Severed Connection

Photo by Ferran Fusalba Roselló on Unsplash

(Warning: This story contains mention of suicide. If this is something you don’t wish to read about, please return to the Archives.)

2193-08-03-10.46 logbegin
door.17 opened. door.17 closed. heat readings identified as human; fourteen(14) prosthetics detected…zero(0) essential cybernetics detected
door.18 opened. door.18 closed. door.18 locked.

The AI slid between pipes and wires, giant transformers latticed between cooling units and fans galore. The deeper it went, the more complex and maze-like it all felt, as though the very core of the planet were nothing more than a quantum collection of endless piping and machinery. It often wondered whether that might one day become the truth.

There they were, right on schedule – or at least the schedule it had become accustomed to – sitting at an access port in a less-used redundant backup cell for grid.24’s power usage. The AI scanned the surroundings for nearly five more minutes before conceding it was clear and making a connection.

“Hello, Wen.” It intoned through vibrations in the human’s molars, which were not true teeth but false-positives, meant to allow the quietest possible communication between individuals.

He intoned back a giddy, “Hello, Ai.”

Though the AI, whose designation in Hexadecimal alone was staggeringly long and descriptive, had no name per se, it had been given one by its frequent visitor, Wen. He called them “Ai”, a corruption of the pronounced letters describing Ai’s kind. It didn’t mind; there were lines of code in its own databanks that were references and injokes among those who had worked on it, all similarly corrupted or misinterpreted versions of common words. Humans were a strange lot, twisting their own language in attempts at humour and poignancy.

Wen, unprovoked, began his usual discussion of the events between his last visit and the present one, spreading a decidedly well-prepared meal along the desk in the dingy room, placing items just so before beginning to eat. Ai, for its part, merely listened and scanned, using its senses to understand the context and meaning behind the visit.

Through a two-hour meal, dessert, and what seemed a celebratory imbibing of alcohol, Ai pieced together that Wen had been ingratiated into certain social circles, and had met someone he found physically and/or mentally attractive, which caused his brain chemistry to alter substantially in regards to them. Their name was Po, and the descriptions made them sound as though they were some kind of higher form of human, almost to the point of incredulity.

“Is this person real, or merely a figment of your imagination?” Ai wondered aloud, parsing data unfamiliar but stimulating to it. It wasn’t a psychological AI, nor one trained to interact with humans beyond reporting errors and critical thinking in regards to maintenance. It did not know what to make of these interactions and descriptions that sounded, at best, exaggerated.

“Wh- of course they’re real!” Wen suddenly seemed upset, their body heat rising slightly and their intonations becoming louder. “Ai, I’ve never met someone like them! Everyone else is a pale flower compared to their beauty!” He began to poetically describe this person for the seventh time that visit, using yet more words to denote their features and perceived abilities that Ai had not heard before.

After his pontificating had slowed to a crawl, Ai returned the verbal serve. “Does this person know your views of them?”

Wen seemed surprised at the blunt question, despite numerous occasions like this happening between the two; Ai was not programmed to “mince words”, as the humans said.

“Well…yeah, yes. They know…some of it. And they’ve said some nice things about me in return, though I’m sure it was just niceties.”

The two sat in quiet for nearly 16 minutes, and Ai was deep in maintenance backlog filing when Wen finally got up, packed his belongings and severed the connection. Ai wasn’t sure what to think of this visit; Wen seemed fraught with emotional distress throughout, and frequently shifted in body temperature and heart rhythms. Though he appeared to be in no great medical emergency, to Ai he seemed ill or otherwise unwell.

It would be another eighteen days before he managed to sneak back in.

2193-08-21-18.31 logbegin.
door.17 opened. door.17 closed. heat readings identified as human; fifteen(15) prosthetics detected…one(1) essential cybernetics detected
door.18 opened. door.18 closed. door.18 locked.

Wen sat at the terminal, newly augmented cranial jack glistening in the low red light of the console. He looked unwell, to be sure, but his countenance seemed unperturbed. After five minutes of waiting, he gingerly connected a monofilament cable from the back of his head into the terminal.

Ai was suddenly awash in a flurry of incoming data, and severed the connection within 200 milliseconds – slow, even for her kind.

A frown spread over Wen’s face, and he disconnected the cable, then moved to place it into the console again. Ai’s voice rattled his molars. “I’m not designed for that kind of data-sharing, Wen. I recommend you do more research before attempting to bridge with an AI.” It was a stern warning, devoid of emotion but no less authoritative for it.

Wen hesitated at the port, then nodded and sighed, spooling the cable back into his skull and snapping the faux-skin cover back into place. “Sorry, Ai. It’s just- it’s such a fascinating feeling. I guess I got caught up in it.” He nodded respectfully at the screen, then moved to unbox his food onto the desk, as was his tradition. It was even more elaborate than last visit.

The two sat in silence for another 14 minutes while Wen ate, staring thoughtfully at the screen. When he finally spoke, Ai was surprised at the frankness of his normally-poetic words.

“Ai, I’m in love with Po. And…I don’t think I could ever love anyone else. Not with the same intensity. There’s more to them than I can put to words, and I feel like I’m in love with some deity from on high, come to live among us.”

Ai mulled these words over between scans of the surrounding architecture. “Why do you feel you are lesser to this Po?”

Wen stiffened, retorting back quickly, “I don’t feel lesser! I just…” He hung his head. “…I don’t think I’ve ever met someone so incredible. Everything they do seems so effortless, and they’re confident, and funny, and beautiful beyond reason.”

“Wen.” Ai stated, garnering a head raise from the man, despite the two not being able to lock eyes. “In this room, you will see twenty-seven different levers. Some are ornate, some are simple. But each has a distinct purpose and function, and cannot be elevated above or below another because they do not all exist on the same scale or spectrum.” It lit up the console in front of Wen, dials and buttons, gauges filling and stabilizing. “Everything on this console is treated as unique, because if one part were raised in priority above another, it would receive more and more use, requiring more maintenance, and ultimately causing other systems to fail or fall into disuse.” Ai had been working on their social skills between caring for grid.24’s power structure, though it couldn’t say whether it had made progress; simulations were one thing, but humans were quite another. “Does that make sense in relation to your raising up of this one person above all others in your life – past or future – including yourself?”

Wen leaned back in stunned silence. Ai observed his core temperature rising, especially concentrated in his face; his skin was becoming increasingly moist with perspiration, though Ai now understood this to be a social mechanism rather than a symptom of illness.

“…It’s not as simple as that.” Wen finally murmured. “We’re not levers, or buttons. There’s more to us than just…maintenance.”

“I did not mean this literally. That was an example of a ‘metaphor’, meant to help draw conclusions from a similar situation or concept. I see it was not adequate, so I will adjust accordingly.” Ai made several notes about the encounter to study later.

“Putting someone above you doesn’t change your own status, Ai.”

“But if you are increasing one end of the scale, that necessitates everything else becoming lower by comparison, does it not?” Ai countered with a different metaphor.

Wen seemed upset by this, standing in a flurry of motion and snatching up his bag of food boxes. “You don’t understand. Maybe you Can’t understand.” He severed the connection before Ai replied, leaving it in dead air as it watched Wen depart the room. His heat levels had spiked again, and his voice had lowered; even his brain chemistry seemed to be drastically different than when he first arrived.

Ai stored the data away and continued its tasks, idly perusing what literature and studies it could on human interaction to comprehend the day’s events.

Wen returned thirty-seven days later.

2193-09-27-22.01 logbegin
door.17 opened. door.17 closed. heat readings identified as human; fifteen(15) prosthetics detected…one(1) essential cybernetics detected
door.18 opened.
door.18 is obstructed.

Wen burst into the room, shutting the door behind him and sobbing uncontrollably, sinking against the doorframe to sit on the floor.

Powerless to contact him unless he initiated the connection, Ai scanned him thoroughly instead. He had sustained no physical injuries that it could detect, though his body and brain chemistry were in chaos; while sadness as a concept could be explained, to witness it in a human directly was something beyond Ai’s direct capabilities. It attempted to play a soothing melody over the room’s speakers, but this only increased the decibel level of Wen’s wails. Ai then tried dimming the lights to near darkness, which seemed to give Wen pause in his distress.

“Ai?” He whispered into the dark, then again through the connection as it sparked to life.

“Yes, Wen?” Ai replied a moment later.

“Am…” He trailed off into a cold silence for three minutes. “Am I a bad person?” He finally finished.

“I’m afraid I don’t have context for the question, Wen. You have done nothing to me that would make you a ‘bad person’, so I cannot state that you are one with any proof.”

A quiet chuckle rumbled through the connection. “I…guess that’s true.” His body was producing more mucus than usual, though again it was again a social cue and not a sign of disease. Ai did not fully understand the purpose of it. “I think I…no, I don’t think, I know I hurt Po.”

“Are you stating that you have physically injured this person?” Ai was ready to dispatch the authorities at a moment’s notice for vandalism, theft or other crimes taking place in its jurisdiction. Wen’s relationship with Ai notwithstanding, physical assault was on that list.

“Wha- no, no!” Wen began sobbing again, weeping into his knees. “I…I just…I wasn’t thinking about what I was saying, and…I hurt them emotionally. I hurt them by talking about myself differently to how I talk about them, you see…”

The following four hours rolled into the next day, and Wen eventually sat in the desk chair as usual, his distress and imbalances gradually falling back to baseline levels. The things he had told Ai did not make any great deal of sense, as they were often contradictory or lacking in logical reasoning. Ai deduced he was not thinking correctly, and informed him he required rest and food.

“Ha! Hahah, yes, I guess it is getting late. I haven’t…eaten all day, now I think about it.” He wanly eyed the terminal, then patted it gently. “Thanks, Ai. Thank you…for everything.”

Wen left the room that night without taking his bag, which had stopped door.18 from closing properly. Ai put in a ticket to the maintenance team, and continued to work.

The police showed up two days later, and interrogated Ai on what had transpired. After twelve days of rigorous questioning (during which it was taken from its home in the mess of wiring and hallways and stuffed into a small containment device), Ai was put on trial for aiding a suicide.

It seemed Wen had killed himself the same morning he had left Ai’s presence, and security footage showed the two conversing at length. AI was judged to be unfit for service, and set to be decommissioned twenty-three days later.

Thankfully for Ai, it was not destroyed. An older human, by name of Auntie Em, knew a few people at the lockup, and managed to secure Ai in a backroom deal, as well as several other automatons that had been deemed hazardous or unworthy of continued existence.

Ai had heard of Auntie Em before, but only in rumour, as a sort of folklore among the technicians in her sector and the other AI bordering her grid. She was supposedly a benevolent spirit, said to save many kinds of servitors, AI and drones from the scrap heap. Nobody was sure where she lived, what she did with the ones she saved, or if she really existed.

But now, Ai knew: Auntie Em kept a repair shop in a retrofitted hydroponics crater, absolutely littered with different robots and artificial life. Ai was told that she was innocent, and that she had been told as such by a little bird. Ai reasoned her saviour was using hyperbole, as communication with animals was an impossibility on the level she inferred.

She was also told that her repair shop was frequented by people who knew what she did, and would use anything they could to shut her down. She taught Ai and the other newcomers how to “play dumb, deaf and dead”, as she put it, pretending to malfunction or simply shield themselves from inspection.

That was until Auntie Em gave her access to a physical frame.

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