Chasing Stars: Chapter 2

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Markus didn't live too far away. He went down to the main floor of the building and approached the row of meter wide circular holes in the wall. They opened onto waiting road pods docked on the other side. They were plain and uninteresting looking, but were fully autonomous, and for the most part had entirely replaced private vehicles.

Some people still drove their own vehicle for the raw enjoyment of it though, and they had their own private specialty vehicles which they had to pilot themselves, some were modern, some classic. It was something you might do on the weekends for fun, take it to the track, cruise the streets... but nobody just drove themselves back and forth on their daily commute to work. One exception, was those who drove their own vehicle out of a pathological distrust of machine intelligence. For people such as these, in their largely automated society, having to drive themselves was only the beginning of their challenge.

He seated himself inside the vehicle which looked like a futuristically boring version of an old Volkswagen Beetle. Directing his thoughts to the centre console, his brain chip interfaced with the vehicle's systems, and the light indicating that the system was listening for commands switched from red to green. A gender neutral, ethnically ambiguous homunculus of a face appeared on the screen above the light as the door swung down and winched closed. "480 Robson Street," he requested.

The sort of face smiled and nodded, and then turned around to drive, showing the back of its non-descript head. Markus watched out the window as the city passed by. It was a grey day in March, the sky a sheet of wax paper lit from a candle far beyond. The people seemed busy enough while going through the motions of their day to day existence. He wondered the same thing about them as he wondered about everyone else. Why did they bother getting out of bed in the morning? What did they force their next breath in and out for? What animated them and gave their life any kind of driving force? Just not dying? Could that really be enough for other people?

In his experience most, not all but most, kept on living their lives out of little more than instinct. They just never thought about it; it never occurred to them to wonder. Markus used to go around asking most people he met why they lived, and he found it usually just made people either confused, angry, or both. He was pretty sure that his emptiness stemmed from not having an answer to this question himself. His purpose in life at the moment was little more than sheer hedonism. He was living a life he was comfortable with, while pursuing whatever pleasures pleased him. He considered it an advantage to at least be able to recognize his dilemma, figuring it probably worse to be unhappy without understand why. He went back and forth on whether or not he was right about this though, and it generally depending on his mood at any given time.

The pod drove up and aligned itself along the outer wall of his building, and then its door swung up into the building lobby for Markus to disembark. The face turned around, and then with a smile and a nod the screen below indicted how much had been charged from his account. Public mass transit was free, ubiquitous, and convenient, so road pods were usually unnecessary and something of a luxury for those of means and those impoverished of time.

He entered the elevator and once the doors closed it began its climb halfway up the building. The mirror suggested that he at least looked more presentable than when he'd awoke that day. His residence was a balance between the level of comfort his last name provided him, and a level of wealth his coworkers could wonder at, but not necessarily be suspicious of. A short walk from the elevator he entered his home.

His girlfriend Molly rushed to the door to greet him.

"Markus! Where have you been? Why didn't you contact me?" she asked with a convincing performance of deep concern.

"Oh shit, yeah sorry, I just had too much after work last night and crashed there. Then I had to go see my brother afterwards in the morning before coming home."

"Oh. You were partying after work again..."

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing. Well, it's just... I wish you'd invite me sometimes, you know? Or... at least tell me where you are when you don't come home? You know? I mean I could ask, but I don't want to overstep, I know we're just..."

"Hey..." he lifted his chin for her to look at him. "We're just what?"

"Well I mean I'm just-"

"Hey," he cut her off, "you're not just anything. You're an amazing woman, and I'm an inconsiderate asshole. Honestly it just never occurred to me to say anything to you. I'm sorry. I should have."

Molly was quiet for a time. Markus suspected what was coming and he was right.

"It's because I'm not real." She didn't seem fishing for him to plead otherwise, just resigned to a sad reality. "So I don't count..."

Markus sat down beside her and let out a big sigh. He put his arm around her and pulled her to him.

"Oh what does real even mean at the end of the day...?" he eventually softly offered.

Molly used to be what was referred to as a sexim. One of the earliest purposes for advancing simulant technology was for life like sex dolls, but they had become much more than that.

Androids were property, but had rights similar to animals. Whether human empathy or an argued genuine subjectivity in them, they could be bought, sold, and traded, but not overtly abused. Where they were procured for work which was dangerous to them, regulators periodically observed their work environment be ensure they were not being gratuitously abused and damaged in their duties or otherwise.

Simulants on the other hand were, had at this point been perfected to the point that modern constructions were utterly indistinguishable from genuine human beings, thought easily available tools could detect them fairly easily. They looked, felt, and smelt absolutely real. They breathed, ate, drank, excreted, and slept.

It turned out that synthesizing an original artificial personality was incredibly challenging. They were always somewhat less convincingly human. The most convincing simulants were modelled off of a real person, preferably a currently living person who was a willing participant in the process.

They gathered data from multiple sources with different points of view. People described themselves one way, and those who knew them described them a different way. Combine that with a person's lifetime of online activity history and brain chip telemetry, and people could be simulated rather convincingly, even to those who knew the subject very well. Blendings of personalities were also usually successful, as well as selected alterations from a base model. Either way, the best chances of successful simulation started with the modelling of an original human being.

Sexims like Molly were created to be sold to sexim brothels, and were replicas of famous celebrities past and present. Usually whole series of the subjects were made and distributed around the world. The actual construction of the body had become quite routine at this point, leaving it the simulation of their personality that still took up the bulk of the time, expertise, and expense.

Molly was the 14th unit in her production run. She was a simulant recreation of Maggie King, a pop idol Markus was infatuated with when he was too young to know better than to ever idolize any celebrities. Simulation of existing persons required their consent before fifty years after their death, so contemporaries like Maggie King were only simulated (legally) through contract with the model, usually in the twilight of their career when it became time to cash in any way they could. Markus was aware of black market sexim brothels with illegal unlicensed simulations, but without the involvement of the model they were known to be disappointing, and Markus had never bothered finding out for himself. The risk of legal consequence far outweighed any curiosity he had.

The identity and self-awareness of a simulant had to be carefully balanced. They generally existed in one of two modes, either they were self-aware and conscious of their nature from conception, or they were programmed to think they genuinely were the people they were modelled on. The latter was trickier programming since every kind of way they could be confronted with the reality of their existence needed to be accounted for and explained away in a way their intellect could accept.

Sometimes something went wrong though, sometimes there was a glitch. It was suspected to be due to an unhandled identity error being triggered. What followed for afflicted simulants was a long and arduous process of self-discovery. When this could be proven to have happened, they were legally transferred to the cohort of self-aware simulant who had the same rights and responsibilities of any other citizen. Those who did not have this status defaulted to having the legal status of androids.

Molly started to fault in this way about six months earlier. At this time Markus had been a semi regular patron of hers. He'd grown fond of her since he'd started hiring her some years ago, and once she'd flipped and needed a place to be free to safely explore the reality of her existence, he took her in quite readily.

They continued to have sex, but if that was all he wanted there were plenty other Maggie King units out there. Something about her had singularly caught his attention. Maybe it was her nascent journey of self-discovery; he was fascinated with it and wanted to be a part of. Maybe he recognized something of his own journey in hers. Since he'd taken her in, they'd become very much like a real couple, and he'd come to think of her as his girlfriend, if an unorthodox one. He still had trouble sometimes with the expected graces he owed to someone with that rank and title though. For example, forgetting to let her know where he was.

"You need to work on that, you know."

Molly looked up at him with tears welling up in her eyes. "What?" She asked, clearly hurt and surprised.

"No," he chuckled sympathetically, "I mean I need to work on remembering stuff like that for sure, but you also need to work on being more vocal in your needs and expectations. You should have contacted me, asked me where I was when I didn't come home when you expected. It's okay Molly, you don't have to worry about intruding or upsetting me. You're important to me, and it's understandable for you to want to know where I am when I don't come home!"

He pushed some loose long blond hairs back around her ear. She looked up at him vulnerably. "I'm sorry I don't invite you out. But I don't just forget, it's..."

"I know."

"It's not that I'm not embarrassed or anything, it's just... it's a thing, you know? You can't just show up and have it not be a thing, you know? It'll require an explanation I need to be prepared and to offer."

"I understand." She probably did, but it still clearly made her quite unhappy. Markus always felt sick in his bones to see that he'd upset her. "I just don't know where to go or what to do when left on my own. The ability to choose for myself is... it's kind of overwhelming."

Markus chuckled. "Yeah, tell me about it..." After a moment an idea occurred to him. "Hey, why don't you come with me tonight?"

"Really? To What?"
"My brother asked me to participate in this big muckety-muck fundraiser for that crazy generational starship project tonight."

"You'd... you'd really want me to come to something like that with you? Like, like as your date?" She seemed excited at the prospect, but not entirely convinced of his sincerity.

"Yeah, I... I guess that is... what that would mean!" He was just trying to cheer her up when he offered, but she was right. Bringing her as his date would make the evening take on a different set of expectations. As much as he wasn't particularly looking forward to it, it did seem time to out himself as a sim dater. It wasn't taboo or forbidden as much as it was usually just regarded as sad and kind of pathetic. Small man couldn't a get real woman so had one made that couldn't say no, that sort of thing.

If Molly had been a novel sim or based on someone not a celebrity, he could have taken them, and nobody would have to know. There were no obvious outward indications a sim was a sim after all. That was kind of the point. Everyone knew Maggie King though, and with the clear discrepancy between her age now and the apparent age of Molly, nobody was going to mistake Molly for the real thing.

"It's time," he consoled her as he leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. "Tonight is an incredibly big deal for my brother and the company though, so... it just can't become about us. Understand what I mean?" he asked with slightly narrowed eyes.

"I do."

"Alright then! It starts at 7 tonight." He was looking forward to being out with her, it was going to be fun. He figured they'd both have a good time, and he'd also get to enjoy watching her discover herself and make better memories of her own.

"Markus?" Molly asked a touch sheepishly.


"I don't... I don't know if I like parties. I mean I remember them being fun, but I also remember them feeling... empty somehow at them." She was quiet, looking down and mildly fussing with a frill on her sweater.

"Have you ever been to a party?"

"I remember being at parties."

"Sure, but those are Maggie King's memories, right. You don't have to rely on them. They're your memories to draw on as you want, as you need to, but they're not yours. You don't have to acknowledge them or let them affect your decisions if you don't want to. You're a different person now. New yes, but definitely different, and more different the more time passes. For someone like Maggie King, I imagine parties usually meant large rooms where everyone was trying to get something from her, that they'd all flatter her but only to get what they wanted from her."

"Yeah that... that sounds about right."

"Well, you're not her, right? You get to make your own memories now, see if how you feel matches up with how you remember feeling."

She wrapped her arms around one of his and snuggled into him. "You're right. I know you're right, it just gets confusing sometimes. I have all these memories that feel just as much like mine as the ones I've made myself since I was activated. Sometimes I don't even know how to tell which memories are mine and which aren't. Do I have to try to forget those memories? Can I talk about them like they're my own?"

"Good questions, but ones I can't answer that for you. This is unknown territory. People like you aren't that common at this point. There's no rulebook. You're just going to have to figure it out for yourself."

"Just like you."

He nodded with a half-smile. "Just like everyone."

The held each other's gaze through a thoughtful moment before she offered, "No one who's known what I am has ever looked at me like you do. You look at me like I'm real. Thank you."

He playfully poked her in the chest. "Seem pretty real to me."