Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Meaning of Life and Chance

The morning was cold. It wasn't the new normal type of chill that forced people to wear a light jacket, only to shed it in the early afternoon. It was the old fashioned type of freezing cold that had people wearing heavy coats and quickly scurrying from one warm location to another. With the climate increasingly changing for the worse, this was the odd weather event that people would talk about for years like they once did about freakish snow storms.

Aaron Carpenter didn't mind the cold as he sat on one of the benches in Centennial Park gazing at the Atlanta skyline. The sky was a stunning cobalt blue with only a few clouds lazily floating by to give it contrast. While the park itself wasn't devoid of people, the few that were around didn't wreck his sense of solitude.

Not that he really noticed them, the nearest being an old man feeding hungry pigeons scraps of bread from a paper bag several yards away. Aaron was fully preoccupied with his own life story and the decision that circumstance had forced upon him. He damned Fate or whomever was in charge of the universe for making love so complicated.

The first time he had set eyes on Katherine Palmer was second grade in Wilmington, North Carolina. Katherine's father had taken a teaching job at the local community college and moved the family from their Arizona home over the summer. On that first day of the new school year, Aaron remembered how lost Katherine looked as children with long histories greeted each other and began stories of what they did over the summer.

For Aaron, the ill-timed birth of his baby sister had turned his summer into one excruciatingly long and boring affair. With his parents totally preoccupied with caring for the newborn and trying to reestablish a dependable routine, Aaron found that he had to learn to entertain himself. The adult Aaron sitting on the park bench found some minor amusement in the fact that during that summer he quickly learned how tiresome video games can become. The only thing worse that summer than old video games were the week long visits to his grandparents' house.

It was basic empathy that caused Aaron to walk over and begin talking to the girl he would call Kathy. He could tell she was lonely and a little scared, and knew the right thing to do was make her feel better. But by the end of that day though, the two would become fixtures in each others lives.

Best friends all through elementary school, it was the middle school years that foreshadowed how their relationship would become more complex. Halfway through redrawn school lines physically separated them, their evolving relationships with peers and changing social interests pulled them apart even further. So much that there was period they could actually pass each other on a street and not speak.

The high school years changed their relationship again. The friendship was rekindled slowly but by their junior year they found their emotions for each other far deeper than they could have imagined. After graduation though there wasn't a happy ending. Accepted at different universities hundreds of miles apart, they had originally planned to stay a couple and keep the relationship going. But their last night together a small disagreement turned into a fight, harsh words were exchanged and feelings were deeply hurt. Two weeks into the first semester of college Kathy finds out that Aaron was dating another woman.

But like stars locked in long-term elliptical orbits, they encountered each other again after having lived in Charlotte, North Carolina for several years. It was their careers that forced the two back together, merging marketing firms put both of them in the same department. At first their relationship was casual and strictly work related, while neither was married they were both seeing other people. But neither could fight whatever force that had put them together as children.

Over the following months the attraction and history couldn't be fought. Kathy and Aaron moved in together and for a year the two were the picture perfect couple. So happy, that they became engaged and started planning their wedding. Fate seemed to have other intentions, a coveted position in Seattle was offered to Kathy and she eagerly accepted. Having traveled down this road before and knowing long distance relationships rarely work, they parted as friends both figuring for the last time.

Several years slipped by with Kathy in Seattle and Aaron eventually taking a management position in Atlanta, Georgia. On almost opposite ends of the country, the demands of their separate lives severed the remaining bonds binding them together. Kathy and Aaron carried on, both found other loves and in time married them. Neither felt the need to invite the other to their wedding.

Having been pushed back together several times by sheer chance or mischievous Fate, neither was surprised when they found each other working together after Kathy was transferred to Atlanta. Bosses of different departments that required close cooperation, in a brief but formal meeting they promised each other to keep any relationship strictly professional. They assured each other that their respective spouses were the most important people in their lives and would do anything required to keep it that way.

Their mutual promises last about six months. Kathy and Aaron's respective spouses knew they had a history with each other but both never claimed it went beyond friendship. So, there was little worry by them when Kathy and Aaron were required to make a business trip to San Francisco.

The affair began on their second night in San Francisco, both knowing it was as torrid and tasteless as anything in a badly written, second-rate romance novel. It was in the motel room that they finally revealed the things neither had dared to mention since Kathy had arrive in Atlanta.

Kathy had married a cardiologist, a handsome and brilliant man whose one flaw was alcohol. After one too many errors in diagnosing patients, both agreed that a change in scenery could reboot their relationship and his career. Moving to Atlanta was a step down career-wise for Kathy but after her husband promised to seek help, she figured it was a good move.

For Aaron, his seemingly happy marriage was hamstrung by he and his wife suffering through two miscarriages. Aaron told Kathy that he could feel his wife slipping away and cursed himself because there were times he really didn't care.

Weeks went by with neither Kathy's husband nor Aaron's wife seeing the handwriting on the wall. But then again both were dealing with their own complex issues. That was when Kathy came up with a plan. During one of their secret rendezvouses, Kathy told Aaron that one of her Seattle coworkers was opening up a new firm in London and needed anyone with experience. She told Aaron that they should just runaway, leave Atlanta and their spouses behind.

Aaron at first agreed, but arrangements for his wife would have to be made which would require them to keep everything secret for a couple of weeks. Kathy was okay with that arrangement, telling Aaron she would fly out to London and get things ready on that end. When the two parted from the apartment used for their trysts, they agreed to meet in Centennial Park and from there make the final announcements to their spouses and employer.

Aaron watched the old man feeding the pigeons and envied the guy in some ways. Without knowing his history, to Aaron the old man seemed carefree, able to pursue his own interests without regard to other people. The weight of his decision concerning leaving his wife and going off with Kathy had been unbearable. Part of Aaron felt he was on an endless loop, condemned to repeat the same choices for all eternity. Aaron chalked his feeling up to he and Kathy's inability to finally settle down together, they had been down this same road far too many times. But in the back of his mind there was another facet to his history with Kathy that seemed almost malevolent, like he was an unwilling part of some grand experiment. Aaron shook off such an insane idea, especially since he spotted Kathy walking towards him.

As she approached Aaron fought off his inherent desire to hold her body next to his. If there was any truth to the ancient myth that people could be soulmates, individuals destined by the gods to be together, she was that person for him. The problem was that some event always pulled them apart, it was one of the main reasons he had come to his decision.

“You're not leaving Carol,” Kathy said with a smirk, once they stood in front of each other.

“No,” Aaron answered feeling every fiber of his soul rebelling again him. “I want to leave with you so badly it hurts, but I can't abandon Carol. I don't believe our marriage is going to work. But I will not leave her like she is now, it would be as if I was daring her to commit suicide. I don't want to live with that on my conscious, even if it means losing you.”

“That's entirely what it means, Aaron. Everything is in place in London, when I fly out today, I will not be coming back.”

“Its for the best then,” Aaron responded. “All I can do is wish you happiness. We had our chances and let them all slip away.”


The old man looked on as the two parted ways. The finality of the scene would have been clear to anyone looking on without knowing the couple or their history. It was time for him to move on as well. He pulled a normal looking cell phone out of his pocket and tapped a couple of buttons on the screen. From there the Atlanta skyline and Centennial Park disappeared as he consciousness returned to the real world.

“Doctor Daniels,” the laboratory AI said as he removed the headpiece that allowed him to interface with the simulation. “You have a scheduled appointment with an agent from the Office of Scientific Inquiry in an hour. But Agent Mathai arrived early and is already waiting in your office foyer.”

“Excellent, tell her I will be in my office in a few minutes. I need to clean up and pause the simulation.”

Agent Zahra Mathai was more than a little relieved that she wouldn't have to wait for the scheduled appointment time. She viewed the assignment to interview Gregory Ogden Daniels as a minor annoyance in an otherwise busy agenda. The North American Commonwealth was dealing with far too many issues, and interviewing a second rate Caucasian scientist on the ethics of his research was best left to rookie agents. But as the old man entered the office she attempted to smile and exchange pleasantries with him to try and get honest answers.

“Now Dr. Daniels, you know the reason the OSI has sent me here to talk with you?”

“Yes Agent Mathai, I know the dean of my department has informed your agency that my reality simulations have taken a dramatic turn. Using just an old Cygnus mark two quantum neural net, I have constructed a reality simulation where some of the artificial inhabitants are showing actual sentience. Right before you arrived I was doing a run through on two of my favorite subjects.
"They are an American couple, business professionals who I introduced to each other back in their childhood. During the initial run of the simulation the male was already showing borderline sentience. Which crossed the 1.0 boundary by his early thirties. Once I isolated the individual, I began rerunning his life multiple times to the point he was not only making truly independent choices but I have a strong suspicion he might have some awareness of the true nature of his existence." 

“Sir,” Mathai began now showing concern, “you know there are ethical concerns with that type of research. There are even United Nations regulations granting such simulated people rights. Both China and India would have a strong reaction if they found out you were in effect torturing a planet full self aware individuals. They went to war with the Greater Arabian Federation to stop them doing just that in their high tech recreation lounges. You have undoubtedly saw the videos of hundreds of real people linked into a simulation using the conscious inhabitants of those artificial worlds as fodder in wars and the building of insane video game empires.”

Daniels could feel the condescension oozing from the young woman. “Yes Agent Mathai, I did see those videos and when I designed my simulations it was meant strictly for historical research. None of the inhabitants were supposed to exceed a level .4 in actual sentience. The hardware itself should have precluded anything greater, but as the simulation moved into the ninetieth century the average level increased to .6 with actual sentience being reached by a global minority by their late twentieth.”

“From my report you're running the simulation in the past but at the same rate as real time.” Mathai asked absentmindedly as she inputted information on her hand terminal. “My notes say your research was centered around cultural and societal simulations during the late period of the United States?

Mathai paused for a moment thinking to herself. “Oh my god, Dr. Daniels, you don't have them suffering through the Gilead Schism and the Global Upheavals that followed?”

“No, before you get any further upset in the simulation the year is 2017, six years before the Mayday Attacks. Even before sentience started appearing amongst the subjects my intention was to short circuit the plot and have them go off on their own timeline. Once past our current year I would increase the rate of time and allow that universe to play out to the expected Cold Death several trillion years from now.

I wouldn't force even non-self aware simulations to live through the Gilead Terror. I've never told anyone but the Gilead government took my grandmother away from her family when she turned sixteen and had her in one of the Red Centers to train as a Handmaid.”

From the look on Agent Mathai's face, Daniels could tell that information changed her perspective on him. He was no longer just a Caucasian, the ethnic group that had controlled North America for centuries. And then overthrew the very Republic they created and bragged was God's gift to the world when they realized that in a few decades they would be just another minority. The Gilead abomination lasted thirty-four years before it was finally overthrown. The North American Commonwealth eventually rose out of the ashes and restored liberty and freedom to the tortured land that was the former United States.

She was quiet for almost a minute, but when she spoke it was easy for him to understand her disdain of the Caucasian Remnant.

“My great grandfather was living in Minneapolis when the coup occurred. As he and the rest of the family were going through the wilderness and the depopulated areas trying to flee to Canada, they were spotted by a Guardian patrol a few kilometers from the border. My great grandfather allowed himself to be captured so his wife and daughter, the woman who would become my grandmother, could get out. The Gilead government didn't kill him, instead they used him as a token to show the world they weren't truly racist. He was the public face of the Gilead Justice Department in Minnesota and they made him sentence countless people to death.”

“Agent Mathai,” Daniels began, “rest assured I will not let the inhabitants of my simulation face such terrors. Of course, this brings up the question that scientists have pondered since the very idea of artificial reality and computer-generated historical simulations were first conceived. Do we exist in some sort of computer-based simulation?”

“Well doctor, what is your position on that subject?” Agent Mathai asked.

“I honestly don't know, our reality could very well be just one of millions nested inside increasingly complex computers. The fact that sentience seems to spontaneously appear in systems not designed for such entities suggests that might be the case. Either way, paraphrasing something one of my subjects said just recently, our world is finally on a firm footing, it's best we not let anymore of our chances slip away.”

(Author's notes: No, I haven't given up on writing more of “The Adventures of an American Misanthrope. I just couldn't ever devote enough time this week to write a decent chapter six. This particular story comes from several articles I have read on the speculation that our reality, including our universe, may be nothing but an elaborate computer software based simulation.

If you're wondering why I was so detailed with the story about Aaron and Kathy it was just me trying to paint a full picture of their existence inside Daniels' quantum neural net. I wanted those character to be fleshed out as much as possible to make them seem real. That's also part of the question, could such simulated people actually be considered real if they had free will? And falling further down the rabbit hole, do we, who supposedly live in the real universe, even have free will?

Some may have gotten my little deity joke.

Finally I threw elements of fan fiction into the mix during the last part. I wanted to create a truly alien but recognizable environment in the reality that exists above Aaron and Kathy's. Read the book or watch movie or Hulu series entitled “The Handmaid's Tale” by Margaret Atwood to get the full exposure.)


Harry Hamid said...

I often threaten to dive into reading about AI or even holographic universe theories. So far, I have largely restrained myself.

Or else have been programmed not to start reading about those things any more than i already have.

Anyone's guess about what this thing is that we live in is as good or better than mine.

Commander Zaius said...

Harry: The computer simulated universe idea has fascinated me since I first read about the concept. Not sure if it's possible but it would answer some questions concerning existence.

Commander Zaius said...

Harry: Forgot to mention one thing, when I wrote about sentience levels running from .4 to .6 that was a semi-serious way to may explain why humans never really seem to learn. Why religious and political extremists seem to dominate and why we're generally a self-destructive species.

The Bug said...

Well this just blew my mind - very cool! And the Handmaid’s tale is terrifying to me. I haven’t seen the show, but I listened to the audiobook & it creeped me the heck out.

Pixel Peeper said...

I had some trouble at first reconciling the Aaron and Kathy story with what followed afterwards. But then I understood...I even thought of The Handmaid's Tale before I read that you mentioned it (and I haven't read the book or seen the Hulu series).

Loved the expression stars locked in long-term elliptical orbits!

Note to self: Put watching The Handmaid's Tale on my list!

Commander Zaius said...

Harry: Just saw a Youtube video where a couple of scientists say we couldn't create a complex simulation of the universe, including Earth and us because current computer tech couldn't handle the math. Thankfully, I had the foresight, or guidance, to say Daniels used a quantum neural net.

The Bug: I've got to admit I would love more information about what came after Gilead was overthrown. I've heard the newer version of the audio book has a longer "Historical Notes" section revealing more details.

Pixel: Yeah, after reading your comment I went back and added a section on the second part indirectly explaining Aaron's feeling that he was on some endless loop. I meant to do that the day I wrote the story but it slipped my mind.

I do highly recommend any version of The Handmaid's Tale.