It was beautiful in Pompeii II. I had to give the doctor that. The village was nestled in a valley surrounded by green forests and snowcapped mountains. Dr. Mark Hughes turned away from the window and faced me. In front of us was a holoscreen. Like a river, the data flowed from the top to the bottom of the page. “You see, Reporter Elijah,” the doctor said, “by using the program Algo we can predict human behavior. It takes people’s past experiences and predicts based on the decisions they have made.”
I gazed at the tall, pale man, wondering if he’d been born with those ice-blue eyes. It was equally possible they were lab-grown; blue was all the rage these days. “Is it not true, Doctor,” I answered, “that you also altered these people’s memories? You hooked them to a computer using their impla-chips and rewrote their life experiences?”
“They volunteered for this, you know. And we only do memory alts if Algo predicts they're needed.”
I nodded. “I understand they volunteered to reduce their sentences. When it is between this or hard labor making Mars habitable-well we do not need an algorithm to predict what prisoners will do when faced with certain death. I do not understand why you send men and women to the red planet when you could send us.”
Dr. Hugh shook his head as if exasperated with me. “The government had to send humans. We have limited resources, as you well know. The-explorers-grow everything in greenhouses up there. But you’re right. Mars needs to be colonized quickly.”
“Because the rising seas have wiped out South Florida, Venice, and most of Sicily. All the more reason to send us.”
The doctor rubbed his chin. “Even with your people, it won’t be done in time. That’s where my research comes in. If we can predict human behavior, we can stop climate change.”
“And,” I said, “these prisoners now act-“
“We don’t like that word here. We prefer residents.”
By any other name, I thought. I had been told the fence was just a deterrent. It would give a painful shock if someone tried to breach it. Probably best not to argue, I thought. “Very well. The residents will act on what they believe are their past experiences. If one remembers their families being loving towards them, they will act the same towards others. Do I have the concept correct?”
“Indeed, you do!”
“And the geneotomies?”
“The what?” Eyebrows raised; mouth slightly opened.
“Do you not know the rumors? I thought you would.” Of course, you do, I wished to say but did not dare. My colleagues had questioned what this man was doing, which was why he personally called me. I am a creation, yes, but it does not mean I am stupid.
“What did that one president call it?” Dr. Hughes answered. “Ah. Fake news. The side effects are such that gene therapy's only used for intractable psychological disorders. The most horrific. No, my friend, we provide our residents with a new life. We’re also relieving their suffering. These people are not just criminals; they’re humans with PTSD, disorders caused by abuse. We’re replacing them with memories of being raised in a proper environment. Now they’ll make informed and rational decisions.”
“But this practice is very-controversial.” I hoped that was putting it gently. I had to be careful. I was chosen because out of all my coworkers, I would be neutral, non-biased. And so far, I was not doing an excellent job of either. I did not know why, but this place and the doctor’s complacent attitude caused conflicts within me. I knew it was he; my own algorithm told me so. He continued on.
“Come. Humans rewrite their memories all the time. And everyone from philosophers to statisticians has predicted their behavior. Social media has algorithms. This is nothing different. Furthermore, if we’re going to survive as a species, we must learn to think logically. Surely you would agree on that?”
“It is a failing that your people do not think thus,” I said. “And ours that we cannot think emotionally. Or so humans believe. Your colleague, Dr. Strock, said in his last paper that logic and emotion work hand in hand when one makes decisions.”
“So he says.” Dr. Hughes waved his hand. “But now it’s a matter of our survival. We must be able to predict human behavior. Only then can we alter our ways, or at least stop the worse of it. For example, look at the racists that fight climate change immigrants. Or others who hoard resources. We identify these people, then treat them. I tell you Algo will solve ninety percent of our problems.”
“Tell me about some of the residents,” I said. “And how your algorithms assist them.”
“I will show you.” The doctor turned, pulling up another screen. It showed a neighborhood of bright two-story houses, each in varying neutral colors. A beige one was next to a cream-colored house. Another was a darker shade, café au lait, although coffee itself was a faint memory now. Each house had roughly the same small yard, a coral-colored driveway, white sidewalks. Dr. Hughes explained how their studies of neighborhoods had shown humans liked open spaces, clean streets, neutral houses.
“So if you were to put a blue house here-“
“Wouldn’t work,” the doctor replied. “See this woman?” He pointed to someone with salt and pepper hair. “She would complain. Her algorithm said she wants freedom of expression, but not as far as the color of houses. So, we’ve put her here. And as you can see, she’s happy. Neutral colors help her anger issues.”
“But surely there are those who want blue houses?”
“There are other neighborhoods that allow them. That’s where we sent this particular man. We predicted he liked bright colors, that they'd help his depression. We were correct.”
I saw some teenagers playing basketball. “There are children here? In a prison-“ I saw his frown. “I mean, this village?”
“Even a child can kill,” the doctor said. “But as you see, these are completely rehabilitated. They go to school. Some will take virtual world courses. Others will go to trade school. And they can get jobs here after they graduate.”
“And never leave then?” I asked.
“They are released when their sentences are up.”
“Very well then,” I said, just to see his reaction. “Give me some names of those who have been released back into society so that we may interview them.”
“I will after they sign HIPPO releases. The privacy act laws require that.”
Convenient, I nearly said, but fortunately, I was distracted by a young dark-haired woman. She had stopped and looked at something on the ground. I looked closer and saw she was studying a caterpillar. The doctor noticed my gaze. “Ah,” he said. “Clara Braun. She’s curious about everything.”
I noted he just broke his rule. “Her crime?”
“She didn’t commit one. She’s here with her mother. It’s a new program, allowing parents to raise children while carrying out their sentences. Relieves pressure on the foster care system. Once we gave mom memory alts, she became caring, even loving. Algo says neither will wish to leave.”
“And cannot. Why do you have the force field if you can predict human behavior so well?”
“Because Algo predicted the government would want it. They wish to cover their rears, so to speak,” Dr. Hughes answered.
“May I interview some of the people?” I expected the doctor to refuse.
“By all means,” Dr. Hughes replied. “We have nothing to hide. Here." He handed me a tablet. “Take this. You can see that Algo even predicts their answers.”
So much for my own ability to predict his behavior. Although I had long given up trying. If I am to be honest, I like the surprises humans give me. It is why I spend time with them and not my brethren. I knew Algo would be better for people. Predicting their behavior, teaching them to reason rationally would improve their ability to govern, to help everyone.
Still, part of me wondered what would be lost.
I talked to several residents and recorded their answers, which Algo correctly predicted. The people all stated they had no issues with living in Pompeii, that all in all, it was a pleasant place.
“Better than the red planet,” said one man. Which was the expected answer.
Why even interview these people when Algo knows everything?
I decided to walk in the forest. It was not my assignment, of course. But I am, like my brethren, bound by curiosity, the desire to explore. I walked until I saw what appeared to be an enormous soap bubble, so large I could not see where it began or ended. It turned the sunlight into a prism, blue and yellow shimmering within. I reached out a hand and heard a voice call out, “be careful!”
I turned to see the dark-haired woman standing just a few feet from me. “What is this?” I asked.
She rolled her eyes at me, an expression I have always wished I could achieve. “You don’t know a force field when you see one?”
I smiled. “I have not seen one like this. It is almost beautiful.”
“And deadly for you.” She came closer, walking on tiptoe. “Your ID says you’re Reporter Elijah,” she said.
“I am. And you are Clara. You grew up here, correct?”
“What’s out there?” she asked. “Other than the obvious, of course.”
I searched the internet. “Just wilderness. The nearest town is thirty miles away. It is called Alatka, with a population of 10,000 people. Do you not have internet here?”
“Yeah, but it’s just gov-approved sites. I thought you could tell me more.”
“Just that Alatka has a couple of bars, a few stores, and some restaurants. I do not know about them.”
“I jib to go see the town,” Clara said, her hands fluttering soft as butterfly wings.
“I would like to visit the restaurants,” I said.
“Why? You don’t eat.”
“To see if their food is something I can taste.” I do not know why I told her that, although it is true. “I can sense bitter, sweet, and salty flavors, so I seek to try different things.” I thought perhaps I should ask her some questions. I started to look at Algo and then pushed the tablet back into my pocket. I wanted the unexpected, the joy of discovery. I asked Clara about herself. I learned she was eighteen, wished to study anthropology and explore the world. She was doing so by using virtual world games but found them dissatisfying.
“I’m not sure they’re truth,” she said. “How do I know if they are unless I go to these places?” She was almost touching the bubble. “I like to come here,” she said, “and imagine what’s outside.”
“I do not know if the games are true to life, for I cannot play them.” I looked out with her, feeling the cool breeze blowing my hair. “The VR world is disorienting to us.”
Clara studied me closely. “You’re sensory?”
“I am sentient, yes.”
“What’s it like?”
“Like?” People sometimes ask what I feel, which I find difficult to answer. I do not know how humans figure emotions out, never mind such as myself.
“Does it hurt or something? Jack up your programming?”
I turned to her, surprised. Usually, only the roboticists asked me that. “That,” I said, “is a good question. Yes, sentience can cause programming conflicts, but we do not feel pain.” We discussed how my brethren learn, how stress gradually brings on sentience in some creations. Then she asked about where I lived now, my job, and if I had friends.
“I have colleagues. I suppose they are friends. And you?”
“Dunno. The kids all use v-worlds, ya know? But I jib to see what’s out there-for myself.”
“I know the feeling. It is why I am a reporter.”
Eventually, the shadows lengthened, and I knew I must return to the doctor. Soon the visitor’s bus would leave. I had to be on it, for it did not come often. The rumor was Pompeii II could not completely forbid visitors. But by no means did they make a trip convenient.
“Goodbye,” I said to her. “I have to catch the shuttle.”
“That’s here today?” she asked.
“It is,” I said. “It leaves at five. Still, I hope to see you again. I have enjoyed talking to you.”
She watched me as I left, her hands fluttering again.
I saw Algo predicted the questions she asked me, even her movements. This saddened me.
“We don’t want her to leave,” Dr. Hughes said. “She wouldn’t do well in the outside world. Did you see her mannerisms? Memory alts can’t change the fact she’s-different.”
“I did,” I said. “but what of that? She is intelligent, which is highly valued where I come from. Have you not seen your average scientist these days? They admit to occasional anti-social behavior and all sorts of odd habits. Clara would fit right in. She asks deep and good questions.”
Dr. Hughes frowned. “People are unkind towards anyone that appears weak or different, especially where rationing is concerned.”
I knew society liked conformity. To fight that is difficult but not impossible. The doctor continued, “she needs treatment first. We’re trying to convince her mother it’s the only way.”
“What…treatment do…you mean?” I was confident of the answer, and it affected my speech. A geneotomy was what he meant. He just would not call it that. Dr. Hughes looked at me, eyebrows up. He opened his mouth to answer. At first, I thought he screamed, but it was just an alarm going off overhead. A robot’s voice called out.
“A drill,” Dr. Hughes said. The voice interrupted.
“This is not a drill.”
“Goddammit!” The man must have thought-called someone, for he said, “Ten! Who breached the wall!”
Could he not even name the creations? “Ask Algo,” I said.
Dr. Hughes just glared at me, then lowered his head. “It…I can’t,” he whispered.
I knew then that Algo did not know. I looked at holograms while Dr. Hughes paced. On the screens, I saw people going through the forest searching. Behind me, the man took a call. “Ms. Braun. She’s gone? Did she take-she took her backpack and clothes? And how many days of rations?” Silence while I looked at the screens. I did not want Dr. Hughes to see my smile. I heard him say, “we’ll find Clara. Algo says she’s in the woods. No, she wouldn’t dare get on the bus. She fears getting caught.”
I wondered if Algo was wrong again. Clara knew I was on the bus and that I might help her as a friend. Dr. Hughes addressed me. “Reporter. You should leave.”
I could not help myself. “A pity I must. Things are just getting interesting.”
“I’m glad you think so,” he spat. “My work. All my work-ruined.”
“It is not about your work.”
He raised a fist. “Now see here, creation-”
“No, listen. I mean you no disrespect, but Clara can refuse your treatment per the laws. I am sure Algo predicted she would.”
“I never asked it that,” Dr. Hughes said.
Of course, you did not, I thought. Like me earlier, you did not wish to know the answer. I wondered what Clara knew. I would never find out if she were caught. “You are correct. The visitors, such as me, should leave.” I headed for the outer doors, and he followed me.
“How?” he whispered.
“How did Clara leave? Through the force field. You said it caused no lasting harm to humans. I surmise,” I turned around. “She asked permission. And against the law, you or her mother refused it.”
“We strongly advised against her leaving.”
Of course, Dr. Hughes did not answer, just pulled his hair. “The force field’s excruciating. It’s like-I don’t know. The person who tested the field said it was eight on the pain scale. Like being burned alive. Algo said no one would go through it, least of all her. And she doesn’t know anyone outside, just online players."
I said, "So Clara has never been away."
"Never. She’d literally be facing the unknown.”
Guards followed us to the automated bus. Dr. Hughes walked inside and checked the front. Then he looked briefly into a back storage area. I saw creations that apparently needed factory repairs. They sat in rows of twos and threes. The doctor sighed. “She isn’t here, thank goodness.”
“You are glad?”
“No. But Algo still has valid predictions.”
I said nothing. He closed the door and walked to the front, “She wasn’t supposed to leave, but she did. Why? We know she trusts her mother’s word. She could’ve taken her courses in v-college, taken a virtual job. Even without the geneo-I mean treatment, she’d been happy.”
“Why did the Vikings leave Norway?” I asked, “They faced scurvy, storms, seasickness, and starvation to go to England, to Scotland. Something powerful drove them.”
The doctor just stared at me. “What?”
“Why did Neil Armstrong go to the moon? He could have died, yet he went. Why did the Wright brothers ignore advice to give up trying to fly? Do you know, not everyone who goes to Mars is a criminal? Some men and women volunteer, knowing they may never come home again.”
“You’re saying what?” He stood on the bus's step.
“Never underestimate that need to explore, to learn. To see for oneself, no matter the cost. I know, it is in my programming.” I smiled. “This need is stronger than logic and self-preservation. It will break any algorithm, for it is our soul.” I watched him go, glad he could not sense the heartbeat I had in that storage room, that he had overlooked the living woman behind my brethren. We would leave together.