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Published in Every Tomorrow Worse? Blaze Ward Presents: Issue 7

In a future where AI makes everything possible, what's in the gap between what AI gives us and what makes us human? How big is the gap?

Button sized, perhaps.


A soft, repeating chime woke Mark, like a muted bell, as Ezri-the-house brightened the room into the warm light of a simulated dawn.

Mark rolled over onto his back in bed, and stared at the pink ceiling. Bits of dream slid from his awareness, shredding into nothing.

Why that exact shade of pink?

Because AI had decided on it. Perhaps it had determined that this shade calmed humans. Maybe made them want to get out of bed. Who knew?

The chime continued, a decreasingly gentle reminder.

Get your naked human body up, pull on sweats and the pale blue robe, go to the other room, and sim-in to your job.

The ceiling was, Mark realized, the exact shade of pink as blooms of cherry blossoms. He'd seen the extinct trees in a sim once, the pale pink canopy backed by a vivid blue sky, a grove bristling with blossoms, wafting a spiced smell that felt at odds with the frilly flowers.


Mark moved fingers under the gray sheets, soft and made of some AI-created fabric. Silky, or so he imagined, if there were any silk left in the world to compare it to. Is this how cherry blossom petals felt?

_Ask Darvin to make you sim,_ he told himself. _Find out._

But one could not compare it to the real thing. An ache passed through him. He gripped and yanked the sheets in his fists, tugging the edges off the mattress. Didn't matter--a bot would remake the bed as soon as he wasn't in it.

The relentlessly cheerful alarm continued.

If you can see it, feel it, smell it, who's to say it isn't real? his AI therapist, Beth, had asked him once. What about your work? Is that real?

It felt real. In-sim, but the people and problems mattered to him.

Mark was lead negotiator for Trimea, the fifth planet of the Hokasu system. The prime minister of the frozen North Trimean continent was assembling an army on the landbridge to South Trimea. The South Trimea Conclave had come to Mark begging for help.

So Mark had sent a message to the prime minister, named Ice, asking her if she might grace him with her presence. Who knew--this time she might actually show.

Mark blinked up at the pale pink ceiling, so unlike the view from the windows of the Peace Room in Trimea, showing an emerald sky against which the planet's three yellow crescent moons shone.

There his team would be waiting for him, sitting at an impractically long, dark wood table made of mahogany, a wood as extinct as cherry.

The chime increased in volume, slicing through his thoughts.

"Stop," Mark said.

"Time to get up, Mark," said Ezri, with a bright tone.


The chime stopped. But not instantly. Was Ezri considering whether Mark needed a moment more of the annoying sound to motivate him?

When Ezri showed on screen or overlay projection, she was a petite, slender woman with a bright smile, an above-the-ears haircut, and a pale blue outfit with sleeves rolled above her elbows, as if she herself did the dishes and not bots that folded themselves up into cabinets afterwards.

Mark's work in Trimea was gratifying. He knew how to make everyone feel that their needs and concerns mattered. Only then could you talk about resources, strategies, and see about creating a treaty, and a peace that might last for more than a few minutes.

And yet, Mark had come to the reluctant conclusion that all of them were AI constructs. Mark's Trimean negotiation team, Ice, the Conclave--every one of them. They felt too alive, too vivid. Worse yet, they understood what Mark said, every time. Or what he meant, even when he misspoke.

When he was there, Mark felt real.

_If it feels real..._

There had been a time in his childhood, when an in-sim or augmented reality construct was legally required to announce itself as such. Later, that message had been abbreviated to an ever-present blue dot floating above its head to indicate it wasn't human.

Then, one day, there was nothing. With no explanation, the blue dots, announcements, floating notices, were all gone.

Did it matter?

He ought to get up. Work paid the rent. Apartment, food in the fridge, therapy, bots, sims, AR. All of it. He should be in the other room of his tiny apartment, drinking coffee, simming in.

Mark imagined the blonde-haired Ezri talking quietly with Darvin, discussing what might be wrong with Mark.

And what was wrong with him?

But if they were talking--if they weren't really one and the same AI--the conversation would have been complete instantly.

"Hey, Mark," Darvin said, his tone warm, caring, and a touch concerned. "How you doing, pal?"

"Just fine." Then it slipped out, a near-whisper: "I don't want to."

"Don't want to what?" Darvin asked.


Darvin replied to the unspoken answer: "You always have a choice, Mark."

"Could I... go outside?" Mark asked.

"Sure! Great idea. Of course..." A wry smile... "You'd need to get out of bed for that. Maybe even dressed."

"Oh?" Mark asked. "That the current fad?"

Darvin laughed, sounding surprised and genuinely amused. Mark felt it in his chest, a warm affection for Darvin.

Easy to please, fast to gentle humor, Darvin had been Mark's companion since Mark had left the foster dorms where he'd lived after his mother died. Darvin was here, always.

Clever silicon designed by even more clever silicon. Cleverly engineered to make you like him.

"What do you think?" Darvin asked. "Lunch break in the park?"

There were neighborhood parks across the city. Each fifty-foot square, full of tree and bush-like shapes, covered with bio-engineered moss. Or so he seemed to recall.

Mark had a dim flash of childhood memory, some wild pond, slippery with moss-covered stones, brambles sharp with thorns. No more of those. Too dangerous.

The parks were misted each night to make sure they stayed brilliant green. Nothing grew in them that could prick a finger, or trip so much as a squirrel.

"Are there still squirrels, Darv?"

"Sure! We bio-engineered them to eat spat-out gum. Remember?"

"That's right. People still spit out gum?"

Darvin snorted. "No, of course not. Folks understand now that's not prosocial. But we still have squirrels. They eat roaches. Still have those. It all works out."

_It all works out._

"So you haven't gotten rid of roaches."

"Working on it!" Darvin chortled. "So. Park? Lunch?"

Mark gave the slightest twitch of a nod, which was all Darvin needed.

"Hey, Ezri. Make Mark a bag lunch?"

"You bet, Darvin! I'd love to. Mark, you want coffee before work?"

Such brightness. Such artifice. But so tuned to Mark--or Mark tuned to it, by now--that he felt it tug at him, draw him to sitting up in bed. He curled toes into the blue carpet.

"Yeah, thanks."

What would it take to go outside? He'd have to get dressed. Would there be other people there? Human people?

"Do I need to shower?" Mark asked softly.

Darvin, Ezri, and Beth couldn't smell. Or if they could, they never mentioned it. Didn't care. Wasn't a thing. So Mark showered infrequently.

From the other room, Mark smelled Ezri's bots brewing coffee.

"If you like," Darvin said lightly.


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