picturesque spring day. The tropo-shield approximated a cloudless, blue sky. The filtration channels pumped out a gentle breeze. Honey-sweet. Honey-warm.
"Mimosas!" screeched Pax. "I'd kill for a mimosa."
Zell smacked his lips. "Or a Bloody Mary ... extra spicy ... with some fat, briny olives."
Pax checked the time on Zell's portable. "Hertz & Infidel's
?" she suggested--oft written up for its stellar brunches.
"Al fresco!" added Zell.
"Great idea," said Pax. "I feel like we've been cooped up forever."
"We have though, Pax," he reminded her.
Pax leaned in and kissed him--a peck on the lips--more to shut him up, to stop Zell from spoiling an otherwise perfect afternoon, than out of affection.
The streets should have been teeming with people on a day like that, but they weren't. They didn't even have to wait to be seated once they arrived at Hertz & Infidel's
. You'd think the world was coupled with beautiful, witty people had your only vantage point ever been the patio garden at Infidel's
. They ordered their drinks and a tapas platter.
"Look over there," said Zell. Zell had dug into the platter before Pax had even touched her mimosa.
Just outside the patio's garden gate crouched a man, crumbled and yellowed and blurry as an old newspaper left in the rain: a skeletal thing cobbled from ones and zeroes. Potluck
. He was the neighborhood buzzkill--a dark cloud raining on Pax's parade. She pretended not to notice him.
Zell clenched his teeth. "He's looking straight at us."
"No one else seems to be paying him any mind," snapped Pax, "just ignore him and he'll just go away."
"Can't you feel it? Everything crumbling?" scowled Potluck. "I suppose it's difficult to notice with your heads buried in the sand!"
Some diners got antsy.
"It's a shame," said Pax, "a perfect day like this and that nut job has to crawl out of the woodwork to ruin it."
"He's not a nut job," said Zell.
"Maybe you can invite him over, then? Get him an extra straw for your Bloody Mary?"
"Bottoms up," crowed Potluck, "your last great act before lights out!"
"Now that's as near a threat--a terroristic
threat--as I've heard in a long time," said Pax. She plucked an edamame pod from their platter and gnawed it. The husk of the pod was tough, uncooked. She spit it into her napkin. "He's ruining it," she pouted. "He's ruining everything." She snapped for the maître d'.
The maître d' tried to make his way toward their table. Then something short-circuited. The maître d' blinked out of existence. The poor sod simply disappeared, like the light from a light bulb when a storm knocks out power.
Pax noticed sweat beading on Zell's upper lip. He chewed on his drink straw, eyes upward. There was an ominous black rectangle stamped in the otherwise cloudless sky above them.
doing this!" she insisted. She raked the feet of her wrought iron garden chair across the patio floor, rising to stand, as she pointed accusingly at the gawking madman on the other side of the fence.
"Pax ... Zell," growled Potluck, his voice like an alarm clock cutting short a pleasant dream.
A woman at the neighboring table, a kind-eyed octogenarian with a teased, gorgon-snake bouffant, braced her as Pax reeled unsteadily.
that gentleman?" hissed the writhing snakeheads atop the kindly gorgon's scalp. The stifling musk of an electrical fire usurped the honey-sweet scent of spring--it stunk of something dormant and seething in the walls or maybe even in the ground that, if left unattended, could set the entire world afire.
Pax had enough. She charged the garden gate. She threw herself right over it, right on top of the print-smeared prophet of doom pissing all over this otherwise perfect afternoon. Zell followed, tripping across the downed fence.
Potluck was in Pax's clutches now, stinking to high heaven of that rank, burning smell. He'd burn it all down, left to his own devices. The whole wide world. Pax was convinced of it.
The chewing gum-speckled pavement, the green, green grass--it all lost what pallor it had left. The ground beneath their knees just opaque, gunmetal gray jigsaw tiles. Pax slammed the naysayer's head right into one of the tiles as Zell struggled to peel her off him.
Pax squeezed her eyelids shut, hoping, superstitiously, that might undo this troublesome, meddling man's undoing of her perfect day. It didn't.
Potluck fumbled for something just behind him--it looked like a placard upon which one might have expected an apocalyptic warning to be scrawled: the end is nigh
or some such nonsense. But it was blank. Blank and black as the ominous rectangle tattooed across the sky. Only when Pax peered skyward again, the once glorious sky was nothing more than a checkerboard composed of squares, alternately ink black and azure.
Pax could feel her head being coaxed toward the chaos metastasizing around Potluck, but all she wanted were nice things and nice conversations and a nice spring day and that goddamn mimosa. So she fought it.
That placard he was holding--it was not a placard at all; it was a gaping void dug from the very fiber of reality. Potluck disappeared
inside it. Then, out of nowhere, Zell grabbed her
arm, urging her to follow suit. She bit him.
Zell yowled. Potluck's grimy hand--scrabbling at the end of his frumpy coat sleeve--reemerged from the ominous rectangle and pulled Zell in.
Pax was alone. Her senses failed--every last one--yet she could still hear them, Zell and the madman, a schizophrenic duet in her head. Except her head was gone too.
* * *
"Close call," wheezed Potluck. He sprawled supine on the floor outside the wishing well conduit, trying to catch his breath.
The room stunk of smoldering plastic. The failsafe server had fried. It'd take a couple minutes for the nano-gremlins to complete the necessary repairs.
"You hear that? She called you a nut job
." Zell's muscles trembled. "At least she's learning."
"She's not learning fast enough," lamented Potluck. "You could've died in there."
With his ill hygiene and ill-fitting, sweat-yellowed lab coat, Potluck could easily be mistaken for a homeless vagabond in some less-enlightened era. The truth was, they were all homeless. They'd been on that generation ship for longer than their ancestors had lived on terra firma.
"Who screwed the pooch this time?" asked Zell.
"Nobody," said Potluck. "One of the servers overheated. Diagnostics ran a scrub without checking that there wasn't anything sentient down the well."
"Pax should be fine," said Potluck, averting avoiding Zell's eyes. "Pax is the problem. In order for her to thrive in there, we had to overwrite some of the old diagnostic protocols."
"Whose bright idea was sentient AI in the first place?"
"We've got fuck all else to do stuck inside this tin can," huffed Potluck.
"I tried pulling her out with me. She bit me."
"Wouldn't have worked. We haven't found the right balance of molecular fabrication to keep her stable outside the well yet. You might as well try and amputate a wave from the ocean."
"I can hear you, Zell," came Pax's muffled voice from an onyx box jumper-cabled to the backup server. "Who're you talking to?"
Potluck cringed. 'Shit
"You okay, Pax?"
"I ... think so," she said. "It's ... it's like being asleep without dreaming. Only I can hear you. I can hear another voice, too."
Potluck pressed a grubby finger to his lips. He waved Zell outside the foyer. Zell slid the door shut behind him.
"She's in there? In that little black brick?"
"Her consciousness is," said Potluck, "an approximation of her consciousness."
"But she's sentient, right?"
"Well, not exactly. Pax can respond to emotional stimuli, think critically, and make decisions. She can't quite feel pain, she lacks the physical articulation, obviously--outside the well, at least. She can't feel physical
pain, that is. Far as I can tell."
"Far as you can tell?" seethed Zell.
"We're building a sentient being from the ground up using binary code here, Zell. We're dealing with imperfection upon imperfection on both the human and AI ends of the equation. There's gonna be speed bumps."
"How is that fair to the girl in that box in there?"
"Pax is not a girl ... or a boy. Pax is a construct."
"Boy, girl, dog, guinea pig--once something has the capacity to feel--and I don't care if she can't quite feel physical
pain yet. Whatever it is that she is
feeling--whether it's fear, isolation, or anxiety caged up in that black brick in there--it doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that emotional or psychological trauma can do just as much damage as a pipe bomb or a bullet to the head."
"You're not getting it, Zell. Pax is still merely one facet--a solitary component--of the entire program. We're trying to work past that, but we're not quite there yet. That's why she tried to keep you down the well as the system was crashing. She can't wrap her head around the scope of what's going on."
"So once she's sentient, who's she supposed to serve then? Us?
Sounds uncomfortably close to slavery. Please ... Potluck ... just cause we can
do something doesn't give us anywhere near the right to."
"Zell, you still there?" cried Pax through the door. "I'm scared. I feel like I'm drifting. Like that time we rented the motorboat on Steelhead Lake and the engine flooded--only I can't see the shore now. I can't see anything."
Zell sprung the door. He pushed past Potluck into the server room. "It's alright, Pax," he wheezed through the noxious fumes.
"I know I'm being a big baby, but could you just hold my hand? Would you mind?"
"Course not." Zell crept up to the little black brick jumper-cabled to the server cabinet. He curled his fingers around it and clenched down tight. The damn thing was hot as a twice-baked potato.
"Humor me," Pax pleaded. "Just take my hand. Please?
"I'm holding it, damn it!" Zell hadn't meant to snap. His frustration was not with Pax. His own body had started to feel as much of a prison as the little black brick of wiring and circuitry that contained the essence of whatever it was that Pax was. They might as well have been dancing cheek-to-cheek--the physical proximity between them--but an entire universe stood between them.
"I can't feel it, Zell--I can't feel your hand."
"That's not how it works," growled Potluck from the hall.
"Shut up why don't you?" snarled Zell. "Just get the servers up and running. That's your job, isn't it?"
"Who are you talking to?" asked Pax, flustered.
"Nobody," said Zell. "Just you. I'm holding your hand, Pax. I'm squeezing it tight." It was like bare-handing a scalding cup of coffee. Zell had to let go of the brick. His palm had started to blister.
Pax sobbed. "I'm nervous, Zell. I can't see you ... can't even feel your hand. I think it might have been that awful burning smell. I think it's made me sick--that awful man carving up our perfect day into awful black rectangles. M-maybe he's poisoned me. Can you pull up the nearest ER on your portable?"
"Just breathe, Pax. It'll all be okay." Zell didn't like lying to her, but it seemed to be the human thing to do, if not the humane thing. "There's nothing that can come between us and our perfect day together."
"I'd like to believe that, but right now I can't," panicked Pax. "I think I need an ER. I ... I can't breathe. Breathing right now seems as impossible--as alien--an act as flying or walking through walls. It's the fear of suffocating--it's all that's keeping me anchored right now. That, and your voice."
"Then focus on that," said Zell. "Just focus on my voice."
Potluck had gone about reconfiguring the whirligigs on the server cabinet. He paused to glare at Zell. "You're just meddling now," he pouted, "you're making things worse."
"There it is again," cried Pax. "That voice--like a ghost in need of exorcism."
"You're telling me," said Zell, glaring back at Potluck.
"I know you think you're doing what's right," said Potluck, "but you're not. You're not inside the wishing well anymore. Any interaction with Pax out here has a damn good chance of corrupting the software irrevocably. It's tantamount to introducing a nonnative virus to an indigenous species. This is our world. Pax's is down that well."
"We're only talking," said Zell. "She's scared and we're talking."
"You're not listening, Zell. Pax serves the program ... Pax is part
of the program. Its needs are the only needs that merit consideration on her end. Her sentience has yet to be fully realized--it's like trying to talk reason to a hungry infant. Pax has needs, sure--but there's limited empathy there. It has yet to be cultivated."
"You talking about her--or yourself?" sneered Zell. "You got any empathy left, or is it just about ones and zeroes and testing hypotheses no matter what the ethical levy? You talk like the only reason we'd ever extend a helping hand to anyone is to get a pat on the back for our efforts afterwards."
"Zell?" cried Pax. "Please tell me you're still there ... please tell me you're still listening ... that you can hear me. I can hear you--I can hear all the voices. Every last one--so many they're crowding me out, so many that I feel more alone than if it was just me here."
Potluck tweaked a gage. A rush of cool, recycled air flooded the room. The still-smoldering server blinked back to life.
"I'm still here," shouted Zell. "I can still here hear you." Alone--despite the constant flurry of voices, the constant activity--that's how Zell had felt all his life, consigned to this tin can headed nowhere: feeling more alone, sometimes, than if it had been just him drifting through space indefinitely. In that way, he envied Pax in that little black brick. Wherever she was. Whatever she was.
With Pax, at least, he felt some sense of communion--in that narrow, imagined world they'd shared down the generation ship's wishing well.
That peculiar black brick might as well have been his mirror. But whatever Potluck had done shattered the mirror to pieces. The black brick sat atop the server cabinet, cold and silent.
"Pax?" cried Zell. "What'd you do? Where'd she go?"
"Nowhere," said Potluck. "Same place she's always been. Functionality just bounced back to the main server. Look, Zell, I'm gonna recommend you swing by the headshrinker's on--"
Zell barreled past Potluck. He flung open the rectangular trap at the mouth of the well and slid straight down the conduit.
"Damn it, Zell--the well's not user-ready yet--it's midway through a reinstall!" Potluck roared after him. But it was too late.
The patio at Hertz & Infidel's
and everything around it looked like burnt cookie remnants scraped off a baking tray. A hot pink locust plague overhead: binary digits and blinking cursors cluttering the cyan sky. It hurt Zell's eyes to look up.
Pax sat in the middle of it all on a chair that was not there, sipping from a pixilated goblet that might have been a mimosa once upon a time.
"You're late," she scowled, as Zell tumbled out of the conduit chute.
'Eternally "Eternally dissatisfied, that one,"' thought Zell. "See? More human than you think!" he shouted at the rebooting heavens, hoping Potluck might somehow hear.
"Are you drunk already Zell?"
"No, it's just been one hell of a morning."
"I wish I
was drunk," said Pax, "not sure if this bubbly's just cheap or the orange juice turned."
The pixilated goblet sprang to some approximation of life. It shook out like a wet dog. It shook its way right out of existence. Pax didn't seem to notice.
"Don't worry," Zell stammered. "We'll get you another." He put his hand on her shoulder. She was wound tight as a drum. "Garçon!
" he howled into the void.
"I ... I had one of my fits again," Pax whispered. "I had one of my fits and you'd left. I could hear you, though--for a time, and I think you could hear me. But then it was as if I was drifting, as if you just slipped away. Christ, Zell--I was so frightened."
"I'm sorry, Pax. I'm sorry I wasn't there for you. Sometimes I wonder why you even keep me around."
She laughed, despite herself. It felt good to make her laugh, thought Zell. Laughter was in short supply aboard the generation ship.
"For all your faults, Zell--you're the only real
person I know," said Pax. "Everyone else's such a phony--everything they say is so scripted--so tiring to contend with. Not you, though."
"Not that I'm always easy to contend with myself," she amended.
"Funny, Pax. I sometimes feel the same--" Pax did that thing she always did that managed to elate and frustrate Zell all at once--a quick peck on the lips just to shut him up.
"You smell something funny?" he asked, as she pulled away. "Something burning?"
"No," she said. "Maybe you're having a stroke. They say that's one of the signs."
"No," said Zell. "I definitely smell it. Smoldering plastic."
"Maybe you're losing it." Pax smirked. "Maybe one of these days, I'll sit down at the patio and spot you, crazy as a loon, on the other side of the garden gate beside that doom monger who's always causing a scene. What's-his-face? Potluck?
There was no denying it; Pax possessed a textbook je ne sais quoi
, computer-generated or otherwise. Lazing the afternoon away with her made the monotony, the drifting boundlessness of life among the stars, somehow manageable. Intimate.
"Maybe one of these days," Zell finally replied. "But on a perfect day like this? Let's not let anything spoil it."
Zell ignored the noxious musk of electrical fire carried on the wind. He called for the garçon again. He hoped the imagined world he and Pax carved out in tandem didn't blow like a bald tire.
He could feel the world folding in on itself. Zell would ride this one out 'til the end. He clutched Pax's hand and held on tight. It was a lie he needed, a fragile one--yet so much bolder than truth.