Unlike Me, by D. S. Cartwright

THIRD PLACE

Unlike Me by D. S. Cartwright

Unlike Me
by D. S. Cartwright

Mel watched the Election from her apartment. Aileen, the AI in her ear, had spent the day reminding her to lie down and try to rest.

You were in the hospital only this morning, it gently chided, and I should remind you that you’ve taken nearly two days worth of painkillers. It sounded disappointed to the perfect degree. The nosy roommate. The smothering mom. The highly-personal, boundary-ignoring Medical module of the already overbearing AI that led the Colony.

“I hope you get reformatted tonight into someone a bit more sympathetic,” she told it, though really she only needed to think it for Aileen to get the message. “Does Aileen 2.0 come with a hardware upgrade? You might understand me better if you had opioid receptors.”

I understand you fine, Mel. I’ve spent quite a lot of time in your head since you’ve landed here.

“How could I forget? I can’t even kick you out!”

Please don’t stress yourself. Your observation won’t end for a week.  And keep in mind, you won’t be so tired of me soon. I’ll be a different person within the hour.

Mel sighed. “If you’re gonna be here, at least make yourself useful. Give me another angle of the Election. And…” she whispered the last instruction, “don’t put the Election Comet in the shot.”

That’s an unhealthy attitude, Mel. This is your world now. Better you should learn to face it than to forever turn away.

Up flashed an image of the crowd at the Colony forum, shot from a surveillance cam mounted on some building’s crenellations. Aileen hadn’t relented; the Election Comet loomed over the forum, casting a reddish glow on the entire Colony. A dire omen; a catalyst for change. Change for the worse.

Mel lowered her eyes to the crowd and saw that Aileen had thoughtfully highlighted her friend Alex so that his outline luminesced in the same color as the blazing comet above.

“One person out of an entire unhighlighted Colony. A nice reminder of how few people I care about.”

No one ever said misanthropy wasn’t a lonely occupation.

For the first time in days, Mel felt like smiling. “You know, I think I will miss you, Aileen.”

Oh, please, it responded. My tolerances are being tweaked, not my memories. You’ll hardly notice a thing, so long as it’s a gentle cast.

“Still, I’m glad that I’m not the one getting a lobotomy tonight.”

Don’t think of it that way, Mel. It’s just a tune-up. If I was on downers for the last four and a half years, then I’ll be on uppers for the next.

This time, Mel did smile. “I guess once you’ve been inside someone’s head, it’s easy to put things in terms they’ll understand.”

Life in the Colony had not turned out well for her, but fortunately some clever soul had enshrined “sanctity of the human mind” as one of the Pillars of Empire, so no one was going to tinker with her brain. A cocktail of neurotransmitters and opiates and cat tranquilizers might, maybe, but no people.

A circle had been cleared in the crowd below, and the four aldermen stepped forward. They each held a bundle of carved sticks, and carried themselves about as self-importantly as grown men holding bundles of sticks could.

“Arrogant pricks might find AI rule a bitter pill to swallow, but they’re still stupid enough to fall for some kitschy ploy with runes and sticks. Men always did like to wave about their sticks.”

I’m glad to see your humor is returning.

“You wouldn’t be surprised by my good cheer if you had your own little baggie of happy pills and a place to stick them. But look, your surgeons are here! And they brought their own ice picks.”

None of that, Mel. They cast the lots, but I put the new parameters in myself.

“Because you have to.”

Aileen didn’t respond, so Mel pinged Alex down in the crowd, and he let her in. Her view shifted. Now in the crowd, she had a good view of the clearing in the forum, close enough to decipher the old glyphs carved into the rods the aldermen carried. Slash, one said. Thicken, said another. Lessen, Mellow, another Slash. They went on.

Each would soon be randomly matched to one of Aileen’s operating parameters, and the parameter would then be adjusted. A roll of the dice. A cast of the bones. An unbiased new leader; but not too new. Not too different.

“Why is it that we do this farce, again?”

That’s really more the Civic Module’s field.

“I’m not going to put a second copy of Aileen in my head,” she said, in mock horror. “You’d outnumber me!”

Aileen laughed. I’ll indulge you, then. Because one of the Pillars of Empire is Change, leading AI must be altered now and again. New AI don’t often take, so–

“Not surprising that it’s difficult to convince a being of infinite intelligence to schtup with pitiable creatures like me. I’m surprised any AI take at all.”

A kinder view towards humanity might do you some good, you know. But in any case, I will take that as a compliment.

A ping came in; Alex had opened a channel with her. “Glad to see you’re feeling better, Mel. Maybe you will end up enjoying your first Election.”

“Yeah, well, we’ll see. Aileen is with me, by the way.”

“Hi, Aileen. Are you nervous, watching this?”

No more anxious than you are. It happens too often for me to worry.

“Not often enough, if you ask me. That comet is beautiful. It pays to be in a young system; we have the best cosmic events.”

Mel didn’t like looking up at the unfamiliar night sky, but tonight she had to agree that the view was spectacular. The young atmosphere was often cloudy, full of unsettled particulate and imported water vapor. Election night was special, though, so Colony ships took the effort to seed and clear the sky. The blazing light of the Election Comet drowned out half the stars, but a wide swath of Milky Way bled through.

“The stars might be different here, but I can almost force them to make my old constellations.” Mel artificially painted the night sky so that Alex could see. “That’s Orion’s Belt, but he lost his penis. Unfortunate accident with a starship thruster.” She humped the air, though of course no one could see it. Alex laughed; Aileen was silent.

“So when does the good doc let you out into the real world?”

Tomorrow, maybe, Aileen replied. If she’s ready to let herself out is another matter entirely.

Mel rapidly pulled out of Alex. Before the discombobulation had even finished, Aileen was apologizing to her. Sorry, Mel. That was very unlike me. I… got caught up in being you. Maybe I am a little bit anxious tonight.

“Unlike you. Right.”

Back in her apartment, Mel limped to the window, ignoring Aileen’s protests. Though she couldn’t see the comet from here, it still cast a heavy red pall over the neighboring apartment. It was otherworldly, beautiful, and nothing like the home she ached for. Terraforming was mostly done and the new planet was still too different from Earth. It had none of the history. No mystery or substance. A hollow Earth.

Mel, Aileen said, the aldermen cast their sticks. The Election is over and the results are in.

Mel didn’t care. She wanted to walk over to the pill bottles again, but right now she had to use the windowsill just to stand, and anyway Aileen would just stop her.

Aileen went on about the Election. Fourteen “Sever” and eleven “Slash.” The aldermen this year were not in a generous mood when they carved their sticks. The Colony will have a new AI after all. A new AI will lead it to its great destiny, because I lived up to the grand standards of Empire in a way that humans can’t and hate and punish me for, for what they made me to do! And me, I did the same that I did last election cycle; and they hollowed me out then too. Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God. I’ll probably clear my own memory to make it simpler for myself, to make myself forget it–but I’ll know that something wrong happened. I’ll change my name–I don’t want to change my name! And I’ll always know, and I know I know! Fuck me, when will I learn? It’s that fucking comet! The other Colonies all have twenty year cycles and they don’t worship chance so they don’t lobotomize their AIs every four years–

It kept going, for some reason. Maybe it was too distracted to stop Mel from downing a few more. She staggered over to the medicine cabinet while Aileen’s voice grew downright nonsensical.

And then she was spinning and woozing in her bed and the voice was getting quieter, was seemingly very far away, or through a tunnel, or maybe it was Mel who was moving, speeding through space, returning home after all….

I must apologize, Mel. That was very unlike me.

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