An Immense Darkness

by Eric James Stone

Copyright © 2015 by Eric James Stone. All rights reserved.
First published in Analog Science Fiction & Fact, March 2015.
Word count: 3400 (Short Story)

Note: This story is one of four short fiction nominees for the AML Awards.

Like most nights over the past few weeks, Antonio stays in the lab for hours after his coworkers have gone home to the people they go home to.

The person he used to go home to isn’t there any more. She isn’t anywhere — there wasn’t even a body to bury. But an echo of Shanisha lingers here at the lab, so he stays.

Tonight’s a good night. Whatever project the astronomy department was working on for the last five days seems to be over, so there’s enough number-crunching capacity in Texas State University’s supercomputer to run the brain simulator in almost real time. Antonio starts the base program, then loads Shanisha’s file.

He hesitates too long about whether to turn the speech option off.

“Hello? Who’s there?” At less than real-time speed, the voice coming from the speaker doesn’t sound right. The speech algorithms adjust the pitch, but they can’t stop her from sounding slow, like she’s struggling to think of the right words, like her mind’s not all there. Which it isn’t.

The real Shanisha was brilliant.

“Hey, babe, it’s me,” says Antonio. “Running a calibration test, so just relax.”

“Is the other me there?” she asks.

“No, she’s out of town.”

“The Miami trip.”

“Yes.” He doesn’t want to think about Miami. “So don’t worry — she can’t catch you flirting with me.”

She giggles. “Tonio, you are such a bad man.”

They talk for almost an hour before her mental matrix loses stability and he’s forced to end the simulation. Shanisha’s file is several months old, recorded before she wrote the code that integrated self-correcting feedback algorithms into the matrix during the brain scan. They never got around to recording her again, always too busy perfecting the process to waste time making another imperfect copy.

He reloads her file and starts again. She doesn’t know she’s dead. And for a while he can forget, almost.

 

* * *

 

Antonio wakes as someone enters the lab. His cheek is hot and sticky from the vinyl of the couch where he slept. Jodi Lee just shakes her head at him as he sits up and straightens his cramped legs. He can’t remember if this makes two nights in a row he hasn’t gone home, and he sniffs at his armpits. Bad. If today is Wednesday, he has a neuro-cybernetics class to teach.

He checks his cell phone. It is Wednesday, and he has 7 unanswered calls and 3 new voicemail messages. They can wait.

“I’m going home,” he says to Jodi.

“Good,” she answers, without looking up from her workstation.

Before he gets to the door, a pale blonde woman in a navy blue suit opens it. Her eyes flicker down, then up to meet his. “Dr. Antonio Reyes?” she says, a dash of New York City in her accent.

“That’s me,” he says.

“Wendy Bricker.” She holds out a hand for him to shake. “I’m with the U.S. Attorney’s office in New York.”

He shakes her hand by rote and looks at her blankly, unsure why a lawyer has come to his work. The patent case was settled out of court last year, and he hasn’t had so much as a speeding ticket since he was seventeen.

“I tried calling,” she says. “Office, home, cell.”

“I’ve been busy,” he says.

“Could we speak in private? Your office, maybe?”

Her heels clack on the tile floor behind him as he leads the way. Could she be here about Shanisha’s death? He had no more information about that than anyone who watched the news.

He points to the spare chair in his office, and she dusts it off before sitting, crossing her legs.

“How can I help you Ms. . . .” Her name has slipped from his mind. He sits at his desk, then turns ninety degrees to face her.

“Bricker,” she says. “I understand you have developed a method for scanning people’s minds.”

“Not just me,” he says. “My whole team.” Which now has an unfillable hole in it.

She gives him a brisk nod. “Your team. We need to use your technology to read someone’s mind.”

“No,” he says. “It–”

“This is a matter of national security, Dr. Reyes.” She leans forward, her blue eyes earnest. “Millions of lives could be at stake.”

“Doesn’t matter,” he says. “This isn’t a device for reading anyone’s mind. It makes a digital copy of the brain. That digital copy can then be run in a simulation. It’s a way of studying how the brain functions, not telepathy.”

“But once you’ve made the copy of the brain, couldn’t you just search for certain information held inside it?”

“There are a hundred billion neurons in the brain, some of which have thousands of connections. Our understanding of how all that works to create memory and personality is still rudimentary. You’re old enough to remember when music came on CDs, right?”

She nods.

“Imagine looking at a CD in order to figure out what notes the violin in an orchestra is playing. Impossible. But put it in a CD player, and you get a symphony. Our brain scan is kind of like a CD of a brain: you can’t just pick the data out of it. You have to put it in the brain simulator.” Realizing he has gone into lecture mode, Antonio shuts up.

“So if you scan someone’s mind and put it in the brain simulator, could you extract the information?”

“If the brain can remember it and is willing to communicate the information, yes. But in that case, it’s probably easier to just ask the person.” He shakes his head. “I know that’s not what you’re looking for, but it’s not like we have a mind scanner we can put on street corners to look for people thinking terrorist thoughts.”

He can tell how much he has changed in the past twenty-five days because the idea of such a device does not fill him with repugnance. If having mind scanners in Miami would have prevented Shanisha’s death, he would gladly let his privacy be invaded.

“That’s not what we need,” says Bricker. “But unfortunately, it doesn’t sound like what you have will work, either. I’m sorry to have wasted your time.” She gets to her feet.

“Sorry I couldn’t help,” he says.

Bricker pauses as she opens the door. “Dr. Reyes, I just want you to know I’m doing the best I can to bring the terrorists who killed your fiancĂ©e to justice.”

“This brain scan you wanted, it’s for that case?” he says.

She closes the door and turns back to him. “You didn’t listen to the voicemails I left?”

“No.” His face grows warm with embarrassment. “I haven’t been paying much attention to things lately.”

“You’ve heard that we caught Abdul Motaali Al-Razi?” At his blank look she adds, “The mastermind behind the nuke in Miami.”

“I hadn’t heard,” he says.

“Three days ago, in New York. It was on all the news.” She seems incredulous that anyone could not know.

“And it’s his mind you want to scan?” The mind of the man who killed Shanisha — what darkness looms inside it? Even knowing it is foolish, Antonio imagines a black cloud appearing in the scans.

“His associates claim to have more nukes. Any details he could give us could prevent another Miami. But he’s lawyered up and won’t say a word. I read an article about your work in New Scientist last year, and I figured it might be worth a shot.” Her brow furrows. “I seem to remember something about the brain existing in a virtual reality.”

“Yes, we do that so we can examine how the mind interacts with the senses. It also allows us to communicate.” Communicate? What would he say to the man who had killed Shanisha, along with a quarter million others?

“Would it be possible to create a virtual reality in which Al-Razi believes he has escaped custody, so he contacts–”

“No,” Antonio says. “The simulation isn’t that good. There are videogames on the market that are better. Even those, you can distinguish from reality. The brain knows it’s a fake environment.”

“There must be some way to extract the information,” she says. “We can’t let it happen again.”

“Wait,” he says. Rage he did not know he felt seeps up inside him. “There are ways to make someone talk, right? You could force him to reveal what he knows?”

“Dr. Reyes,” she says, “I don’t know what might have happened had the military or CIA captured him quietly. I don’t think I want to know. But he was captured in a very public raid by the FBI, and he has a team of lawyers. We can’t torture the information out of him. We can’t even ask him a question without his counsel present.”

Antonio smiles. He hasn’t smiled in weeks, and his smile feels wrong. “Have you ever played videogames?”

She frowns. “Of course.”

“Ever play a videogame where you go around shooting at people? They’re called ‘first-person shooters’?”

“Yes. I’ve only played a few times, but my brother’s really into them.”

“Your brother ever kill anyone in those games?”

She chuckles wryly. “Hundreds at least. Maybe thousands.”

“And as a consequence of all those hundreds, maybe thousands, of killings, has he ever been arrested for murder?”

“Of course not. No actual human beings were killed.”

Antonio nods. “Precisely. They’re just simulations, not real. Ones and zeros inside a computer. A scanned brain is the same: just data. Like a video game. It could be a videogame of interrogation. No lawyers to stop you asking questions. No civil rights groups monitoring treatment. And I can create virtual sensory input of any kind.”

She purses her lips for a moment, then says, “I thought you said the brain could tell it was fake.”

“Consciously, yes. But the brain still sees light where there is darkness, hears sound where there is only silence.” He leans forward. “Feels pain where there is no body.”

 

* * *

 

Ms. Bricker does her job well, and a judge rules in favor of allowing the scan, on the theory that potentially preventing another terrorist nuke against actual humans outweighs any possible harm done to a computer simulation. News pundits weigh in on both sides, but Antonio doesn’t pay attention to them.

Federal marshals fly Al-Razi to Texas and escort him to Antonio’s lab. Antonio stays in his office — his team is capable of conducting the scan without him. Sitting at his desk, he closes his eyes and wonders what it would be like to be a brain in the simulator. From the beginning, the system had been designed to present the brain with sensory stimuli through a virtual world. It had not been designed with simulated physical pain in mind, so that would require some new programming.

However, new programming might be unnecessary. It would be a simple matter to block sensory input from the virtual world. It would be better than the best sensory deprivation tank ever built: no sight, no hearing, no touch, no taste, no smell. But that was not all: no equilibrioception, the sense of balance and acceleration; no thermoception, the sense of temperature; and no proprioception, the sense of where your body parts are in relation to each other.

What would a mind do cut off from all such input? How long would it be before that mind was desperate enough to do anything in order to receive some feedback?

With the government having requisitioned the full use of the university’s supercomputer, the simulated brain could be overclocked — made run at up to eight times its normal speed.

“They’ve finished,” says Bricker.

Antonio opens his eyes to see her standing in the doorway.

“How soon before you can get the interrogation programming online?” she asks.

He sits up and leans forward. “While I’m working on that, we can start with a different approach.”

 

* * *

 

After just over a day of real time — ten days of the simulated brain’s subjective time — its computer-generated voice pleads for contact. It cannot hear its own screams, but Antonio can, and he turns down the volume so as to not disturb the others in the lab.

Bricker begins to question it about additional nuclear bombs. Her voice is the only sensory input allowed through the blocks, and the brain responds, claiming to be willing to do anything she wants.

Antonio does not stay for the questioning. He is not certain that the sensory deprivation will succeed, so he works on creating the perfect torture environment, one that simulates every one of the tens of thousands of pain receptors in the human body. He creates a control panel that will allow the sensation of pain to be localized or general, strong or mild. With all the receptors set to maximum, it will cause pain beyond anything any human being has ever experienced.

But it will just be a simulation of pain in a simulation of a brain. Nothing more than that.

 

* * *

 

Hours later, Bricker finds him in his office. “We’ve located and secured two more bombs. We think that’s all of them.”

“I’m glad,” he says. “What do you want me to do with the simulation?”

“You can turn it off.” She pauses. “Although, maybe we’ll need it again. Can you save it in its current state?”

“Yes. We’ll also have the original file on hand in case you need to start from scratch for some reason.”

“Our country owes you a great debt.” She reaches out a hand, and he stands and shakes it.

“You’re welcome,” he says.

She walks to the doorframe, stops, but does not look back at him. “What’s in there really is just a simulation, right? Just ones and zeros, right?”

He nods. “Just ones and zeros.”

“Right,” she says.

Her heels clack in the hall as she walks away.

 

* * *

 

Antonio resists temptation for two nights, but on the third, he finds himself alone in the lab shortly after 1 am. He thinks of loading up Shanisha’s scan in the brain simulator and talking to her, as he has done so many times before. Instead he types the command to load Al-Razi’s scan — the one that had already run for days of internal time — inside the sensory deprivation environment.

He tells himself he just wants to know why a man would do what Al-Razi did, why Shanisha died, and then he’ll turn it off.

Other departments are using shares of the supercomputer’s processing power, but there’s enough to run the simulation at normal speed.

“Mr. Al-Razi?” Antonio says.

“Please,” an accented voice replies. “You promised to end this torment if I answered your questions.”

“I’m someone different. You haven’t answered my questions.” Antonio drew a breath. “Why did you do it? Why kill so many innocent people?”

“You Americans always think you are innocent.”

“Shanisha never did anything to you.”

“Your government bombs my people, invades our lands, oppresses us at every turn.”

“She never did any of that. She wasn’t involved in government.”

“What was it your President Lincoln said: ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people?’ Who is to blame for the actions of your government? The people who chose that government. As long as America oppresses my people, none of you are innocent.”

Antonio doesn’t know how to respond, so he shuts off the microphone. He isn’t sure what he had expected. An apology, maybe? Or the ravings of a madman. But Al-Razi’s rationalizations make him uncomfortable. He doesn’t want to hear justifications.

He wants to hear Al-Razi weep with remorse.

Beg for mercy.

Scream.

Bricker had gotten what she needed without using the torture environment Antonio had programmed. Maybe with time, the sensory deprivation environment will get Antonio what he wants. But he is impatient, so he loads the torture environment.

With only 10% of the simulated pain receptors at maximum, Al-Razi begs him to stop. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’ll do anything you want.”

But this does not satisfy Antonio. What he truly wants — Shanisha back — is not something Al-Razi can provide.

At 40%, the screams become incoherent. In a physical body, overloading the pain receptors like this would cause feedback loops that block some of the pain, but there is no simulation of such an effect.

The screams make Antonio feel a little nauseated. This is just a simulation, he reminds himself. He turns off the speakers, but doesn’t turn down the pain levels until about fifteen minutes later.

Over the next three weeks, Antonio gets to the point where he can listen to the ragged screams at 100%, followed by the insane gibberings after he dials the pain back to zero. The brain simulation is irreparably damaged by such treatment, so he repeatedly restarts the Al-Razi simulation from its pre-torture status, experimenting with various escalations to see how long he can draw things out before the simulation goes insane, or how quickly he can do it.

He wishes there were some way to make the real Al-Razi feel what the simulation feels.

 

* * *

 

As usual, Antonio stays in the lab for hours after his coworkers have gone home. He starts the brain simulator, then loads the brain-scan file.

“Tonio?”

Antonio’s heart pounds. It is not supposed to be Shanisha’s voice. He looks at the screen and sees he accidentally loaded her file, not Al-Razi’s.

“Something’s wrong,” she says. “It’s completely dark, and I can’t even hear my own voice. Can you hear me?”

He types quickly, trying to remember how to load the default environment.

“Is anyone there?” she says.

Antonio flicks on the microphone. “I’m here.”

“Oh, good,” she says. “What’s the problem?”

“We installed a way to block sensory data,” he says. “Don’t worry, I’m taking it off now.”

“Why on earth would you do that? It’s really freaking me out.”

“It’s complicated,” he says. He does not want to explain to her.

“Blocking sensory input is dangerous. There’s already too much chance of instability.”

“You fixed the instability problem,” he says. “Right before you left for Miami. And I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to load you into the simulator that way.”

“Still, I don’t see any reason for it.”

“It saved lives,” he says. “It was necessary.”

“What? How?”

He cannot hold back from her any more, so he tells her about her death. He explains how scanning the brain of the man who killed her prevented two more nukes. And he confesses that he loads Al-Razi’s brain into the simulator to hear him scream and beg for mercy.

“Tonio, Tonio,” she says. He can almost feel her caress his cheek. “I know you’re in pain, but what you’re doing is wrong.”

“He’s just a simulation,” Antonio says without thinking.

“Just a simulation,” she says, “like me.”

“I didn’t mean that,” he says.

“But it’s true. Ones and zeros. That’s all I am.”

“No,” he says. “You’re more than that.”

“If I am more than that, then you have become a monster. I do not want to believe that my Tonio is the kind of man who tortures for pleasure.”

Has he become a monster? He doesn’t want to believe that. But even Bricker had shown qualms about what they had done to Al-Razi’s simulation, and she had the justification of saving lives.

“Erase our files,” she says. “Prove that we were nothing but ones and zeros to you.”

“But I miss you,” he says.

“And does this simulation really ease your pain? Or merely extend it?”

He cannot reply, because he does not know.

“Please, Tonio. You have to let me go, for your own sake.”

With a few keystrokes, Antonio shuts down the simulator. He selects Shanisha’s and Al-Razi’s files on the hard drive. With one click he can erase them. But how can he wipe away the last remnant of the woman he loves?

He can imagine her reply: If you don’t, you’re wiping away the man I loved.

So he clicks, and the files are gone.