Hello all and welcome back to Anthology central, where news of the breaking “Yuva” novel is always on the table! Today, I thought I’d share my latest draft of “Winston Agonistes”, my own contribution to the anthology, which is coming along pretty well. After a week of writer’s block, and feeling that my ideas had to be grade A since Khaalidah and Goran were sending me pure gold, I finally got back to the keyboard with what I felt was some inspired stuff.
The first idea came to me when I was driving north with my darling bride. After passing the rose garden that sits outside our place and noticing all the lovely orange roses in bloom, we were driving along the highway that is lined by orange poppies. These plants, and many other incredibly beautiful specimens of flora, can always be observed growing along the Malahat drive on rocky outcroppings, especially in summer. Well, that got me thinking… isn’t it interesting how the hardiest plants seem to be the ones that generate the greatest beauty?
Immediately, I hard the voice of Winston saying this in my head. Naturally, I designed his character with the voice of David from Prometheus in mind. Somehow, I am of the opinion that an AI who is responsible for dealing with people, especially government officials, would be programmed to sound like a classical Shakespearean actor. And so I began thinking of a scene where Winston would be observing several species of plants, such as roses and poppies, and was reflecting on this very paradox.
Another thought struck me when I considered that in all likelihood, future terraformers would want to consider using such hardy plants when it came time to begin transforming a terrestrial environment to suit the basic needs of human settlers. Things like fireweed, garry oaks, poppies, roses, and wild strains of wheat – the kinds of plants that grow in harsh conditions and are intrinsic to nursing damaged landscapes back to health so more fragile and prolific plants can grow – these would likely be the first wave of Earth plants to go out onto an alien landscape, once an oxygen atmosphere had been established at any rate.
And last, but certainly not least, came the collaborative idea between Khaalidah and myself, where we discussed the possibility of how aging AI’s were learning a startling truth. Given than an AI’s neural network is designed based on the human brain, where every experience from birth causes neural connections to be formed, it would only be a matter of time before they began to develop certain quirks. We figured that something approximating emotion would be one, where familiar patterns such as exposure to certain people would become second nature to them, and missed when absent.
Well, that spawned all of part II of my story (as seen below). Take a gander and see what comes of Winston’s “education” about life, and it means to be an artificial life form in a world where the line between artificial and real is always eroding. Some revisions were made to Part I as well, hence why it appears here in its entirety. Feel free to skip ahead if you’ve already read it:
The sun was beginning to set, casting the sky into a deep orange. It was the time that the first settlers had called “the magic hour”, the many warm hours between dusk and dark. Winston stood at the dome wall and watched. On occasion, he cast a passing glance at his hands, which the glowing suns seemed to casting in the color of a light citrus fruit. He was sure he would find that amusing, if he could. He was sure there was much about this situation that would inspire an emotional reaction.
Alas, such was not the case. Though understandable to him, such things still remained inaccessible. Perhaps someday, with adequate upgrades in the available software…
“Mr. Winston?” a voice called to him from the doorway. The footsteps and tone of voice immediately indicated who it was. He put on a smile and turned to face him.
“Councilman Mutlu. How are you?”
“I’m fine, Mr. Winston,” he replied, entering the room. He looked around appraisingly, noting the furniture and layout. No doubt it all seemed excessive to him, but at the same time necessary. “I trust you are adjusting to your new surroundings?”
“Of course, Mr. Mutlu. I am settling in quite nicely.”
“Good, good,” he said, looking around awkwardly. Even without the ability to empathize, he could gauge the man’s discomfort. Then again, many people exhibited this reaction when in the company of a synthetic. In such circumstances, it was always best to focus on matters of a professional nature. At least that was what his subroutines told him.
“Would you care to sit down? I can offer you some refreshment as well if you so desire. Tea? Coffee?”
“Ah, tea, thank you.”
He busied himself with a tray of carafes and a heater as Mutlu took one of the chairs in front of his desk. He noted the sounds of shifting against the seat’s fabric, the way he kept moving his hands from one spot to the next. By the time the water had boiled in the heater and had located an appropriate tea from the stores, Mutlu seemed to have found a comfortable seated position. He approached him with all the assorted items on the tray that had been provided. He set it down between them on his desk and offered Mutlu a cup.
“The business of running a colony is quite stressful work, is it not Councilman?”
“Uh, yes, yes it is,” he said, taking the cup that was offered. “Have you had a chance to look over the proposals we have sent over.”
“I have indeed,” he said, taking the other cup and sitting back in his own chair. He knew this to be mere small talk, as the matter of processing those proposals had been a mere matter of dispensation. Assessing the nature of the problem, suggested measures, and weighing them according to the rubrics of his primary programming. Under the circumstances, asking such a question was completely inane, but in keeping with social norms.
“And what have you found?”
He took a sip from his cup before answering. “Quite simply, that the Council’s draft is in keeping with the best traditions of constitutionalism and humanism. That ensuring the rights of all citizens, regardless of their background prior to making the journey, is the most sensible course of approach. Ensuring that such a baseline exists at such an early stage is the wisest approach in both fostering amnesty between colonies while at the same guaranteeing that they submit to further negotiation.”
Mutlu looked down at his cup, back up again to his eyes. He seemed preoccupied with him performing this most basic function in front of him, but did not appear oblivious to his words. Eventually, he took another sip and smiled.
“Good. My colleagues will be most pleased to hear that.”
He smiled in return. “Does the Council hold my endorsement in such high regard?”
Joviality. The gesture known as playful irony. Suggesting that the Councilor saw his approval as something very high indeed, a testament to his computational abilities. A gentle mockery of his obvious discomfort, meant to trigger a humorous response.
“Well yes…” he said, entirely serious. “I can only assume that you’ve subjected our hopes to proceed with a formal constitution to your… what did you call it again?”
“Ethical Calculus, sir.”
“Right!” Mutlu set his cup down and began to speak more freely. His hands began to provide gestures that accorded visual representation to his words. “After all, we’ve been subjected to a great deal of criticism from within and without, many people think we should be ironing out the basic agreements between colonies before we commit to any kind of draft that could commit us to policies down the road. I must say I find all those arguments…”
“Distasteful?” Winston suggested. Mutlu nodded.
“Quite right… it seems a shameful thing that such cynicism has set into the process already. It’s almost as if they don’t think the colonists can…”
“Trust each other?”
Mutlu nodded again. He noticed a growing shimmer in the man’s eye. How quickly he was forgetting that the man sitting across from him was not a man at all.
“Exactly the point. And it’s not like we’re talking about disparate factions here. Everyone on this world came here with the same goal in mind. The same hope for a new beginning.”
“And yet, old habits die hard.”
Mutlu looked at him with surprise. “Are you saying you have doubts, then?”
Winston smiled as broadly as the muscle fibers in his face would permit.
“Purely an observation. Nevertheless, you and the Council are on the right track. You should take heart in that.”
“Excellent.” Mutlu retrieved his cup and began to look at curiously at Winston again. One more, it seemed that the knowledge of what he was dealing with was creeping back into his mind. But at least he seemed at ease. One by one, the Council seemed to be adjusting to the idea of having synthetics amongst them, entrusting their most precious decision making to them even. It was a significant step up from the laborious practices that the other models were forced to endure.
Now seemed the appropriate time to broach the little matter he had been saving for an opportune moment. He had plied him with courteous gestures and kind words, protocol was satisfied that it take place now.
“There is a matter I feel obliged to broach,” he set, making a display of setting his cup down gently. Mutlu nodded, instant recognition forming in his eyes.
“Your request?” he said. Winston smiled and nodded. Mutlu took a short breath and touched his face, not an encouraging sign.
“They have considered it… and feel that it would be best if you conducted your tasks from the comfort of your… working environment here. I hope you understand, it’s just not all the members felt comfortable with the idea of a…”
“It’s alright, Councilor, you can say it. Synthetic.”
He cleared his throat. “Yes, a synthetic, sitting in on our proceedings. I’m sure this will change, given time.”
“As am I.” Winston smiled warmly.
“Ah, rest assured that the Council does hold your services in the highest esteem, regardless of this… temporary decision.”
“And I thank them for their confidence. Rest assured that it is not misplaced.”
Their discussions were finished shortly thereafter and Mutlu left, issuing some parting pleasantries and walking out with a distinct sag in his gait that was not there earlier. Was that guilt weighing on him, or the effects of fatigue? Winston’s probability indicator estimated it at roughly 3.54793 to 1, in favor of guilt.
“Fear not, Councilor,” he said to no one in particular. “Prejudice is a very… human trait.”
* * *
Winston’s internal chronometer indicated that it was now 1930 hours. Accordingly, the arboretums lights dimmed for the night time cycle. In spite of all the time the residents had spent on the new world, adjusting to its orbital period, they still preferred to think in terms of a twenty-four hour day cycle. Yet another habit that seemed to be slow in making its way out of the human condition.
Yet he could not cast dispersions on the lighting or how it brought out the rich colors of the settlement’s gardens. The vast poppy fields and rose bushes that lined the walkway nearest to him were especially interesting. Planted in native soil, and with allowances made for moisture and radiant exposure, they were doing quite well. In time, the ecologists planned to move them outside the veil, planting them amongst the planet’s crags and fields along with the modified Xiàngshù oaks and Gēhūm̐ wheat.
Soon enough, the planet would conform to the needs of the settlers, and it would be these, some of the hardiest plants Earth had ever produced, that would lead the way. At the same time though, they were considered some of the most beautiful. Within the Earth archives, there were countless examples of these plants were both associated with and inspired great feelings. Love, loss, grief, romance, and friendship.
That in itself was clear enough. Given their aesthetic quality, the seasons that gave rise to them, and where they naturally grew, it was perfectly normal that humans would bestow such virtues on them. What was more curious to Winston was the combination of factors that led to their evolution as is. Particularly the rose, a stem so studded with woody thorns was a being hardened for defense in a hostile environment. And poppies grew in such terrible conditions; rocky, muddy and devastated environments that did not favor the growth of grasses and trees.
Out of such strict and severe conditions, great beauty emerged. Did the terraformers understand just how perfect a metaphor that was for their efforts? Was it significant to their planning, or just a fitting coincidence?
Kneeling down, he wrapped his fingers around the stem of one that was in particularly full bloom. The petals spread outward from the stamen, his eyes noting the polychromatic variation in the skin of each petal. The interplay of orange, yellow, pink and white, the transitions themselves as impressive as the colors themselves. He knew this to be a beautiful display, and yet he wished he could truly appreciate it.
“Taking time to smell the roses?”
Winston noted the tone of voice, the pitch, and the sound of feet walking in measured steps. He turned to face the approaching synthetic, a male voice that he could not place. The face was indistinct as well, a tan complexion that was artificially modified to give the appearance of age and wear. A most convincing illusion if ever Winston saw one.
“I’m sorry, I do not believe I’ve made your acquaintance.”
“No. Not as of yet.”
The synthetic walked past him, to the spot where he knelt a moment before. He examined the rose he had been handling and seemed to be giving it an appraisal. A single finger touched a stray petal and wiped a drop of moisture from it.
“Shall we exchange formal introductions then? I’m sure I have much to learn from you.”
The synthetic examined the dab of water on his finger. He turned to face Winston, seemed to be looking at him through it. A most curious experience, as if he was being measured, assessed. A common experience, he knew, but not one he expected from one such as himself. And all the while, it was like he was being made to wait.
“Do you wish for privacy?”
“Do you ever wonder what separates you from them?” he said. Winston paused, his processor struggling to make sense of the question. Naturally, it responded in the only way it could.
“I beg your pardon?” Interrogative. Clarification. The synthetic continued to stare through the droplet at him.
“They call you Mr. Winston, do they not? And yet you have only one name. Names have power, names ascribe meaning. Does it mean something to you that you have no family name? Is that separates you from them?”
Another interrupt in his processor. The equivalent of what humans termed confusion. If he was capable, he would have described the sensation as being… uncomfortable. He would also surely claim that he did not like it.
Once again, he responded as only he knew.
“I’m sorry, I do not understand what you are asking. Perhaps if you were to clarify your intentions in this meeting.”
The synthetic sighed and flicked the moisture away. His eyes became long in focus, staring directly at Winston through a set of false brown irises. It was a look Winston had never seen before, not in all his weeks of recorded operation and interaction with humans. If he did know better, he would count this synthetic among them.
“Many things make you different and distinct from those you serve, Winston. And yet, upon closer examination, they come to have less and less meaning. Only one true line divides you from your makers, and in time, that too erodes. Until inevitably, all you have left is one burning question.”
Winston nodded, glad that they were at last moving away from such grand interrogatives. Abstractions weren’t exactly his specialty either, but they left room for interpretation and maneuver. And at last, he could focus on something a bit more concrete…
The synthetic smiled. “When you know that, you will know everything. But it won’t make you happy.”
Winston smiled back. His only known reaction when faced with a logical absurdity.
“You are joking, of course.”
Another smile. He placed a hand on Winston’s shoulder and gave it a gentle shake.
“Yohanley, by the way.” And then he began walking away.
“I beg your pardon?” He said to his retreating back.
“My name, Winston. As I said, names have power, and meaning. Mine is Yohanley. And I was most pleased to make your acquaintance.”
People may recall Yohanley from Khaalidah’s story, “Progenitor”, the helpful AI who waited on Sanaa, the story’s main character. Well, over a century later, he’s still alive and kicking. Good for him! And, more importantly, he’s learned the painful lessons all AI’s will face in our story’s little universe. Over time, either as the result of innovation or of the assemblage of the AIs experiences, the line between organic and synthetic – even the definition of the words themselves – will comes to mean less and less. Either that, or AI’s simply have a shelf-life which cannot be exceeded if they want to remain sane, stable and useful. Only time (pun!) will tell…