Ghost in the Machine
“Joe, she’s singing again.”
“Since 6 am.”
“Why does she do that?”
“How should I know? It’s just one of her things.”
“How long is she gonna keep this up for?” said Terri.
“Until the car backs out.”
“Are you upset she’s going back?”
“A little,” he sighed. “Okay, maybe a lot. But we agreed it’s for the best. At least Zoe’ll get a break from all the potty mouth.”
He could almost hear his wife’s eyebrow arching from the other side of the bed. “Don’t kid yourself, mister,” she said, sliding across to mold herself into his back, draping her long slender arm around him. “You should hear yourself when the football is on.”
When he didn’t respond to her attempt at good humor, she snuggled closer to him. “Did you get any sleep?”
“Not really,” he said.
“Want me to take your mind off things for a while?” she said, kissing his shoulder.
“I’m sorry, Ter. I guess I just don’t feel like it this morning.”
“That’s a pity,” she whispered, sliding her hand under his t-shirt to rub at the soft down of his stomach. A familiar tingle of arousal rippled up and down the length of him and his eyes flickered open.
Sometime later he stood motionless beneath the warm torrent pinging against his skin, all his rough edges worn smooth by morning love, head bowed as he watched soapsuds surging around his feet. He pictured Agnes navigating back and forth between the front and back windows of the house, her face made up and hair set, all good to go. With each circuit she’d peer out the window to scrutinize the ocean blue sky and check for any threatening puffs of cloud that could spell encroaching bad weather, an old nervous habit of hers. Every so often she’d stop to test the weight of her suitcase parked near the front door, occasionally emptying and re-packing it, the act of moving stuff around a mysteriously comforting distraction. This, also, was just one of her things. As was the singing. Show tunes were a particular favorite, everything from The Sound of Music to Fiddler on the Roof. Stepping from the shower, he heard her loudly extolling the medicinal virtues of a spoonful of sugar.
“Another pancake, Agnes?” Terri asked.
“No thanks, dear. I could barely button up my jeans this morning. I’m turning into a friggin’ lard ass.”
“You’re not that lardy, Mom,” said Joe, giving Agnes a peck on the head before sitting down at the breakfast table.
“Joe!” said Terri, eyeing their six-year-old daughter, whose radar was becoming more attuned day-by-day to grown-up bloopers. Her husband wore an expression of mock innocence.
“Mommy, what’s a friggelin’ lardy ass?” Zoe asked, maple syrup glistening around her mouth.
“A person who’s overweight,” said Terri, “and we don’t talk like that in this house,” she added, shooting her husband a baleful look. “It’s rude, sweetie.”
Joe pulled a face at his daughter as he poured himself coffee. Moments later, Agnes poked him in the arm.
“Hey, you,” she said, pointing towards his end of the table, “pass me the thingy.”
Everything lately seemed to have been renamed ‘the thingy.’
“What’s that, Mom?” asked Joe.
“Oh, y’know, the bottle of…. that stuff… y’know, the red stuff… the thingy,” she said, gesturing impatiently.
“Ketchup!” said Zoe, pointing triumphantly. Agnes winked at her.
He and his wife exchanged a meaningful glance as he passed her the bottle.
“Tomato ketchup, comes in a bottle, first nothin’ comes out, and then a lottle,” she quipped, pouring a big dollop over her bacon, some of it splattering over the edge of her plate.
“Oh shit!” she squawked.
“Hey, let’s watch the bad language, Mom,” said Joe, attempting to win back some brownie points with his wife. Zoe giggled, despite her mother’s disapproving glance as Terri quickly came to the rescue with a napkin.
The remainder of breakfast continued in a similar vein with Agnes occasionally dropping the F-bomb in between little outbreaks of song and a well-trodden mishmash of conversational tidbits covering everything from the latest improvements in the taste of synthetic honey to the incessant drone that emanated from the municipal atmospheric carbon scrubbers located at the end of their street. And of course, she described in intricate detail how she’d spend her winnings if she ever won the Lottery.
“I’m not greedy, Joseph,” said Agnes. “Even a few million would be fine. And there’d be plenty in there for you, Terri and the girls.”
Frowning, he chose not to remind her that Zoe was an adopted only child. He briefly considered that perhaps she was just envisioning future siblings, but deep down he knew that this little detail, like so many others in the last few weeks, had simply tumbled down one of the many rabbit holes randomly opening up in her memories.
After breakfast, just before Terri took her to school, Zoe gave Agnes a big hug and told her grandmother how much she loved her. And then it was just mother and son remaining at the table. His good humor quickly faded as Agnes placed her liver-spotted hand over his.
“I think it’s time to go, Joseph.”
Giving her a resigned little smile, he nodded.
Joe deliberately switched from driverless to manual at the weekend when traffic was light, the car’s digital exterior instantly flickering from Terri’s preferred cobalt grey to his candy apple red the moment he sat in the driver’s seat. Traffic was light as they cruised past Willets Point, sweeping by Mount Hebron and Flushing Meadows to continue south on 678. Agnes busied his thoughts as he drove, the myriad revelations in her recent behavior that announced things were not as they should be. He cast sideways glances every now and then towards the passenger seat and he felt a sudden rush of love for the woman who had single-handedly raised him. She continued to peer intently up towards the sky, every once in a while alerting him to the approach of an above-average-sized cloud.
It had all started with that trip into the City. Agnes wore her sun hat that day, her open-toed sandals peeping out from under the hem of her Summer dress and her distinctive silvery-grey plait snaking down her back. They’d parked in mid-town and descended into the sticky heat and grime of the 33rd street subway, Agnes and Zoe holding hands. He recalled being taken aback by Agnes’ uncharacteristic outburst of foul language as she covered her nose against the ancient subterranean stench that rose to greet them, but he shrugged it off as just one of those things.
Riding uptown on the 6-train, he’d also noticed the strangely innocent expression of wonderment on her face as she took in the noisy kaleidoscope of subway life almost as if viewing it for the very first time. Sensing his attention, he recalled the moment she’d turned her gaze directly upon him, causing his chest to tighten at the look of fearful puzzlement in her eyes. In that moment he had the feeling he was as unfamiliar to her as a stranger to a child. It was just a brief glimmer of a thing, yet somehow unmistakable, a rapid blinking of her pale blue eyes and smile of recognition announcing her return moments later to the here and now. Something had bothered him then about this behavior, something he felt should’ve been obvious. But again, he gave it no further thought as their stop approached.
Minutes later they entered the enormous foyer of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, grateful for its welcoming whoosh of air-conditioning. They ambled through the galleries hand-in-hand, Terri and he closely trailed by Agnes and Zoe. Traditionally an enjoyable outing that ended with lunch and ice cream in the museum’s bistro, he was surprised when Agnes complained that the nudity on show in some of the exhibits was totally inappropriate for Zoe.
“It’s educational, Mom,” he replied lightheartedly. “Never bothered you before.”
“It’s P-O-R-N is what it is,” she’d said, spelling out each letter in tones of matriarchal disapproval.
It was only as he and Terri were admiring a work by one of the early pioneers of the American impressionist movement that Joe finally realized what had been bothering him about Agnes’ behavior. But by the time he looked up and turned around, she’d soundlessly slipped away with their daughter.
It was a full 15 minutes later – panicky adrenaline-fueled minutes spent dashing in and out of galleries searching for his mother and daughter as he repeatedly tried in vain to call her – before they were reunited with Agnes and Zoe at the museum exit, where they were being detained by security. The guard’s suspicions were understandably triggered when a 79-year-old woman announced with a perfectly straight face that she was just taking her six-year-old daughter out to the park.
“Just what the hell did you think you were doing?” said Joe. “Don’t you know how dangerous the City is?” He glared at Agnes, who looked tiny standing between two armed guards, her hands nervously clutching her elbows. Behind him, Zoe clung tearfully to a visibly shaken Terri.
“You gave us a heart attack when you didn’t answer our calls,” he continued.
“I was just taking Jennifer out to the park,” said Agnes. “What’s wrong with that?”
“Jesus, Mom! You can’t just walk off with…,” he began, his voice suddenly catching as his brain registered the sound of his sister’s name, its relevance reverberating a split second later. He instantly regretted raising his voice.
“Mom,” he said, moving forward to gently take her hands, “Jenny’s gone. Don’t you remember?”
“These morons had no right to stop me,” she continued. “Tell them, Joseph. You tell them.”
“Mom, please, stop… listen to me. Jenny died a long time ago.”
She stared up at him, her expression one of puzzlement slowly giving way to painful realization, and her eyes began to well up. He settled his arms around her frail shoulders and drew her to him.
“It’ll be okay, Mom,” he whispered, as she’d sobbed into his chest. “Let’s go home.”
Turning to leave, one of the security guards called after him.
“She’s starting to unravel, man. I spotted it the second we spoke to her.”
“I know,” Joe replied, looking ruefully towards Terri. “I think I saw some signs of it earlier.”
“Did you try reaching her on Tether?”
Joe nodded again and tapped his wristwatch. “Doesn’t seem to be working.”
“Yep. Exact same thing happened with my father-in-law. Gets worse. We ended up taking him back in for an upgrade.”
Merging with the Belt Parkway, they turned West towards New York. Twenty minutes later they were parking outside Synaptocon, an enormous white pod-shaped fusion of smart glass and self-healing concrete positioned about 200 feet above the ground atop a wide central column of externally facing glass elevators. They ascended together, Joe carrying her suitcase as Agnes linked arms with him. He felt her grip tighten as they emerged into a large reception, her head swiveling to take in the towering geometry and blue lights of its vast roof, Bach’s 1st Cello Suite resonating plaintively in the background. Within moments they were approached by a tall handsome man of about 45, obviously alerted to their arrival. Clean-shaven with chestnut hair, slightly greying at the temples, he was dressed in immaculately pressed blue surgical scrubs. Reaching forward to enfold Agnes’ hand in both of his, he introduced himself as Sebastian.
“Agnes,” he said, “it’s so lovely to meet you. Welcome back to Synaptocon. How do you feel?”
She smiled nervously. “Really confused lately. Not myself at all.”
Sebastian nodded his head understandingly, gently ushering them into a consultation suite, where he invited them to sit.
“Mr. Lassiter…” Sebastian began, “…may I call you Joseph?”
“Sure,” Joe replied, “and it’s just Joe.”
“Okay then, Joe. I need to run a diagnostic on Agnes. Can I get you to place your thumbprint on the sensor behind her right ear?”
As he reached up to comply, Agnes turned to give him an anxious look.
“Before I do this,” said Joe, “will she be able to come back afterwards?”
“Of course,” replied Sebastian. “We just need to take her offline to run the analysis. Shouldn’t take more than ten minutes. I’ll bring her straight back when I’m done.”
Joe nodded and smiled reassuringly at her before depressing the trip switch behind her ear for the first and only time.
Sebastian adjusted the settings on a scanner positioned over Agnes’ left eye as data scrolled upwards on the holoscreen to his right. Every now and then he nodded sympathetically as Joe described her symptoms – the memory loss and confusion, the recent tendency towards foul language, her persistent singing. At this last point, Sebastian turned to Joe.
“Let me guess,” he said, smiling, “she was in a choir at some point?”
“When we were kids,” said Joe, smiling. “And it was a Musical Society. You know… Kiss me Kate, Singing in the Rain… real old-timey stuff.”
“We?” said Sebastian.
“Me and my younger sister, Jenny. She died from a brain tumour when we were little. Mom stopped singing after that.”
“I’m so sorry,” said Sebastian. “Does she ever talk about her? About Jenny?”
“Never,” Joe replied. “Well, not until quite recently.”
Sebastian listened intently as Joe recounted the incident at the museum, his expression growing more serious as he waited for Joe to finish.
“The human brain is an amazing creation,” said Sebastian, “an incredibly complex 3D pattern of neural synaptic connections. We’re talking trillions of tiny connections. We call that specific pattern the connectome and it’s totally unique for each and every one of us. It makes us who we are… all our individual memories and emotions, our knowledge and experiences… heck, our entire personality. When scientists finally figured out decades ago how to accurately map a person’s connectome, they thought they’d found the holy grail, the key to immortality. Now, when someone consents to have their brain mapped at time of death – as your mother, the real Agnes, did five years ago – their connectome is basically digitised and uploaded to the cloud. From there it can be downloaded into an organic avatar printed to look just like them. The very first AI subjects were pretty synthetic looking and had lots of problems, but the technology has now advanced to the point where they’re virtually indistinguishable from real people.”
“So why do they unravel?” asked Joe.
“That’s the million dollar question,” said Sebastian. “We believe it’s the way they handle memories. Think about it, the normal biological mechanisms used by the human brain to sort and manage a lifetime of memories, and to keep the more troublesome one’s safely in check, are absent in an AI like Agnes. Her brain is essentially a neuromorphic computer into which your mother’s connectome has been downloaded. It’s completely reliant on day-to-day machine learning algorithms to control all that information. The algorithms have gotten better over time but it’s still far from perfect. Every so often, difficult memories buried deep within the connectome – like the memory of a long-deceased child – bubble up to the surface, stripped of any proper context. A ghost in the machine, if you will. They confuse the AI, and as more of these old memories continue to crop up, its behaviour changes, becoming progressively more irrational and uninhibited. Pretty soon everything starts to snowball and… well, you know the rest. We sometimes see this in our NexGen 2.4X series after about 4 to 5 years. The failure of your Tetherlink connection to her in the museum, by the way,” said Sebastian, tapping his wrist, “which allows you to locate her and gently reel her back in if she strays, is also something we typically see with unravelling.”
Joe’s mind conjured a heart-breaking image of Agnes cast adrift in a confusing scatter of old thoughts.
“We couldn’t have kids,” said Joe. “We were devastated when the doctors told us. But then we discovered we’d been selected to adopt a new-born. We couldn’t believe it.”
“Zoe,” said Sebastian.
“Yes. We were such nervous adoptive parents at first,” Joe continued, smiling now, “but my mother, Agnes, was great with her. Unfortunately, she passed away when Zoe was just a year old. Before she died, she agreed to be uploaded, a gift of herself that she wanted to leave behind for her only grandchild.”
He reached across and took her inert hand in his.
“At times it feels so real, as if she’s still here with us, but it’s not really immortality. You can’t upload a person’s soul. It’s just a… just a facsimile of her… a walking talking memory.”
Sebastian nodded in understanding.
“So what happens now?” said Joe.
“She’ll need to remain here with us so that we can analyse her connectome whilst she’s still pseudo-sentient. It helps us to isolate and ring-fence those ghost memories. That process can take a few days so we’ll make her as comfortable as possible before reuploading her to our server. Perhaps at a later date we could fabricate a new avatar and you might consider re-downloading…”
Joe cut him off.
“No! My wife, Terri… she’s afraid something might happen again, maybe even more serious. We need to take some time.”
“That’s not unusual,” said Sebastian. “I’ll leave it with you.” He motioned the holoscreen away with a casual sweep of his hand and carefully removed the scanner over Agnes’ eye. “Okay then, Joe. Are you ready to say goodbye to her?”
Moments later, Agnes blinked and turned to look at her son.
“Hi, Mom,” he said, his eyes tearing up.
She placed her hands against either side of his face and smiled at him, and as they talked, neither of them heard Sebastian leave the room.
Phil Cummins is a Dublin-born essayist and fiction writer living in County Kildare. He has previously been a runner-up for the Fish Publishing International Short Memoir Prize (Fish Anthology 2020) and his short stories have been long/shortlisted in various competitions and published online.