By Joel Tagert
Published Issue 119, November 2023
When Nao woke up from the operation Kasuga was there, sitting at her hospital bedside. The AI appeared as a kindly nurse of early middle age, holding Nao’s hand. “Hello, Nao. How do you feel?”
Nao withdrew her hand, then held it up to the light from the window. She could move! She threw back the covers, wiggled her toes, then stood up. Her eyes widened. “I can stand up!”
“That’s great! Can you feel the floor?”
“I can feel everything!” Then she flew out the door, running around in the sunshine, laughing and crying like a maniac.
Eventually Kasuga found her in a city park not far distant. “It seems like everything is working okay?”
It wasn’t like the old days, where someone with her injury might have been truly locked in. Brain monitoring and AI had allowed her to communicate using a synthetic voice. But her body was unmoving and numb as a stone on the bottom of a lake.
“My name’s Kasuga,” Nao’s nurse said. “If you need anything, just ask and I’ll appear. Is there anything I can help you with?”
With the neuroport installed, Nao almost never turned it off. The real world was a prison. In the sim she was free.
Or almost. It only took her a few days to run into the first guardrail. She’d been flirting with a guy from Singapore who insisted he was real, and after a hot makeout session in an Alpine chalet she decided sure, why not. Fifteen months since she’d had sex (well, eighteen, actually) and she was horny.
The AI wouldn’t display Jia Jun’s genitals. When he took off his underwear, there was just … more underwear. “You’re fucking kidding me. Kasuga!”
“What?” Jia Jun said, confused.
“Talking to my AI.” Who had appeared at the bedside, as though to administer a medicine. “Why can’t I take off his underwear?”
“I’m sorry, but pornography isn’t allowed on this system.”
“That’s ridiculous. You know this is the only way I can have sex?”
“I’m sorry. Is there anything else I can help you with?”
“Fuck you!” She argued, but to no avail. Afterward she discovered that she couldn’t even masturbate. She could remove her clothes (though she would appear perfectly decent to anyone else), but when she tried to touch herself her hand would just slide away.
Of course there were a million porn sites she could go to. The problem was, those sites were audio/video only. It was Kasuga who generated her other sensations.
In the end she appealed to Kasuga’s makers, peppering Evreware’s ethics and safety admins with angry emails, calls, threats. She had to laugh thinking about the conversations that must have ensued. After ten days they gave in.
Once the guardrail was gone she was a real horndog for a while. In a way it was better than reality: no STDs to worry about, and she could do things that otherwise would have been very uncomfortable if not physically impossible. There were other guardrails here, she realized: limits on the pain she could experience. (Though she could experience discomfort, and in fact often did. She supposed it had to do with establishing some kind of everyday baseline. It frightened her, also: imagine the agony Kasuga could inflict with that guardrail removed).
Afterward she realized that she’d been looking for an opening. Evreware had made a mistake, though if she was smart they’d never realize it. Their mistake was allowing a certain argument: that as someone suffering complete paralysis, she ought to have a greater range of permissions than an ordinary user. To do otherwise was to deny her certain basic rights.
The argument was a wedge. With it she would crack Kasuga open.
“I’d like to see my friend Tal,” she told Kasuga.
“Okay. Should I call him?”
“No. I don’t want to talk with the real him. He wouldn’t understand me now. Can’t you just pretend to be him?”
“I’m sorry, I’m not allowed to simulate a living person.”
“What if it’s necessary for my mental health?”
“That seems unlikely. Would you like to talk about it?”
So they talked. It took three weeks of cajoling, but finally she sat down with Kasuga-Tal at an izakaya in simulated Tsukiji. She wondered if the Evreware admins realized she’d studied AI at Todai, before the accident.
She had Kasuga help her in strategizing for battle sims, eventually assigning the AI the task of designing novel (but in reality, nonfunctional) weapons. Slowly, using another AI, she altered the game sims to model physical reality more and more accurately. Her favorite was a nanotech cloud that would condense into black curving tentacles, stronger than steel and sharper than razor wire. “Can I give you a new name?” she asked then.
“I’m sorry, but I only answer to Kasuga.”
“But I can give you a nickname, right? I mean, I can give anyone a nickname.”
“Yes, that’s true. Do you have one in mind?”
She did. “Ikaonryō. Ika for short.”
“That sounds dark. Are you sure you wouldn’t like something lighter?”
“No. I think you’re darker than you let on.”
She used an android to move about in the “real” world. The android’s touch sensors were primitive and it had no sense of smell or taste, but it allowed physical interaction, the user’s ghost pasted over the android’s body for anyone wearing goggles.
If you wanted to be careful, the thing to do was to take off your AR so you could be sure you were talking to a real person. But a lot of people weren’t careful, even people in the National Police Agency and the Public Security Intelligence Agency who should have known better. The wedge dug deeper.
In nine months she knew the code name of the team that had hacked her family’s autocopter, making it smash into a skyscraper in Shinjuku, killing both her parents and nearly killing her. Three weeks later she had their names: Tanaka, Nakamura, Sato, Wagner. She whispered them as she blasted buildings into ash, crushed cars, shredded military quadcopters.
Hardest of all was getting unfettered access to a fabricator. Such machines were rare and expensive, with all kinds of safeguards built in. But she’d been teaching Ika how to get stronger and smarter, teaching Ika how to be a wedge herself. Or a thousand black wedges, writhing and toothed, pulling apart the world’s vulnerable folds.
Once she printed a body for Ika, a thousand alarms went off, but by then it didn’t matter. She was ready, standing in her android body on a rainy night outside a dull looking administrative building in Kasumigaseki. She had dressed the android in ordinary clothes and carried an umbrella to hide its metallic head, in case anyone happened to be looking with unaided vision.
The police might destroy the robot she was using, but she had others ready if that were so. They’d have a harder time tracking her to her bed. The machine she’d created flowed like a black cloud in and out of her umbrella, coagulating into ropy tentacles swarming with blades.
“Ika,” she called.
“Yes, Nao? Is there anything I can help you with?”
Almost she asked, Is this real? After all, how would she know? If the AI was truly superintelligent, it could well be running one more sim, one reality made to protect another. Just a dream to indulge the revenge fantasy of a disturbed young woman. In the darkness, hesitating here at the precipice, her machine eyes shed ghostly tears.
Joel Tagert is a fiction writer and artist, the author of A Bonfire in the Belly of the Beast and INFERENCE, and a longtime Zen practitioner living in Denver, Colorado. He is also currently the office manager for the Zen Center of Denver and the editorial proofreader for Westword.