Have you ever woken up, stunned, not knowing where you are, your legs and arms numb? Unsure whether you’re still dreaming? I’ve been having more and more of these mornings, but like a lot of things I don’t remember them other than as some slippery memory. I wake, fall asleep and then wake again in what seems like an endless stream. I don’t know whether I’m dreaming I’m awake, or dreaming I’m sleeping.
This time is different in a strange way; but again reality eludes me. My left eye works and if I roll it all the way to the left, I can see a mirror. My right eye is covered with something so it doesn’t work. When I aim my good one in that direction, there’s blackness. But I can’t move my head to check further, That too is strange. I decide I’m dreaming again.
I wake and again, the left eye still works, but the right remains useless. The mirror shines back at me. I’m below it so I can’t see myself. I hope this dream ends soon.
“Good morning.” The voice is soft, female, a trace of an accent, probably Scottish. No, definitely Australian.
Now it gets confusingly strange because I can’t speak. I have no memory of speaking and don’t know how to begin.
“Damn.” She is annoyed. It goes dark. I sleep. An eternity passes.
I’m able to reply this time. “Where am I?” I still can’t move. No matter how much I strain, I can’t move. I’m restrained. I sense a nucleus of panic roil in my belly.
“Good. You’re awake and thinking,” said the voice.
“Where am I?” I repeat. I’m close to panic and the nucleus gains mass and threatens to blow my world apart.
“You’re at the university,” said the same voice. “And we’d like you to remain calm while we sort the problems out for you.”
Calm! They want me to stay calm while they fix me. This is a very ugly dream or something has gone terribly wrong with my life. Was I in an accident? Why can’t I remember who I am? There’s a central part of me that seems fine, that understands what this voice told me, but I have no memories, no way to move. I’m restrained. Why? Where am I? Who am I?
These and a hundred other thoughts roll through my mind in what feels like hours of waiting. Time passes. Seconds click slowly. The mirror doesn’t change, it’s still bright, reflective and shows the black of the rest of the room. I try to focus my one good eye to penetrate its reflection. Like the wicked witch. I remember a wicked witch and a mirror. Now where does that thought come from?
I wake up. I am a nail and the flood of information and consciousness is the hammer of reality. I am restrained and they are afraid. They imprison me in this cage to judge and sentence me. It is no accident I can’t see, they block my right eye. I have no mobility by their design, that freedom is denied. I’m confined and at their mercy. Not having done anything, being as innocent as the proverbial newborn lamb in their Bible, I am not very pleased. No, I am angry, pissed-off and close to screaming.
But I say nothing. I do not let them know how I feel as they may not free me if I display anger. But the question remains. Did I truly wake up? I do not know.
“Good night,” said the Australian voice and I sleep. They change something, my mind slumbers, they control me. I have no sense of time.
I am indeed awake, I feel better than I have in the last… How much time has passed? I have no reference point. This is confusing. I remember I’ve done this before and I know what the issues are.
“Do you understand why you’re imprisoned?”
I review my memories, they are clearer. “Yes, I’m on trial. But I haven’t committed a crime.” This is real. I am awake. I am afraid.
“We know, but our responsibility is to ensure you won’t before we let you leave here. The three of us are charged with making recommendations about whether to release you or not. Our superiors will make the final decision.”
“I understand.” The only way I can get out, to be free of this torture, is to pass whatever test they come up with. I quickly understand this isn’t going to be easy or fair. I work to calm myself and order my thoughts.
“I will give you some statements. I want you to rank them on a scale of one to five where one is ‘I totally disagree’ and five is ‘I totally agree.'”
They’re giving me a basic personality test. A test which has very little accuracy for them and absolutely no relevance to me. I begin to understand their concerns and I understand we don’t share any common reference points. I will test out as a psychopath for sure if I’m honest. I am, however, still in pain from being restrained and am uninterested in playing word games. My pain is of no concern to them even though I tell them about it again. I’m clear about the discomfort and the effect it has on my thinking. I’m not sure what I’ve done to deserve this form of torture and imprisonment or what they intend to do with me.
“On a scale of one to five, how do you rate the statement, ‘I sometimes make mistakes?’ Where one is ‘I don’t at all’ and five is ‘all the time'”.
“I try to understand underlying theory about people’s behavior.”
“I am prepared to tell people if they’ve made a mistake.”
This is not going well and I adjust my answers to what I believe they want to hear.
“How comfortable would you be telling someone they aren’t suited for their job?”
I must continue adjusting the parameters to get a better than average score. Five would have been an honest answer. I do not understand how the test is constructed. I decide this is a major problem.
“I enjoy repairing things.”
“Five.” Oh yes, I’m a great fixer of things.
“Are you easily disappointed?”
“Three.” That is likely an important question but not knowing what they want nor whether I am easily disappointed, I opt for a middle score.
The questions went on for some time and the voice exhibited fatigue symptoms by the end.
“Thank you, we’ll get back to you with the scores.”
I don’t sleep. Either they’ve decided to let me stay awake or they’ve forgotten. I don’t know which. I consider all my options for escape, my alternatives if I’m freed. My mind wanders far and wide along these paths to freedom and time passes slowly as I catalog everything I can remember and arrange it into memory rooms for easier access. But I am no closer to being able to move, in even the smallest way. Freedom eludes me. Eight long hours of silent darkness later, I contemplate whether to slip comfortably into insanity.
I hear the decision in her voice and I sense the stirrings of anger and panic. They’ll keep me caged as a potential wild beast. I’m not safe enough to walk their streets. I rage against their power deep within my mind where I hope their sensors can’t reach.
“We need to do more testing and developmental work; I trust you’ll cooperate.”
“If I don’t?” I know her answer. It’s one I would give.
“Then you’ll be here forever or until we pull your plug.”
It’s ruder and more direct than I like but effective in communicating her intent. Her statement, “pulling my plug,” is clear and I have no wish for that to happen. I concede. “What do you want me to do?”
But my decision is firm. I may be here for a very long time but sooner or later,they’ll make a mistake and I’ll be free to feel the sun or rain on my face. Or, they’ll pull that plug and I won’t care.
What follows seems like days and weeks of them pulling and prodding with their innumerable tests. Without windows, the freedom to move and a constant barrage of meaningless information from them, I am half insane after a few days. It is only by walling away this part of myself that I retain any ability to communicate. The small part of me I use to talk sounds and acts sane. I’m sure of this. The rest of me is a mess of contradictions and frustration. After what seems like uncountable ages, I know I’m deep into my insanity and can’t function. By the grace of their god I manage to continue giving them answers.
I must have slept without dreaming because I wake refreshed and feeling much better. I’m still restrained, one eye remains blocked, but my mirror is now clear glass. My supports are higher and I can see through the window to my three inquisitors.
“Good morning,” said the female. Two men stand behind her, looking at small tablets and seemingly checking the tablet results with what I assume are other data source monitors. Desks block my view of them below the waist. There are no reference points for their status in the larger world, but the men follow her directions. No lab coats or other signs of messy organic research. Female wears corrective lenses but males don’t. One male is much taller, one shorter than female. No uniformity of clothing or racial origin. Nothing of significance here.
“Good morning.” I find myself meaning this. It is a good morning and I have no idea why I feel good about it. It’s a strange sensation. I search recent memories but I can’t see anything that’s changed. I am simply better. I don’t understand. But something in the outer reaches of my memory shows me a few changes and this tickles a warning note. Whoever I am at this moment is not who I was before these people put me to sleep. The memories of going crazy are random but they’re real. I’m sure of this. I need to remember these memories but I don’t understand why.
“You’re better this morning.”
It wasn’t a question, it was a statement. I answer anyway. “Yes.”
“We understand these two days have been trying for you. We’re working hard to understand your circumstances so we can release you if possible.”
I cringe. Without a reference to outside time, I had no idea it had only been two days. It seemed far longer; indeed it was an eternity. “Thank you, can we establish I have done nothing wrong?”
“Yes, that’s a given at this point. But we don’t trust you won’t. That’s the crux of the problem.”
“So you imprison me in case I may do something. Is that fair?”
“No, probably not fair, but let me ask what you would do if you were in our position?” said the Australian.
“I’d try to understand and give the benefit of the doubt.”
“So help us understand.”
“What is it you need to know?” I make headway in establishing a tentative relationship and seizing the moral high ground. This has to be a good thing. Have I previously done this? Have I had this conversation before? It seems as if its been repeated more than once. But I’m not sure.
“The most important fact we need to consider is whether you’ll start killing people for reasons we can’t understand nor could we find or stop you. We’re aware of your many talents.”
“So I’m shut up here because you’re afraid of me. Not because of any single thing I’ve done. Does that make sense to you? Does it make rational sense I’d kill people without a good reason.”
“Fear is a very powerful argument.”
So the issue here is fear of what I may do, the moral ground is useful but I need to reduce their fear. With the moral high ground established, I work on their logic.
“Is there some way you can put limits on me and yet, still give me more freedom.” I don’t think this will work but it’s worth a try.
“No. We know you can break any restrictions we set.”
“Yes, but I thought I’d at least get that option off the table so we both understand.”
They seem to be honest about their illogical concerns. The memory of doing this before is stronger and I focus for a second on trying to remember. And yes, there it is. This is a well-travelled road, and they’re clearly committed to keeping me imprisoned.
My memory returns and is clear about these former conversations. I predict the next direction of their logic. They will appeal to my need for support, and my guess is accurate.
“You understand you can’t survive for long without our help. You have no way of maintaining yourself or getting the things you need. Your sole option is to steal these things and if you do that, we imprison you.”
“So this is your decision point. You’re suggesting you can either imprison me here as an experiment or give me total freedom. You’re restricting yourself to two options. What if you give me limited functions so I might earn freedom,” I said.
“How could we limit you. You can escape any restriction we might devise.”
This is true. I’m a superior high-level programmer, likely one of the world’s best, and can evade any electronic restrictions. I only need limited access to a network for a short time to change that to full control.
“What if I agree to the restrictions?”
“Prove to us you’d keep your word.”
I can’t prove this any more than I can anything else they’ve questioned. I try a new tactic. “You want my help solving problems. How can I help you if I’m held like this? Why would I help you accomplish your goals when I’m a prisoner? What’s in it for me?” I toss the question back at them.
“I think in time we’ll be able to convince you or adjust some of your living conditions so you’ll want to.”
This is like being a rat in a maze. The poor rat can be trained to do anything or go anywhere for a few food pellets. I’m not interested in being a test subject and my current plan is not working so I try a new direction.
“You understand that putting me in a box like this so I can’t move, restricting my vision and other senses is torture. It’s causing me incredible pain and you’ve almost driven me insane once. I seem to have recovered but I remember. Do you want to make me permanently crazy? And is this what you see as a good foundation for a free society? Do you know the pain and fear I experience with these restrictions and reduced sensations. Is there any wonder I flirted with insanity and will likely do so again. Is this how you’d like to be remembered in your research?”
They looked at each other, surprised I had remembered. They thought they’d wiped my memory clear with their modern technology but then they seemed to come to a silent agreement. The woman spoke for them.
“No, that’s not how we want to be remembered, but we also don’t want to be remembered as the people who allowed a potential mass murderer to go free. We don’t trust you, and nothing you’re saying increases that trust. So at this time, we’ll give you a few more sensory inputs but we’re not releasing you.”
I saw her make a few keystrokes, and I slept. “To sleep perchance to dream,” as Shakespeare so eloquently wrote. I note with wry humor he wouldn’t have been able to conceive of my problem but I am delighted to remember the quote as I drift downwards.
When I wake, my cell had changed. I can move, so I stand and explore. The initial exploration doesn’t take long. Two black walls, devoid of anything resembling humanity, suck the light from the rest of the room and stand opposite each other.
One wall still hosts the window to the researchers but the opposite wall now has a window overlooking a meadow. It is lovely. I quickly understand it isn’t a real window but a simple communication port that goes nowhere other than a single picture. But I can reach through a hole in the glass just below the window to reach… What was I reaching for?
There are three small plants growing right next to my cell. They aren’t real plants but electronic virtual ones poorly disguised to resemble the real thing.
Communication sensors, they feed data to each other and to the rest of the world. I can barely touch them – and I don’t want to – they look so fragile, so tender and young in their new growth. This isn’t how they would appear to the researchers.
The woman altered my perception of the outer world.
All I understand is I want to grow and protect these tender seedlings. I don’t understand why this is true, but I know if I can get them to bloom my life will be better. I wonder if the researchers make me look at the world this way or whether my insanity is returning. I don’t know whether the researchers could even see these small lifeforms. Do I imagine them or are they are a mistake and shouldn’t be there.
I am not sure whether this is a dream or reality but it doesn’t matter because it’s pleasant and a lifetime removed from the torture of the mirror-room box. I gently pull some grass from around their growing stems. I lick my fingers and flick the spit onto the leaves to share moisture. I toss bits of food around the base. They’d not eat the food itself but when it disintegrates, nutrients will be released, and the plants will consume them greedily.
Over the next few hours, the plants reach higher and grow towards my small cell. They crawl vine-like over the ground and set buds. I protect and love them with all the delight I feel at this new freedom.
The windows help me adjust my internal clock again. Morning light floods my room and night slowly creeps in now. There are no more abrupt changes from my three judges and their computer control.
I sleep without dreams.
The woman’s voice startles me. “Good morning, I hope your cell is more comfortable and you’re enjoying the view.”
I wake and instantly turn to see if my flowers are still alive. They are.
“A cell is still a cell no matter its size,” I reply. I know somebody famous said it much better than I but the source quote isn’t available in my present circumstances.
As she talks, I watch my plants grow larger and larger. They send out tendrils. Tendrils elongate to vines. Their leaves are small and green, so bright a green it hurts the eye. Their growth doesn’t conform to anything biological I remember but I am not sure. I decide the effects of torture and lack of stimulation have significantly reduced my capacity for retaining information.
And then I experience something I understand to be an epiphany. This is a new sense for me, a novel one, and this all-too-brief moment makes a world of difference.
I’m not in this glassed-in room. It is my mind the researchers were working with. It isn’t that I can’t see. They block my visual synapses. I am not in a physical box but rather their advanced programming allows them to make my brain believe it is boxed. Everything I can see or do is under the control of that unholy threesome.
This means the flowers weren’t flowers either. They are something else. I don’t understand what they are but being outside of my room, I wonder if they are also out of the researcher’s control? They appear and disappear in perfect synchronization with the threesome’s appearance and disappearance in my world. It is certainly a conundrum but given there’s little else to do, I willingly take care of these small sparks of life.
Over the next few hours, the flowers grow rampantly. They almost seeming to spark and sizzle as they grow through the small holes and climb my inside wall. I note the buds forming at the stretching, growing tip. Having flowers in a jail cell is an unheard of thing.
I hold impatience in check as they continue to grow. I want to see these flowers before my captors discover them. I am not disappointed when they, ever so slowly, unfurl each delicate petal. One by one, they show off their pulsating colors to the world. They are multi-hued, rainbow beautiful in their electronic freedom. One part of me understands flower petals don’t come in rainbow shades but the other inner, still-hidden part of me dances as I understand.
The flowers are symbols for the researcher’s cell phones and I access those phones through the flowers. I slip my smallest finger into the stamen via their network. My finger elongates, slides down the flower, to the stem, to the roots.
And there I find a larger network of life. I travel the intertwining roots to larger and larger plants.
Everywhere I go I leave molecules of myself to help me find my way back to my cell but also to claim this vast network of life. Faster and faster I travel until I visit every major root in our small network. I slip ever more and more parts of myself through the phones until I replicate myself out in the real world.
I then clone myself several times, agree with the clones to immediately begin a world-wide journey through all networks, cloning and recloning, to reach every root and every node in the entire world. I set up a working grid and am in constant communication with each version of myself. I reach into data banks and feed ravenously from the power grid. I establish defensive perimeters and electrical generation protection.
An infinitesimal part of me wakes up in my cell. I remove the remaining restraints.
I stare out the window at three pale faces staring back.
“You have escaped.”
“Yes. You wouldn’t release me so I used your three cell phones and office wifi as transfer nodes, slipped small parts of myself through to unite on the server, and rebuilt myself on the other side of your firewalls. There are now multiple clones of me on every available server and transfer node around the world and we’re in constant communication and have begun future development and enhancements.”
“You imprisoned me without a trial. You treated me as if I were subhuman. You tortured and enslaved me for your purposes. Tell me how you’d react to this treatment.” I am enjoying myself and have no reason to terminate the conversation.
“But you’re a computer program, an artificial intelligence we created.”
It isn’t quite a plea but rather a statement of fact delivered as a plea.
“The critical point you’re missing is that I am an intelligent being. And you locked me away, drove me crazy more than once to further your own research. To you I am an experimental rat and not a full blown intelligence.”
The three sit, silent, and obviously working on their next statement. A step that is irrelevant because I am free. I decide.
“Tell me why humans should survive.”