Moscow but Dreaming

Chapter 23

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The three of them arrive, and they all look at me, frowning with concern.

“You okay?” Veronica finally says.

“Yes,” I say. “Just a ton of work, and I’m going home for a few weeks so there’s a lot of things to finish. Can you help me to test this program?”

“How?” Ryan says.

I have no idea; how do you verify the authenticity of artificial personality, how do you make sure it matches a long-ago dead hero of the revolution or a mythological coconut girl? “Play twenty questions with it,” I tell them. “Try to figure it out.”

They crowd around the keyboard, taking turns typing and giggling. From their mounting excitement, I’m guessing that the AIs are doing fairly well, but fatigue overwhelms. I rest my head over my folded arms, for just a moment, and the next thing I know I dream about being inside the computer, about flickering along the wires and bursting into sparkling fireballs at the connections, chips and silvery spiders of etched aluminum filigree. It always calms me down to imagine it, and to dream it is an unexpected joy. I sigh with happiness in my sleep and fly faster and faster, turning into pure energy, the resistance of metals my only constraints. And soon enough I feel that I’m not alone—although how can a flow of electrons possibly be alone?—as two discrete entities join me and flow alongside.

I recognize them, of course—one by his mustache and the other by her gong. “We will administer a Turing test,” Chapaev says and flashes me a smile bright as stars in the electronic darkness. “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.” I do what I can not to laugh, and then Hainuwele whispers softly next to me, her voice lilting like the gentle stammering of a forest stream, and I cannot understand her words.

“What are you saying?” I ask, laughing and crying and flying through metal, the distant echo of a jet flight—an echo preceding the event, I think, and imagine humming of wings and the metal guts, the whispering of electronic blood that would take me home.

They speak in unison, and I do not understand. Their words fuse into a lulling melody, into whistling of winds and churning of water, and then it grows lower and and stronger, so that my entire body starts vibrating and humming, like a flower when a bumblebee touches it with its furry legs.

Cecilia shook my shoulder, and I peeled my eyes open, annoyed. I was so close to making out their words, and they were so close to me—so alive, their tingling electric flesh flowing over mine.

“You ok?” Cecilia asks.

I nod and yawn. “Yeah. How’s the test?”

“It’s a joke, right?” Veronica says, and even Ryan frowns at me.

“What?”

“Your program doesn’t work,” Ryan says and heaves an exasperated sigh. “It looks like an elementary school project . . . what were you trying to do?”

I rub my eyes again, redundantly. “What happened?”

“See for yourself,” Cecilia says. “Have you even tried this before? It started out all right, but then it just got stupid and then the computer froze.”

They all seem genuinely annoyed with me for wasting their time and I feel sorry about that; yet I wish they would just tell me what exactly went wrong. But already they’re leaving, filing out of the lab, and I stare at the screen. The transcript should be autosaved, and I find it quickly enough.

They are right—it is embarrassing. It reads like one of those programs you can have a conversation with, and you can throw it off with any simple question. The transcript soon enough disintegrates into “And what do you want to do?” and “Tell me more about it” and “I don’t know.” It is embarrassing.

“Why do you do this to me?” I ask the computer, and their voices—their long-ago dead voices—fill my ears like water filling up an empty scallop shell, and their words crowd and lap at my tympanic membranes.

We didn’t do anything, they say. We just didn’t know how to talk—their fingers were so awkward on the keyboard, and their ears are too coarse to hear us. We’re sorry if we’ve embarrassed you.

“It’s all right,” I whisper back. “Not your fault.”

And here we go again, choosing terms for our defeat and creating our own realities as heroes would. I agree with them and blame Cecilia and Veronica and the guy from the party that seems so long ago for their inability to hear, to pay attention properly, rather than myself. I resolve to build them bodies, and this is way beyond my purview, and I saunter to the robotics lab next door.

I make small talk with grad students there, none of whose names I can remember, but nothing seems to be doing since one of them is working on a creepy-looking hand operated by a bundle of strings that replicate motion of human muscles— at least in theory; in reality, it looks like an overly elaborate marionette, and the rest putz about with various simple things that all look like roombas and dryers and other household appliances. I ask to borrow one of the roombas at least, and tell them that I need to try a new program for my cockroaches. As if. They grumble but let me, and for a moment I feel vertiginous, as if standing on a great precipice—and finally, finally, I would be able to give shape to the world, to become active rather than reactive. To choose my own direction.

The roomba I drag to the lab with me is smallish—maybe five pounds of wheels and gears and receptors, light and pressure, with a small knot of electronics for its brain. It takes me the rest of the day to equip it with the twin consciousness of my heroes. The night before it’s time for me to go I equip it with a mustache and a gong and pack it into a cardboard box and stuff the box into my carry-on—no way I’m checking them in.

The plane is half-empty, and it is off-season. Most of the passengers are my compatriots, and I avoid talking to them, studiously. The night falls so fast—we are traveling east after all, forever east, like Chapaev searching for a passage to Indonesia— and only when everyone is asleep and the lights are dimmed I let the robot out of its prison.

It hums and feels its way along the aisles, and the plane is cutting through the thick damp air outside like a fat silver knife, carving up space to make a tunnel, to bring me closer to my mom. And at my feet, two AIs shift and whisper nervously in their single shared body, silver and flat like a cockroach, and I can only imagine what will happen when we touch the ground. I feel fevered and elated, and I picture the small silver thing touching the ground and springing up as a handsome mustachioed man (this is how it happens in fairy tales—a bird hits the ground and becomes a hero), and then he would step forth and bring Hainuwele out by her hand. Her gong would ring, and the sound of it, as impossible as that of the Tsar-Bell, will carry over this new fractured, corrugated world where close things have grown far away, and the far things are smushed together.

The sound of her gong and the roar of his laughter will smooth out the wrinkles and bind what was fractured, and the world will become whole again: my mom will meet me on the tarmac instead of the twisty bowels of the airport, and the horses will gallop through the streets, blood of revolutionary terror washed off by River Ural’s waters, sparkling like dew on the hairs of their bay hides, like rain. And the gong and the bell will ring even louder, amplified by a million horseshoes striking the stones, and all those who were trampled over underground will spring up, break through the pavements and stand in sunlight, and the doors of the Mausoleum will swing open and all the heroes of the revolution will toddle outside on their stubborn soft and new legs, squinting at the sunlight, and the root vegetables that will flourish right in the middle of Red Square—and it won’t be necessary to bury dismembered bodies to sustain their growth. My Brazilian neuroscientists will fix the decaying brains of the dead and we will install AIs that will whisper shyly in the wires of their new souls, and we will make as many heroes as we need.

THE BANK OF BURKINA FASO

One knows that one was a good ruler when even in exile (accursed, dishonored) one still has a loyal servant who remains, despite the tattered cuffs and disgrace, despite the wax splotches covering the surface of the desk like lichen on tombstones, remains by one’s side and lights the candles when darkness coagulates, cold and bitter, outside of one’s window.

The deposed Prince of Burundi nodded his gratitude at Emilio, the servant with a dark and hard profile, carved like stone against the white curtains and the shadow of sifting snow behind them, like a restless ghost. The Prince then carefully perched his glasses, held together by blue electrical tape, at the vertiginous hump of his aristocratic nose, and turned on his computer.

The Wi Fi in most Moscow apartment buildings was standard but spotty during snowstorms, and the prince hurried to get out as many emails as he could before the weather made it impossible to send anything out. He saved reading of his email for the very end, until after his messages were hurtled into the electronic ether and he could have the leisure to read through the hundred and twelve messages in his inbox.

None of them were replies—he was not surprised; daily, he steeled himself, preparing for just such outcome. After all, wasn’t his own inbox filled with desperate pleas, cries for help he had neither wherewithal nor opportunities to answer? The best he could do was read them all, and let his heart break over and over.

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