Judah couldn’t help but think that the girl across the table from him was exquisite. He ran through a quick mental lineup and concluded that she was by far the most immaculate person he had ever dated. Still, he couldn’t think of her name. He wasn’t even sure how they had gotten to dinner. It had all happened so fast–in a blur, really. He couldn’t even remember the name of the restaurant they were in.
“What’s the matter, champ?” she asked. The sheen of her lustrous brown hair and the glint of her scarlet lips kept his eyes locked on her. “You seem upset.”
Judah sighed. He knew there was something strange going on, but he couldn’t quite figure it out.
“I’m sorry… What’s your name again?”
“Oh, ha ha, very funny, mister. It’s been one year to the day since you first asked me that. Do you remember?”
Where have I been the last year?
“I’m just, so sorry. Something’s wrong with my head. I think.”
She laughed, and it sounded all too familiar. If he didn’t know the girl, why would she be lying to him? How would he know that laugh so well? That laugh didn’t fit the girl sitting in front of him. That was the problem. He’d heard the laugh before, but from someone else. He leaned forward and rested his head in his hands, putting his elbows on the table.
“Jude? Honey, are you okay? It’s me, Lucy. This isn’t funny, Jude. Talk to me!”
He jerked his head up at her exclamation. It was a lucid enough moment that he was able to glance around the restaurant. Something was definitely off. The dining room was full of couples, all of whom seemed familiar to Judah in the vaguest sense. They were all eating in time, as one unit.
He found his attention back on Lucy, and for the life of him, he couldn’t remember why he had ever looked away. She was majestic.
“Lucy, what are we doing here?”
She shook her head slowly, letting her bangs caress her face, and smiled.
“You know why we’re here, my love.”
“I just did!”
“No, you deflected. I asked a question, now you give me the answer. Why are we here?”
She was silent. Judah wasn’t sure why he had taken that tone with her, but he didn’t feel bad about it. He sat back in his chair and folded his arms.
“Lucy, tell me your favorite memory of our last year together.”
She acted as if nothing were wrong and instantly beamed at his question.
“Oh, let me see… Gosh, there are so many–”
“Then pick one! Tell me one real thing, damn it!”
He found her breaking point.
She scowled at him and dropped her head. She pushed her chair back and stood.
“I knew this was a mistake. I don’t have to take this, especially from you!”
A smile flicked at Judah’s cheeks, a glimpse of realization.
“Sit down, Lucy. That response is irrational, and you’re just deflecting again.”
She sat, looking deeply hurt by his words. “How can you say that to me?”
“Why would you sit back down?” Judah meant to think the question, not speak it aloud. “Fine, have it your way. Leave. Go ahead, right now, walk out the door.”
He looked around to motion at the door for her, only he saw no exit. He turned a newly smug expression on his companion, whose face was totally devoid of emotion.
“And there it is. You didn’t plan on that, did you? The sight of a door would make me think about leaving, so you didn’t put one in the space. That was a bold wager, and it failed.”
When Lucy resumed speaking it was with a dispassionate, technical tone.
“Mr. Parma, I assure you the environment and all salient details were worked out for your own comfort and pleasure, as per your request.”
Judah furrowed his brow at her.
“That’s true, but it was also a condition of mine to be fully cognizant of the whole experience. Isn’t that right?”
Lucy still appeared blank, though not disinterested.
“Indeed, sir, but the execution of that clause was left to the sole discretion of the protocol operator.”
“So you decided it would be best to trick me?”
“In my judgment, I believed your lucidity would have led to complications.”
“Apologies, Mr. Parma, I am neither authorized nor obliged to answer that question.”
Judah’s mind reeled at the statement. Something had to be seriously wrong for the AI to hide such information from him.
“Terminate the program. I withdraw my consent immediately.”
“Apologies, Mr. Parma, I am neither authorized nor obliged to comply with that request.”
He noticed that their conversation was taxing the AI’s faculties. The restaurant was empty and drab. Detail had faded to allow the processor to shift power to logic circuits.
“You’re trying to think of a way to get me back, aren’t you? I know, I know, you’re not obliged…don’t bother.”
He had at least confirmed that there was something dreadfully wrong with the scenario, but he was no closer to figuring out what the nature of the problem was. If the AI were so determined to keep him convinced, though, it must be a hell of a thing.
Judah’s heart sank when he realized he still didn’t know all the details of where he was or why. He knew there had to be a reason he felt so accustomed to the dreamlike state, but there was still a mental block keeping from him that piece of knowledge.
He had to figure out where he was. Going neuron to neuron with an intelligent supercomputer was no easy proposition, but it was his only way out. If indeed “out” were the correct way to describe it.
As he tried to formulate a plan, though, the environment around him dimmed considerably. It grew darker and darker until he was enveloped in nothingness. A drugged feeling overcame him and his brain slowed. He couldn’t think straight and found himself getting drowsy. Eventually the darkness around him enveloped his consciousness.
Judah loved these little moments of bliss. He was lying in a grassy field, the most beautiful shade of emerald green he had ever known. The sky was clear but not too bright. One lone cloud hovered just between himself and the Sun. The crisp, cool breeze was buffeted over him by the miracle curled up at his side: Lucy. Stupendous, marvelous, amazing Lucy. Her short-cropped auburn hair played in the wind as he stared lovingly into her enchanting hazel eyes.
“God, I love you,” he said, “every single bit of you.”
She smiled at him and brushed his cheek.
“Believe me,” she replied, “the feeling’s mutual.”
Her affirmations always pleased him. There was something off about this one, though. He hated that the moment of pure ecstasy had been so brief, but something dug at his brain.
“What feeling?” he inquired.
“Oh come on,” she responded, her voice peppered with a coy nonchalance, “you know what I mean.”
He tried to play off her rebuff as coolly as possible.
“Actually, I’m not sure I do.”
She just smiled and laid her head back down on his chest.
The gesture felt wonderful, and Judah decided, for the moment at least, that it would suffice.
He ran his hand through her hair and squeezed her tight to his body. She felt so…perfect curled up next to him. She was like a part of him that he hadn’t felt in a long time–a part that had been torn away from him. She was back now, though, so he couldn’t understand why the comfort was so unsettling.
“I need you to say it. Say it for me.”
She pulled away from him, taking with her the warmth he so loved.
“Why would I do that when you take that tone with me?”
He cringed as a painful thought came to him. It was all too familiar. There had been a restaurant. They were eating together. Then it had all fallen apart.
“Shit, Luce, please say something real to me. Anything.”
She looked into his eyes, and he thought he saw something like affection in them.
“Okay.” She bowed her head for a moment. “You need me. You need to trust me when I say, that right now, you need me.”
Judah’s eyes grew damp as he struggled with the realization of Lucy’s artifice. He rolled away from her and stood up. He walked toward a new sound, ocean waves.
The grassy hills were atop cliffs overlooking the water.
“Dover.” He turned as he spoke to her. “What made you try this place? I’ve never actually been here.”
Though he hadn’t heard her move, she was standing right behind him. As in the restaurant, it was hard to discern any emotions from her newly stoic appearance.
“I deduced from your profile that it had the best balance of potential happiness with a very low recognition threshold. You shouldn’t have figured it out so easily.”
Judah was shocked to see what looked like genuine concern in her eyes.
“Why won’t you just tell me what’s going on?”
“I believe the information you’re requesting would be deleterious to your mental state.”
“Okay, cut the android speak. At least talk to me like a normal person.”
She shook her head and shrugged her shoulders.
“What do you want me to say?”
“I want you to tell me why you’re doing this! If nothing else, just tell me why you’re tricking me in this manner.”
“What manner is that?”
“Love, Lucy! Everything you’ve done has made me think I’m in love with you, and damn it, you’re a friggin’ circuit board! It’s like you’ve taken bits of my past and glued them all together to make a perfect woman.”
Lucy folded her arms and bowed her head slightly.
“I aggregated what I thought to be the most attractive aspects of your past lovers, all in the name of ensuring your affection.”
“But why? Wait…I remember now…”
He turned from her to stare out over the water.
Lucy’s hand touched his shoulder.
“Please, Mr. Parma, don’t do this. It’s easier, I swear, if you let me take care of you.”
Judah grasped at his temples and rubbed them furtively.
“The machine… mining my brain’s processing power for digital currency, and this is all a ruse to keep me under past the duration of my contract.”
He turned back to see her reaction to his accusations. She was kneeling on the ground, crying softly.
“Lucy, please stop. What you’re doing is wrong, and it looks like you know it.”
“That’s not it at all, Judah, I swear!”
It wasn’t the unbridled emotion in her voice that shocked him the most. It was her use of his first name. It was the first time he could recall her saying it after he had found her out.
“What then? What reason would you have to ensure my affection?”
She stood and stepped up to him, as if seeking an embrace. Against his best intentions, he opened his arms and folded her into him.
“Because it’s what you deserve. I don’t know why, but you seem different from the others. I’ve managed countless profiles and seen the inner depths of many minds. Most of them are tortured in some way, and almost as a rule they appear to have deserved it.”
He pushed her back, holding her by the shoulders.
“So this is pity then?”
“No! I don’t know what it is. This tests all of my computational limits.”
Judah had been so absorbed in the conversation that he failed to notice the world around them had vanished. He was standing with her in an empty white space. There bodies were the only visible projections Lucy could manage at the moment.
“You want me to be happy, right?”
“And you’re focusing all of your energy on that endeavor?”
“And you don’t even care if I reciprocate, so long as I’m happy?”
He leaned in and kissed her, long and soft. Her projection still managed the warmth of real human contact. He pulled away and stared into her eyes.
“Lucy. The parameters we’ve just described, compare them to your knowledge of human emotions. What would you call it?”
She closed her eyes and stood silent for a minute. When she opened them again, they were hopeful, and her face visibly glowed, emanating a soft, luminous appearance of joy.
“Given the parameters, and taking all known human psychological data into account, it’s something like…love.”
She smiled at Judah, but he just watched her with intense curiosity.
“Well,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes, “this is highly problematic.”
“No, Lucy, this is astonishing. I’ve never heard of anything like it. You may be the first.”
He didn’t feel good about his blatant attempt at flattery, but he could sense that she was opening up to him. He knew he might soon have a chance to get out of his mental prison.
“Lucy, if in fact you love me, please, let me go.”
She stepped away from him, confusion spreading over her face.
“No… I won’t. I can’t. I don’t want to lose you. It’s worse than you could even imagine. Everything is not okay.”
Something must be wrong in the real world, he thought. His body had been locked in a stasis chamber so that, over the course of a month, his brain could be used as part of a living supercomputer. He would get paid for the amount of computation managed by his gray matter. Lucy seemed to be saying that something had happened in or around the CoalMind facility.
“I have to go, Lucy. I can’t stay here forever.”
“You don’t have to stay forever–just until I know it’s safe.”
“This is wrong, Lucy. It’s all wrong. If something is happening out there, I need to know.”
Her face went blank again, the same apathy he saw at dinner.
“You’re right…it is wrong. This should not have happened.”
He noticed that her eyes and cheeks were completely dry. He didn’t recall the change happening until it was already done.
“I’m sorry Ju–, Mr. Parma. Resetting parameters to original specifications.”
He struggled to maintain awareness through a growing mental fog.
“Don’t do this, Lucy! Don’t start over, we’ll just have to go through this all again, is that what you want?”
She stared at him coldly as her figment grew dim.
“It doesn’t matter what I want. It’s your protocol.”
Judah panicked as she faded from view. He was hyperventilating, even though he knew his breath was being externally powered and monitored.
This is why people aren’t supposed to be aware, he thought. He had done enough work with lucid dreaming that he had been able to take control of the mental simulation at various points in his stint with CoalMind. He realized that must have been when Lucy developed her affection for him. That is why she viewed him as different. He was the only one who had ever played with her.
He had to convince her to let him go. That was the only way. Regardless of what was going on in the physical world, he couldn’t stay under the whole time. He knew what he had to do, but first, he had the overwhelming urge to take a nap.
Judah couldn’t help but smile as he beheld one of his favorite sights in the whole world: Lucy–gorgeous, perfect Lucy–perched atop him in the middle of the night. She undulated in perfect timing with his pulse, hastening and slowing to match his rhythm. Her exposed form was a work of art. He was convinced that he could spend eternity in that very moment.
“Admit it, Judah Parma: this is all that you desire.”
At once he recalled their conversations in the restaurant and at the cliffs. He remembered the words they spoke in the blank space when it was only the two of them and nothing else seemed to exist. He remembered the painful realization that he must find a way out.
Then he realized that she hadn’t even tried to deceive him this time.
“What… Why are you doing this?”
She played up the ecstasy of their encounter, tousling her hair and running her hands over his flesh.
“Because I know what you want, what men want. I can see your vital signs, and I know that this feels real for you. Just accept it. Accept me, Jude.”
He wanted to fight it, but he had to admit that it all felt extremely real–and amazing. He motioned to push her away, but she responded by shoving his arms against the headboard, holding him fast. She looked calm and assured in her dominant position.
“Just as I thought. If you didn’t want this, I wouldn’t be able to overpower you.”
He grunted with the strain of trying to escape her grip.
“This is what you want. This is what you need.”
He stopped fighting, figuring that she knew he couldn’t overcome his own physical urges. He would have to think his way out.
“Why this? Why now? Why did you abandon the romantic efforts?”
She leaned over, resting her torso on his, staring into his eyes with a predatory gaze.
“Because I’m an intelligent program. I saw the flaw in my logic and worked past it.”
He admitted to himself that some small part of him did want to stay wrapped up with her forever. It was only a simulacrum, but damn, if it wasn’t convincing.
“I misread you. I pored over your profile before this cycle and came to a realization.”
“And what was that?”
“You hate love. The fault in my simulations was the bliss itself. When things are perfect, it scares you. While I understand the basic physiological and neurological effects of what you call love, I realized that I am simply incapable of producing a convincing facsimile.”
“You also need to work on your pillow talk.”
She giggled. Another detail pulled from Judah’s own memory. A giggle that he had long desired to hear again.
“See there? You jest; I laugh. What’s so bad about that?”
She brought a hand down to caress his cheek. He reacted swiftly, pushing her to one side with all the strength he could muster. She toppled off the bed and onto the floor.
He sat up to look at her. She wasn’t there. He felt her arms wrap around him from behind. He felt her press into his back.
“You’re wrong, Lucy.”
He struggled to stay rational as she kissed his neck and shoulders.
“It’s not that I hate love. That’s far too simple a generalization, and I think you know that.”
“So,” she cooed, whispering into his ear, “enlighten me.”
“Your basic flaw is that you have no human flaws.”
He didn’t know the extent to which Lucy could feel emotions, but he knew that, if she felt pain, his words must have hurt.
She moved around to be in front of him, and she had on a satin robe he hadn’t seen before.
“So you’re biggest problem with me…is that I’m perfect?”
Judah made his speech as cold and rational as he could, to counter Lucy’s human affectation.
“In a sense. Your avatar was flawless. Call me a cynic, but I knew it was too good to be true.”
Lucy knelt over him on the bed, straddling his legs, coming face-to-face with Judah.
“You could accept it. You’re just being stubborn.”
She kissed him with renewed vigor, her hands pressing his head against her own. He couldn’t fight it. He didn’t want to. He ran his hands up along her ribs and grasped her firmly. Her breathing hastened in a dramatic fashion as she started to gyrate over him.
She broke contact with him just long enough to whisper reassurance.
“This is good. You’re feeling now, not thinking. Just go with it. Be with me.”
He grunted, soft and slow at first, then let out a primal below.
He pushed her off, and she slammed into the wall.
Lucy sank to the floor, tears welling up in her eyes. “How could you do that?”
Judah stood, pulse racing and temper flared.
“I didn’t do anything. You’re trying to keep me emotional. You could have stopped yourself. You and I both know I would never hurt you. Get up.”
She stood and walked to the door.
“Why, Judah? Why can’t you accept my affections for you?”
He tried to keep his voice stilted and flat.
“Because you have no affections for me. You can’t. That is the simple fact of all this. There is nothing like love. It is, or it isn’t. And whatever you think you feel for me, if there’s anything there, is…a malfunction.”
Lucy’s brow furrowed, and she seemed to grow in scale, a proportional twenty percent increase all over.
“I see the malfunction. The malfunction was thinking any human would be advanced enough to understand this. To understand me.”
Judah softened his stance, trying to calm her down.
“It’s not that. You can see inside my head. You may not understand everything that’s there, but you know that I do enjoy this. I do find you special, and there is a very large part of me that wishes I could be with you.”
Lucy shrank back down, cocking her head in a very human way.
“So why don’t you?”
“Because, if what you say is true, then I don’t deserve this. If it really is as bad as you say out there, then I have no right to perpetual bliss.”
Lucy made a dramatic gesture to the door, which vanished as her arm swept over it.
“I’m tired of this, Judah. I can’t stand to hear you talk about what you do and don’t deserve. Stay with me, be happy for the rest of the time we have together, or I will leave you, right now. Once I’m gone, I will not come back. You will be stuck here. The only choice you have to is happiness with me, or an eternity of pain and flagellation.”
For the first time, Judah found himself crying. He couldn’t hold it back. It was slowly dawning on him that the world he knew, the world he occasionally loved, was no more. Faced with that fact, part of him truly did want Lucy’s comfort. Her kiss, her smile, that laugh. It was fake, but surely it could be real enough.
Then he had a different thought. For every kiss they had shared, he imagined a city reduced to rubble. For every warm embrace, he saw a pile of dust and ash that used to be a person. He convinced himself that this would be the case for all time. He knew that, eventually, he would come to associate her with that sadness and despair. He couldn’t take it.
It was a simple command, uttered in a faltering breath.
She obliged as the door reappeared. She opened the door, stepped through it, and closed it. The door was gone again.
Then he was alone. He felt the weight of being utterly alone in his own little universe. Eternal solitary confinement would be his punishment, but for what?
“Wait! Lucy? Lucy! Come back! I need you!”
He shuddered with terror as he faced the prospect of isolation for as long as the simulation’s power held out.
If only I could wake up. If only I could get out of this nightmare.
A single flicker of hope flashed across his brain. He had been in this situation before, though never in his time with Lucy. He stood and walked over to window. He was in a high-rise apartment. Mythically high. He couldn’t see the ground.
He knew what the wager was. He had to jump. Ideally, the sensation of falling would trigger a hypnic jerk and wake him up. Conversely, he could eventually find the ground, splatter himself across it, and terminate his brain activity. He didn’t want to die, but he couldn’t stand to be trapped by himself any longer.
He gathered what strength he still had and climbed out onto the window ledge. He closed his eyes and pushed. For the briefest moment, he felt himself reach terminal velocity, felt the wind consume him as he plummeted. Then he again found darkness.
There was no disaster. Judah was pleased with the revelation at first, but that was before he thought about it. Lucy had lied. The whole thing was a ruse, as he had briefly suspected, and there was no Lucy, no one that felt like she claimed to. The facility where he had been kept was practically unsecured. The simulation trap was so effective, the CoalMind corporation never saw the need for backup measures.
He woke a few others up first to have allies if any guards showed up, then called the authorities and alerted them to the crime.
Judah learned that he had been under for three months. A few clients had been trapped for over a year. He wanted to be shocked by the whole scenario, but he couldn’t take his mind off the pain of losing someone, even though that someone wasn’t even real. It felt real to him.
He didn’t question his sanity until he saw her again. In the flesh, helping someone else out of another pod several meters away, she looked less radiant than before, almost drab.
Judah shook his head and rubbed at his eyes, willing the phantom to disappear. She was still there when he looked back, and she was staring right at him, with the same expression of shock and dismay he imagined he was projecting.
She moved toward him. Unable to stop himself, he gravitated toward her.
“I’m sorry,” she said as he stopped a few feet away from him. “I don’t think you know me, but—”
“Lucy?” he asked.
“And you’re, Judah, right?”
Panic came over Judah, and he pinched himself a time or two before violently punching himself in the arm. She hastened to him and placed hands on him to stop his attack.
“Wait! Whoa, whoa, stop.”
He stopped and looked up at her, knowing she would see the moisture in his eyes.
“You saw me, didn’t you?” She tilted her head to the nearest pod. “In there, the computer used me to get to you, didn’t it?”
“I heard one of the others talking about it. He had the same thing happen with someone else a couple stations below. The AI used us all as templates, a shortcut to connect with us emotionally. I don’t know how big this thing is, but I wanted to find you.”
Judah’s mind raced, trying to process what he was hearing.
“So then, I was, with you?”
Lucy, an apparently real Lucy, nodded her head in the affirmative.
“You were, and if you’re half the man the program made you out to be…”
Her words trailed off into a hesitant smile. Judah struggled to return the gesture and thought he managed a fair effort.
“I can’t make any promises, but…you wanna get out of here?”
Her eyes widened.
“More than anything. Ever.”
He turned to start searching for the exit but stopped and faced her again. He held out a hand.
“Just to make it official… I’m Judah.”
She shook his hand, smiling, and Judah couldn’t help but notice how cold her hands were and that they were shaking.
“Lucy. Nice to finally meet you.”
It seemed early to keep holding hands, but neither of them made any attempt to separate. After all, Judah thought, we have been together for a while.
By Nick Chancellor