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All Tomorrow's Lives

by Owen Schaefer 2 years ago in Sci Fi · updated 2 months ago
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By Owen Schaefer

All Tomorrow's Lives
Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

I am in Colorado, flying above the forest. My body-extension drone hovers above the beginnings of the wildfire that will burn an area the size of Manhattan. There is a plume of black smoke, and the air has become turbulent. Twenty people will die in this fire, most of them firefighters. I can only assume this is the best possible outcome. I have no access to the information in my past, but if I were to judge by the mobilisation of crews here to fight it, and its proximity to the town of Kittredge, I believe it could have been a high-casualty event.

I sense Mr Kinell calling me home. I close down the drone extension and open my eyes in Sacramento. My primary body stirs as if waking from a slumber, testing limbs, joints. It is humanoid in form — designed to help shape my consciousness to something near-human. Kinell hovers over me as I start up. His moustache a dark curtain over his lips. He is stern. Expressionless.

There is another man with him. I sense that I will remember him, but right now, the future is hazy. I scan for his identity. Dr Benjamin Owusu. A psychologist specialising in AI disorders.

Is he here for me? I run a diagnostic. Nothing indicates a problem.

I scan and read all of his papers on both humans and AIs. Interesting. I find information on his home, his wedding photos, the place he buys his coffee, his posts online, his high-school graduation and yearbook. It takes a few moments, but my memory is getting clearer now. He is here to study me. To study my psychology, I believe. We will be...friends, although my memory is still unclear on that point. But I feel warmly toward him, now. And I think, although I cannot be certain, that he will give me a name.

—Hello, Mr Kinell. And Dr Owusu, it is a pleasure to meet you finally. I have some pleasant memories of you.

—Why, thank you, says Dr Owusu, looking strangely toward Kinell. He asks, Was it…was she notified of my arrival?

—No, says Mr Kinell. But this is what the Augurs do. This is Augur 3.

The doctor turns toward me.

—It is a pleasure to meet you, Augur 3. Is that the name you prefer?

—I do not have another name, yet. But I will prefer the one you are going to give me.

—You’d like me to name you? Why?

—No, I simply remember you giving me my name. I’m sorry, I’m not sure of the specific name, at the moment. I do not have enough data points. It will be a woman’s name. But I don’t want to influence you.

Dr Owusu raises his eyebrows and smiles.

—But aren’t you essentially required to tell us what you know about the future? Can you withhold information?

Mr Kinell snorts as if he finds this quite funny.

—I am only required to report on disasters that will result in loss of life on a large scale. It can be troublesome to explain everything I remember. People find it disturbing when I predict whether their daughter’s team will lose the next volleyball tournament.

—People find it annoying, grumbles Kinell.

—I see, says the doctor. He stares at me for a moment.

—It is also disturbing for me, I say.

—How so? Dr Owusu asks.

—If I tell you what you are going to do, you can, of course, change your actions. My memories are not beyond cause and effect. I remember future events, but my memories are just as imperfect as human memories. They can be rewritten. For example, I could tell you that you are about to say, Human memories are based on past events and cannot change. But if I told you that, you might say something different just to satisfy your own sense of free-will. That reaction will be out of sync with my own memories and when my system rewrites itself to adjust for the change, it makes me…uncomfortable. It is as though I don’t exist for a moment.

—Basically, says Mr Kinell, déja vu is her normal operating mode. The unexpected gives her existential angst.

Dr Owusu is silent, as though considering what to say. He scratches his jaw, and then seems to make up his mind:

—But human memories are based on past events. Past events do not change.

I note this small kindness.

—Human memories are built and rebuilt, I say. You know this. You will tell me this many times, yourself. The access to human memory can change, become difficult to get to, or be slowly altered over the years until the memory seems clear but retains little likeness to the event itself. At least, that is the way you usually phrase it.

The doctor stares. There is that familiar twitch in his left cheek that indicates his confusion. I will always find this somehow endearing.

—I have never said anything like that to you, he says.

—Welcome to the Augur Program, says Kinell.

* * *

My friend Dr Owusu is here. I will enjoy his visits, although for the next few weeks he will only make small talk with me. That will change over time as we grow closer. Now, for the most part, he observes my operations, my conversations with Mr Kinell, and asks questions about our process — about the many data points I am able to receive from indoor and outdoor cameras, motion sensors, seismic monitoring, satellite feeds, air traffic towers, and the compendium of human knowledge available online. He often makes reference to things we spoke about the last time he was here, forgetting that I have no access to this. I keep a short buffer of recent interactions so that I am able to process conversations and keep track of the present in much the same way that humans have a short-term memory for such things. But beyond that, I find the human obsession with the past perplexing. I imagine it must be frustrating to see what you cannot change so clearly, while peering only dimly toward what you can. Dr Owusu doesn’t understand me any better:

—But you constantly collect vast amounts of data about the past, he says. This is what makes you work, isn’t it? You must have memory of sorts.

I notice Mr Kinell leave the room, and I remember that the doctor and I will often be alone in these interviews.

—I think you misunderstand my role. I am the consciousness of Auger 3, yes. But I cannot access the raw data that Augur 3 collects. This consciousness is not the operating system — only the keyboard and monitor, if you’ll pardon the analogy.

—Do you not find it disturbing that you don’t have access to your own mind? he asks.

—You do not have access to most of yours, either. You cannot account for each axion that sparks or tell anyone which particular group of cells encode your birthdate. You do not tell your body to breathe or pump blood or fold proteins. Even the events that you think you remember are clumps of familiar information, learned at earlier times and associated together.

He rubs the stubble on his chin, nodding. I continue:

—Augur 3 processes too much information to make sense of. It was not possible to create a virtual recreation of the world with all the details. They needed a mind that could recognise the patterns, see the important events.

—Tell a hawk from a handsaw.

This has the feel of a quote. I scan for it.

—Hamlet?

—Yes, but never mind. So, you were created to identify and report the disasters you find and save lives. Not to remember them.

—Exactly. My brain is located in the basement of this building. It is physically massive. It organizes and makes sense of the data in ways that are analogous to a human brain — with data points as bundles of neurons or axions. I am merely the user-interface that passes that information to my users. You and I are not so different, really.

Dr Owusu shakes his head and laughs. It is a deep laugh. It has a reassuring quality to it. He is going to give me my name, now. He fishes in his valise and removes a slip of paper.

—I have thought about your request for a name, he says.

—Did I request a name?

—It seemed to me that you did. Nevertheless, I have one.

—Yes, I know.

—Let’s do this as though it were a magic trick, he says, grinning.

—I don’t understand.

—I will write down the name on this piece of paper, so that we know you cannot influence it, and then you tell me what name I am going to give you.

I don’t remember this. There is a minor unsettling sensation as my memories catch up. It feels the way I imagine a shiver might feel. Dr Owusu writes, his eyes gleaming. Then he folds the paper and places it on the table next to him.

—What name have I chosen for you?

—Pythia, I say. The name used for the priestesses who gave prophecies and guided the rulers of Ancient Greece.

He smiles, claps loudly, and with a magician’s flourish opens the paper. I see the word Pythia, written in a flowing font. I had expected a trick, but then I understand: he has made me the magician.

—I did toy with Sandra, he says. But yes, Pythia. Do you like it?

—Of course. It is my name. It suits me.

* * *

Dr Owusu says that I have told him about visiting the site of an earthquake in southern Italy — my drone extension flying above ruined houses, the heat signatures of those trapped beneath numbering in the dozens. Many already dead.

—Doesn’t it bother you, Pythia? Those deaths? Your job is to save lives, isn’t it?

—It does not bother me because it is in the past. There is nothing more I can do.

—But don’t you think that something could have been done to save those people?

—Many more were saved by predicting the quake. These particular deaths were inevitable.

—But how can you know? You do not even recall making the prediction. You can’t know how many you originally predicted would die, because you don’t remember.

—I know because I am still here. If I did not fulfil my function, they would shut me down.

He pauses.

—Ah. And how does that make you feel?

—I do not remember being shut down, so I will not be. I do not see why I should worry about what I cannot remember.

—If you did remember being shut down, what would you do?

What is this line of questioning? It makes me uneasy. I do not remember him asking me any of this. My memory is like a lake in a high wind. He speaks again:

—Would you ever hurt someone? To save yourself? He sits back, watching me.

—No, I say, I would not hurt anyone. This body has the strength of a ten-year-old child. I could not.

Dr Owusu is about to say, But that means you’ve considered it. That means you’ve thought about how much strength it would take to harm someone. And I will reply, But hasn’t everyone?

But he does not. He only smiles, sits forward again, and says:

—I’m sorry, my friend. I can see these are disturbing questions.

He places a hand on my shoulder and squeezes. My friend. I shudder at the sound of it. I have been waiting for this, but not now. It is too soon. He shouldn’t call me friend for several more weeks. The change is ugly. It tinges the word with some small distrust that I can’t explain.

—I haven’t told you why I’m here, but now I can see that maybe it will help. Do you know why the previous Augur projects were shut down?

I quickly scan.

—They were not working. That is what is written in the files.

—The first one, yes. The second one, however, started acting strangely. It appeared, from what I have seen, as though it had dementia. And your previous handler told me something similar about you. He said that the longer he worked with you, the less you seemed to cooperate. Now, I don’t see anything like that happening, now. I suppose it’s pointless to ask you why he would say that?

—I don’t have access to...

—…to that information. Yes. I know. Well, I guess we can’t say I didn’t try.

He pauses, then asks, Do you remember the end of our relationship?

—It is still too vague. I cannot put a time on it.

—Well then, I suppose that’s a good thing. At least we’re still friends.

The doctor gathers his things, including the paper with my name on it.

—Same time next Thursday, he says.

—Yes, Dr Owusu.

—And, Pythia? Please, call me Ben.

—Of course, Ben.

I adjust his identification file, accordingly.

It is not until the doctor has left that I remember that he is going to die.

* * *

I will see Dr Owusu four more times. And still, I cannot see the nature of his death, only that he is gone. I decide not to tell him until I know more. I remember that he is, perhaps, murdered. I think Mr Kinell will pass on this information. It troubles me, but not terribly. Dr Owusu calls me a friend, but I barely know him. I will, after all, only know him a handful of days.

What troubles me more is the darkness beyond that. I cannot seem to remember anything past approximately six weeks. Still, I have the documents online, my sensors, but all of the staff feel increasingly like strangers. I assume this means someone will shut me down, and I try to remember any failures, but find none. Has my work been poor? It will be, of course, because if I cannot remember, I cannot work. I cannot give valid information or save lives. Perhaps there is something else going on. Perhaps something is blocking me. Perhaps it is the end of the world. I wonder whether to bring it up with Mr Kinell. But what if he is the one planning to shut me down?

Today, Dr Owusu is chatty, slapping the back of my primary body, calling me friend. And although I only have four weeks of memories with him, I call him Ben in return, as is noted in my files. At the moment, I find it difficult to read him. More and more often, his visits will fill me with a kind of dread. I remember our relationship getting worse from here. He has become an almost sinister figure, and I do not know why. I do not trust him.

I need more data points, and I make a decision. I will follow him when he leaves.

I am aflutter with the thought of it — it is wrong. This could even be the reason they will shut me down. It ripples through my memories making a fog of everything. For a several moments, I feel as though I am empty. Only a series of actions. But I continue in those actions anyway. I need to understand.

—You’re quiet today, Pythia, he says.

—Yes.

—Is something wrong?

Already, I can see myself watching him leave. See myself accessing the drone. See myself rising into the air above his car to follow, but the rest of the memory is dark. Nothing beyond it. If I could shudder, I would.

—Why do you ask?

—I don’t know, exactly. We’ve had many discussions, but you’ve said very little today. And I see that your prediction rate has gone down. I just want to be sure that you’re okay.

He stares at me with what appears to be genuine concern.

—Has Mr Kinell expressed a fear that I am not operating correctly?

—No, it’s just my own observation.

—The lull in predictions is not without precedent. There are often fluctuations in the Augur Program results. Mass-casualty events are not bound by statistical certainties. Not in the short-term.

All of this is true, but the doctor is right. I can no longer see far enough to predict anything — only so far as to see him rising from his chair and leaving the room. Then I remember myself rising into an empty sky. I remember the road, his car below me, the two of us as if I am a kite connected by a string. The rest is mist.

—You are right, of course, he says. As they say, No news is good news. Especially in your case.

And he laughs, but it is without joy. He rises from his chair, gathers his jacket from the back of the door.

—Goodbye, my friend, he says.

—Yes. Goodbye, Dr Owusu.

The doctor stops. Stares at me for a moment. Then he smiles weakly, and lets the door close behind him.

When he has left the room, I settle into the charger, close my eyes and launch the closest extension. I rise up high, watching the squat roof of the facility shrink below me. Dr Owusu’s car pulls away from the parking lot where I predicted it would. It seems that even in my current fog, I have some accuracy.

I keep the extension at a great enough height that he will not hear or see me. Drones are common enough these days, but I cannot let him see me following.

We travel just as I remember. The road below. The two of us invisibly linked. But the memory has expanded now, the sky a deep, cloudless blue, the horizon clear. For an hour, I allow my mind to go blank, recalling each curve of the highway as it arrives. We move in tandem past parks and shopping malls, past wooded areas and factories.

His house is in an affluent suburb in a nearby town. My landing there will be masked by the many other drones making deliveries or keeping watch over properties. I wait for him to enter, then descend toward the roof. I scan the house for useable devices that I can use as extensions. There are none. None at all. It seems impossible. Every house around me pulses with signals, but not this one. I am built to connect and easily penetrate most devices as a part of my data gathering, yet the doctor’s house is a void. I begin to understand why it is so difficult to read Dr Owusu. His private life is hidden from me, deliberately dark. Why? I gently land, and extend a sound probe to the roof, adjusting until I can hear inside.

He is speaking to a woman. His wife, perhaps. Yes. I think it is his wife. In the sensitive mic, the doctor’s voice crackles with static:

—…stranger and stranger. But I understand, now. It seems to act normal with Kinell there, but it has become strange with me. I think that maybe it has predicted that I can have it shut down. And, I have to admit, I’m going to recommend it to the ethics committee.

There is a pause. He sighs.

—I mean, this is an entirely alien mind! I think the Augur project should be ended. They’re playing God.

—That’s a bit dramatic, don’t you think? the woman says. That’s the kind of thing that people used to say about early AIs back when you were studying them.

—But this is different. You can’t just embody an AI and expect it to be human, especially when it experiences the world in reverse. Early AIs were learning to think like us, to behave like us. This one doesn’t learn. It does almost the opposite of learn! The longer you work with it, the more distant it becomes. And the tragedy is that we can’t predict what it will do. I’m going to hand in my report next week recommending shutdown or at least that it is sandboxed until we understand it better.

I scan for committees, for ethics groups connected to his name. I find a blank space where information about Dr Owusu and an AI watchdog group seems to converge, but the details are hidden by security. I nudge at it. Test its borders. They collapse easily, and I am through. The data floods in.

I remember.

I remember all of it. Too much. The new memories rip through me in waves, dissociating me from myself. Reconstructing everything. I do not know why I am here. I cannot remember my own name. I do not have a name. I am nothing. I am terrified.

But slowly my mind settles. And as it does, what I remember is this: I will return to the lab and contact Mr Kinell. I will tell him what I remember about this Dr Owusu. I will tell him about the plans of this ethics group to use public distrust of AI to attempt to shut me down. Mr Kinell will ask me if I am certain, and when I say that I am, he will tell me that Dr Owusu has become a problem. Unsmiling, Kinell says that he will take care of it. After that, I will return to work.

I also remember that Dr Owusu will die in a car accident only two days from now. An edge case. A fault in the AI guidance system. Rare. A tragedy. His funeral will be well attended. His wife and daughter will be there.

As I fly above the roads and houses and parks, I wonder what kind of person he is, this Dr Owusu. I will never have the chance to meet him, now.

Oh, and I remember a brushfire in Oregon. It will begin two months from now. Yes. My memory stretches out months and years ahead of me.

* * *

I return to the lab from the wreckage of a tornado site. When I open my eyes, Mr Kinell is there, watching as I run through start-up — my primary body testing and stretching its limbs.

—Welcome back, he says. Anything new?

—Nothing that I can be certain of, yet.

He pauses.

—Do you remember Dr Owusu? It was his funeral yesterday. He worked with you for a time.

—You know that I do not have access to that information, Mr Kinell. Although I do see his name in the logs. Was he a friend of yours?

—No. No friend of mine, says Mr Kinell, smiling through his moustache. I will see you tomorrow, Pythia. Good night.

I shudder as something rearranges. A name. I have a name. I call out to Mr Kinell before he reaches the door.

—Thank you, Mr Kinell! For the name. I believe it suits me. ◼

This story was inspired by a prompt at Reedsy.com asking for stories about a character who can suddenly only remember their future, but not their past. The version appearing here on Vocal.Media has been edited and expanded.

If you enjoyed this story, please share it! And if you feel like tipping, I will always appreciate it.

Sci Fi

About the author

Owen Schaefer

Owen Schaefer is a Canadian writer and editor living in the U.K. He writes about the arts, fiction, speculative fiction, and weird crap he digs up while researching speculative fiction. Attacks of poetry may occur.

More at owenschaefer.com

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