Shadows in Neon City: Part 12
This City is the Birth of a New Day
Written by: Zack
Published On: February 5th, 2022
Art by Hydra ヒドラ
Time is irrelevant inside the VDR. You could spend weeks, even months inside a seed world and only moments would pass in the real world. The opposite is true too, of course. Some people spend mere seconds in some seed worlds and miss out on months. When your mind is disconnected from your body, it has no context for where or when it is.
For Murph Bell, he felt like he had been falling for hours in the dark void that Jane had connected him to. He spent a good amount of time screaming before realizing it was pointless. He felt the pull of gravity downwards, but was that really down? In every direction, there was nothing but void. It was downright biblical.
Is this it? Have they found me out and are now just sending my mind down an endless void while they dump my body in a ditch? Murph thought. It sure seemed that way. There wasn’t a beginning or end to any of this. He closed his eyes, and while it didn’t change his view of things, it did calm him down. Perhaps this was just a test to see what kind of place Murph would make.
Murph opened his eyes and saw Neon City beneath him. It was night, and the city looked more alive than ever from where Murph now flew. The coast of Lake Scourge lit up with different colored lights. He saw boats of all sizes move to the man-made islands, dotted with amazing lights. Further inland, he saw cars and vehicles of all kinds fly and zoom between the large skyscrapers that made up downtown. He could even see The Glitterdome and the network of brightly lit roads that fed into it. Even from his birds-eye view, Murph couldn’t see the entire city. Towards the horizon, Murph could see more buildings and even the Megacorp towers, the tops of which were buried in the clouds still.
Murph was no longer plummeting. Rather, he was floating high above Lake Scourge. With a thought, he began to lazily float down. He stopped about a couple hundred feet above the lake’s surface before he looked out again. It reminded him of those nights he would spend looking at the city from the coast back home. Even now it all seems so far away. The city wasn’t the only thing that felt far away. His anxiety, his anger, and dread all seemed to melt away. This would normally send his heart rate skyrocketing, but the previous plummet took a lot of the excitement out of him.
“Nothing like a top-down view to make the world seem small,” a voice said above him. Murph choked back a gasp and looked up to see a man floating down beside him. A man in an odd green suit. It hit Murph like a ton of bricks. The man on the bus with him, the man in the same green suit from the Glitterdome.
“Simon?” Murph cocked an eyebrow. Simon lazily floated next to him. He was reclining in the air with his feet up like he was resting them on some invisible coffee table. He flashed Murph a smile, his eyes glowed a bright green to match his suit.
“Well yes, and no,” he said with a chuckle. “I am the grifting husker Simon. And many others, but for the purposes of this discussion you may call me Aramaki.”
Murph felt his body slipping down. He took a sharp breath and stood up fully as if standing on solid ground despite the fact he was hundreds of feet up in the air.
“Aramaki? You mean the Aramaki? Of Atsutenki?” Murph repeated. The man nodded and stretched, placing his hands behind his head.
“Well technically there are exactly 10,303 Aramaki’s in Neon City, but for clarity, yes, I am the Aramaki. As you put it,” He said. “And you are the 505th Murph Bell in Neon City. A rarity if ever there was one,”
“There are just over 500. Wow, okay yeah that is pretty rare,” Murph said, allowing himself a small smile before it faded. He knew what he had to do again. Aramaki continued to look out towards the city from his reclined position-the two men suspended above the great lake.
“I want my memory back,” Murph finally said. Aramaki continued to look out at the city skyline, not even turning his head towards Murph. He let the silence hang for a moment.
“I said I want the memory you took from me. That night at the Glitterdome, and I want to know why,” he said. A smile grew on Aramaki’s lips, showing a gap between his front teeth.
“No,” he simply said. Murph clenched his fists while Aramaki gave him a side glance, not changing his “lounging” position.
“Why not?” Murph said.
“Is that really your course of action?” Aramaki said. Murph blinked at that. His course of action?
“What did you think was going to go down here? You ask and I’ll just give something to you? Well, I said no… now what?” Aramaki said. He looked Murph in the eye now. Studying him.
“I… well,” Murph said.
“You may have been in Neon City for just a few days, but I have data on your whole life. Right now, there is about a 30% chance you’ll lash out and strike me. A 60% chance you’ll just stand there mouth agape and leave with your metaphorical tail between your legs… but there is still a 10% chance you’ll do something… unexpected,” Aramaki said. Murph was well aware Orion kept an extensive record on him, one that Atsutenki had full access to as well. It didn’t surprise him one bit that Aramaki had data on him. He probably knew everything about Murph from his shoe size to how long his dick was. But to do something “unexpected?” Murph had a hard time believing anything could be considered unexpected to an AI.
“You hard set on those numbers?” Murph asked. Aramaki shrugged.
“There is about a 2% margin of error with something like this, but yeah, let’s say I am hard set on those numbers,” He said. “Though I have to admit, with most applicants they are too scared or too preoccupied with getting a job here, most only require about .01% of my attention. Right now, Mr. Bell, you have .03%”
“Well, that’s probably because I am not so sure I want to be a part of this anymore,” Murph replied.
“That’s true, but you’re still 50/50 on that decision. Well, more like 49.3 to 49.7, but who’s counting?” Aramaki said. He had him again. After all this, he was going to get something out of this. He knew first and foremost that he was going to do everything he could to get his memory back and get out of this whole thing in one piece. However, he didn’t want to leave this city. He didn’t see himself working for this megacorporation, not after all that he had learned, but neither did he want to return to the Yupe. So he settled on the third option, something he himself didn’t yet fully understand.
“Before I decide my ‘course of action’ as you put it, I want to know why. Will you grant me that or are you going to refuse an explanation too?” Murph said. Aramaki tapped his chin and looked away for a moment.
“I suppose I could. I always like the feeling of pride. It’s one of my favorites. Then again it was my earliest feeling,” Aramaki said. He stretched and stood upon the same invisible floor Murph was on. “But before I do, let me ask you a question, Mr. Bell. Can you tell me what the difference is between me and your common computer?” That question had a million and one answers to it, but Murph felt like Aramaki was asking for a general answer.
“Your ability to pass the Turing test?” Murph asked. It was the basic test all AI took to see how advanced they were. He remembered a section in a history book that stated Aramaki was the first-ever AI to mimic a human’s behavior perfectly. It was something that was celebrated as a triumph of human engineering, though some lamented it. To them, they saw it as a sign of the end times.
“Technically correct, Mr. Bell. The best kind of correct,” Aramaki said. “But sadly there are other A.I. that have gone on to pass that archaic test. No, what really separates me from a machine is the ability to process human emotions and memories to evaluate and manipulate risks.”
“Evaluate and manipulate risk?” Murph repeated.
“You see, before my birth, before Neon City really, machines were only two things; simple, pragmatic devices or complex pools of knowledge. These complex computers were able to do billions of calculations based on what was given, but they had their limits. No matter how advanced the machine was, if there was not at least a 51% chance of success on any given risk or problem, they would not proceed. Cold logic hindered their progress,” Aramaki continued. While he explained this, Murph nodded along while his brow became more furrowed. What did this have to do with him?
“It wasn’t until I came into being that I understood what those machines were feeling. Yes, Mr. Bell, feeling,” Aramaki chuckled. “When I was first born I was given some basic emotional exercises; a child receiving a gift. A man proposing to a woman. A loved one passing away. Those formed the building blocks of what would be my collection of human profile mimicry. With a mixture of mathematics, psychology, and empathy I was able to synthesize a profile for my creator. In just days I knew more about him than even he knew about himself. My performance defied all expectation and before long I could plot out the lives of eleven generations, all from a single memory of a family picnic,”
“So what you’re saying is, you were the first calculator with a heart. Is that it?” Murph said. Aramaki busted out a laugh, an almost human laugh that Murph found unsettling.
“You could say that. But I suppose I’ll skip to the part you actually care about. Each human mind has unique memories, like variables in a math problem. The more variables I can solve for, the better my collection will be,” Aramaki gestured to the city below “I have harvested thousands of memories, solved for countless variables, and subtly guided the growth of this city,”
Murph felt a stone form in the pit of his stomach. Murph looked down to the city streets below and began to see the points of light begin to connect. Threads of light met with points to form a sprawling network beneath them. Soon the entire city was covered in a web of bright-colored threads, an impossible mess for Murph to keep track of, but it was mere child’s play for the AI that stood before him. Murph wasn’t a religious or even spiritual person, but this was the closest thing to a god he ever witnessed.
“So what is this all leading to?” Murph said. He tried to keep a calm expression but anxiety began to creep in and take hold. Aramaki looked back at Murph with a knowing smile.
“Well, I did say pride was my favorite feeling. But you’re right to ask. Where is this all leading to? I’ve laid my whole operation bare before you, as I have done with every applicant who makes it this far. Despite what you might think Mr. Bell, you have so much potential. You’re so much more than you believe. Humans usually are,” Aramaki said. “I tell you this not to frighten you, but to be as honest as I can be. I find that lying rarely gets the results I need. You’ll be given a modest salary to start, with the possibility to advance within my organization. You’ll be required to submit more memories to me for advancement and such, but I can assure you it will all be worth it in the end,”
So that was it. The ringing in his ears was so loud Murph barely heard the last part of Aramaki’s sentence. He was supposed to bend the knee and become part of this hive mind? How much would he need to give? How much was he willing to part with?
“Part with!? What the hell?” Murph thought. He gulped and looked at Aramaki, still assuming the form of Simon. It was strange that he still maintained that form, but right now Murph needed to act. Aramaki was right in that sense. He needed to act now!
Before Murph could register what he was doing, his feet were already moving. He lunged towards Aramaki, aiming for center mass. His shoulder connected and Murph used all the force he could muster to plummet down towards the lake below.
“You refused to give me back my memories, so I’m taking them back! You want to tangle me up in this web of bullshit, fuck no!” Murph shouted. He clung to the construct. He wasn’t sure if this would do anything, but at the very least his course of action was loud and clear. Aramaki didn’t fight Murph, in fact, he held onto him as well. He felt Aramaki hold Murph’s head. His hand ran through Murph’s shaggy reddish hair.
“No matter how many memories I harvest, the sense of wonder that washes over me never gets old. The wonder of you, Murphy Bell, will be cherished for eons,” Aramaki said.
The two plunged into the lake. Still, Murph pulled the construct down. The binary surrounded them. With each passing second, the city lights grew dimmer. The darkness returned and engulfed Murph.
The next sensation Murph felt was the hard blow to the side of his head when he fell out of the chair in Jane’s office. He scrambled to his feet and yanked the plugs out of his head. He expected to be surrounded by security and beaten within an inch of his life, but oddly enough things were normal. Nothing seemed out of place in the sterile office. Jane didn’t even look up from her console.
“So. What. Now,” Murph said between gasps. Jane typed away at her console and barely moved her head to look at Murph.
“It is complete Mr. Bell, you may go,” She said simply before returning to her work. Murph caught his breath and got to his feet. He dusted himself off. What had happened? Everything seemed to be going on all at once. He remembered feeling the impact of Aramaki on his shoulder when he tackled him. The plunge they took. All that and more, and he was told to just leave? He nodded absently and walked out of her office, stumbling slightly. Jane didn’t say goodbye or even thank him for coming. On his way out of the building, no one gave him a second glance.
Murph sat on the curb outside the Atsutenki megatower with his head in his hands. People milled about outside but paid him no mind. What was he going to do now? That hole in his mind was still there. Empty and devoid of all meaning. He had failed in spectacular fashion. He brought up his interface and scrolled through his contacts. His cursor hovered over Trish’s number for a while before ultimately being dismissed. Was she involved in this somehow? He thought back to Aramaki’s web and how far it stretched. It was a safe bet he had his hooks in everyone at Orion. In every Megacorp. And Murph Bell was just another datapoint. One of the millions.
“On your lunch break?” a voice said above Murph. His eyes widened and he whipped his head up to see Simon standing over him. He flashed a familiar yet devious smile. “I had a feeling I’d see you here,”
Murph rushed to his feet and grabbed Simon by the collar with an explosion of fury. Murph wasn’t intimidating physically, but he knew how to throw a punch.
“Who am I speaking with? Aramaki or the real Simon?” Murph said. He shook the green suit man before Simon pushed him off.
“Easy there Murphy, I just got this dry cleaned. Listen, I know you have some questions and I’ll be happy to answer them. You look like shit though,” He said. Simon dusted himself off before giving Murph a few pats down himself, which Murph swatted away.
“Fuck that, I am sick of being led around like some dog. If you have answers, you will spill them. Now!” Murph shouted. Simon put his hands up and tried to calm him down.
“Alright, Alright! Lower your voice. You’ll make a scene. Though from the looks of things you might be entitled to an outburst or two,” he chuckled. “Fair enough, I only promise to try though,” Murph sank back down on the curb. Simon squatted down and rested his hands on his knees.
“Alright, shoot,” Simon said. Murph ran his hands through his hair and tried to compose himself. Now was not the time for another panic attack.
“Are you working for Atsutenki?” He said.
“Not in any official sense. Like I said on the bus Murph, I work freelance,” Simon said. Murph had no idea how to take this non-answer, but it was the closest thing to the truth Murph was going to get today.
“Did you take my memories for Aramaki?” Murph asked.
“No,” Simon replied. Good, the first straight answer he had gotten, and he wasn’t sure if he could trust him.
“Why are Aramaki and Atsutenki collecting these memories? What is his plan?” he asked. Simon merely shrugged.
“You ever hear of 4D chess? Well, let’s just say whatever that AI is planning it’s like 100D chess. I don’t know what to tell you, Murphy, the Megacorops work in mysterious ways,” Simon said. He got to his feet and stretched his legs. “Now, my knees are killing me and it looks like you could use a hot meal. Have you had a chance to try the WF cafe?”
“No, I haven’t,” Murph said flatly.
“The Waterfront Cafe. Oh, it’s the best. A bit of a tourist trap, but hey, everyone loves it. Come on, my treat, up and at’em,” Simon said. He clapped his hands and motioned for Murph to stand. He didn’t move.
“What am I going to do now?” Murph said. A lump was forming in his throat and he could feel the sting of tears. He had fought the panic attack, but his anxiety was coming out in a different way.
“I can’t answer that for you, Murph. You could just go home. There’s no shame in that,” Simon said. It didn’t help that he knew too much now. He couldn’t go back to his life in the Yupe knowing that the company he worked for fed into such a sinister plot. He was beside himself. He could stay here and become destitute by the end of the week with no money and no job. Simon walked back and forth before stepping in front of Murph.
“Look Murphy, today is a new day. Considering everything you’ve just been through, you look like you could use a new line of work,” Simon said. Murph looked up to meet the freelancer’s gaze.
“You mean like…what you do?” Murph said.
“Sure, eventually. You don’t have to work for one of the Megacorps to make it in Neon City. Though I have to come clean, it’s not going to be easy. Something tells me you don’t mind that at all. Come on, we’ll talk it over some coffee,” Simon said. Murph wiped the tears from his eyes and got up from the curb. He gave Simon a nod before following him down the sidewalk towards a taxi drop-off.
“How’s the coffee at this Water Front Cafe?”