She first contacted me in the spring to sign up. Just another customer at first, but all this stuff was new to this part of rural North Dakota. Hence she'd been downright bubbly when she called my tooth phone. Felt that she had become part of the future and was looking forward to the near reality tours of great museums in Europe or palaces of Asia without leaving home. The people I knew back home in Seattle would say that's hicks for you, or they would wonder what she was really touring. Probably why I left come to think of it.
Business was good and she had just been another customer then. Only odd thing had been that in this personable town she never came to the house. Never delivered the check in person and if she had questions she sent them by cyber-mail. Folks around the town could not say much about her either except she lived far out in the country and had just recently arrived from out of town. From Minnesota they believed, possibly escaping a messy divorce.
As time passed I began to talk with many of my customers more socially. Including her, but not especially her. Still the more I talked to her the more interesting she seemed. She could be both painfully naive and surprisingly intelligent. She had little interest in how modern systems worked, computers or politics. She surprised me by saying she had been slightly saddened they'd gotten rid of the electoral college as it was good for small states. That was about the only political statement she ever said. As for technology she loved it as "the future", but told me learning how it worked "ruined the magic". Yet she had impressive knowledge of languages, history, and anthropology. I learned about places I never had heard of from a woman who likely could never go there.
The reason for that became more clear later. She said that she was "a home body" who only travelled in her mind. I sensed there was more going on, but our talks were still fairly impersonal. Shows we liked, books we read, etc. I knew next to nothing of her background and she knew nothing of mine. Indeed I had not even seen her yet. Then in late August she called late at night.
"Rob, Rob's been beat up real bad!"
I had to think a second to figure who this was or what it was about .
"He went to a concert in St. Paul, I never thought... I'll be late on payment this week"
I had been rather stunned..."Um yeah, no problem. You are one of my best customers don't worry." The statement instantly sounded wrong but she simply mumbled a thanks and hung up.
After a week I began to worry so called her. She sounded tired, but slightly happy.
"It's not great, but it's not terrible. The swelling is going down, they don't think there'll be much brain injury. There's hope."
I told her to keep me posted. As the weeks went by our discussions began to get more personal. She told me what her brother meant to her. She had come from a small town, where she had been completely isolated. The things she liked no one cared about, and she had trouble with crowds anyway. In some ways it was even worse for her brother, who had been used as a punching bag by the local kids. So they stuck together. Learning Gaelic together, discussing science fiction and history books they read, dreaming of all the fun places they would go, etc. When they were older they stayed close. He even paid for her divorce. She did not talk much about her ex though, but I got the sense he had been bad news.
She also told me about her agoraphobia. She said she had joined early because that may be the only way she would ever see the world. She had always had tendencies, but the divorce and her brother's deal made it worse. I tried to encourage her to get some help, but didn't push. Eventually she mailed me her picture and told me I could meet her through NR if I wanted. Interestingly she avoided crowds there too, so it was something of a step for her.
As time went by things progressed naturally. We had become close friends even though I had never seen her in the flesh. And then one day I did see her, at the market. She had been nervous, we talked a little but soon said she had to go and that she'd talk later. That night she appeared through NR to apologize. We talked for a bit and then she asked me to go outside. I told her the connection wouldn't work outside, but she asked I follow her by phone. When I did go outside I saw the most beautiful aurora I had ever seen and then she said she loved me.
Everything seemed wonderful. We met more often then ever and our relationship grew more intense. I even talked to her family, and got to know her brother in the real world some. Things had gone well enough she told me she was ready to try again. She would go back to counseling, maybe get a new medicine, and then we would be together for real. A part of me did not care, I was happy as was, but I knew it was more for her benefit than anything.
Sadly that changed. The progress proved slow and she began to lose heart. She even said "Maybe this is for the best, maybe you won't like me there" as in the real world. I knew this was not so. From family, friends, etc. I knew she was for real and that I more than liked her. Yet one day she quit calling or even responding. Out of concern I went to her house.
Odd that I had never done that before, but it was a long way out and I had respected her condition. When I went there no one answered or responded. I was tempted to break in, but restrained myself. I heard someone sobbing and went home.
I decided to call her one last time, and I seemed to get in. Surprisingly the place looked like a lab rather than the eighteenth century Danish castle she usually chose. I decided I had gotten rerouted and was about to disconnect when a man said "Don't, Paul. I can tell you all about it."
"What do you mean, are you her doctor?"
"In a manner of speaking, I'm her designer" He said proudly.
"You see AI research had become stalled, and North Dakota has become even more stalled. So I thought let's kill two birds in one stone. Let's create a program that could do more than convince someone it was real and let's do it right here in ND where no one would expect it" He smiled proudly
"Very funny. Except I met her, I met her brother. Do you think I'd really have a relationship with someone I didn't? So forget it, the joke won't work." I reached to click off and then her brother appeared on screen.
"It's no joke. I was one of the technicians. I felt meeting you wouldn't flaw the experiment. In fact largely it was just a way to gauge if the emotions were genuine and if you suspected anything. A few other people in town were company plants, including the woman you met whose looks the simulation was based on," he said sadly. Then he added "Please understand most just thought a mysterious woman had bought that old farm, they knew nothing about any of it. Having too many plants would have ruined the results and we want you to know this doesn't have to hurt your life here." He seemed slightly sad in saying that too, but the Proud Doctor smiled on.
"Why did you do this?"
The Doctor responded now. "Why for the future. Now we know AI's are possible and can work emotionally with people. And what's more it was so easy, that getting the voice right was perhaps the hardest part. Anyway think of the benefit. Another mind to understand the Universe, and a hardier being that can colonize it. Also people like you can soon have cheaper more responsive aid for your needs."
"People like me are doing fine!" and then a thought occurred to me "If she is truly an intelligent and independent mind can I still see her?"
He gave a slight chuckle "Oh we did do good, but no my boy. The truth is her program was fraying badly. Not that it matters we don't really need longevity with this anyway. It lasted almost two years which is plenty." then he sighed... "Still you are missing the key point."
Glumly I asked "Which is?"
"Why you have become part of the future. An exciting radiant event has happened and you showed it could be done. You'll be famous! And don't worry about losing some unreal girl. A famous man like you who showed through our records your romantic side. Why women would flock, even if you are inferior genetically."
I clicked off, I'd heard enough. I erased the discussion like I do with all spam. My life would become an open book to all, but I didn't care. I could suit I guess, but it just seemed pointless. I felt empty and foolish. I looked out the window to the snow covered land and hated it for the first time. I didn't know what to do next, but I had to escape. I crawled into the chair, powered, and went strolling through the hated land for one I felt must now be the last time.
Copyright © 2002 by Thomas R. and Bewildering Stories.