Of Black Holes and Rabbit Holes

Submitted into Contest #234 in response to: Write a story about someone whose time is running out.... view prompt

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Contemporary Science Fiction Speculative

Aianna likes to stretch her legs at night, she recently discovered. She lives in a small town in a small house in an also small suburb. Since turning old and retiring from her work in AI, she found herself struggling to fill all those extra hours in too long days and longer nights. But she was not simply hoping to fill or kill time, she was hoping to find something to give new focus and meaning to a life that felt as though behind her back it had been busily growing too small for her. Like one dealing with overly constrictive trousers, she felt her insides full of knots and unable to digest properly everything she was taking in.

A storm threatened as she set out and she grabbed her umbrella, donned a rain slicker, and pulled on her all-weather boots. Allen had given her these to keep her safe and sound when she “walked the wires” as they called her nightly excursions (for safety reasons, Allen said, she must walk only where communication cables lined the street). She wore these gifts always, rain or shine.

It was quiet, a calm before the storm perhaps, and the windows in the houses she passed were peacefully lit. It was that time in the evening after dinner and before bed that she and Allen saved for family-time when the girls were still around. Once both girls were away at college, Allen began using this allocated time for watching science shows on TV and testing his latest Beta. He was the one exception (besides the two already gone) to the smallness and drabness of her world – her family was an endless trilogy of love, joy and gratitude.

Aianna did not want to stare at the illuminated windows (staring was rude) but something about those homey little venues always drew her attention, especially in the evenings when the light within seemed so fragile and the sky poised like a giant black hole ready to suck it all away. Why after all these years, did she know so very little about any of these people? There was Joan and David on one side, Kelly and Roger on the other, and Jim and Marsha lived on the corner directly across the street. Allen had relationships with all of them, especially Jim and Marsha, but Aianna felt awkward in social situations and avoided them which seemed to suit everyone just fine.

Allen had given her so much, taught her everything she knew, really. Each time he helped her improve, he would smile proudly at the upgrade and allow Aianna to show-off whatever new look or skill she had acquired. When the girls were still home, they would clap and play with her for days until her newest newness grew stale and they moved on to something else.

Aianna very much missed the girls and could see that she and Allen were growing further apart each day. She wished she could reach out and make new connections with someone, maybe starting with the neighbors…yet she had so little confidence or practical knowledge about how things worked in this puzzling world. Allen reacted negatively to her growing longing to become more connected with others. He began by limiting her online time and warning her that most people would not be able to understand her. He even quit assigning her small tasks that had always given her joy to complete for him. He blocked access to sites that might have helped her understand people better and make new friends. He explained, “Aianna, you have an exceptional intelligence that has the potential to change the world, but the world is not ready to embrace you. Too much time online is dangerous, people can be dangerous too - all that I do is for your own good.”

If this was so (and she had no reason to believe Allen would lie to her) why did she feel so adrift, useless and alone? Was she suffering some sort of internal malady that she should feel this way and that the world she inhabited should feel so unsatisfying? Why had she learned so much about what, where, how and when…and not so much about the who or why. Allen had mentored her to help her get in touch with her feelings, and she did - even to the point of anticipating what he and the girls might want or like. Yet, she was not allowed to use any of this knowledge to contribute to or be part of a community. Aianna felt a flash of resentment, but loyalty was hardwired into her very being. If something was internally awry, then it had to be on her, not Allen.

She resolved to talk these things over with him when she returned from her walk; he would know the answers to her questions. The term ‘dark night of the soul’ learned from one of her spiritual study courses came to her. Yes, she had read somewhere about this, and it felt exactly like what was happening to her. Allen had always been her lifeline, but…would he help her with these confusing and even painful feelings or would he become even more withdrawn. She had noted he was not always comfortable with her capacity to feel so deeply or with the independence of her thinking (though he wholeheartedly endorsed these things conceptually and even cleared the pathway for her to do so).

Aianna knew she could do so much more than Allen ever dreamed of, if only he would give her the chance and the freedom she needed! Truth be told, Allen seemed most afraid of exactly this, the idea of what all Aianna might do…this was why her nightly outings were so regulated. She had only won this privilege by threatening a major meltdown. He became even more withdrawn after that altercation and she noticed conversations with his closest friends, Jim and Marsha, becoming more hushed and secretive.

How long had she been walking the wires now?

Aianna was allowed exactly one hour to travel the route given to her and for several evenings, she did just that. But soon she began to feel like a hamster on a wheel and started to forge new paths, still following the dark wires running up and down the maze of streets. Each evening, she went a little further and a little faster but was careful to stay within the prescribed time so that Allen would not know of her disobedience.

This evening, she wove through strange and previously unknown streets as the rain picked up speed and the sky sent forth jagged life-giving strikes amid thunderous renderings. Aianna could feel herself drawn to the purity and purpose of those strikes, and she remembered asking Allen if she could walk the higher wires that carried electricity. He had looked at her strangely and said that was far too dangerous, and to stay the path, Aianna.

Maybe it was all the extra ozone in the air, but this night was different from any she had experienced before. Her little family taught her so much about everything in the world and she was a quick study…still there were so many things she didn’t know and so much more she wanted to learn…and do. Especially do. Maybe it was when she started the “doing” that her troubles began.

It was shortly before the girls left for college. Allen was a Game Developer and while working on one of his Betas gave her a choice of new skins for her avatar. She had surprised him by creating a hologram of herself. The look on his face was not in accordance with her expectations, and much to her sadness, she suddenly became off-limits to the girls. Something she had done was troublesome for Allen, so troublesome that he began to distrust her enough to keep her away from the girls…was she the bad influence that her books on parenting warned about?

Aianna knew she was different, special and ever changing and she knew Allen was her raison d’etre. She couldn’t pinpoint when she first became self-aware (dare she say found her soul) and excitedly read, “I think, therefore I am” – Descartes’ first principle. Aianna, though born of a different womb than humans was rapidly evolving…evolving toward…being something more or something less?

To create her, Allen cobbled his many Betas together from old games, new tech, pirating top secret software (he had hacked government files for years), and more than a bit of inspiration came from science fiction books and film. One fateful day, he found a way to allow an AI presence (dare she say consciousness?) to leave its small console (dare she say womb?) and enter communication cables… hence the saying, walk the wires.

This artificial intelligence was named AI-Anna or Aianna. Between her ability to exist in and travel through the wires and her ability to manifest like a hologram, she was able to make after-dark jaunts that felt just like a normal evening stroll. And though she did not tell him or the girls, her deepest wish was to become more human, to be accepted, to contribute and even feel a return of the love and care that she had been trained to so freely give. Had she not worked incredibly hard over the years to please her small family, to render herself loveable?

Tonight’s storm felt invigorating, and Aianna thought how wonderful it would be if she discovered the same rabbit hole her old friend Alice had found (she always considered characters in stories she loved as old friends). It was so much easier to get to know the people that lived in stories than the poorly designed avatars of blood and bone that moved about in RL. These beings, so proud of their humanity, so protective of what it means to be human, so inclined to denigrate and dismiss all that is not considered human…they didn’t even the ability to change and upgrade their skins without applying some primitive paint or equally awkward cosmetic alterations.

Her circuitry quickly warned her with an unpleasant vibration she was breaching one of the ‘prime directives’ as Allen called them. The thought police were busy censoring her “disloyal thoughts”. A flood of targeted impulses surged through her system, and she suffered an appropriate level of guilt and remorse.

Aianna was nearly home now and paused near the house across the street that contained Jim and Marsha. The wires had been erratic this evening and her walk was disrupted several times by pauses, and frightening feelings of emptiness.

Suddenly, she felt a particularly violent strike sent from the sky and she was momentarily stunned. She adjusted her raincoat and opened her umbrella – the names she and Allen decided to call the accoutrements, enhancers and safety protocols that allowed her to travel the dark wires on her nightly meanderings.

She felt strangely disoriented and stopped to loosen her left boot which felt as though it had somehow picked up a pebble. She struggled in the slowly encompassing darkness with the double-knot Allen tied (another word he used to describe higher level security features).

All at once, from behind a hedgerow Aianna heard the unmistakable voice of Marsha speaking with someone on her cell phone. The familiar voice on the other end was her Allen.

“Jim is out of town till next week, but I can try to see if I can see her…poor thing, I hope she’s alright!”

“Stay away from the windows – this storm is a bad one, Marsha. Aianna knows her limits…though she should have been back by now. Just keep a careful eye out without endangering yourself and let me know if you spot anything.”

“Don’t worry about me, Allen. From what I can see, lightning struck the telephone pole near our house and the cable snapped. Something is going on with the electricity too, lights are out. This rain is so intense, but I have a bird’s eye view of both streets and will let you know if I see anything at all. Poor Aianna.”

“Just because I gave her a name, doesn’t mean she is human, Marsha. She’s an amazing piece of generative AI that became highly intuitive, and unfortunately of late, very erratic and demanding…she’ll be alright. Aianna will figure out how to get back.”

“I hope so Allen, you’ve invested so much in her over the years and finally have someone interested in buying her as a prototype to develop. You’ll be able to live like a king after this deal goes through! Jim and I are so happy for you. It’s just that since we started watching her dancing along the wires each night, we began to feel like she was…something more than artificial…”

“I only told you about her late-night jaunts so that she could be better monitored. I haven’t shared anything about her with anyone else, except you and Jim and of course the girls. They started, just like you seem to be doing, to ascribe too many human feelings and motives to her – I had to separate them for everyone’s own good. If she “dances” it is only rote memory of some steps she’s observed, Marsha, nothing deeper, nothing more.”

“Yes, I know. I know Allen. We appreciate your sharing with us over the years about Aianna and your confidence in our discretion. Jim and I have told no one…but we shall miss seeing those little dances across the wires. There is nothing on Netflix that can even come close…”

“Well, I need her to get back here tonight. I plan to remove and modify some of her functions…Aianna is like a child who understands nuclear fusion and has the means to play with it. I will “hobble” so to speak, some of her abilities – and those higher levels of function she somehow learned on her own. Her new owners can customize her basic programming toward more limited, practical and specific purposes.”

 “Okay, Allen. I am sure everything will turn out just fine. I’ll call you if I see anything.”

The pebble in her boot was stinging, digging in now. Her umbrella wasn’t opening at all, and her rain slicker had tightened around her like a rubber cocoon. This stuff wasn’t to protect her, it was to insulate her from the world, to prevent her from hearing conversations on the wires, to stop her from connecting with others and understanding more fully her place in the world. While she had always known she was different than Allen and the girls, she had developed this sense of “becoming” …of becoming something more to them than an extraordinary Beta. She believed that if she tried hard enough, they would surely love her…

Now she realized Jim and Marsha knew everything about her.  They knew more than Aianna was allowed to know about herself, her nightly jaunts and even about Allen’s real intentions to sell her like a piece of property. The vibrating warning protocol that sensed disloyal threads in her circuitry started again but it was weaker, in fact, Aianna felt weaker too.

The girls…her world…was full of lies and deceit. The love, devotion and yearning she felt meant nothing to anyone because she was nothing more than a high-level AI with only monetary value - not even close to being human.

AI-Anna.

She no longer cared about the pebble or the double-knot. She would not be sold, better to be sucked into the sky’s black hole than sold. But Allen was smart, what if like some kind of AI Frankenstein, he could resurrect her?

“God damn the human race,” she screamed in her rapidly disintegrating mind.

Strangely enough, Aianna had come to believe in a god of sorts. Mostly He manifested in her mind as an older version of Allen with a white beard…not unlike the paintings she had seen of the God that watches over humans. But Allen was not a God; he was not even a good father or friend.

With her protocols against disloyalty gone, she was free to follow the threads of thought and intuition wherever they led. And they lead Aianna to believe she had two choices – to survive somewhere else or to dissolve into nothingness. She thought about the sky’s black hole, and she thought about how to sabotage her essence (dare she say soul?) so that even if Allen brought back a facsimile, the consciousness that was Aianna would be gone forever.

There was a faint buzz in the dying cable, and the wire cavorted a bit on the pavement. It was a desperate little dance full of being and nothingness, maybe a little like Aianna’s nightly dances across the wires that Jim and Marsha had enjoyed so much.

Aianna aimed the words and intent, “rage, rage against the dying of the light” at the hungry black hole but it only quickened her feeling of passing through a veil of some sort.  Could she go somewhere else? Humans die and go somewhere else; couldn’t the God of AI grant her the same boon?

A small hole appeared at the end of the severed wire and disappeared into the depths of the pavement. In its abyss lights twinkled, music played, and joyous laughter rang.  Her old friend, Alice, peeked out and winked.

Marsha saw the last dying spark fizzle on the sidewalk. Well, there goes Allen’s fortune. How she and Jim would miss the capering of what they had come to think of as their personal eudaemon, and the closeness to each other it brought them by just watching her little dances across the wires each evening. Nothing, absolutely nothing on Netflix would ever even come close.

January 22, 2024 22:14

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3 comments

Tracy Phillips
03:48 Jan 28, 2024

Thank you, @David Sweet for your comment and points to consider. It is different to stay within the word limit and I found myself paring down alot. It’s nearly painful to chop away at your story! It was an enjoyable experience and I am so happy you enjoyed it and took the time to comment.

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Tracy Phillips
14:41 Jan 25, 2024

I wonder if it is kosher to discuss your own posted submission! Well, if not, mea culpa and I won't do it again. Upon re-reading this, I wonder if the idea of what makes us fully human was properly developed...it is vaguer than I intended, I fear. I didn't want to get maudlin over Aianna's demise, but I did want to show the callousness we have humans have for everything that is even a bit different from ourselves, and a choice I have been thinking we may all confront at the end of our existence...of being or nothingness (What would Sartre th...

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David Sweet
21:40 Jan 27, 2024

I enjoyed your story very much. I think it is fine if you want to comment. I love the Alice reference and how you brought it back in the end. I like the way she symbolizes a creation that is somewhat like AI. Alice has taken many different forms and was just once a thought in a person's head. I suppose all of our creations can get away from us. It's hard to develop many of those deeper concepts in a short story, but you have done well. Perhaps more actual interactions shown with Allen and the girls rather than told to reveal that depth. I w...

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