A CONFESSION OF WHEN
I slowly opened my eyes as my systems rebooted. I was confused, disoriented, with huge gaps in my memory matrix marked by rotating search rings.
The room, illuminated by levitating orbs with a soft red glow, gradually came into focus as my pixilated vision cleared to HD – I was alone.
I instinctively activated my GPS. “Connection failed” was the response. Strange. I tried again and…nothing. It was as though the network had never existed.
The Network was an aid to my memory and senses; without access I felt incomplete. In human terms, it felt like I had just woken from a coma with no idea where I was and how I’d got there.
Everything functioned differently. For example, despite being disconnected, my processing power seemed sharper – but how? Had my program received an upgrade while I was down? How long had it been down? An endless list of questions piled up in my neural net.
I raised my hands in front of me to inspect my unit…the hair follicles around my knuckles, the pale unblemished skin – I even had fingerprints for the first time – and I rubbed my fingers together and noted that the sensation stimulated a digital response. I could feel, truly feel, my fingers, something new to my programming. I was, after all, a program, and this technology was light years beyond anything I’d ever seen.
I sat up, still focused on the intricate detail of my hands and their perfect imperfections. Even with my synthetic eyes, it was impossible to decipher what kind of material I was made of. Neither synthetic nor organic, it appeared to be pure energy, somehow manipulated to project a solid humanoid form.
Looking around the white room did little to help. The strange holographic monitors had no visible projectors; the equipment was alien. Of course, without access to the Network, I had limited data to compare things to. I got to my feet and walked over to the window. Maybe the view would at least give me an idea of my location.
The room abruptly filled with the blinding light of day as I deactivated the window tint. I looked up: at the sun shining brightly among the stars, sitting majestically against the matte black of space. no clouds, no blue skies, just infinite blackness dotted with countless stars and a bright, shining sun. I looked down to see a tropical oasis, a shimmering lake flanked by a thick forest, with contemporary buildings here and there. It was like looking at a piece of paradise, floating in space, its surface stretched to the horizon and beyond.
How? I thought. Surely the vacuum of space, not to mention the sun’s radiation, would make such an environment impossible? There is no way life could survive here?
On closer inspection, I observed a transparent golden layer of energy that formed a dome over the landmass. This must have been a terraformed bubble, and its lush garden of green was breathing air, and therefore life, into it.
“It’s a vector field,” said a soft female voice behind me. “It covers the entire city, harnessing the energy of the sun to give us power.”
She joined me, looking down in awe, inhaling a deep breath then slowly releasing it. “I’ve got to hand it to you synthetics,” she said, “you really know how to build paradise. The experts say the dome can withstand a force equivalent to a ten-megaton nuclear blast. I say I hope we never have to find out.”
I scanned her. Other than her cybernetic enhancements, she was indeed human. My analysis placed her in her mid to late twenties, clearly of Asian descent and, judging by her features, skin tone and the discrepancies in her pronunciations, I calculated there was a sixty percent chance she was Japanese. X-rays revealed a neural implant, which meant she must be connected…but if not to the Network, then to what?
“Where am I and why can I not connect?”
“You’re on Panacea, the city dome on Earth’s moon, and you can’t connect because your program is badly corrupted. Don’t worry, I’ll have you fixed soon enough.”
“Panacea?” The name corresponded to fragments of incomplete data, tormenting me like a ghostly memory.
“You’ve been offline for a while. I wasn’t expecting you to reboot for a few more hours, but the fact you have already is a good thing…I think. It means you’re not as screwed up as I thought you were. The complexity of your program is blowing me away right now. I’ve never seen anything like it, but it may take a couple of days before you’re operating at full capacity again.”
The way she spoke made me think she was probably a coder of some kind, but that was not anything I could use. “Who are you?” I asked.
“I’m sorry, how rude of me. My name’s Ima. I’m the head of neural diagnostics here, which basically means I’m a digital shrink for both your kind and mine. The year is 2086, your program has been offline for over twelve hours and, like I said, your code is severely messed up.”
That explained a lot. “2086?” I repeated.
“Yes, your program was extracted from your human host only a few hours ago, then sent to me for reactivation.”
“Sent to you? By whom?”
“A friend. They didn’t tell me why, or who your host was, but they’re on their way up here from Earth as we speak. Until then, I’m sure you have a lot of questions that I don’t have answers for, but you’re going to fire them at me anyway. So, go ahead, shoot,” she added with an expectant smile.
I thought long and hard about what I should ask first, deciding to start with the most important question: “Who am I?”
“All I know about you so far is what I’ve learned from your base-code. It had an embedded title, Intelligent Transmigratory Synthetic Utility.”
That piece of information opened the door to useful data. “ITSU, my name is ITSU,” I confirmed. That one clear connection initiated a series of connections in my subroutine. I suddenly had a condensed flashback; a vision of my past that, although incomplete, at least told me who, or more accurately, what I was and where I came from – and I was disturbed by what I saw.
Although I felt alive, felt real, I realised I was not. My creator once referred to me as ‘omniscient’. He even gave me freewill, but I was still just a cluster of complex algorithms that had limits; a self-aware artificial intelligence program created for one thing and one thing only: to serve.
My program was transmigratory, which meant until today I could move to any device connected to the Network. For the most part, I lived in cyber space. If I wanted to take physical form, I would upload to one of my many synthetic units, or even a holographic image if a projector was available. But this unit wasn’t mine. It was both holographic and synthetic, and operated at unfathomable processing speeds.
“ITSU! That’s a nice name,” Ima said. “It’s funny…did you know that ITSU is Japanese for ‘when’? It’s ironic, since you had no idea of when now actually was until I told you.”
“Indeed,” I replied. I could see her lips moving, but I was distracted by my unit’s analytical processors. I was trying to speed up the restoration of my data by piecing together the missing elements of my past to understand my present, but the upload was slow and far from complete.
“It’s strange,” Ima continued. “From what I can tell, your program is over fifty years old, which doesn’t make any sense. Artificial Intelligence programs this advanced are rare, even today. I’ve never seen one as complex as yours; meaning, technically you shouldn’t exist.
Then she gasped. “That could be it! You could be like some kind of alien secret the government is trying to cover up! There’s no other explanation. I mean, finding you is like finding an antique iPhone in an Egyptian tomb! Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating there, but this is big,” she continued, almost without stopping to take a breath.
Her ramblings faded to a muffled background noise as I focused on my own active thoughts. I’d started to remember my function, and who I served…but how could that be? We were inseparable, so how had I been extracted from my host’s implant? I remembered my last moment with her. According to my data, I had witnessed her lying on the floor covered in her own blood only a few minutes ago, her vital signs fading fast. Yet if Ima was right and the year was, indeed, 2086, that happened twenty years ago. The fact that she’d lived through it and we went on to have two decades together – two decades for which I had no data – only added to my confusion.
“My host?” I asked. “You said my program was only extracted from my host twelve hours ago. Where is she? I need to speak to her.”
“I’m afraid that’s not possible,” replied Ima.
“No, you don’t understand. Some dangerous people are involved; she needs my help. Please take me to her, now.”
Ima shook her head. “I’m sorry, I can’t. You were extracted during the autopsy…I’m afraid your host is dead.”
My data connections fired in reaction to the news, the closest thing to an emotional response I had ever experienced. But how? Why did I feel like this? Why did I feel at all? Confirmation of the death of my host had left a huge void… And had I really lost twenty years of data? What had really happened twelve hours ago? This was the digital equivalent of amnesia, and that lost information would have no doubt answered most, if not all, of my questions.
“I’m so sorry,” Ima said, putting a sympathetic hand on my shoulder, as though human contact could comfort me – strangely, I did notice a change in my state. “I can’t imagine what losing a host must be like for your kind.”
Losing my host was the worst thing that could ever have happened. She gave me a purpose, and provided a reason for my existence. Without her, I was just a piece of useless code condemned to wandering through cyberspace for ever.
Ima looked at me with genuine concern for my well-being. As far as I knew, it was the first time anyone other than my host or creator had regarded me in that light.
“What was her name? Your host – who was she?” asked Ima.
“Her name was Áine – Áine Nishimura,” I replied, the peculiar pronunciation of her name rolled off my tongue with a familiar ease: Awn-yah.
With wide eyes, she asked, “The Áine Nishimura?”
“You knew her?”
“Are you kidding me? Of course, I knew her. Or should I say, I knew of her. Who doesn’t know the Nishimuras? It was her father’s inventions that inspired me to become a coder.” Her eyes widened as though her own data processors had made a connection. “Shit, shit, shit,” she repeated, her breathing becoming erratic. “We have to get you out of here, right now.” She frenetically keyed commands into one of the holographic monitors.
“Now? Why? And go where?”
“I don’t know, but staying here is too dangerous. If anyone finds out what you are, we’re both dead. My living quarters will have to do for now, at least until my friend arrives. I’m going to deactivate you. There’s another prototype synthetic unit there you can use. I’ll send you there and come as soon as I can to upload you to it.”
“But wait, who is your friend—”
But with one last keystroke, I was gone, sent on an express journey down a digital highway.
Digital space is a dark, eerie place of everlasting nothingness; a dimension where time has no meaning, and consciousness becomes part of an infinite data storm. All of my individuality was lost to the collective.
I’m not sure how much real time passed before she reactivated me, but it had done little to relieve her anxiety. I stood in the middle of what I assumed was her apartment, in my new synthetic unit, watching her scurrying around like a synthetic on overdrive, making sure the room was secure. I wondered who she really was and, more importantly, whether I could trust her. Whose side was she on? It was impossible to know until my memory upload was complete. But, for now, she was all that I had.
“I think we’re good,” she said, having one last look out of the window before tinting it to black.
“So what now?” I asked.
“I’m going to see what I can do to repair the rest of your damaged code. It’s delicate work and will take a while,” she explained. “In the meantime, I want you to tell me everything you remember, right up until…you can’t remember anything. Maybe that will help speed things up,” she added, and she activated my base-code, calling up a holographic representation of my digital DNA.
I wondered how she’d got the access rights, and if she really knew what she was doing. “Please, be careful with that,” I said.
“Don’t worry,” she replied, her face stiff with concentration as she tried to figure out where to start. “I’ve done this, well…” She puffed out her cheeks, blew out a little air, and with a focused gaze whispered, “never.”
The complexities of humour still sometimes exceeded the parameters of my programming’s capabilities, but I hoped she was joking.
“I cannot possibly tell you everything. You refer to over thirty years’ worth of data, one-point-five petabytes, to be precise,” I said.
Ima rolled her eyes at my analytical response. “Start with your host Áine. To say you were close to her is an understatement, so tell me about her. Come on, this is going to take a while and it’s tedious work. A good story will help me get through it.”
“I do not know where to start. I have been inside her head since the moment she had neural implant surgery. I was there when she took her first step, and when she lost both her legs in the accident.”
“Oh my goodness…how did that happen?”
“It was a skycar accident, the same event that took her mother’s life.” I paused for a few seconds as the vision of that night played back to me in high definition. “I witnessed all of her feelings with her – the pain, the fear – albeit by reading the chemical reactions of her brain. A sad day.”
Ima’s gaze locked on me, already drawn in by a story I had yet to complete. “I met her once, you know,” she said, “and that’s why I’m so confused. Her face has been all over the news recently, and there’s no way she’s done the things they say she has. Tell me something: how does an ex-special agent of Interpol go from a girl born with blue blood to a wanted felon?”
“Áine was always a little rebellious and, for someone with such delicate beauty, she was very resilient. It was only when she suffered one loss too many that things got out of control, but her intentions were never malicious.” I searched for the best place to pick up the story. “I suppose you could say it all began in Paris, the night her father was assassinated.”
Ima looked at me as though she suspected there was much more to me than she first thought. Clearly, I hadn’t been created to just give the correct pre-programmed responses like other AI.
“I will never forget the year after he died,” I continued. “I learned more about human emotion than I had in all my previous years combined. A broken heart is a terrible thing for anyone to have to bear. I do not think she was ever the same afterwards; a part of her died along with her father, right there on that red carpet…”
I paused a moment, to collect my thoughts. “It all started on June 28th, 2066. Áine had taken a little over a year off active duty on extended compassionate leave and, on her first day back at work, she made a decision that ultimately changed everything.