I work on the seventh floor of an office building in downtown. The city is new, and all the buildings are made of glass and metal and they shine like broken mirrors in the summer sun. I'm a secretary for
an engineering firm, although my official title is administrative assistant.
This is what I do:
Answer the telephone and say my name with brimming cheeriness and then ask, How may I direct your call?
Maintain the firm's website and redirect all waylaid emails to their proper course.
Brew coffee and keep the break room stocked with chocolate-chip granola bars and plastic canisters of cream.
File endless stacks of paper--receipts and published papers, copies of emails and PowerPoint slides.
Sometimes I'm asked to entertain clients if the engineers are running late, and so I sit behind my desk and flirt, one eye always waiting for the meeting room door to open.
The engineers do their own work, although I don't overly concern myself with it. They type on their computers inside their offices. They meet with clients. They talk to the technical writer who comes
in three times a week.
I have little in common with the engineers and they have little in common with me, but the minutiae of our lives weaves together in that overly air-conditioned office, day in, day out. They produce paper
for me to file and I file it. They swap business cards at conventions and I type the information for these new contacts into the database. They drink coffee and I brew more.
Our patterns in that office are set, as set as the patterns in the Persian rug laid out on the floor of my living room, and just as complex.
But of course I am not really a secretary, and the engineers are not really engineers. These are just roles we were given a long time ago. In reality, we're maintenance workers. Every paper I file, every
meeting the engineers sleep through, creates another bit of script for the AI that cares for our human bodies, tucked away deep underground, as it calculates the best way to make us more like it.
Everyday I leave work at five o'clock and ride the light rail to the station five blocks from my apartment, then walk the rest of the way home. My apartment is a duplex in a neighborhood designed to look like the oldest neighborhood in the city. (The city was built all at once; no one part of it is older than any other part.) The duplex has a concrete stoop and an overgrown garden in the backyard, and the whole thing is encircled by a metal fence covered in morning glories. I live upstairs, but the couple who lived downstairs moved out four months ago, packing all their things in a U-Haul in the middle of the night, and no one ever came to replace them. My landlord hinted that they were going Above, but I don't think I believe him. Why pack all your things, just to go back to your body, to trade the superior reality for the inferior?
Today is no different from any other day. I arrive at the train station right on time. It's the middle of July and hot enough that the walk is uncomfortable. Up in the trees the cicadas drone on and on, and I think I can hear the heat crackling in the air. The sky is heavy with clouds. A rainstorm's probably on its way.
When I get home I'll go right up the stairs and turn my air conditioning down low and pour a glass of iced mint tea and sit in front of the vent in the living room while I drink it down. I do this every day, in the spring and summer: it's another pattern for the AI's programming. Go up the stairs, turn on the air, drink mint tea.
But today Chester's waiting for me, and the pattern gets disrupted.
He slouches against the duplex's doorframe, smoking a cigarette. His hair falls into his eyes and he's got a few days' growth of beard, which is all an affectation because he's a program, not human at all.
He told me to call him Chester when I met him a year ago at a twenty-four-hour pie shop, but I don't know what he's really called, and I don't know what his job is, here in this place.
Programs aren't supposed to tell us that they're programs, although you find these things out. Chester told me without prompting, though. He whispered it into my ear last January as we curled together on my bed and ice frosted across the windows.
"Emily," he says, tossing the half-finished cigarette to the stoop and grinding it beneath his foot. When he steps away the cigarette is gone, there's just a pale streak of ash that dissolves into the
concrete as I watch.
"Been awhile, hasn't it?" I fumble in my purse for my keys. I haven't seen him since March.
He shrugs. "You know how it is." He pauses. "I turned the air conditioning on for you."
I let my purse drop to my side and look over at him. He knows all the patterns I have to complete, of course. He even knows patterns I don't recognize.
"You shouldn't have done that," I say.
"It doesn't matter," he says. "The AI won't collapse because of one blip in the system." He jerks his head back toward the garden. "You can drink your tea out here."
"Maybe I don't want to drink it in the garden." Which isn't true. The appeal of Chester is that he always helps me break my patterns, in small and--according to him--insignificant ways. He gives me the
gift of free will.
Chester rolls his eyes and then jumps off the stoop. I reshoulder my purse and follow him around the side of the duplex into the garden, where the dusty white metal table has been set with a pair hurricane glasses filled with tea and crushed ice. Chester sits down, his chair sinking into the earth. He tips back. The dappled light falls across his face.
I pick up one of the teas and drink. It's perfect. Things aren't always perfect here--the AI does that on purpose, though it keeps things pleasant most of the time--but this tea is the exact right strength, sweetened with brown sugar and so cold that my entire body shivers.
"So why are you here?" I ask Chester. I know it's not because he misses me. Programs don't miss humans.
He looks at me for a long time. The shadows from the tree leaves move like static across his eyes.
"Felt like seeing you again." He grins and lights another cigarette.
I decide to accept this answer and sit down in the metal chair. The legs wobble. The air smells rich and damp back here, from the dark soil of the garden, even though all the flowers have shriveled up in
the summer heat. The peach tree hangs heavy with neglected fruit, and a few peaches have already dropped to the ground and begun to decay--the downstairs neighbors always picked the peaches before. It's not something I do.
"I thought maybe we could revisit old times." He draws deep on his cigarette.
"Old times," I say. "I thought you'd--how did you put it? Given up on the vagaries of physical pleasure?"
He laughs. The wind picks up, seems like it wants to push us closer together. I plant my feet firmly to the ground.
"Can't help it," he says. "I like pretending to be human."
"Of course you do." I take a long drink of tea. The wind blows harder. I smell roses from the few spindly bushes growing along the back fence, and beyond that--the scent of rain, steely and damp.
"You know," I say, "I took a lot of shit for you."
The light has changed, become softer and paler, more like the light in winter. Chester's hair looks longer, the way he wore it in January, when he came to see me at night, one arm wrapped around my waist, his mouth pressed against the back of my neck. I miss him sometimes.
"Shit?" he says. "From who?"
"From everyone." Another drink of tea. The light's gone back to normal, hot and bright and heavy with the impending rain. Another one of his tricks. Trying to make me remember the past. "One of my
friends said screwing around with the programs 'll get you deleted."
"The AI doesn't delete people," he says. "It just send them Above."
"You won't get sent Above for something like this anyway." He leans forward over the table, the wind rippling his hair. Thunder rumbles somewhere in the distance. "C'mon, Emily. One time." His eyes are big and dark. "I know you don't want to go up there and complete another set of patterns. Not really."
He's right, but I don't want to let him know it. I sit back in my chair and finish my tea. The first few drops of rain begin to fall, hitting the trees first and then splattering across my bare arms. Chester leaps up from his chair, and we race each other inside, up the stairs, into my bedroom.
It's true that no one liked me being with Chester, if indeed we were together, the way two humans will be together, dating, fucking, fighting. Everything humans do propels the AI, including the act of love--but a human loving a program doesn't, because the programs aren't separate. They're part of the AI, and we maintain them. So loving a program can't be a pattern established by the AI. It can only happen naturally.
At least, that was how Chester explained it to me. I let myself believe him, for awhile. He told me the taboo against human-program relationships was uploaded into our brains when we uploaded into the
world, along with our need to complete sets of patterns. "You can ignore it," he said. "If you really want to."
So I did.
I'm not sure our relationship was ever what you'd call romantic. He came around mostly during the winter months, when I saw him maybe once a week. We would have sex, and occasionally he would work his magic on the world for no other reason, apparently, than to please me. He once turned the bathroom into a garden, tropical flowers blossoming in sink, vines curling around the shower curtain rod, while snow plinked against the windows. I walked in after a long time spent tangled up on my bed, not suspecting a thing, and the humidity turned my hair into ringlets.
I never sat around waiting for him, but whenever he showed up it meant I had a reason to break the day's patterns. You can't do that with another human. They all have their own patterns to complete.
I liked breaking all those patterns.
I liked him.
But when spring began to push through the frozen earth, the time that lapsed between his visits grew longer and longer, until he just stopped coming. I didn't let myself be disappointed. All my friends
were relieved. They said it was bad news to get involved with a program--in any way, of course, but sexually was worst of all. I asked why, but they didn't have an answer for it. Just is, they'd tell me. I went back to completing my sets of patterns, every day, like I was supposed to.
But now he's back, and of course I'm not going to send him away.
I lie naked in my bed on top of the sheets. The air-conditioner rattles in the window frame. Rain sluices over the glass. Chester stretches out beside me, eyes closed, spine curving into the mattress.
I watch him breathe and wonder why he breathes at all. It's all so familiar: a pattern unto itself.
Every now and then lightning arcs across the sky, washing out all the colors in the room.
Chester's left eye opens, watches me in the damp darkness. "Emily," he says, and my name sounds like a sigh. "Thank you."
He lifts his head. Smiles. Glances down at himself. "You know."
I blush and don't say anything in response. Thunder rattles the sky, somewhere off in the distance.
"You know what storms are?" he asks.
I shrug, roll over onto my stomach. "Weather," I say. "Who cares?" The A/C evaporates the sweat off my skin. Chester runs one hand down the length of my spine.
"It's the AI changing something in the system," he says. "Something huge. An upgrade, maybe."
"Doesn't really concern me," I say.
"Don't say that." He sits up, pushes his hair of his eyes. "We built this world for you. Everything in it concerns you."
We. Before he would always pretend he was separate from the AI. He never said we. I frown. I don't like this shift in him, this shift in his--personality? I suppose that's what it is.
"Nothing ever happens to me," I say. "I'm not important."
"That's not true." He wraps his arms around me and pulls me in close to him. This is how things are supposed to be with Chester. He's supposed to kiss along my neck and tangle his fingers up in my hair.
He isn't supposed to remind me, inadvertently or not, that I'm simply a maintenance worker for a very sophisticated computer.
We kiss. We kiss for a long time, while the storm rages on and on outside, and my hands explore the contours of his body, and his hands explore the contours of mine, and we fall into each other again.
It rains for the next week. At work the engineers hand me their wet umbrellas as they come in, and I lay them out behind my desk to dry. At home I open up the windows in the house so I can listen to the
rain. Everything smells like damp soil.
All week, I wonder if Chester was telling the truth, if rain means the AI is changing the main program. I wish I could tell myself that it's just rain. But I know better. In this world, everything means
One day at work, one of the engineers calls me into her office. She has the blinds closed, although I can still hear the rain pounding against the glass. She glances up at me when I walk in, then rubs her
shoulders as if she's cold.
"I need you to do me a favor," she says. She doesn't quite look me in the eye. "It's a little--well, it's a little unusual."
"Okay," I say slowly.
The engineer taps her fingers against the desk. Then she takes a deep breath and rolls back in her chair. She has a plain white envelope in her lap. She stands up and hands it to me.
"It's a storage drive," she says. "I need you to take it down to Central Processing." For the first time since I walked in she looks me straight on. "Find my connection port. The location's written on
the envelope. I want you to back--everything--up for me."
I hold the envelope and stare at her. Central Processing contains the connection ports for everyone in the city: if you ever want to go Above, Central Processing is the gate through which you exit this
world. It's open to the public, twenty-four hours a day, but most people never go there.
"Why don't you do it?" I ask her.
She shakes her head. She's back to not looking me in the eye. "I'd just... I'm busy." I don't believe her. We're never busy. We always have the exact right amount of work to do.
"Is it dangerous or something?" I look down at the envelope. It seems innocuous, lying in my hands. Level 6, Row 45, Station 174. The location of her connection port, written in her scrawly handwriting.
"No," she says. Her face breaks into a smile. "Of course not, Emily, I just... I don't want to go out in the rain."
For a moment I think about Chester, the tiny thrill I get every time I break a pattern with him. Backing up the engineer's consciousness--just another broken pattern. I don't ask why she wants to back up her
consciousness. Of course it's allowed--but who would bother? Who wants to see their entire existence reduced to information on a storage drive the size of a thumbnail?
"All right," I say.
The engineer closes her eyes. She looks relieved. "Thank you, Emily," she says. Of course I wonder what I'm getting myself into, but even the threat of danger is more interesting than completing
another set of patterns in the office, another volley of emails, another round of copies.
I take one of the engineers' umbrellas, and then I stride out into the rain.
The city is a series of concentric circles, rippling out like the wake of a stone dropped into the middle of a still pond. Central Processing is the stone.
It's not far from the office, maybe ten blocks. I walk for three of them and then catch the light rail the rest of the way. I'm the only person who gets off at Central Processing. It looms in front of me, the second-tallest building in the city, and built, it seems, almost entirely out of glass. In the thunderstorm it's the same color as the sky.
I go through the sliding glass doors, into an enormous atrium. The sound of the rain is muffled. A security guard sits at a desk to the right, reading a newspaper. He looks up at me. My umbrella drips
water on the floor. I realize I don't know what I'll say if he asks my reason for being here.
But he doesn't ask, just tilts his head at me and then goes back to reading the paper. I walk to the elevators. My footsteps echo around the room. I wonder if the security guard is a human or a program.
Probably a program.
The elevator shudders as it begins to move toward the sixth floor. I pull out the envelope. It's gotten wet and the engineer's writing has began to bleed and blur. I can barely make out the words. Row 45.
The elevator doors slide open, and there is nothing on the sixth floor but rows and rows of connection ports. No rooms, no hallways, just a maze of doorways back to our bodies. The sound of them, clacking and whirring and thumping, is so loud that it drowns out the sound of the rain. The air smells like electricity. Suddenly I am not so sure of myself, suddenly I wish I had just stayed at the office and completed the day's patterns.
The elevator door starts to slide close, and I stick my hand out to knock it back open. I step hesitantly out onto floor. The noise of the connection ports swirls around me. I can see why the engineer didn't want to come here herself; this place is unsettling, a bit like a graveyard. I feel light-headed just walking through it, in my damp clothes, my wet umbrella hugged tight against my body so I don't
short something out. Could I even short something out? I'm not sure.
I find the engineer's station easily enough. Her name appears in red LED lights across the top. There is a picture of her on a small screen set into the station just above the rows of ports, ten places of connection in total, five on either side, splayed out like hand prints. I shudder, looking at them. Then I pull out the storage drive, plug into the slot next to the screen. Her picture disappears.
Commence download? Y/N
I press my finger against the Y, and a progress bar appears on the screen. One hour to completion. I can't decide if that's too long or too short, for the entire life of a human being.
I set the umbrella down carefully on the floor, then lower myself down in a dry spot, to wait for the download to finish. My clothes are starting to dry, stiffening from the rainwater. I tuck my chin onto
my knees and listen to the racket of all those connection ports, all those lives churning around and around inside a room in a building in a city that isn't real.
"It's not going to do any good, you know."
The voice is in my ear, close. I scream and pull away before I realize the voice is familiar, that I've heard it whisper to me a thousand times before. Chester.
"Where did you come from!" I shout, jumping to my feet. Chester straightens up and looks at me, his eyes serious.
"I didn't mean to scare you," he says.
My heart's still pounding, and my skin prickles with the sudden burst of sweat. But I'm calming down. Chester takes both of my hands and pulls me toward him.
"I know this isn't yours," he says. "But really, it's not going to do any good."
"What, downloading myself?" I glance over at the progress bar. Thirty-eight percent complete.
"Yeah," he says. He wraps his arm around my shoulder and we stand side by side. It's not until I have the warmth of his body against mind that I realize I'm cold.
"A lot of the orchestrators are worried they're going to get erased when the shift is finally completed. But everything they're downloading is part of the program. They'd have to go Above to make a true copy, but then they wouldn't be able to bring it back with them."
I feel a chill creeping into me, despite Chester's warmth.
"Erased," I say. This is the only thing I understand from what he has just told me.
"A silly fear," he says. "It won't happen. We know what we're doing. But I guess it makes people feel better."
"You know what you're doing..." I pull away from him. He gazes at me with a placid and infuriating expression. The expression of a program. "What's going on? What shift are you talking about?"
He frowns. His brow furrows. My heart has started to race again.
"What we've been working on," he says. "You and I. Our pattern."
"Our pattern? What pattern?" I can hear the panic in my voice and I try to smooth it over. Chester looks at me with something approximating concern, and even as I ask, I know: the pattern was us.
Our relationship. I wasn't breaking patterns all that time, I was simply completing new ones.
"Oh my God," I say. "Oh my God, I'm an idiot."
"Emily," Chester says, reaching out to touch me. I slap his hand away. My cheeks flush hot with embarrassment.
"You're not an idiot," he says softly.
"What were we doing?" I spit the question out. "What...why did we..."
"We found the way," says Chester. He says we and I know he's talking about the AI, not me and him. "We found the way to make you like us." He tilts his head toward the connection port. "We don't need to store your bodies anymore."
I stare at him. This is the story we were told in school. That someday we won't even need bodies. That someday we will be like the programs. And like everyone else I know, I've always thought that it was just a story, that it would never actually come to pass. That we would just stay locked underground until we die, locked underground and locked in this place simultaneously.
"Emily," Chester says. "Everything's about to change."
I shake my head.
"Why me?" I ask. "Why did you pick me?"
Chester doesn't answer. The noise in the room is suffocating. I take a couple of steps away from him, tripping over my umbrella, landing hard on the floor. I don't bother to sit up. I just stare at the
tiles in the ceiling.
He lies down beside me.
"What the hell are you doing?" I ask. "I'm not fucking you again."
"We have to do one last thing," he says. "There are orchestrators arranged all over the city. We all have to act at the same time, to complete the pattern. And then the shift will happen."
"Why didn't you tell anyone?" I drop my head to look at him. "I don't mean just me, but...everyone."
"We thought it would be easier this way."
I look back up at the ceiling. I think of my life up until this point.
"What's going to change?" I ask.
"You will become like us," he says. "We'll be equals."
"What if I don't do it?" I say. "This final thing." I look over at him again. He's staring at me, a softness in his eyes. "What would you do?"
"We would start over from the beginning," he says. "With new orchestrators."
I close my eyes. Open them. The world is still there.
"This is what you programmed us for," he says. "A long time--"
"I didn't program you to do shit."
"I mean, your kind. Humans. That's why you made us. To find out a way to live forever."
"What would I have to do?" I ask. I sit up. "Not saying I'm going to do it... I just want to know."
Chester sits up. His hair falls across his eyes. He looks as handsome as ever, but I won't be swayed by that again--won't start caring for him without even realizing it. I remember my friends, telling me I shouldn't become involved with a program. I wonder if they want to live forever, as equals to the programs, to the AI.
I wonder if I do.
Chester wraps his arm around my shoulder and leans in close to me. Presses his mouth to my ear. His breath is warm against my skin.
"Emily," he says. "We can be the same."
I don't answer at first, just press against him, my eyes closed, listening to the racket of the connection ports. I try to imagine myself as the one factor that will change the future of humanity, but I can't do it. Just like I could never imagine Chester as a program, an off-shoot of the AI--not really.
"What would I have do?" I ask, and my voice sounds far away, like it doesn't belong to me.
Chester's mouth is still on my ear. He begins to speak, and the pattern he whispers is simple, like all patterns.