I heard an interesting news report. In the outskirts of Los Angeles, there was a bus accident, the bus was destroyed in a fire, and there were no survivors. To the police, it looked like an open and shut case, and yet the article mentions somebody seeing one of the victims later that day very much alive, well after the accident. It sounds like it could make a neat story, at least, if it isn’t just the hallucination of a loved one in denial.
“I found this entry in Liza’s diary,” Evaira said, and she read the entry to the others, “It sounds familiar, doesn’t it?”
“Indeed it does,” Bill answered, “just like the accident that Briggs’s transport was in.”
“Well,” Chira added, “like Liza said, it could just be a loved one hallucinating, as a way of dealing with the grief.”
“Still,” Evaira said, “based on the rest of the entry, the circumstances are an awful lot like what happened to the prison transport. When we’re finished helping Professor Harding with whatever he wants us for, we should head to Los Angeles to check it out.”
“But it’s going to be a long trip,” Bill said, “we’re not even close to LA.”
“True,” Evaira said, “but this is the best lead we’ve had in a while.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Bill said, “we should go.”
“It is worth a look,” Chira added, “but first, we should probably think about what Alpha’s creator called us for.”
“I hope it’s not another upgrade,” Evaira said, “We all know how badly the last one went.”
“We’ve definitely got to be careful around Dr. Harding,” Bill added, thinking about how the upgrade almost made Alpha spill all of the secrets they’d promised to keep, and how they had to get Dr. Harding to remove it.
“Agreed,” Evaira said, “But we’re not meeting him at his lab this time, so I don’t think he’ll be able to do too much to Alpha. Besides, Alpha will either be with us, or with Chira in the RV, so Dr. Harding won’t be able to do anything to him without our knowledge.”
“Right,” Bill said.
“Miss Evaira,” Alpha said, “we are approaching the destination.”
They passed by a building in the middle of town called “Café Marone”, and turned the corner to go around back to a large parking lot. Alpha parked the RV in the lot, and Bill and Evaira prepared to leave.
“Alpha,” Evaira said, “you’d better stay here.”
“As you request,” Alpha replied.
“I’ll keep an eye on him,” Chira said.
“Great,” Evaira said, “let’s go see what Dr. Harding wants.”
Bill and Evaira walked into the café where they saw Dr. Roman Harding sitting at a table, waiting for them. When he saw them enter, he gestured them over.
“Miss Evaira and Bill,” he said, “come, join me for tea.”
“Hello, doctor,” Evaira said.
Evaira and Bill sat down. Dr. Harding gestured to a waitress, who brought both of them a cup of tea.
“This café has the best tea,” Dr. Harding said, “I used to come here every day when I lived in these parts.”
Evaira took a sip of the tea.
“You’re right,” she said, “it is good. But why exactly did you call us here?”
“I’ve got a bit of a problem,” Dr. Harding said, “and I need a little help.”
He pulled out a sheet of paper that had several diagrams on it.
“This is my latest creation,” he explained, “I call it Beta, and it is the closest thing to an actual artificial intelligence I’ve created.”
Evaira looked at the blueprint.
“Nice,” Evaira said, “but I don’t understand any of this.”
“Of course,” Dr. Harding said, “then I’ll explain. When designing Beta, I created the original data bank based on the memories from an actual person, a student volunteer from one of the local colleges – you’d be amazed what those students will do for money. My friend, Professor Fox’s research into the human brain was also quite helpful with this.”
“Professor Fox,” Evaira interrupted, “funny you should mention him. We just ran into him not that long ago.”
“It’s a small world, I guess,” Dr. Harding said.
“Now this Beta,” Bill asked, “does it actually work?”
“Surprisingly well,” Dr. Harding said, “Though it’s still more of a simulated intelligence than true artificial intelligence, it’s definitely a step in the right direction. It’s basing its own actions on the memories pre-programmed into it, so it acts as a human would, completely on its own without needing instructions. Unfortunately, there is a rather significant flaw, and I need your help in fixing it.”
“What can we do,” Bill asked, “we’re not robotics experts.”
“What I need are people skills,” Dr. Harding said, “You see, there’s a significant flaw in the Beta’s programming. It is not aware that it is a robot. It actually thinks it’s the person who donated his memories.”
“So you need us to set it straight?” Evaira asked, confused.
“Yes,” Dr. Harding said, “and being that I spend most of my time at home, I have little experience with delicate matters like this, and you, having travelled around the country and investigated unusual people, do. Though the Beta does not experience emotions, apparently it thinks it does, and it’s also not capable of some advanced reasoning that humans are. But it’s not aware of any of this.”
“But if it thinks it’s this actual person,” Bill asked, “and acts so unhuman, wouldn’t it be given away the moment it met one of that person’s friends, or tried to go to a college class?”
“Theoretically, yes,” Dr. Harding said, “but because of the way its programming works, it won’t actively seek out any of those friends, and the odds of a chance encounter are pretty slim. As for the college, well, classes don’t resume for a couple months. Now considering I recently discovered that there’s a very significant flaw in the design, I can’t afford to wait that long.”
“What sort of flaw?” Evaira asked.
“Circuit A-19625-D gets very hot,” Dr. Harding said, pointing to a mark on the blueprint, “and is at risk of overheating when the Beta is physically overexerted. And if it’s overheated, it could explode. I know how to fix this, but I need to recover the Beta so I can do so. If I don’t, there could be trouble. An exploding robot in the middle of this town will cause a lot of unneeded attention, so I need help.”
Evaira and Bill looked at each other. Evaira said puzzled, “recover the Beta?”
“Yes!” Dr. Harding said, “Didn’t I mention it? He is loose and I need your help to find him!”
“A potentially exploding robot is out running around and thinks he’s human!” Evaira said, “Of course, we’ll help you.”
“Excellent,” Dr. Harding said, “take this.”
He handed Evaira a photograph of a man who looked a lot like Alpha.
“This is what he looks like,” Dr. Harding said, “last I saw him, he was somewhere around this town. When you find him, you must get him back to my lab. That’s the only place where I have the equipment I need to fix the flaw.”
“We’ll head back to the RV and come up with a plan, then,” Evaira said, “right after we finish this delicious tea.”
Once they were back at the RV, Evaira relayed to Chira and Alpha Dr. Harding situation and his request that they help locate the robot. She asked Alpha to begin a scan for him. Chira was a bit suspicious.
“Okay,” Chira said, “a few things don’t quite add up here. For one thing, why would he call us?”
“He said it’s because of our experiences with the unusual,” Evaira said, “and our investigation.”
“But still,” Chira said, “if it’s really that urgent, why call us? I know we were only like a half hour away at the time, but we could have been halfway across the country and time seems to be important.”
“True,” Evaira said, “but he probably had other people he could call too. When he called us, the first thing he did was ask us where we were.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Chira said, “but still, something’s not sitting right with me.”
“Anyway,” Bill asked, “how should we track him down?”
“I’ll leave that to Alpha,” Evaira said, “I’m more concerned about how we straighten him out and get him back to Dr. Harding. If we just go up to him and tell him he’s a robot, he’ll think we’re nuts. We have to convince him to come with us somehow.”
They paused for a moment to think. While they did, Alpha approached.
“Miss Evaira,” he said, “I have located the Beta.”
“Where?” Evaira asked.
“Approximately 230.92 meters at an angle of 123 degrees,” Alpha answered.
“That’s not far,” Evaira said.
“123 degrees?” Bill asked, “can’t he give a straight direction?”
“It’s to the southeast,” Evaira answered, and pointed, “that way.”
“How did you…?” Bill asked.
“When you’ve gotten directions from Alpha as often as I have,” Evaira explained, “you know these things.”
“Alright,” Evaira said, “Bill and I will go meet this Beta. Alpha, wait here, and Chira, keep an eye on him.”
“As you request,” Alpha responded.
“Will do,” Chira said, ducking back into her pot, but leaving her eyes peeking out the top.
Evaira and Bill left the RV and walked in the direction Alpha gave them. Shortly they saw the man in Dr. Harding’s picture passing by across the street. They checked the picture once more before they approached him.
“Excuse me, sir,” Evaira said.
“Yes,” the Beta replied.
Evaira paused for a moment, thinking carefully of how to start a conversation without seeming too suspicious.
“Do you have the time?” Evaira asked, as it was the only thing she could think to say.
“Twelve forty-two PM and thirty-one seconds past, central daylight time,” the Beta replied.
“This should be easier than expected,” Bill remarked.
“Awfully precise,” Evaira said.
“That is the time,” the Beta answered, “or rather, it was when you asked me.”
Evaira looked at him, knowing why he was so precise with his answers. An ordinary person would have felt a bit awkward. Evaira tried to continue the conversation in a way that would seem less suspicious, but ultimately felt she was putting too much thought into it; being a robot, he wouldn’t understand emotions as well as a person would, so she decided to just start questioning him.
“Say,” Evaira said, “have we met before?”
“I am John Wright,” the Beta answered, “a student at Abner University. I do not remember you.”
“Abner University,” Evaira said, “I have a cousin who’s considering going there. Do you like it there?”
“It is an educational institution,” the Beta replied, “It serves its purpose of educating me adequately.”
“But what are your personal feelings?” Evaira asked.
“I have learned a lot there,” the Beta continued.
“I don’t think you understand my question,” Evaira asked, “are you happy there?”
“Happy?” the Beta asked.
Evaira had obviously triggered one of its limitations, or so she thought for a moment.
“Sufficiently,” the Beta continued.
Evaira pondered the response for a moment, and realized the Beta was simply tapping into the student’s, John’s, memories. If she probed further, she could expose him.
“Could you be more specific?” Evaira asked, “What do you like about it?”
“The professors do a satisfactory job of giving me the requisite knowledge,” the Beta replied.
“But let’s face it,” Evaira said, “The classes are only a part of the full college experience. What about the campus?”
“The campus contains the buildings necessary for all college operations,” the Beta said, “what more is there to say about it?”
“So does every campus,” Evaira said, “but do you like it?”
He paused, apparently reaching into the human memories to find the answer – obviously not normal, but he didn’t notice. Evaira had to bring it to his attention.
“You’re thinking about it too much,” Evaira said, “it’s a simple question, do you like it or not?”
“I am trying to remember,” the Beta answered.
“You’re a student there,” Evaira said, “it hasn’t been that long since you were at the college, right? You should be able to answer me a lot quicker. You should know if you like something.”
“I…I…” the Beta stammered, “I am a student there, I’ve been there regularly. I should know how I feel. Why do I not?”
Evaira knew she was getting through to him. She had to keep pushing.
“Tell me,” Evaira said, “what exactly is happiness?”
“Happiness is a positive feeling,” the Beta said, “which can include contentment or satisfaction, cheer, up to feelings of great joy.”
“That’s what a dictionary would say,” Evaira said, “what does it feel like?”
“It feels…” the Beta stammered, “…good.”
“As any positive feeling would,” Evaira pushed, “can you be more specific? Surely you’ve felt happiness before.”
The Beta stood there motionless, processing his memories. Though he clearly had memories of being happy, and the experience, he couldn’t seem to grasp exactly what it felt like, but despite that, he kept trying. He knew he felt happiness before, and he could again.
“And what about sadness?” Evaira asked, “Anger? Fear?”
He processed the memories of the other emotions Evaira mentioned, and tried to understand all of them with the same results. As he had the memories of all of them, he knew he felt them before, but just couldn’t re-experience, or understand those feelings.
“I can’t,” he understood, “I know I felt all of those before, but now, I can’t. Thinking of memories that cause an emotion should trigger that emotion, sure, less powerful than originally, but I should still feel it. This is completely illogical.”
“Am I some kind of machine?” he finally realized.
Evaira nodded again.
“But I have all these memories,” he said, “I know my name. I know my parents, friends, family. I remember so many things that happened to me. I remember it all, so is all of it a lie?”
“Those memories are real,” Evaira said, “they’re just not yours.”
Evaira looked at his face. He was clearly having a very difficult time processing it. Though Evaira understood, the whole idea was very disturbing, she did not expect this kind of reaction from him given that he is, in fact, a robot, and thus, not capable of emotion.
“What…what…” he said, “these memories feel real, but they are not. What should I do?”
“I don’t know,” Evaira said, “I’d suggest you go contact Dr. Roman Harding. He should be able to help you.”
“Dr. Roman Harding,” the Beta said, “I met him at the college when I applied to assist with an experiment he was conducting. How can he help me?”
“I believe he is interested in human emotions and how people feel,” Evaira said stretching the truth. “You can probably find him at his lab. Do you know where that is?”
“Yes, I do,” the Beta said, at which point, he proceeded to head off towards the lab without another word.
“That was an uncomfortable conversation,” Bill said.
“I know,” Evaira said, “telling somebody that their memories are a lie is not easy.”
“It must be strange,” Bill said, “realizing you aren’t who you think you are.”
“I doubt he’ll be bothered too much,” Evaira said, “remember, he’s a robot, and doesn’t think like we do.”
“But still,” Bill said, “it really makes you think.”
“You’re right,” Evaira said, “If you think about it, we have no real way of knowing our memories are real, or we are who we think we are. It’s a little creepy…”
“A disturbing thought,” Bill added.
“Anyway,” Evaira said, “Our work here appears to be done, so we should get back to the RV.”
“Let’s go,” Bill said.
And so, they walked back to the RV. As they approached the door, they saw it open, and Dr. Harding got off the RV.
“Dr. Harding,” Evaira said, completely surprised, “what are you doing here?”
“Since your Alpha was here already,” Dr. Harding explained, “I thought I’d do a little tune-up. He should run much smoother now.”
“No secret upgrades?” Evaira asked suspiciously.
“Not this time,” Dr. Harding smiled, “so, any luck with the Beta?”
“It’s done,” Evaira said, “he is on route to your lab.”
“Excellent,” Dr. Harding said, “thank you for your help. I’d love to stick around and chat, but I’ve got to take care of him. See you later.”
“Bye,” Evaira said, as Dr. Harding hurried off.
“He was in an awful hurry,” Bill remarked.
“True,” Evaira said, “but something doesn’t seem right.”
They quickly entered the RV, concerned about whether Dr. Harding was telling the truth or not. When they got in, Chira stuck her head out of her pot.
“Evaira,” Chira said, “you’re back. I take it you know Dr. Harding was here?”
“We ran into him as he left,” Evaira said, “he said he was giving Alpha a tune-up. Can you confirm it was just a tune-up? He didn’t do anything else suspicious?”
Evaira and Bill both looked carefully at Alpha to see if they could see any changes.
“That’s what it looked like,” Chira said, “he was just making some little adjustments, didn’t even turn Alpha off. Of course I’m no robotics expert…”
“Neither am I,” Evaira said, “but I know enough about Alpha to know Dr. Harding couldn’t change too much without turning him off.”
“Guess I was wrong,” Chira said, “nothing out of the ordinary.”
“Or as ordinary as things get around here,” Bill added.
“Anyway,” Evaira said, “we should get moving. We’ve got to get to Los Angeles, to investigate the Briggs’ connection there.”
“Miss Evaira,” Alpha said, “While you were out, I updated my internet archive, and found another article that might shed some additional light on this investigation.”
“What did you find?” Evaira asked.
“The article implicates a man named Leonard Tuttle,” Alpha explained, “He had been implicated in two bombings with a similar MO to the bombing of Briggs’s prison transport and the attack in Los Angeles. In one of the bombings, it was confirmed that he had somehow switched out one of the passengers prior to the explosion. Exactly how he did is unclear, but it is clearly similar to how Briggs and the Los Angeles victim survived.”
“Then we have a lead,” Evaira said, “can you track down this Leonard Tuttle?”
“I have,” Alpha replied, “he was killed in a gunfight with the police two days ago.”
“And it’s clear he’s the one responsible,” Chira asked.
“That is correct,” Alpha answered.
“Then should we review the crime scene?” Evaira asked.
“Maybe,” Chira answered.
“I am doubtful that we can get anything beneficial from the crime scene at this point,” Alpha said, “the case has been officially closed and the crime scene released.”
“Then it looks like the trail’s gone cold,” Evaira said, “I guess we don’t need to go to Los Angeles after all. Alpha, change your route. I think one of the leads Jake gave us isn’t too far from here…”
Shortly after, Dr. Harding walked into an office.
“Professor,” he said.
The man sitting at the office desk, Professor Gerald Fox, turned around to face him.
“It’s done,” Dr. Harding said, “I’ve given Evaira a false lead: Leonard Tuttle.”
“Good work,” Professor Fox said, “and you’ve installed the Mosquito Program into Alpha as well, correct?”
“Yes,” Dr. Harding said, “it was a bit difficult to do without arousing suspicion from that grounder, but it’s done, and now, we should be able to follow them a lot easier with Alpha’s new program sending us signals.”
“Excellent,” Professor Fox said, “it was good thinking releasing that robot.”
“Indeed,” Dr. Harding said, “but it’s all because you told me they were in the area.”
At this point, Axel entered the room.
“You wanted to see me, professor?” Axel asked.
“Yes I do,” Professor Fox said, “I want you to go back to following Liza’s sister. The Mosquito Program should help us keep a closer eye on her, but if she gets on our trail again, we still need somebody close to send her a false lead. Alpha will be sending us data, but we likely won’t have another opportunity to actually modify his memories.”
“I still think she’s too much of a threat,” Axel said, “We should just remove her from the picture, and put a stop to this at once.”
“But the information her investigations turn up will benefit us greatly,” Professor Fox said, “she’s more useful to us out there on her journey, so long as we keep her a safe distance away from us. I just want you to make sure she stays a safe distance away from us.”
“Understood, Professor,” Axel said, leaving the room.
“After all,” Professor Fox said, “knowledge is power.”
Author’s Notes (may contain spoilers):
So, yeah, I’ve really got to update these.
The Identity Phenomenon, well, first, I wanted to continue a few old threads – Dr. Harding, the prison transport caper mentioned in the last story, and Professor Fox’s story.
But the real meat and bones of this story comes from the Beta. I was exploring the idea of memory – and the idea that if all your memories were fake, you’d have no way of knowing. A kind of a scary thought. I’ve also been exploring the idea of a person not being who they think they are, and how distressing this idea can be. Additionally, the scene where Evaira tried to make the Beta realize who he really was is one of the most difficult scenes I’ve written in a while.
Now, I originally considered stating that Dr. Harding fabricated the Beta just to act the way it did simply to draw Evaira’s attention, but I realized this would probably take out a lot of the punch of the story.