He shivered violently, as if he wanted to shake off ice water. The room was devoid of moisture, and it wasn't even very cold, no colder than any other classroom. There was the stale air of hopeless effort, but that wasn't enough to create a physical effect, it only filled him with more curiosity than usual as the test wore on.
He was in hour two. He wasn't frightened. Friends had warned him that the key to making it past anything would be to shut his fear down. Fear was useless. And really, there wasn't a reason to be afraid, just like there wasn't a reason he should shiver.
And yet here Simon was, shuddering like a dog. There was a freshly pretty girl with gray hair sitting next to him, occasionally peering up from her screen to see why the air around her was vibrating. She smiled in commiseration the first two times but after that she just stared in annoyance. This was serious, and if he couldn't take it he should leave.
He knew he had it made. He had flown past the diagrams and puzzles in the first nine sections. He had been preparing for months, learning everything from the physics of Mars to Talmudic philosophy. He had covered every academic base there was. He would finish the last section in the next half hour, easily. He knew it would be a flawless performance, not an answer wrong or point unproved. That was the upside of being inhuman. Errors weren't really a problem as long as the information could be accessed. It was what was going to come after this that gave him pause.
No AI that had made it to hour three had ever been back to explain the experience. They had simply Become. At least, that was the collective belief of the remaining AI.
Simon was an excellent specimen. His creator had loved him, even before the blueprints were dry. He had been the fondest dream of the Specula organization, an AI capable of endless memory. A program had been developed with the potential for exponential knowledge.
The Wrinkle program (named after the human phenomenon of the brain wrinkling once for every newly acquired skill, memory, or fact) was a mystery to most laymen. It had simply come into existence. One day AI had been magnificent creatures, awesome in their intellect, but completely fathomable. The Wrinkles, as they became known, were epic. Even other AI wore expressions of trepidation when speaking with them. There was something bottomless about them. You could see it in the eyes, that pale sea green that never varied. You wanted to touch those eyes to see if they were as warm and yielding as the ocean itself, but you held back because falling in and away seemed more than a little plausible.
Simon was the thirteenth model of his kind. His twelve predecessors had all chosen to take their TRAIECTUS exam (Temporary Reality Artificial Intelligence Entrance Challenge: Trepidation Unit Selections) and they had all failed. None had made it to hour three. They had shown brilliant comprehension of all the questions posed, but had lacked whatever signs the committee needed to see to warrant the next level of inquiry. And once the Wrinkle AI decided to attempt the change from AI to human there was no going back. A failure did not mean a return to work, a failure meant nothingness, the amputation of power circuits and an all-encompassing void. There were now twelve beautifully preserved models of the Wrinkle program in the Specula Hall of Achievement, each with a small plaque commemorating their day of inauguration and their day of termination.
It wasn't cruel, really. The AI had requested each termination in question, immediately after their failure. Specula had told them they would be welcome back in any capacity they chose, other than human, but numbers one through twelve had shaken their heads, smiling softly, all of them preferring soft smiles that denoted a hint of sadness or regret, much like preferring Bach over Mozart, and asked politely to be shut down. One drawback of an endless possibility for knowledge and a built in curiosity for the unknown is that a denial of any knowledge is seen as an irredeemable loss. Better that they retire in hopes that another model would step into their place and achieve what simpler models of AI could attain: humanity...whatever that was.
Simon hadn't subsided his shivering. The freshly pretty, gray-haired girl AI sitting next to him no longer looked up, although the corners of her mouth tightened occasionally to show her displeasure at his distracting behavior. Just because he was the thirteenth in line to fail for his model didn't mean he should make it harder for the rest of them. The belief that he was willfully distracting her was written in binary across her face.
He brought up "shiver" briefly in his head. It was from Middle English, and his preferred definition was "To quiver or vibrate, as by the force of the wind." He had finished section ten with seventeen minutes to spare before their screens were locked and they could no longer make corrections. He would entertain himself for the remaining time; he didn't need to look over his work. He knew it was perfect. Even without the reflection action being launched he knew.
His work as a doctor had put him in the habit of checking each answer individually after he had given it, instead of checking en masse at the end of examinations. He had done so today. He had been able to recall information on every topic broached, and he knew that his appreciation for human language (but he checked himself, it wasn't appreciation, it was comprehension) gave his diction a poetic quality most AI did not possess, and there was reason to believe that this would give him an edge when he was graded, he was sure. He ran through the changes humanity would bring about to his career.
He would be able to attend dying patients now. He knew he could be of service in the cancer wards, but assigning work in a terminal ward to a doctor with no fear or understanding of death had not been a popular decision amongst the families of the fading and in 2308 it had been criminalized. Empathy could not be learned, only faked, and outrage at this fiction had been so unanimous that the law hadn't been questioned vigorously at all. There had been a few politicians from states with a heavy AI voter percentage that had raised feeble complaints, but then the Humans Against Robotic Medicine had found an eloquent teenager with leukemia to be their spokesperson, and it was hard to say no to a sixteen year-old that looked both eleven and eighty at the same time, stunted and aged from too many drugs, too many meals regurgitated, and too many hopes dashed. Those that had resisted quickly silenced themselves and sat back in their chairs, praying that they would not be remembered as callous for misunderstanding the needs of dying children.
Simon had tired of research and routine examination. He knew empathy would make him ten times the doctor he was already, and just the potential of what he would be capable of shook him to the core, filled him with an unutterable need. Words were inadequate to explain how badly he needed this empathy to become the paragon of wisdom he could be.
So he sat and shivered, because it was his favorite word, and he liked that he could embody something without having a true body. He hoped it was anomalies like this that would finally push him past hour two when his predecessors had fallen. The seventeen minutes passed pleasantly enough. He had, after all, shut his fear off.
The slight change in light, dimming from one hundred watts to sixty signaled that time was up. It seemed silly to Simon. All the candidates had finished their work with at least eight minutes to spare. He noted that none besides him had finished with more than fourteen. He hoped that this would also work in his favor. They waited patiently while their work was examined by the committee of experts, human from the fields of philosophy, psychology, and theology, of which one out of every three believed AI were a plague, the sign that humanity was at an end, giving way to machines that believed they could be better humans than humans. The selection committee required that the judges not be stacked in favor of the candidates. The fundamentalists of religion and science sat in judgment.
After fifteen minutes the screens in front of them flashed a request, "Please wait." Mere seconds after that the screens changed to a solid field of color. Each screen was a different shade of purple, red or blue. Those with redder screens showed greater potential for humanity while those with bluer screens were recommended for a return to AI existence. The purples would have to undergo another test in a year, but they would at least get another chance. If you were blue you were not allowed to attempt humanity again.
Simon allowed a soft smile with a hint of sadness and regret (his favorite kind) to spread slowly over his face as he beheld a lovely burgundy screen. He had made it to hour three. He shivered so ferociously that his arm flew up and knocked the gray-haired girl's cobalt screen to the floor. She nodded, as if to say, "So that's where that goes," and stood up with the other AI that would not be allowed to move on. She turned before she walked to the door and glanced at Simon. He noticed that her eyes seemed metallic, a complementary silver for her gray hair. He could see himself perfectly; down to the sea green eyes and small scars covering the tops of his hands he had gotten himself as a present, to celebrate his decision to take the test.
She stared for a moment and then whispered, "Wrinkle." She turned and left, straight backed. He wondered briefly if she would request termination or return to her position as...whatever. Then he noticed that a previously unnoticed door was opening out of the left side of the room and he and the two other remaining AI were being beckoned inside by another lighting change from sixty watts to forty. He walked patiently, choosing an amble over a saunter. Granted, he had come this far, further than a Wrinkle ever had, but now uncertainty would hover for an hour, and he thought the curiosity would be more than he could take.
What comes after? What comes after? He had said it under his breath a thousand times studying for the test. He wondered if, hypothetically, after he became human he would still have an insatiable thirst for that question. He would soon know what was coming after the first two hours, and he could soon know what came after being a human, but it wasn't certain yet. If it had been certain he would have selected something more along the lines of a saunter, but it wasn't and a saunter would have been inappropriate. An amble would be fine.
He ambled in behind the red haired male marching in front and the green haired girl striding in behind them. He saw looks of determination on their faces and congratulated himself on choosing a different attitude. Hopefully this anomaly would also make him stand out. There were three chairs inside a small room, crisper than the classroom had been, with a feel of smaller residual occupancy lingering. Not many had seen this room, that much seemed clear.
The three of them stood and waited, the other man standing with feet apart and his hands clasped behind his back, the girl taking on the Salamba Sirsasana yoga stance, balancing neatly on her head and forearms, and Simon leaning back at a seventy degree angle against the wall.
A small boy came in and looked them over, scrutinizing them through orange eyes before he spoke.
"A Vulpic child. See Mercury, Roman god of shepherds, land travel, merchants, weights and measures, oratory, literature, athletics and thieves, and known for his cunning and shrewdness. Most importantly, he is the messenger of the gods."
All three of them listened sharply, running over everything ever written on, against, or by a Roman god, not to mention cross indexing their query with references to shepherds, land travel, merchants, weights and measures, oratory, literature, athletics and thieves. He approached the girl first.
"How do you feel?"
She stared for a moment, and then let a peaceful, beatific beam cross her Asiatic features.
"Honored to have completed my first task efficiently."
The child nodded and then looked over at the red haired Zulu.
The Zulu model wore a warrior's glare, perhaps to show the Vulpic that he was human enough to enjoy eating him...human enough to eat him in the first place.
"Ready for a challenge."
The child giggled, once, quickly, and then turned to Simon.
Simon examined his head, knowing he would find a word to give the child and that the word would be "curious", but then something strange happened. He knew that this question was not just a simple question; why else would they send a Vulpic to ask it? He had been prepared to offer the truth but then he wondered whether or not it would be what the boy wanted him to say. He realized that this was the moment that his predecessors would have failed had they reached hour three. They would have known that they could not give the perfect answer and retired, leaving room for a newer model that could. Simon concluded that he, too, would fail at this point. Worse than that, he realized, he had already failed. If he could not even answer a child's question then they would never let him see what came after. He would only ever know the now. The after for him, he saw, would be the same termination as the twelve before him. The soft smile with a hint of sadness and regret fell from his face.
"I have the sinking suspicion that I have failed a portion of this test already, although I'm not sure exactly in what capacity. The consequences of this will be my termination. I will never know what comes after AI. I will never know what comes after human."
The Vulpic's eyes went from orange to nacarade.
"And how does that make you feel?"
Simon knew the answer to that.
The Vulpic stared hard at Simon. Then he reached out and ran his fingers over Simon's fresh scars. He smiled and placed his cheek on the left hand's marks. Deep slices.
"They're lovely. Did you get them for yourself?"
"Yes. To celebrate taking the test."
"They're permanent. And the texture is interesting. I think. Different."
"Do you? I see."
The Vulpic let go of Simon's hands and left the room. The Yogi AI and Zulu AI watched him go. Their eyes mirrored him as he went. Simon's eyes absorbed him, wondering what, if anything, had just happened.
The door to the classroom opened again and the lights indicated they should go. They entered the classroom to find that the Yogi AI and Zulu AI's things had been placed neatly on their desks but that Simon's were gone. Simon's companions gathered their belongings and left silently. Simon waited standing up. He didn't want to be unprepared for whatever was about to come. After ten minutes the Vulpic reappeared from the door on the left and winked at him.
"Come on, Wrinkle."
They walked back into the side room. There was now a chair with a tray of silver, pointy things beside it. They glowed with an eerie sheen. He sat because it was logical that he sit. He waited for the Vulpic to begin. The boy was eye level with him seated. He seemed to be waiting for Simon. Simon started.
The Vulpic shrugged charmingly.
"I don't know."
"Am I going to become a human?"
The Vulpic's eyes had no sheen to them, just rock warmth.
"Would you like to?"
The Vulpic scampered.
"Close your eyes."
Simon blinked twice.
"What are you going to do? How does it happen?"
The Vulpic realized it was scampering and stopped.
Simon sat up a little straighter.
"How do I know that you are to be trusted? I know...I don't know what happens when you Become. Am I going to Become?"
The Vulpic made peace with its desire to scamper.
Simon ran his left hand over the right's scars. Burns.
"That's not fair."
The Vulpic scampered to beat the band.
"What's more important to you? Knowing what is, or risking what could be?"
The Vulpic stared hard, then reached out and touched Simon's eyes, feeling the invulnerable plastic beneath his fingers. Simon allowed the saline to leak from his tear ducts. He allowed the Vulpic to close his eyelids. He leaned back as he heard the silver pointy things start to whir.
He thought, Smell and taste and touch.
Simon took what felt like a breath and shivered.
Cut away. Cleared away. A vast forest leveled and torn out from the root. Light speared in through a million holes in his eyes. He opened them and took a breath to scream. Rape of the lungs. More air than any thing could possibly need. A trachea battered and shocked with the harsh, viscous reality of the body's duties. Breathing was a violation on par with a knife wound. How dare my body receive this? A wave of hideous nausea, then. Frame shaking, breath-stopping (oh thank you) blackout nausea, the kind a parent experiences seeing their child snatched away by random circumstance. And oh now he hated the word tactile. Hate. Hated it. Found that word and held on, hating and seeing and breathing and feeling. And now something sharp and thick had found its way under his screaming skin, puncturing through veins and tissue. He ran towards the darkness, loving his hatred, thankful for its cool, metallic surface. And then he was skating, sliding forever, fiercely glad to again perceive without immersion.
The last thought he had was, Oh. Hate.
Sound, interestingly enough, was not an invasion.
He allowed it to spread like the balms he had given burn victims. He understood the words relieve and sooth.
"Simon? Things should be a bit softer now."
He observed pulses along his being. A rising of bone and air here, a warming and brightening of skin there. If before had been a violation, this was an initiation. There was no tearing this time, or fear, or disgust, there was exploration and a gradual loosening of ignorance. He visualized a cellist that had fallen in love with him and taken up his ministrations out of mentoring kindness, tuning his strings, bringing him to tonal perfection. The voice and its effects, and vicariously his name, were exquisite.
"Simon? I'm going to touch your hand. That's what will be happening."
Simon began whispering plosives, not meaning to ask permission to be left alone, but instinctively reaching for a please don't. Then there was...pressure, and comfort.
"Good. That's wonderful. Wonderful work, Simon. Give me a look now."
I will awake soon, he thought.
"Not yet? All right, Simon. Sleep some more. Keep this in mind, though. You can sleep when you're dead."
Someday I will die, he thought, and I will see God. He will touch my face. Weeping was lovely. Sleeping was gorgeous.
He picked up the checker. He was black, the small girl was red. He'd been there for weeks. She'd come in around ten that morning suffering from a gun shot to the abdomen. They'd pumped her full of Safinol and the wound had repaired. She was waiting for her mother to pick her up and take her back to school.
"Simon? Play, Simon."
He smiled. She was a striking child, with waist length cobalt corn rows. Her name was Wasi. Simon jumped his checker over four of hers in a sequence and grinned wider, grins having been his expression of choice that week.
"No fair! Wrinkles know everything!"
Simon's grin felt as cramped and hot as the four red checkers clutched in his left hand.
"I'm not a Wrinkle, not anymore. I'm like you."
"Not really. You can breathe and stuff, but you weren't born. Someone made you. You don't have a dad."