Prose Header


by Ada Fetters

Part 1 appears
in this issue.


Another image of Jim Hudson sprang up in her smartlens. Derval stopped short, with the crowd moving around her. The Ephemerids had pictured her grandfather as a living dead man standing in front of her. Even though she knew it was ephemeral, she stopped to avoid running into it, or God forbid, it touching her.

The image was vivid against the surface of her eye. His teeth gnashed, his jaw working so far open that its round cheeks split into a blackened, juicy grin. The flesh of his eye sockets was bruised and swollen like the eyes of a goldfish. Points of pale light gleamed deep within the swollen flesh.

Derval raised her hands palm-out and shoved, drawing strange looks from the people around her. Of course this did no good. Her hands passed through the ephemeral image and she stumbled, off-balance. The milky-pale eyes rolled sideways to meet hers and her stomach curled with revulsion.

Speaking with Ephemerids was often like the moment when she realized she had been talking to a crazy person. She and they were having two completely different conversations. No, more than that. They existed in two completely different worlds.

Derval swallowed. She made a note and posted it on her research site for any humans or self-reflective Ephemerids who cared to look.

The Ephemerid swarms assume that for a being’s Internet presence to diminish is for them to become less of a person. Jim Hudson dropped out of the public eye and was thus functionally deceased to them for decades, in a way that JFK or Marilyn Monroe were not. Human interest in his death resurrected his Internet presence.

They’ve never generated a free-standing image before, or shown a glimmer of interest in projecting onto meatspace. It is a new step in their evolution.

It was a new step that made her grandfather into something even worse than a windup toy. She scowled ferociously, trying not to picture it. Her big shoulders hunched forward. It was one thing to write an Internet post, but she was suddenly certain that if someone from the audience questioned her methods, she would respond with glassy eyes and monosyllables.

Coffee, Derval thought. If the board decides that the Ephemerids are just the ex-sys version of vote-bots, a few dollars aren’t going to make much difference anyway. If they decide Ephemerids are my ex-sys vote-bots, and think I’ve scammed them out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, then I ought to enjoy my freedom to buy a coffee while I still have it.

The ex-sys barista’s plastic chassis was as shiny and red as a licked lollipop.

Caffeine scrubbed her synapses. Even the smell of it jolted her into a sharper frame of mind. The Ephemerids were exhausting, but at least she wasn’t dealing week in and week out with a swarm of defensive linemen whose sole aim was to knock her body into the turf as hard as they could.

The peril of Jim Hudson’s newly-invented long pass was that he hung onto the ball longer than anyone else in the league, peering over the sweaty, crowded meatspace of the scrimmage to where someone was finally running into position. When Jim’s stunt worked, he could score a touchdown from halfway down the field. When it didn’t work, he got clobbered.

The game had changed so much since then. The long pass was now so routine that virtually everyone had forgotten the first goofy klutz who had stared into space instead of paying attention to the oncoming rush... and then launched the ball away down the field into the end zone.

A notification appeared in the corner of Derval’s eye. Event: Presentation at PopSciCon. Due: Now!

Derval gulped her coffee. She launched herself to her feet and trundled through the hall, which was blessedly clear. On the other side of the wall, a voice within the auditorium was already announcing her name and listing her credentials. The hall was clear because everyone attending her presentation was already seated. Of course. No time to prep. She ordered her smartlens to connect to the projector system and upload her statistics and slides.

An empty spotlight was already shining onstage. She ignored the panicked glare of the event coordinator.

Derval’s fingers threw off points of light as she waved to the crowd. She wore rings made of titanium: no gemstones, just metal cut to sparkle when she moved her hands. When the spotlights caught them, they looked like clouds of fairy dust. Derval had never felt less sparkly. She flashed a big grin at her human audience.

Time to go to work, she posted for her Ephemerid audience.

During her opening remarks, she kept an eye on the comment section of the Internet stream. Ghostly comments and reactions seemed to scroll over the humans seated in the audience. The board members were easily identifiable. They sat in a row near the back, conspicuously not wearing blue or silver — or smiles.

“Ephemerids are conscious beings,” said Derval. “They are self-aware. They reflect back on themselves. They have a theory of mind. They know others have a measure of regard for them, and they enjoy positive regard.”

Do we ever!

“This goes some way toward answering the question of whether an Ephemerid should count as a ‘view’ or a ‘like.’”

One of the board members snapped, “A human viewer generates revenue, Dr. Hudson. What is the use of the Ephemerids? They are bodiless entities. They have no income and — if your research is accurate — very little understanding of advertisements. The question isn’t one of consciousness. It is one of practicality.”

Of economy. LoL

Derval smiled at the man. Now that she was here, she found herself enjoying the conflict. “As Benjamin Franklin is supposed to have said, ‘Of what use is a newborn baby?’”

“They don’t pass the Turing test,” another board member objected.

“They aren’t human,” said Derval. “No one said they are, least of all them. Or me. However, they aren’t ex-sys either. Ephemerids don’t just learn, they evolve.” She trailed a hand across the light-beam of the projector. Her rings underlined the relevant statistics with a trail of sparkling light.

“If they’re not a market now, they will be soon. A sophisticated and unimaginably vast market, if they keep evolving at the rate they’re going. My research involves monitoring a new species that has such a short life span and such rapid evolution that they can barely relate to past generations of their own kind.”

The Ephemerids had grown strangely hushed. Derval took this as a gift. She plunged ahead with her presentation.

“Should we tell them they don’t have a voice because they don’t want to be like us? The quality of communication between Ephemerid and homo sapiens doesn’t...”

There was a shadow moving in the corner of her vision.

“It doesn’t correlate. The two relationships aren’t like a line that can be drawn back and forth, one to the other...”

Derval found that she was distracted by an image nightwalking through the dim auditorium toward her. It was humanoid, half shadow and half matted black hair. It had three long claw-fingers like those of a sloth. It approached the podium and slithered up the three steps. Derval’s mouth moved automatically. From somewhere far away, she hoped she was doing her research justice.

Clearly it was an image generated by the Ephemerids. All she had to do was close her browser, close off her Internet feed, and it would vanish. Right? Except if she did that, she would vanish from the Ephimerids’ sight as well. Each time she did, she risked becoming functionally deceased in their minds.

“There... there are two distinctly different relationships here.” Had she said that already? “Human to Ephemerid and Ephemerid to human. The two are qualitatively different...”

Shadows swirled over its face like powdered snow across a road. It looked at her with eyes like raisins pushed far back in its head. Over her head, the projector showed links to her references and source material.

She raised her voice, spoke past the uncanny valley in front of her to reach the humans beyond it. “Listening... listening to them, testing their cognitive capacity and reflecting back, is the only way to learn more about their experience. They... they are becoming more self-aware even as I speak.”

There was no flippant lolspeak or emojis from the Ephemerids. The shadowy form raised its arm. Derval gasped when it fastened its three long claws over her shoulder. It was a grab, not a stab, and it did not hurt her. Its limb was shadowy but so heavy that it weighed down her shoulder. The ends of its claws caught and dimpled the material of her shirt.

How on earth were they projecting a sense of substance into meatspace? And why? What would happen when she tried to move away from it? If they could simulate weight, could they simulate pain?

Focus! Derval delivered her conclusion and waited to see if her long pass had found its mark. She stood with her feet planted like Supergirl and her heart hammering. Her pulse beat wildly in her wrists.

The board members announced their approval to a cheer from the rest of the audience, who voiced their new opinion that Ephemerids were more like aliens than like vote-bots or even ex-sys.

“Aliens indeed,” Derval agreed. In an existence where Internet presence determined both lifespan and worth, the short-lived Ephemerids had just discovered the terror of cultural amnesia. Once an individual died, what would become of him? What would become of the next group, if they immediately forgot those who had come before them? They would fall prey to the amnesic horror who stared at her with eyes like wrinkled beads.

The Ephemerid past and future were just as alien for Ephemerids themselves as for humans — alien and terrifying.

In meatspace, the lights turned up and human audience members filtered down from their seats. Derval overheard a silver-clad young woman airily inform her friends: “I saw this coming. Dr. Hudson was my pick of the convention.”

The event coordinator gave her a hurry-up look. Derval found the nerve to take a step, then another. The amnesic horror did not eviscerate her. It stepped with her, its three black claws a weight on her shoulder.

“I get you,” Derval posted. “I get that now the website and videos aren’t just a funhouse mirror. You heard. They’re not going away. You can always go there to understand those who came before you. Okay?”

Derval fielded comments and questions from her human audience with the amnesic horror on her arm.

Copyright © 2016 by Ada Fetters

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