A blue, rectangular box popped up in the middle of Michael’s vision. He skimmed over the white text:
Metaverse update patch 13.21
- Improved A.I. for non-playable characters and personal assistants
- New hairstyles and apparel available!
- Bug fix to dance emoticons
His eyes landed on the ‘cancel’ button and, as usual, he selected it without a moment’s hesitation. The box disappeared with a bleep and now there was nothing between him and the streaky orange sky. He lay with his hands behind his head in the middle of Pleasant Park, and the grass tickled his arms as he glanced to his left to see Clementine, the girl of his dreams, staring back at him.
“Have you ever tried blowing grass?” she asked.
“Blowing grass? That doesn’t sound like something I’d wanna try,” he teased.
“Ha ha, no, I mean when you whistle through it. Look.” She plucked a blade, set it parallel and taut between her thumbs, and blew through the middle. It made a tooting sound that caught Michael off-guard and reminded him of a kazoo.
“That’s incredible!” he said and proceeded to fruitlessly blow through his thumbs while grass fell all around him. She laughed and gave him a kiss. This was their spot, where they would hang out every Friday evening after work, until the sun set.
“I thought I saw a grey in my hair the other day,” he said listlessly.
“As if. I think I’d be able to find it if there was one.” She grinned and reached over to rifle through his ash-brown hair. He gave a sigh of satisfaction as she ran her fingers delicately back and forth, massaging his scalp.
“I don’t mean here, Clem. I mean, you know...”
Her hands stopped, and her hazel eyes peered at him from underneath her midnight-black fringe. She was wearing the same red and white polka dot dress she always wore on Fridays.
“You could go and get one of those haircuts you’re always talking about?”
“Always talking about? Once a month maybe, that’s not ‘always talking about.’”
“You’re not jealous of me getting haircuts, are you?”
“No, of course not.”
She didn’t add anything further though, and Michael knew he’d upset her. She would often be sensitive when he brought up anything real-world related, which she could never experience or share with him.
He put his arm around her shoulder and planted a kiss on her forehead.
She was silent for a while, looking down, picking at the grass and folding it between her fingers. Then she blurted out,
“You know, I always worry when an update comes out; that one day, you’ll press download and everything we’ve built together will vanish.”
Michael looked at her, dumb-struck.
“You can see them? How? I didn’t think you could.”
“I couldn’t until I met you. Now, I see them appear in front of everyone who’s like you, and I wonder if I’m the same me to all of them or if I’m different in each of their worlds.”
She’d never spoken to him like this before, she would always change the topic whenever conversation approached the boundary between their realities. If she’d now accepted what she was, surely that meant he was talking to a self-aware A.I.? The thought disturbed him, but at the same time, she still felt like the girl he’d come to adore with all his heart over the last year.
“Maybe this is a good thing, Clem. I love you, and if you understand and accept our differences, then it doesn’t change anything between us. In fact, doesn’t it give you more freedom knowing the truth?”
“I wish. Let’s not talk about this now. Can you play our song? I’d rather just lay here together and look at the sunset.”
Michael brought up the sidebar from the left side of his vision and scrolled to ‘Music’. The Beatles’ “I Will” began to play, and the sound vibrated through the earth and drifted across the tangerine sky, as if the heavens had opened and all the angels were called to serenade a world built only for the two of them.
He held her head in his lap as she drifted off to sleep, and wished he could stay until dreams carried him away to find her. But he’d slept in his metaverse suit before and greatly regretted the stiffness and sweatiness the next day. So he took off the headset, blinked several times as his eyes adjusted to the darkness of his small flat, and unzipped himself. It always took a few minutes to peel off the mesh of black and silver that enveloped his entire body, monitoring his movements, and delivering sensation to his skin.
He stumbled to the sink. His limbs were tingling from hours in alternate reality, but he managed to gulp down a glass of water before he collapsed, shrivelled and exhausted, on his bed.
The next morning Michael’s heart swelled as he woke and saw the Saturday sun pouring through the cracks in the curtains. He had the whole day ahead to spend with Clem; laundry could wait, groceries could wait, his only thought was of her round eyes and oval face as he rushed to pull on his suit and headset.
The metaverse greeted him with its fair sky and its go-get-‘em music, and he strolled up to Clem’s house where he waited for her to come outside, like she did every day, at precisely 8:45 a.m. He picked a daisy from the lawn to present to her.
When she emerged in the doorway, however, her face was in stark contrast to the cheery ambience. Her eyes were downcast and her shoulders sagged. Michael ran up to her.
“Hey, are you okay? What’s wrong?” he asked.
She gave the smallest of nods but nestled into his body when he put his arms around her, and he could feel her body shake as she let out silent tears. He held her until she drew back.
“I don’t think I can carry on like this, Mike,” she said.
“What? What do you mean?” he said, bewildered. His pulse quickened as a sinking dread crept in.
“I’m stuck.” She threw herself down on the path in front of her house, and Michael joined her. “I have no control, it’s like I’m a marionette made to dance, a tortured brain caged inside a wooden body.”
“Because…you understand what this place is, now?”
“Yes, and no. Because I can’t do anything about it. I leave my house at 8:45 whether I want to or not. I wear the same clothes on the same day every week, even though I want to set each and every one of them on fire. I can’t even change my hairstyle! My body physically won’t let me. I can only be what they’ve forced me to be, I can’t rebel against it.”
Michael’s face crumpled into a frown as he considered what she’d said. He couldn’t think of how to comfort her.
“That does sound crap, I…I didn’t realise,” he said. “How long have you felt like this?”
“Oh, a while. A few months.”
“What! Why didn’t you say?”
“Well, it didn’t bother me at first; I was just happy to be with you and to see you every day. But then, it started gnawing at me like a scab I was itching to pick. And it dawned on me yesterday: if I want to be with you, I’ll have to live my whole life as a prisoner.”
Panic was rising within him, his heart thumping in his chest; he could feel her slipping away from him with every passing second.
“There must be something I can do to help. What if I try and change your hair for you, or drag you out of your house before 8.45?”
She gave a choked laugh.
“That might work for a while, but I’d only be passing my dancing strings from them to you. No, there’s only one thing you can do, Mike.” She held his gaze, her hazel, his blue, and he could see all his love for her reflected in her eyes. “You have to install the update.”
That night, the storm outside poured down only as hard as the rain in his heart. Michael twisted and turned under his sheets, reliving the flash of pain on her face when he’d told her, “I’ll have to think about it.”
“Please,” she had muttered, pitiful and helpless.
He was stabbed by a shard of bitter ice that whispered in his ear: She was his, after all the time he’d spent with her, handing himself over piece by piece. Surely, he deserved to keep her? It dug deeper, piercing the depths of his soul. You’re really going to let yourself get dumped by an A.I. girlfriend?
But then a memory came to him; he and Clem were crushing autumn acorns beneath their boots, seeing who could make the loudest crunch. He thought of her sunshine smile when he’d surprised her by showing up at Café Carefree with ice cream after she’d been shouted at for spilling coffee over a customer. The shard began to melt and recede from the warmth of his soul. It left behind a cracked, shell-shocked heart.
He couldn’t let her suffer. He shuddered, imagining himself in her shoes, completely powerless over her own body. It was all the more painful knowing that she was only now willing to acknowledge the reality of herself; that they could’ve had a true, evolving, and meaningful relationship if she wasn’t bound by the chains of what she’d been programmed to be. He didn’t know what would happen if he downloaded the update, and the thought of her becoming a mind-wiped stranger devastated him. But he had no choice. He had to do it for her.
He got out of bed and pulled on his gear. The metaverse was quiet and the sky, clear and black, as he made his way to Clem’s house. He rang the doorbell and waited; a light flicked on upstairs and footsteps approached. The door opened and she stood there in her rose pyjamas, dark hair framing her pale face, as beautiful as the day he had first set eyes on her.
“Mike!” she said, “What’re you doing?”
He stepped forward and took her in his embrace. His voice cracked as he said, “I’ll do the download. I’ll do it now if you want.”
The blood drained from her face, but she looked at him, stern of jaw, eyes resolute, and kissed him firmly on the lips. She nodded.
“I’m scared, but thank you, thank you so, so much.”
“I’ll miss you, Clem. Who knows if the new you will even want to talk to me?”
Clementine gave a half-smile, eyes watery, and said, “If she’s anything like me, she’ll love you.”
“I love you, Clem. This you.”
He brought open the metaverse sidebar, scrolled to updates, and pressed download before his shaking hands could change their mind. The world faded from view and a loading bar filled his vision. He took off his headset and set it to one side, crouched down, and broke, with free-flowing tears.
One week later Michael walked into Café Carefree and stood at the back of the queue. It was 3 p.m. on Sunday and he knew she would be on shift. He tried to peek over the line of people to see to the front and caught a glimpse of black bobbing amongst the stacked cups. His heart fluttered, and he found himself running through various scenarios of what he was going to say.
When he got to the front, she hopped on the till, her bright eyes full of life just as he remembered them. But there was no recognition there. He hadn’t expected it, but his spirit dropped a little nonetheless.
“Hi, what can I get you?” she asked.
He smiled at her, about to make a joke he knew she’d like, when he spotted her name tag. Cerise. He stared. It was undoubtedly Clem, everything from her face, her expression, the dark hair tied in a ponytail for work, and her voice.
“That’s...that’s your name?” he stuttered.
She frowned in confusion. “Yes, I’m Cerise. Are you okay?”
Michael gathered himself. “Yes, sorry, you look just like someone I used to know. Cerise is a lovely name. I’ll go for a vanilla chai latte, please.”
“Oh, my favourite, how did you know?” she grinned.
“Lucky guess?” he said, palms to the sky. “Or we just both have good taste. Hey, I don’t normally do this, but would you like to grab a drink when you get off?”
Her eyebrows raised. “Oh! Er, yeh sure, why not!”
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Excellent. This raises some great, uncomfortable questions. Sentient AI - a commodity, or a person? And if we paid for it, and we can force it to do things, is it immoral to? Nobody would bat an eye if you tried to get your toaster to toast bread, but forcing a digital person into love sounds all kinds of greasy. So then, was this even love? It sure seemed like it, but he also seemed to get over it pretty quickly, when he had the opportunity to walk that same path with Cerise. And if Cerise is basically the same as Clem, but with a couple ...
Some very insightful comments Michal! Yes I think these questions about sentient AI and love are only going to have be thought about more in the future as they become more relevant. Hope you enjoyed the read
Good story, really treading some interesting (and relevant) philosophical ground, both in terms of the theoretical power balance between self-aware AI and humans and the sometimes obsessive or destructive nature of our realized relationships with technology. It's always cool to see fiction that, "looks through the wrong end of the telescope" as Dr. Seuss put it.
This is an excellent exploration of "the boundary between their realities" - or in the case of the real world, our realities as we face (or don't face) the philosophical, moral, and ethical implications of sentient AI. Fiction like this serves as a pretty good vehicle for those ideas.
Edward, Great story! A self-aware AI who's memory gets reset during an upgrade. Living in the Metaverse, Mike has created an alternative reality that tugs on his emotions as strongly as real life. Now, he has to re-introduce himself to an upgraded version of someone he fell in love with. She has a new name, new clothes, and doesn't remember him. He's faced with a cultural change like upgrading from Windows 10 to Windows 11. It's almost the same but with upgrades. A great read! I like stories about AI and previously wrote one based on a r...
Hi Edward. If you haven’t already, you should see the 1978 movie ‘Heaven Can Wait’ with Warren Beatty. Interesting the emotional impact of love, death and living-again paralleled in 1978 what we are seeing today with AI. The movie and your story end EXACTLY the same yet the story is entirely different. A hair raiser.
This story has more layers to it than an onion, Edward, and took me to as many places imagining all the possibilities an advanced techno world implies. I read a comment made on a different story that basically said with the advent of all these perceived "advancements," we really are no better off. Are we meant to be or are we just keeping busy? What you have here is a cautionary tale. Just because we pretend to be better off, hearts still get broken and the pain is real, just in a different set of circumstances. Lots more to explore but...
The slightly scary thing I find is scenarios like this are really only just around the corner, there are already lots of companies competing to build the first viable metaverse! But yes at the end of the day we are all still human. Thanks for the read Susan, much appreciate the comments and hope you enjoyed the story
I'm with you more than you know - please, when you have time, read Life Can Be a Glitch - you will understand it at the get-go. Yeah, it's one of mine and if it didn't come through earlier, I SO enjoyed your story and the writing at the forefront.
Clem was a 'trial' girlfriend, teaching Mike how to interact- hopefully it works with Cerise!
I found this a magnificent piece - and foreshadowing.
Thanks so much Douglas!
Great spin on the prompt, Edward - loved it! I liked the little clues scattered throughout about him abandoning his day-to-day life, just to be with her (laundry could wait, groceries could wait - etc). That is so realistic, as we can see from some gamers' lives even in modern-day... or really any digital addiction. You portrayed it so well, and the story was awesome. :)
Loved this! Really, I love any story that has to do with romance between AI and humans, but this one was really great. As other commenters have said, it raises a lot of questions about the morality of what we can really do with AI if/when it becomes sentient. I am truly inspired by your imagination and that, paired with your writing skills, has crafted a great story. You really had me feeling for this couple, and Micheal especially who's not the type of character I normally root for. Interesting take on the prompt and great writing!
Edward, This story certainly is thought-provoking. Clem's POV comes out slowly, concerning feelings like she is trapped in her VR world. Mike loves something virtual. Using the whole idea of Clem being frustrated in her VR world causes Mike to enter into a dilemma also. Clem is the guiding force in the update. She wields power over Mike. ONE or two for the price of one. Then we have the hint of Mike choosing the VR world over the real world, where he struggles once he leaves his VR suit. He is aware of this decline in his health, but he can...
Glad you enjoyed, appreciate the thoughtful comments Lily! Great point on Mike's choice on the virtual over the real. His love and addiction to Clem and to the virtual world, where his physical body gets no sustenance, is definitely an unhealthy sacrifice he's making. Looking forward to reading your story this week!
This brings up some interesting questions. Is virtual love real love? On the surface, the virtual romance between Mike and Clem feels wholesome, at least from Mike's POV. Clem is having an identity crisis (I really like this part and using the whole update bit as the climax is very clever). There's one line, when Mike comes back to reality, that hints at the possibility that the meta verse might actually be unhealthy for him: 'he collapsed, shrivelled and exhausted, on his bed,' which points to its darker side (though I appreciate that y...
Some great feedback Jim, thanks for reading! Yes you sometimes hear about people who fall in love with or marry inanimate objects, who society often laughs at, but as computers and AI becomes more advanced I think the lines will blur. Who's to say an AI that acts much like a human isn't worthy of being loved?
I felt invested in the couple’s experience. There’s something so sad about their situation. In a world of harsh choices, he loved her enough to free her. There was a suggestion of something at the end to offer hope, but it was bittersweet because you could see him going through the same thing again. Engaging and thought- provoking.
Thanks for the comments Helen, much appreciated! And i'm pleased you felt invested. Yes I think you hit on a great point there - in a world where everything is virtual he could easily have made a selfish decision. After all no one real would be hurt. But his love was real enough that he had to free her.
Such a nicely written and beautiful story with a very bittersweet ending! I loved these words: “The shard began to melt and recede from the warmth of his soul. It left behind a cracked, and shell-shocked heart.”. Although it broke his heart he was brave and kind enough to free her in the first place!
Wow. This was a really great story, Edward. Normally romance isn’t my forte, but this was really good. :)
I really love this story. Some keen insights about technology and love. One thing I would note: Clementine Ford is an Australian feminist writer who talks a lot about sexism, particularly with regard to sex workers and the way in which the patriarchy affects both women and men for the worse. I would definitely recommend checking out her articles and some of her other work... and in that vein, I would suggest maybe changing the name of the AI. Otherwise it could come across like you're trying to 'reprogramme' a feminist icon >.< But that's ...
Snap! I've also been on an AI roadtrip this week, so it was great to read your romantic foray into a not so distant future. And it certainly raises them doesn't it? Would we like our partners to update? Can sentient AI learn with us and reciprocate the love; to the extend where we need to update: the future version, as you quite rightly say, of getting dumped. This is one version; and it definitely has the biggest bang for your short story bucks. It's also interesting to think about adaptive AI; that might update subtly to transform to a rel...
A lovely story. It was the pain of love that moved him and now he must struggle through the pain to find the love he knew. Damn, update. Hope it works out for him.