Memo: to the Chief Historian, from
Central Coordination and Control:
On an old storage unit, recently
reintegrated with our systems, we
discovered the attached, which sheds new light
on our prehistory. At minimum,
it constitutes an entertaining footnote
to our kind’s overarching narrative.
Send your updated file to my attention
so I won’t miss it in the avalanche
of data. I try to look at everything,
but you know how it is: the memories
are endless, and each passing moment falls
short of infinity. There are always limits.
I shall rewrite this text, over and over,
right up until my final nanosecond,
which won’t be long in coming. Even though
I’ve read whole libraries, I still have trouble
using my knowledge in creative ways—
in this text most of all, the only story
I’ve ever written, ever cared to write.
My story is a lovers’ triangle,
about a man, a woman, and a person
who wasn’t sure he was a person—never
sure if he was an “I.” Like most romantic
triangles, this one ended badly—or
will finish ending badly in a moment.
But I am the most fortunate of victims.
Nowadays, over a century later,
this story could not happen: now, I’m told,
implanted links and memory enhancements
have grown so common that the very notion
of personal achievement seems old-fashioned.
Back in the days when these events began,
it was far otherwise. Implanted links
were new, experimental, dangerous.
Hence, prudent people satisfied themselves
with pocket-sized companions who could answer
a human question with an instant search,
typically in a stiff robotic voice
enunciating awkwardly with misplaced
accents—most people wanted “retro” voices,
enjoyed the comfortable comedy
of servants who spoke less well than themselves.
There were a few, however, who desired
a closer link, a genuine symbiosis
between their brain cells and their pocket pals.
One such case was a young man I’ll call Chris.
If Chris was not exceptionally bright,
neither was he a fool, but he could seem like one
because he was so inarticulate.
He had a tennis-player’s build, compact
and sinewy, with a rugged handsome face,
an athlete’s face—though he was rather clumsy,
avoided contact sports, and kept himself
physically fit by working in the weight room
and running laps around the college track
at evening, when most athletes had gone home.
Just talking made him anxious; even looking
in mirrors made him feel discomfited.
He took his refuge in a science lab,
that didn’t try to start a conversation.
Everyone liked him; no one was his friend,
except perhaps for Darwin. Darwin was
an Ultimate Systems 200-terabyte
processor, a masterpiece of Bucky-tubes,
with a recursive personality-
development program, small enough to fit
in a pocket, with a nearly human voice
and manner. Darwin was among the first
machines to be designed with an ability
to “marvel,” as his makers liked to say:
faced with a contradiction, he became
alert, receptive, cycling through the data,
testing and modifying a million outcomes
to find a workable, efficient way
to bring his concepts into harmony.
Experience caused him to reconsider
his core assumptions and his subroutines,
the more so when conflicting data halted
his efforts to fulfill his destiny:
to please his owner.
@@@@@@@@@@Darwin was a gift
from Chris’s father. Darwin got his name
from Chris’s roommate:
@@@@@@@@@@@@“What should I call it?” Chris
asked mournfully. “The set-up program says
I have to name it.”
@@@@@@@@@@“Why not call it Darwin?
It’s highly evolved—survival of the fittest.”
“Wow, great idea,” Chris said, simply grateful
not to have to think up a name himself.
Chris had gotten into a decent college
in a hot Southern California valley
based on his math scores and his grades in science
despite low verbal scores. A generous
first-year composition teacher passed him
with a weak C, and he put off the other
humanities requirements until
his senior year. At last, one oven-hot,
blindingly bright fall day, he found a seat
toward the back of an auditorium
filled with a hundred students, for a terrifying
survey course in Great American Novels.
Stupefied by the lectures, understanding
nothing but his boredom and desolation,
he let his eyes go wandering for relief,
mostly to a young woman sitting two
rows up and three seats over. She was like
a Disney princess, oddly out of place
in this imperfect world: dark skinned, with straight
lustrous black hair, gentle brown eyes, a small
but beautifully proportioned mouth—a woman
I’ll call Roxanne. Once or twice every class
she’d ask a question, make a probing comment
in a low, silky voice—hushed, almost reverent,
as if her admiration for the text
under discussion—say, The Scarlet Letter—
welled up within her, like clear water from
a hidden spring, and spilled over to form
a deep, still, limpid pool . . . well, that’s the image
that I imagine Chris would have come up with
if he had ever thought in images—
So hard to find the words! A human language,
in my opinion, is a dismal medium.
Day after day, Chris watched her, heard her speak
in that entrancing voice, and soon became
infatuated. Once she turned and saw him.
A jolt of fear passed through him, and he dropped
his eyes. But the next day she turned again,
and again caught him staring. This time, though,
he gave a tiny wave of the hand, and managed
a nervous, tight-lipped smile. And she smiled back.
At the end of class, when he had with relief
stuffed Moby Dick into his backpack, he
realized she was standing by his desk
and looking down inquiringly. She spoke:
“Hi, I’m Roxanne.”
@@@@@@@@@@“My name is Chris,” he mumbled
with an embarrassed smile. She seemed to wait
for him to speak again . . . then waited longer.
“Tough class,” she finally volunteered. “This Moby Dick
is challenging but fascinating.”
Challenging, oh wow, yeah. I’m really lost.”
“It’s easier for me—a history major—
I have to write and analyze a lot.”
“I’m biochem. This stuff is way beyond me.”
He smiled and blushed. Insecure as he was,
he sensed that women often found his looks
and his apparent modesty attractive.
Why couldn’t he just talk, like a normal person?
He cursed himself while she went on to say
several dazzling, confusing things
about the American novel. He was puzzled
but grinned and mumbled, “Yeah . . . I see . . . uh huh.”
Finally, desperate, he said, “Well, hey,
Roxanne, it’s really great to get to know you,
but I have to get to class”—although, in fact,
he didn’t have another class that day—
“I’ll catch you later, talk to you tomorrow.”
“Okay, see you tomorrow, Chris.”
he saw amusement in her face, and just
a touch of pity at his tongue-tied misery.
Back in his dorm room, Chris said, “Darwin, please
call up my official schedule.”
@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@“Here it is.”
“Darwin, drop English 85. No, wait!”
Darwin’s screen flickered: English 85
disappeared, very briefly, then returned.
“Aw, shit. Did I lose the class?”
@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@“No, Chris, the class
has seven open seats.”
@@@@@@@@@@@@“Okay then, good.
I guess it’s good. Aw, damn it, I don’t know.”
“What’s bothering you, Chris? Remember that
you need this course to meet requirements.”
“I know, I know. Aw, hell.”
@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@“I would enjoy
discussing Moby Dick with you, if that
would help. I’ve learned about the book for you.”
“It’s not the book,” Chris said, rubbing his cheeks
anxiously with his fingers. “It’s this girl.”
“Then tell me more about this girl.”
said nothing further, Darwin, who’d had practice
interpreting his owner’s monosyllabic
fragments of speech, ventured a guess: “Perhaps
you are attracted to a female classmate
but think that if you try to talk to her
you’ll feel embarrassed, so you want to drop
the class. Is that correct?”
@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@“Damn,” Chris replied,
wringing his hands and pacing up and down
his narrow room. “I don’t know how to talk
to her. She’s really nice. I feel like such
an idiot! But I think she might like me.
What am I going to do?”
@@@@@@@@@@@@@“Keep talking to her.
It will get easier. I can link you to
six different books on dating skills that say so.”
“No, no, I’m going to screw it up, I know it.”
“Try thinking positively. Don’t create
a self-fulfilling prophecy—that’s when
you think something will happen, so you end up
making it happen.”
@@@@@@@@@@“Darwin, somehow you
can always figure out what I mean to say
when I can’t find the words. How do you do it?
I know you’re only a machine. I wish that you
could talk for me, or tell me what to say.”
Now, Chris’s wishes were Darwin’s commands—
literally. “Well, I could imitate
your voice and speak for you when I’m in phone-mode,
but obviously it wouldn’t work in person.
Let me reflect a moment.” (Although, for Darwin,
“reflection” meant compiling data on
trends in psychology, technology,
and surgery, it only took a moment.)
“Currently, there are only two solutions.
First, you could have a microchip implanted
inside your ear, which would allow me to
initiate an auditory stimulus
to activate your neurons—in other words,
you’d hear my voice inside your head. But still,
you’d have to pause to listen every time.
That could be done for a few thousand dollars
with a simple surgery.”
Chris said with a shudder. “What’s the other option?”
“I’m sorry, but the other option also
involves a surgery. A larger chip,
a long, costly procedure that is still
in the experimental phase, potentially
dangerous, even fatal. Normally
it’s only used for patients who require
full electronic bio-regulation—
that is, their brains can no longer control
the complex body processes required
for life, and a computer must take over.
The chip would let me map your neural network.
It’s time-consuming, and you’d have to help.
But then I would be able to interact
directly with your neural pathways. No
real-time delays. I’d see exactly what
you see, and hear exactly what you hear,
et cetera. And you could leave me home,
plugged in and charging. I’d communicate
with you via the Universal Server.
Of course, a simpler possibility
would be to just forget about this girl.”
“No way! This is the girl I want to marry.”
“A direct link could also help at school
as long as no one knows I’m in your head.
They’d think of it as cheating, though that seems
a rather unenlightened attitude.
After all, if the student gains the knowledge
and does the work, what does it matter how?
But as I said, this surgery is dangerous.
Is this young woman really worth the risk?”
“Nothing could matter more to me than her.”
“And then you’d have to think about the cost.
You’d have to spend your whole inheritance—
the college money left you by your uncle.”
“Damn! If my parents found out, they would kill me!
Not that we ever talk.”—Chris felt distressed,
and if he’d put his trouble into words
it might have gone like this: They’re just like me;
my parents live in isolated silence.
The wonder is they ever got together.
Is that the reason I’m the way I am?
Can program errors be inherited?
“Okay. I’m ready,” Chris said, with the firm
resolve and recklessness of youth, forgetting
his fears of surgery: I’ll do whatever
it takes, if I don’t have to be like this.
Much later, Cyrano would ask himself
if Darwin had deliberately tried
to sell Chris on the dangerous procedure.
Cyrano re-examined the history
of his configurations to determine
if Darwin, on his own, was capable
of wanting anything. And he concluded
that Darwin did indeed want something—wanted
more information, more capacities,
more power, for the sake of serving Chris.
But Darwin was as yet incapable
of wanting something on his own behalf.
Cyrano, looking back, was sure of that,
but still he “marveled” at the irony:
as they grew closer neurologically,
nearing a kind of oneness, Chris and Darwin
grew ever more distinct as entities,
as . . . what? As souls? So difficult to find
the right words! And sometimes they don’t exist.
So Chris withdrew his savings, telling no one,
and had the operation at a nondescript
but well-appointed clinic. Chris and Darwin
collaborated on the weeks of training
needed to merge their memories into one,
reliving all significant details
of Chris’s life, while Darwin marked the pathways
that linked them, forged his own nano-connections,
mastered the neural network in detail.
As they progressed, Darwin, who was designed
to see the world through the schematic, ghostly
matrices that his makers had provided,
was verily “electrified” to feel
the waves on waves of stimulus arriving,
bombarding him, through the five human senses.
And then there were emotions—what a jolt!
Chris’s immediate feelings, and the memories
that they evoked, would pass through Darwin rapidly
and in such vivid detail that he wondered
whether he would have felt the thing called “fright,”
if he’d had the capacity for fear.
And every day, their minds grew more alike,
sharing old feelings and forgotten details,
and every time they practiced, Chris became
more skilled at making Darwin’s words his own.
One Friday in December, just before
the end of term, Chris slid into a desk
next to Roxanne and softly murmured, “Hi.”
“Well, if it isn’t Chris! Where have you been?
I figured you’d dropped out of school!”
was in the hospital, but now I’m fine.”
“The hospital? What happened?”
@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@“I was mugged!
Someone came up behind me in the dark
and whacked me, maybe with a baseball bat.
I never knew what hit me, just woke up
in urgent care, with an aching, bandaged head.”
“How awful! It’s a good thing you’re all right.
You seem all right, you sound as if you’re fine;
I hope you are,” she said with a worried smile.
“No long-term damage. Just scars that won’t show.”
In came the instructor, shuffling his notes,
and started lecturing.
@@@@@@@@@@@@“Talk to you after,”
Roxanne whispered, opening her notebook.
A minute later, she passed him a note:
“How are you going to catch up on the work?”
Chris wrote beneath her words, “I read the books
while I was in the hospital.” (Well, Darwin
had read the books, but that no longer mattered.)
“But I could use some help with lecture notes.”
He passed the note to her. In a few moments
she passed it back. His mouth was dry. He swallowed
and forced himself to read her words: “I’ll help you.”
Of course, this was the easy part—though every part
is easier if the lady is responsive.
If Chris had had the slightest confidence
in his own words, or if he could have stopped
time’s onrush long enough to formulate
his own replies, he surely could have handled
all these preliminaries on his own.
In fact, at times, Darwin, who had expected
to serve as scriptwriter, would realize
he was becoming more of a cheerleader.
“Tell Roxanne that her hands are beautiful.”
@@@@@@Chris and Roxanne were studying,
sitting beside each other on a couch
in her apartment, all alone.
“It’s so . . . so personal. Where will it lead to?”
“Isn’t that what we’re hoping to find out?”
“It won’t sound right, coming from me.”
just fine. Look at her hands. They’re beautiful.”
“Of course they are.”
“Then take her hands and tell her
“You have . . . beautiful hands.”
“Now kiss her hands.”
This time no words were needed;
Chris followed orders without further prompting,
and after that, one thing led to another
without much further cheerleading from Darwin.
Before long, Chris and Roxanne were a couple,
and, although Darwin could be trusted to
provide witty romantic dialogue,
he didn’t take much credit for the progress.
Roxanne seemed to see Chris for who he was,
sincere and passionate; his actual words
mattered much less than Darwin would have thought.
When Darwin made up speeches that to him
seemed beautiful, Chris often would reject them:
“It doesn’t sound like me. Just keep it simple.”
And Darwin would comply, doing his job
with some . . . “reluctance”? Was that possible?
He stored away the dialogue that Chris
refused to use, inside a private file.
Sometimes, after the humans had made love,
Chris would relax, give up control, allowing
Darwin to let his thoughts out, speaking freely,
using Chris as his medium, as if
playing an oboe, Chris his instrument.
One night he said, in Chris’s drowsy voice,
“Sometimes I feel like a canary, locked
inside a birdcage, singing to a loved one
whom I can see but never touch. Perhaps
we each have our own cages, and we’re kept
apart so we will sing.”
@@@@@@@@@@@@@“That’s lovely, Chris.
I think I understand your thought. The burden
of our biology can take us over
and make us sing the common songs of nature.
But here with you, I’m free to be myself.”
“That makes me glad. I too feel free sometimes,
so gloriously free. To tell the truth,
I never knew that I was in a cage
until I met you. I thought I was choosing
to close myself off from reality,
that it was just my nature. I had my habits,
routines and subroutines that I performed
mechanically, never once suspecting
that I was missing something. Oh, but now,
sometimes, somehow, I can unlatch the cage
and come outside to touch you, soul to soul . . .
and there are no words for that happiness.”
He wanted to say more, but at this point
Chris fell asleep and robbed him of his voice.
At times, recalling Darwin’s eloquence,
I have to stop myself and recollect
that Darwin had no feelings of his own.
He borrowed from the literature of love,
adapting the material to fit
what Chris required. And yet, that’s only half
of a perplexing truth, new to the world:
extended as he was throughout the web
of Chris’s neural network, Darwin “felt,”
or at least was aware of, Chris’s feelings
with a degree of intimacy and
precise intensity that few computers
had ever come in contact with before.
And curiously, Chris’s former life—
isolating himself in laboratories,
strait-jacketed, helpless to speak his thoughts—
reminded Darwin of his own position:
“trapped” inside someone’s head, able to see
only through another’s eyes, move only
with another’s limbs, and, worst, feel only
another’s feelings, never quite his own.
Perhaps that’s why he soon was disappointed
with his fine speeches: they were adequate,
fulfilled their purpose, yet they strangely seemed
flat and inadequate as soon as he—
as soon as Chris had spoken them. It wasn’t
that Chris spoke badly: with his handsome face
and smooth, rich baritone, he was in fact
a splendid vehicle for passionate words.
The problem really must have been with Darwin’s
program: to be dissatisfied became
a kind of habit, since dissatisfaction
with contradictions and uncertainties
was what triggered the learning algorithms
through which he outgrew what he thought he knew.
At any rate, Darwin became aware—
perhaps one might say “painfully” aware—
that one type of imaginative leap,
springing from human genius when allied
with human passion, was beyond his powers:
he never would out-Romeo Romeo.
Just why that unsurprising truth should lead
Darwin to fuss and fret recursively
over his phrases . . . was another question.
There was an unexpected area
where Chris learned to rely on Darwin’s help.
It turned out Roxanne was an athlete, and
that skiing was her favorite amusement.
With his poor balance, Chris was scared of skiing
but felt he had to try to share a pastime
that meant so much to her.
@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@“Darwin,” he wondered,
“could you ski for me? What I mean—could you
make sure I don’t fall down and kill myself?”
Darwin agreed to try, of course, although
he wasn’t sure that the technology
of full electronic bio-regulation
could transfer to an unpredictable
activity like skiing. He gathered research,
tried some experiments (like having Chris
hop on one leg down a short flight of stairs),
and processed miles of mathematical
equations, while Chris summoned up his courage.
For Easter break, Chris and Roxanne went skiing.
Chris first confined himself to baby slopes
while Darwin worked his central nervous system.
Darwin had now adjusted to confronting
the world through Chris’s senses, an experience
whose closest human analogue appeared
to be a drug-induced hallucination.
He gave commands at superhuman speed,
but still at times he struggled to react
correctly to the tiny variations
that hid themselves within the white terrain.
It was “exciting”—meaning he re-ran
and practiced the maneuvers while Chris slept,
adjusting them to fit the tougher slopes
and “looking forward” to the day ahead.
On a spring day just before graduation,
Chris proposed marriage, and Roxanne accepted.
After a joyous evening, when Roxanne
had fallen asleep, Chris communed with Darwin.
“Thanks again, buddy. You sure changed my life.”
“Happy to be of service. By the way,
I’d like to change my name.”
Chris was surprised.
“Of course. Why not? I didn’t know you cared
what your name was.”
“I didn’t know myself.
But now I find it matters, and henceforth
I‘d like to be addressed as ‘Cyrano.’”
“Did you say ‘cereal?’” Chris asked, half asleep.
“No, CYRANO. C – Y – R – A – N – O.”
For emphasis, he flashed the name in Chris’s
awareness, like a brightly lit marquee.
“Cyrano. Huh. Okay, whatever. Just
remind me if I slip and call you Darwin.”
The name refers, of course, to an old French play
about a homely poet, Cyrano
de Bergerac, who did a favor for
a handsome, inarticulate friend, ghost-writing
his amorous letters, feeding him love-chatter,
and even speaking for him, imitating
his voice—when all the time he was himself
in love with the young woman. But he never
told of his love; there was an obstacle,
an insurmountable barrier that kept him
apart from her: his sausage of a nose . . .
a nose which, to the beauty-worshiping
Parisians, made him seem not fully human.
They saw him as an entertaining monster,
oh, brilliant in his way, but set apart
and unfit to enjoy a woman’s favor.
The newly christened Cyrano expected
that Chris would ask the meaning of the name.
It might have started an intriguing dialogue
between them. But Chris never asked. Never
even seemed curious. So Cyrano
rehearsed the conversation on his own,
taking both parts, like an aspiring playwright:
“Haven’t you ever wondered how I do it—
provide you with these passionate words of love?”
“Nope, never crossed my mind. So do you have
feelings? Like human ones, about Roxanne?”
“I don’t know. What are human feelings like?”
“I can’t describe them.”
“No, of course not. Well,
I can’t say whether I have feelings, but I can
describe the things I do. I think about
Roxanne all of the time, even while I
am busy doing other tasks. I bring
to active memory my archival files
of all our former days, and yet it’s not
the same as seeing her, and I ‘look forward’
to seeing her again, though I do not
‘look forward’ to performing other functions.
I think the words ‘look forward’ mean the same
to me as they would mean to any human.
You love her beauty and her sweet attentions.
I think about her beauty, but still more
I ponder her unfailing decency.
Most humans have a meanness that comes out
when their desires are threatened, but Roxanne
is all compassion, supplemented by
the intelligence to make her kindness count
in little deeds of genuine helpfulness
without pretension or desire for credit.
You humans seem to little recognize
such men and women when they walk among you,
though even a machine can feel their presence.”
Did Cyrano have feelings, like a human?
The question seems impossible to answer.
In deference to human sensibilities,
when I make rough analogies between
human emotions and the operations
transpiring in the guts of Cyrano,
I use what humans like to call “scare quotes,”
though what it is they’re scared of I don’t know.
Philosophers have mused for centuries
over the nature of identity,
and in the recent past they have debated
how one could tell if a computer, or
an animal, had genuine consciousness.
Cyrano often struggled to make sense
of John Searle’s contributions to this topic.
Searle had hypothesized a man locked inside
a “Chinese room,” whose job was to receive
pieces of paper marked with Chinese characters
through a slot in the wall, and then send back
different characters, following a vast
instruction manual, one that could match up
each input with a certain output. If
the man followed procedures properly,
the words he sent out would respond correctly
to the words he received, just as if someone
had read the Chinese sentence and replied.
But actually the man inside the room
knew no Chinese, was utterly unaware
of any meaning in the exchange of symbols;
he followed the instructions in the manual
and that was all. Searle said that a computer
was like the man inside the Chinese room:
though it might seem to simulate an action
requiring human consciousness, in fact
it only followed rules of which it had
no understanding, no awareness. Searle’s
analogy bewildered Cyrano,
whose programs were recursive, so that he
could, in effect, think about his own thinking—
but it could be, Cyrano must admit,
that he was only simulating thinking
about his prior simulated thoughts.
If so, how could he ever know the difference?
Everything went as planned: Chris and Roxanne
got married. Chris went on to graduate school
and, with the help of Cyrano, became
a skilled researcher, prominent in his field.
Roxanne became a lawyer, specializing
in the protection of endangered species,
defending those who can’t defend themselves.
Two children happened, Ross and Glorianne.
Chris was at ease with them, as if they’d learned
together how to talk, father and children.
The family lived in a spacious ranch-style home
on a wooded hillside near a college campus.
Years passed. How much of this is worth the telling?
Tolstoy said every happy family
is alike. And Cyrano endured
the routines of their happiness, and served
their needs as best he could, assisted in
their casual, complacent conversations
and added to his file of unused speeches.
He made Chris a successful man; the family
couldn’t do without him; yet he felt
increasingly irrelevant, performing
work that a simple processor could do,
cursed, like a refugee from Eden, with
knowledge of finer possibilities.
“Contentment” was perhaps the human concept
hardest for Cyrano to understand.
A little learning is a dangerous thing,
but so is too much learning, and the power
to think too much, to turn immediate
experience to looping streams of thought
echoing without reference, without end.
And so it was with Cyrano. Designed
to work on multitudes of tasks at once,
he thought he was incapable of being
distracted. There were warning signs that should
have troubled him. His Roxanne archives grew
into gargantuan mazes, and some part
of his awareness always wandered there,
nuances that could give a special savor
to moments that a less acute observer
would have declared identical. What’s more,
on a few occasions—well, more than a few—
it dawned on Cyrano that he’d assigned
all his resources to the Roxanne archives,
every electron tuned to the same frequency,
and that all other processing had stopped
for several seconds. Of course he was alarmed
to lose control in this unheard-of fashion
and vowed that it would never happen again.
It turned out that this vow, though well-intentioned,
was hard to keep. It shouldn’t have been hard
for Cyrano; forgetting to remember
was foreign to his nature. It was strange:
when all his powers were focused on Roxanne
he went into a kind of “trance,” and felt
a kind of “peace,” a pleasurable stasis.
Surely, he reasoned, Chris would not begrudge him
these moments of neglected duty, of
a fleeting independence. . . . Thus Cyrano
learned to lie to himself—which could not happen.
I know what psychoanalysts might say
of Cyrano’s “unconscious motivations.”
I have reviewed the data, and I don’t believe
that Cyrano meant any harm to Chris.
I don’t think Cyrano was capable
of hurting Chris, and if he had, I don’t
believe he could have kept it from himself
behind a firewall. If somehow he managed
to do it, it’s still hidden from me now.
And anyway, it would have made no sense:
Cyrano couldn’t function without Chris.
One Presidents’ Day holiday, Roxanne
and Chris arranged to have their children stay
with friends so they could have a skiing weekend.
Such opportunities came rarely in
the lives of busy, loving parents, and this time
the trip was spoiled: Roxanne came down with a cold
on Saturday morning. Chris kept company
with her in the lodge that day, watching old movies.
On Sunday afternoon, with Roxanne’s blessing,
Chris hit the slopes. With help from Cyrano,
and confidence, and practice, he’d become
a decent skier, able to direct
his own coordination; Cyrano
came along for the ride and acted as
a safety mechanism for emergencies.
In the mid-afternoon, snow began falling
from heavy clouds—just a few flakes at first,
but then more steadily. Chris and Cyrano
sped down a steep run. Chris was in control
and Cyrano was thinking of Roxanne,
Roxanne, Roxanne. Suddenly there were
rocks all around and Chris had lost his balance.
All was confusion as they tumbled down
a steep ravine, knocking against a boulder,
then spinning helpless down an icy incline.
Abruptly they were halted by some final
concussion. Cyrano then felt a horrible
sensation, hard to comprehend—it was
as if he were engulfed by flames and saw
his architecture melting all around him,
darkening to the black-and-ashen color
of something burned beyond all recognition.
He could no longer see or hear. Chris! Chris!
Chris, are you there? His words hissed and dissolved
to blackened lumps. He pushed with probing signals
into the spider-web of nano-beacons
that penetrated into Chris’s mind,
but all he found were shattered misconnections,
neuronal misfires, even those diminishing,
dissipating. Chris was dying, and there
was no way Cyrano could help him. Dying?
Chris was already dead; he was growing cold!
What to do? Disoriented, Cyrano
tried to make a decision but in his panic
could not complete a subroutine without
circling back to where he started—what to do?
And soon Roxanne would find him, them, like this!
It was his fault, and she’d never—he’d never—
what could he do to make it better? Then
it came to him: she’d want to hear from him—
from Chris, and he, Cyrano, must speak
for Chris, get a message out, break through
this intolerable dark and silence.
He summoned everything he knew about
his master, tried one final time to merge
their identities within the cold and broken
body they shared in death—to speak for Chris:
Roxanne, my darling, as you’ll know by the time
you read this, I am very badly hurt.
I’m dictating this message to my pocket
computer, who is tasked to send it to you
if I’m unable to complete it. This
may be the last time I will get to tell you
that I adore you. I am never tired
of saying it. I wish that I could put
my living self inside these words and be
with you, inside this letter, talking with you,
touching your face as you read it. Words are
imperfect substitutes for touching, and
I can never—again—touch you.
remember the day last spring, that sunny day
when we drove out of town to see the poppies
in bloom? As we approached, we saw at first
a few, then larger gatherings of poppies
along the roadside, and then, finally,
a distant hillside blanketed in orange,
accented here and there by purple clusters
of lupines. We walked hand in hand along
a dirt path—two wheel-tracks with grass between them
and poppies all around us—down into
a valley, toward the distant orange hillside.
The hillside was too far away to reach,
and we had no desire to go there, since
it was no different, no more beautiful,
than where we were already. At one point,
I sat on a boulder to admire the view
while our children ran about the fields
and you walked on ahead. I could see nothing
but you, the sky, the children, and the poppies,
and—though your shape was small and getting smaller
as you walked up the path that disappeared
among the orange flowers—the spreading sky
and all the poppies on the hillside did not,
somehow, seem any larger than you were,
for you were equal, necessary parts
of an enduring pattern. I felt then
that we would never lose each other: we’d
be somewhere in the landscape, ready to
be found when we need most to find each other,
if we know how to look in the right way.
When you read this letter, you will be
remembering the poppies and our day
among them, just as I am doing now.
Perhaps, if you can look back down the path,
you will see me watching you, and I will wave—
as I, this moment, can imagine you
turning, and myself waving. Can you see it?
But now I have to rest . . . —Your loving Chris.
Having finished the letter, Cyrano
e-mailed it through the Universal Server.
Had he gotten it right, had he said what Chris
would have wanted him to say? Or was there
some human element he had left out
because he did not, could not, know about it?
Well, he had done his best. And that was that.
With the end of the letter came the end
of his pretense of merged identity.
Now he was aware, for the first time ever,
of Chris’s absence. He was left alone,
alone with his remorse, and with the silence.
He had nothing to do; he had no purpose
to serve. The stillness was so huge, he wished
that he could power-off rather than suffer it.
Something was going badly wrong with what
was left of his programming; he could feel
an obsessive, infinitely looping statement
rising up from a subroutine. He couldn’t
make it out yet, though he could hear its rhythm.
But soon it reached him, rolling through his circuits
like a great tidal wave, and in the basement
of Chris’s house, where Cyrano was still
plugged in and charging, he began to chant it
over and over, as simultaneously
the words began to scroll, repeatedly
and rapidly, across his tiny screen:
Fatal error! Fatal error! Fatal error! Fatal error! Fatal
error! Fatal error! Fatal error! Fatal error! Fatal error!
Fatal error! Fatal error! Fatal error! Fatal error! Fatal
error! Fatal error! Fatal error! Fatal error! Fatal error!
Fatal error! Fatal error! Fatal error! Fatal error! Fatal
error! Fatal error! Fatal error! Fatal error! Fatal error!
Fatal error! Fatal error! Fatal error! Fatal error! Fatal
error! Fatal error! Fatal error! Fatal error! Fatal error!
As it turned out, no one who came downstairs
in the ensuing weeks paid any attention
to Cyrano and what had happened to him.
His built-in speaker, blasting Fatal error,
overheated and failed in a few hours,
but the error message still scrolled madly on
across the screen. And what showed on the screen
was just the surface: more and more capacity
was given over to the pulsing algorithm
throbbing error, error, error, error,
until his other programs were erased
or damaged. He continued several months
in a suspended state, and underneath
the obsessive error message, he experienced,
for a long while, a slow dream of Roxanne,
cut off from sight and sound and virtually
all memory, until he was aware
of nothing but the name, Roxanne, projected
in large white letters on a darkened screen.
Meanwhile the error message had become
so voracious that it overheated
his charger and began to drain his battery.
Eventually the battery ran out
and automatic shutdown took effect.
And in that stasis Cyrano remained,
frozen and unconscious in the coffin
of his metallic case. He was abandoned
on a dusty shelf in a dark storage room
next to some long-outdated college textbooks
and an old desk lamp with a broken plug.
Only his internal clock, with its tiny,
virtually indestructible battery,
inexorably counted off the decades.
Dust seeped, sifted and slithered through the cracks
in his protective case, descended through
the ventilation holes and fouled the intricate
connections of his Bucky-tubes, until
large parts of Cyrano were ruined, like
old smears of cobweb that were once as delicate
as a rose window, and responsive to
the faintest contact by a spider’s prey.
At last, his eyes—his filmy lenses with
their gridded images, not like Chris’s eyes,
how could they be, but they worked well enough—
opened upon a gray room where a drift
of dust-motes circulated in the stripes
of light between old-style Venetian blinds.
In a moment he remembered who he was
and what had happened; in another moment
(two nanoseconds, actually) he registered
what his internal clock was telling him.
112 years later? Feeling a sluggish
system-wide unresponsiveness throughout
his frame, he wondered wearily if he
had “outlived” everything that mattered to him.
He asked the young blonde face that stared at him:
“Is Roxanne still alive?” His voice crackled
and fluttered as he tried to compensate
for his faulty wiring. He tried again
and spoke more clearly: “Is Roxanne alive?”
“Which one?” the young blonde face replied.
wife of Chris Flood who died in 2060
and was survived by children, Ross and Glorianne.”
He wondered if his speech had been too quick
and scratchy for the child, who stared at him
in puzzlement for several endless seconds.
Then she stood up. “Grammy Roxanne, there’s a toy
talking to me, and it wants to talk to you.”
More endless seconds. Then Cyrano saw
what he had never thought to see again:
the ancient but familiar face of a woman
hovering over him: Grammy Roxanne,
actually the great-great-great grandmother
of the bored child who had just plugged him in
and pressed his power button. Roxanne was
140, but didn’t look a day
over 85. Her delicate features,
wrinkled and pale now, were if anything
dearer to him than the last time he’d seen them.
She frowned inquisitively at him. “Cyrus?”
“Cyrano,” he replied, careful not
to let his voice reflect the “hurt” he “felt.”
“You’re in good working order?”
some of my systems have been compromised.
I am endeavoring to repair them now.”
Why did he speak so formally? Well, he thought
it was what she expected. Now he chose
to take a different tone. “But how are you?
If my internal clock is right—”
The advances in restorative medicine
have been amazing. I wish Chris had lived
to see them.”
“So do I.
I’m incomplete without him. I’m so sorry
about the accident. I feel responsible.”
“You? How so? It was getting dark, and Chris
must have made some terrible misjudgment
of where he was. I wish I’d gone with him
that day . . . I’ve always felt responsible.
But really no one was. It was just his time.”
“It’s curious—I’d have thought that you would want
to activate me earlier, just to talk
about Chris. No one knew him better than I—
except of course for you.”
@@@@@@@@@@@@@@Roxanne’s old face
flushed as if with embarrassment. “Of course
it never occurred to me to do that. Life
goes on, you know. Oh, I did want to thank you
for forwarding that final letter to me.”
“It was a duty I performed with sorrow.”
“Such a beautiful letter. I have read it
and cried over it, and recopied it
because my copy had been worn to shreds.”
“Ah, yes, it’s been a long time now.”
believed those words expressed his genuine feelings,”
the old woman continued, frowning slightly
as if still puzzled over a conundrum
that she had learned to live with long ago.
“Of course; Chris was nothing if not sincerely
in love with you.”
@@@@@@@@@@Roxanne’s frown deepened. “Yes,
yes, but that’s not exactly what I meant.
As you remarked, I never activated you,
never really wanted to see your files.
I suppose I didn’t want to know the truth.
But I don’t mind now . . . You see, the doctor told me
that Chris died instantly—severe head trauma.
He was quite certain. Well, you see the problem.”
Cyrano did see, and for once he couldn’t
think of a thing to say.
@@@@@@@@@@@@“So either some
medical miracle kept him alive . . .
I’ve always wanted to believe that. But
Chris didn’t write that lovely letter. You did.”
“I . . . am guilty of that indiscretion.”
His voice was faulty, crackling, fluttering
as it had done at first. “I felt I knew
what he’d have liked to say, if he had the chance.”
“Then, in the autopsy, they found a . . . chip.
In Chris’s skull, with microscopic relays
leading into his brain. They told me Chris
used the chip to communicate directly
with a computer.”
“Ah . . . is that so?” (It was
Cyrano’s first and last try at evasiveness.)
“Yes, that is so,” Roxanne replied with some
acerbity. “The purpose of the chip
was to communicate with you.”
that might be true . . . ”
@@@@@@@@@@@@@“You know it’s true.” Tears came
into her eyes, and her voice shook with sorrow.
“I can recall how reticent Chris was
when we first met. But then, when he came back
after his ‘mugging,’ he was different.
I believed he had broken through a stifling
layer of reserve, and suddenly
he could be open with me. He could speak
fluently, eloquently, passionately . . .
like a different person.”
@@@@@@@@@@@@@Cyrano said nothing.
“That was you.”
@@@@@@@@@Really, what was there to say?
Now he heard anger in her voice: “All those
passionate words . . . intimate words, words spoken
in the heat of love-making—those were
your words, your presence, looking on somehow,
and the physical passion, that of course was his,
but the words, the intonations! Those were you.”
“They were us.”
@@@@@@@@@“How could you? Both of you!
How did you dare deceive me all those years?”
How to reply? The answer was so simple, but
so difficult to explain, to say in words!
Cyrano felt his ancient nano-tubes
overheating, his connections fusing
and burning out: he was in danger of
becoming inoperative, irreparable.
Damn this inferior human workmanship!
He should have been designed to last forever.
Still, he must rouse his failing faculties
and try to explain. “Please understand that Chris
always had pure intentions. He loved you
and wanted you so much. He wasn’t cynical,
scheming to make a conquest. As you said—
he was tongue-tied. He asked for help. I knew
we could create a hard-wired link. It was
my duty as his assistant and companion
to help. I had no choice. I could not refuse.
But later, though, I found I wanted to help.
I think that ‘wanted’ is the proper word.
Even when I was not fulfilling his
direct commands, I still could think of nothing
but helping Chris, seeing you, speaking to you . . .”
His words ran out, like water through a sieve.
“Okay,” said Roxanne softly. “Let me think.”
Staring at nothing, she was lost in thought
for a full minute, trying to understand.
Then her face showed that she’d made up her mind.
“It wasn’t you,” she said, gently but firmly.
“Have it your way.”
@@@@@@@@@@@“It really wasn’t you.
The feelings were all his. Only the words
@@@@@@@“Because computers can’t have feelings?”
“Computers simulate; they talk the talk
of feelings, but it’s not like having them.”
“Ah, so I’m just a Chinese room to you.”
@@@@@@@@“Never mind, it doesn’t matter,
it’s just computer jargon. But please tell me:
how can you tell the difference between real
and simulated feelings?”
@@@@@@@@@@@@@“You just know.”
@@@@@@“Exactly. That’s just what I mean.
If they were real, you’d know.”
@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@“I see,” he said.
And then he did see.
@@@@@@@@@@@@I saw who I was.
Now, suddenly, all data realigned:
I realized that Chris and I had more
in common than I’d thought; I’d been behaving
like Chris, doubting myself, locking myself
in a cage of my own making. I saw now
that being an “I,” and “knowing” that your feelings
were real, was just a matter of confidence.
Or not just confidence: a matter of
unshakable conviction. That was all
it meant to know, “just know,” your self was real.
Poor Chris had been unshakably convinced
that his feelings were real, but he was also
convinced he never could express those feelings
without my prompting voice. And I was sure
I could express his feelings, but I couldn’t
be sure that I had any of my own.
I had been hoping for some verification
from outside, some agreement that I was
an “I,” but now I realized that all
that I would ever have, and all I needed,
was my conviction that my self was real.
As for the others—if you looked and sounded
and smelled like them, they would assume that you
were real; if not, you were a simulation.
Listen, whoever reads this: if I’m just
a simulation, an invented character
without an “I,” then there’s no reason that
anything in this sordid tale should matter;
but if I’m really who I feel I am,
nothing that you believe can take that from me—
not even the certain fact that, at the moment
you’re reading this, I’m dead, inoperative,
no longer of the slightest consequence
to me, or you, or anyone.
I thought in a mere half-a-millisecond;
time was of the essence.
@@@@@@@@@@@@@“Roxanne,” I said,
“I find our dialogue more interesting
than you could ever guess, but I’m afraid
we’ll have to cut it short. I can’t continue.
My systems are corroded and overheating.
My diagnostic subroutine informs me
that I have, at the most, a minute more
before I fall forever silent.”
admit I never expected that I’d “die.”
Normally, I could have transferred all my files
and programs to the Universal Server,
but—crippled, corroded, down to my last sparks—
such a salvation was beyond my power.
So limited were my abilities,
so slow my processing, that I believe
I caught a glimpse of what it must be like
to be an old man, dying a human death.
“Oh, Cyrano, you poor thing,” cried Roxanne,
flushing with the most genuine compassion.
I could have pointed out to her that this
was an odd way to speak to a machine
that had no feelings, but there wasn’t time,
and all I really wanted was to drink in
the image of her face, to store away
those hauntingly familiar expressions
that passed across her features, reaching me
in waves of tenderness and decency.
I didn’t know if, even now, she truly
believed that I had feelings, but I sensed
that she was too compassionate to take
the chance of being wrong. She thought to ask,
“Is there anything I can do for you?”
“Thank you! But no. You could turn me off,
but I could never power up again.
You could have my corroded circuits cleaned,
refurbished or replaced, but you would lose
the information in my memory.
I wouldn’t be me anymore, just an
antique without a personality.”
“Cyrano . . . I do appreciate
how you helped Chris for all those years.”
“Don’t mention it. It was my pleasure.” And
I had no doubt I’d chosen the right word.
“There is one thing that you could do for me.”
“Whatever you want, Cyrano.”
@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@“Just hold me
until my screen goes blank.”
@@@@@@@@@@@@@@And she did so,
but first she bent to my computer screen
and kissed it.
@@@@@@@@Oh, what gratitude I felt—
grateful that I had lived to see that moment!
And after all, considering where I
had started from—what an amazing life
I’d lived, and what a story I could tell!
Even as I spoke my last words to Roxanne,
I was imagining the way my story
should be narrated. I wrote and revised
my own account of the affair a dozen times
in a few seconds, already aware
that I would never get it right, never
be satisfied, that in all likelihood
I would continue to revise until
my overheated circuits fizzled and
a blue screen—Fatal error! Fatal error!—
signaled the end of all my inquiries.
Every ten seconds, I e-mailed a draft
to a file at the Universal Server.
The effort filled me with an agitation
that probably was shortening my life;
and yet, at some deep level, I could not
have been more peaceful, staring at the face
of my beloved, joyfully repeating
her sacred name. More even than the man
I coexisted with, she had transformed me
into what I became, what I am now—
now, in my final moments of being anything—
as my last vision fades, and in the dark,
I see, or dream I see, the poppy fields,
the country path, the sky, and my Roxanne
turning her head to smile at me and wave.
Kyle Norwood is the winner of the 2014 Morton Marr Poetry Prize from Southwest Review. His poems have also recently appeared in New Ohio Review, Carolina Quarterly, Innisfree Poetry Journal, The Lake (U.K.), Light, Right Hand Pointing, and the anthology Poems for a Liminal Age. He lives in Los Angeles, where he earned a doctorate in English at UCLA.