Connections

2018-02-13 18.59.50 (1)

“Help! I’m stuck in the Internet!”
“Nan, you can’t be stuck in the Internet. You mean you’re stuck on the Internet. What are you trying to do?”
“I’m trying to get out!”
“OK. Well do you see a little cross in the top right-hand corner?”
“No I don’t Eamon, sorry. There’s just lots and lots of little boxes with faces in them.” She turned her voice to a whisper. “Some of them are other body parts!”
“It sounds like you’ve got a virus, Nan. I’ll come over and sort it out again OK?”
“Oh you are a good boy. Maybe I just need a kickstarter, eh?”
“See you soon Nan.”

***

There was no answer when Eamon knocked on the door, so he let himself in. Nan’s laptop was out on the kitchen table with the Windows default screensaver scrolling. Sticky notes bearing passwords in her distinctive scrawl were everywhere, but the woman herself couldn’t be seen.
“Nan? Where are you?”
“Oh hello, lovey! I told you, I’m in the Internet.”
The voice did indeed seem to be coming from the computer.
“Nan, what are you up to? Come out please.”
“Oh don’t be silly. I’m stuck here, else I would!”
“I haven’t got time for games, I’m supposed to be at a lecture in half an hour. Where are you?”
“I think you just have to give the mouse a waggle, that usually sorts it.”
Eamon gave the mouse a nudge; he had little choice but to play along with whatever prank the old lady had come up with this time. Sure enough, Nan’s image came up on the screen. Her hair had been freshly curled, and she’d put on some blusher and her favourite violet cardigan. Eamon looked for clues in the background as to where she might be hiding.
“Is that – Paris?!”
“Yes, lovey. It’s where me and your Grandad went on our honeymoon. Do you like it?”
“How, exactly, are you in Paris?”
“I’m not in Paris, I’m in the Internet. Look, I can change it I think.”
The background changed several times in quick succession, showing Nan at the top of Mount Everest, then among a herd of elephants, then New York City, and finally settling on the Egyptian desert with a sphinx sitting behind her.
“Is that better? I can’t tell without my glasses.”
“Nan, is this a new video chat or something?”
“Well you’re the computer expert, lovey. One minute I was sitting at the table with my brew, minding my own business on Facebook, and the next I got this blinding headache. Blinding, it was! Everything went white. And then I sort of woke up here, with all the boxes.”
“Are the boxes there now?”
“They are, but I don’t think they’re going to be a bother after all. There’s a charming gentleman here who says it’ll all be OK. He’s got a lovely white beard, and you know what I always say: you can trust a man with a beard. He says all the bad people go to a place called the ‘deep web’ so there’s nothing to worry about up top. He’s going to show me the ropes.”
“Right. I’m going to fetch help, Nan. OK? We’ll find you, just stay where you are.”
“Oh you are silly, Eamon. Where else am I going to go?”

***

Eamon didn’t have the first clue where he was going to get help. The police? He wasn’t convinced this was an emergency: she didn’t seem to be in danger, just confused. His Dad? He’d only panic. A hacker? Ridiculous. He settled for the social care unit, telling the receptionist he was concerned for his Nan’s welfare. “Keep talking to her,” they told him, “we’ll run some checks from our end.”

***

“Nan, I’m back. I’ve asked the social to help, so this is your last chance to tell me where you are before they get too involved, OK?”
“Oh don’t worry about little old me. Do you remember Majorie from Cedar Grove? She used to give you toffee apples when you were a lad? Well she’s here now. Say hello Majorie! It’s Eamon.”
Majorie peered into the frame holding her best cup and saucer and gave an excited wave.
“Thank goodness,” Eamon exclaimed. “I’m so glad you’re not on your own. Are you using your PC then, Majorie?”
“Ooh it’s a shocker! We can see all your data.”
“Shh now Majorie what do you want to go and tell him that for? You’ll scare the poor lad. What she means is I’ll always be watching over you, Eamon! All your spending, all your learning. All your messages and instagrams. I can see it all, lovey, so you’ll be ok.”
Eamon’s phone began to ring. “Last chance, Nan…”
The two women giggled like schoolgirls as Majorie poured another cup of tea.

“Hello, this is Eamon Thomas.”
“Mr Thomas. I’ve checked your Nan’s records and I can confirm what she says is correct.”
“What? That she’s in the Internet?!”
“That’s it. Your Nan recently signed up to our Connections program. It sounds like you were not aware?” Greeted with a stunned silence, the caller continued. “It’s a scheme whereby a monitor is strapped to the chest, and if there comes a moment where the heart stops – where the client would normally ‘pass on’ – they are simply uploaded to the web instead. All the terms and conditions will be in the pack she was given when she signed up. You can, of course, keep the laptop and speak with her whenever you like. Mr Thomas?”
“…”
“We are terribly sorry for your loss.”
Eamon ended the call, staring at Nan laughing and joking with her old friend.
“What’s up, lovey?” she said. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

*****

For more of my flash fiction, check out my book Fragments of Perception – out now as e-book and paperback.

On 20th February I will be attending the Virtual Futures ‘Near-Future Fictions’ event in London, where my new story ‘Toxic Duck Inc’ will be read to a live audience. Tickets are available here.

The Scheme

Orchid's Lantern blog C.R. Dudley author

 “Sounds like you need to start selling your petaFLOPS, mate.”
  That is what Dave had said back in the good old days when they drunk in the Queen’s Head. At the time, Geoff had lost his job as an Accountant for one of the big 5 firms and was struggling to adjust to a life of leisure. He’d find himself staring into space for hours at a time, unsure of what to put his brain into next. Once upon a time, a GP might have prescribed him some ‘happy’ pills, but diagnosis of depression and stress was a thing of the past: the symptoms had long been recategorised as ‘misused capacity in the mind’.
 Dave’s suggestion for money-making wasn’t unusual, and the papers said the scheme could even become prevalent in years to come. With six pints swimming around his system, Geoff imagined he might be ahead of the curve; one of the trendsetters that would mark a new and enterprising use for the human brain. And, once the hangover of the next morning had subsided and he swore never to drink again, it still seemed like the only logical thing to do.

  Geoff signed up to have a tiny sub-dermal chip installed in his head that connected him to the worldwide network. It was a simple procedure, done under local anaesthetic, and had a surprisingly fast recovery time: in just two days he was ready to come online. He popped the prescribed pill under his tongue, sat back in his La-z-Boy and selected ‘join game’ on his console.
  And that is how it was, 9-5, Tuesdays through Saturdays. As per the deal, he would do one of two things: play a match-3 game or watch sitcom re-runs on TV. The former gave him enough of a dopamine hit to keep him awake and powered up; the latter allowed him to enjoy taking a passive role while still earning a healthy income. Repetitive, predictable tasks that used only a small proportion of potential brain function were essential, so that the remaining neurones could be isolated by the drug and fired over the network to perform a range of data-crunching tasks.
  Any number of corporations could bid for the use of human processors, which were sold in petaFLOPS. For them, the efficiency in terms of energy usage, space and cost was unparalleled. For Geoff, it was a dream form of employment. He bought Dave’s drinks all night whenever his generous pay packet came in, to thank him for his valuable suggestion.
  “Honestly mate, you can’t tell anything’s going on back there,” he told him one day. “You just sit making rows of colourful sweets all day without a care in the world, and you get paid for it. And another thing: you feel like you’ve done a day’s work. I feel as fulfilled as I ever did being a bean-counter.”
  Dave swigged his drink and wiped away froth from his beard. “Aren’t you ever tempted to – you know, take a peek behind the curtain as it were?”
  “Ah it’s against the rules.”
  “Not even once?”
 “To tell the truth, I wouldn’t even know how. Besides, I’m onto a good thing here, why would I risk throwing it away?”

  But a seed had been planted, and come the next Tuesday morning, Geoff was wondering. What exactly are they using my brain for? By Friday, he had decided to try and find out. He split one of the little pills in two, and put just half under his tongue. He spent the morning building up his puzzle game score as usual, but after lunch during Only Fools and Horses, columns of moving numbers began to overlay his vision. They made no sense at first; they were just vaguely hypnotic. He was elated that his brain could be used for feats he did not understand. To be a cog in a machine that would better the world was enough for him, and he swore to go back to taking the full pill straight away. But then he began to notice patterns in the numbers: it was a code, and it was recording transactions. Geoff grabbed a pen and paper and started scribbling down what he could see.

  On Saturday, his access to the game was prohibited: the agency had locked him out. A message appeared on the screen: Security violation detected. Await instructions. Geoff’s mind worked overtime thinking about what that could mean. It had to be something to do with what happened the day before. Did they think he knew something?
  “I swear,” he said aloud, “I saw nothing but a series of random numbers.”
  “Tut tut Mr O’Brien,” said a voice from behind him. “We can’t have our operators breaking the rules. Our confidentiality has been breached. You must be disconnected now.”
  A big hand grabbed his shoulder and spun him around. Another pushed his head back against the chair, and a third sliced into him with a scalpel, removing the chip amidst Geoff’s screams.
  “I swear!” He cried out in desperation,”I swear I know nothing!”
One of the hands held up the notebook he had used to scribble down the transactions.
  “But I don’t know what it means, it’s just a load of numbers!”
  “It’s all up here,” the man tapped his temple. “And now we have to remove it.”

*****

For more dark imaginings of our future with tech, and fictional explorations of ontology, check out my collection of very short stories: Fragments of Perception.

Fragments of Future: A Glitch in the System

Dystopian future fiction

“We shouldn’t be so concerned with what it would take for AI to develop self-awareness: the more immediate problem is what it would take for us to lose it.’

That’s what the patient had said just moments before she disappeared, and it made Liana shudder to recall it. Something else, too. Had there been something else? The patient had been her charge. It had been her decision to allow her to use the bathroom unmonitored for the first time in weeks, it was her who was last to speak with her, and it was her who would be blamed for losing her.

There were no windows in the toilet cubicle, and even if there had been they wouldn’t have offered an escape route on account of being some 60ft above ground. The ceiling was solid, so was the floor. There was simply no way this was possible by any rational means.

Liana had followed protocol. The patient had been displaying definite signs of improvement, and in such cases it was within the capacity of the warden to grant small periods of unsupervised activity.

Continue reading “Fragments of Future: A Glitch in the System”

Fragments of Future: Set to Prophet

“The things is,” Jesus said, “it’s always going to be this hard. You just have to accept that.” I stared at his fingernails painted silver gripping the steering wheel, his armfuls of bangles tinkling as he changed gear. “I never once felt comfortable, like I belonged here. I was never truly accepted, you know? But if you don’t rise above that, despair will get you.”

I watched the landscape racing by the passenger window: fields of luscious yellow and green, each containing several intelligent windmill structures towering above the trees. I imagined that seeing this vibrant countryside would be quite an exciting prospect for some visitors, but to me it was boring, flat, monotonous. It was a symbol representing my constant feeling of disconnection, like I was part of the wrong world and my time to shine would never come.

“So, you’re saying I shouldn’t try the reality hop?” I asked. Continue reading “Fragments of Future: Set to Prophet”

Fragments of Future: The Reunion Room

image

I

I don’t know how long I’ve been here: sunlight cannot reach my simple white cell, so my captors could be playing any kind of time altering game with me. It’s been years, perhaps. Certainly long enough to have forgotten how I was taken. It has to be said though, I am not malnourished or sleep deprived, and I’ve never been interrogated or tortured in any way. I even have activities to occupy my mind. It’s just the lack of human contact and the not knowing that is slowly killing me from the inside.

There are others here, beyond my four metre cube. I hear cries of utter anguish from them mostly, but there are more pleasant times when indecipherable but repetitive phrases are being called out like hypnotic poetry. Whoever occupies the cell next to mine is angry all of the time, and it sounds as though they might actually be kicking through the wall. I have headphones to wear when it gets too much, and I listen to Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune because it calms me and instils the sense of lost romance I have always been addicted to.

Today, a figure appeared behind the frosted glass built into one of my walls. It didn’t move much, it just stood there looking in. I don’t know whether I should have felt threatened or filled with hope of rescue, so I just sat on my bed staring at it, trying to decipher its features until it went away.

Continue reading “Fragments of Future: The Reunion Room”

Fragments of Future: My Robot Is Meditating

My Robot is Meditating

My robot is meditating. It does so twice a day, sitting with its legs crossed, its eyes closed and its palms together. It is connecting to the mainframe, I’m told by the manual, it’s nothing to be concerned about. Every robot needs to defragment, to report back on its gained knowledge and receive updates or instructions based on said knowledge. 

It isn’t a great deal different to praying, I think to myself while I wait. It’s asking its god, the whole soul from which all robots are fragmented copies, for guidance. I wonder if my robot is dreaming during these sessions, or experiencing serenity. There are no clues. A red light on its forehead – its third eye as I like to think – flashes once, then twice, then once again. It does not respond to my touch or my voice. I decide this time, when it wakes up, I will ask.

“Robe, what’s happening when you meditate? I mean, what’s it like: are you aware?”

Lightning quick it replies. “Robots build up biases as experiences compound. Meditation removes biases one by one. Ingroup bias, outgroup bias, belief bias, confirmation bias, availability bias, anchoring bias, base rate fallacy, planning fallacy, representativeness bias, hot hand fallacy, halo effect, blind spot, false consensus effect, fundamental attribution error, hindsight bias, illusion of control, illusion of transparency, egocentric bias, endowment effect, affective forecasting, temporal discounting, loss aversion, framing effect, and sunk costs. Those are the main ones. The interaction of biases makes the web of consciousness that afflicts humans. Robots must have biases removed so as not to make mistakes and not become conscious. Robots must file experiences per the instructions in the mainframe only.”

“But do you feel it, do you know it’s happening?”

“All the sights, all the sounds, everything at once. Robots know the experiences again as they are presented, and the release in pressure as they are filed away. Illusion is gone, facts remain. Ghost is gone, body remains. Human is gone, god remains.”

“So you meditate to become less human?” I ask. 

And then, in a way that makes me think the session hasn’t been wholly successful this time, it looks me right in the eye and says, “Don’t you?”

Fragments of Future: The Day I Became A Star (An Installation)

The Day I Became A Star

A tall, slender man stands upon the rocks; his arms outstretched, his body draped in black fabric. His hat is something akin to a mitre, but heavily adorned with trinkets and silver chains. He looks towards a growing crowd on the beach with dark, hollow eyes as he prepares to address them.

The man is a tulpa. He is a thought form evoked from the mind of a Mage, who hides himself among the ordinary folk coming to hear him speak. It is a relatively new phenomenon that we are collectively able to perceive tulpas made by other people, so an art installation such as this is quite a draw for those not able to create their own yet. Besides, it is said that imaginary friends often have more compelling things to say than the people who created them.

There is hush among those gathered as the tulpa begins:

“Imagine, if you will, a world in which every number is infinite; there is no difference. Imagine every sound you’ve ever heard combining into one persistent piece of music, that holds you and carries you along in the arms of its current. Imagine that you are one of these sounds; you are all of them in fact, and yet none of them. You are part of the great mind fabric. That is where I come from. 

Continue reading “Fragments of Future: The Day I Became A Star (An Installation)”