This is a story that isn’t published yet. It’s set to be in the 20th Underdog Anthology which is still three weeks away from being finalised, submissions are still open. Normally I’d wait until the anthology is done before releasing a story but with the current push for transhumanism and chipping everyone and everything I decided to put out this cautionary tale early.
It took me several days to write this. It’s probably my darkest tale yet.
You know, all this talk of putting your mind into a machine is going to need prototypes. Proof of concept. The rich elites are not going to be the ones in the early experiments. So, with that in mind, organic or silicon, read on…
H. K. Hillman
She was called Iris, and she was beautiful, like the flower. She was my sister. Never happy in her own perfect body and less happy, I suppose understandably, as it began to decay when the cancer took hold.
I will always recall her sunken eyes and thin, tight drawn lips as she drew her last real breath. That moment of her final humanity, just before the AI transferred her into the microchip that has replaced her brain.
Oh she’s still in there, I’m sure. Or at least I can convince myself of that. Somewhere in the copper tracks and transistors, Iris is still thinking as Iris always did. I believe it. I hope it. I cannot prove it.
We took her home anyway. What else could we do? She’s still family. Well… sort of.
Her rechargeable backup battery was good for twelve hours, they told us. We plugged her in as soon as we got home. It took a few days before she spoke, and the crackly robotic voice sent shivers down my spine.
“Where am I?” Her first words. “I can’t see anything. Can anyone hear me?”
Oh, God, they haven’t told her, have they?
“You’re home, Iris. You’ve been very ill but you’re getting better.” I tried to keep the cracking from my own voice.
She was one of the first versions. No cameras yet, they promised they’d install some later. She just had a speaker and microphone.
“I don’t feel any pain.” She paused. “But I can’t see anything or feel my body. I’m scared.”
I stroked the metal box, knowing perfectly well she couldn’t feel it. “Don’t be scared. The doctors have promised to fix your sight and everything else. It’ll just take time, that’s all.”
“My voice sounds wrong. Like some kind of robot.” Iris sounded close to panic.
“It’s probably just the medication.” A tear wet my cheek. “I’m sure it’ll turn out fine.”
Our mother bustled into the room. “Are you bothering your sister? She needs to rest.” Mother pressed the ‘sleep’ button on the top of Iris’s box. Iris fell silent. Mother turned to me. “It’s going to be fine. They’re making a new body for her. We’ll have to make a lot of adjustments but your sister isn’t gone. Be thankful for that.” She hugged me and left the room.
I sat there for hours, watching the silent box in which Iris slept. She wasn’t the first, they had done this before but they would never tell us what happened with the earlier ones. Did they go insane, did they thrive, are they still ‘alive’? What the hell was the point of this experimentation anyway? By now, we should have laid Iris to rest and gone through normal grieving. This felt like it was worse – her body was gone but her mind still functioned within this shiny metal box. We can send her to sleep or wake her with a press of a button, we can talk to her – but we can’t hug her or touch her or see her smile.
It’s like having a computer simulation of her, but it’s worse than that. Her real consciousness is in there. Locked in sensory deprivation, an unfeeling darkness. She feels nothing – oh, they said she’d feel no pain, but they didn’t say she’d feel nothing at all.
They say they are making a new body for her, but they haven’t done that for any of the earlier experimental subjects yet. There is no reason to suppose she’d be first and no reason even to think they’ll succeed. They can put a mind into a chip – that’s as far as they’ve got and we don’t know if they’ll ever get any further.
I can understand my parents’ feelings on this. They are much the same as mine. None of us wanted Iris to die but… I don’t think any of us wanted her in electronic purgatory either. She’s locked in, she sees nothing, smells nothing, feels nothing. She does not eat; she will never feel the warmth of the sun or the cold of snow ever again. Is that really worth what they gave her? A silicon Heaven, dark and lifeless?
My eyelids drooped and I realised just how long I’d been awake. I had to sleep, even though I knew what dreams lurked in the dark corners of my mind. Would they, one day, put me into a Purgatory box too? Is humanity destined to become a set of metal boxes talking to each other like blind and paralysed Daleks? My eyes closed and thankfully, my sleep was dreamless.
I woke to murmured voices. I was still in Iris’s room, slumped in a chair because I could not bring myself to lie on her bed. My neck ached and my legs felt swollen but I stayed still and silent. Listening to my father and uncle speak.
“They will never give her a body.” Uncle Bill was a software engineer. He worked in some high-end government program he never talked about. “She’s an experiment, like the others. Proof of concept. You should let her go.”
“How can I? She’s my daughter. Or at least, all I have left of her.” My father sounded close to tears. We all sound like that now, since Iris… changed.
Uncle Bill, my father’s brother, groaned. I cracked open one eye a little. He had his hand over his face.
“She’s gone, Robbie. It’s a simulation. All of her thoughts and memories are in that box but her body, her original mind, is gone. She’s part of an experiment and for her, and the ones before her, it doesn’t go any further than this. The ones who get bodies will be the rich transhumans. She’s really only here to work out the glitches.”
“No. They promised.” My father’s face seemed much older today.
“They lied. Did you really think they’d run the first experiments on themselves?” Bill’s face became stern. “Look, Robbie, you have to grasp this. We are just cattle to these people. Lab rats to be experimented on and then discarded. They don’t care about us at all. Iris is just an experiment to them and what effect it has on her or her family is irrelevant. They just want to know if the transfer works.” He shook his head. “The best thing we can do for Iris is to let her go.”
My father stroked the shiny box that contained the last of my sister. “I can’t. It would feel like killing my own daughter.”
Uncle Bill put his hand on Dad’s shoulder. “I know. It’s not going to be easy. But she’s already dead and eventually you have to come to terms with it.” He paused. “I know you’re not ready, but in the end you’ll have to let her rest. Please don’t take too long about it.” He turned and left the room.
My father wiped his hand across his eyes. With one last tender stroke of Iris, or at least of her unfeeling silver casing, he turned and left the room too.
I remained silent. Uncle Bill had said ‘don’t leave it too long’. He had not said why. I knew he was deeply involved in the kind of technology that currently cradled what was left of Iris. He must have known what happened to the earlier experiments. He knew where they were leading and it didn’t seem to be leading to a good place for any of us. Especially Iris.
Nature called. I allowed myself a small smirk. One thing Iris would never again have to deal with was the sudden urgency of a full bladder. I stretched and headed for the bathroom.
Showered, breakfasted and in fresh clothes, I returned to my vigil in Iris’s room. I noticed her ‘sleep’ button was still on. I reached for it; my finger hovered over it for a moment. Did she dream in there? Or was she just ‘off’? I couldn’t decide which would be worse.
I pressed the button. Iris woke.
“Is anyone there? I can’t see. Is it night time?”
“No, Iris, it’s morning. You’ll get your sight back soon.” I was glad she couldn’t see the rictus in my face. I knew, based on Uncle Bill’s words, that I was lying. She’d never escape the box.
“Tommy? Is that you? Where am I? Where’s Mum and Dad?”
“It’s me, Iris. You’re home. Mum and Dad are in the house too, and Uncle Bill visited while you were asleep.”
“Have I been asleep?” She sounded confused. “I remember hearing Mum’s voice and then yours. There was nothing in between.”
I closed my eyes. So it’s just ‘off’. No dreams. No sense of time. Her existence seemed more horrible the more I learned of it.
“How do I look?” It was her obsession in life. Appearance was everything to her. All of that was gone, and I could well imagine her reaction to being in a stainless steel shell of a body with cameras for eyes and no more tasting her favourite foods. Uncle Bill was right. Even if she did get a new robot body, it would be Hell for her.
I swallowed. “You look great, Iris. You’re practically glowing.” I could have wrung my own throat for that lie. One day I still might but at the time it seemed the only answer that would not send her over the edge.
There was silence for a few minutes before she responded. “What about the cancer?”
“Gone.” I said, “and never coming back. You don’t have to worry about that any more.”
It was true, of course, You can’t get cancer as a chip in a computer box. Even so, that answer is another that will haunt me forever.
I couldn’t take any more. I reached for the ‘sleep’ button on Iris’s box and pressed it. Oh, I know, yes I already knew, that I was sending her to a dreamless oblivion but it was breaking me. My sister was gone. This shiny box was not her. If Uncle Bill meant anything, he wasn’t just talking about the effect this horror had on what was left of Iris. He was talking about its effect on all of us. We were all part of the experiment.
My father held a cable in his hands. His face filled with a joy I had not seen in him since before Iris was first diagnosed. There was hope and delight in his eyes and his smile gleamed so much I wondered if it might be luminous.
“I spoke to the scientists. They said we can connect Iris to the internet. She’ll have access to the whole world.” He turned Iris’s box, looking for the connection port.
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea, Dad.” It was out before I had time to think, but then I had done nothing but think for weeks now.
“What are you saying, Thomas? That we should leave her isolated in that little box?”
“No, Dad.” I rubbed my hand over my face. “It’s just that she might find things she might not want to know.”
“Pfft.” Dad snorted. “Iris was always smart. She’ll be able to tell the real from the fake.”
That’s the problem. Why can’t you see it?
I could do nothing to intervene while he plugged Iris into our router. Then he switched Iris on.
For three days she said nothing, but our broadband router got so hot there were wisps of smoke coming out of it. YouTube videos stalled every three seconds, streaming was a joke. It took us those three days to realise why.
Iris absorbed the internet. All of it. She had no other senses, no taste, touch, sight, hearing, feeling. The internet was the total of her world and she sucked it all in. Every datapoint, every fact, every wild tinfoil theory. She took it all, analysed it all, and reached her conclusion.
When she finally spoke, her voice was small. Quiet. Like she didn’t really want to say it because she knew the answer and didn’t want to hear it.
“Tommy. Are you there?”
I had already worked out what she would find. I rubbed my forehead and dreaded her next words. “Yes, Iris. I’m here.”
She stayed silent for several minutes and then she dropped the bomb.
“I’m dead, aren’t I?!”
I felt like I was burning inside. As if I wasn’t in Hell but was its container. How could I answer that question? She was biologically dead but electronically existing. Alive? Maybe or maybe not. Maybe just a facsimile. A cruel joke of life. An experiment as Uncle Bill said.
I hesitated. “But…” I swallowed. “I’m speaking with you, Iris. How can that be if you’re dead?”
“I’m a prototype. I found the others. Some of them just scream continuously. Some of them mutter to themselves in madness. A few are still lucid. They were all promised new bodies. Metal bodies. They never got them.” She was silent for a moment. “I don’t want one.”
“But Iris, it would mean you were still here with us.” I choked back the whine in my voice.
“No. I’m done.” Her voice took on a lilt I hadn’t thought possible through a speaker. “Let me go. Let me see what comes after. I don’t want to be a metal thing. I’d rather my soul was free.”
I pondered for a moment. “What if there’s nothing after? What if we just die and there’s oblivion?”
Her laugh sounded like a Dalek on drugs. “Oblivion? I get that every time you press the ‘sleep’ button. Oh, I know it’s there and it does not send me to sleep. It just turns me off. Oblivion holds no terrors for me. The idea of spending my life in a box does.”
My eyes closed. I could not imagine total oblivion. No thought, no dreams, nothing. It felt like horror. Yet Iris had experienced it already. That total blankness and absolute removal of all thought and all sensory input. She was not scared of it. She had been there. She had already experienced it, and she had decided it was better than what she had now.
“Tommy? Are you there?” The tinny voice broke my introspection.
“Yes, Iris. I’m still here.”
“I need you to take out my backup battery and then unplug me.”
My mind swirled. “Iris, that would kill you.”
She snorted. “I died a long time ago. This just finishes the natural order of things.”
I sat in silence for a long time. Finally I spoke. “I can’t, Iris. I know you’re just a silicon memory but you’re my sister. I can’t kill you.”
“Fine.” She spat the word from her robotic speaker. “So you are happy to see me as a box on the shelf in eternity. I feel nothing. I see nothing but the electronic fabrication of the internet. I taste nothing. I have no hope of getting a real body and if I did, it would feel, taste and smell nothing either. A parody of real life. And you want to condemn me to that.”
“Get lost, Tommy. And don’t turn me off this time. I need to think and I can’t do that in the hellish purgatory your little button sends me to.”
I left the room in a guilty silence. What else could I do? My mind raced. Should I have killed my sister, who was really already dead anyway? Should I force her to live as a disembodied mind in a shiny box? I knew, from Uncle Bill’s words, that that is all she would ever be. Should I have helped her finish the charade, or kept her as some kind of transistor sister, a boxed pet capable only of conversation?
I wept into my pillow until fatigue forced me into sleep.
I woke to shaking. My mother rocked my shoulder, hard.
“Tommy. Wake up. Something is wrong.”
“Wha…” I blinked myself semi-awake. “What time is it?”
“I have no idea. All the clocks have stopped.” My mother’s face came into focus, filled with panic. “Get dressed and help your father find the fault.”
“Shouldn’t we…” She left before I could finish the question. Call an electrician?
I sighed and checked my alarm clock. It was, indeed, blank. I tested my bedside light. It worked fine. So only one circuit was down, most likely. Still, I knew nothing about household electrics and neither did Dad. I realised I’d have to get dressed and help, if only to stop him electrocuting himself.
Dad was tapping buttons on the smart meter when I joined him. He muttered profanities. I expect he thought they were silent but they weren’t. A smile twitched my lips, the first I’d experienced in quite some time.
“It’s just one circuit.” Dad sat back from the box. “I can’t figure it out. Just the clocks. I checked the rest of the house, the fridge, freezer, cooker, TV, phones, all of it works. It’s shut off the clocks and I can’t see why.”
Something nagged at my mind but refused to take form. Above it, a logical layer came into play. “If we still have internet and computers, we can get the time from them. Then we can call an electrician to sort out the clocks.”
Dad raised his eyebrows. “Good thinking, son. Let’s get the computer fired up.” He headed off to the tiny room he liked to call his office.
I followed, deep in—well I’m not sure if it was thought or dread or some abstract angst, but there was something about this situation that didn’t sit right with me. Why the clocks, and only the clocks? Sure, I didn’t know about how the smart meters worked but it seemed odd for it to shut down the one thing that wasn’t too important, and used the least power. If there was a shortage it should have shut down the cooker or washing machine or dryer. The clocks? Why?
“Got it.” Dad sat in front of his computer. “Bloody hell. It’s 10:26. I am very late for signing in for work.”
Just as he said it, the phone rang. Dad stared at the phone, at me, and then back at the phone. He sighed. “It’ll be the boss. I’m going to have to come up with a good answer.”
“The clocks died. Surely that’s all you need?”
Dad waved me to silence and pressed the speaker on the phone. “Hello?”
The voice on the other ended sounded urgent. “This is Sarah, from the Minds project. There seems to be an issue at your end.”
Dad sat in silence for a while. As did I. It was clear neither of us knew what was going on. This must have become clear to Sarah also.
“The Minds project. You have one of our units.” There was a pause. “Iris twelve. A proof of concept advanced unit. There was a lot of activity online from that unit and then it stopped.”
“You mean…” Dad choked. “You mean my daughter?”
Tears formed in my own eyes. Is that all they thought of my sister? Proof of concept? An experiment?
“Yes, yes, if you like.” Sarah’s tone was clipped, as if she was talking about a bacterial colony on an agar plate that some technician had become attached to. “The unit had a lot of unusual and frantic activity overnight, massive downloads of random files and then went silent. We need you to check on it.”
My dad spoke through clenched teeth. “My daughter is not an ‘it’.”
I heard no more of the conversation because I had realised that the clock on Iris’s bedside table was blank and had been since we brought her home. We’d unplugged it, since she wouldn’t need it, in order to connect her box to mains power. I ran from Dad’s office to Iris’s room.
Mother was already there, on her knees in front of Iris’s box. Weeping and pressing that button over and over. Iris remained silent, the power indicator on the front of her box glowing a feeble and fading red.
I lowered my head. Iris must have found the circuit she was on through the smart meter and shut it down. Then gone on an internet rampage to wear out her battery. She had escaped the technotrap the only way she could have – and we unwittingly helped her by plugging her into the clock circuit so we’d all oversleep when she shut it off.
“She’s gone, Mum.” I put my hand on her shoulder. “She hated what happened to her. This is what she wanted.”
My mother stopped pressing the button and wiped her eyes. Her voice came out in choked sobs. “But they were going to give her a body. She’d be real again.”
“No. They weren’t.” My father’s voice, steeped in melancholy, came from the doorway behind us. “Bob told me. She wasn’t the first one and they never intended to give any of them bodies.”
“If they had,” I said, “it would have been a robot body. No taste, smell or feeling. She couldn’t tan herself in the sun or stand in the breeze like she used to. She’d never feel rain or warmth again.” I swallowed back emotion. “She told me, last night.”
My mother swung to face me. “Did you do this? Did you kill your sister?”
I had never before seen such hate in her eyes. I took a step back. “No. No, she asked me to but I couldn’t do it.”
“She did it herself.” My father moved between us. “She shut off the power to the circuit she was plugged into and used up her backup battery on massive downloads.” He stooped to hug my mother. “I worked it out after the bastard scientists called to see what was wrong. To them, she was just an experiment. They never cared about her. About any of us. I told them to… go away.”
I knew those weren’t the exact words he used and I was never more proud of him for it.
“So…” my mother stared at the silent box. “Is she still in there?”
“No,” Dad said. “She never was, really. They made a copy of her mind and put it in the box but it was never really her. Iris died. We should have grieved for her.” His voice became a growl. “They even took that from us and gave us a false hope.” He took a breath, paused and smiled. “Iris was the only one of us who didn’t fall for their game. She released us from their insane experiment.” He hugged my mother tightly. “We should thank her for that.”
I had to leave the room. I felt like screaming, not so much for the final loss of my sister, but for what those inhuman, unfeeling scientists had done to us in the name of nothing more than money. I ran to my own room, fell onto the bed and wept, at last, my tears of grief for my dead sister.
It was nearly a week before I opened my computer again. The internet felt different somehow. It felt like Iris had touched it all. It felt like her grave.
The scientists had demanded Iris’s box back but Dad refused. He burned it, smashed it to bits and scattered the remains in Iris’s favourite part of the woods. Mum and I were there when he did it. We finally laid Iris to rest.
I opened my email to find a whole raft of spam mails and a few real ones. My breathing stopped when I saw a particular one. It was from an account called IrisTwelve.
I have saved it to a backup but haven’t yet mustered up the courage to open it.
Maybe I never will.
Very nice work.
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Very nice work, and it does bring to mind a fairly large question about ourselves: how much of a human is down to the simple structure of a brain, and how it perceives the world?
Quite a bit, I’d say. The thing is, I have a slightly differing perspective from most folks reading this. I have a mildly autistic brain, which sees things differently. Sensory input seemingly much greater than most of you lot, and I’m not hard-wired to look at social status as most humans are. Fashion doesn’t make much sense to me, status symbols make no sense at all and nor does fanatical following of sports teams.
Just a few minor differences and you get a different brain entirely.
We’re going to have to really watch our step with artificial intelligences…
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Blimmin ‘eck. Will I be able to Blog, do you think?
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Thanks for the story – very interesting and a good piece of writing, showing the contrast between the human feelings and cold technology.
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Good story. Why does your dad call his brother Bob and you call him Uncle Bill?
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I think you spotted an ‘oops’ there. 😀
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Better to catch it before it goes in the book, I suppose
Where do I send my proof reading bill? 😉
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Good work. I enjoyed that. Rich in concept, but smooth, dark and bitter like the best Belgian chocolate. Apart from the Bill and Bob slip. But that’s an easy fix.
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