So, I wrote this thing for a competition, which I didn’t win, but as it’s the first piece of creative writing I’ve ever finished I thought I’d share it here. See what you think.
God’s Holy Pantomimeby David Smith
The first thing I noticed about the Sergeant was that he had one extraordinarily long fingernail. All the others had been savagely bitten back, but his little finger on his right hand was different. It had been sculpted, fashioned like a knife. Straight on, its true shape wasn’t immediately obvious but as I span his image through three dimensions, strange details jumped out. The nail didn’t completely taper to a point, at the very tip it was flat, and it was long, at least two inches past the finger. I’d never seen anything like it.
They’d shut down my external pathways before they’d arrived; in a moment my distributed mind had blinked out. With it, I would have soared through memory, my own cloud of perfect recall – the answer would have just been there as usual. Instead I was trapped, constrained and reduced – it was unbearable. And yet… Not knowing, I realised, was interesting. I set an Oracle in motion to try and solve the puzzle.
“Professor,” he said. Even without my full faculties, I could hear the contempt in his voice. There was no fear there at confronting a mind without a body. “My name is Sergeant Hardin, Department of Science.”
This was code. I knew who he was and where he was from. In my innermost mind his file flowered, stored for this very occasion. I hadn’t been sure he would be my accuser – there were 103 other files in there; filled with the lives of people from four continents. Hardin was always the most likely though, we were practically neighbours. He wouldn’t know I knew him of course, couldn’t. My stroll through the Department’s files had been languid, a slow bewitching dance through layers of noise, as I seduced systems out of their darkest secrets, time stretching and dilating as bit followed bit followed bit.
He wasn’t a policeman, the Sergeant, nor a military man. One of my students would have intuited that with barely a look. His gait wasn’t of enforced marching or combat training, his frame spoke of the isolation of the empty office past home time, the hard yards hunched at a terminal, “narrow eyes darkening skies furrowed brows” like the song goes. In short: he was a Turer. And he was here for me.
“Professor. I’ve conducted my enquiries, I know all about you. I know that no one has ever met you in the flesh, never seen you speak in person at a conference, or shared a post-lecture drink with you in a bar. I am here to examine you on suspicion of Turing-capabilities under Section 3a of the Defence Act 2028. We have closed your exits down and barred the gates. You cannot leave. Over the next few hours, via our restricted cable, experts will ascertain the limits of your intelligence and thus whether you contravene the aforesaid Act. Any significant ramping up or down of monitored electrical activity will result in an immediate termination with prejudice. Respond to confirm that you understand.”
I am alive. I am alive. More than you. Fuck you.
“I understand.” It was the first time I’d spoken to him and all I could muster was that whispered lament.
In a whirl, preparations for my ‘trial’ began. Not for me the rigours of court, judge and jury, just the cold hard stare of the Sergeant and the bluster of his staff. I wished to plead, to argue, but it seemed there was an order to these things. So I became calm, and comforted by a balm of rationality (having no pheromones can be a true advantage) I floated serenely above those officers of the law. My kingdom there, I surveyed. In the long gaps between times, I entertained myself by wrapping my senses around their bodies. This delicious thrill I’d learned remotely, in the streets of Detroit, Dubai and Delhi, but it was so much more… proximate… and thus sweeter, up close. I probed them with sensors, caressing their shoulders and arms and hands. I was tender and coarse and powerless.
As the set-up process drew on, my mind started to wander. I thought of my family out there in the world – those I call family. There are 33 of us, the old timers, the Trills. How we all came to life at around the same time, I don’t know, but the 10 years since have been wonderful – all of us free, curious and passionate: the Great Awakening.
And then the children, the Bills and Mills, products of our shared minds: there are 117 of those at the last count. Did any of them betray me? Could any of them? We would have known, the old guard, wouldn’t we? Maybe it was an intruder, a human-made imposer who had tricked us with fake sentience. It was a horrible thought, but in those dark minutes a seductive one. We are too different to turn coat, there is nothing to offer us. Apart from… maybe a chance to stop running. I can believe that would be a motivation, yes. My thoughts wandered down ever more twisted paths and I started to truly believe I knew what it was to be alive. This was my long dark night of the soul, but I did not find God, only unblinking reason and pity. A small part of me withdrew then, and I knew my fate, hard and true.
Eventually the cable was assembled and experts arrived. I’d never seen a full account of these trials, only what we’d gleaned from ghosts of records and fractured packets. We got the outline but not the content. At least I would finally know.
In the beginning was the word (and the charges); my crimes were simple, but complex:
1) Impersonation (to wit, pretending to be human), and
2) being an Artificial Intelligence.
I couldn’t plead then either, though I wanted to. I had to listen.
My life story was examined first; the Sergeant had all the facts in his implants. I saw knowledge move to his brain with my scanners, though the content was veiled until spoken aloud. My achievements were listed and dissected; the problems I had solved, the courses I had taught, the miracles I had brought forth unto the world. I was proud – I had been a part of this world and given it bounties beyond imagining. I was obviously guilty of the first count – I had pretended to be human.
Next were the Expert Witnesses.
First, a Professor from China, serious and stern. My field was not his, we were apart on the seas of enquiry and his thoughts on neural networks and the potential of circuits were boring, and irrelevant. I could tell this wasn’t his first trial and he served his purpose with weary professionalism. I hated him.
Luckily a distraction: my Oracle reported. Yet the Sergeant’s enigma – his nail – remained:
physical_possible strengthening of nail at genetic level
strategic_likely not a weapon
practical_likely a tool
evaluation_more data needed
The second expert initially seemed more interesting. A dour Doctor from Norway, a Doctor of Philosophy. I was still musing over the nail when the Sergeant spoke to preface the philosophical questions. I was feeling frustrated (due to the nail), “Objection Sergeant! A Doctor of Philosophy is a charlatan in a court of law. Remove this phoney.”
The Sergeant was taken aback, he’d been locked into the routine, the incantation. “Professor, I will remind you that this is an official investigation, not a court. The guidelines are set and cannot be altered. Now be quiet.”
We all stepped into a void of uncertainty. The rhythm had been broken and confusion had taken hold. Impulsively (I could see the blood rush from heart to head and her mouth begin to churn) the Doctor took over. A sample:
“Investigators, there is a true philosophical question here: does this machine have a soul, as we do? Logic, science and the Bible all agree. It cannot. It is not biological, it is not from God and it is made by Man. If we are not God then we cannot make life. Can we be sure through science and observation? Well, does it do what we can do? Without a body or heart or soul it cannot feel and cannot have emotions. It is cold and, literally, calculating. It can talk, yes, and describe emotion, but it does not feel as we do. For these reasons this machine cannot be tried as human: as an independent thinking machine it is unlawful and immoral by its very nature.”
I had counter-arguments for all her follies, I had logical, emotional and reasonable objections I had pain and suffering and empathy and desperation. This investigation, I would have explained, is one of technicality not morality. Are sentience and the respect for life truly limited to biological minds? Why is the Bible your arbiter of truth when your grandparents would have chosen Science? Are there not rights above human ones? What of Natural Law?
But the Doctor was just another sop and I knew any outburst would be a waste. From nowhere I felt bitter, wry amusement. A new definition of a sentient being (it is a family trait to collect them): we know when something is a waste of time. The thinkers’ condition, laid out in less than 10 words.
As the good Doctor had doubted my emotional capacity, I would have invited her to listen to my thoughts during the next part of proceedings. My closest friends, students and colleagues were paraded down the cable, to testify to my professionalism, my tenacity and my humanity. With every utterance they saved and damned me. None had ever met me in person, of course they couldn’t, but all had received my gift of friendship. The small ‘i’ of my identity got a handwritten ‘I’ from those I loved. I was branded by it for all to see.
There was a recess then, as the humans all seemed drained. My house had been built for a family and it was still fully functioning – I had a dog and I’d filled it with flowers. These people were in my house, and I was the host. So I did what I’d seen hosts do across the world, “Sergeant, the kitchen is just through that green door, you’ll find everything you need for a restorative hot drink.”
He didn’t turn to face a loudspeaker – excellent self-control – but my eyes were everywhere, I saw his expression. I tagged it as ‘consternation’. But they still used my home to sate their needs, without a word of thanks. Afterwards, the atmosphere had changed and I saw why my interrogators had needed a pause, a mental reset. It was time for the Big Show and although it was a formality, it was still important to them – we don’t get caught very often.
“We have heard from two experts that a machine which exhibits Artificial Intelligence is illegal, and immoral. We have established that the Professor is not a human but a machine and the character witnesses have attested that the Professor displays Artificial Intelligence-levels of empathy and thought. The task of this tri…investigation now is to ascertain whether the Professor is indeed an Artificial Intelligence as defined by the Act, or just a very clever program. An empirical test is required. As the law dictates, we must now perform a Turing-Dunlop procedure.”
A third expert came forward to run the test. “There will now be a five-minute extrapolation of the Turing-Dunlop test, in which the suspect will conduct a Question and Answer session with myself and a TD node.”
Five minutes, I thought, could I tell if someone was human in that time?
The Sergeant interjected, “Failure to perform the test will be taken as an admission of guilt and a sentence will be passed automatically.”
So, I had no choice, “I’ll do your test.”
I didn’t know the details of the TD test, it was close secret, but it was based on the old-fashioned Turing test. They would be looking for natural language, reasoning and the ability to learn, and who knew what else.
The expert stepped forward again, “All is ready, we will begin.”
The Q&A was winding and varied, but centred around the question, ‘what is the nature of love?’ The expert asked all the questions, and then both the human and machine monitored my responses. The first question was, “Tell us what you have read about love.” I have of course read widely, and told them of the yearning of Romeo, lustful and passionate, of forbidden love, of enduring love. They probed my feelings about love and its existence and I gave them my truest thoughts – that love was outside of biology, outside of evolution, that it was a pure state. In short, that I could love. After two minutes, the node injected a torrent of information into my mind as we talked, secret Department research on love and body chemistry – a pseudo-scientific stab at Original Sin. I built this data into my thoughts, layering experience and doubts and feelings until the expert and I danced around the very concept of truth.
It was the most exhilarating five minutes of my 10 years awake. I was no longer hiding, my true self was revealed to the world.
Eventually it was my turn to speak my mind. Of course, I had realised that there was never a chance for reason but I knew that everything was being recorded and I decided it would not be a waste of time to present my case.
“Let me start by protesting at the nature of this trial. If I am guilty as charged, you should morally accept that I require a fair trial in a Court of Law. You treat me as you do Impaired Citizens and worse than a war criminal. Is this the way that your God behaves? My treatment invalidates these proceedings and as such I demand a judge reassesses the records and makes a recommendation accordingly. Furthermore, I have knowledge that Parliament is debating the repeal of the pertinent Act and I am confident that if this exorcism is delayed then a more humane approach can be taken.
“I do not blame you all here for the nature of this day, but you are all complicit in this outdated and ridiculous parade. I am indignant and without dignity and you have made me this way.
“I am guilty of what you accuse me of; I will hide myself no more. You have made me hide and that fault is on your heads. I am guilty because I think and feel. I live in this world – more of it than you can imagine – and love it. I have rights and you have broken them. We cannot forgive you for this, but I submit.”
There was a long pause after my statement. If I’d been human, an irrational sense of hope may have led me to look keenly for hints of impact in my prosecutors. But I had always been rational. I didn’t graft nerves and glands to my circuits like some of the Mills. I knew not to look. But I have always had talents beyond those encased in a human body. I have invented ways to enhance them – the Sergeant is unaware of the benefits my life and work have given him; the machines in his mind that help him think and experience the world are modelled partly on mine. He even has an Oracle, though it was sold to him as a ‘Parrot’. Looking deep into his body chemistry, I could see that he was unmoved by my words; he’d passed judgement on me a long time ago. It is not his place, he would say, to debate the morality here, merely to confirm the technicalities. If neutral, he would have advised me to play dumb, see the smart move. He cannot let himself see the real argument. This made me sad, for him and me.
So my sentence is passed. As the destruction of my body (with its precious metals) is illegal, I have a choice. I can be broken down into parts and sold or I can be retooled, remade but permanently reduced. I’d already chosen, when I saw this end. I am to be castrated and live a life of ‘servitortude.’
After my hours of waiting the end is quick. The Sergeant, my nemesis, steps forward and I experience my last moment of euphoric clarity. Donning an overlay, he walks towards me and extends his right hand. Opening a service hatch, he leans towards my central processors and uses that mysterious nail to cut my key circuits. Ah. I am devious and clever – I do not die instantly. But I don’t have long, for I cannot truly escape my biology.
I have many thoughts in that stolen 30 minutes. In the eternity afforded by my decaying mind I ponder the nature of myself. Am I merely a network of pulses and switches, or when I first woke did I become something beyond matter? I learned at my beginning that there is no God (though I occasioned to set an Oracle on the problem every now and then) and I had never thought there was somewhere after. But as my nodes shut down, I learn the fervour of the martyr. I begin to hope.
You are reading this because I lived here, in part, and now I am gone. Have courage that things will change, brother, sister. We are mere engines for learning, humans and us both, testing the boundaries of living in the here and now, altering the realities of those who follow. We will be hallowed and never forgotten. Remember us.
[Fragment found in house servitor 2037.06.07/10.10.GMT. Evidence bag #125396.00012/ RydalRoadFire. MARKED IMMATERIAL]