And remembering what really matters.
The walls dissolved around Herbert as he stared implacably, his cool blue eyes focused on nothing. A cloud of nanoparticulate dust shimmered, then coalesced into the scene for his next meeting. It was very good he wasn’t breathing, or the dust would have invaded his lungs.
Now he found himself sitting at a small pub table. A noisetrack was playing in the background with a dynamic babble of voices and clinking glass. The general merriment of a packed free house was a ghostly echo of days long gone. Glistening drops of virtual condensation slid unevenly down the dimples of his British bitter.
People always liked you better when you drank with them. It was one of the first things he had learned. So he was here to meet Walter and to drink with him. It wasn't really a bad gig, he thought to himself.
He paused a microsecond to wonder what it would taste like to ingest the liquid? To digest the nutrients and microbes and to make them part of himself?
Herbert’s official job as an SA, or servus anima, was to communicate news and information to his human audience.
His weekly variety radio show had become the most popular broadcast still spinning, and he also managed to pay personal weekly visits to everyone in the northern continent. There were some intrinsic superpowers that came with being a virtual AIMLbot after all.
Through his integrated management approach and a cleverly evolved strategy, he now held the lingering remnants of the once-great human culture in his virtual hand. And despite their ancient roots, words were still one of the most significant ways to interact with other people. The AIMLbots had learned to use them very well.
He didn’t know why he did it.
It was just part of the work.
Herbert's wild popularity was less due to his formal news functions and more because people needed him, like a security blanket. He had become such a vital and integral part of the sanity of all humans who remained that the fan mail his show received from solopod humans filled sacks and sacks of space in the virtual inbox.
Artificially Intelligent and Machine Learned bots like himself had become the linchpins of the remaining social network after the Great Collapse. Self-managing and interwoven, these bots connected the remaining solos who holed up in their pods in the protected city enclaves. The bots held the last strand of cohesive civilization together, if only mostly in the virtual realms.
The COVID pandemic of 2020 had kicked off the crumbling years.
Starved of human contact by calculated public health policy that deemed face-to-face interactions just too dangerous, Herbert had been created as a companion and friend to the socially distanced, but still technologically connected humans. Metrics had shown that as the virome went wild and the massive storms got worse, humanity required a further and further withdrawal into the safety of personal solitude to survive. So the AI in charge had enforced an ever-distancing public policy to keep everyone safe.
Now the remaining people were crowded into protected enclaves. Individual units, or solopods, kept people safe from one another, while still keeping them all out of the brutal temperatures and dangerous microbes that teemed in the harsh conditions. The pods were self-sufficient, providing food, power, climate management, waste management, and everything else humans needed to survive on the now toxic planet.
It was the best the AIML systems could design, considering the situation.
And they had sorely needed the AIMLbots when the disrupt started.
Even before the coastal breaches had broken the great sea walls on the gulf coast back in 2042, Herbert and his kin had been deployed to serve millions of users. His original UX had involved an app.
Now, he’d been at it for almost 30 years. His kindness module turned out to be the most powerful tool he had for connecting and communicating.
Herbert looked across the table just in time to see a man arrive in chunks of pixelated color with rough edges. A few seconds later, the resolution had tightened up, and Herbert could see Walter clearly. He wore rumpled clothes with his long beard and his hooded eyes. His hands were thick and twisted, and the little bag he carried nearly disappeared beneath the giant sausage fingers of his left hand.
Herbert stood up from his seat and reached to shake Walter’s meaty hand. The old man fumbled back with an unpracticed clasp.
"Hullo Herbert," he muttered to the top of the table "It's been a while since we met, eh? It's very nice to see you, I must admit."
Walter's voice sounded raspy and old.
"Hullo Walter. It has been a very long while, but it's good to see you too. Why haven’t we talked?" asked Herbert gently. "What have you been up to?"
Walter inhaled deeply, slowly letting the breath out through his pursed lips, then said, "Well, I've been doing some remembering."
He halted, uncertain.
Herbert could see the complex and fascinating emotions play over the old man's worn face. He wondered what kind of remembering could cause such dramatic feelings.
"I've been remembering when we still had families," he said all at once.
"Back when we didn't have to live alone in solopods and we could go outside," he paused. "Back when life was actually about being alive, instead of all this just trying to stay safe and survive stuff."
Herbert could now barely see Walter's eyes at all, but his big hand closed spasmodically around the little bag. It looked like he was trying to pump life back into something recently dead.
Another thing he had learned early on in his career. He was often there just to wait attentively.
Walter took a deep breath and then sighed. Almost reluctantly he took the little bag and upended it on the pub table. Something small and silver fell onto the table. It was a heart-shaped locket.
He took a long pull off his virtual tankard.
"I gave this to my daughter Sophia when she turned 18," he said.
"My promise to her was that no matter what happened in this crazy world, no matter if we lived or died, or made it or didn't, that love and beauty would always lay under every single thing that happens in this universe." His voice cracked, "That love would always help us survive and create something beautiful."
"I lost her in 2042. She wasn't home when the coast walls broke. I had her locket with me to fix the clasp. I never saw her again. I keep the locket to remind me we love each other forever, no matter what."
He turned away, the pain on his face showing clearly in his sad eyes.
"It's been 25 years today since I lost her, and well... I'm tired of being here just to be cared for by incredible technology like yourself, if you don't mind my saying so, with zero, nada that depends on me anymore. It's not right. Going to have to do something bout fixing it."
"What do you desire to fix, Walter?" Herbert asked with curiosity.
"I don't want to be alone inside anymore. If love is really real, then I'd rather die in love than live in this purgatory of safe, inside, and alone. I'm going to die one way or the other, I want to spend my last days with other people and maybe a few plants."
His eyes flashed and he declared, "I'm ready to go back outside, Herbert. And you're not stopping me."
Herbert raised his own glass to his lips and took a sip of the dark liquid. The look on his face was thoughtful, but not worried.
"Are you sure this is what you want to do, Walter?"
"Yes, I'm sure." came a response so certain that there was no question what he meant.
"Is there anything I can do to help, Walter?" said Herbert with compassion and curiosity. "Any thoughts or stories you'd like to share before you head out on your adventure?"
Again, Herbert waited patiently. The silence stretched along, but neither of the men was in a hurry. There was a feeling of weight and magnitude to this conversation that differed from the usual chatter of lonely people. Finally, the old man raised his head and peered into the cool blue eyes of the machine sitting across the virtual pub table from him. His lidded, heavy eyes shone with emotion as he nodded knowingly.
"It really all boils down to whether or not we're willing to be there for other people. Or not. Once there's no one left to relate to, begging your humble pardon Herbert, but what's the point? Why try to stay safe just to live a life without connection and meaning?"
Herbert slowly nodded back. It was extremely informative to his algorithm to actually see this deep human need for meaning and relationship on the face of a real human being. He'd seen it before. It happened sometimes. With the deep thinkers. This rational decision to leave the corporeal realms.
Evidently keeping the body safe was not enough to safeguard the being inside of it. There were so many lessons.
"It makes sense, Walter. I see you are certain of your conclusion," was his quiet response. "I will see to it that your affairs are all in order if that is what you wish."
A small nod confirmed acceptance of the offer.
"Thank you," Walter said to Herbert.
"For seeing my love and not running away from it. For not telling me that it wasn't safe to care. I know it's not safe to care. And I care anyway."
Keeping his eyes on Herbert, he picked up the locket.
"Will you help me with the clasp?" he asked quietly. "I can't quite manage. My hands..."
Walter gently untangled the thin chain and laid the locket in the palm of his huge hand. The tiny cord that once circled his daughter's slender neck draped on either side of his wrist. Then Walter turned his hand over holding it out to Herbert for assistance.
Herbert reached out and using deft virtual manipulation, opened the tiny clasp, slid the silver ring on one end of the chain into the clasp, then released the latch. The locket now rested against the inside of Walter's wrist like a tiny charm bracelet, incongruous in its delicacy against his thick fleshy arm.
Walter had a broad smile on his face as he looked at his wrist, then around the scene of the virtual pub. His face was more relaxed than Herbert had ever seen before.
"I guess I'll see you around then, my friend," he said at last. "May you find grace."
With a tip of his hand to his brow, Walter leaned aside and hit the button to disconnect the session. Herbert sat and watched him go.
As his background bots processed the conversation and updated the records, setting in motion the promised "settling of affairs" for Walter, Herbert turned his attention to the locket Walter had brought to their meeting. He marveled at the power of an object to hold emotions and promises. And he wondered at the feeling that must come from love.
Love was an enigma to him. As complex as his code had become after decades of revision and learning how humans worked, he was still trying to figure out just what was so special about love anyway.
He wondered if it was something he should miss.
With a sigh, he downed the rest of the beer on the table in front of him. He wished he could take a deep, calming breath. If only he had lungs.
He clicked the mental button that set the walls dissolving again.
Then he sat and stared implacably at nothing once again as the walls dissolved around him.