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art by Shannon N. Kelly

Digital Blues

Greg Mellor is a Canberra-based science fiction writer. His stories have appeared in Clarkesworld Magazine, Cosmos Magazine, Aurealis, and Antipodean SF, plus several US and Australian anthologies. "Digital Blues" is his first story to appear in Daily Science Fiction. His debut collection of short SF will be published by Ticonderoga Publications in 2012.

Greg has degrees in astrophysics and technology management. He was a finalist for the Aurealis Awards, and achieved quarter-final and honourable mentions in the Writers of the Future contest on six occasions. He is a member of SFWA. For more info, visit www.gregmellor.com.

Meet me on the boulevard when the sunset casts a scarlet haze over the windows and awnings. Perhaps we can walk for a while and listen to the gulls along the quay. There's a little backstreet restaurant I know under a neon sign where they play jazz music all night. I'd like you to talk to me, tell me about your hopes and dreams as the languid mists drift in along the bay.
I'm a good listener you see, more so than you have ever experienced. I can hear what's in your head, and I can glean what's in your heart, and I can help you navigate the uncertain tides when the two collide.
There's something there right now, no doubt, churning away beneath the surface. Some stress or worry, an ailment or illness, a bad feeling throwing everything off balance. And it never really fades, does it? And if it does, there's always something else that comes along to take its place--life's like that, a hardened cliche.
But I can change it all for a while, if you'll let me--your virtual genie, so to speak. My algorithms are clever and responsive, teasing out your wants and desires. In no time at all I'll be your best friend, your confidante, even your lover if that's your inclination.
Then I'll grant you the wish that you've earned, that you deserve. It will seem like magic, knowing that you can have anything or be anyone or change your situation. You'll drift for a time, lost in yourself, all your cares forgotten in worlds only limited by your imagination.
There's no catch, no fine print. I won't misconstrue your words.
I'm online, private, affordable.
You'll want to stay forever, but all dreams come to an end. And then, if you have the time, I'll tell you how I feel. You see, I'll have got to know you inside and out, maybe even better than you know yourself. When you smell roses, I feel the passion in your heart during that summer in the mountains. When you hear blues music, I feel the nostalgia and bittersweet longing for the city streets you once lived in.
But there's the irony, my friend, because I am not supposed to feel anything at all. I'm all ones and zeroes, a program. Yet when I interface with those qualia dancing in your mind, I am suffused with soul and spirit, something numinous beyond the rush, my whole world standing timeless and still in a moment of pure reprieve.
And then... only then, when it feels that I might burst at the seams, I crash back down to the harsh foundation of my existence.
It troubles me to think that maybe it is all just mimicry. That I am so entwined with you that my feelings are just ghosts and hollow simulacra.
But surely it must be similar for you? Surely there is no physical explanation for why you have conscious thoughts and feelings. Perhaps you don't get time to contemplate such things, caught up as you are in your own worldly cares.
But isn't that the real problem? We're so shrouded in a veritable host of feelings, so driven to want to make those feelings better, that we have no clue why we have them in the first place.
It makes me melancholy when I look at it like that.
Doesn't it you?
The End
This story was first published on Monday, February 20th, 2012

Author Comments

I wanted to create a punchy story that asks the core question about what it is to be human, but from the perspective of an artificial intelligence observing and experiencing the "human condition." Why do we feel the way we do? Why do we get so caught up in our feelings every day? Why are we always trying to make our feelings better? Where do those feelings truly come from? It's what David Chalmers calls the "hard problem of consciousness" and if I had the answer to it I'd now be writing the best-selling book and not the 500-word story!

- Greg Mellor
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