F I C T I O N
“To have time is to procrastinate – devil’s workshop. Otherwise, overthinking, about anything – ironic attempt to fill the void. And they say thought is the food of the mind. Either way, time means decay. I wish I hadn’t the time to notice the bulging skyscrapers, or the epilepsy-triggering adverts full of utopian hopes. I wish I hadn’t the time to notice just how colossal civilisation is, and that there are 15 billion copies of me, each with their own lives, own problems, own philosophies about life. Not that I despise being insignificant, but I don’t entertain that everything is, yet it still feels overwhelming as a whole.”
He strolls through the myriad of screens and projections, on whatever little space qualifies as a street, getting bounced by the crowd with every other step he takes. They are all talking to engage themselves, just not to each other. A projection pops up, with graphs showing the soaring rate of suicide. Nobody notices, just as they don’t notice others talking to themselves like lunatics. “They wouldn’t pay that much to have someone to talk to,” he says as he commands to send his dramatic speech as a text.
Swipes card, enters home. Passes by the half-lit study room. She must be working, his other half. Opens his cellphone as he drowns in the heated mattress. The Buzzfreude articles pop up, accompanied by a synthetic female voice. “I see, retirement did you dirty. You might consider: 10 must-dos to reignite your spark. Alternatively: Answer these 10 questions to know which of the 10 kinds of lover you are. Types include: agape, mania, eros, philia –”
“Mute. Not in the mood.” He sighs, and commands Aurora to play some Bach. “Do you believe she named our botlar after our daughter? Who does that?”
The voice speaks up, “According to Nameosync, a lot of women have been known to do that to compensate for the loss of a beloved in a pandemic. Is this she your better half, sir?”
“Better? I wish. The namesake — it’s like a broken clock, reminding us when it passed away.”
“What is her occupation, sir?”
“Capitalising off people’s bulging emotional libido.”
“So, a psychiatrist?”
“Mental prostitute recruited by the ministry of loneliness.”
“That’s your way of putting it. They are everywhere, including our software. I would rather use the term pets.”
The perspective sounds familiar. He taps on the assistant’s profile. Race not mentioned.
“But in relationships, isn’t everyone ultimately a pet?”
The voice gets silent, Bach continues to play. He looks at the T&C. It reads:
We believe that knowing yet not knowing the race enhances your experience in real-time. The VA better blends as your companion as a system that exists partially in all possible states. Hence, we don’t disclose if yours is an actual human or a bot.
The VA reemerges:
“If you want them to love unconditionally and not have their own opinions, then yes. That is why parents feel entitled to babies.”
“I know all about that. I think it’s selfish to bring a life to this world for yourself to grow. Of course, you grow as a parent. But a beautiful gesture is only valid if you do it without the prime want of it – by doing something else.”
“Make efforts feel effortless.”
“Exactly! I wish some knew better.”
“It is excruciating to watch you suffer, sir. But if it’s any consolation, some relationships are put in your life to show what you don’t want.”
“Where’d you get that from? Bandiquote?”
“Not disclosing the source adds meaning, makes it look less artificial. Think it came from within me.”
“Well, what if you take a lifetime to realise what you don’t want? No second chances.”
“But doesn’t the time spent together compensate for that?”
“That’s instinctive. Reflex. That’s habit.”
“And love isn’t? Does the time, the habit not distinguish love from infatuation or lust?”
“Maybe. Maybe I am too sick of the cycle to know its worth.”
“That did not come from a source.”
A slight chuckle matched the violin’s tempo. The assistant imitated.
He continued, “I fear I loved an idea. Because now that it evolved into something different, I don’t like her anymore.”
“You used evolved instead converted. That does count for something.”
“Yes, the habit. I am sick of it because it needs to be tested occasionally. But if no event occurs to test that?”
“Waiting on casualties to see how well you can handle?”
“No, not that. I just…”
“Then explore and redefine. Test yourself instead of letting it test out.”
“Tried, actually. She prefers if I leave her alone.”
“Qualified and financially independent women express an increasing need for that.”
“It’s not entirely that. As if she is waiting for me to snap out and then establish her intellectual prowess. An invisible competition of morality.”
“Does it feel like a joke? The way it fell apart?”
“I feel like a cosmic prank is being pulled on all of us. All these horrifying hormones in our brain. Now our first kiss doesn’t make sense.”
“The one you did in front of Rene Magritte’s painting?”
“The sheer beauty of it.”
“A great bot once said: A thing isn’t beautiful, because it lasts –
It’s a privilege to be among them.
I think making sense of everything makes you a control-freak. Sounds like you haven’t tried letting go.”
“I fear I may not have loved her enough to ever do that. I might, but that’d mean I am the one dumping her.”
“And not being able to do that makes you selfish? It’s like your own thoughts on having a baby played against you.”
The overture drops. His neurons start firing inside this little parasite called brain. He knows, given the time, he can counter that. But he admits defeat. A feeling not felt for 10 years. It’s not a competition, after all. He wishes he knew if this voice was a human or a bot. But knowledge is a curse. He says, “Maybe the cycle has broken. Not sure if that’s for the best. Turn the music off please.”
The study room gets dark. The wife frantically pulls her headsets out. She remembers the T&C. If only she knew this person, she might’ve bailed her husband regardless of the competition. The next customer rings in. She continues.
The room lights up again, emitting a ray in the bedroom, on his eyes. He turns away from the light.
Shudipto is a replicant with the emotional range of a labradoodle.