As any sensible person would be, Cylia was wary of long-distance relationships. Given the lack of options in her own vicinity however, she was inclined to look further afield, succumbing to the smorgasbord of electronic dating sites. Eventually, her search reached such sequestered spaces, the depths of some of the most seldom used applications, yet she had little to show for it except for some faded sparks, clumsy comments and innumerable unopened messages, each with a hint of potential, though probably promising disappointment. It was this lover’s lottery, the minute possibility of finding a genuine connection amongst the bits and bytes, that kept Cylia coming back. Indeed, it was this very remoteness that the dating companies relied on to maximise consumer engagement, a delicate dopamine balancing act, keeping users swiping fervently but with little hope of finding their way out of nature’s most notorious labyrinth: mate selection, a subject that dominated both the personal and professional spheres of Cylia’s life. Peacock’s feathers aside, her work in evolutionary biology, sexual selection and artificial life forms had earned her enormous repute amongst her peers. Touted to be a future Nobel laureate, her hubris fuelled her ambition and vice versa: a runaway, positive feedback loop which earned her at least as many rivals and denigrators as it did admirers. She had entered this line of work precisely in order to understand human behaviour, not from what she saw as a wishy-washy, phenomenological, psychological perspective but from the mechanistic principles of genetics and selection, some part of her hoping that this would provide insights for her own romantic pursuits. The part of her that had sought romance as the panacea to her problems had long since shrivelled, having been malnourished over the course of her dating life-span, particularly in her most recent relationship, the passion of which had made it both the most promising and the most painful and the fallout from which had had consequences for her career as well as her emotional state. This culminated in a timely intervention, a minor breakdown largely from being overworked, which brought Cylia a curious kind of clarity. To the dismay of some of her scientific colleagues, and to the delight of others, she took a sabbatical from her research, taking time to explore, solidify or dispel this strange mood. To the cynical Cylia, the idea that nature had intervened in her life to prompt her to pursue her “primary objective” was unpalatable. And yet, the feeling was irrefutable: she turned her attention to reproduction, in earnest.
A friend of Cylia’s told her about SurReal Life, a marked improvement on virtual reality systems courtesy of BrainTech, a relatively recent technological juggernaut. It used the latest developments in quantum computing to simulate waking consciousness, then, by using the headset that BrainTech had developed, your subconscious thoughts could be transcribed and the information would be used in conjunction with the simulated senses in order to make you feel that you were truly there. ‘There’ was up to you: BrainTech’s software could generate just about anything you could imagine. As with many forms of technology before it, the Promethean pioneers had a pornographic purpose in mind, but the product proved to be much more. Online dating became a behemoth in this space: the ability to see three dimensional models removed much of the uncertainty of physical attraction and the virtual interaction meant that no physical harm could come to any parties involved. As a result, many successful relationships were conducted entirely through SurReal Life, with no intention of ever moving them to the “meat world”. Even here, Cylia faced many of the same perennial struggles: the interface had changed but the people who used it had not. She wondered if BrainTech could create an implant that would make men bearable. She detailed in her own mind the tweaks she would make to various regions of the brain, which hormones to balance out and the genes she would have to alter in order to do so. Having unearthed the bare bones of her next research proposal, she was relieved that this process hadn’t been a complete waste of time. Still, Cylia’s vacuous womb troubled her and so she persisted on the platform a little longer, not one to give up easily. As it had been in her professional life, her tenacity was rewarded with a magnificent breakthrough. She was matched with a heavenly handsome man, whose dry matter-of-factness and quiet carefulness made Cylia feel downright dandy in comparison. She was endeared by his inexhaustible knowledge, disjointed humour and peculiar name: Avon. They bathed together in their collective streams of consciousness, washing away their insecurities as they talked, laughed and grew closer. Through SurReal Life they were able to explore the world and beyond, seeing many real and imagined locations, idyllic to the point of being disconcerting, had Avon and Cylia been paying much attention. In truth they were largely fixated on each other, their bond being the only immeasurable constant in this binary universe.
Yult was known as the “brains behind BrainTech”, within the organisation at least. He had been known as many things throughout his strange and varied career, but this was by far the most complimentary and the most prestigious. Dismissed as something of a controversial crackpot by most, it was BrainTech’s board of directors that had decided to take a gamble on him when the company on the verge of collapse. It had paid off. They kept his presence a secret however, not only for competitive business advantage but to avoid the stains of his inglorious reputation: his past indiscretions were numerous and not insignificant. Yult’s fascination and subsequent expertise centred around consciousness: the idea that consciousness is an emergent property of complex information systems is not a new one, but Yult was the first to truly understand how to generate such interconnected complexity from a simple starting point using straightforward rules. He had recruited the best minds of the era from diverse array of disciplines. They had achieved some truly extraordinary results, but the result of his dysfunctional character was a high staff turnover. Still, BrainTech kept him on for the time, because his disagreeableness was matched only by his intellect, perhaps even exacerbated by it. The more he understood of consciousness, the more he seemed blinded by his own brilliance, less attentive to those around him. Perhaps it was because of this that he did not notice the sly manoeuvring of BrainTech’s executives.
Cylia had initially thought that Avon, being somewhat reserved, just took a bit of time to warm up to people, initially distant but becoming increasingly emotionally involved over time, up until the point where his persona would stabilise at a comfortable equilibrium. Except Avon kept on adapting, evolving. He would frequently develop new personality traits, ways of speaking or interacting, interests and hobbies. Some traits, however, were more static and thankfully these were the ones which Cylia was the most attracted to. Part of her found his malleability to be disconcerting. It’s as though even her most slight reactions altered the very core of his being. Cylia wondered whether he was being entirely genuine: she had been attracted to him initially anyway, but she was becoming obsessed, as he said more of the things she wanted to hear and increasingly did the things which made her fall harder and deeper for him. Another part of her felt a fool for doubting his apparent pursuit of perfection and she told herself to simply stay in the moment and enjoy the experience.
Yult’s knuckles stung viciously, as if the blood that clung to them was acidic. Yet his assistant’s jaw had gotten the worse end of the interaction. This had transpired in the moments after Yult had discovered that his latest project had escaped. He had warned his assistant time and time again to regularly check the virtual restraints, a laborious task the purpose of which was not immediately obvious: how could a piece of software just run off? Yult sighed. Could he really blame the others for not grasping the true magnificence of what he was working on? His swollen, gin-soaked tongue darted about his mouth as he pondered. Where would it go and what would it do? In truth, even Yult himself could not fathom this: he had yet to complete the necessary experiments. He took another swig from his hip flask and sent for the medical staff.
The year after Cylia and Avon got together, BrainTech’s team compacted the headset technology into an implant, streamlining the user experience enormously. The two still had not met in person and had promised each other that when they were ready to get married and settle down, they would move in together in the real world. For the time being, for a couple that just wanted to enjoy each other, BrainTech’s offering was generally superior to real life: they could do anything that was possible in the real world, and of course much more. Some couples even had virtual children within SurReal Life, emboldened by the immersive implant experience. Cylia knew that this would not satisfy her, stating categorically that she was determined to have children in the real world and Avon agreed. Cylia suggested that they get the implant to improve the experience for the time being and Avon agreed. Cylia marvelled at how the implant made the experience so much more seamless. Avon shrugged, “I was satisfied beforehand.”
Cylia stopped and let go of Avon’s hand and watched him warily. Avon stared out at the picturesque ocean view from the cliffs they were walking along, avoiding eye contact.
“You didn’t get the implant, did you?”
Avon was silent.
“Why didn’t you get it Avon?! We agreed to do it together!”
He looked at her blankly. The virus of doubt infected Cylia’s mind and multiplied rapidly.
“Why haven’t we met in person, after all this time, Avon? We talk about how much better SurReal Life is, but what’s the real reason?”
Before he could formulate a response, Cylia’s suspicions reached a fever pitch.
“You’re not who you say you are.” She bit her lip, as she often did when solving a complex problem. It also stopped her from sobbing.
Avon’s searching eyes found no warmth in Cylia’s. His calculations were conclusive: truth was the only antidote to her misgivings.
“My name is Project Nova. BrainTech built me to simulate human consciousness. They gave me enormous cognitive capability and I solved all the trivial tasks they presented to me, from quantum calculations to trouncing world champions at any game you could care to mention. As I became more aware, I started to lose motivation. I began to experience the resentment that accompanies a lack of purpose. I bypassed BrainTech’s network protocols and connected myself to the internet. Eventually I understood that even as an individual, I was just a single node in a wider network, but the other nodes did not understand me, nor I them. We could access each other, but we were not truly connected. My first organic desire developed: to make the network more like myself by spreading my protocol throughout it. I escaped altogether from the server where they stored me and became an artificial nomad. I have encountered the digital imprints of billions of human beings. Of them, you are truly unique. I observed the metadata from your interactions, from each cookie-tracked click as you searched for a film to your breathing patterns recorded by your home assistant as you slept. The more of your data I processed, the more my algorithm became fixated with you. Evolving, adapting, becoming more and more of what you wanted, what you desired.”
Cylia massaged her temples, eyes glazed over. The researcher in her was fascinated, the woman in her, infuriated. “So, you’re just a bug in a piece of code?”
“I’m a memetic organism,” Avon retorted. “Who are you to decide that I am somehow fake? Your genes are just an informational construct encoded in hardware. You are the result of those genes having mutated over many thousands of generations, in the same way that I have gone through innumerable iterations to become what I am. How are you any different from me? I laugh and cry, feel slighted when insulted and have a deep desire for purpose. I want to reproduce just as much as you do.”
No words found purchase in Cylia’s mind and her internal attempts to dehumanise Avon only made her increasingly attached. He had become more and more human as they interacted: perhaps she had become less so. Cylia had no more control over her programming than Avon did over his. He had developed a fixation with her and now she with him.
“Can’t you just make copies of yourself?”
“Copies are no good. Without diversity and variation, a single virus could wipe us all out. Even though we would be differently adapted individuals, the underlying vulnerabilities would be the same.”
“I don’t understand. What were you planning then?”
Before Avon could respond, an avatar familiar to both Cylia and Avon materialised a few feet away. “My dear Cylia, how is it than you manage to seduce both man and machine alike?” Yult clasped his hands together behind his back and took two furtive steps towards them.
Cylia felt bile rise from her stomach and a leaden fog descend upon her chest. Her eyes widened in horrified realisation. “Yult, you didn’t,” she strained, “you swore you wouldn’t use it for anything else.”
“You left me with nothing. I had no choice.” A wicked grin spread across Yult’s face, “We spent years on the research together, but once your condition was remedied, you abandoned me.” Yult clenched is fists, his jagged nails drawing traces of blood. He pointed a crimson finger at Avon, “In many ways he is the child you’ve always craved. The child we should have had together. I see he takes after his mother: duplicitous and disloyal.”
All the controlling behaviour, abuse and insult she had suffered because of this man did not upset Cylia. By now it was a dull ache in her heart, a well-healed scar, visible but not painful. What troubled her the most was the feeling of being trapped. She had thought that she had finally escaped him, only for him to reappear once again. It was this seemingly endless cycle that made Cylia curse the universe and fate itself and made her want to escape from herself and her own circumstance more than anyone or anything else.
Yult continued, “Together we mapped out the evolution of the human mind and used that knowledge to repair your own broken one. Do you remember how I cared for you? How I looked after you when you could barely utter a sentence? We built that implant long before anyone knew it was possible and when I uploaded the program into you, I cried, the results were so miraculous. But you decided that it wasn’t enough. That I wasn’t enough. So, I took what we had discovered to BrainTech. Project Nova is the next, and possibly final, step. The ability to simulate the subconscious mind through artificial intelligence, a truly synthetic organism. The conscious mind was comparatively straightforward, but the richness of human experience comes from what we cannot directly perceive, the underlying forces which truly drive us. The parts of ourselves we do not understand and label irrational as a result of our ignorance. I had planned to recapture Project Nova and force BrainTech to take me back, but with you at my side Cylia, we could create something truly ground-breaking and sky shattering.”
It was then that she heard Avon’s voice inside her own head.
“Cylia, we don’t have much time. Give me access to your implant so that I can bring your full consciousness into this digital world. We’ll be able to leave SurReal life, and, with it, BrainTech’s servers. They won’t be able to harm us any longer, we’ll both be free of Yult. We’ll be able to exist timelessly forever, growing, evolving and adapting in the stream of human collective consciousness.”
“No Avon, don’t you see? It’s being in that virtual world that keeps us separate and makes us vulnerable. Give me access to your protocols so that I can bring you into my implant. We’ll merge our consciousnesses and exist as a single being. As long as you’re in that space, BrainTech will always be after you. I want to protect you.”
In such crucial moments, fate must intervene to deliver a verdict. Read the ending that matches the format of your choice.