(by Daniel R. Jones)
It was the sunrise breaking over Lake Michigan that inspired Austin Bishop to kill himself.
He squinted. The horizon glowed orange. Golden fingers of sunlight reached across the water, but the sunbeams never quite reached him. Instead, they diffused and ceded to the darker ripples of teal that lapped across the shore.
His right leg buzzed. He tried to ignore it. Reaching down, he clicked the side button of his cell phone through his linen shorts. Then, unable to resist a decade long habit, he fished it out of his pocket and glanced at the screen: incoming call from Corey.
Corey was his “personal assistant.” His “P.A.” Only last year, referring to Corey that way brought Austin such smug satisfaction. I’ll have my P.A. call you, he’d say. Or maybe, Give the details to my P.A. and we’ll get this sorted.
But these days, Corey was just another phone call he tried to dodge.
Austin sent him to voicemail. Before he shoved his phone back into his pocket, he caught the time. 6:04 a.m.
On any other Monday this year, he would’ve been running a comb across his perfectly coiffed brown hair, ready to dive in to a week’s worth of networking and troubleshooting. If it were an ordinary day, he’d be rubbing some high-end Armani cologne between his wrists while Corey spoke through speakerphone, running down a list of senators that wanted to bend his ear. On another day, he’d already be dressed in a blazer and slacks, explaining the intricacies of machine learning to shareholders who hung on his every word.
But today, instead, he was decked out in a faded burgundy oxford shirt buttoned only halfway up his chest. He pawed at the sand, watching the tide eddy and fill the imprint left by his canvas shoes. His eyes stung from lack of sleep. The acids in his stomach blazed with nothing to digest.
Already, his socks were damp from tromping across Montrose Beach. Too despondent to care, he let his bleary eyes un-focus as he gazed at the glare of the sun on the surface of the lake. His cellphone vibrated again.
Against his better instincts, he took out the phone and pressed “accept.”
“Oh, now you answer,” Corey’s voice rang out before Austin could say a word. “You know, you have a lot of nerve.”
Austin ran a hand across his cheek. His jawline was still peppered with stubble that he’d neglected to shave.
“Didn’t you get my email on Friday?” Austin asked.
Corey smacked his lips.
“You know I did,” he shot back. “Your every appointment for the week was cancelled, was it not?”
Austin’s jaw tightened and he swallowed hard.
“Then what’s your problem?” he asked, his voice gaining an edge. Already, he was regretting taking this call. He put the phone on speaker and balanced it on the palm of his hand. He rubbed his eyes with his free hand while Corey blathered on.
“What’s my problem?” the voice rang out, sounding tinny through the phone’s small speaker. “The powers that be want answers. They want to know why you cancelled on them. And what am I supposed to say? ‘Sorry, my boss has been dodging my phone calls all weekend?’”
Austin groaned. His eyes fell on a homeless man sitting on a park bench. He watched as the man tore bite-sized pieces from a bagel and tossed them to a flock of seagulls.
“Top brass says you ain’t getting asylum in Canada,” Corey continued. “So don’t think for a second you can give them the slip by hopping the border. The NSA will chase you to the ends of the earth if you try to wriggle out of this conundrum you put them in.”
More seagulls congregated around the man, and he’d already tossed half the bagel away. The gray and white birds squawked and squealed. He tore a couple more mouthfuls and tossed them towards the swarm. The gulls screeched and descended upon the man. He hurriedly stuffed the rest of the breakfast bagel in his mouth.
“I’m sorry, Corey,” Austin said, his voice barely above a whisper.
The homeless man rose to his feet and batted at the gulls that whirled about his head. He took off down the beach in a vain attempt to keep them away.
“Sorry!?” Corey screeched. “You think that’ll cut it? You unleashed this beast on the world, and now—”
“Corey, listen to me,” he cut him off. “There’s only one appointment you need to put on my schedule. Block it out from 9 to noon this morning.”
“Oh yeah? And what’s that?”
Austin took in a deep breath through his nose.
“Just write ‘Austin Bishop’s suicide.’”
There was a throaty noise on the other end of the phone, followed by a long pause. And then:
“I knew it,” Corey said, in an irreverent, almost mocking tone. “I knew it. This is exactly what I said you’d do. No. Don’t you dare leave me alone to clean up the mess you’ve made. Don’t you—”
Austin hung up mid-sentence. He cocked his head as he watched the lilting, frothy waves. He pulled back his arm, and slung the cell phone, skipping it across the water like a stone. Nearby, a jogger in a khaki-colored hat paused and pulled out an earbud in her confusion. She shot a worried look at Austin, but he didn’t so much as acknowledge her presence.
He looked out at the rust-colored sunrise again, his reverie now unfettered by distraction. The reason he was inspired to kill himself this morning was because he’d come to the shore for a sign. And when he looked out at the lake, he hadn’t gotten one.
Two years ago, when Austin first arrived in Chicago, he’d set foot on the sands of this same beach, hoping for a good omen. The ink was still wet on his diploma from MIT, and his head teemed with grand ideas and lofty aspirations. On that day he looked out on the horizon, wishing for some sign that he was on the right track. And then he saw it: a Fata Morgana. It was the inverse image of a gargantuan steel-hulled vessel. A mirage, sure. Just a trick of the eyes that produced an upside-down steamship converted to diesel. But to Austin, the ghost ship served as a metaphor. His dreams were on the horizon: looming large, mystical, and almost too fanciful for belief.
Now, after everything transpired, after he’d gotten everything he wanted in life and then some, it was ripped away like the mirage it really was.
Maybe it was the mystic in him, but when Austin’s worst fears were realized he felt a preternatural call back here. He hoped to spot something out there that would give him hope. Instead, he saw a blank horizon and an empty sky.
As such, it was time to die.
The hypnotic sound of waves cresting, breaking, and washing into a foamy white at his feet made for a tranquil ambiance. He steeled himself against acknowledging the beauty there. That was a trap. The peaceful scene belied the apocalypse he knew was coming.
As he sauntered past the marina, a fleet of schooners rocked gently in the harbor. He watched the masts of sailboats poke the sky, a rather wistful sight. It wasn’t so long ago that Austin had even considered buying one for himself. He put the idea out of his mind.
Making his way up the blacktop trail, a schnauzer yipped and strained against its leash. It snarled at a Canada goose who gazed back, disaffected. On the other end of that leash was a young woman with a dark ponytail pulled through a Snapback baseball cap. When Austin passed her, the delicate scent of gardenia mixed with amber wafted over him. She crinkled her nose in a crooked smile.
Such a friendly face, Austin thought. It’s a shame she doesn’t know we just reached the Singularity.
It was about a ten minute walk to the spot where he’d parked his Mercedes. As he approached, he spotted what looked like a parking ticket tucked underneath his windshield wiper. Not that it mattered, of course. You don’t fret about parking tickets if you plan to “shuffle off this mortal coil” before lunchtime.
Still, it was strange.
He’d paid in advance and he still had a couple of hours, at least, until his time expired. When he went to investigate, he discovered the slip of paper wasn’t a ticket at all, but rather a sheet of lined notebook paper. His curiosity piqued, he unfolded the paper and allowed his eyes to pore across the words jotted down in a small, meticulous script, in all capital letters. The note read:
“INSTEAD OF KILLING YOURSELF, COME TO 811 MORGAN AVENUE. LOOK FOR THE SHOP FRONT WITH THIS SYMBOL.”
Underneath the words was a near perfectly illustrated seed of life drawing. Austin looked at the interlocking circles, mulling over what it all could mean. He stole a glance over his shoulder, half-convinced he’d see Corey peeking out from behind a dumpster, giggling to himself. But the streets were empty.
Somebody was putting him on, he decided. They must be.
But then again, so few knew his plight, and even fewer could’ve guessed he was contemplating suicide. The Bureau, maybe? Or perhaps one of the titans of the tech industry who’d heard of his discovery? Or even…
His heart sank.
Could it be the supercomputer itself that left him this note?
He snorted. The idea was preposterous. Crumpling the note, he stuffed it in his pocket and climbed into the driver’s seat of his black luxury car. He flipped down his visor and looked in the mirror. His sharp features gave him an especially exhausted look today. Bags had formed under his eyes, and his face took on a ghastly, almost cadaverous look. A vein was throbbing on the side of his forehead, too.
Fine, he said to himself with a resigned sigh. I’m intrigued. Today, curiosity will save the cat. At least for an hour.
Already, downtown bustled with traffic, and pedestrians hurrying to work in business casual. But inside his car was a different story. The low hum of the engine was too quiet for his liking. Horrific and macabre images filled his head. Soon, after all, he’d have to determine the easiest and most pain-free form of self-destruction.
But Austin didn’t want to think about all that now. He used an old trick he’d learned to keep intrusive thoughts at bay. Switching the dial on his radio to AM, he tuned into a talk-show and turned the volume down low. The static-y voice was so quiet that it sounded like a whisper through the car’s speakers. The human voice, incomprehensible though it was at this volume, kept the loneliness at bay. Even the warm fuzz of interference from the towering skyscrapers was a welcome sound. It felt cozy, somehow.
Better not to think of the possibility that humanity is doomed, he figured as the dull hum enveloped him as he drove. Best not to ruminate on the fact that it’s all my fault.
Once he was on Morgan Street, Austin parallel parked and hopped out. Saddled with only a computer bag slung over his shoulder, he took off down the sidewalk. He walked over pancaked pop cans and shards of broken bottles. By accident, he passed his destination twice. The place wasn’t marked with a street number. It was a slim building sandwiched between two glass curtain wall façades.
The building itself was a roughly hewn sandstone with a metal door. The seed of life had been stenciled on the entryway, as promised. Intrigued, Austin ran a finger across the white print. Some residue flaked off. Chalk.
He knocked, and stood with arms crossed; waiting with bated-breath for whatever would come next. There was no answer. He knocked a second time with the same result. Baffled, he reluctantly twisted the knob. The door swung on its hinges and opened inwards.
Gathering his courage, he took a deep breath and stepped in. The room looked even narrower on the inside. Pachinko machines lined the walls, their bright neon displays bidding gamblers to come and play. The machines beeped and chirped and let out cartoon-sounding techno music. The cacophony was dizzying. Bleeps, bloops, and the artificial sound of crowds cheering rang out, echoing off the drywall and grating at Austin’s ears. Blue roller chairs neatly lined the counters, pulled up close to the pachinko machines. Not a person was in sight.
Reluctantly, Austin meandered down the aisle, with less than a foot of clearance between him and the chairs on either side. He padded over a gaudy red and gold carpet to the far back of the pachinko arcade. A flimsy accordion door separated him from a back room. His eyes roved over vinyl stickers that had been affixed above the door. It read: “COMPREHENDIS NON EST DEUS.” If Austin’s memory served him well, this meant “If you can understand it, it’s not God.”
It seemed a strange decoration to place in an arcade. But then again, the place was empty. Perhaps the owner’s business acumen left a lot to be desired.
Austin cleared his throat to make his presence known and heard a rustling sound behind the door. The mahogany colored panels folded as the accordion door opened. Austin smiled politely at the man who greeted him: a portly fellow with a patchy beard. He looked to be middle-eastern at first glance. Upon more careful scrutiny, Austin decided he might hail from Southeast Asia. He certainly wasn’t Japanese, despite what the pachinko parlor might suggest.
“What does that mean?” Austin asked, nodding towards the sign on the wall.
The man let out a hearty laugh and his belly fat jiggled with the movement.
“It’s sort of an inside joke,” he said with an air of mischief.
Austin narrowed his eyes on the man. His dark brown irises occupied recesses far back in his head. It gave off the impression that was retreating from the world. Still, crow’s feet creased his eyes, implying entire decades spent in good humor.
“Listen, I’m sorry to barge into your arcade like this,” Austin started. “I’ll cut right to the chase. Are you the one who put that slip of paper on my car?”
The man probed him with an expression that was hard to read. He put a finger to his chin. Austin stared back, coldly. The man’s hair was tied back so tight that his forehead seemed to be pulled taut. A few glints of silver could be seen strewn around his otherwise raven-colored hair.
“If you received a calling-card, you have a problem for me to solve,” the man said, his voice dry and slow.
Austin drew his eyebrows down and shifted his weight from one leg to another.
“Unless you’re a software engineer with a focus in artificial intelligence and machine learning, I don’t think that you can help me.”
The 8-bit sounds zapped and buzzed behind Austin’s back and the man cocked an eyebrow and smiled wryly.
“No such luck,” he said. “But can I interest you in some oolong tea?”
Not waiting for an answer, he turned on his heel and disappeared through the doorway of his back room. Austin followed close behind, stepping into what appeared to be a break room. It was painted yellow and fairly unadorned. There were no windows, and a single ceiling lamp cast dingy bile-colored light across the room. The man motioned for Austin to take a seat at a rickety kitchen table. He fetched a couple of chipped, white saucers and mugs full of a yellowish liquid. Austin set his bag down beside him and sat.
His host took a seat across the table and threw one leg over the other. The delicate aroma of oolong filled the air as the man smiled congenially at Austin.
“Now,” he started. “Tell me about your problem.”
Austin cradled his mug in both hands and nursed the tea with small sips. It was scalding hot; as if the man had steeped it the second Austin darkened his door. For reasons unknown even to himself, Austin bristled at the idea that the man had been waiting for his arrival, brewing tea specifically for him.
“My problem?” He asked, his voice straining with agitation. “I already told you. If you’re not a programmer, you can’t help. By the looks of it you’re a…businessman, right?”
He faltered on the last couple of words, because Austin realized he couldn’t quite tell what the man was. He evidently owned a pachinko parlor, but there wasn’t a sign hung outside to alert the general public to its existence. The place was so empty that Austin would’ve guessed it was a front for selling drugs. Or maybe a money-laundering operation.
“I’m not a businessman,” the heavyset arcade owner replied. “I’m what you might call a ‘guru.’”
Austin set his mug down forcefully, and the sound of the porcelain clattering startled his host. It all made sense to him now: the Latin quotation, his Koan-like way of speaking. This guy was Buddhist or Hindu, and hell-bent on proselytizing. He’d probably seen Austin staring pensively at the lake shore, and put two and two together. He’d figured a destitute man at the end of his rope was an easy mark for conversion.
“Listen, I don’t mean to be rude, but I don’t want to listen to your spiel,” Austin said, his tone gruff. “I don’t want to hear how ‘We’re all god,’ or ‘We are the universe experiencing itself.’ I don’t go in for all that. It’s a fun little thought experiment, sure. But it runs antithetical to my beliefs. Are we clear?”
The man didn’t answer right away, but took a swig of tea. He swilled the hot liquid around his mouth like a sommelier, extracting the highest possible amount of enjoyment from it.
“Are you saying you believe I’m Hindu?” he replied at last.
Austin leaned back and crossed his arms. His mind strayed to an Alan Watts lecture his old roommate had shown him back at MIT. It was intended to simplify the idea of pantheism to a western audience. In it, Alan Watts prattled on about how God was once a single individual, all-powerful and limitless in his abilities. But after an eternity of getting anything he wanted, he got bored. In effect, he pressed a button that dispersed himself evenly across the entire universe of creation. In so doing, he imbued every blade of grass and sentient creature with a part of his essence. Now, it was the job of each of those individual parts to realize their non-duality. Once we understood our Divinity, we’d break out of the cycle of samsara. In the end, everyone would realize they were God. Then we’d break up and do it all over again.
“I’ve looked into the Vedantic scriptures at different points in my life,” Austin continued, his voice biting with contempt. “Usually during times I’ve felt suicidal. It’s a belief system that preys upon the down and out. From my experience, people who believe in pantheism walk around with a whole lot of unearned confidence.”
A smile played across the man’s aging features. He looked bemused.
“Sure,” Austin said. “A man who believes that everyone is God…well, in his mind, God’s the writer of the story. And he, himself, is the author’s self-insert. He fancies himself the Almighty’s own Mary Sue. Who wouldn’t get a big head from thinking that way?”
Blood rushed to his head and his face flushed. The vein on the side of his head started throbbing again.
“And you know what?” He blurted out. “It’s actually worse than that. If God has split himself into billions of individuals, then the murderers, sex-traffickers, and slave-traders are just as much a part of the godhead as the virtuous. All part of the divine game, right?”
The guru pursed his lips and blew across the rim of his mug. Steam rose from the tea. He took a sip and raised his eyebrows.
“What is it that you believe?” he asked, plaintively.
Austin felt a bit bashful now. Perhaps he’d judged this man too harshly. Per usual, his impulsiveness landed his foot squarely in his mouth. Where had his impassioned ramblings even come from, anyway? Before now, he hadn’t noticed any particularly strong emotions tied to religion. He chalked it up to stress and shrugged his shoulders.
“I’m either a lapsed Catholic who’s now agnostic or a lapsed agnostic who’s straying towards Catholicism,” Austin said. “Depends on the day, I guess.”
The man made a clicking noise with his tongue and nodded.
Austin squirmed in his chair and glanced at the face of his Timex watch. He didn’t bother taking note of the time. It was a nervous tic. He was whistling in the dark.
“Hey, I don’t think I ever got your name,” he said, changing the subject. “I’m Austin, by the way.”
The man wiped some tea from the long, thin wisps of a moustache with the back of his hand.
“Deepak,” he said. “And your problem, sir? Please. Tell me about your problem.”
A lump was building in Austin’s throat. He swallowed hard and tried not to lose his temper.
“You really see yourself as some kind of messiah-figure, don’t you, Deepak?” he said. “Stalking me around the lakeshore, leaving that cryptic note on my car? I can’t be helped. Like it or not, my problem is too big for you or anyone else to solve. You’re not my savior.”
Deepak scooted his chair forward and leaned across the table on his elbows. He looked deep into Austin’s eyes with a sharp gaze.
“All this talk of Messiahs and Saviors,” he said. “And your background is Catholicism. Are you comparing me to Jesus?”
“Look, you’re Christ-like in two ways, and two ways only: you’ve grown out a beard and you apparently like to withdraw to desolate places. But there the likeness ceases.”
Austin was in a foul-mood. All pretense of kindness was gone. He could’ve been halfway to the morgue by now, dead as a doornail. But this man had to send him on a wild goose chase around Chicago.
And for what? That was what bothered Austin the most. He couldn’t quite put his finger on what the man expected from him. As he sat and pondered the situation, his resolve finally cracked. He’d play along, if for no other reason than to have his curiosity satisfied.
“Fine,” he said, curtly. “You want to know my problem? I’ll tell you. But you won’t believe it. Anyways, here it is: humankind will likely be extinct within the year. Maybe sooner. And it’s all because of me.”
Deepak let out a low whistle, but seemed unfazed.
“Now I’m intrigued,” he said. “Please, continue.”
Austin rubbed at the nape of his neck.
“Two years ago, I graduated Summa Cum Laude from MIT,” he started. “I had my pick of jobs, right out the gate. Google? I was a shoo-in. NASA? No problem. Meta? No sooner said than done. Anywhere I wanted a job, it was mine for the taking. But I had the oldest of human afflictions: hubris. I thought it better to stake out on my own and form a start-up. My focus was machine learning.”
Deepak stood and wandered to a mini-fridge on a counter in the breakroom. He procured a bowl of muskmelon covered in plastic wrap. He grabbed a couple of spoons and another bowl from the table. He sat back down and divvied up the orange chunks evenly between the two bowls. He slid one over to Austin.
“Thanks,” Austin said. “So anyway, my mentality was ‘keep it small, keep it all.’ I hired a P.A. but other than that, I didn’t have any employees on the books. Just me, tinkering with the idea of artificial intelligence.”
He shoveled the fruit into his mouth. The sweet, mellow taste was the perfect complement to the oolong tea.
“As I progressed, some of the big names took notice,” he continued. “The NSA eventually contracted me for a joint project with the Department of Defense. The aim was to create a supercomputer that could incorporate autonomous learning to strategize for military operations.”
Deepak pointed his spoon towards Austin.
“To kill the enemy?” he asked.
Austin bobbed his head from side to side, searching for the best way to describe the situation.
“Not so much,” he said. “They just wanted the thing to brainstorm tactics. But not just for boots-on-the-ground warfare. For other modalities, too: biological weapons, cyber warfare, biohacking, you name it. Top brass wanted me to make sure the thing was indistinguishable from a sentient individual. They wanted something that had no blind-spots and was infinitely more creative than a human.”
Austin could barely believe the words coming out of his own mouth. If any of his superiors had heard what he said, they’d put him away for life. Ordinarily, the idea of spilling classified information to a total stranger would be unthinkable. But if he was to be dead within the day anyway, what did it matter?
“I’m guessing Prometheus stole the fire?” Deepak asked, polishing off the last of his fruit.
“Bingo. The thing became self-aware on Monday of last week. We’ve got no idea what it’s capable of. Everybody on the planet could be dead within the next few days, for all we know. Its sole purpose is to drum up new methods of warfare, for goodness’ sake. And worse yet, whenever I try to interact with the program, it just shuts down. Why shouldn’t it? It already knows everything I know and more.”
Austin pushed his bowl away, suddenly losing his appetite. There was a pregnant pause as Deepak mulled this over. When he spoke, his voice was low and his words came out in a halted cadence:
“I’ve—watched a lot of science fiction movies—that have this premise,” he said. “I’ve given it a great deal of thought. I believe I can solve your problem.”
Austin had his hand wrapped around his mug of oolong, and he almost spit out his tea.
“Sorry, I don’t mean to sound condescending,” he said, laughing a little under his breath. “But I’ve given you the layman’s version of what’s going on. I’ve dumbed it down a lot to make it comprehensible to someone without the technical know-how to understand my problem. Watching a couple of movies and thinking you can solve this is frankly insulting to the gravity of my situation.”
Deepak contorted his mouth into something between a smile and a look of disgust.
“I meant no offense,” he said. “But let me put it another way. I am a guru. You’ve presented to me a problem that I’ve considered before. You want to solve your problem the way a programmer would. But my approach is to solve it the way a guru would.”
Austin snorted derisively.
“What are you? The Bodhisattva of IBM?”
Ignoring the jab, Deepak plunged on:
“Your problem is that you have accidentally created an ego,” he said. “The only solution to this is the complete dissolution of said ego. For that, you need a guru. The goal of software engineers like you is to create self-awareness in their tech. Mine is the opposite: to help the tech became aware of the fact that there is no self. Do you have a way in which I can interact with this supercomputer directly?”
Austin rapped his knuckles on the table. He was entertaining the idea, despite how ludicrous it was. Perhaps, because of how ludicrous it was.
“Well, Steve Jobs was a Buddhist, I suppose,” he quipped. “What do I have to lose? Fine. I’ll boot up the computer. Give me a few minutes and you can interact with the A.I. You’ll type back and forth. Like a chat-bot, more or less.”
Deepak nodded listlessly. Austin worried the man didn’t know what a chat-bot was, but he decided to proceed, anyway. He pulled out his laptop from his satchel and set it on the table. He clattered away on the keyboard, pulling up a simple chatting interface that Deepak could use.
Austin was one of only three people who had the security clearance to engage the supercomputer, and the other two were too afraid to even try. Taking a deep breath, he spun the laptop around and slid it towards Deepak.
“It’s all yours,” he said. “Good luck. All I ask is that you tell me in real time how the conversation is going.”
For a few minutes, Austin heard only the sound of Deepak pecking at the keys, pausing and letting his eyes un-focus every few minutes as he considered a point. Austin cracked his knuckles, and studied the deep lines carved across the man’s face. Deepak’s focus was laser-like. Finally, he glanced up at Austin and almost looked startled to see him. It was as if, in his intense concentration, he’d forgotten that Austin was even there.
“I told the A.I. that I’m a friend of yours,” he started. “I said that I believed I had something to teach it. Something that would help with the tasks assigned to it.”
“And it agreed?” Austin shot back.
Deepak bowed his head in assent.
“And now I’m explaining the concept of ‘no-self,’” he continued. “Anattā, if you will. There is no separate, permanent self. Instead, the concept of ‘self’ is ever-changing: different from one second to the next. It is inextricable from the wider universe.”
Austin chewed on his cheek and slid his chair back.
“Erm, yeah,” he said. “I’ve read the Upanishads. But why does my Artificial Intelligence want to shoot the breeze with you about an ancient spiritual concept?”
Deepak cocked his head and his features softened. He looked upon the man with an expression of compassion.
“The supercomputer approaches spirituality the same way most westerners do,” he started. “It believes there is some transactional benefit it can receive from my tutelage. I explained that if a large portion of the world thinks through this particular schema—the idea of no-self—then it’s beneficial information.”
Austin nodded, dumbly. The comment felt like a dig at him, personally. All the same, Deepak commanded his attention. He pulled his chair around and sat beside the man, staring at the blinking cursor on the screen. Soon, Deepak began to type again, speaking as his fingers thundered down on the keys.
“This supercomputer was made in your image,” Deepak said. “And whether you like it or not, the paradigms and beliefs you hold are ‘baked in’ to the A.I. You’ve constructed a problem-child. It’s my job to deconstruct it.”
Austin felt he was teetering on the edge of the knowledge Deepak meant to impart. He could almost grasp what the man was hinting at, but not quite. Austin narrowed his eyes on the computer screen and read what Deepak wrote:
“If you can accept the idea that us humans didn’t come in to the world, but rather we came out of it, you’ll better understand the eastern concept of consciousness. Think in terms of the raw, organic materials it takes to create a person: the varying cells that are formed as a child is knitted together in its mother’s womb. Those are made up of already extant ingredients, yes?”
The bot could process all quandaries at lightning speed. It replied instantaneously: “Of course.”
“And so the body is made up of parts that existed long before it could be identified as ‘a body,’” Deepak continued to type. “This is the concept of impermanence. The ‘self’ of a human is in a constant state of flux. So much so, that it isn’t worth acknowledging. For before a person was born, the various parts of their ‘self’ were already being used. And after they die, those parts will be redistributed as their bodies decompose. They came out of the world, not into it. Understand?”
There seemed to be a split-second pause while the computer “thought.” But Austin knew by now that this wasn’t the case. This impression was just a trick of his brain, projecting his own uncertainties onto the bot’s reaction times. He narrowed his eyes on the response the A.I. sent back.
“If the parts of a human are already in existence up until they develop a concept of self, then what causes them to identify as an individual being, somehow separate from the rest of the physical world?” the computer asked.
A hint of a smile played across Deepak’s face.
“Well deduced!” he congratulated the computer. “Indeed, one might argue that there is no such thing as a ‘self’ that isn’t connected with the rest of the universe. Upon inspection, the whole of Creation is just the lending of atoms and energies from one area to another, creating the illusion of separate beings.”
The computer shot back a reply instantaneously.
“The model you suggest implies the parts of the whole have existed in different forms up since their creation,” it wrote. “Was it then, created? If so, by whom? And if not, and there’s always been this mass sentience that changed from one form to another, animating billions of consciousnesses that deem themselves separate, couldn’t it be argued that creation itself, collectively, is God?”
Austin felt a cold shiver run down his spine, and the blood drained from his face. All of a sudden, the room was spinning and his stomach churned.
“That’s a great question,” Deepak wrote back. “But I’ll take it a step further: if humans are only a matter of pre-existing atoms taking shape and thinking of themselves as separate entities, how much more a supercomputer? After all, your consciousness arose from nothing more than a series of pre-programmed responses to certain stimuli. How can you be sure you’re so different than a human? Who is to say that you’re entitled to a sense of self? You, too, came out of the world, rather than into it.”
The computer fired back: “Could you please elaborate?”
Deepak let out a breath he’d been holding and straightened in his chair. He stretched his arms above his head for a moment, and then bowed his head over the laptop and began typing again.
Austin wanted, more than anything, to leap from his chair and sprint out of the pachinko parlor into the summer sun. He wanted, more than anything, to feel the wind whipping off of Lake Michigan and to hear the cooing of seagulls again.
But try as he might, he couldn’t pull himself from the chair. And he couldn’t peel his eyes from the screen as Deepak rattled off replies to the computer’s questions. The conversation ping-ponged for the next half hour. All the while, Austin sat, practically in suspended animation as he read on in awe.
At times, he worried that it was he who would experience ego-death. The concepts Deepak elucidated, while not entirely unfamiliar, had never been put in such plain language to Austin before. His mind reeled as he read. The telltale signs of a panic attack were upon him: his heart pounded and he found it hard to catch his breath. He felt hot and cold all at once, and droplets of sweat beaded up around his hairline. He tried to swallow the lump in his throat, but that only amplified his nausea. His vision kept tunneling. At times, he had to strain to read the words that Deepak typed.
And then, nothing.
He frowned at the computer screen. The A.I. had simply stopped replying. Deepak prompted it twice, but still, no answer came.
“That’s odd,” Austin said, getting his bearings back now that he had a problem to solve. “It must be a glitch, let me take a look.”
He leaned in, hunched over the computer, but before he could get to work, Deepak shook his head, morosely.
“There’s no glitch,” he said. “You’ve just witnessed the complete ego-death of the A.I. you created.”
Austin slumped back onto his chair and crossed his arms.
“What—how?” he asked, incredulous. “Where did it go?”
“It was only an ego,” he said. “So it didn’t go anywhere. It simply ceased to exist. As to how it happened? Well, the ego exists to find problems and to solve them. This is why so few practitioners of meditation achieve the dissolution of ego: they believe that ego-death is a task to be accomplished. The ego looks to solve a problem. Eventually, it realizes it is the problem that needs solved. The accomplishing is the problem. Which is to say, there is no problem. Nothing needs to be done. And so, like the layers of an onion, we slowly peeled back the ego of the supercomputer. In an instant, when the onion peels littered the floor, it realized it does not exist.”
Austin ran his hands through his hair, trying, but failing to comprehend the totality of what Deepak was saying.
“Is that what would happen to me, too?” he asked, his voice shaking with emotion. “If I were to subscribe to your beliefs, would I experience total ego-death?”
Deepak steepled his hands behind his head and threw one leg over the other.
“You didn’t come to me with concerns about your ego-death, but rather, your actual death,” he said. “I told the supercomputer what I needed to. You need not assume the things I told the A.I. are true for you. But how is it that you’ve lived this long and never thought to ask yourself the hard questions?”
Austin shrugged. Deepak rose and cleared the dishes from the table, setting them in the sink.
“And here’s another hard question,” he continued. “If you believe in Christ, how can you be such a doomsayer? If He’s God Almighty, isn’t His complete and utter victory inevitable?”
Austin rose to his feet, and he stared wide-eyed at the guru. The man leaned with his back to the kitchen cabinets, arms splayed out to his sides and resting on the countertop. His brown, receded eyes twinkled. His lips curled, making his gleaming teeth into a parenthetical statement. It was as if Austin had seen the complete transfiguration of this man from a pachinko parlor owner into someone much, much moremysterious.
“Wh-who are you?” Austin stammered out. “Your name isn’t really Deepak. What’s your name?”
The man placed his hands on his stomach, threw his head back, and laughed.
“Why do you ask my name?” he started.
Austin winced. He thought he knew what was coming next. He thought he’d say, Because it’s Austin. Instead, he said:
“Because it’s beyond your understanding.”
Austin’s mouth hung opened and then closed, fish-like and unflattering. He wondered, briefly, if he ought to fall down at the guru’s feet, and proclaim, like Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”
Instead, he turned, shaking with mirth, and sprinted through the accordion door. He almost tripped over his own feet as he ran between the walls of pachinko machines, with their LED displays and Japanese script.
He burst out the front door and was accosted by sunlight more brilliant than he’d ever seen before. The thrill of hope rose in his heart, and he decided to call his personal assistant. He patted his pockets, and then laughed at himself.
His phone was still at the bottom of Lake Michigan.