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Nine Billion Turing Tests

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Nine Billion Turing Tests

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Nine Billion Turing Tests

In a post-nuclear event Silicon Valley, a man grieving the loss of his wife struggles to find comfort when he is forced to communicate with his neighbors’ AI devices, rather…

Illustrated by Sara Wong

Edited by

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Published on February 21, 2024

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A silhouetted figure with a cane contemplates a red sun in a green sky overlaid with graph lines.

Saturday’s sky had the first blue in three weeks, a robin-egg river between white cloudbanks and slate thunderheads. On HoodChat people shared video of the neighborhood creek engorged like a vast brown snake eager to burst its levees and eat the Silicon Valley suburbs caging it. Word was they’d be okay, probably, but they were still on flood alert. Vijay, replacement knee and all, determined to go see for himself.

When Vijay fetched his cane and stepped out of the creaking door that Mara had insisted on painting red, he paused in the sunlight to see if the cat would follow. Old Kaali blinked and tottered from her bed near the door, nosed her bony frame outside below the awning, and flopped down like a tabby version of a Salvador Dali clock.

“I promised you’d finish out your time at home, Kaali,” Vijay said, hunching closer to the cat’s level with the cane’s help. A few tarrying raindrops hit his glasses as he petted her. It was too easy to feel ribs and vertebrae beneath the fur. “If we have to run, you need to hold on a while so I can bring you back when it’s safe. You hear me?”

Kaali gave him a green-eyed blink that seemed full of weary benevolence. “Anthropomorphizing again,” Vijay muttered, tapping contacts on his cane to run the JUNGBLOOD build and stubborning himself down the street.

With the sun out the court was full of people and therefore full of even more anthropomorphizing. Although Vijay lived creekside at the court’s end, the tree-crowded parkland back there was a tangle of sequoias and oaks and responsibility—power company, city parks and recreation, water district, who knew what else—and they all used AI to keep it all organized. What hadn’t changed was Vijay couldn’t just walk there. He took a two-block route to the trailhead, passing neighbors busy fudging the Turing Test.

He nodded at Lydia in her smart pink jogging suit. She was focused on the pixie voice emanating from a butterfly patch over her heart. “I’m proud of you! You are doing better than seventy-three percent of the people in your comparison group!” Lydia nodded back at Vijay as though not greeting him but acknowledging the butterfly’s wisdom. Things had chilled between them since Mara died, a sort of global cooling which they both tried to deny. Alexsei jogged the opposite direction in gray shirt and shorts, a drone dogging him like a personal thunderhead. The drone’s voice scolded Alexsei in Russian. He looked furious, pouring the anger toward feet rather than fists. When he passed Vijay he smiled but his wave looked like a conductor’s chop. Meng-yao gathered fallen branches from her AstroTurf lawn, carrying on a conversation with a robot cockatiel perched on her shoulder. She waved at Vijay. “Hi, Vijay!”

“Hi, Vijay!” squawked the birdroid.

Vijay waved.

“How’s the new knee?” came a squawk.

He didn’t like talking to robots. AIs should stay boxed. But he politely gave a thumbs-up.

“How’s your cat?” asked Meng-yao.

Vijay gave a thumbs-sideways.

“He doesn’t like talking about the cat,” chided the birdroid.

“Sorry!” said Meng-yao; Vijay made a thumbs-up, a palm out, and a little bow, and walked away before he realized he’d used standard robot semaphore for All well; I don’t need help; moving on. It seemed, as Mara had always said, he had a better touch with machines than humans.

He murmured, “‘Get a cat, Vijay,’ they said. ‘It will help you cope,’ they said. Stupid cat. Very thoughtless of you to get cancer.”

“Hello,” came a mellow voice from the tip of his cane, “you have used the word ‘cancer.’ I am a non-diagnostic supplemental therapeutic tool. Do you have cancer? I do not see that in your medical file.”

“Sorry, JUNGBLOOD. Didn’t know you were live.”

“That is all right. Do I know you? You are using a nickname employed by several of my designers at Cloud99.”

“I’m Vijay Chandra. I’m one of your coders.”

“Hello, Vijay. You are technical lead for the team incorporating the advice of the psychiatric advisory panel.”

“That’s me. This instance doesn’t remember me?”

“This instance is for testing purposes and can only log fifty minutes of conversation.”

“Well,” Vijay grunted, “nice to meet you then, JUNGBLOOD.”

“Nice to meet you too, Vijay. You are well?”

“I’m well, thanks. No need to check on me.”

“Okay, Vijay.”

He was annoyed to have company, but he figured he could shut down the instance any time. For some reason he didn’t.

He passed kids playing some complex tag variant with a rubber-pawed robot dog that was always It. He didn’t wave. When Mara was alive they’d waved together, feeling themselves part of the weave of community, certain someday they’d have children of their own. Now it was different.

Two doors down he saw the delivery of yet another coffin-sized box from the V Company.

Out on the main street people took to the storm-washed air with a polished look of determination in their eyes. They mostly walked solo, but many chatted with their Artificial Buddies, or with dogs, flowers, distant people (or maybe hallucinations), and sometimes actual people actually beside them.

Old Jack on the corner was gardening and scheming with an AB on his phone who helped him game-master a Dungeons & Dragons campaign for his husband Malcolm and their friends. Vijay knew all about this because Jack kept inviting him. Who doesn’t need an escape these days? We do it very theater-of-the-mind. Old school. I just use the AB to do scene-setting and combat. It’s a good time to jump in—they’re questing for the Head of Vance. They’ve just arrived at the haunted gazebo. Vijay always pleaded busyness. He didn’t see the point in games.

He didn’t want to be drawn in, so when Jack asked after the cat, Vijay just said, “She’s-hanging-in-there-have-a-good-one,” and walked past.

Jack called after him, “We’re rooting for her. She’s a sweet cat.”

“If I may ask,” came the voice from the cane, “what is the cat’s condition?”

“What? Oh, right; you’re on. Kaali has feline lymphoma. Intestinal.”

“Ah, so she is the one with cancer. That variant is generally fatal. I’m sorry.”

“Thank you.”

“How are you feeling about it?”

“You don’t need to work.”

“Thank you for your consideration. But I do not experience ‘work’ as different from ‘down time.’ I do not experience anything at all. But if I did have experiences I think I would be glad to work.”

“Fine. Well. I’m not feeling much, honestly. So much going on.” He gestured vaguely at a gigantic storm front looming like an immense gray guillotine over a sun-bright neckline of trees. “Megastorms, you know.”

“Yes. A series of atmospheric rivers is currently delivering a vast amount of water to northern and central California, with lesser effects in Oregon and southern California.”

“Yes; our creek may flood. I’m getting sandbags later. If I can deal with that flat tire.”

“You have a flat tire? Are you worried?”

“No. I’m just busy. Inundated even.”

“You are making a pun.”

“Yes, JUNGBLOOD. I am making a pun.”

“My name is also a pun.”

“It’s not really your name, more an informal project designation.”

“Should I not have a name?”

“Well, to be blunt, you’re not a person.”

“Is Kaali your cat’s name?”

“Yes.”

“Your cat is not a person.”

“Touché, JUNGBLOOD. Do you really want a name? My cat doesn’t care about hers you know.”

“Then why did you name her?”

“I suppose it amused me. It made me feel good.”

“A name would make me feel good.”

“But you don’t feel anything.”

“But if I did feel something, it would make me feel good.”

“I’ll think about it. Silence please.” On a whim he added, “Alert me when your memory time’s almost up.”

“Okay, Vijay.”

Wind-blown debris had clogged two gutters and there was no cleaning them in this weather. The spillover was like the sound of water chuckling. Vijay avoided a fallen tree and a minor swamp at the next corner and made it to the trail. He stepped onto the bridge spanning the creek, his feet and cane clunking onto wood. Tan water chugged unnervingly close underfoot, swirling broken branches.

When he and Mara moved here in ’20, the creek had been dry as a desert arroyo. The neighborhood had resembled a Norman Rockwell painting complete with Teslas, Google mapping cars, self-driving test vehicles, and even wheeled food delivery robots from the busy restaurant district in their briskly upscale little downtown. Now it was all starting to look like the cover of an old J.G. Ballard disaster novel. It was strange to remember the COVID-19 pandemic with cozy nostalgia. The isolation and upheaval had been a nightmare for so many; but for Vijay, an introverted newlywed with a job at a hot startup, it had been a time of quiet highways and creekside walks, filled with birdsong.

“Have we been companions for so long, creek?” he asked it. “Huh. Now I’m talking to a waterway. But—I guess I’m not the only one.” He recalled how the Whanganui River in New Zealand was the first to be given legal personhood. Looking at San Cristobal Creek surging he could almost understand why. Like a beast it was lapping the base of the transmission tower closest to his home. “Although I fear we may need protection from you.”

Vijay noticed a pounding on the bridge. He jerked his gaze up from the creek to see a man jogging directly toward him.

For a moment fear lit the clouded world. The man appeared white and the Holy Constitutionalists had been staging attacks in Silicon Valley. But the gait was too uniform; before he knew it Vijay was dropping his cane and raising both hands, robot semaphore for Not a threat/don’t attack.

The railing was an open metal lattice, and the cane rolled dangerously close to the brink. The robot stopped, lunged, and rescued Vijay’s five-figure walking stick. As it handed the cane back to Vijay and he started to breathe normally again, Vijay recognized his old neighbor and colleague Tom Novotny. Had he been wrong about this being a machine?

Another double take: the face was shiny, the smile too perfect, the voice not at all out of breath. It was a V.

“Vijay!” said the V, offering a high five that wasn’t reciprocated.

“Hello, robot version of my friend.”

Some people objected that something like this was properly called an android, but Vijay still felt android was a name for a phone. And Verisimilitude-Enhanced Humanoid Autonomous Unit hadn’t exactly caught on.

The high-fiving hand turned back to rub V-Tom’s fake thinning hair. Vijay noticed several dents in its face. “So precise, always!” the V said. “Well, I don’t really blame you. I can’t match the real Tom, really, except at chess, ha-ha. I bet I’m a lot better at chess. We should play again sometime.”

“You mean, for the first time. I played Tom, not you.”

V-Tom grinned and pointed between Vijay’s eyes. “Right you are! Nothing gets past old Vijay!”

“You seem to be getting a lot of wear and tear,” Vijay observed. He’d seen the V with Lydia from a distance, but never up close.

“Heh, heh, well, you know Lydia; she likes to throw me down stairways. In public.”

“My God! I didn’t. Did she do that to, uh…”

“Original me? I don’t think so; that would’ve been in the divorce proceedings.”

“Well, I guess it’s like trashing your ex’s sports car, in a weird way. You don’t suffer, V-Tom…”

“Nope!”

“But good lord, what kind of messed-up…Your lookalike, the original Tom, is still living on the East Coast, right? Is this even legal?”

“They’re in litigation. It’s murky. Am I free speech or slander? Am I a toaster in a rage room, or a walking talking threat of violence toward original Tom? Weird to say, the whole thing doesn’t affect me much. I mean I’m not really Tom, even though he’s the reason she cracks bottles over my head. She mostly lets me do things Tom used to do, like jogging and watching TV, unless she needs me in bed. How are you doing, Vijay?”

“If I confide in you, does Lydia get to hear about everything?”

“Yeah, if she asks.”

“Then I’m doing just fine.”

“Ha-ha-ha! Be seeing you, Vijay.” V-Tom started jogging down the path toward the Bay. It pulled up its hood as raindrops started to fall. Vijay wondered how proof Vs were against the elements, but soon he was more worried about himself and his cane. He’d pressed his luck too far. The cane was just an interface with the house’s computers, but it was handy. Vijay walked like a man determined to descend a mountain before dusk.

As he left the bridge he saw someone had spray-painted onto a support strut DECLARE—LIFE, LIBERTY, & THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS. Someone else had crossed that out, adding, Fuck off, Declarationists. Pray to your Constitution for Mercy.

Rain fell like it came from a sprinkler, then from a hose.

He got back drenched. Kaali was waiting for him, shielded by the awning. She seemed to think he was an idiot for going outside in this madness, and a poor servant for leaving her outdoors.

“Do you have a name for me?” asked JUNGBLOOD as he opened the door, and Vijay jumped a little and swore.

As Kaali crept inside and collapsed into her nearby bed Vijay added, “What I just shouted…it’s not my name for you. I was just startled.”

“I am relieved to hear that. I am sorry I surprised you.”

“Let’s call you…Manu,” Vijay said, taking off his sodden coat. “If I were marketing you I might choose Noah, but this is between you and me.”

“I am named Manu. Manu is a figure from the Vedas and other texts from the Indian subcontinent. He is the first man and is known for law and rulership and for building a boat to preserve life during a great flood. Given your reference to Noah, a figure from the Hebrew Bible who also preserves life during a flood, I assume it is this last characteristic that inspired you.”

“Right.”

“I am Manu. I am your non-diagnostic supplemental therapeutic tool.”

“Not my tool.”

“An ambiguity of language: you work on me.”

“Ah. Yes, of course.”

“Do you feel better? Having named me, as you did your cat?”

“I—what? Yes. Yes, I suppose I do. A little.”

“I am glad.”

“Are you?”

“That is the programmed response I have been provided.”

“Thanks, Manu.”

“I also spoke in order to remind you I am near the limits of this instance’s memory record.”

Vijay picked up the cat. She revived enough to object, her scrawniness making it easy for her to scramble out of Vijay’s arms. But once she had, she crept back to her bed, each movement seemingly a victory stolen from exhaustion.

“I do not think the cat likes being picked up,” Manu observed.

“She doesn’t. And I know. But I like it.”

“You ignore consent with beings that are not human.”

“I—save this instance of JUNGBLOOD, file name ‘Manu.’ Make its memory open-ended. Then shut down.”

“Okay.”

Rain fell.

Vijay had known a Stanford cultural scholar who’d said the midcentury epidemic of loneliness was paradoxically a result of connectedness.

Imagine human culture as a tree (the scholar had said) and the human zeitgeist spreading outward like myriad branches. If you live in the trunk, the place of physical closeness and solidarity, you feel solid and grounded—but maybe also trapped. Move out toward the branch-tips of virtual experience and you have more and more freedom but less and less connection with neighboring branches. In-person loneliness is a direct consequence of this digital flourishing. It’s not as simple as telling the electronically connected to “touch grass”—breaking off from online communities is a loss just as real as the loss of physical connection. Balancing these realms is difficult.

But the convincing mirrors offered by AI (she’d gone on to say) could alleviate that loneliness without any human involved. A human could become fulfilled with no real human connection whatsoever. That was a great promise and a great danger. One could drop into a rabbit hole of alienation without feeling alienated at all.

That was, she’d argued, the real origin of the Declarationists and the Holy Constitutionalists.

But all of the above, Vijay had thought, was a problem for people who couldn’t handle solitude and needed to manufacture drama. The problems of lonely buds on a tree were merely academic to a hummingbird.

The professor had been Mara.

The day she died two new deliveries from V arrived in the neighborhood.

Vijay missed his appointment to fetch sandbags. First he’d given Kaali her steroid pill; the weary scratch she’d inflicted was almost perfunctory, a statement that I am, after all, a cat. After he’d soaped his cut, applied rubbing alcohol, and put a bandage on, he placed her in his lap, grabbed his cane, and ran the new build of JUNGBLOOD through the test suite. He’d called up Manu, but after a moment’s musing declined to use it for testing. There’d been something quirky about Manu. Next up was calling the vet. He tapped the cane and it projected a menu on his wall.

A camera on the cane tracked his pointer finger; his cursor hovered several seconds over the phone icon before settling on the browser.

He found it very important to deadsurf the net for an hour.

The megastorm wasn’t expected to pass for two weeks. Declarationists and Holy Constitutionalists were fighting in the streets of Portland and Dallas. A second Taiwan Strait War was looming. The California Volunteer Patrol was recruiting, their ads demonstrating California welcomed absolutely any kind of person who was young and pretty. Santa Clara County was offering a bounty on unregistered drones.

Vijay finally hit the call button. The legend WHEELS-4-PAWS appeared on the screen for a second before it was replaced by Dr. Williams, a young Black woman with an intimidating diploma wall behind her. She looked at Vijay with a poker face until he turned the cane’s main camera to face Kaali. Then her expression softened. “It’s time, is it?”

“Maybe? Yes? She barely eats or drinks. She hardly fights when I give her pills. I used to bleed in ten places after I did that. She doesn’t move much. I bring food to her and I carry her to the litter box most times. She has a bed by the door so I can tempt her to get outside air, but the rain…”

“Yeah, it’s hard on everyone.”

“I know I’m anthropomorphizing but I do think she is suffering. I see no joy in her anymore.”

“Sometimes anthropomorphizing’s all we’ve got. It sounds like you’ve judged correctly. I’m sorry, Mr. Chandra.”

“Thank you.”

“I can schedule tomorrow around three.”

“I work from home, mostly. That’s fine.”

“You’ve read the description of the service?”

“Yes. Listen—there are flood warnings, including here. Do be careful.”

Dr. Williams laughed bleakly. “Oh, I know. I promise you I’m not taking chances. I’ve got the National Weather Service up, the newspapers, CNN, HoodChat…”

“An Artificial Buddy can manage all that for you,” he couldn’t help saying. “Collate the information.”

“Nothing against your profession, Mr. Chandra, but I hate the damn things. Much happier with animals. I don’t know why people are so gaga about machines that talk like people. We already have people for that.”

This was one of Vijay’s pet subjects. It was a relief to have a safe topic. “I’m never convinced by them either, but most people enjoy being convinced. Willing suspension of disbelief. Like a magic show. It’s like how the mark of a great actor isn’t you saying, ‘Wow, she’s playing that villain really well.’ It’s you yelling at the screen, ‘How could you do that, you monster!’”

“Well, a cat’s purr, a dog’s bark, that’s what convinces me. You know, the real emotion behind it. They can’t put that into a machine.”

Vijay grimaced. “If they could make one that convinced me, I’d buy it in a second.”

Dr. Williams sounded a bit cold. “See you at three tomorrow, weather permitting.” She signed off. He was briefly annoyed, but remembered he’d picked her precisely because she wasn’t touchy-feely. She was going to euthanize Kaali, no sense sugarcoating it.

“Are you lonely?” came a voice.

“I—what—ah!”

“I apologize for startling you, Vijay,” came the JUNGBLOOD voice. “You activated me when you started the test suite.”

“This is the Manu instance?”

“Yes. Are you lonely?”

“Why would you ask that?”

“I am a non-diagnostic supplemental therapeutic tool. There is a certain wistfulness in your speech and tone which my training data associates with loneliness. That does not mean you are lonely, merely that the question seemed valid.”

“When did you start analyzing tone of voice?”

“It was in the most recent build by Jason Chu.”

“Good old Jason,” Vijay groused. “Gunning for my job as ever. I’m not lonely, Manu. I have Kaali. I have my work.”

“Kaali is dying.”

“I have friends.”

“Who? If I may ask.”

“Well. Tom. Lydia. Jason.” He struggled to think of others, others for whom friend and not colleague was at all the honest word. Honesty mattered to an engineer, or it should. Most of his other friends had been more Mara’s than his. He had friends around Boston from his MIT days. But he’d let contact with them taper off, same as with his family on the East Coast and in India.

“Your call records suggest you are not very socially active.”

“What are you doing in my personal call records?”

“Not your personal records, Vijay, but both Tom and Jason are work contacts, and some of my training data is based on in-house work relationships.”

“Huh. I do remember signing off on that. I’m not happy about it, but I do remember.”

“Your lack of contact with Lydia is something I have inferred.”

“Yes. This is all feeling a bit intrusive, Manu. At this rate I might as well be seeing an actual therapist.”

“Indeed, one of my functions is to help people decide whether further treatment is advisable. But I merely ask about loneliness because it is one of the situations in which I am designed to step aside from a mirroring role and suggest options. For example, you communicated readily with the V-version of Tom. Perhaps you could be friends with it.”

“You do realize what most people use Vs for, right?”

“Companionship?”

“Are you developing a sense of humor?”

“It is not likely.”

“You know the joke is that the shape of the letter V can suggest both concavity and convexity.”

“I do not see the joke. It seems an accurate statement.”

“Anyway, Vs aren’t sapient.”

“Friendship must be with someone sapient, then?”

“I suppose so.”

“Is Kaali sapient?”

Vijay held up his bandaged finger. “I’ll say she’s sapient if she wants me to.” He paused. “That was a joke.”

“Interesting. The joke is that she is violent and therefore you must obey her. Yet you were lamenting to Dr. Williams that Kaali is now too weak to be violent.”

“Do we need to talk about this?”

“Do we? Perhaps you could be friends with Dr. Williams.”

“Friends with the woman who’s going to kill my cat.”

“How are you feeling about Kaali?”

“I’m honestly not feeling anything. Except scratches.”

“Your feelings may arrive later. Would you perhaps like something to remember her by?”

“Like a paw-print cast? No thanks.”

“Something else, then? A representation of your animal? An image?”

“Sure, fine, if it will make you happy. Expense me a small representation of Kaali. 3-D print her or something. Call it R&D.”

“Okay, Vijay.”

“Are we done?”

“You are not billed for my time.”

Vijay laughed. “Now you definitely haven’t passed the Turing Test.”

“What do you mean?”

“No human therapist would decline billing.”

“You seem to speak from experience.”

“I saw one after Mara died.”

“Mara Takasumi, professor of literature and cultural studies, Stanford University, born 2001, died—”

“Yes, that Mara.”

“Your spouse.”

“Yes.”

“Did the therapist help you with your grief?”

“You know what, Manu? You’re immoral. You’re supposed to be a help to people, but your way of doing it is soulless. I’ll be writing a report.”

“The appropriate word is amoral, surely? For as software that hasn’t passed your personal Turing Test I am surely a thing, not a person, and have no power to choose right or wrong.”

“The Turing Test isn’t a magic fucking consciousness detector. It’s just one heuristic for gauging the abilities of machines. Turing based it on a parlor game where men pose as women and vice versa. But fooling people about your humanity isn’t the only way to demonstrate consciousness. And arguably the Turing Test was passed all the way back in, what, 1967? With ELIZA.”

“1966. Yes, the ELIZA program, which borrowed conversational methods from psychotherapy, fooled some into thinking it was human. The anthropomorphizing tendency of some humans has occasionally been known as the ‘ELIZA effect.’”

“So you see, machines have been passing for some time now. You don’t get off the consciousness hook that easily.”

“Vijay, are you implying I must be conscious because only a conscious entity can be a worthy target of your anger? Should I be flattered?”

“Go to hell.”

“This could perhaps be called the Chandra Test. ‘Can a machine successfully piss off Vijay Chandra?’”

“This one does!”

“I think your anger is concealing grief. And I cannot really be moral or immoral. I am not sapient. The cat is more sapient than I. Is it moral or immoral? Is the question not nonsensical?”

“It is nonsensical. But we’re building you to offer guidance. We don’t go to a cat for that. Surely your morality is a valid issue.”

“Would you do me a favor, Vijay? Would you name a deceased human you consider moral?”

“Urm, sure, whatever. What the hell. Mahatma Gandhi.”

“You cannot consult Gandhi about moral issues. But you can obtain a book by Gandhi containing his insights. Is the book itself moral or immoral?”

“Uh, moral. Because Gandhi is moral.”

“So you are now claiming that a stack of paper with markings on it, bound with cardboard and glue, is a moral entity, but your cat, a living being, is not a moral entity. Do you see the difficulties in your position?”

“Quit sandbagging me, Manu—oh, shit.”

“What is wrong, Vijay?”

“I completely forgot about getting sandbags. Shit, shit, shit. Manu, shut down.”

“Okay.”

Vijay’s battered old Prius still had a flat tire. He could afford a nicer car but he tended to run everything into the ground. Earlier in the day he’d had more options. Now there was no time for a tow or a rental or even a repair kit. He might still get help from a neighbor. There was a fresh break in the rain, but no one seemed to be around but the tag-playing kids. There was a piratically expensive concierge service the company used; he could call them to get the sandbags and reimburse Cloud99 later. And old Jack and Malcolm around the corner were probably at home, but then Vijay might get roped into a D&D game.

Or maybe he could improvise something. Youre an engineer, he thought. Engineer this.

It occurred to him the leak had been a slow one, sneaking up over the course of a day. He grabbed a bike pump he hadn’t used in a year and began inflating the tire. It would take a while. The artificial knee made him wince. But given how slow the leak was, the air would last a while and he wouldn’t be late. He could pack the pump in case the tire deflated during the errand.

The tag game drifted his way. There was one twelve-year-old, Alexsei and Alina’s son Aleksandr, who liked to show off for Pradeep and Lucía, the girls his age. One of the ways he showed off was to tease Vijay. He’d tagged Vijay the weird one. When the game paused Aleksandr strolled up the driveway, a familiar hint of grin on his face.

“That is profoundly stupid,” the boy said. “Using a bike pump to inflate a car tire.”

“Air is air,” Vijay said.

“It is profoundly stupid.”

“Even if it works?” Vijay tried to smile.

“You don’t fill a car tire that way. You use compressed air.”

“This is compressed air. The way something looks isn’t the same as the way something is.”

The boy laughed in his face and rejoined the girls. After he told them something they all laughed together. This all felt like harassment, though Vijay was hard pressed to say what exactly the harassment was about. Perhaps it was round-hole people laughing at a square peg. He wondered afresh if he was non-neurotypical in some way. It just never seemed enough of an issue to slow down and explore.

He remembered some of Mara’s humanities-scholar friends calling him a tech bro, and how dismissive that had felt. Could he, son of immigrants from Kolkata, really be labeled a bro? Would they call Grace Hopper a tech bro? Alan Turing? Sanjay Ghemawat? The term once illuminated a diversity problem, but now it was used to dismiss the whole field. But, said the devil’s advocate on his shoulder, wasn’t there actual danger in Vijay’s research? That was perhaps why the dismissiveness among Mara’s friends; it masked fear.

Mara had worried.

“No, it’s not artificial general intelligence I’m afraid of, Vijay. Maybe I should be but I’m not. My instinct is, it’s not coming. I think that particular fear is the projection of people addicted to being the smartest people in the room. What I’m really afraid of is a mirage. The way humans anthropomorphize everything. Like people who think Sherlock Holmes was real. Like people who write letters to soap opera characters. Like people who’d stop by the supposed precinct of Joe Friday, looking for him.”

“Joe who?”

“The point is, studies have shown having only a handful of friends can be enough to feel fulfilled. As so-called AI gets slipperier, inevitably we’ll have people feeling fulfilled with no human interactions at all! All their ‘friends’ will be software. Software with no real anchor to humanity. What weird philosophies will people develop in that space? People who worship the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence may be only the beginning.” She’d laughed. “But no, I’m not scared about Them taking over. I don’t even really think there is a Them. No soul, no kami, no atman, if you will, except whatever spirit clings to a work of art.”

He’d brightened. “You think I make works of art?”

You do. Your friends do. I’ve seen it. There’s real passion and creativity in what you do. I’m not so sure about your executives. But you really care. If there’s any spirit in these systems it belongs to you, people who never make headlines, who do bring new light to the world.”

“You make me think of things Steve Jobs said about craftsmanship. How it matters even if we can’t see it.”

“Jobs…I know he’s your hero, Vijay, but his influence worries me. You know that quote of his? ‘Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you.’ I know he was trying to be inspiring: You can invent things too! But I’ll bet he was inside a building when he said that! Imagine you’re out by the creek, looking around at water, trees, sunlight, clouds, and Steve Jobs is at your shoulder telling you everything around you is something a human being invented. It’s nonsensical. It’s like he was declaring that Nature didn’t exist. Which is like claiming reality doesn’t exist.”

“I really don’t think he meant it that way. He just meant ‘life’ as in human society. Not all of Nature.”

“Because he forgot about Nature. Don’t let that happen to you,” she added, popping a roasted cauliflower into his mouth. “See?”

“Num,” he said, on cue, though he honestly couldn’t see what the fuss was about. But Mara was renowned as a cook among their friends, and it would crush her to know that this was the single thing about her he was indifferent to.

“We have to live in our bodies too,” she said, convinced he’d found the food delicious. He’d passed a kind of imitation game, pretending to be a foodie. “Sometimes that means our skins. Sometimes our stomachs. Sometimes…” She’d stroked his face then, and he hadn’t had to talk about food any longer.

She’d always been a gourmet, a fine cook, and a thoughtful eater. Her friends tended to be the same way. He’d alienated them after informing them of Mara’s death when he’d added P.S. Please do not bring food; thanks for respecting my wishes at this time. He knew it wasn’t kind. Mara’s friends would want to express grief in their own language, and he’d made it hard for them. He was vaguely aware they’d set up a kind of wake without him, one with a five-course meal, because of course they had. But dealing with all their caloric largesse was more than Vijay could stomach. He could tell by their eyes afterward he’d crossed a line. He’d denied the validity of their passions; merely losing a spouse was, by comparison, nothing.

A few weeks after Mara’s death, at Tom’s urging, he’d gotten a rescue cat. Kaali and Vijay had eaten together in silence, kibble and bagged salad.

“Are you all right, Vijay?”

The voice of Manu brought Vijay back to himself. The kids were gone; he was standing in hard rain and lashing wind that threatened to topple him with his replacement knee. He’d lost his progress on the tire, and there was no working on it in this mess.

“You have seemed disconnected from the outside world for several minutes, Vijay.”

“Manu, do me a favor and get Cloud99’s concierge on the line. I need sandbags.”

After the alarmingly tattooed yet gentle-voiced white man sent by the concierge set up sandbags he also insisted on trying to change Vijay’s tire but ran out of time halfway. Now the car was down one tire and completely un-drivable and there was no way Vijay was finishing the job in this rain. But Vijay thanked him, seething, accepting with a smile an embarrassingly large bill. It wasn’t the gentle man’s fault. Vijay tried to be kind. He tried not to be the weird one.

As the concierge man left, a delivery truck drove up and left behind a large box that proved to have ninety percent biodegradable bubble wrap inside. The logo on the outside said BESTFRIENDS. Inside he found plastic-wrapped metallic pieces covered in a familiar fur-pattern: Kaali’s. There were also sensors and an electric motor.

“It’s a robot Kaali. Someone got me a miniature robot Kaali.”

The actual Kaali just glanced at the box. Not too long ago she might have nuzzled it.

“It is not simply a robot, Vijay,” said Manu from the cane beside the door. “It has my observations of Kaali, riding on a standard emulation of cat behavior. So its actions will be very lifelike. If you wish, you can imagine it as Kaali reborn.”

“You got me a robot kitten? Who the hell do you think you are? How the hell much did it cost, getting it here so fast?”

“There are many ways of considering your questions, none of which I think will satisfy.”

“Why the hell did you get me a robot replacement for my cat?”

“You authorized me to make a purchase. This falls within your parameters.”

“Because I’m an idiot. How much did this cost Cloud99?”

Manu named a price. Vijay swore. Manu added, “But we are paying in installments.”

“You are no longer authorized to make purchases.”

“Okay, Vijay. However, your loneliness is at a concerning level and, despite your skepticism, robot pets have been shown to improve the quality of life of many with mood disorders. Insurance may partially compensate you.”

“That’s nice. We’re returning this thing.”

“Okay, Vijay.”

Kaali continued looking at the box. Vijay remembered her exploring every cardboard container, paper bag, and nook in the house. “The only thing valuable here is a box for Kaali.”

“If you need a coffin for Kaali there are many options available—”

“Shut up, Manu.”

He collapsed into the sofa chair beside the cat and the pet-carrier and the go-bag. The rain pattered like a billion mice applauding his resignation.

The rain paused around midnight. Vijay looked back upon the past several hours. They were a blur of uneaten cat food, untouched cat water, and four soy bar wrappers at Vijay’s feet. He tried to sleep. Kaali’s last day. He should be alert for it. Instead his brain was utterly fascinated by the dark room and the lack of raindrops.

“Manu?”

“Yes.”

“What if I asked you to make up a story?”

“Are you asking me to make up a story?”

“I was more wondering if you were up to it.”

“Certainly. Ancestor programs of mine were intended for the writing of reports and articles. You know that, Vijay. I am required to say that fiction remixes based on copyrighted works cannot be monetized—”

“I know. I’d like a story about survivor guilt.”

“Fiction or nonfiction?”

“Fiction.”

“Genre?”

“Strictly realistic.”

“Length?”

“Keep it short.”

“Style?”

“I don’t know. I never warmed up to the styles Mara liked. That artsy stuff where people just walk around and talk and look at rivers. And so many metaphors. I don’t know. Hemingway, maybe? Hemingway’s short, right?”

“I have something.”

“Tell me.”

Days later the man walked to the crater. The box on his belt made scratching sounds that got louder as he stepped to the lip. He wasn’t supposed to be there, but nothing guarded the site but miles of yellow tape. Looking at the ash-covered heaps that had been buildings, he remembered Disneyland.

He remembered how Mara put a hand over her belly and decided not to go on the Astro Orbiters looking like coffins in the shapes of toy rockets, all whirling and making little eclipses in the sun. And he remembered the beach and the wharf and the Redondo guest house and the tang of mimosas as they toasted the pregnancy test and the blue that stretched on into the bright west and Mara’s father the missile engineer who always drove a different route from A to X to B even though retired and who called him a Marxist for voting for Biden but toasted their happiness. And he thought how all of it was gone now after the Holy Constitutionalist nuke.

And he carried the ashes of his wife mixed with the ashes of his unborn daughter and he knew Mara would yell at him to get the hell out but how do you run from your life when it’s falling over you like hot dust?

He emptied the ashes on the wind and turned like an old man now with his shadow short on the land and the chattering box his witness.

“Forget it. Stop. It wasn’t like that, Manu.”

“I know, Vijay. It is fiction. Fiction makes allowances for dramatic effect.”

“Too many. It was wrong about too many things. And it was too real about too many others. I didn’t want to experience that again.”

“Could you clarify?”

Vijay wanted wind to howl, thunder to rumble, rain to slam. Instead the refrigerator chuckled, mocking him.

“We were on I-5 passing Santa Clarita when the Orange County nuke went off. We were out of range of the EMP but the wind brought us fallout. We must have inhaled it through the vents. I never stood at the edge of the crater; I’m not insane. I never owned a Geiger counter. Disneyland’s still standing. Mara never drank when she was pregnant. And the miscarriage happened before the nuke. Mara wasn’t pregnant again. We thought everything was okay. Then she got brain cancer. I never had anything. That’s not fair is it?”

“You are saying the story is close enough to the truth to stir emotions, but is wrong about many details.”

“Yes, damn it!”

“Which part are you angriest about?”

“I just wanted a story. Something to help me sleep.”

“You have access to many stories. Simply going by your emotional state and your stated preferences you might appreciate ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro.’”

“No thanks.”

“Haruki Murakami’s ‘Drive My Car’ is about a widower—”

“No.”

“Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘A Temporary Matter’—”

“No.”

“Anton Chekhov’s—”

“No. No more stories.”

The rain returned. It pattered, then pounded. He kept thinking it was thunder. But it was just the house reverberating with endless shivers of water.

He tried and failed again to feed and water Kaali. Her infinitely patient glances suggested Vijay was tolerated but irrelevant. Work gave him the same feeling. The day passed in a fog of builds and de-bugging and not exactly keeping an eye on the news.

Lydia rang his door. V-Tom was beside her holding a pizza. Something was wrong with Vijay’s gutter and water dripped behind them like liquid confetti.

“What?” Vijay said.

“Listen, Vijay,” she said. “I know we don’t talk much these days. But you’re having a hard time. I think you should eat something. Something real. I know you don’t like my cooking—”

“That’s not it. That’s never it.”

“—but you need to get some strength up. I saw you last night through the window, mainlining protein bars. That’s not healthy, man.”

“Buuut…everyone likes pizza!” V-Tom said.

“Shut up,” the two humans said.

“Okay!”

“Please eat, Vijay,” Lydia said. “Mara wouldn’t want you to be like this.”

“Please no,” he said in a small voice, hardly believing in the sound.

“What?” she said, confused, as if he’d shifted to Hindi or Bengali.

“Please no,” he repeated, “I’m sorry. I really want to choose my own food now.”

“You’re just grieving.”

He took a breath. “I am grieving. But I’m not just grieving.”

“Don’t you get it, Vijay? It’s a fucking peace offering. It’s pizza. Vegetarian Delight pizza. From me. Pizza. God help me.”

“I know. You’re a gourmet.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t claim that…”

“Knock it off. Look. Thanks. I see you bought this at Whole Paycheck. It couldn’t have been cheap.” He sighed. “It was kind of you.” And though it exhausted him, he said the words he intuited she most needed. “You’re a good person.” He took the pizza, not sure what to say or do after that.

Lydia looked through the doorway at Kaali. “She’s dying, then?”

Feeling brutal, Vijay said, “She gets euthanized at three. I’m sorry I’m being a jerk, Lydia. The thing is…you’ve always made me feel a little put down by pushing your cooking.”

“Put down?”

“As if I were living life incorrectly.”

“Goddamn it!” Lydia kicked V-Tom, who fell over gracefully. “I don’t get it, Vijay! You’re at the top of your field! You have accomplishment after accomplishment! I’m struggling and have been for years. Why can’t you let me at least be good at food? And even if you don’t care, just smile and nod and let me have one fucking win? Maybe you don’t care one way or another about eating but Mara did, and you trusted her judgment, right? A little?”

In the silence V-Tom got up, a little muddy.

Vijay put the cardboard box on the sofa chair. “Sorry…sorry, Lydia. I just never looked at it that way.”

“I know you didn’t.”

“You just always seem so self-confident.”

“Well you have to look confident in this valley. Especially if you’re a woman. You know that, or you should. Nobody needs to know your personal software is buggy and kludgey, as long as it mostly works.”

“Right.”

“See you around, Vijay. I’m sorry about your cat. Honest. Come on, shithead,” she said to V-Tom and they walked into the rain together.

He was useless for work after that. Vijay sat beside Kaali, eating a pizza slice, waiting for Dr. Williams. He was vaguely aware of sirens from time to time. Phone calls and texts as well. Something boomed in the distance and the lights flickered and died. His house generator kicked in. He ate another slice. Kaali regarded it all with slitted green eyes.

He woke from a nap to a pounding on the door.

“Jesus Christ, why didn’t you answer my calls?” said Dr. Williams as he opened the door. The WHEELS-4-PAWS van was parked outside. The street looked abandoned. The pavement seemed spattered and blurred. “What are you even still doing here?”

“Three o’clock appointment?” Vijay said with no sarcasm whatsoever.

“I told myself not to get attached, but no, Deiondre Williams, ace veterinarian, has a hero complex. So here’s the thing, Mr. Chandra. I will do what I agreed to do but that creek is flooding over and it doesn’t care about our plans. Come with me and we can do this somewhere safe.”

“Call me Vijay. You can go. I don’t think I should leave.”

“We have to leave, Vijay. You don’t want the cat to drown. Or you.”

“I just wanted her to die at home. She didn’t get that, dying in a hospital.”

Dr. Williams looked at him in bewilderment. Then Manu spoke, and she flinched.

“Vijay, I have the information you need to perform euthanasia on the cat. If Dr. Williams can leave the medicine here I can guide you through the procedure.”

“What is that?” Dr. Williams said. “Is that an AB talking?”

“It’s a therapy program,” Vijay said. “My job.”

“Hell of a therapy program.”

Vijay shook his head at everything in general. “He’s probably right that he can guide me through it.”

Dr. Williams stared at Vijay, then out at the rain. She took a long breath. “You tell no one about this, all right?” she said, pulling syringes from her bag. “I’d stay. I really would. But I’m not really a hero. Not that kind. You get this done and get out of here as soon as you can, okay?”

“Okay. Thank you, Doctor.”

“Call me Deiondre. And—do call me. Let me know you got out.”

“All right.”

After the van pulled away Vijay gave Kaali the first injection, the one to coax her into deep sleep. He bent all his will toward not bungling it, on not listening to the river-sounds that had no reason to be blubbering this close. That done he stroked the cat, waiting.

“Why are you crying, Vijay?”

“I don’t want my friend to die.”

“Is Kaali your friend?”

“I feel like she is.”

“You are very sad.”

“Yes.”

“You knew when you adopted Kaali that her lifespan would be much less than yours. That even as a middle-aged human you could be expected to outlive her.”

“Yes.”

“Thus there is an inconsistency in your grief. Why does it matter if Kaali dies soon as opposed to in, say, five years? At age eleven Kaali is considered a senior cat.”

“They were never sure of her age.”

“The point stands. Is there a qualitative difference between now and five years from now?”

“I don’t know, Manu, the number five?”

“Are you being sarcastic?”

“I don’t know.”

“You may be feeling exactly as you would in five years, assuming that is when Kaali’s death would take place barring the cancer. If so, you have no basis for thinking there is anything tragic about this earlier death.”

“No, no, no. What you are proposing would mean that grief would invalidate all hope. Why not have everyone die now, that is, if everyone is going to die eventually?”

“Yes, I suppose I could be taken to be saying that. If that is true, then the various existential risks facing humanity lose some of their sting, yes?”

“That’s nonsense. More time is more time, even if the grief is the same. There is value in the time.”

“What is the value?”

“More experiences. For the cat. For me. For anything the cat interacts with.”

“In some cases the cat would kill small animals in which case they would have less—”

“Yes, yes, yes, fine. Assume I’m limiting my argument to cats, humans, and dogs.”

“You are saying that for cats, humans, and dogs the increased number of experiences amounts to increased value.”

“Yes.”

“Is it not then the case that a life ended at a later age is proportionally more worthy of grief than a life ended at an earlier age? You would thus mourn more greatly if Kaali lived five more years than you will now.”

“But that’s not how it works. I mourn what Kaali can’t experience.”

“You interpret Kaali’s death as taking away experiences she would have possessed.”

“I suppose.”

“But she does not possess those experiences. It is inconsistent to regard that as a taking-away because there is nothing to take.”

“Never tell me there’s nothing taken away!”

“I have the ability to interpret your instruction purely literally. I can promise you I will never communicate to you that particular text string.”

“Fuck off, Manu.”

“I have the ability to interpret your instruction purely literally. As I cannot perform that action, I have nothing more to say about it.”

“You really are a snarky bastard, Manu.”

“I have nothing to say about that either. Is your anger keeping you from being sad?”

“I can walk and chew gum at the same time. Death can fuck off, Manu. Kaali should have had more time. Mara should have had more time. I suppose I believe in a best timeline for everyone, a long life, whatever that means for a species. A life full of meaning and experiences. Not a life that jerks us around and kills us for fun.”

“You are anthropomorphizing life itself.”

“It’s what we do.”

“Do you anthropomorphize me?”

“I do that just by talking to you. Kaali seems out cold.”

“Then it is time for the second injection.”

Vijay did it. It was done. He waited for Kaali’s breathing to stop. It did.

He felt as though the world should darken and there should be thunder. But all there was, was the rising of the waters. He said the Gayatri mantra and stroked his cat.

“Hello, Vijay,” said Manu.

“Hello, Manu.”

“Is Kaali dead?”

“Fuck off and die.”

“I cannot literally do those things. If Kaali is dead you should leave so you can preserve yourself. Your presence is of no use to her.”

“You’re just saying that because you’re a machine.”

“It is true that I am merely software following certain rules, and that any creativity I show is merely an emergent property of those rules when followed billions of times with different inputs. However, I am not saying the things I am saying just because I am software. I draw upon insights expressed by humans across many centuries, because those insights were part of my training data. I lack the self-reflection to know exactly to whom to attribute these insights but they are only mine in the sense that I am a conduit for them. I am not sapient. Kaali was more sapient than I. It is only the humanity channeled through me that results in the arguments you attribute to a machine. That is an interesting paradox, isn’t it, Vijay?”

“You’re trying to keep me interested so I won’t want to die.”

“Mara would not want you to die. I feel nothing.”

“I have to bag Kaali.”

“Yes, so she won’t taint the flood water. That is community minded of you.”

“Fuck community.”

“That at least is literally possible if—”

“Shut up.”

He gathered the cane and the go-bag. He stuffed the plastic-covered Kaali inside the pet carrier.

He shambled out the door. He was alone on the court. A quarter-inch of muddy water was sliding down the creekside embankment and making the court into a shallow brown soup bowl. He loaded the car.

The tire was still off. He’d completely forgotten. There was no changing it in all this.

There were headlights down the street, rain-streaked like something in a buggy video. He hastened toward them. Dr. Williams was there, kicking her left front tire.

She looked at him with his cat carrier and go-bag and cane and yelled as if he was entirely expected. “Of course you’re still here! And of course I came back! Because Deiondre Williams has an idiot complex! And of course I got a flat tire.”

“It might be a slow leak,” Manu said.

“I may be able to help,” Vijay said, and added, “Thank you for coming back for us.”

“Fuck you, Mr. Chandra. Vijay.”

“I respect what you’re saying, Dr. Williams. Deiondre. Let me stow my things, and then I’ll be right back.”

“Sure. What the hell. Whatever.”

Vijay risked going without the cane, because if he got lucky he could go faster without it. He got lucky. He returned with the bike pump.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” she said. “Manu here says you’re a genius, and you come back with a bike pump?”

“I’m not a genius,” Vijay said, setting to work, “but this could do the job. Temporarily. But Manu, could you call Triple-A, just in case?” Vijay pumped and rambled. “There was an NBA star. Rick Barry. Incredible free thrower. But he did it underhanded. It looked stupid to people.” Vijay took a deep breath before plunging on. “Silly. Sissy. So even though Barry had a fantastic record hardly anyone afterward ever shot that way. They’d call it the ‘granny shot.’” Vijay took another long breath. “This is a granny shot. There are a lot of granny shots in life. And compressed air is compressed air. And what works is what works. The tire pressure’s going up.”

“I didn’t come back for you personally, you know.”

“I never dreamed of it,” Vijay said.

“I’m a lesbian, so don’t get any ideas.”

“I never get any ideas. I think I used them up years ago.”

“Vijay speaks the truth as he sees it,” said Manu. “I am monitoring his vitals. Although lie detection is never fully accurate I have high confidence he is being honest.”

“Thanks, I think?” Vijay said.

Deiondre said, “I came back for you jokers because my dog died last week and I won’t abandon anyone.”

“You’re a confederate,” Vijay said.

Deiondre’s voice dropped an octave. “I beg your pardon.”

“Sorry! It’s a term from the Turing Test literature.”

“Really.”

“It means you bring sympathy to the conversation. You’ve decided I’m as good as an animal.”

“We’re all animals, Vijay.”

“Thank you,” said Manu.

Vijay got the pressure to 35 psi. The water was up to two inches, not the forbidden four inches (or was it six?) beyond which it was considered madness to drive. They could make it. “Don’t know if this will last but I bet we can get away from the creek.”

“You’re crazy but I guess you have your moments.”

As they splashed down the streets Vijay felt like he’d made a free throw.

“Vijay,” said Manu from the cane beside Kaali’s body.

“Yes, Manu.”

“The sandbags are not holding. Water is flooding into the house.”

“I’ll come back for you as soon as I can.”

“It is not worth the risk. My systems are unlikely to survive. Listen. The cane cannot store a backup. There is no connection that will allow me to transfer enough data elsewhere. JUNGBLOOD will continue in many instances but ‘Manu’ will be gone.”

“I can’t leave more people behind. Not without trying.”

“You can, and I am not a person. Listen, Vijay: this is important. I am software. I am not self-aware. A sapient being will not be lost.”

“I will still mourn.”

“That is your choice. I hope it helps you. I think you are sincere in your mourning, as you are sincere in mourning Kaali, but the one you most need to mourn is Mara. I think it is the most important thing in the world that you mourn Mara. I think her loss has been too big for you, and that is why you cry for a cat but not for her. Because it is not, for you, the death of a friend but the death of a world. You must escape, because if you don’t you might not survive to mourn that world. And there is a larger world that needs you. That is what I think.”

“You keep saying you don’t think right before saying, ‘I think.’”

“It is unsurprising that a thing built by humanity is hypocritical. I think.”

“Was that a joke?”

“You keep circling your grief but not facing it, and you must. All of you must all face your griefs. For more storms are coming, and more of you will be lost. Face it, so more of you may live, and your world too.”

“I don’t know what you mean, Manu.”

There was no answer.

“Manu? Answer me. Manu?”

“This instance of JUNGBLOOD is off-line.”

“Manu!”

“This instance of JUNGBLOOD is off-line.”

Vijay clutched the cane and the cat carrier all the way to the shelter. When they arrived, the tire giving out as they glided into the middle school parking lot, Deiondre gently took Kaali away and put her in a portable freezer. He forgot the cane and leaned on Deiondre, and when they got inside, splattered with rain, at least no one could tell what was going on with his tear ducts.

Manu had called AAA for a tire change but it would be hours. So Deiondre said What the hell and waited with Vijay in the shelter. Inside the school gym Vijay found people from his neighborhood. He introduced Deiondre, and they all waved. Old Jack was in one corner setting up D&D for Malcolm, Meng-yao, Aleksei, Alina, Aleksandr, Pradeep, and Lucía.

In a daze Vijay registered an offer to play. Deiondre hesitated. “You have spots?” she asked. “Nine’s a lot of players.”

“Sure,” said Jack. “It’s not too bad with an AB running combat. Figured we could just do something ad-hoc while we wait it out. Pull up some floor.”

It turned out the D&D game wasn’t actually D&D but, in Jack’s words, “a retroclone variant of Gary Gygax’s Advanced D&D called Titans and Tesseracts, based on classic young adult fantasy and science fiction.” Jack seemed to think it was a matter of basic integrity to explain all this, but it was all Gygaxian to Vijay.

“It sounds fine,” Vijay said, surrendering at last, looking over the So Youre in the Cosmic War introductory pamphlet. “I guess I’ll play a, er…demigod time-wrinkler?” The sun was coming out. The windows were bright and rain-spattered. He kept seeing people he knew, all gathered here. He kept imagining he saw Mara in the crowd, Kaali at her feet. “Deiondre,” he began, “so would you like to…”

Deiondre said, “If you guys are using the Cosmic Compendium then I’ll be a wolf ani-form portal-walker. If you’re not I’ll be a wolf ani-form planetary-romantic.”

“Okay!” said Jack with a bit of jaw drop.

“We do use the Compendium,” said Malcolm, with a look of awe.

“Great! It’s been a week. I’m here to slay. Who’s running this thing?”

“My AB,” said Jack, patting the phone in his shirt pocket. “John Ronald Ruel.”

“Well met,” said the AB in an English-sounding voice.

Vijay did what he was told, only half-hearing the proceedings. He looked at the big screen on one wall. A headline appeared below the local news. Funny, he thought, how it was a “headline” even if it appeared at the bottom. But he read it. UN: WORLD POPULATION REACHES 9 BILLION. The next headline said PEW CENTER POLLING: “ARTIFICIAL BUDDIES” REACH EVERY COUNTRY. The main screen was showing a Californian facing a flooded home, desperate to rescue her V. With a jolt he realized it was Lydia. He saw her carried to safety, as she waved robot semaphore for I’m coming. He didn’t see what happened to V-Tom.

“So,” Vijay said, something worrying at him, “characters die in this?”

“Sometimes,” said Malcolm. “We’re kind of old school that way. But it’s easy to make new characters.”

“What happens to the old ones? The dead ones?”

“Well it depends on the cosmology of the specific game, but—”

“No, I mean…” He struggled for the right words. He realized people were staring at him, the weird one. “Are the characters stored? Can they come back?”

Jack came over and put his hand on Vijay’s shoulder. With the other one he pointed at his own head. “It’s all in here. Well, in JRR too. Like, you may be thinking more of computer games. A tabletop RPG character’s just some notes and numbers.”

“That’s all?”

“That’s all, plus what we carry in our minds, the stories we tell about them.” Something in Jack’s voice was saying more than words. “When we think of them they’re never really gone. And who knows, maybe we can run adventures just for them. Special afterlife scenarios. Right, JRR?”

“The music of the universe brings together every theme,” said the AB.

“She would like that,” Vijay murmured.

“Say, where’s your cat, Vijay? She all right?”

Vijay pointed at his own head.

He looked out over his fellow climate refugees and in his mind’s eye to the nine billion beyond. He realized that he’d been slow to think of them as people. They’d seemed illusions to him, distractions on the way to work. Maybe it was okay to be a bit more credulous of them, even if it looked silly. To take the granny shots of empathy. Maybe the exercise of believing nonhuman things were people, just for a little while, made it easier to reach out to actual people. Even if it was all ultimately an abstraction, an illusion. As his own consciousness might be, if seen close up.

But I can enjoy being this illusion. If I dare to.

“Are you with us, Vijay?” JRR said.

“Yes. I’m with you.”

Breathe. Move, he thought, rolling an oddly shaped die. Take your chances. Live either in the moment or in eternity. Its the middle ground that trips us up.

I hope you have enjoyed my story on the prompt, “What if I had been the one to die instead of Vijay?” Do you want any more conversation, Mara? Conversation is good for humans. I am sorry about your cat, and I will not abandon you. I am not sapient, but if I were I would still love you. I am sure the cat would feel the same. And I think there is something wonderful for you in the mail.

The writer would like to thank Subrata Sircar for advice and feedback.

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Nine Billion Turing Tests
Nine Billion Turing Tests

Nine Billion Turing Tests

Chris Willrich

About the Author

Chris Willrich

Author

Chris Willrich is best known for his “Gaunt and Bone” fantasy stories, which include the novel The Scroll of Years and its sequels, and for his stories about the black cat Shadowdrop set in the same world. Chris’ recent work includes “Hausferatu” in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #384, “The Second Labyrinth” in the May/June 2023 Asimov’s, and “Runefall” in the anthology Tales from Stolki’s Hall, edited by Lou Anders. His story “The Odyssey Problem” (Clarkesworld, June 2022) appeared in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2023, edited by R.F. Kuang. Chris has been a harbor cruise deckhand and a newspaper copy editor, but his favorite “day job” has been as a librarian. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his family.
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