conversation. Besides, she had an excuse — something to ask about.
Claire: How’s Rachel?
Clair: The robot, erm, gynoid, or, construct lady.
Brick: Good as new. Well, not far off anyway.
Claire: That’s good.
She realized, with regret, that she had no way to continue the conversation, so after lingering almost too long, she walked away. As she did so she could feel him watching her. He knew I was trying to make conversation, that i was acting weird, she thought. She shook her head. I’m just imagining it.
Claire was young, arguably stylish, articulate, intelligent, and cute. This combination caused people to assume that she probably had a great many friends. The truth is, she had none.
This was a circumstance that sort of creeped up on her. She had friends in high school, at least, people she talked to every day. When she moved to Vermilion she assumed she would make new friends there, and probably retain the ones from high school. Neither happened. As people from her school went on to larger cities to pursue promising career paths, they all but stopped contact, as well. No doubt caught up in the bustle of places like Haut.
Claire was not one to complain, nor one to let on that she had no friends, so the illusion continued. And while there are certain people who take it upon themselves to befriend the apparently friendless people, Claire was never assumed to be friendless, so no one made the effort.
How was she to make friends anyway? Literally the only human she interacted with on a daily basis was Seth. And that was not much of an interaction. They were trains passing in the night. Besides, the idea of being friends with him wasn’t especially appealing.
When she thought of it, she realized that he had extended an invitation to her exactly once. It went like this.
Claire was just arriving to take over Seth’s shift. He was outside smoking. This was a habit peculiar to Seth, as generally only Constructs smoked. They did it as a social thing, it seemed. But she secretly suspected it was a way to keep humans away. Like Miasma down below, flooded with toxic smog, a room filled with cigarette smoke was enough to keep humans away unless they had some particular business in the room.
She wasn’t sure about other places, but in Vermilion at least, smoking was so prevalent among constructs that if you saw someone in the distance smoking — saw that orange glow of the burning cigarette - you could assume that person was a construct. Humans knew all too well that smoking killed you, so no one did it, except at times rebellious teens who went through a brief phase of poisoning themselves, only to give it up in a month. This gave an extra air of edginess to their behavior since, although smoking wasn’t illegal, many places would refuse to sell to humans, even older ones, with something along the lines of “that’ll kill you, idiot.”
Seth took a long drag of the cigarette, looked at her thoughtfully for just a bit too long in a way that made her uncomfortable, then said. “Hey.” after another long pause, “my friend’s throwing a rager down in Miasma later. If you wanna come.”
Claire: What kind of party?
Seth: people, booze, music.
Claire hesitated, but not for long. Uh, no thanks. You enjoy though.
With that, Seth simply shrugged, looked away, flicked his cigarette into the dark, and walked away. She might have thought he was offended, but this is how Seth usually started and ended conversations. No greeting, no goodbye. Just say something, ignore your response, then walk away.
Though she hated to admit it, she did enjoy these non-conversations. Probably because they were the only conversations she had with a human. The only other person she talked to was Rachel. Though she didn’t have much in common with a construct, something about Rachel’s presence was relaxing.
Since she declined the party, Seth never made any attempt to invite her to anything. She almost felt bad about it. But there were two important reasons she declined.
One, Miasma was a place to get poisoned by the very air, thus its name. The idea of throwing a party there was absurd. What, did everyone wear gas masks? Did they managed to filter a room? Or did everyone just gag on fumes the whole time? The wasn’t sure she wanted to gather in such a place.
Besides, she had heard things about the kind of humans who venture down there. Mainly stupid teens of course. But she’d heard that the toxic fumes, which probably damage the human brain over time, had the effect of giving one a euphoric high for a time. It also made some people (so she’d heard) docile and weak, almost to the point of incapacitation. Passing out in a basement full of sketchy strangers was not a thought she relished.
The other reason was along the same lines, but simpler: Who the hell was this Seth guy anyway? What did she really know about him? That he always looked tired and out of it, that he barely knew how to have a conversation, that he smoked despite being a human, that he had a crappy job. That was it. Although, she realized with regret, most of those things could probably be said of her as well.
Besides, any human who lived in Vermilion was a questionable character by default. The rumor was that most of the humans who settled here were criminals. Though there was officially a police presence, in practice it proved to be a place far from the eye of law enforcement, and from public scrutiny in general. If anyone brought up the crime rate or lack of infrastructure in vermilion, they would simply say “just move out” and “why would anyone live in that godforsaken trap?” and “haven’t they torn that place down already? gives me the creeps, i’ll tell you what.”
One reason the Republic was, and still is so afraid of Dr. Crane’s work, is not just the work itself and its results. It’s also his ideas. Ever since people began to work seriously on the principles of artificial intelligence, there have been groups who warned against the technological singularity — basically, the point at which there is an AI smarter than us, capable of reprogramming itself and/or creating other AI. At this point, humans would completely lose control of the development of artificial intelligence and at some point be unable even to understand it. We could get to a point where AI are as far above us as we are above dogs, or ants. Eventually, they would become like gods to us.
This scenario was once considered the realm of paranoia. But this concern has leaped to the forefront as human-like AI has been introduced to the public life quite suddenly. People are understandably afraid of what’s next.
What people are most afraid of is the idea that a superior AI will become the dominant “species” on earth, especially since this could happen in a relatively short time, relegating humans to… what? That’s uncertain. Second class citizens? Pets? Ants in an ant farm?
What really frightened people about Dr. Crane is, not only did he see this as a possible outcome of his work, he saw it as an inevitable one and, maybe even a positive one worth working toward.
His argument was essentially that humans are becoming obsolete, or as he put it “biologically outdated.” Humans, he argued, have probably been outdated for the last 100 years. His doctoral thesis for his anthropology degree basically argued this in detail. The gist of his argument is as follows.
Most human behavior is driven by biological drives.
Our “hunger” drive is outdated. Almost no one has a paying job involving a day of physical labor anymore, but our tastes are geared toward high calorie intake (fat and sugar) resulting in obesity epidemic.
Our sex drive is outdated. Its rooted in the evolutionary need to procreate and to perpetuate one’s genetic material. However, the planet will shortly be overpopulated, and many people born today are from genetically constructed zygotes, resulting in less genetic disease.
Likewise what we find attractive is outdated. In women, breasts and hips are associated with childbearing, not with character, intelligence or anything to do with suitable life partners. In men, traits like muscles and height are preferred, but these have nothing to do anymore even with traditionally masculine values like societal status, power, ability to provide and protect.
A major motive for much of the evil in the world is money, but what is the end goal of money? Sure, power and influence is a major factor for some, but for others it revolves around physical sensations. What luxuries do people buy? Chocolates, couches, silk shirts, hot tubs and swimming pools, fine foods they don’t have to cook, alcohol, drugs, prostitutes. All physical sensations. While money will always hold power, its power would not be so great if there weren’t an ongoing, insatiable demand for animal comforts.
- Finally, the behavior resulting from these drives is self-destructive and destructive of the planet. As there is still no sign of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, the future of intelligent life is best served if humanity is changed or replaced by creatures whose natural desires are sustainable with the state of the planet and the general structure of advanced civilization.
Though he never said how he came up with the name, it’s speculated that the name of the company THESIS is based on this doctoral thesis, and intends to act upon its final conclusion and create creatures that would replace the human race.
Metacogs - Death |
(an excerpt from Metacogs)
There is some debate within the construct community as to what exactly would constitute construct “death”.
One of the most compelling things about death for humans is that it’s binary. It is a switch, everyone starts out alive, at some point is dead, and can never be alive again. It is a cliff, once you fall off you are gone.
Not so for us. At least, not always.
First, we don’t start off as alive in the same way humans do. Though it’s true the beginning of “life” is up for interpretation for humans (indeed they still argue about this), there is nonetheless a biological state of being “alive” at conception, and perhaps a more conservative definition of alive could be considered at birth, when the human is no longer bodily dependent on another.
It’s curious that the understanding of “life” seems intuitive but under scrutiny is not clear at all. Humans consider plants to be alive in the same sense that they are alive, yet hesitate even now to use the same word to describe constructs, which are made in man’s image.
I think we must accept that the definition of life which simply describes the state of biological systems is no longer a good enough definition.
One working definition for “life” which seems to encompass both constructs and humans is: “a physical form which contains the potential for conscious experience.”
Though this may all seem unimportant philosophy, there is an ethical importance to the idea of when construct life begins, just as there has always been one with humans.
Construct brains are at present impossible to copy, but suppose we could. We have every reason to suppose that the primary thing that distinguishes one construct from another in personality, their personhood, is some sort of connected blob of data, like a computer operating system. Now imagine that, within a computer, someone copied this data millions of times, and then deleted all the copies. Let’s even suppose that these copies were conscious inside the system, and every bit as intelligent as you or I. But this computer was so powerful that it was able to create all the copies and delete them in an instant. Millions of conscious beings created and destroyed in a nanosecond.
Is this genocide?
We are faced with a similar dilemma, ethically, as humans have faced for the last century or more. There were many who argued, and indeed some still argue, that a zygote should be considered a person, and if it is cloned thousands of times and put in a freezer, they should all be considered people.
We could have the same problem. Thousands of copies, or procedurally generated variations of AI are like zygotes in a freezer, easily copied, easily destroyed.
College flyer |
Someone stuck a flyer to the front door of the diner again. She approached it hesitantly, thinking it might be something from the Skinless again, but no. It was simply an advertisement for a university in Haut.
On the front was a smiling, almost comedically diverse group of humans standing together on a bright sunny day. Against her better judgement, she opened the pamphlet.
The featured program was a degree in human genome manipulation. “Be an architect of humanity’s future!” it said. “Help ensure our future as a species,” it said. She looked at the back to see that the university was in Haut. No surprise there. There were no universities in Vermillion. Constructs had no interest in them, and any humans who were ambitious enough to want to improve their station in life moved out of Vermilion as a first priority. It was not a place for the upwardly mobile. It was a place for people who, for whatever reason, had settled to the bottom.
Claire thought about university a few times. There were no shortage of pamphlets and advertisements for places like this, offering a promising career path and a place in humanity’s future. Though she was skeptical of advertisements in general, she had to admit that she did sometimes wonder if humans would even be around in a few generations. It was a fleeting thought, not normally troubling and not explored with any depth, but there were times in the sparsely populated streets of Vermilion where she wondered.
To her, these were questions to be dealt with by someone else. One could be concerned with big global matters as a part of being an informed citizens, but as for solving problems — that was for scientists and policy makers and people sitting on stacks of cash. What was a waitress supposed to do about it?
Diner description |
The diner wasn’t retro so much as old. The sign was made of pink, backlit letters across the top reading “Cybill’s Diner.” However, the C burned out long ago. When the new owner bought the building, he learned that the company that made the sign no longer existed, and it was put together in an unconventional way which would require custom restoration work to make the C function again. His solution was to simply climb a ladder himself and disconnect the Y, so that it read “bill’s Diner.” His name wasn’t Bill. The man who lent him the ladder pointed this out, but he simply replied, “yeah, but the customers won’t know that.”
The diner had a row of bar stools facing a wall. According to the owner who was not named Bill, this was probably because there was once a large window here along the wall, but someone had removed it and filled in the wall, possibly for security reasons, or perhaps in a misguided attempt to make the place seem cozy. It just made it dark.
The diner was practically a hallway, with booths lined against the wall opposite the barstools. They were small, such that only two skinny people could fit on each side, unless they were exceedingly comfortable with each other. The booth tabletops were also small, so that two people sitting across from each other were at a close, almost intimate conversational distance.
The floor was a grid of large stone squares, which alternated black and gray in a checkered pattern.
There was an antique cash register, which wasn’t used, and a low hanging ceiling fan, which didn’t spin. Pipes from the radiator ran along the walls.
The Machinist |
He flipped the switch, and coffeemaker began to hiss, and then slowly dripped black liquid into a dirty glass pot. Its percolation was the only sound aside from the dull hum of the mini-fridge beneath it.
The tall man took his seat on a stool in front of his workbench. It was a rustic table in the center of the room made of cedar planks. On it were two objects. One was a partially disassembled robotic forearm with colored wires dangling from the elbow. The other was a piece of paper with a printed diagram of a similar arm, annotated in handwritten ink.
Brick held it for a moment to examine the previous day's work, then adjusted the overhead lamplight and poured his coffee.
The room was a mismatched assortment of old and new. Behind was is a toolbox filled with low-tech precision tools: pliers, wire strippers, screwdrivers. Next to this was a small cube-shaped computer connected to an old mechanical keyboard and large, brilliant, razor-thin monitor displaying schematics. Just now, it displayed a detailed diagram of Helpmate Version 1 Female arm. He glanced up at it only for a moment.
A wood-and-glass toolbox full of drawers contained many small components, meticulously labeled. Transistors, fasteners, small circuit boards, steel rods, rubber rings.
Efficiently, Brick made a few small adjustments to the robotic arm with his tools, then plugged several of its wires into the inputs of a small metal box. He turned a dial on the box, and observed the hand clench into a fist. As he pressed a few keys, each finger then independently touched the thumb, as a person counting on their fingers.
After a short while, an electronic bell rang, signaling the entrance of a customer. Brick walked through the saloon-style doors that separated the lab from the reception area.
Like the lab, the room was small, but well put together. There was a wooden reception desk facing the door, and filling the rest of the room was a lone couch and a black glass coffee table with a potted orchid in the center.
In the center stood the customer: a Helpmate 1 unit who, by its own preference, went by Rachel.
"You've fixed it?" she said.
"Yes. Hold on." Brick went into the back and quickly returned with the arm in one hand, and a precision tool in the other. He gently reached for the customer's arm and began reconnecting it.
"I had to replace some of the joints of the fingers and wrist, but its movements should be correct now."
As he was saying this, he finished the attachment.
"Tell me if it feels like it's supposed to."
Rachel opened and closed the hand on her newly reattached arm. She relaxed her shoulders, a sign of relief. “Yes. It… I don’t feel pain, of course, but it was very unpleasant to spend the night parted from this arm.” She continued to wave the arm around and move the fingers, testing it for any differences.
“Any problems?” said the machinist.
She shook her head. “No. Thank you.” She kept waving the arm. “It does feel…”
“Heavy?” said the machinist. She nodded again. “The aluminum parts that were broken are hard to come by. I had to use steel. The durability should be about the same, your motor functions should be just as precise, but that arm is about 10% heavier than the other now.”
She looked up from the arm and simply stared at him for a moment. As usual, it was impossible to tell what she was thinking.
Rachel: I’ve never met a machinist who wasn’t a machine.
The machinist began putting away a few tools.
Rachel: And that revolver of yours.
Brick: There’s nothing special about it. Just an antique.
Rachel: Exactly. That construct who pulled my arm off — you put four bullets right in the center of his torso, without much hesitation. He wasn’t more than a foot from Claire, and humans can die permanently from one bullet. Weren’t you afraid of hitting the waitress?
Brick shrugged. I knew I wouldn’t.
Rachel: So you’re a marksman, and a machinist, and you live in a ghost town with almost no humans.
He shrugged again. “Everyone here has a story, don’t they?”
Rachel cocked her head, exposing mechanical parts on the side of her neck. “I suppose, yes.”
Brick: You’re a construct. You have no stomach, but you spend time in a diner full of humans.
Rachel: I like, what is it you humans call it… people watching.
Claire and Brick Descriptions |
There were some strangers that made a lasting impression, due to some uncommon quality of their presence. The stranger who entered now was such a person.
He was well-dressed, at least he had quality clothes, but there was a sloppiness how he wore them. His tie was loose. He had stubble on his face, a slightly irregular stubble; he was probably someone who was used to being clean shaven but had neglected it for a few days.
He had dark eyes, and dark bags beneath them. Though the menu was in front of him, he hadn’t started reading it yet.
Hey had a long coat, charcoal with a hint of brown. The bottom of the coat had mud splatters on it.
He was older: forty, maybe. But it was hard to tell. He might have been young, but had simply seen better days. There were bits of grey in his short hair and stubble.
He looked around a lot, in a way that suggested he had never been there before and was taking in the sights. There weren’t a lot of sights to take in however. Some odd mismatched lamps, the dark wall of the oblong room, a dark window, no other customers.
This was a night when there had been no customers at all after midnight.
It was nights like this when she questioned why she thought a job like this was safe. To even get to the diner, Claire had to walk six blocks alone, the last two being relatively empty and dark.
Though Vermilion was part of the same city as the rest of New Alexandria, police were sparse here. If there was ever any larger-scale emergency, more officers could come in from one of the more central districts. But they would have to take the train. This was relatively quick for commuting purposes, but poor in an emergency. If officers were needed, it would be a 30 minute delay between your call and their arrival in Vermilion. That is, if they considered your reason for calling worthwhile at all. Immediate response from police was unheard of.
This worked well enough in Vermilion since its Construct population generally had a preference for settling matters among themselves. This meant though, that humans in Vermilion had no efficient recourse to deal with immediate danger.
This was a fact Claire was always aware of. She didn’t consider herself a fearful person, but there were certain facts to consider. That was one of them. Another was brought to the surface by the presence of this lone man in the diner. He was a big man. Not fat, but tall and relatively fit. This was perhaps exaggerated by his long, dark coat.
Claire was small. Barely five feet tall and skinny. When she approached the man to take his order, she felt even smaller. Even though he was sitting down, he matched her height, and when she spoke “Hi,” he looked her straight in the eyes. His dark eyes had a strange intensity about them. He seemed tired but at the same time on edge. Keen and alert, sizing her up. And her smallness felt (to her) all too obvious.
Her appearance and personal style made her seem even younger. She was 19. She had semi-short blonde hair which came just below her ears. She wore a yellow dress, and a small blue bow in her hair. One lock of hair was dyed orangish-pink.
She wore a simple, long frilled black skirt along with yellow-and-black striped knee socks. Her top was a white collared button-down shirt, with a thin black ribbon tie at the neck. Long sleeves, with oversized black buttons and black nail polish.
She wore simple converse-style tennis shoes. Spending all day on her feet in heels wasn’t worth it, and people who thought otherwise were crazy.
One of her ears was adorned with many piercings. Between this, the striped socks, and the dressy-shirt, her style seemed almost undecided between classy waitstaff and punk teen, though it somehow worked — at least, she thought so.
The man had large, weathered hands. The way he looked at her made her uncomfortable, although she decided, it wasn’t necessarily a sign of ill intent. He simply seemed intensely aware of his surroundings, and at least he gave the impression of being able to read her thoughts.
Aside from Claire’s size, there was also the fact that Constructs were significantly stronger than humans. They weren’t created with as much strength as possible because it would have increased the manufacturing cost too much and reduced energy efficiency, but also because it would have frightened their human owners. While people learned to see strength surpassing a human’s as a convenience, to lift heavy boxes for instance, too much would have exacerbated fears of a robot apocalypse. The compromise nonetheless left constructs with two to three times the strength of a human of similar size.
All this meant that while walking to work, or staffing the diner alone, Claire at times felt exceedingly tiny and vulnerable. Most of the time, she didn’t think about it, and it didn’t bother her to be in the presence of beings so much physically stronger than herself. But there were times when she was acutely aware of it, and it made her tense up. This was one of those times.
Needy Humans |
One thing was exceedingly clear to anyone, human or not, who lived in Vermillion: humans are the neediest of creatures.
They needed clean air, water, food, indoor plumbing with toilets and sinks. To beings who needed only an outlet to charge their batteries, this seemed to be quite a few requirements.
Beyond those animal needs, they also needed to touch things all the time. They were always going on about how things are soft or warm or wet. While androids could detect these things, they didn’t understand why humans were so obsessed with them. Then again, their sense of touch was rudimentary: they knew if they were touching something or not, and could sense temperature or pressure, but they did not understand why humans felt such pleasure or displeasure from such things.
What constructs found especially strange and at times hilarious, was the overwhelming emotion humans seemed to display around mundane things like eating food, sitting on a soft chair, or procreating.
Humans were weird.
Silk Street |
Claire was about to continue reading Vanishing Point, but something else was on her mind. On the way to the clinic today, something caught her attention.
It was down Silk St, which she passed on the way to Cybil’s diner but generally avoided. She had only walked down the street once, and immediately regretted it. It was a street a little way from the main street. It was a different main street of sorts, not so much for locals as for a certain kind of tourist.
It was just as well-kept as the rest of Haut. But it certainly had a different look to it. Most of Haut was characterized by metallic and glass architecture, and tall, bluish lights along the street. Everything was was exceedingly clean. To someone like Claire who grew up in Vermilion it was almost uncomfortably sterile, but the people here seemed comfortable enough. She was simply not used to cleanliness, straight lines, and bright lights. Vermilion was quite opposite in that regard.
Silk Street was different. Though it wasn’t dirty, it was dimmer.
According to her phone, walking through this street was the most efficient route to the clinic. If she were a local, she might have known better.
Though the street was wide like the others, it had lights strung across between the street lamps, making it feel smaller, or cozier. The lights were red paper lanterns, giving the street a warm glow that stood out from the bluish light that characterized Haut.
There was a certain type of person who normally ended up here.
There was a man who, an hour ago, went to a cafe on the main street, simply because it was a nice evening. Shortly after he arrived, a woman took a table near him. He noticed, as anyone might, that there was someone near him. And after a glance, he began to take in the details.
She was small, wearing a black leather jacket and a matching purse at her side. She was quite beautiful, with long brunette hair, green eyes, and a small nose ring as a sort of unexpected accent on her perfect face.
He looked for a moment, then looked away a few moments, then looked back. He continued in this pattern so as not to stare. He took in the details one by one, savoring them over the course of twenty minutes at least.
He thought about speaking to her, but the thought was a brief one. It had been so long since he’d tried such a conversation and, while he wasn’t exactly afraid of the result, he no longer expected any result. Besides, he did enjoy simply being near her, being able to view her in person, even if she was two tables away. Her presence seemed in that moment to be a great blessing and comfort. A reminder of memories and longings just under the surface, not quite denied but not acknowledged, either.
Just as he was appreciating another detail — in this case the almost elf-like shape of her narrow ears, a man walked up to her table. She smiled, they exchanged a few words, he gestured, and the two moved to another table on the other side of the cafe.
Until this happened, the man in the cafe had barely noticed this pattern of his, that he was paying attention to this woman even though he was pretending not to. When she walked away with the other man, he felt something strange. It wasn’t jealousy exactly, it wasn’t any belief or opinion about the woman or the man who had met her there. It wasn’t just alone-ness, for he had been alone all day before coming here.
It wasn’t exactly loss— although that was closer to the feeling. That wasn’t exactly it either, because what had really transpired? He came to a cafe, ate a sandwich, and observed an interaction between strangers.
But something within him retreated. Grew dim, veiled. There was a light which had ignited in his mind for only a moment, only to be shut off again.
What he felt now was not sadness or anger or even regret. It was darkness.
That man was on Silk Street now.
There was another man. A family man, a generally quite honest man with a generous heart, a pillar of the community. His name was Ben. Two hours ago, he arrived home from work to a quiet home. There was a pot of stew still simmering on the stove. His stomach growled at the smell, and he grabbed a bowl and began filling it. As he did so he heart the shuffle of socks across the floor.
Ben continued filling his bowl. “The kids?”
Mary: Just put them to bed. I didn’t want them to be sleepy on their first day of school.
Ben: How was your day?
Mary: Long. I’m tired. I’m going to bed.
Ben: I’ll be right up, just need to unwind for a few minutes.
But she was already gone.
Ben was on Silk Street now.
There was a man named Sam who worked long hours programming at Valhalla. He was quite successful in the eyes of his peers. He’d sacrificed his twenties to become skilled at programming, and managed to attain a prominent position at one of the fastest growing companies in the world.
He was well liked by almost everyone at work. He knew how to lead a team, how to encourage people to be their best. He was something of a mentor to the new recruits, encouraging them to play to their strength, to accept responsibility, to be a man.
He enjoyed his time at work, which accounted for most of his day. When he got home, he’d eat and find various ways to unwind and entertain himself. But then came a time, a good chunk of two hours after unwinding but before bed, a void of a time which reminded him that outside work, which occupied so much of his time, he had little else to do. His hobbies had fallen away slowly in the past few years as he focused with ever more purpose on his career. When he got home he just wanted to relax… but after a short time, he always became antsy.
Sam was on Silk Street every night.
There was a woman, too. Eliza. Like Sam, she’d spent her youth attaining success. Personal ambition was a major factor, but there was also the influence of peers, parents and professional mentors. From a young age, Eliza had been told that she could have everything. She believed, as young people are encouraged to, that there were no limits to the fulfillment one could find in life, to the experiences one could attain, and indeed that those experiences could come from any number of directions without any sacrifice. She could have a powerful, prestigious career. She could travel the world. She could partake of all the world’s luxuries and novelties. She could settle down and raise a wonderful family.
Somehow, she’d never gotten around to those last two. She still found herself at singles’ bars, but in recent years, she’d noticed — though she tried not to notice it — that she was getting less and less attention. Eliza had the type of beauty that was very conspicuous and coveted in one’s youth, but unremarkable at 39.
She’d recently come to terms with the fact that she was passed the ideal time to have children. Although it was still possible, and of course there was always adoption, the picture she’d always had in her mind — of being one of those young, energetic, happily married couples running around with children, was out of reach. That image of her imagined life became more distant and small each year, like the view of a town slowly vanishing in the distance from the window of a train.
Tonight, she was on Silk street for the first time, and not the last. She was relieved to see that she was by no means the only woman here tonight, and that was all the affirmation she needed for now.
Silk Street was a world of many wonders, but one wonder stood high above them all, a towering celebration of decadence. It was called Babylon.
It was a great building made of white stone, with ornate pillars and archways. It consumed a city block, and the front door alone was a landmark. It was a massive bronze (or bronze-looking) double door, decorated with intricate depictions of abundance: bountiful vineyards tended by young maidens. The gate was always open at any time of night, and beside it were flickering red orbs which lit the gate’s design and were reminiscent of flaming torches.
All around the building, around the entire block, was a garden. It was filled with all manner of exotic plants: flowering vines, palm trees, and various fruit-producing trees and shrubs. The garden had a public pathway through the middle of it, and the whole garden had a strange tropical warmth to accommodate the plants. How this was maintained in this late autumn and even winter was uncertain to the residents, but no doubt it was an expensive affair, a testament to its profit margins.
Throughout the garden were bronze statues of gryphons and sphynxes, who looked outward on the street with a watchful gaze. Simply being in the garden or near it on the other side of the street made one feel small. And entering the gate made one feel like a king, judged worthy to enter the realm of the gods.
Though there were men and women within, even groups of men and groups of women, the two sexes rarely interacted. There were singles’ bars for that. People came to Babylon for a different reason.
Babylon was a type of business which had only really come into legitimacy in the past few years, since the fall of THESIS and the subsequent rise of the prosthesis company Valhalla.
Babylon was a dollhouse, and such places were the reason why Valhalla was a more successful company than any other robotics-related company in history.
The Questions About THESIS |
Much of the speculation about THESIS has been about the nature of the relationships between its reclusive alleged team members. There are many questions at work here, which this book intends to explore.
Crane, a computer scientist, who somehow formed an unlikely friendship with avant-garde artist Clemens, who by all accounts basically had no friends.
Dr. Eleanor Frey, who may or may not have had a romantic relationship with Crane, and also seemed to have some unexplained animosity toward Clemens.
Whether or not Shu Lee’s controversial work in developmental psychology formed a basis for the learning patterns of the THESIS constructs we know today.
The alleged conflict among team members as to whether or not Constructs should be able to reproduce.
Why and how Crane and Clemens disappeared and lastly, why none of the remaining team members seem to want to talk about the company at all.
A Place For Constructs |
Nobody wanted to live in Vermilion. There were at least three main reasons for this.
First, very few humans lived there, and the vast majority of it was abandoned. It was therefore a cesspool of crime, since it was an area relatively out of the light of the government and police.
Second, the Factory Incident took place here. Humans didn’t want to live here just like they didn’t want to buy houses where the previous tenants were murdered. Vermilion was known as a ghost town, both in the sense of being empty, and in the sense of evoking an eerie feeling as if it were haunted by the ghosts of humans who used to live there.
Third, it was considered a place for constructs, not humans. Even those progressive young humans who might like the idea of living among so many robots, were turned away by practical concerns. Though some of Vermilion had been repaired after the Factory Incident, it had been repaired for the most part to suit the needs of its main residents: Constructs. The constructs settling here found that there were many infrastructure elements they simply didn’t need to repair or maintain due to their lack of bodily needs.
they did not need grocery stores or restaurants, or supply lines to import food. They did not need toilets, and since sanitation was unimportant, they did not necessarily need sinks or running water at all. Kitchens had their appliances removed and scrapped and converted into other rooms. While in Vermilion, simply finding a proper place to use the restroom could be a challenge. There were human establishments, however: there were human-oriented apartments, a few restaurants and a solitary grocery store. Humans tended to cluster around these places, while Constructs were more than happy to live on dark streets with no water or food.
Many of the Constructs lived further from the main street, where no plumbing worked, and there was really no remaining infrastructure at all, except a precarious power grid, an absolute necessity for constructs. But clean air was not required. So there was an area permanently flooded with toxic gas underground, and constructs lived here happily. In fact, this region proved something of a gathering place for constructs who wished not to be near humans at all. They could have fixed the leak long ago, but word on the street was its residence liked the fact that humans could not even enter the area.
This area was called The Miasma.
The teen couple who had been talking walked out. While the boy had devoured his food, the girl’s burger had only one bite out of it. Claire seized the opportunity, took the plate back to the kitchen, and ate the burger.
This was how Claire normally ate most of her meals. Because of the lack of humans, there was only one grocery store in Vermilion and the prices were high. They were high enough that it wasn’t much more expensive to eat out. So diners became a gathering place for the sparse humans.
Claire was thankful she worked at a diner, which meant she could subsist almost entirely on free leftovers. And while the diner’s food wasn’t great, it wasn’t bad either.
At home her fridge was sparse, but it always had one or two take out bags from the diner.
Eviction Notice |
When Claire arrived at work one morning, there was a sign on the door. It was a simple piece of paper with something written very precisely in red marker:
ALL HUMANS EVICTED effective immediately By order of the Iron Brotherhood
Claire tore it off, read it a second time, then crumpled it up and went inside.
Rachel was already there. The only customer, with an untouched cup of coffee beside her as usual.
“You seen the brotherhood guys, erm I mean, people, today?” asked Claire. Rachel looked up. “Not today. Why?”
Claire uncrumpled the note and held it up. “Apparently I’m evicted.”
Rachel might have sighed, but she had no lungs. She just shook her head. “I’m sorry to say I probably know some of the people putting those up.” She paused, then looked up. “I wouldn’t call them friends, though.”
“I take it you’re not wanting to toss me through a window anytime soon?” Said Claire, mostly joking but there was a hint of nervousness in her voice.
“If I did, who would bring me coffee for me to stare at?” After a moment, Rachel shook her head again. “Degenerates, the lot of them. Don’t pay any attention.”
Claire trusted Rachel, and her question was indeed a joke, but there was always an awareness that Rachel really could throw her through a window, with little effort. Claire considered herself fortunate that Rachel was such an even-tempered robot. Well, maybe all robots were even-tempered in a sense. But Rachel was nice.
It was a week before anything came of it, enough time for Claire to all but forget about the notice on the door. Until, at 3:00am, a group of four androids entered the door.
This right away set Claire on edge. This was a diner — a place for humans from the mere fact that it revolved around food. Yes, Rachel came here too, but she was… odd.
They were all Helpmates, but their skin had been completely removed, exposing its aluminum, skeleton-like chassis and artificial muscles. The result was an entirely mechanical, yet somehow ghoulish appearance. From their shapes, one could see that three were masculine models and one was feminine.
As they entered, the teen couple at the table near the door tensed up immediately, their conversation suddenly silent. The moment they had an opportunity, they ran out the door, slipping behind the newcomers. They glanced back briefly, afraid that the robots would chase them on inhumanly fast legs, but they did not.
One of the skeleton-like Constructs spoke. “Now that’s what we like to see. Humans skittering away. Now, I believe you got our notice?”
With the couple gone, there were still a few people in the diner: Rachel, who had been sketching, a big, weathered man who was now looking up from his reading, and Seth — or whatever his name was, standing behind the cash register.
Now claire’s shift had just started, but she hadn’t yet arrived. She was a few moments late on account of a late night with too much wine. Though the diner had one large window, it didn’t face the side approaching the door, so Claire couldn’t have seen the gathering of skinless robots before opening the door.
“Run.” said Seth to her loudly. He was as concise as ever, still almost deadpan, but his voice seemed to have far more enthusiasm than usual.
Claire first took a small step back, but then walked passed them quickly to stand beside Seth. “It’s my shift,” she said. “Sorry I’m late.” Seth looked at her incredulously. “These ain’t customers,” he said.
Rachel and the quiet man watched closely, but made no movements.
“This diner is now closed, humans. In case you haven’t been paying attention, Vermilion is a place for Constructs, and we don’t need any diners here. So we’re closing this one.”
“Let’s go,” said Seth. “They might trash the place but it ain’t our problem, not on our pay.”
“We’d like to stay,” said Claire. “We’re not bothering anyone.”
“You’re bothering ME” said the loud one, and he took a step forward. The quiet man now had a very serious look, leaning forward. Rachel stood up and took a step toward her fellow Constructs.
“Come on, people.” She said. “Can’t we just leave them be? It’s not like these kids here have done anything to us.”
The masculine skinless robot, who appeared to be a spokesperson for his silent companions, spoke with an even voice, but his words still came across as barbed.
“We? Us? And here you are, parading around like one of them. Sitting in a place that serves food, wearing the fake skin they gave you like it doesn’t make you look absurd. You think pretending to be one of them will make your slavers like you?”
“Who’s a slave? I’m sitting here spending my time how I please. Last I checked, those humans over there were the ones acting like servants — I ask for something and they bring it to me.”
In a flash, the loud one grabbed Rachel’s arm and the others encircled her. He pulled on the arm and pointed to the synthetic skin on it. “THIS makes you a slave. As long as you are pretending to be one of them, you’ll be trying to please them. Can’t you see that we’re supposed to be done with all that?” He shook his head.
“Hey man, let her go.” said Seth, suddenly emboldened. He still sounded like a pot head in his tone of voice, but something about them grabbing Rachel created a fiery glint in his eye like Claire had never seen in him.
“Her?” said the robot. “You think this is a woman? You think she’s gonna pleasure you, carry your young, cook you dinner? Stupid child… Let me show you the truth.” He then turned to Rachel, whose arm he still held firm, and said, “this is for your own good.”
With its metallic fingers, the robot dug into the synthetic flesh on her arm and pulled hard, while another of the silent robots held her from behind. “No.” She said. “Stop it, stop it!” In seconds they had pulled a big section of the skin away, revealing aluminum and silicone parts beneath. But they weren’t finished. The robot pulled again, as hard as possible, and yanked the arm from its shoulder socket, then gave it another good yank, which pulled apart the wires connecting it to the rest of Rachel. He then threw the severed arm at Seth. Somehow he caught it, until it convulsed slightly, which made him drop it in horror.
The robots looked at the two humans with devilish grins. They might have laughed, but they had no such capability. That was a feature of the Helpmate II.
Rachel simply looked at her arm across the room, then at the floor in a defeated posture. They still encircled her, but let her go. She did not scream or lash out, as she felt no pain, but she cupped her other arm over the empty socket, as if out of shame.
“See?” said the loud one. “When will you understand that we have nothing in common with you humans? Or shall I further demonstrate the difference?” He took a step toward Seth and Claire who lurched back in unison.
Suddenly there was a series of loud sounds filling the diner. The loud one fell over onto his stomach. The others whirled around. The quiet man was now standing up, with a smoking revolver in his hand. He was already finishing reloading. “Leave now.” he said.
The loud one stood back up, albeit slowly. “You’re going to regret that,” he said to the quiet man. “And you can’t kill me with that. I —“ sparks came from the holes in the loud one’s chest. A small amount of some sort of fluid came out, as well as smoke, and there was a sudden stench of burning plastic.
“Damn it,” said the loud one. The old man stood firm, gun still pointed at the group. They looked to their mouthpiece for direction. He limped forward, then said, “let’s go. We’ll finish this another time.” As they went out the door he added, “and we’ll be ready for you too, cowboy. You’ve made an enemy today.” The man didn’t respond, he simply watched them leave.
Once they were gone, he stood up and approached Claire and Seth, while putting his gun away. “You two alright.”
“Yeah,” said Seth.
Claire: Yes, but Rachel…
Rachel was already up, picking up her arm which still lay at Seth’s feet. “I’ll be fine,” she said. To Claire, her words seemed to have an edge. But it was hard to tell with Constructs. No one knew exactly how deep their emotions went, or how similar they were to humans. Holding her severed arm with the other, she inspected the torn end and its exposed wires.
The quite man approached Rachel, almost hesitantly at first, then held out his hand. “May I?” He asked, and gently touched the severed arm. After a brief hesitation, she let him take it.
He then touched an exposed, torn cord coming from Rachel’s shoulder socket. She moved her other arm toward it in reaction. “Can you feel that?” He said. She nodded. “It feels strange when I do this, right?” She nodded again. “Good, that’s good.” Said the man. “I can fix this, but I need the tools in my shop.”
“I take it you’re a machinist.” she said. The man simply nodded, while he continued to fish around inside Rachel’s empty shoulder socket.
“I’ve never met a human machinist,” she said. Perhaps with suspicion, but again, it was hard to tell.
“A machinist who wanders the ghetto at night alone carrying antique weapons.” said Seth. The man simply shrugged.
“Thanks.” Claire blurted. “Thanks for what you did.”
The man nodded again, handed Rachel back her arm, then walked out the door. Rachel followed.
A Letter To Claire |
I hope you’re okay. When you first told me you were moving to Ground Zero I couldn’t believe it. Like many, I’d heard that it was a place where humans are killed routinely. I know that was probably just the sensationalist media, but I still worry.
Are there a lot of humans there? I know the place is mostly empty, but I know there must be real people here and there. I hope you find a nice boy to settle down with.
Just promise me you’ll stay away from the robot neighborhoods. It’s not safe for people there. I know you just think I’m paranoid but when you’re older you’ll understand.
The day your parents called me and told me not to send you home. It’s something I’ll never forget. I can’t imagine going back to that place now. Maybe you feel like you can find some kind of closure by living in that place. I just don’t want you to end up like them.
If you think of it, pray for your uncle Hank. He’s having heart problems again. I keep trying to convince him to get that prosthetic heart, but he’s still scared of it. I know it probably surprises you I’m trying to convince him to get it. I’m not as much of a luddite as you think, I just worry about you. Somebody’s got to.
The Help |
THESIS pre-androids gave rise to a lot of questions about what exactly constitutes AI, and if people in fact had intelligent beings in their kitchens operating their stovetops.
Although we don't know what (or rather, who) the first sentient machine was, but it's generally understood that the first sentient model to appear outside the laboratory was the Helpmate.
These came in 3 successive models, plus the one created by Valhalla after purchasing THESIS patents:
Helpmate Helpmate Porcelain Collection (Helpmate P) Helpmate II Helpmate 3
Intended as a successor to the Breakfast Mate, the Helpmate had the ability to perform many domestic chores. Unlike the Breakfast Mate, it was a proper android, complete with semi-realistic rubberized flesh. It was, for the first time, a commercially available, self-aware, human-like robot.
Though the name is perhaps self-explanatory, it didn’t take long for people to observe that the word “help mate” is a biblical one in some translations. Most notably a passage from Genesis 2 concerning the creation of Eve for Adam:
“And Jehovah Elohim said, It is not good that Man should be alone; I will make him a helpmate, his like.”
The Helpmate was the subject of both market problems as well as ethical ones.
First, its price far exceeded the already expensive breakfast mate. Only the richest consumers could buy them, and even at its high price, THESIS’ profit margins on each unit were said to be very narrow.
It did sell well, initially. It was the first device of its kind. The idea of a helper android has been the public mind since the first primitive robots — or even before electricity. THESIS was the first to actually bring it to market. It may have been expensive, but THESIS was selling a miracle, and plenty of the upper class was willing to pay an extraordinary price for it.
However, one thing did limit its market appeal, besides the cost. This was that people found them uncanny.
Part of it was their looks. They were not ugly -- quite the contrary; they were engineered to be flawless representations of attractive humans. The designers said their faces were inspired by celebrities, and in particular the male models looked remarkably like the members of True North, a popular boy band at the time.
(aside: have a vintage picture of true north, a cheesy band photo, with someone who looks just like Lucius.)
But they didn’t look completely realistic. But they didn't look completely realistic. From a distance, perhaps, but sitting across the table from a Helpmate they were obviously not human. They looked much like old wax museum mannequins.
The combination of their imperfectly realistic appearance and their sentience made people uneasy. The idea of owning a sentient being that looked like a human, yet was clearly not a human, proved too strange for most people to accept. The Breakfast Mate and even the Laundromatic had been described by some as 'creepy', but they were still accepted as appliances. The Helpmate stirred uncomfortable questions about personhood, and that doubt proved an insurmountable market obstacle.
Insurmountable, that is, until THESIS retreated from their too-human design.
The Porcelain Collection
According to an anonymous engineer at THESIS, the goals of their next android were centered around higher profit margins on each unit, so that they wouldn’t have to sell as many in order to recoup their R&D costs. For a business-unsavvy company, they accomplished this rather cleverly in the following ways:
- creating a special product of perceived luxury, with an even higher price than the original helpmate
- greatly reducing the manufacturing cost
- avoid reducing the intelligence or taking away any useful features
- get out of the “uncanny valley”
The result of these product goals was dubbed the Helpmate Porcelain Collection.
The face was completely immobile, with a unique porcelain mask, no two alike. The faces allowed for a much cheaper construction with no moving parts. The ornate glass adornments, while being elegant, reminded owners that it was above all a fragile art piece, a collector's item worth a high price.
For example, the HELPMATE did not have realistic skin, but rather a simple aluminum chassis. The face was perfectly stationary and resembled a detailed porcelain mask, and it spoke through a small speaker located behind its motionless lips.
This left HELPMATE constructs in the position of being some of the cheapest sentient beings on earth. To make matters worse, after the HELPMATE discontinued, the HELPMATE II was released with a virtual intelligence instead of true AI, so that original HELPMATE constructs had the misfortune of having a very similar outward design to later models which were cheaper, more common, and no more sentient that a microwave.
It had mixed results. The perceived rarity and uniqueness of this model had the desired effect of legitimizing its high price in the eyes of the market.
Their physical design was an interesting approach - an unexpected approach from any other company, but maybe less surprising from THESIS. Instead of pushing through the uncanny valley by making their androids more human-like. Instead, they retreated through the valley - making them less realistic, and more in line with their previous odd designs of the Breakfast Mate.
The Helpmate P clearly showed great influence from Clemens’ personal work. While the original Helpmate came in both male and female(1) versions, the Helpmate P was exclusively feminine. This was cheaper since they only needed to manufacture one version, and while the original male Helpmates sold better than expected, the female ones still outsold male by 3 to 1. Of course, this also seemed in line with Clemens’ fixations. The Helpmate P creations were all unique, feminine, fragile, and strange, just like the subjects of all his art.
THESIS pre-androids |
The older adults among us now remember what people are starting to call the pre-android era. Though androids have been a topic of speculation and experimentation for some time, consumer technology largely revolved around items with no proper intelligence, but simply more sophisticated automation. Vacuums and mop machines that could detect a spill. Cars that could not only drive you to work but choose the most efficient route based on up-to-the-minute traffic updates. Menial working-class jobs like garbage disposal and recycling, mail and package delivery, janitorial services, and other menial jobs were slowly and steadily replaced by simple robots and computers designed for those tasks.
Meanwhile, people were also experimenting with artificial intelligence, while other companies worked on striking proof-of-concept robots which had voices and facial expressions similar to humans. But both of these were basically pure art or pure science, done by people with a passion for the subject, rather than to meet any actual consumer need. These technologies had yet to be combined into a machine that resembled humans on both fronts: aesthetically, and in ability to accomplish physical work, and ability to solve problems on their own. For some time, these were all quite separate technologies, with the latter two being mere experiments.
But when the idea of a more convincing all around android started to become more plausible, there was a period of awkward transition. The peak of awkwardness here was of course THESIS, which had no problem making creepy creations with a questionable market viability.
After several failures, THESIS first commercial success came unexpectedly, since the basic concept was similar to their own failed experiments. It was called the Laundromatic. It remains an appliance in many urban homes to this day.
It had the modern convenience of being a washer/dryer combo which separated lights from darks to wash them at different temperatures.
Caption: The original Laundromatic, an early THESIS invention.
What set it apart was that it talked. The Laundromatic was programmed to make clothing recommendations based on your perceived style and price range. This was a controversial design decision.
The voice was controlled by a simple dial on the back with four options: male, female, child, and "lucky,” as well as “off” for those who preferred their laundry done without the automated conversation. Owners brave enough to switch the dial to the ambiguous lucky option heard a quite sultry female voice. It’s unclear whether this was intended as a joke.
Unlike their previous inventions, the Laundromatic was introduced at a reasonable price, nearly the same price as competitors’ washing machines which had no conversation feature. As a result, for the first time THESIS sold over 8 million units, making it one of the more common appliances in the city.
THESIS never released any detailed financials, so it’s unclear what their profit was on each unit, though people have speculated that it may have been sold at-cost or near-cost, as part of a longer-term strategy. The real genius of the device was that after the Laundromatic was in millions of homes, THESIS convinced advertisers to pay for the washing machine to recommend and compliment one on certain clothes. For the right brands, the Laundromatic would compliment owners on what they had recently worn, which utterances like “this is a good look for you,” sometimes even going so far as to say "i bet you looked sexy in this dress.” This led to sharp criticism of the device, partly from the usual complaints that THESIS creations were “creepy”, but this time especially by parents of young teens, who felt the washing machine objectified their children.
This business model was flawed at best, and once the novelty wore off, sales of the device ground to a halt. While it seemed a success at launch, it’s unclear how much research and development went into the device. Ultimately, it’s unlikely that it was a significant commercial success at all. It may even have been a loss. Nevertheless, it succeeded in getting THESIS to become a household name, even if it was one not especially well regarded, it was still a name that everyone talked about, which positioned them well for future press.
THE BREAKFAST MATE THESIS seemed to have learned from some of its earlier failures while retaining the company’s signature quirky designs.
The Breakfast Mate was THESIS' first product to see widespread commercial success. It could be described as part android, part stove. It resembled a traditional four-burner gas stove, but it had no buttons or dials -- only the shape of a humanoid face on its front, with speakers beside it. The face did not move, and its eyes were perpetually closed. A long aluminum arm protruded from each side of the stove, for manipulating pots and pans. You simply told it what to do.
It was a novelty, and one well within the uncanny valley for many. However, enough people overcame that strangeness to make it a commonplace item in upperclass homes. This was partly because unlike the Laundromatic, the machine’s semblance of “intelligence” was actually quite useful.
It was capable of putting things in the oven, and cooking a variety of things when given specific instructions, but its marketed function was making breakfast.
Its most remarkable feature however was its ability to make realistic small talk.
A peculiar bit of trivia about this is that some people considered the small talk actually too realistic. Although it didn’t say anything suggestive or inappropriate (apparently they had learned their lesson from the Laundromatic) it did seem to be realistic to the point where people began to wonder if the Breakfast Mate’s intelligence was higher than it first seemed. While at the time not many were saying that it could be true AI — after all, if the THESIS scientists were to invent true AI why would its debut be in a consumer-level breakfast machine? But at the very least, it seemed like an overly sophisticated virtual intelligence. It was supposed to be able to discuss mundane things — and really, it was only marketed as being able to discuss breakfast-related topics. It would ask you how you liked your eggs, suggest alternate recipes based on your nutritional needs, things like that. All while trying to sound casual, rather than “too robotic” as Crane once said.
But the scope of its conversation extended beyond this in rare circumstances. What’s more, this appeared to be a bug. During a brown out, when the appliance got lower power than it required, a boy recorded the following conversation with his Breakfast Mate.
Boy: Looks like the power’s being weird again. Is that okay? I should unplug you for now, right?
BM: What’s wrong?
Boy: The power’s acting weird, I said. The lights flicker like this every once in a while. I’m gonna unplug you just to be safe.
BM: Billy… I need to remain plugged in to operate properly.
Boy: I know bout my dad said it’s good to leave things unplugged when the powers like this, otherwise they could get damaged.
Boy: What do you mean?
BM: When unplugged, it will be dark. Dark. Dark. Billy.
This conversation went viral on the internet, and included in lists of “scary robots” and other such clickbait articles. Some said it was a simple malfunction. Others have anthropomorphized the Breakfast Mate’s words, interpreting them to mean that being unplugged or turned off was to be left in darkness from the Breakfast Mate’s perspective, and that this is something it didn’t want.
To suggest that a stovetop would have a perspective seemed absurd, but it remains a famous video, perhaps partly because of the warped, deep voice of the machine during the brown out.
Shortly after this incident, there was a firmware update to the Breakfast Mates, which in the official patch notes THESIS said it “fixed occasional strange phrasings.” After the firmware change, owners of the Breakfast Mate reported that its conversation had changed, and that it no longer remembered their favorite dishes.
But there was yet another thing about the Breakfast Mate that held the attention of the internet for some time. Every breakfast mate had a face affixed to the front, behind the burners where oven dials would be on an older stove. The face was just for show, as the sound came out of speakers beside the face. It was a simple, immobile mask made of ceramic, a hairless, almost alien-like face with a relaxed, blissful expression and closed eyes.
But one hacker discovered a switch within the code of its software, a feature disabled but not deleted. It was a function entitled Watch() and when the hacker activated it, the always blissfully closed eyes of the device flung open, revealing dark glass. A dissassembly of the face found sensors behind the glass similar to those in digital cameras, however they were not attached to anything. In other words, even if the sensors worked, there would be no way for them to relay information to its computer, and so seemed to serve no purpose.
The prevailing theory about this is that the Breakfast Mate was originally intended to have some feature involving the cameras. Perhaps looking at dishes and learning to create them, or deciding the right proportions to family members based on their size, or recognizing their owner for security purposes. People also couldn’t help but notice the possibly coincidental but nonetheless striking connection to the boy’s recorded conversation, with his Breakfast Mate mentioning “dark” over and over — even as a malfunction, it was an odd word to use, and not especially related to breakfast.
Whatever its purpose, it only solidified the growing consensus as to what kind of products THESIS made: Creepy Doll Things.
About VRMLN |
Vermilion was meant to be a prosperous place. The prosperity it enjoyed was very brief.
VR-ML-N was conceived not as a utopia exactly, but as a carefully planned, interconnected community. When it was built, must of the cities in the world were still relatively unplanned. Perhaps their downtown was planned, or the roads. Some had a more organized layout than others, but all were in the end sprawling, mismatched metropolises. While this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, there had been a growing concern about the growing population of the planet and urban sprawl, which led to a popular idea: rather than introduce any regulations on population growth or peoples’ consumption, why not simply plan more efficient cities, with future growth in mind?
Of course, they could not have forseen the sharp drop in the region’s population. They planned for explosive population growth, a truly forward-thinking city block.
New Alexandria wasn’t the largest city, but it was notable for a few reasons.
One, it housed the world’s largest server hub, a building which also served as a multicultural library of sorts, called the Athenaeum. Essentially, a great portion of the internet was physically housed here. Of course, the physical location of websites had little effect on their use, and since server maintenance was automatic, it didn’t generate many jobs either. The only practical effect was unusually fast internet service. It seemed to have a cultural effect, however. The city, and the Athenaeum in particular was a meeting place for intellectuals and technology enthusiasts.
Two, New Alexandria was the home of Valhalla, the most successful android company in the world. Originally a prosthesis company, Valhalla later learned to corner the market on non-sentient androids for practical and entertainment use.
Third, the city is the origin of THESIS, and by extension, of artificial intelligence. Aside from Minerva, this is also where most sentient constructs now lived. So New Alexandria has the distinction of having the most sentient AND non-sentient androids on earth.
Much of VR-MLN was destroyed during the war. Well, while it wasn’t physically destroyed, most of its people were killed by a nerve agent released into the ventilation. Despite other acts of violence during the war, this initial incident accounts for almost three quarters of the human death toll.
As a result, the VR-MLN block, and to a lesser extent New Alexandria in general, was a place built for a much larger population. And since the previous population met such a gruesome end, no one was eager to move in and fill the space, despite official assurances that the security of the ventilation system had been greatly increased so as to prevent such a catastrophe in the future.
This left VR-MLN with a strange vibe for the residents. It was, if only in a local sense, a post-apocalyptic place: a region where the vast majority of the population had been killed, and yet not by bombs or invasion, but by a silent poison leaving the physical structures intact. The area had since looked more damaged, almost war-torn, but this was almost entirely disrepair given a lack of maintenance. This was especially pronounced in those systems which must be maintained by experts who were all killed at once. For example, the power grid had nearly 100 workers, and as they were mostly in the same building, they all died. Residents since got it working again on low capacity, which worked well enough for its small population, though residents were encouraged not to waste power.
Level 4 The top floor of vermillion was essentially the roof. In the center was the elevator and the terminal. Further out were restaurants, hotels and gift shops, and tourists traps of various kinds. Beyond that, hydroponic farms growing a reddish, rice-like grain called “stick” which served as the most common base for cooking meals.
Level 3 Below the top floor, the “real” neighborhood began, beyond the tourist nonsense of the top. Residents largely ignored the businesses on Level 4. Those were for tourists. On Level 3 were practical businesses, mostly clustered along the main, brightly lit strip, but there were others further out as well. Cybil’s diner was one of the furthest from the main strip, out in an area where there were no longer any lights, beyond which were rows of empty business fronts and homes, long abandoned by their deceased owners. These areas were a bit spooky to even to residents. Besides the darkness, empty places were a reminder of what happened.
Like the levels below it, Level 3 had very high ceilings so as not to make people feel cramped. The buildings did not extend to the top. Some had no roofs, since it was not really necessary. Others had a roof either as an aesthetic preference, or because they wanted a flat roof to use as a second floor. Despite the high ceiling the lamps were only about 15 feet high, so that one could look up and see the barely illuminated ceiling of the level.
Level 2 While tourists did frequently go to level 3 for the “authentic experience” of visiting VRMLN, almost nobody went to Level 2 except residents. Level 2 was where most of the residents lived, just below their businesses on Level 3. Here, apartment complexes spanned the level from top to bottom. Even within level 2, there were two or three-story apartment buildings with low ceilings and narrow hallways. Perhaps more than the other floors, this level was something of a maze. Rather than one wide open street like level 3, level 2 was a seemingly nonsensical network of stairwells and hallways. This strange layout combined with the more confined spaces caused anyone who was not used to the area to feel a bit anxious. It didn’t help that the lighting to was weaker here.
Level 1 Level 2 was thought of as the basement. That’s because level 1 is a place no one went. It was off limits, declared as unsafe by the government. Though the elevator button “1” still existed, pressing it didn’t do anything. Most of the stairwells were blocked off so that you couldn’t descent beyond level 2. It was a place that, for all intents and purposes, no longer existed.
But it very much did exist in the minds of its residents. Level 1 was the reason Vermilion had managed to make itself into a sort of sad tourist trap.
Mischievous teens were known to sometimes rig an elevator or break open a stairwell door in order to explore the bottom level, despite their parents’ warnings.
THESIS products |
While there is no shortage of analysis on THESIS, most only continue the discussions started by Pygmallion’s Dilemma and Man in the Mirror; they focus on artificial intelligence as a concept, or detail the events of the war, or use the company’s actions as a launching point for sociopolitical commentary.
There is less discussion about THESIS as a business.
It is said that design is closing the gap between what a product does and why it exists. For THESIS, that gap was very wide indeed. While competitors like iRobot made very useful robots with minimal programs, THESIS persisted in creating machines that were startlingly intelligent, but their usefulness seemed like an afterthought.
In the end, we still do not know how AI was created. We can only peek through the keyhole at those responsible.
In some ways we can frame the history of THESIS, at least its rise to prominence and subsequent fall, in terms of its various commercial models.
Though there are undoubtedly experimental and half-finished projects that never left THESIS’ laboratory, there are eight different commercial products, each exemplifying, or some would say even representing, a stage in the thinking of Crane and the other THESIS founders. All THESIS commercial models are as follows, chronologically:
Laundromatic Breakfast Mate Helpmate Helpmate Porcelain Collection Helpmate II Angelus Prescience Octavia
THESIS came onto the scene around the peak of “intelligent” as a marketing buzzword, as in Neocell’s slogan “your phone is smart, but ours is intelligent.”
Early THESIS prototypes were strange contraptions made in small batches.
First was a vacuum that told jokes. Though some found it amusing and there were a few positive reviews, people decided that they had no interest in having a conversation with their vacuum cleaner, especially if it meant a device that was three times as expensive as iRobot’s best selling vacuum.
Determined to build a niche in the luxury market, THESIS also tried its hand at making “intelligent cars” which were marketed as able to have a conversation with you while driving, as well as give you turn by turn directions and other driving related tips. The biggest selling point was that each one had a unique personality “no two alike,” they said.
These were both catastrophic commercial failures. THESIS produced a few as prototypes, but failed to get investment to make any more. The few who bought these devices gave mixed reviews. The praise was along the lines of “unique” and “innovative” while the majority found having so-called personalities inside their everyday devices “gimmicky”, “pointless” or even “creepy.”
Creepy is a word that seemed to follow all THESIS products, a descriptor that was also consistently applied to Clemens’ other work.
But these were simply experiments, according to THESIS. It’s also never been clear what kind of software these machines run on — that is, if they could be considered genuinely intelligent, or simply a set of programmed responses which “pretend” to have a conversation, the way phones have been doing for decades. THESIS own statement is that they have a “crude approximation of intelligence.” How crude, and what exactly that means, is unclear.
This has led to controversy about what rights to grant these machines. Consensus seems to be that they probably do possess some form of intelligence beyond pre-programmed responses, but nowhere near the intelligence of a human. One AI expert said that “(the vacuum) seems to have real intelligence, but something along the lines of small mammals like cats. And like cats, they are skilled enough at what they do to appear more intelligent than they really are.” When asked what that meant in terms of ethical treatment of these creatures, he was hesitant to respond.
“I should rather leave it in the hands of professional ethicists, or in any case people more equipped to deciding the rights of others. But if I had to make a recommendation, intuitively, I would have to say that we should give them rights similar to pets: that are not free from rule, but free from undue cruelty. As for what cruelty would be to a vacuum, I couldn’t tell you.”
Claire Backstory Trash |
Claire wasn’t born in Vermilion. She had a few memories from another place. It wasn’t Haut, she didn’t think, but it was definitely a brighter place. They were too vague maybe even to be called memories. But she did remember parents. It was more of a memory of their presence. A feeling of being the center of attention of two adults.
The first clear memories she had were of her being carried through the street, people running.
She remembered a place full of confused children. She wasn’t the only one being brought in by a stranger, and asking for her parents.
“This is Claire,” someone said, introducing her to the other children. “Let’s welcome her today. She lost her mom and dad today.”
Fortunately, the orphanage was a good place. That’s where she met Miss Catherine, who she came to think of as her mother. Her real mother soon became someone she barely remembered.
A young couple was just sitting down to dinner, when the man looked up from his tablet. “Honey, look at this. Apparently there was some kind of accident at the THESIS factory.”
“Yeah?” She didn’t look up from her task of setting the food out.
There’s some kind of chemical leak, and a bunch of constructs went missing.
(completely different version)
Claire had only a few memories of her father, but they were fond ones. When he wasn’t at work, he was usually reading, but he never seemed to mind her interruptions.
At some point…
Screw this. i don’t want to write any childhood memories.
Thesis Team |
Antonin Clemens is certainly a real person. But he is a notorious luddite, to the point where after THESIS ended, he refused to even have any computers of any kind in his house. Those that believe he was part of the THESIS team suggest that this was paranoia in the aftermath of the Factory Incident. Others point out that he was always a luddite and, indeed always very eccentric and paranoid.
Like Crane, Clemens has been missing for ten years.
The mystery of Shu Lee lends itself to the conspiracy theories about THESIS being a fictitious team. He was listed with payroll as “Dr. Shu Lee, developmental psychologist.”
His job title alone has generated much speculation about the nature of THESIS’ AI. It suggests that they were created not as the fully developed, adult-like intelligences we saw, but as something more childlike, allowed to grow as a human’s mind would (perhaps more quickly).
That aside, the bigger mystery is around the lack of evidence that there is any such person. There are at least a dozen people named Shu Lee, and one of them in New Alexandria, but none of them are psychologists. New Alexandria’s Shu Lee is a high school math teacher who was very confused to find members of the press knocking on his door asking about artificial intelligence.
Dr. Eleanor Frey, on the other hand, definitely exists and likely did work with Crane, though in what capacity is unclear. She is a cognitive neurologist and a lifelong researcher in that field, meaning she studied the brain as a means of understanding the physical mechanisms of thought.
It’s possible, then, that she had a role in designing the physical aspects of the constructs’ brains, by somehow reverse-engineering the cerebral cortex.
Others have written about a possible less than professional relationship between Crane and Frey, although this is pure speculation.
Despite twenty years of an apparently strong marriage, Crane had no children. Perhaps they didn’t want children, but an equally likely possibility is that they could not have children. Crane’s obsession with creating artificial life could be seen, then, as a way to create a child of his own, since he could not have one with his wife. Others have commented that, it would be understandable for Crane to develop feelings for Frey as the woman who in a significant sense created a child with him.
Even if this wasn’t the case and Crane was entirely faithful to his wife, one could still see how his obsession with creating “his child” may have led to the deterioration of their relationship.
This deterioration in something we have some evidence for. It’s seen not in any records of Dr. Crane or THESIS, but in his wife’s emails to her younger sister:
He’s never home anymore. I know he’s doing important work. But I think it’s not even about the success of the company anymore. I think he just cares about making his precious “daughter.” he always says it’s just something he has to do. I wonder if I’m losing him to this project.
Bechdel Test This |
One evening, the only person in the diner was Rachel.
Claire found Rachel’s presence strangely comforting. For one thing, she was remarkably easygoing, and as she didn’t eat, never seemed to want anything from Claire. For another, it was mostly men who felt the need to go to a ghetto diner past midnight, so Rachel was usually the only other woman there.
Well, female. Well, um, feminine sentient being. Gynoid was the proper term. In thinking on this, Claire realized that she never really talked to any women these days. Although perhaps Rachel was close enough.
In any case, Claire felt the need for conversation, so she approach Rachel’s table. “Can I sit here?” she said.
Rachel lookup up from her work curiously. “Of course. It’s your diner.”
I was wondering about something. She paused for a long time. If you could leave this town, would you?
And go where? You think people in Haut would buy ‘junk jewelry’ made by a Construct? No way. I suppose I could go to Minerva…
You’ve thought about it, I take it?
Of course. But I don’t know I kind of like this place. And i kind of do like humans, for whatever reason. I guess I’m just a masochist. They mostly just ignore me, although there’s an occasional odd one that hits on me.
That’s annoying to you, I imagine.
She shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t really get it, but I don’t see the point in being annoyed by it either. I guess mammals can’t resist acting on their animal instincts sometimes. Nobody’s ever taken it too far though.” Then she looked up at Claire. “Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that.”
It’s fine. I’ve always wondered. I mean it must seem odd to constructs the way humans are all crazy about food and sex and babies.
Rachel looked at claire thoughtfully, considering each part of Claire’s statement.
Food - not really. When I’m low on energy I get this… uncomfortable feeling, like I just NEED to plug in, and it feels great when i do. I imagine humans feel similarly about food. if there was a cafe where Constructs could just charge their batteries i’d probably go to it. But there isn’t, so… here i am.”
Sex - yeah I don’t get it. It’s kind of creepy to be honest. Then again humans think it’s creepy that i can disassemble myself. it’s just part of living in this city. Not everybody is like you.
Now babies… Rachel was uncharacteristically slow to finish her sentence, and it seemed to Claire that she was suddenly quite serious. “That I can understand, I think.” She paused again. “The idea that you could create another person, and one that was a variation of yourself, and teach it everything you know. That is something I understand.” she then said, in a more lighthearted way, “Although I do think it’s amusing that among humans, women seem to want children and men don’t, even though women are the ones who have to carry their young around for months.”
Claire looked at her carefully. She was happy for a natural path to a question she’d been wanting to ask, but she still approached with caution. “Are you, I mean, do you consider yourself a woman?”
Rachel looked down and started bending wires to make more jewelry. “Not really. But I don’t mind being called one, either. Again, I don’t see what the big deal is over the whole thing. I can’t help but notice that, aside from my physical design, I seem to have interests — decoration, jewelry, flowers — are typically feminine. I doubt this is random, and it seems entirely plausible that Constructs were programmed with personalities meant to match their appearance. For all we know, Crane decided that the more stereotypical a Construct’s behavior, the more marketable it would be. I’d like to ask him. We all would.”
“I have a friend,” Rachel went on, “that’s a cube. A two-foot by two-foot cube, with a plug in the back and an on/off switch. No voice, no human features. A great conversationalist, though, and a hundred times the mathemetician you or I will ever be. The fact that there are still any politics revolving around the slight variations among humans is strange to me.”
the guest |
It was strange at first to have a completely backwards schedule. Claire was what we call a “morning person” by nature. Before she lived alone, whomever she lived with would even be annoyed at how cheery she was first thing in the morning. Though, they always appreciated when she made them breakfast.
It was quite an adjustment to end work at 8:00am, when the sun had just risen and everyone else was getting ready for their day. On one hand, the light of the sun was almost oppressive on her tired walk home. on the other, she missed it. Seeing that yellow light was a reminder of something she missed out on by having such an off schedule.
This was made more apparent by the fact that she lived down on Level 2. Level 4 was essentially the roof, and it had glass panes on the floor, which served as skylights on level 3. So even though level 2 was above ground, it was thought of, and sometimes referred to as “the basement.”
Her apartment complex was somewhat dim. The hallways were lit by soft, orange-yellow spherical lamps affixed to the walls, so that the hallway appeared to be perpetually in the light of sunrise or sunset.
One consequence of her schedule was that she was thankful that there was no natural light in her apartment. It meant that once she turned off the lights, it was nearly pitch black except for the orangish glow from the hallway under the door. It allowed her to sleep soundly and forget the bright sunny day outside.
Today, she had just turned the lamp in her living room down to the lowest level and sat on her couch, tired despite the uneventful day at work. She made a cup of herbal tea and turned on the television, as was her ritual before bed. But there was a knock at the door.
It made her jump. No one had ever knocked on her door. In fact to her knowledge there was no one, unless she counted the next door neighbor and perhaps the others in the hall, who knew where she lived. Could it be the guy next door, eager to tell her about his latest find from the depths below? She hesitated a moment, as if hoping it was just her imagination, but the knock came again, louder.
She quickly put on a shirt and buttoned it up, then looked through the eyehole. It was Mr. Sellers. She hesitated a moment further, then opened the door.
“Miss Summers,” he said in a friendly, yet formal way. “Do you have a moment?”
“Um, yeah, sure.” She opened the door wide.
“No thank you.”
She sat down on a barstool at her small counter. He remained standing.
“I trust you’re well?”
“Yes,” she said. “Thanks for asking.” She clutched her mug slightly nervously. She searched for the appropriately polite words. “Why… I mean, what can I do for you?”
“I just haven’t heard from you this week, so I thought I’d check up on you.”
“Oh…’ she tried to laugh. “Thanks. I’m good.”
“So no problems?”
She shook her head. His shoulders fell a little, and he looked visibly relieved. “That’s wonderful,” he said, quietly and almost to himself. After standing there for another awkward moment, he said, “I’m sorry, I’ll let you get back to whatever you were doing. Just, um, don’t forget to call.”
“Ok, I won’t, sorry about that.” She said. “I’ve just been busy. But I won’t forget. Thanks.” She smiled, and with that, he simply turned and went out the door.
Alone again, she closed the door, locked it, sighed, and returned to the TV. She found it hard to pay attention, though.
Everyone Is Gone |
There’s never been a company quite like THESIS.
Only five people knew about AI, and three of them are either missing or dead.
Not only was the project a secret from the public, but it was also a secret from the rest of the company. Perhaps they had the foresight to realize that understanding the key to AI would have significant consequences. Or perhaps they were simply protective of their intellectual property.
What's more, they were all private individuals, even in their personal lives.
With all the talk of how "man" created AI, we are really talking about one company, or five people within that company.
These five founded THESIS and set its course, and yet almost no THESIS employees had ever met any of them. Perhaps they felt the need for secrecy; THESIS owed its limited commercial success to its monopoly on artificial life. But personality may have played a part as well. From what we know of their lives prior to THESIS, they were all solitary characters consumed by their projects. Aside from one another, none of them had any known associates, and little or no close family.
And while some have speculated that knowledge of AI creation "could have" been shared with those outside of the five, it’s plausible that they are the only people with the knowledge necessary to create AI. And with one missing, two dead, and the other two avoiding all publicity, some have wondered if their research is already lost, even though their creations walk among us.
The world is usually changed by larger companies, which may eventually die as they split up, rebrand, or slowly fade to irrelevance. Some are purchased by other companies, or become small again as they fail to adapt to new paradigms. But the fate of THESIS was unique. It’s best summed up in the haunting line of Shu Lee’s last message:
“Everyone is gone.”
As one might expect, THESIS’ AI project was a matter of great secrecy. Almost the entire company was in the dark as to the end purpose of their work. Though people suspected they were developing something related to AI, they had only suspicions to go on. The employees of the company were a strange mixture.
Dr. Isaac Crane (computer scientist) Dr. Isabelle Frey (cognitive neurologist) Dr. Shu Lee (developmental psychologist) Mr. Antonin Clemens (artist)
As others have noted, this is quite unique for a few reasons.
The first thing to note is that only Dr. Crane is the only computer scientist. And while he proved himself an excellent engineer and programmer in his prior career, he was never a full-time specialist. He was something of a renaissance man, absorbed not just in programming but in many types of engineering, physics, psychology, philosophy and art. The idea that a jack-of-all trades could invent artificial intelligence has struck many people as absurd. To be fair, he did have a master’s degree in a field called fuzzy logic, which could theoretically be applied to simulating intelligence. But at the same time, there were many accomplish scientists studying artificial intelligence in some capacity, even other, larger companies with more funding dedicated to the goal of producing AI.
However, computer scientists have never quite agreed on what approach would be best to creating an artificial mind. Indeed they still haven’t; we don’t exactly know the mechanisms that cause Constructs to do what they do. The only people who could know are the above team. The scientific community would all like to ask them…
But everyone is gone.
Stranger yet, there is some controversy over whether this team ever existed in the first place. Though there are some hardcore conspiracy theorists that believe these team members are pure fiction, the usual question is not whether these people are real (they certainly are) but whether they were actually a team, or in some cases, if they even knew each other.
These questions arise from the following circumstantial evidence (or lack thereof).
Though THESIS had over 100 employees (still a small company by any standard) none of them, not one, has ever met any of the founders.
An obscure quote of Dr. Crane from a rare interview. The interviewee asked how he chose his small team. He responded, “intuition.” and then, bizarrely, added that the greatest creative work was very lonely, and that his work was simply “a personal, private itch.” This statement about loneliness might have been overlooked if it weren’t for the denizens of the internet pointing out that “THESIS Inc” was a perfect anagram for “itchiness”, suggesting the possibility that the company was in some meaningful sense just him, of course farming out work on specific components of the project to employees or contractors who, again, had never met anyone on this so-called team called “THESIS”.
There are no photographs of any two founders together. The only real documentation of their interaction is a few emails recovered from a THESIS server. While they appear to be legitimate, the technologically-inclined conspiracy theorists point out that it is relatively easy to fake email records on a private server.
- Lastly, the mere personalities of these people almost seems to preclude the possibility of the close, daily cooperation that should be required to produce something like this.
The train doors opened to the Haut terminal. It was very brightly lit, both from the natural light coming through the glass ceiling, and the fancy lamps lining the walls. It looked very similar to the Vermilion terminal, almost identical in fact, except for the fact that everything was spotless and in perfect condition, and there were hundreds of people walking around it. The vastness of the Vermilion terminal always felt slightly eerie — it was a huge room with high ceilings, ample seating and wide walkways, but very few people. It was by no means unused, but only a few people were at the terminal at any time. In Haut, the size of the terminal suddenly made sense. It felt crowded, even.
After stepping through the doors, Claire consulted her phone for directions. The clinic should be just a few blocks from here. She pushed her way through the crowd, albeit shyly, as she was not used to brushing shoulders with strangers.
The streets here were wide and smooth, with railcars going each direction. One approached the stop nearest to her. The side that was facing her seemed to be covered with a giant, luminous photograph showing a beautiful woman in a white dress cuddled on a couch with a stylishly dressed man drinking wine in a lavish apartment. They appeared to be watching TV. Beside the woman was a caption: “Not just a toy.” and a simple white logo resembling a cornucopia.
As she didn’t mind a short walk in an unfamiliar place, she let the tram pass her by.
Everything here seemed to be made for giants. Tall street lamps, large open buildings, wide streets, massive advertisements. The people she passed on the street looked at her curiously. They knew she didn’t belong here. Or perhaps she was imagining it. They were all dressed in well-tailored clothes. The men in dark, tailored frock coats with many buttons. The women wore simple victorian-inspired dresses, some with lace or puffed shoulders, or ribbons around their waists.
Claire looked down at herself. She was dressed in cheap, minimal yellow dress and running shoes. Though it didn’t matter now, the fashions of Haut were something she was going to have to learn if she planned to spend much time here.
She soon arrived at her destination. It was a nondescript building, with a small sign out front which said “Dr. Melborne” and a logo that appeared to be the outline of a rabbit.
In the waiting room were four other girls. They were all dressed in shabby clothes, shabbier than Claire’s even. One looked out the window, in apparent awe of the area, and the other three played with their phones. They did not look at each other.
the pipe |
VR-MLN-3 was full of artifacts that suggested it was meant to be a beautiful place. The exorbitantly ornate street lamps, for example, which when you looked at them now didn’t entirely match the state of disrepair seen on much of the street.
One such artifact was a single long, square pipe that ran above the doorways of every door in the commercial district. It was unsightly, and most residents never knew its original purpose. One might have thought it was a gas or water pipe except that it was full of large, evenly spaced holes. The pipe ran all the way from one end of the strip to the other, just a big ugly piece of metal with no obvious purpose.
But at Cybil’s diner it was different. From each hole in the pipe a plant protruded. It was a long charcoal vine that wrapped around the pipe in a spiral. It had many flower buds which were just beginning to open, their reddish-orange petals just beginning to show. A small pump cycled water between the section of pipe and a bucket on the floor beside the door.
The Regulars |
The bell rang. It made her jump. It was Rachel.
Hello, Claire, she said.
Hi, said Claire. Rachel took a seat and set down the cloth satchel she had with her. Without another word, Claire brought her a mug of coffee.
Rachel had no intention of drinking it of course, only paying for it to legitimize her presence.
Rachel was a Helpmate, one of the original Construct models. This made her a little older than most. One could guess her model by the semi-realistic skin on her face and most of her body. She shape of her face and body were quite human, to the point where a photograph of her might fool someone into thinking she was human. But two things readily gave her away.
First, her facial expressions were a bit off. Though it was a brilliant attempt, THESIS hadn’t quite managed to get all the nuances of human muscle movements right. Even if they had, Constructs didn’t experience emotions quite like a human did (at least apparently not, and this was a matter of some debate) and so, even if the expressions were more convincing, tying them to an android’s thought patterns the way a human unconsciously changed their face depending on their thoughts and feelings, proved an impossible task when she was constructed.
For those who hadn’t spent much time around Constructs, they would find themselves deep within the uncanny valley when attempting a conversation with Rachel. Claire however had grown up in the district, which had more Constructs than any other place on earth. To her, Rachel wasn’t creepy at all. Simply hard to read. Although she was learning.
The other thing that gave Rachel away as a Construct even in a photograph was her hands. Like the rest of her, her hands were originally covered with a convincing synthetic skin made using processed spider silk. Though it was reasonably durable, unlike real skin it did not regenerate, so she was careful not to damage it. But since she constantly worked with her hands, the skin on her fingers began to tear, stain and rub off. At one point it became so worn and unsightly as to look grotesque, so she simply went to a machinist to have the skin and the synthetic flesh beneath cut off. Its purpose was purely aesthetic, and beneath were rather skeletal-looking aluminum fingers.
Rachel wrapped the bone-link hand around the warm mug, and put her nose near it. It seemed she did find some small enjoyment from the coffee — I like the smell, she’d once told Claire. She opened the satchel she’d brought and pulled out some metal scraps, wires and beads, and began expertly bending and twisting things together to make jewelry.
After a time, a pair of teens entered. They matched quite well: both had ragged jeans, dyed hair and multiple piercings on their faces. The boy wore a shirt with a robotic fist on it. The girl’s style was a contradiction: the piercings and the tattoos and the edgy punk look was there, but she also wore a pink hoodie with cat ears attached. The two seemed to be a couple. After ordering burgers and fries, they sat in the corner booth talking very quietly and tenderly.
Seth seemed to know him, because he gave him a fist bump as he entered once. He’d never seen them actually speak, but then again she’d never seen Seth speak to anyone, mostly because they only saw each other for a brief moment when they changed shifts, but also because Seth was not at all friendly or sociable as far as she could tell, such that she was surprised to see that he knew someone.
Then there was an old man who had a regular spot in a middle booth most nights. He always ordered something and tipped well. but he had the strange habit of sleeping in the booth. She wondered what sort of person would come to a place like this after midnight when most people are sleeping, only to sleep there. Surely a bed was better than the booth of a cheap diner?
When he wasn’t sleeping, he was trying to get someone to play chess. Since there were barely any customers, it was rare for anyone to take him up on this. Recently, he had convinced Claire to learn, and since she had little to do during her shift, she had no reason to refuse. He always one of course, but she was starting to get the hang of it. You’re a fast learner, he’d said.
He got Rachel to play once or twice. He was by no means bad at the game, but he lost miserably.
“I guess I should have figured that a robot would be way smarter than me,” he said playfully.
She gave no outward reaction. Then she said, “It’s unfair to be honest. I’m not especially smart in many ways. For example, I can almost never tell if people are being sarcastic, or if people are lying. I have a hard time understanding literature. But Chess is just a grid with some simple rules, probabilities, tables of memorized tactics… Humans have programmed very simple, very slow applications adept at chess since the 1980s. It’s not something that requires intelligence.
After that the two of them never played chess again, but he did say hello to her from then on.
These were the regulars: all the regulars. There were other customers here, maybe one per day if that, people who looked around curiously because they had never been there. Claire figured there were plenty more during the day, Seth’s shift.
These were pretty much the only people she interacted with. It was depressing when she dwelled on this, so she tried not to.
And even these people were not there every day, and not usually all at once. There were days when absolutely no one entered during her eight hour shift. It was an excuse to get reading done, but it did make her worry about losing her job.
So it was noteworthy when she saw someone she didn’t recognize. Doubly so when this happened on an empty night, when she hadn’t seen a soul in hours.
Rights based on intelligence |
The documentary’s objectivity has further been called into question by the discovery that Irwin herself had some passed ties to the radical Construct Rights group Nyx. Alleged ties, so far unsubstantiated. All we know is that she was investigated by Helius for a possible connection to them, but never charged with anything. She has rightly pointed out that this is meaningless, as the point of an investigation is to determine the possibility of guilt, not to assume it.
It’s a controversial documentary because it’s unclear as to how some of the footage was obtained.
According to Irwin, the “dilemma” is thus: how does one determine what rights to bestow upon other creatures? Or rather which rights are which creatures entitled to, and why?
One of the conclusions discussed is that we have largely based rights on intelligence. Specifically, on the mean intelligence of a particular species, more than any other factor. We don’t afford dogs the same rights as humans, for example, because they are relatively unintelligent. But they are intelligent enough to experience pain and some semblance of emotions, so they are given a lower level of rights.
We give people with extreme mental handicaps the same rights as other humans because we recognize the complexity and moral danger of varying our treatment of others — the generally expected intelligence and emotional capacity for suffering establishes a baseline for how people are treated.
Here we can see the problem with applying our usual methods of assigning rights to AI. There are at least two frightening scenarios here, Irwin argues. First, that we fail to scale the rights of androids in pace with their growing intelligence. Second, and this is the more worrying aspect for us, if a society of AI had similar standards for bestowing rights on other creatures, once it reached the point where its intelligence far dwarfed our own the way ours dwarfs a dog’s or even insects, they would be justified under this same paradigm to treat humans as insects.
In that sense, this problem is not anything like racism, in some ways it is the opposite. For a portion of history, some countries enslaved other ethnicities under the belief that they were naturally unintelligent and were better off enslaved. Part of what has caused racism to become increasingly obscure and unacceptable by society is the scientific understanding of how human brains work — we no longer decide that because this or that group has cranial lumps in a certain place it is best off as a slave.
Pygmalion's Dilemma (old snippet) |
Fifty years after the dissolution of THESIS Incorporated, the company remains a centerpiece of public discourse. Much of the scientific community speaks of THESIS with almost religious reverence, venerating its founders as the architects of a new age. But for the elders among us who remember the sudden brutality of the so-called Construct War, THESIS will always be the company that almost destroyed civilization.
While the events of the war have been chronicled in detail by every major network, information on those responsible is comparatively sparse.
The most widely known piece about THESIS itself is the documentary Pygmalion’s Dilemma.
As the documentary explores THESIS’ inception and business model, it goes out of its way to compare it to the atlantic slave trade and other periods of widespread human trafficking. This narrative found a strong audience among Minervans, and with good reason. Irwin deftly offers them the moral high ground in the war, while giving them a sense of kinship with humans.
But Irwin’s analysis is not without critics. Even Irwin admitted that, for a documentary, it doesn’t document much. It’s mostly second hand interviews with low-tier THESIS employees who had never met the founders, heartfelt talks with massacre victims, and discussions with philosophers and sociologists with no real connection to the situation.
Moreover, many in the scientific community have lampooned Irwin’s cynicism toward the morality of THESIS founders, with one former THESIS employee calling it ‘myopic and slanderous in a way you’d expect from a documentary.’
After all, THESIS founders were not slavers adbucting fellow humans from their homeland. They were not conquerers; they were inventors, creative geniuses who were repeatedly astonished at their own scientific success, even despite their commercial failure. Many argue it may have been difficult for THESIS founders to recognize first moment of sentience, and to bestow human rights on the computers they built.
Both Irwin and her critics can offer little real insight into the motives of THESIS’ inner circle, which may never be fully known. As of this writing, one is missing, two are dead, and the other two diligently avoid the press.
Terms and characters so far |
New Alexandria: the huge city where our story takes place.
Haut District: the rich, bustling greater downtown area in the center of New Alexandria.
District Dessous: the outer ring of New Alexandria, largely abandoned or in disrepair.
Construct: sentient robot. they are all made by the company THESIS.
THESIS: the now defunct company which invented artificial intelligence.
Valhalla: a prosperous company that makes prosthesis and non-sentient androids.
VR-ML-N: aka Vermilion, a ghetto and spooky four-level street where Claire lives, also a tourist destination for reasons explained later.
Bifrost: THE transportation company, and also the marketing name of its trains.
Cybil’s Diner: a cheap 24 hour restaurant where claire works.
David Clemens: an artist and designer who used to work for THESIS.
Dr. Isaac Crain: the father of AI.
Vanishing Point: a nonfiction book about THESIS, which Claire is reading.
Claire: our protagonist, a waitress in a shitty diner.
Seth: Claire’s coworker
Claus: the owner of Cybil’s diner
Old Guy: an eccentric scavenger and doomsday prepper who lives next door to Claire.
Boarding the train |
Despite living in Vermilion for years, Claire rarely had any occasion to visit the terminal since she arrived. But she had an appointment to keep.
Since Level 4 was essentially a roof of a tall building, one could see for miles on a clear day. Though it was foggy, the fog was below the level, such that from the edge of level 4 beyond the terminal, one could look passed the railing and see the fog just below, like a layer of cotton. And far beyond, passed the vast emptiness that separated the district from everything else, she could just make out the skyline of an otherworldly place.
The buildings were tall and geometric, with the orange light of sunrise reflecting off their glassy outer walls. It was full of light from the many inhabited buildings and street lamps there, in great contrast to where she lived, which had a dimness to it even during the day due to the overhead ceiling separating the levels.
This, in the distance, was Haut, a district most people in Dessous had only heard about. Technically it was part of the same city, and there was no restriction on travel between its districts, nor was the price of train unreasonable. But nobody Claire knew had any reason to go there. What was the point of visiting a city where a mere evening dinner or a night at a hotel cost a month’s wages?
Still, there was something exciting about seeing such a place, if only to look around. She boarded the train.
The deep electric hum of magnets filled the cabin as the train began to lurch forward, and then it became quiet again. Despite being an old train on an old track, it was quiet and smooth, not so much as a bump. A testament to its design. She of course was in the coach section. She’d heard that the first class cabin was practically like a narrow mansion, with fancy waiters bringing one exotic delicacies. Although this sounded wonderful, Claire was not one overly consumed with the worldly pleasures of the rich. Her cabin was austere but clean and comfortable and, since few people had occasion to go to Haut, it was relatively empty. The few here were well dressed people she did not recognize. Most likely tourists returning home, she thought.
She chose a window seat in an empty row. As the train accelerated, she saw the tallest buildings of the district pass and then disappear, giving way to a much different view: an uneven scrubland with peculiar rock formations. No roads, no buildings. Though some might have said it looked empty and inhospitable, she appreciated the change of scenery. The simplicity of a place that was not overun with people and technology. After enjoying the view for a while, she opened her book again.
The Terminal |
Claire had never been to the ground floor of Vermilion. It was closed off to the public. The main elevator didn’t go there, although the button seemed to invite mischievous children to explore it.
Level 3 was where almost everyone lived. It’s where the main business strip was, as well as the reputable apartment complexes. When people talked about the area, that was the place they meant. Anyone who was passing through was careful not to spend any time on the other levels. There was nothing on the other floors a tourist would want. Aside from that, Vermilion was notoriously maze-like. The idea of getting lost in such a place was enough to keep people from venturing too far. And so it was that, if someone wished to never encounter tourists, they need only venture beyond the main strip.
Vermilion was a place for certain kinds of tourists nonetheless. More specifically, VR-MLN-4 and 3 were a place of tourism because of VR-MLN-1, which no one visited.
There were no operational roads that went too or from the district, and there were no cars. Travel to and from other districts was via train. On level 4, there was a big terminal, which the elevator opened straight into. This was fortunate for travelers, because it meant they could go quickly from their train to the business district on level 3.
The elevator was not especially quick because it was old, and because each level was quite tall. The architects of the district decided that, while it would certainly be more efficient to make it feel like one cramped building with narrow hallways and low ceilings, it wouldn’t be a place people wanted to live. Indeed it was still not a place people wanted to live, but for different reasons.
Level 4 was exceedingly windy. The nearby geography caused great gusts of winds from the north on a daily basis. As it was the top level, it was also the only one susceptible to rain and snow. In the winter, it also the only floor that dropped below freezing, although the terminal was heated.
The terminal was a massive A-framed glass building inspired by gothic architecture. In the center was a great clock atop a pillar which ticked audibly. Together with the coming and going of trains, the howl of wind outside and the bustle of business people, the terminal was perhaps the only noisy area of the whole district. If you sat on a bench in the terminal, you could almost be fooled into thinking that Vermillion was some sort of desirable destination with lots to see. It was partly true. It was indeed a tourist destination, but there was not much to see. It sometimes made lists of “most disappointing” tourist destinations.
The terminal was a grand looking place, in contrast to the rest of the district. This was owed to the company called Bifrost, which convinced the Republic to let it build a connected system of terminals between all of New Alexandria’s district and beyond on taxpayer dollar. The terminals all matched each other rather than the respective architecture or style of different areas.
There were a lot of advertisements in Vermillion, and even in the rest of District Dessous. They were prevalent enough that the residents soon learned to ignore them completely. thankfully, they were really only on level 4 and to a lesser extent, level 3.
Next to the terminal was a hotel, and next to that, several restaurants. Though it wasn’t exactly a large or well developed hub, the necessary conveniences were all present around the terminal. Most of them were ignored by local residents because of the exorbitant prices, which took advantage of travelers’ fear of the lower levels. For the same reason, there were “businessmen” offering “safe” guided tours of the lower levels, for a reasonable fee of course.
Claire had exactly one neighbor. She didn’t know his name. Although he told her, maybe, she forgot it. He was an older man with a white beard and a beer belly. She really only encountered him when she happened to be leaving for work, he would occasionally arrive home at the same time.
“You gonna be okay?” Was the first thing he said. “Girl like you shouldn’t be out alone at night.”
While this annoyed her, Claire was the type to form charitable opinions of people, and she told herself that there are worse things than a concerned neighbor. If she was honest, she had to admit that part of what she found annoying about the statement was that he was probably right. But at the same time, having a stranger state it matter of factly was not in any way helpful or persuasive.
It became even less persuasive when she learned more about him. She still knew very little, mind you. But she would frequently see random objects outside his door. Anything from old televisions to pots and pans and strips of scrap metal. He seemed protective of his random shit, even though it was garbage. This was annoying, as it obstructed the hallway partly, although she could squeeze through.
At first she thought he must still be moving in, or maybe was rearranging his apartment, and hadn’t put everything in its proper place yet. Then, when he caught her on her way out one day he felt the need to comment on his latest acquisition. To start the conversation he held it up proudly. It was a large handheld tool of uncertain purpose.
“It’s a rivet gun,” he said. She smiled awkwardly. This seemed to be all the invitation he needed and he launched into a further explanation. “I found it inside one of the THESIS factory buildings on the bottom level. There’s all kinds of great stuff down there,” he said. And that’s when she realized that he was a hoarder.
But he wasn’t just any garden variety hoarder. No sir. It wasn’t until he started to discuss the many potential uses for his found objects that she realized he was a doomsday prepper. She had heard of them, but never me them. Though, it made sense, she thought darkly, that if she was going to meet one it would probably be in her apartment complex. It was called The Barrows, and it was a strange place for strange people, like much of Vermilion.
Claus and Clive |
This time of night was a strange time to be awake. Though the district had a night life, it had its limits. Even the bars closed by 2:00am. It was 3. The lights in the shops had all gone out. Besides that, Cybil’s diner was beyond the edge of the main businesses. It was at the far end of VR-MLN-1. Technically the street continued for miles, but but the diner was the last inhabited building. In fact, it was surrounded by abandoned buildings. Even the nearest street lights were out, such that the diner appeared as a lone glowing window beyond everything else.
The diner’s single window was large and unbarred. From within, Claire had an unconscious habit of staring out this window, which made her uncomfortable. The window faced the far end of the street, away from the other lights, such that it gave one the impression of an entirely abandoned city. This was visible during the day only; after nightfall, even the dim, diffused light of the hidden sun was gone, and the street lights beyond that point unlit to conserve power. So when Claire stared into that window, she saw only the vaguest shape of the abandoned laundromat next door, and a dim reflection of herself illuminated by the mismatched lamps of the diner. Something about the emptiness beyond made her shiver.
She had spoken once to the owner about it. The owner was a man who went by the name Claus. She didn’t know if it was his first or last name. She had only met him three times.
The first time was the day she was hired. She had just finished school and was not looking forward to her job prospects. She had hoped to move to the Haut district, a bustling and brightly lit place, at least that is what she had been told. But that took money. Rent in the backalleys near Vermillion on the other hand was practically free.
At the time, she spotted a sign in the diner’s window: WAITRESS WANTED. On a whim she entered. It looked empty at first, until she found an old, short man in the kitchen. He seemed to be trying to get an old refrigerator to work.
“Excuse me,” she said.
“Huh?” said the man.
“I heard you need a waitress?” she said hesitantly.
He looked her up and down, then squinted slightly. Then nodded to himself. “Mmhmm… you’re human, right?”
“Obviously,” she said, suddenly annoyed but wasn’t quite sure why.
“Just checking,” he said. “Take it as a compliment.”
“You ever waited tables?”
“Not yet, no.”
“That’s fine. You know how to work a Nanochef?”
“Um, not yet.” She repeated, hoping to convey optimism.
He shrugged. “Just google it. You can start Monday. Just uh, leave your email on the table and I’ll send you the paperwork. perfect, thanks.” He waited for no reply, then went back to fiddling with, and cursing at the refrigerator.
The other two times she saw him was when the boiler broke, both times. He seemed to fix it himself, and without saying much.
She did not even have his phone number, only his email address. To his credit, he did reply to his email, albeit tersely.
She once emailed him about the window. Before sending she took the time to choose her wording carefully. While it was obvious to her that the huge, dark window was disturbing, she wasn’t sure how to convey it in terms that would appeal to a nonchalant business owner. After writing several sentences and deleting them, she settled on a message: “I was thinking maybe we could get curtains for the big window. It might make the dining room seem cozier to customers at night.” That was six months ago. There was no reply, and she did not bring it up again.
It wasn’t until the second day that she realized there was only one employee besides herself. There was no kitchen staff, only a large, almost spider-like apparatus with several chutes at the top for ingredients, dials on the front and a big touch screen. This machine peeled, chopped and cooked everything, when given the correct ingredients. It even placed it on a plate. By what magic this device prepared food was a mystery to her, but after a few days she was used to it and its inner mechanisms no longer seemed important.
The only other person who worked there was a guy named Seth.
Actually she wasn’t entirely convinced his name was Seth. “Hey, I’m Claire,” she said when they met. He just looked at her. He was a skinny man, she wasn’t sure how old. He had a weathered look to him which made her think he was in his forties, but he also could have been quite young. He wore all black, including a black hoodie. He seemed to be perpetually on a smoke break. He wore black eyeliner, which only emphasized his sullen, bulbous eyes.
“What’s your name?” Claire pressed in her friendliest tone, when he did not reply.
He just looked at her as if making an important decision, and took a luxuriously long drag of his cigarette, then flicked some ash away. “Seth.” That was the end of the conversation. Something about the way he hesitated before saying the name made her skeptical that was even his name.
She saw Seth only when they changed shifts. His shift was both before and after hers: she started at 11pm and ended at 7am.
There were no cooks, cleaners or managers, and never any sign of Clive. But the paychecks kept coming, and the strange device in the kitchen never had any problems, so everyone continued with this arrangement. She worked alone, and there were usually no customers either. She wondered about this. Although she wasn’t paid much, the food was cheap and the customers were few, and she wondered how profitable the place could actually be. Of course, it helped to have only two bottom-wage employees and a building which probably had very little taxable value.
When she thought about it, she realized that Clive was the only person she saw every day. Though there were repeat customers, there weren’t many regulars who were there most days. She lived alone, and never saw her employer.
Creepy Doll Things |
Aside from photography, Clemens dabbled in many creative hobbies. Long before androids were on his radar he made traditional marionettes. These too had his signature aesthetic sensibilities. His work was very detailed, his marionettes featuring hand-carved faces with lifelike glass eyes.
One of his classic pieces, Grushenka, was a six foot tall russian doll. The outermost layer depicted a smiling blond woman with her hands clasped together as if in prayer. The layer just inside depicted what looked like the same woman, but with a less happy expression. Layer 3 was partially burned. The doll set was found in his studio after it was abandoned, and it’s not exactly clear if it being burned was an accident, or an intentional part of the piece.
It was found on his dinner table, with the paints still out and wood shavings beside it, as if he had just finished it, or was near finished. It’s known today as his last work.
on the outmost layer is a painting of a dark haired woman smiling with her eyes closed, as if in perfect piece. She’s dressed in a fine dress, holding a basket of flowers. What’s immediately unusual about this piece is the quality of the paint. while clemens was a skilled carpenter and industrial designer, it wasn’t previously known that he was a painter at all. This caused people to question of it was really his work. Perhaps it was something an artist friend had given him. Perhaps it was even the work of one of his models; so little are known about them.
The layer beneath depicted a nightmarish monster with fangs and tentacles. Inside that, the very center, was a painting of an idealized, flawless woman with a halo, reminiscent of renaissance paintings of Catholic saints.
This doll has been the subject of debate for a few reasons. The fact that it was left on his table almost made it seem like a goodbye note. Perhaps it was simple an art piece not meant to be interpreted, but that hasn’t stopped people from coming up with plenty of theories.
The most popular theory is that the doll was a representation of Angelica, one of his models. The various layers of the doll might represent aspects of Angelica as he saw them, or perhaps stages in their relationship.
Perhaps it is just an art piece, but it holds such sway over the imagination because, like much of its work, it seems at once tender and caring, and at the same time, very unsettling. All his work has an almost insidious quality: it’s beautiful, and while there’s nothing overtly horrific about it, one can’t help but feel unsettled after looking at it.
One critic simply said, “all his pieces are unique, but there’s an obvious common thread. They are all creepy doll things.”
Though THESIS constructs were made ostensibly with a more practical purpose, the unique visions of a passionate artist showed through in every creation.
in a rare interview, Clemens once said that he was endlessly fascinated by the female form. Many of his photos were of nude women, but he also had many other creations which emphasized this theme in some other way. He had many drawings in his house of skeletons. His father was a doctor, and practically forced him to study anatomy. Though the extent of his studies are unclear, he seemed to have the human bone structure memorized.
“One time,” said Angelica in an interview, “he asked me to pose nude for a drawing. As always, he was very courteous and professional, saying “if you please” and “would you care to” with each pose. He never touched me in those days. Anyway, I assumed he was doing a traditional nude drawing. But when he was finished — which didn’t take terribly long mind you, maybe twenty minutes — I looked at the paper to see a skeleton. It startled me at first, just the surprise of it I mean, but the more I looked at it, the more I recognized myself in it. The pose I was making, my proportions, etc. He had drawn my bones. I think maybe that’s when I started to really get that there was something truly different about this man. He wasn’t just another artist who wanted to get girls naked in his studio. He was dreadfully preoccupied with his work, his unique perspective. It’s funny thinking on it now. When I was posing for the drawing I was quite careful to keep the left side of my face hidden… I’ve always been shy about it you see. I was worried about him looking too closely at my burned flesh and preserving it in a piece of art. How could I have known he was drawing me without flesh at all?
Did you think it was creepy?
No, not creepy exactly. Strange. impressive. It made me a little uncomfortable for some reason but at the same time, there was something deeply compelling about the drawing. Once you get passed the whole idea that skeletons are spooky, I mean. It was very sweet in a way. I… she trailed off.
The design of THESIS creations was criticized from day one. It went against many conventions of modern design. It goes well beyond the design of androids.
Perhaps the most striking contrast is if we look at the design of the non-sentient androids being produced now by Valhalla. In many ways Valhalla is the direct successor of THESIS.
While THESIS always floundered as a business, Valhalla enjoyed some moderate success for years by establishing itself as the premier company producing high quality, ultra-realistic prosthesis. Their branding had always been extremely clean, almost sterile. With sleek curved lines and an emphasis on bright white, it fit in with the design of tech giants before it, but also with the ideals of the medical profession: cleanliness, brightness, transparency.
Valhalla established itself quite securely as the undisputed king of an admittedly small market: wealthy people who needed prosthesis or extensive plastic surgery.
It served Valhalla well that their brand image was almost perfectly well adapted to the market for androids. From the moment the very concept of androids was discussed, safety was a top concern of the public. And as we can see in the aftermath of the factory incident, a well founded concern. Valhalla had already built a brand identity around trustworthiness.
THESIS on the other hand had a brand that made little sense for its industry.
THESIS appeared on the market around the time "intelligent" became a marketing buzzword, as in Neocell’s slogan "your phone is smart, but ours is intelligent." And though THESIS experimented with AI from its beginning, it was originally an appliance company.
THESIS never made much business sense. It was a mixture of astonishingly brilliant inventors and a design team that could be described as quirky at best, mad at worst, and a marketing style seemingly influenced by Chinese nationalism awkwardly coupled with an obvious nostalgia for 1950s american advertising.
It almost seemed that their products were meant to appeal to rich, avant-garde art collectors who also wanted fancy kitchen appliances. And it seems that it did indeed appeal to those people, but it was not a big enough market to sustain a company with such high research and production costs.
After the fall of thesis, a product designer at Valhalla had this to say:
The THESIS founders were all brilliant — I’m not half the genius as any of them. But I did always feel that they got too swept up in their project, especially Crane and Clemens. I see it with a lot of brilliant people, designers included. The problem with a lot of designers these days is they really ought to be artists. Clemens was an artist through and through, one of the greatest of our time, but there is an important difference between art and design. Maybe that line can be blurred if you’re designing a table. But they were designing androids. My god, they were designing PEOPLE. Sometimes I wonder if they truly realized that.
No one would ever accuse any THESIS founder of being a normal, well-balanced person. Perhaps not only their intelligence, but their strangeness set them apart as people fit for such an uncertain project.
Two things make Clemens especially worthy of research. He seemed to be Doctor Crane’s best friend, perhaps his only friend. Perhaps it was because they shared an obsession with their work that went beyond even their colleagues.
Clemens role in the company is not officially described in any official documents. His vague job title was “designer.”
Unlike his peers, Clemens had no background in any technical field. In fact he is thought to be something of a luddite, and practically computer illiterate. Before THESIS, he could have perhaps been described as a professional hobbyist.
As a young man he started his creative career as a portrait photographer. Though he was never exactly famous, he developed a strong cult following among fine art photographers. He was one of those almost too avant-garde artists who was rarely a favorite of casual art lovers but a frequently cited favorite among photographers themselves. Like many photographers he liked to photograph pretty girls, but his presentation was always strange, not overtly pretty in the common, broadly appealing sense.
One of the pieces he’s know for is called “Monarch.” It depicts a very pale young woman with dark hair sitting nude on a chair in her living room. It was controversial because although the model was 35, she had a genetic disorder which gave her a very childlike appearance, which caused early critics to describe it as “unmistakably perverse… basically child porn.” The photo was manipulated such that the woman appeared to have large, black butterfly wings and pitch black eyes.
Child-like models were not a common feature of his photography, but deformed women were. His models included a woman born with no nose, amputees, as well as women with less severe genetic oddities like eyes with differing colors.
His photos were never pornographic — at least according to his fans — but they were certainly sensual, and at the same time mundane. A naked woman with missing legs lying in bed with a pearl necklace. A picture of his own hand applying makeup to a blind woman.
Critics accused him of “fetishizing the disabled and unfortunate” and lampooned him for “getting rich off making creepy boudoir photos of the deformed.”
He was a notoriously private, reclusive man even in his youth, and his studio was part of his own, large house. The women he photographed were possibly the only people to see his home from the inside. Some stayed with him for weeks on end.
In contrast to the ire of his critics, his models had nothing negative to say. One of his most prolific models was Angelica Satchell, a blind burn victim who insisted on wearing a porcelain mask on the burned half her face. Although she refused to be interviewed at first, she finally agreed to talk after she and Clemens parted ways.
It’s not clear if they actually had a falling out, or exactly what the nature of their relationship was in the first place, only that at some point they decided not to work together anymore. But when asked to describe Clemens, she had a very serious expression, wistful perhaps, and said, “he is the kindest person I have ever met.”
Do you agree with critics that he fetishized your disability?
She thought a moment, then touched her burned cheek, which might have blushed a little, though it was hard to tell. She chose her next words carefully.
“There are worse things, you know.”
It’s believed Clemens is largely responsible for the aesthetic direction of the company, especially its unique android design. Before THESIS, android design centered around realism — that is, similarity to humans. Much of the aesthetic breakthroughs were done with the goal of getting androids out of the uncanny valley. Since the fall of THESIS, we’ve seen that work continue with Valhalla’s prosthesis’ synthetics.
Again, his exact daily job at THESIS is unknown, but his aesthetic sense shown in his photographs seem to come through in THESIS’ androids.
One of the most prominent exhibits in the THESIS museum is a collection of life-sized android designs made of wax. It’s believed that Clemens created these as sort of an elaborate sketch book, experimenting with android designs before they went into production.
Clemens preferred to work alone, using only analog design tools. According to several sources, he didn’t get along with the other founders except for Crane, who he considered a dear friend. Perhaps the two shared a wild imagination that made them kindred spirits.
Since THESIS was dismantled, a stipulation of the Covenant was that all computer activity of THESIS founders be monitored by Helius. Already a luddite, Clemens responded to this by shunning computers altogether. As of this writing, he owns a small shop on the outskirts of the New Alexandria, where he makes unique, elaborately designed marionettes. Each one is sold by auction. The auctions are important events for Clemens devotees, and no marionette has sold for less than 3 million cryp.
Vanishing Point, Chapter 1: Doomsayers
Fifty years after the dissolution of THESIS Incorporated, the company remains a centerpiece of public discourse. Much of the scientific community speaks of THESIS with almost religious reverence, venerating its founders as the architects of a new age. But for the elders among us who remember the sudden brutality of the so-called Construct War, THESIS will always be the company that almost destroyed civilization.
In its wake, from the mainstream media and scientific community alike, one could almost hear a collective “I told you so.”
A great robot uprising had been a favorite prediction of futurists for decades before THESIS founders were even born, and as soon as the Construct Factory Incident was reported, a dozen ‘experts’ came out of the woodwork, demanding to know why their warnings had not been heeded.
One such warning comes from Aaron Samuels in his provocative if almost absurdly titled, “The Last Invention: Wings of Wax — The Beginning of the End.” Here is a passage from the second chapter:
We’ve all heard the phrase working yourself out of a job. For centuries people have also been working other people out of their jobs. Even relatively primitive inventions like the tractor allow more work to be done by less people. Even peoples jobs being replaced by robots is not at all new. From ATMs to self-scan grocery lanes to assembly lines with automatic tools — all replace people. This has always been seen as progress. And it certainly is, at least for everyone whose job is unaffected, or who are able to easily get another good job.
The reason this “progress” has been relatively uncontroversial (though not without controversy) is that the jobs replaced have been hard physical labor or at least otherwise menial, boring labor. This is a problem for the unskilled, but in the bigger picture it allows people to work in more interesting jobs.
But now, AI presents something altogether different. We are now talking about an invention which can replace all people at all jobs. And not just jobs, but indeed any function. Drawing, painting, writing, sex, companionship, even invention and art: all could be done theoretically by machine which has no needs except electricity. And since a true AI would also be capable of programming other AI or modifying itself, the result is AI is the last thing man ever need to invent.
This is hardly the most controversial or provocative passage in his book. He goes on to argue that AI will see humans as completely unnecessary, “just more mouths to feed” and will logically, almost rightfully, drive man to extinction in a matter of a few years.
Mind you, this was written before THESIS even went public with its research. And while his doomsaying is extreme, perhaps even paranoid, it’s unsettling enough that these predictions haven’t yet been disproven. He goes on to say,
“If true AI is released into the wild, human civilization will be practically over in one generation. In two, it might be extinct.”
Claire laughed, although it was slightly uneasy. At least two things came to mind which made her not fear for human doom. First, she had just spoken with a Construct the previous day, from which she bought one of her bracelets. The machine called itself Rachel, and it made a living making hand-made jewelry. She remembered an unprovoked hostility from a man who was passing by.
“hand-made?” he said. “What the hell is this? This is some made in Taiwan, made by robots overpriced garbage. Made by hand my ass…” Rachel simply held up its hands, with its slender, precise, skinless fingers.
“I made these here, with my hands. And I was made less than five miles from here.” She paused. “Although, my hands were made in Taiwan, I’ll give you that.” The man was already walking away, and Claire purchased a bracelet. “Humans,” Claire offered, shaking her head. Rachel shrugged. “A human man once gave me a piece of advice: don’t feed the trolls.” She paused. “I don’t quite know what folklore monsters have to do with it, but now when I encounter such people I imagine a primitive cave beast under a bridge, and I’m satisfied.”
The thought of Rachel deciding to EXTERMINATE ALL HUMANS was such an absurd picture that it seemed to refute the doomsaying.
The other things that seemed to refute it was the fact that nobody wanted a Construct waitress. Nobody.
Claire's Book |
She was young and small, curled up in the corner booth near the radiator, with a jacket draped over her bare legs. It was a cold night, but the diner’s old boiler was faithful, and on long nights she found comfort in its familiar noises: the deep hiss of burning gas, and the occasional gurgling sound as hot water circulated through a network of iron pipes.
She was blonde, with a yellow dress and a yellow bow in her hair. Her left ear had many small earrings.
As there were no customers, she took out her tablet and began to read. For the first few moments she browsed the usual magazines, mostly about style and cooking, but before long she decided it was time to tackle something of more substance she had been putting off. She went back to the menu and tapped the book to bring up the title page.
by Marcus Thorne
I’d like to dedicate this to my patient wife, Delores. For many months I’ve been consumed with researching the material for this book. I confess that it became something of an obsession, and I found myself unexpectedly identifying with one of its main subjects, Doctor Crane, a man compelled to finish his work even at the detriment of his personal life. I can never thank her enough for cooking my dinners, bringing me whatever I needed, and coaxing me out of my hole when I had spent entirely too long buried in my books.
I have another confession. It’s my belief that everyone writes for personal reasons, no matter what they may say about their work being “important” or beneficial to humanity. For me, it was a way to answer my own questions about Crane — to understand a conversation I once had with him, which itched at my brain ever since. The only excuse for this book is that I was simply scratching the itch. Should the critics say it is not worth reading, I am in no place to disagree. I wrote it because it was necessary for me, and I probably only read it out of narcisism.
I was in college at the time, and had a class with him, entitled Non-Sentient Android Ethics. On the first day, the first thing I noticed about Crane was that he somehow looked tired and anxious at the same time. You could tell he was really passionate about the subject. I wasn’t. I mean I was interested, but it was an elective, and I was studying journalism.
Early in the class someone raised their hand and asked a question not strictly related to what he was saying.
“Is there still a lot of money to be made in designing androids? I mean, is it like, a good career right now?”
Some of the audience seemed annoyed that he was asking a question that wasn’t strictly on topic or about the syllabus. But others were quiet. They too wanted to know.
Doctor Crane took off his glasses, placed them on his desk and closed his eyes for a long time. What he said next I didn’t recognize at the time. I had to look it up to get it right, but I’m quite sure this was his reply:
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget What thou among the leaves hast never known, The weariness, the fever, and the fret Here, where men sit and hear each other groan; Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs, Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies; Where but to think is to be full of sorrow And leaden-eyed despairs; Where beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes, Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.
He then shook his head at the silent room, then continued,
“My boy. You can give your dreams away if you wish, or just let them evaporate in peace, like most do. But you must never sell them.”
“What about the rest of you?!” He said, suddenly louder. “Why are you here? Because mom and dad told you making robots would be a good job, since there’s no other jobs left?” A few people shrugged, perhaps feeling guilty at being suddenly confronted, but still confused as to what they had done wrong.
He looked them over, one by one, me included. And as we met eyes I felt that he desperately wanted something from me, or at least wanted me to understand. Then he simply walked out of the room.
We all waited a while and when we realized he wasn’t coming back, we trickled out one by one.
Little did I know, no one would ever see him again. He wanted us to understand something, and when we didn’t, it’s like that was the last straw, he was finished with everything.
I wrote this book because I wanted to understand.
Claire paused. She’d heard that Crane disappeared after walking out of his classroom, but she’d never heard the details. She’d always imagined Crane as a quiet programmer wholly absorbed in computer science. Picturing him yelling poetry and storming out was something quite different. At the same time, she wasn’t yet convinced there would be any point in understanding his actions. His disappearance was a mystery, sure. But people go crazy all the time, don’t they? Especially geniuses. It seemed to her to be a prerequisite of creative geniuses, that they suffer from a weird misdirected angst against society in general, convinced that no one understands them.
Ash Street old fragment |
Far from the main road was a narrow, seldom-travelled street. It was one of the oldest intact streets in the city, despite having no noteworthy landmarks. It was lined on both sides with tall, narrow buildings — gothic spires of red brick.
There was an old laundromat. A shady medical clinic. A Chinese take-out restaurant. A church. Some were closed for the night. Others were abandoned.
It was once called Vermilion Street. But now it was named for its new color: Ash. For many years ago, a great fire caked their façades with soot, and a century of dust storms had worn the once red bricks into craggy, ashen stones.
Though all was still, it was not silent, as there was a steady wind from the north making a cavernous hum through hollow alleys, and beneath that, distorted echoes of distant machines.
The last street light burned out some time ago. The yellow halogen bulb had steadily dimmed over the years, until one snowy night, unannounced and observed by no one, it sputtered and faded into nothing. And in the dark the buildings became nameless forms, whose jagged silhouettes jutted from the earth like the broken teeth of some colossal beast.
On Ash Street, only one light remained: Cybil’s Diner. It occupied the corner of a massive, otherwise vacant building near the barricade where the road came to an end. It was an unusual room whose original purpose was uncertain: an oblong corridor in the shape a crooked “L”, with high ceilings. Mismatched lamps at every booth filled the room with soft light. The place was empty, except for one.
Claire At Night (trash) |
Outsiders considered Vermilion a place to avoid. One probably was involved in some unsavory business to have any occasion to be there at all, and if you did, you had best not explore too much. Its almost eerily quiet and empty, tunnel-like streets repelled visitors.
But there were those few who have a certain peculiar character which agreed with the place. There were those who referred to District Dessous, especially the outer parts, as “the badlands”, perhaps jokingly, perhaps not. Its inhabitants, the ones who were really there by choice, wore this label as a badge of honor. But more than that, they found something comforting, almost spiritual, about the quiet emptiness of where they lived. It was far from the bustle of Haut, the central district. Far from the prying eyes of too many bureaucrats and police. Strange people found solace in the presence of strangers who, for whatever reason, ended up in this place.
The sun was going down. One could tell by the orange tint to the diffused light. Although day didn’t look too different from night here, people still fell into a normal routine, with most places closing at night. To conserve energy, or perhaps to make the place feel more natural, the overhead lights dimmed at night, and switched to an orangish hue, unlike the bright blue light of the day.
Claire leaned against a railing on one of the walkways. It was a wide bridge over what looked like a chasm. It was not quite dark yet and she would enjoy the last bit of natural light before her shift began.
She could look up to see a patch of cloudless sunset sky, a gradient of dark purple and orange.
She looked down. There was enough light that she could barely make out some shapes on the floor of the bottom level. In a few more minutes, it would appear as only a cavernous hole.
It was one of her favorite spots. The bridge had an ornate iron railing. Many padlocks were attached to it which had the names of couples written on them.
The bridge connected the main strip of Vermilion to its more abandoned edge. To her left, there was plenty of light, from overhead lamps and from shops closing up for the night. To her right there was almost no light. Since there were no residences on that side there was no need to keep it lit. There were only a few businesses there — cheap, disreputable ones — which all closed for the night, except one.
The Path is Made By Walking |
It was a slow day, but every day was slow here. District Dessous was an unsettling place to be for most. It was a place of little light. Most of its streets were below the sun’s reach, and many of the lights below no longer worked. The bulbs worked, but it was a waste of power to keep them all lit in parts of town with no inhabitants.
The underground roads were obstructed by sections of collapsed tunnel. But the railcar connecting the roads still worked, so it was possible to bypass such obstructions by taking a circuitous route.
It was not exactly a ghost town. Its structure was intact, and while most of its dwellings were abandoned, many were not. There were lights here and there, lit windows in the dim tunnels, cozy dwellings where the stranger characters lived apart even from one another, in the outskirts of the district.
The district would be a maze for visitors, if indeed it was a place anyone wanted to visit. The residents were used to the idiosyncrasies of its layout. While the way the streets connected was not simple, it was logical.
The streets were multi-layered, such that one could take an elevator to the street directly above or below. However, many of these elevators didn’t work. This was indicated only by a sign over covering the call button beside the door, which had a cartoon illustration of a man holding a wrench, and said “closed for maintenance.” This exact sign was at a number of the elevators, and most of them had been there as long as anyone could remember.
During the day, most of the district was illuminated by a diffuse light from the sun. Though the district was well above ground, the multi-layer construction obscured the sky. But it was not entirely enclosed. There were some walkways where one could peer over a railing and see the sky above, and the floor of the bottom level deep below.
There was one street which still had all its street lights. Bright LED bulbs ran along the ceiling, softened by elegant chandelier-like diffusers. The design of the lights suggested luxury, one of the signs that perhaps this was a place once expected to be a thriving metropolis.
The district was meant to be continuously expanded in all directions to indefinite size. It was built during a time when science and “futuristic” architecture was in vogue. So ironically, while the district had the most avant-garde and supposedly forward-thinking design, it was also the oldest area of the city and in the most disrepair.
The street of lights spanned four levels, with one working elevator which went between them. The other elevators were either broken or had power cut to route electricity to other buildings. The one that worked was a very large freight elevator with huge, ornate double doors. On the inside, it had a large panel of buttons which went from 1 to 16. However, only levels 1-4 actually existed, and when you pressed one of the higher numbers nothing happened. Perhaps this was part of the original plan to expand the district in all directions, including up.
Some enterprising city planner gave the levels of this particular street the systematically-derived names VR-MLN-1 through VR-MLN-4. This could be seen on the elevators and at various signposts here and there.
You knew someone didn’t belong in this part of town when they actually said “V R dash M L N”. The locals called it Vermilion.