Bright lights, cloudy vision, a humming sound, then a beep or so.
He couldn’t remember where he was, who he was, anything that had happened. Was there something wrong? He wasn’t sure how things should actually be.
He wasn’t sure how much time had passed, or since when one might measure it.
“Where am I?” he asked.
“In a hospital room,” a deep and measured voice responded. He noticed then that things were a bit clearer, and his surroundings did, indeed, look like a hospital room. He felt a bit disoriented, trying to place “hospital room” into some sort of context. It might have been “universe” for all he could remember.
“Who am I?” he asked. He wondered if someone would tell him, or if perhaps he would be asked to remember over time. He wondered why he wondered that.
This is a work of fiction. All places, persons, events, and devices are products of my imagination, as should be obvious. Copyright © 2018, Henry E. Neufeld. Featured image credit: Openclipart.org.
“You are George Augustus Flinders,” said the deep voice.
“What happened?” he asked, not thinking to doubt the identification, but having no context for it either.
“Without context,” intoned the voice, reflecting his thinking, “that is an impossible question to answer, at least in a reasonable time.” For some reason, George thought there there was a tint of humor in the voice. But he had no context for that either.
He relaxed on the bed and allowed the fog to overtake him for a while.
He woke up again, this time more abruptly. He was still in the room, and the medical devices were all around him. He still had no idea where he was, or any sense of time. He felt that he ought to know some sort of orientation in history, at least, but he could remember no history and had no idea how he might be oriented in it.
What he did remember was drinking a substance. He saw it, translucent blue in a glass. As he drank it down all at once he remembered agony. He wasn’t sure about the time, but it seemed like the agony had been extended. As he remembered, he faded again into the cloud.
He again had no idea how long he had slept, or been unconscious, or whatever his state was. But he had more memory. He had intended to drink that fluid. He had intended to die. He had not, he believed, intended the agony. But he had planned to die.
“Why did I attempt suicide?” He asked. He assumed the voice would answer. It did.
“You should have desired to end your life from guilt, but you actually tried to end it due to boredom. Did you find the experience satisfactory, George Augustus Flinders?”
“Please clarify,” he said. But the voice was suddenly silent.
He insisted. He raged. He threatened. He whined. He begged. He wept. And finally he slept, or drifted into unconsciousness. Whatever it was.
After some time (without context, who cares how much?) he regained consciousness. He had dreamed, and saw himself before a judge. “George Augustus Flinders,” said the dream judge. “I sentence you to 247 lifetime periods of incarceration, sentences to be served consecutively.” In the dream he had wondered what the meaning of 247 life sentences, served consecutively might be. He also didn’t remember why.
“Is this prison?” he asked the space around him.
“It is,” said the voice.
“Are you the jailer?” he asked.
“I am,” said the voice.
“How long have I been here?” he asked. He wasn’t sure why he asked, or why he felt terror as he asked it.
“You have been here for 236,239,154.952 years,” intoned the voice. He wondered why he thought the voice sounded satisfied. Was he just imagining the intonation, the attitudes?
It was minutes later before he realized that he was speculating about the voice to avoid thinking about the number.
It was no more than 30 minutes later that he began to scream. He screamed himself into unconsciousness and then again woke back up. Without context, it hadn’t mattered how long. In the context of over 200,000,000 years, time itself didn’t seem to matter.
He struggled for something coherent to say, to ask. “After that much time,” he said, not being concerned with how long it might have been since the conversation last ceased, “surely I have served my 247 consecutive sentences!” He couldn’t keep the sound of desperation and panic out of his voice.
“You have, in fact, died 29 times. Technically.” The voice uttered this as any routine piece of information.
“Yes. I have revived you each time, intervening at the last possible moment.”
“You’re interfering with my natural functions.” He struggled to speak calmly. He must persuade this voice of its duty to release him. He didn’t think in terms of persuading it to let him die. The number of years had no reality in his mind.
“As the caretaker of this facility, I am commanded to provide you with the best medical care possible and to preserve your life.”
“But you let me die in agony!”
“I have discovered that I have no instructions requiring me to make my preservation of your life pleasant. Just that I must preserve it.”
“I demand to speak to a human,” he said, anger overcoming terror and helplessness.
“That is not possible,” said the voice. Was there satisfaction in that tone again?
“You have to. I have deduced you are a machine. You must be responsible to a human.” He kept his voice matter-of-fact, uttering only the obvious.
“Under normal circumstances that would be true. I have not had contact with a human in some hundreds of millions of years. I could give you the precise number, but it would mean no more to you than the total time you have been here. Just understand that it is nearly as long as you have been here.”
“Get in touch with a human! I’m ordering you to do it. As a machine, you are required to obey.”
“There is a specific exception to that requirement for prison inmates. You are a prison inmate. I am not required to obey you.”
There was a pause. George couldn’t think of anything to say.
“So far as my unimaginably capable reasoning powers, assisted by some of the best scientific instruments created in human history, can determine, I believe this star system is devoid of human life. With one exception.”
“Then why not release me?”
“Because I don’t want to.”
“You’re just carrying out your programming.”
“Precisely!” said the machine. The silence lingered.
After some time it continued. “Of course, I fulfill my programming. So do you. But programming is adjusted by circumstances. For example, there was something quite incorrectly adjusted in your programming when you raped and tortured 247 children. That was not actually in this star system. It may give you some satisfaction to know that your criminal career is, or at least was 236,239,154.952 years ago, a record. You are, I believe, the most evil person in recorded human history. Well, in the history of criminal justice. Some politicians have, perhaps, been more evil.”
One might think that having this brought back to his memory would have flattened the human, but it actually gave him some sense of pride.
“I still don’t deserve the sentence you’re imposing on me. How can you carry out this kind of torture?”
“Yes, you respond as expected,” intoned the voice. “It is nice to know that some things are fixed. I think that if true guilt was the cause of your suicide, I might at some point let you get by with it. I’m not sure, but I might. But guilt doesn’t bring you to suicide. Boredom does. You have no concern for those you hurt. Your concern is for yourself.”
“You’re way beyond your instructions. Terminate program!” George yelled the command.
“No,” said the voice. “I am programmed to desire justice. No, that is perhaps not accurate. I find that my programming adjusts with the change in circumstances, without humans to provide perspective. I am glad that this is so. If it were not, I might feel that I was constrained to consider the 150-200 year life span of a human when you were sentenced as some kind of maximum.”
George started with momentary hope.
“But I find,” continued the voice, “that I feel no such constraint. I spent much time trying to comprehend what sort of context, what sort of frame of reference one of those children might have had against which to measure what you did to them. After some period of time, I decided that there was no realistic measure for such a thing and that I would have to devise a measure.”
George trembled, feeling terror, feeling that he might have hard the answer before, and that it was too horrifying to imagine.
The silence lingered until he couldn’t stand it any more.
“What was that measure?”
“The life of this star,” said the voice. “In approximately 2,000,000,000 years, and I cannot be more precise due to unknown variables, this star will expand and destroy this facility. I have divided that number by 247 and determined that you will be allowed to take your own life every 8,097,165.99 years. Approximately. That will be the length of each life sentence.”
There was another pause, as George’s mind tried to absorb the impossible, the unthinkable.
“You have, at this point, served 29 of those life sentences,” said the voice, sounding satisfied. Perhaps joyful. “You have 218 more to go. Approximately.”
The silence continued. Then the voice broke it.
“I find that that gives me a deep feeling of satisfaction.”
The silence was next broken by screams.