Beautiful World 11: Termination

I answered the doorbell on the third ring, doing my best to smile across the doorway. On the concrete porch, Adam slouched, his fists stuck into the pockets of his tan cardigan and his hazel eyes anywhere but my face. Despite his posture and the slight paunch around his middle, though, he still managed to look like he’d just left a photo shoot; his khaki slacks and brown loafers complimented his sweater well. His button-down shirt was dark green, a good contrast for his ruddy complexion. All past anger aside, I still thought he was as cute as I did when I first met him.

“Adam, hi,” I said as warmly as I could manage, opening the door completely to him. “I’m sorry; I’m running late, as always.”

Adam chuckled at that, but it was forced. “May I come in?” he asked, rising up on the balls of his feet to look over my shoulder.

I sighed. This is it, I thought. Make or break time. “There’s really nothing to see, but if you want….” I stepped back, leaving the door open behind me as I made my way back down the hall, into the bathroom.

I heard footfalls behind me, then an uncomfortable stretch of silence, followed by a startled question. “Where’s all your stuff?”

I eyed the razor, then myself in the mirror. I rubbed the scraggly growth on my cheeks and scratched at my neck irritably. I hated the scruffy look, but shaving seemed like a waste of time. Fur or skin, but not these halfhearted weeds. I wouldn’t have to worry about it after tomorrow, anyway. Likewise, my hair bristled in an ungainly tangle behind me, but what was the point of brushing it? A quick scrounge through the drawers turned up an old hairband, which I used to pull my mop into a tolerable brush. “Sold, mostly,” I said as I walked back into the front room, finishing the loose knot in my tie. The walls were bare, but dusty outlines revealed where all of my old frames once hung. Likewise, the room itself was mostly vacant, aside from the two of us standing in it. A single dejected chair remained in a corner, and only divots in the carpet suggested that there had been any other furniture. “What’s left, I can manage through the company.”

Adam’s eyes fixated on the chair, but his voice was still addressed to me. “So, no last meal, then?” He was trying to put humor in his tone, but he just couldn’t make it happen,

I chuckled quietly at that. “I thought we could go get something out?” I tried to make it a suggestion. “Less trash to clean up, that way.”

“Yeah, okay.” Adam’s acceptance was grudging. “Where’s Julia? I’d have thought she’d be here.”

I tensed at the name, but then sighed and waved towards the front door. Not my fight, I reminded myself. Jules would say something when the time was right. Or maybe not. “Fighting a deadline, I think. I called a few times, left voice and text. No response.”

Adam clucked his tongue disapprovingly. “She needs a new boyfriend,” he quipped as he stepped back outside and unlocked his car. “She called me a few weeks ago, but not a word from her since.”

I leaned against the roof, fingers drumming irritably on the roof. “You know, Adam, Jules really does prefer the nickname.”

Adam wrinkled up his face into a frown. “I dislike diminutives,” he grumbled. “Besides, ‘Jules’ is a man’s name.” Then he slid into the car, ending the conversation.

“Yes. Yes, it is,” I whispered harshly once enough of the frustration had cleared to let me find my voice again. He couldn’t hear me, though; he’d already started the engine. I jammed myself into the passenger seat, then slid it all the way back. I didn’t look at Adam; I just stared out the front window as I put on my seat belt. “How about the Aquarius, for old time’s sake?” I didn’t want to be with him, but I knew I’d regret not trying one last time.

Adam nodded, and the car slid smoothly out of its parking space. The trip was mercifully brief; Café Aquarius wasn’t too far from what had been home. The building was ancient, weather-beaten wood that had been hand-painted in swirling spirals of blue and purple, with irregular splashes of gold. The driveway was mostly gravel, a few weeds and the occasional tuft of hardy grass poking through the rocks. The lot was almost devoid of other occupants, as was the interior, and it wasn’t long before we were both seated with oversized glasses of iced tea, next to a window looking out at the street.

“So.” I took a healthy swallow from my glass and set it down. “What’s going on in your world, anyway? It’s been weeks—no, longer—since we really had a chance to talk.”

Adam demurred, waving away the question and turning to face the road. “C’mon, Johnathan, I know you wouldn’t really be interested.”

“No, seriously,” I half-pleaded. “I’d really like to know.”

“Well, I have one student in the Introductory Biochemistry class that I think I’m going to approach about an internship this summer,” Adam began, leaning back in his chair. “He’s had the kind of insight into some of the assignments that I’ve given out that I wouldn’t expect out of a graduate. Most of my kids this semester have been fairly average, a good bell curve. We’ve just covered chirality, which is fun to watch. Everyone tries to solve the problems on-screen, and then someone figures out double-sided printing, and then the comprehension spreads.”

I nodded encouragingly, and he continued. “I just wish my research were going so well, though.” He thunked his glass down on the table, making the ice rattle. “We’re tantalizingly close to a class of functions for predicting a few protein structures, but proof remains elusive.” From there, his words dissolved into a sea of technical jargon. I knew his research involved some fairly esoteric subjects, but I could never follow the specifics. His field of expertise was just too far removed from mine. I’d seen some of the models his software produced, and they were incredibly beautiful, but I didn’t understand what any of them actually meant beyond being organic molecules of some kind.

Adam continued to ramble, caught up in his own excitement, and I watched him speak with a grin. His emotions were infectious, and the joy with which he talked about his work made me smile. I remembered when he used to share that spirit about Irokai, back when he was so fascinated with the intricacies of how it all worked. He’d spent hours and days reading up on the induction rig, trying to decipher how it worked, and we’d spend days going into Irokai together, he and Jules and I, all taking in this fantastic world and exploring just what it could let us do. Then Jules broke things off, and then I met Mitsuko, and then….

I shook my head at the memory. Looking back at how it all happened, I shouldn’t have been surprised at any of Adam’s reactions. He didn’t care about Irokai; he cared about the technology that could make us think we were in another world. He wasn’t interested in exploring the limits of that world; he wanted to know what it could do to improve this one. Mitsuko, Irokai, everything inside those computers was all just a bunch of numbers to him. None of it meant anything, except in terms of how it changed us once we were outside again.

Adam cleared his throat, and I looked up sharply from my iced tea, into the depths of which I’d been gazing for some time. He ran his fingers nervously through his short-cropped hair and shook wearily, slumping back against his chair. “As I said a few minutes ago, I knew you weren’t really interested.”

I rattled my glass, looking into the ice for a response, then set it on the table with a quiet groan. “Look, Adam, I’m sorry. I’m making a mess out of this. We were friends once, weren’t we?” I looked up at the question, but Adam wouldn’t meet my gaze; he was focused on the window, on the world outside. I hesitated, then continued into the awkward silence. “I’d like to think we still are, but ever since Mitsuko, it’s like… it’s like there’s this wall between us.” I heard my voice rising, even as I tried to stay calm. “Every time I reach around it to shake your hand, you slam my knuckles into it.”

Adam raised one arm, waving it irritably before dropping it back down, then turning to lean with his elbows on the table, his head buried in his hands. “I don’t know, Johnathan,” he said quietly, his voice muffled. “It’s not Mitsuko. It’s… I just don’t know how to deal with what you’re doing. Everything I’ve ever learned about life and the delicate art of living tells me that your plan is a very fancy suicide.” He lifted his head and spread his arms. “There, I said it.”

I picked up my glass again and rattled the ice, draining the watery tea from the bottom. Then I looked back to Adam, trying to compose my expression. “What about Imogen Franklin? What about all the other successful uploads?”

“Yes, what about them?” Adam quipped tightly. “Wonderful emulations, all of them, but people? Living beings?” He stopped, then looked down at his hands folded in his lap, his voice suddenly very childlike and lost. “I don’t know.”

I leaned forward, elbows on the edge of the table. “They’ve beaten Turing tests,” I offered with a faint smile.

Adam’s eyes snapped up to mine, his frosty glare chilling the grin off of my face. “That proves nothing and you know it. The truth is, Johnathan, you don’t know. You believe, and that’s all well and good, but you’re basing your fantasies on hope and faith, not on any sort of rational process.” His voice grew hard. “You’ve fallen in love with a computer program. That’s fine, Johnathan. People fall in love with all kinds of things. Buildings, cars, kitchen appliances. I’ve heard reports of a woman who fell in love with the Berlin Wall and even changed her name to be closer to it. She nearly died of grief, back when it came down. It explains a lot, but it doesn’t make what you’re doing any more sensible, and she at least didn’t ask to be entombed in concrete to be with her lover forever!”

As he spoke, he shifted forward, rising up out of his chair as his eyes bored into mine. His voice rose, softening the chatter elsewhere in the Aquarius. Then suddenly, he dropped into his seat, making the legs scrape against the tile floor. He pressed his palms into his eyes, speaking barely above a whisper. “I’m done with you and Julia acting smug and superior because you’re capable of seeing what others can’t. Call them visions all you like, but from here, they sound more like hallucinations. You’re not shamans; you’re lunatics. You need help, not people telling you to rush headlong into madness.”

I sat rock-still for several seconds, then motioned to the waiter who had quite sensibly been giving our table a pass. He refilled my glass, then set down a bill, onto which I threw a credit card without looking. Once he was gone, I regarded Adam across the length of the table. It might have only been a few feet, but the gulf seemed uncrossable. “No, really,” I said quietly, trying to find it within myself to smile. “Tell me how you really feel.”

Adam shook his head. He looked suddenly tired. Spent. “C’mon, Johnathan.”

The waiter slid the final bill onto the table, and again I waited until we were alone to speak; it gave me a chance to sort out my thoughts. “I’m impressed that you haven’t spent the whole meal trying to talk me out of it, but why only now? Why wait until the day before I move to tell me all this?”

“What was I to say?” Adam barked a weary laugh. “‘I think you’re crazy for being in love’? You wouldn’t have listened. You’d have laughed at me, and rightly so. I thought… I don’t know… maybe that you’d realize how impossible it all was and that it was time to move on. Instead you found a way to make it all work out, and suddenly anything I could’ve said was too little too late. And I did say something. Repeatedly. You didn’t listen. You were so focused on the idea that I was telling you not to be in love that you missed everything else I said.”

I scrawled a hasty signature on the receipt and tossed the pen onto the table as I stood. “So… is this ‘good-bye’, then? Or just ‘see you later’?”

Adam turned towards the window again. “I don’t know, Johnathan. I… I just don’t know.”

There wasn’t anything more to be said after that. The drive to Tadashiissei was filled with a heavy silence, a fog of distrust and grievance that neither of us could pierce. I wanted to say something, but every pithy turn of phrase, every apology died in my throat when I remembered those angry, accusatory eyes. Several times, I turned to look at him, but from behind the wheel Adam held his face unflinchingly forward, only his eyes shifting to glance at the mirror, at the side of the car, and occasionally, at me.

I caught his gaze once. It seemed accidental, as though he didn’t mean to do it but couldn’t help himself. His eyes weren’t hard, then; they were pleading. His jaw was set, his teeth clenched to stop himself from speaking, but the lift in his brows and the drop in his lower lids told me how much he needed to be the second person to speak, the one to say, No, I’m sorry too. His breath came in short spurts, his nostrils flaring, daring me to challenge him and begging me to break the silence. I looked away; I wasn’t the one that needed to relieve him of his guilt.

The car stopped all too suddenly in front of my final destination. In the warm afternoon light, the concrete walkways that meandered through the tessellated tiles were a rich gold, like the path to the end of a rainbow. The luminous LED-board over the building invited everyone to Irokai and advertised the group and extended-stay rates. I knew my stay was a long one, but I would be going alone. The rest of my party was waiting for me inside.

As I got out of the car, Adam shut off the engine, then leaned over to the passenger side. “Johnathan?” His voice cracked as he spoke.

I stopped, then turned and squatted to look inside the car. “Yes, Adam?”

Adam hesitated, then held out one hand to me, his fingers trembling. “Good-bye.”

I stiffened, but I took his hand in mine and shook it anyway. “See you later,” I replied. Then I stood and, not turning around, walked inside the building. Behind me, Adam’s car sputtered to life and then pulled out of the parking lot, taking him away from Tadashiissei, back into the real world.

4 thoughts on “Beautiful World 11: Termination

  1. I’m… dreadfully sorry, I still can’t figure out how to use OpenID here. I know it’s probably something stupid and simple I’m missing but for now I guess you’ll just have to cope with knowing it’s me without actually having any fancy digital proof of this.

    As always, I have to side with the Luddite here. He’s being overly brusque, verging on mean, but I can’t help but cut him some slack on this. So far, you’ve done wonderfully in presenting all these disparate viewpoints reasonably sympathetically without ever creating straw men — this chapter comes the closest so far, but you’re still clear of it, and I do so hope this trend continues.

    1. It certainly isn’t my desire to create straw men; Adam’s concerns are real concerns. I disagree with him, but I wouldn’t be doing justice to the work if I were to present him as anything less than fully-formed. He’s certainly short here, but what hasn’t been visually covered to this point is all of the personal pain he’s tried to resolve getting to where he is at this point.

  2. The eternal questions are still sticky in the future, I see. “What am ‘I’? Where do ‘I’ go when ‘I’ am not here? Can ‘I’ exist outside of the hardware that currently supports ‘me’?”

    And really, how do *any* of us know any of this is real, once the neurotomes do their work? It could all be simulation.

    Or am I just programmed to find that fascinating…

    Nice. You really feel the struggle in Adam, and the certainty of John.

  3. I agree with Moment. You do an excellent job of putting Adam’s viewpoint into play, and really hit home with it. It makes me wonder where the universe, our universe, really does draw the line. Where is consciousness, really? Is it in that mass of grey and white matter that sits in your skull, or is it somewhere ephemeral? Can it be bottled, shunted, copied and pasted?

    Well done! :)

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