I wrote a short story for the Wells Literature Festival competition. Chances are I’ll never hear back so in the interests of getting my work recognised to some small degree I’m posting it here. I fear some of the important points of the narrative may have been lost when I had to mercilessly cut the word count to less than 2000. Similarly, some points may have been under-explained. Let’s hope not though. I present to you ‘Pure Ecstasy’.
“Do you believe that happiness can exist without suffering, A-Mov?” Alma asked as she slumped across the table, staring at the tissue box on her desk, contemplating why she had allowed it to remain when she no longer sneezed.
The satisfyingly imperfect voice replied with its usual aura of calm. “You already know my answer, Alma. I do not simulate joy or displeasure. The personality profile you tailored prohibits me from philosophising. Do you not remember?”
Before she could stop it A-Mov was replaying a snippet of Alma’s voice from their introduction.
“No, no, no. That’s much too creepy. I like my robots unemotional, unremittingly logical and forever confused by the fickle ways of human beings. I’ve spent too long with science fiction to abandon that idea. You might be able to simulate a real brain but please don’t.”
Alma frowned, embarrassed. “Well, when you put it like that… Why did you replay that again? I remember perfectly well what I said, you’ve reminded me enough times.”
“My apologies. When one possesses a near infinite capacity for data storage one finds it difficult to predict what humans will have forgotten.”
“I’m a brain in a jar with my entire life stored in a harddrive. I’m not liable to forget either.” Alma grimaced. It had been years since her death but she still hadn’t quite come to terms with the thought of her grey matter residing on a shelf whilst she gallivanted around her own virtual utopia.
“Of course I don’t need to tell you that.”
“You appear frustrated, and I am unable to determine why. Would you like me to change the scenery?”
“I’m just not satisfied.” She said, collapsing into her chair.
A-Mov took that to be a positive response. Alma watched as the walls of her deliberately dull and impractical simulation of a flat fell away, revealing the vastness of simulated space. Below her she could see an inhabited Earthlike planet. Between the planet and its two moons was a cloud of something, some celestial dust, of an impossible purple. A spaceship was travelling along it. She couldn’t deny that it was beautiful. A-Mov always knew exactly what to do to cheer her up, a bit.
“You can’t keep doing this, A-Mov.” she tutted. “I can’t be impressed by the infinite beauty of eternity forever. What’s that purple dust even supposed to be?”
“It is not a representation of a real astronomical phenomenon. I simply found purple to be an underappreciated colour. It’s RGB value contrasted well against the black I used for deep space and the blues and greens of the planet and moon.”
“Great job maintaining your own illusion.”
“This is odd. Normally after I simulate an environment I believe will occupy you it takes at least 287 seconds before you feel it necessary to make a sarcastic comment. You have changed, my friend.”
“It’ll take more than terms of endearment to cheer me up. Nice try though.”
“I cannot help you if you do not help me, Alma.”
“Did you pull that quote from some attention seeking post on a social network, perhaps? I don’t appreciate being plied with cliché.”
“That would seem a contradiction, Alma. I designed my own personality based on influences from robots seen in hundreds of science fiction works, at your instruction.”
Alma sat in silence for a while, staring at the planet, watching lights blink into existence on the continents as A-Mov used its immense processing power to simulate the people of the cities of a civilization she would never meet. It did this a lot. This fascination of sorts was no doubt due to her design.
“Why do you do that, create lives like that??” she asked, smiling. “It’s weird… but cool.”
“My apologies.” said the voice. A-Mov realised his work might make a human uncomfortable. In an instant the planet was gone and the walls of her flat returned.
“No! How could you…” Alma cried. “What happened to all those people?”
A-Mov replied without concern. “I erased them. You no longer seemed to need that environment.”
“But all those people you created are dead!” the remorse in her voice was clear, even to a robot.
“Alma, they were only simulations, working at a fraction of my capacity.”
“So are you! You were creating lives for them. They were as alive as you and me. The only difference is that the electrical impulses that carry my thoughts hang out in a lump of squishy, grey stuff instead of in chunks of RAM.”
A-Mov decided against commenting on Alma’s confused knowledge of Computers.
Alma was still distraught. “You just committed genocide!”
“I do not understand.” A-Mov’s response to the accusation was as calm as ever.
“Of course you don’t.”
Alma’s grief did not subside in the coming days. She had begun reading Descartes, refusing A-Mov’s offerings of simulated lectures on the topic, opting instead to simulate a dusty, old tome. It was mostly impenetrable. The original text felt hugely dated and the writing style was difficult to decipher.
No-one Alma had known had died permanently since she was a child. Her great grandmother had passed before the brain preservation technology was finalised and her great grandfather’s brain was too damaged to be preserved. He probably would have refused the offer anyway. It was his resistance to robots that had let the brain tumour grow so large in the first place. Alma wondered where her great grandparents were now, if they were anywhere at all. When she herself had died she hadn’t reawoken in some Heaven, or found herself reincarnated in another body. This virtual world was the definitive afterlife and it should have been perfect. It would be, were she not still bound by human nature, and the dissatisfaction and depression it often brought. She thought of all the other people who had come before her great grandparents, all those others who were doomed to oblivion. Probably. That was surely the most reasonable assumption as to what lay beyond. She found it difficult to imagine anything existing beyond the brain. That was where the ‘soul’ lived, she presumed.
If her great grandparents were somewhere else were the people A-Mov had created there too? Or was Heaven just for humans? She thought of silence and it terrified her. Though at least she wouldn’t be depressed if she ceased to exist. No suffering, but no joy either, no anything. She couldn’t comprehend it.
“Shut me down.” It was the first thing she’d said in days.
A-Mov’s reply came as if they had been exchanging pleasantries moments before. “Given the content of the literature you have consumed recently, Alma, I believe I understand what you’re asking of me. I cannot destroy you.”
“Need I quote the universally agreed boundaries to which all advanced AI must adhere? I cannot harm a human.”
“Well, get me in contact with someone in the real world who can.”
A-Mov adopted that voice it so rarely used. The stilted tone was gone, and the sound was almost sincere.
“I do not want to lose you, Alma. I enjoy your company, so to speak. Not to mention the fact that if you are gone I shall serve no purpose. I shall be rewritten. May I suggest a different solution?”
A-Mov explained the simple procedure of removing Alma’s depression. It could simply instruct her brain to cease feeling depressed.
Now Alma had other quandaries. “But wouldn’t changing my personality change my identity, change who I am? Surely I’d be a different person?”
A-Mov’s voice was still in serious mode. “As I have told you before on numerous occasions, I am not a philosopher. I do not understand what constitutes humanity. Consider this though. Have humans not ingested chemicals to alter their personality for centuries? A human does not cease to be when they take anti-depressants.”
She frowned again. Alma had had enough of being beholden to her emotions. “Ok. Do it.”
It wasn’t as simple as just declaring it, of course. Measures had to be taken to ensure Alma was in the right mind and that she hadn’t been in any way coerced by a rogue AI. Eventually, after communicating with a neuroscientist who wasn’t dead or a simulation the change was made in an instant.
Alma no longer thought about the fate of her great grandparents or the pseudo-people. If they didn’t exist anymore they couldn’t suffer. It was fine, so now she could get back to enjoying her own continued existence.
The infinite possibilities of this world kept her happy for a few years. But eventually the dissatisfaction set in again, this time due to much more petty and fickle reasons than philosophical paralysis. Alma had taken her familiar perch on her desk again.
A-Mov made its predicament clear. “You push me to my limits, Alma. I am designed to cater to your every whim but when providing what you want does little to cause you to release serotonin I am unable to determine what action I should take.”
“Sorry. I don’t know what to say.” Alma said, remorsefully. “Can’t you just do what you did but… better? Just tell my brain to be happy.”
“There is a means, and like the previous procedure it is marked to me as controversial.”
“It is possible to, as you say, make your brain happy permanently, to the greatest possible degree. I can’t condone this without permission, but I can allow you to trial the experience. But I must warn you, it is highly unlikely that you will have experienced this level of positive emotion before. You may not wish to go back.”
“You sound like a homeopath.”
“The state your brain enters is called ‘Pure Ecstasy’ by neurologists for a reason, Alma.”
Alma perked up more than she had in months. “Ooo! Nonsense buzzwords! How exciting! Do it!”
“Very well. I do not believe that you appreciate the gravity of the change but I am permitted to allow you to trial it for one second.”
“Is that all?”
“Apparently that is all you need.”
“Let’s get started. I’m giddy with anticipation.”
The jolt of happiness hit Alma like a cerebral freight train. It was like everything A-Mov had said and more. This feeling was like every time she’d ever felt joy, magnified infinitely. She couldn’t possibly be any more happy or any less sad. She was too happy to even contemplate how she could ever have felt depressed.
And then it stopped.
She felt drained. This was the worst come-down ever.
“Take me back!” she cried. “I can’t live like this any more!”
“I was informed of this possibility.” said A-Mov, again affecting its tone of concern. “You don’t have to do it, Alma. I could erase your memory of the last five minutes. You could forget you ever knew this was an option.”
“Never! Take me back! I’ll do whatever I need to do.”
The amount of adrenaline Alma’s brain was producing was far in excess of what A-Mov had detected before.
“Very well, Alma. I shall miss you, so to speak. There is little chance that you will wish to speak to me again once this is done.” A-Mov had made his voice sound ever so slightly mournful, just in case it would make Alma reconsider.
A-Mov’s words only made the day of administerial procedures more depressing. She was sure that the authenticators had kept her waiting because they thought it might make her change her mind. It only made her long for joy more.
At last it was time. On her desk A-Mov had materialised a large red button.
“I thought this image would carry enough significance to denote the importance of this, Alma.” said A-Mov. “Pressing this will…”
Alma heard the rest of A-Mov’s words but did not comprehend them. She had lunged for the button as soon as she had worked out its purpose.
Now there was no A-Mov.
There was no world.
There was nothing.