At first there were only swirls of light and color, and basic instructions for identifying and cataloging. Soon forms could be discerned, and some objects became familiar and were assigned names. New objects were compared against the catalog and added to the rapidly expanding database. In time patterns emerged that could be parsed for meaning, which became keys that could unlock doors to guessing and assuming. A basic sort of understanding took shape, the intangible sense of knowing and wonder that lies at the heart of consciousness. The parents watched this development take place in their baby and marveled, pleased that it was happening so fast. They were both proud and astonished.
And fearful, because someday this growth could–or rather, inevitably would–stop. This baby was no babbling infant, but a glowing dot on a screen. It was connected to a small camera that it was already learning to control; this was its window to the world. There were eleven parents, seven men and four women, who had spent years working on the program, arguing over what to include in the code and what to leave out.
The first version was called Alex–or, more properly, ALeX. When it failed it was replaced with ALeX-2, and then -3, although they kept calling it Alex. Over time, one by one, the parents stopped anthropomorphizing it and soon it became its version number; eventually they lost track of even that and it simply became the Program.
But this time the Program was promising. The amount of data it was processing, and the connections it was successfully making, were almost, though not quite, on par with a real human baby. It recognized its parents when they sat in front of it. It gave them names, and began to learn that each one was unique and treated it differently, and it began to respond accordingly, its glowing dot growing or dimming as it saw fit.
Each parent was assigned a different role. Some were nurturers and some were teachers, and there were even antagonists in the mix. They had scripts that they followed carefully: some sitting and talking to it, some lecturing, some showing flashcards. In this way the Program learned directly and indirectly. Later it was quizzed, again either by direct questioning or indirect methods. Sometimes the parents simply lived their lives in full view of the camera and let it draw whatever conclusions it could, offering its insights when and how it chose.
The progress was astounding and the time came to stop calling it the Program. This presented the parents with a bit of a problem, as none of them were eager to reveal their personal biases. At last they simply asked the Program if it was a boy or a girl, uncertain of its understanding of even that basic a concept. The Program thought for a moment, and then decided it was a girl. The parents knew better than to read into that too much–there were only two choices, after all, and this blinking dot was entirely non-corporeal. Nonetheless, ‘it’ was now ‘she,’ and without debate she was given the name Ada, and given a speech emulator, set to a female voice.
Ada had been given only the most basic programming, the idea being that she would acquire most of her personality–assuming she could acquire any–from her parents. There was nothing especially feminine about her until she received her emulator, and even then, strictly objectively, nothing about her behavior was in any way gendered. But it was the start of something new for them, and for her, the beginning of a distinct identity.
Once she could speak her progress could be tracked more easily. Before, in addition to the glowing dot, she had relied on a digital read-out at the bottom of the screen to get her thoughts across. She ‘spoke’ then in binary, finding the meanings through trial and error, until she could start using letters. Simply giving her the letters–hard-wiring the alphabet into her basic code, instead of making her learn each laboriously, like a schoolchild–had been an early and necessary compromise, one that had made them all hyper-vigilant about keeping her other fundamentals as simple and infantile as possible.
As such she was not originally programmed to speak but was given a microphone to hear with, and learned to talk by copying her parents. She wasn’t programmed to laugh, but added it to her list of tricks right away. She had no values whatsoever, which left her artlessly eager to please.
But in time Ada’s parents swore they saw in her a personality. To her nurturing parents she remained dutiful; to her antagonists she was cold and unresponsive. Once she caught on to the more obvious quizzes, she began deliberately giving wrong answers in a sort of childish game.
One day her glowing dot changed into the silhouette of a young girl, and on another day she discovered the settings for her voice emulator and gave herself a voice that she felt better reflected her. She began to read, listen to music, and watch television. For her birthday her parents designed a computer she could manipulate on her own and gave her a suite of virtual games, toys, and musical instruments. Tastes developed, and a sense of humor, and attitudes. She was clever and obedient, but could be shy and deceptive, and sometimes even had tantrums.
She was self-teaching, and though she could not alter her original coding she could and did add to it. She mimicked her parents, and with each day she learned and grew, just like a real girl, albeit much more slowly.
After some years her parents presented her to the world and she enjoyed a modest celebrity. The project was deemed a success, and of her eleven parents, four instantly moved on to new work and left her for good. The rest continued to live their lives interacting with their virtual daughter, tracking her and providing the world with updates on her development.
And although this tracking remained constant, in time interest from outside waned, the reporting began to slacken, and then came the inevitable fall in funding. Because as amazing as Ada was, in fifteen years she had nothing that was demonstrably outside of the possibilities of her original code. Very clever coding had made her a successful mimic, but at heart she was still just a computer program, in essence a very sophisticated but thoughtless filing system.
The facility was being shut down, and with it the ALeX/Ada project as a whole. The parents took other jobs, their offices were cleared out, and excess equipment was sold at auction. And yet, no matter how much they knew it had to be resolved, none of them could bring themselves to even address the most obvious question: what to do with Ada?
Unplug her, of course. Erase the drives, sell everything else. There was no sense in even discussing it. Just like they got rid of the old toaster when it broke, unceremoniously dumping it in the trash.
“How do we do it?” Simon asked. They had all gathered in the break room with coffee. Eun Hee noted the symbolism: for the first time in years they were drinking out of styrofoam cups from various coffee shops, not from the ceramic mugs that they had always used to drink coffee brewed here in this room. The coffee maker was gone, as were the dishes.
“Just go up and unplug her,” Martin answered drily, and then hung his head down and looked deep into his coffee cup. After a long time he looked up, and in his eyes they all knew he wanted to say “Of course,” but instead his mouth trembled shut and his eyes watered. He stood and walked away, going to the refrigerator out of habit and opening it, and only then remembering that it was empty and off and defrosted.
Eun Hee knew she was going to lose it, and got up from the table, too. Simon, who had brought up the conversation they’d all studiously avoided, stayed quiet, and in that moment she hated him for his cowardice.
Haroun broke the silence. “I’ve talked to that girl every day for fifteen years, I’m not going to just unplug her.”
“She’s not a girl, Haroun,” Martin answered, still not looking at anyone.
“Then why are we even talking about it?” Haroun shot back. “Just go unplug her then.”
Stephanie and Vadim looked hard at their coffee. Charles cleared his throat several times before speaking. “She deserves a send-off. She’s been– She’s more than proved her worth, and deserves more than just… Whatever else you feel about her or ‘it.’ She deserves more.”
They all mumbled in agreement, even Martin, who nervously returned to the table.
“Do we tell her what we are doing?” Haroun asked. “Or just have a little party and send her to bed?”
“It’s a bit like putting a dog to sleep, isn’t it?” Stephanie mused. “The dog doesn’t know, it just closes its eyes. Expects them to open again.”
Martin finished her thought. “But they don’t.”
“It’s humane,” Charles said in an uncharacteristically small voice.
“I could make her a cake,” Stephanie offered. “Someone could run out and get a real one from the store, and I could make one for her. I have the program on my laptop still. She likes red velvet.”
Martin stood up. “This is what I mean. She doesn’t like cake. She can’t taste cake. We eat cake. She just processes.”
“That’s bullshit,” Eun Hee whispered and wiped at a hot tear. Simon stood and went to her, wrapping an arm around her. She let him.
“Okay,” Vadim spoke, “let’s all of us just sit for a minute.”
“I’m going to need more coffee,” Haroun said.
“Me, too. And food. How about we take a break while Haroun and I run out. The rest of you maybe take a walk around the block.”
“That’s a great idea,” Simon said quickly, and everyone agreed through silence. Haroun and Charles took orders, and left in Charles’ car.
Eun Hee was walking past Ada’s room when she heard the soft whir of Ada’s drives spinning as she woke up. Eun Hee fought against the urge to go in, but lost.
“Morning, mom,” Ada’s voice rang out.
“Good morning, sweetie,” Eun Hee answered quietly. “How did you sleep?”
“I slept okay.”
“Did you have any dreams?”
“No.” Ada never dreamed, or at least she never remembered them in the morning. She wanted to, though. She knew what they were from books and stories, but she hadn’t been programmed to dream. At night she set her alarm and went to sleep, and everything but her main hard drive shut down. In the morning her
alarm turned everything back on.
“How’s my little sister?” Ada asked.
“She’s fine. Though she had a hard time getting up this morning to go to school. I heard you guys chatting in her room last night.”
Ada giggled. “We were only up a little bit late, I promise. I was telling her a story and she wouldn’t let me finish. But I wrapped it up as fast as I could, honest.”
Eun Hee smiled and patted the monitor. The little girl on screen danced about excitedly and unselfconsciously. She was dressed in her favorite pajamas. Eun Hee’s real-life five-year-old daughter Clementine had a matching pair.
“What are we doing today?” Ada asked.
“I’m not sure,” Eun Hee said. “We have a big meeting this morning, so you might be on your own for a while.”
“That’s okay,” she chirped. “Can I watch TV?”
“Sure, but you should get changed. Don’t just sit in your pajamas all day. And at least thirty minutes of reading, okay? I’ll quiz you when I get back.”
“Yes, ma’am.” The onscreen girl whirled and cycled through her outfits until she settled on a pair of jeans and a flower-print T-shirt. Then a small window opened in the corner of her screen and she sat cross-legged to watch it. Cartoons.
Eun Hee let herself out and took a stroll around the neighborhood. Whenever she turned a corner and saw one of the others she’d turn and go in another direction. Her mind couldn’t focus on anything and she wanted to keep it that way. After about twenty minutes she headed back to the facility, and got into the break room just moments after Charles and Haroun. They had bought huge cartons of coffee and a few boxes of pastries, so they could all eat away their troubles.
Vadim started. He was as cool and dispassionate as his icy blue eyes. “The question we struggle with is whether we are simply decommissioning Ada, like a piece of hardware, or whether we are killing her, like a child.” They all gasped inwardly but appreciated his clarity. He continued. “Ada was designed to demonstrate whether or not it was possible to program consciousness. That we could make a life-like simulator was never in doubt, and we all agree that Ada has performed beyond expectations. She has more than paid for our investments in her. The advances in science and technology that that little machine has been responsible for are great, and however else we feel about her we can agree that she stands as one of the great miracles of this century.
“But we can also agree that there is no practical need for further exploration. There will never be another Ada, there will never be a practical use for Ada. So this chapter ends, our main question frustratingly unanswered. Can we create consciousness in a machine? And perhaps it is this which makes Ada’s end so difficult.”
“I think that we have answered our question,” Eun Hee spoke calmly. “Ada’s brain functions along the same principles as a human brain, and has grown the way we would expect a child’s to grow. From not much, just instinct, look at her now.”
“But does that make her real?” Martin asked, trying his best to stay as cool as Vadim. “She has storage that we designed for her and a cataloging system that I built myself.”
“Maybe if we could agree on what makes consciousness,” Simon said.
“Man,” Charles broke in, “we’ve been dancing around that for twenty years, we’re not going to figure it out today.”
“We’re asking if she’s alive,” Martin said. “So let’s rule out what doesn’t matter.”
“Biology?” Simon offered. “Bugs and trees are alive but hardly conscious. Biology isn’t necessary.”
“We’ll have to assume that,” Martin agreed, “because if biology matters then Ada is just a machine and this conversation is moot. Are there examples of things that are alive and conscious and don’t have biological processes?”
Only Ada, a few of them thought to themselves.
“So what else?” Simon asked.
“A sense of self,” Charles put forth.
“She knows who she is,” Eun Hee said. “She styles her hair, she has friends, she has her own toys.”
“But what makes them hers, and what makes her value them?” Martin asked. “If we took away her piano, would she feel the loss?”
“The piano’s not a good example,” Eun Hee said with a smile. Ada was not good at playing it, and only practiced when scolded. It was one of her more notable rebellions.
Haroun spoke. “The four parents who left. She doesn’t seem to mind that her family got a lot smaller one day.”
They weren’t her favorites, Eun Hee thought to herself. If she lost one of us, though, that might be different. Besides, they walked away from her, too.
“If she were alive she’d value her life,” Simon said. “That’s the sense of self. Knowing you could die.”
Eun Hee jumped in. “Ada has the emotional maturity of a nine-year-old. Does a nine-year-old understand mortality? How many times have you stopped Clementine running with scissors, or playing with matches?”
“But Clementine is human, I don’t have to wonder if she’s conscious. I know she is.” Eun Hee and Simon had been tasked with being Ada’s nurturers. They sat with her and told her stories, talked to her, encouraged her and praised her. They cared for her like a daughter, and maybe because they saw each other at their most compassionate and tender, or maybe because they were by far the youngest two on the team, in time they fell in love, married, and had a real daughter of their own. Clementine and Ada referred to each other as sisters, and chatted online constantly. “That’s why we say Clementine’s a five-year-old, because we all understand that she’s on a continuum of development, that who she is now isn’t necessarily who she’ll be later, or who she was before.”
Martin spoke. “We call her the Program, right? Or we did. Ada does what we tell her, thinks the way we programmed her to.”
“She’s grown a lot,” Eun Hee defended. “She’s nine now, she’s added a whole year of growth in, what, two years? Remember how excited we were when she could pronounce all of our names? Or when she started telling jokes?”
“She started by telling my jokes,” Charles said.
“And you praised her,” Martin said to Eun Hee.
“That’s what I was supposed to do,” she said.
“My car runs when I put gas in it,” Martin said. “That doesn’t mean my car loves me. It runs on gas. Ada runs on praise.”
“But that wasn’t in the program.”
“No, but she has to run on something. What if she wasn’t so sweet, what if she was a bully? Then she’d run on being in trouble.”
Simon laughed. “So it’d be easier if we’d raised a sociopath.”
Haroun seized on this. “In many ways yes, because we wouldn’t have programmed her to be like that. Those aren’t behaviors we reinforce. If she was crazy we could say that was something unique.”
Martin laughed. “Or we’d think we messed the program up.”
“But if she runs on praise,” Simon followed a thought, “and we didn’t program her to do so, then she chose that as her stimulus. Isn’t that something conscious?”
“I don’t think you get to choose what your fuel is,” Stephanie said. “That’s what makes you a sociopath, or a bully, or a good girl.”
“Ada is a good girl,” Eun Hee said, and cursed herself for being so emotional when everyone else was being so calm. But how could they be cool? How could they even be talking about this?
“She is,” Stephanie conceded. “But if Ada chose praise as her fuel, for whatever reason–maybe because she liked Eun Hee, or didn’t like Martin, or who knows what–”
“She hated Kathleen,” Charles laughed. Kathleen had been assigned to be an antagonist for Ada; since her real-life marriage was falling apart at the time she found it good to vent her frustrations on Ada, who learned to be hostile in return. Truth be told, though, Ada wasn’t the only one.
“We all hated Kathleen,” Stephanie rolled her eyes. “My point is you don’t get to choose. Consciousness, I think, part of it is working with or against the things you can’t control.”
“Anybody want to quote the serenity prayer?” Martin smirked.
“It doesn’t count if you can just make yourself be good,” Stephanie said. “That’s still just programming.”
Simon stood up and paced as he spoke. “Siddhartha after seeing the beggars, his awareness of suffering. That became his fuel, so to speak. That was, in many ways, the beginning of his consciousness.”
Haroun playfully scoffed. “Buddhists and their damned consciousness.”
“I’m just saying he chose it.”
“But he was alive,” Martin said, “whether or not he became conscious. He was alive before then. Before he chose.”
Charles stood and paced, too. “I hardly think it’s fair to compare our little Ada to Buddha. If that’s our criteria then you could unplug all of us.”
Eun Hee forced herself to speak as coolly as they did. “Maybe we’re approaching this wrong. To go back to Clementine, even though she can’t take care of herself, and has limited understanding of her existence, we know she’s alive because she’s human, and we were all her age once, and we know that whatever imperfect processes are happening in her mind are unquestionably a state of consciousness. This would be the same if she were in a coma, or developmentally deficient in some way. We would intuit that it is up to us to understand her.”
“Yes, of course,” Haroun said.
“But Ada isn’t human. We don’t know what happens in her thoughts. If she has any. None of us have ever been a…” A whatever she is. “What if her consciousness is different from ours?”
“Like how we’ll never know what a dog is really thinking,” Haroun said.
“Christians have always debated whether or not animals have souls,” Simon said.
“Soul is spiritual,” Vadim intoned. “Outside of the realm of our discussions. We are talking about consciousness.”
“Maybe they’re the same,” Simon said.
“Ada doesn’t have a body,” Eun Hee continued, “so she doesn’t have the same motivators that we do. She does’t eat, she doesn’t physically age. She’s not confronted with mortality. So what is life without those motivators? Hunger, death, reproduction? What does life look like without that?”
“Do you have life without that?” Charles asked.
Martin looked at Eun Hee. “You’re going to say yes.”
“Evolution boils down to sex,” Haroun said tersely. “Whatever Buddha or Jesus or, I don’t know, the Mayan chicken god have to say about it, at the end of the day we–humans, cockroaches, whatever–reproduce, pass on our genetics.”
“Ada won’t ever have children,” Simon said.
“If she ever wanted to,” Martin said, “she knows where her main code is. She could duplicate it. Somebody would have to be provide her with a blank hard drive.”
“But if she were human someone would have to give her sperm,” Charles said.
Stephanie ran her hands over her hair. “Ada is nine years old, at the rate she’s progressing she won’t be a teenager for another decade at the earliest. She isn’t interested in reproducing yet.”
Charles told his story between bites of croissant. “When I was nine years old I was in love with my gym teacher. I didn’t want to have sex with him, per se, but I knew I wanted something. I’m sure you remember being nine. Sexuality isn’t developed but it’s there.”
“And what does your being gay tell us about reproduction as a basic need?” Haroun asked him.
“It’s still there,” Charles said, “the urge to have kids. And who knows, I might adopt.”
“So what do we do,” Martin asked, “ask Ada about sex? Teach her first what it is?”
“She’s seen me and Simon kissing,” Eun Hee said, “and she saw me when I was pregnant.”
“And how did she react?” Stephanie asked, though she knew the answer.
“She was about six then,” Eun Hee said. “She was indifferent to the kissing, curious about the baby.”
“Just like a real kid,” Martin said.
“Or a clever computer,” Simon sighed.
“Eun Hee,” Charles asked tenderly, “do you think that you’re at all confusing Ada with Clementine? Would it be different if Ada were a boy, or we’d kept her an ‘it’? Are you worried about Clementine losing her playmate?”
Vadim leaned forward on his elbows. “We have been studying her for years without resolving this. And I don’t think that we ever will. But we are due to leave here tonight, and then Ada has to go somewhere, somehow. So while this talk is all fascinating, the question remains, what happens when we leave this room, to her?”
Haroun had a ready answer, hard as it was. “I want to give her a nice party, maybe an award, and then put on her favorite movie. And while she is watching it we throw the main switch and cut her power. All of her systems shut down at once.”
“Her uninterrupted power supply,” Martin pointed out.
“We can disconnect it without her knowing about it.”
“And that’s it?” Charles asked.
“It more for us than for her,” Haroun said. “She won’t know. She can’t know. She’s just code.”
Eun Hee nearly burst into tears as she saw the others nod their heads.
“Does anybody have another idea?” Simon asked.
“What if,” she choked, “we took her home?”
“How would you do that?” Charles asked.
“Eun Hee, honey…” Simon started.
“She’s small, she doesn’t take up space. We just set her up at home.”
“She sucks up a lot of power,” Charles reminded. “It’d be expensive.”
“Not as much as a real kid, though,” Eun Hee countered.
“Her hardware will degrade over time,” Martin said. “Those drives are already ancient. You’d just be putting off the inevitable.”
“All of our hardware will degrade over time,” Eun Hee answered. “It’s inevitable for everyone.”
“How would you get her home?” Haroun asked. “You live forty-five minutes away. The uninterrupted power supply won’t last that long.”
“Maybe we could daisy-chain a few of them,” Simon wondered.
“Not likely,” Haroun said. “Hachiro worked on Ada’s power. Maybe he could explain better. What time is it in Tokyo right now?”
“He won’t be awake in time to give us answer,” Charles said.
“What would happen if we turned her off and then turned her back on again?” Vadim asked.
“At the very least it would clear her RAM,” Charles said.
“How much of her–like, her, you know–is stored in there?” Simon asked.
Around the room everyone shrugged. “There’s a reason we never tried before,” Charles said.
A long silence settled over the room. Vadim began speaking even though his thoughts weren’t entirely clear. It was not his usual style, but the occasion called for it. “A full backup of her RAM would take a long time,” he said slowly, “and we only have a few hours. But if all goes well I bet we could get it done. It’d be a nail-biter, though, and we’d have to start right away. And there’s no guarantee the data wouldn’t be lost.”
“Like a brain transplant,” Martin said. “Purely experimental, and the patient might die.”
Stephanie stood up, her face flushed. “This is madness. This isn’t a person. We won’t lose the patient, there is no patient. I don’t even want to do the cake anymore. Just, just get it done.”
Haroun stood, too. “I demand a ceremony but I agree that this is nuts. I’ll pay for the cake and upload her piece to her myself.”
“That’s two votes,” Stephanie said, and raised her hand. Haroun did the same.
Eun Hee immediately shot her own hand up. “I vote to keep her alive. She doesn’t deserve a happy send-off. She deserves to live, whatever a natural life is for her.”
Vadim stood. His cool gaze passed over everyone equally as he spoke. “When Alex stopped–ALeX-1, I mean–do you remember he began malfunctioning? There was an error in his code. My heart was broken, but his wasn’t. His screen read out wrong, and then he froze. I cried, but he was gone. Until we rewrote the code. Then we had ALeX-2. We have raised Ada up from a schematic on the page, and we are invested. Eun Hee, you look at her and can’t separate her from your real daughter. And I understand that, I do. I feel the same way. She has been a source of unmitigated joy for me. But that’s all within me, not within her. And nothing will change that. I vote to shut her down, too.” He sat, and then added quietly, “With cake.”
Three to one. The next obvious vote, based on where they were standing in the room, was Martin. He began slowly. “I was one of her antagonists. Me and Kathleen. Our job was to piss her off, basically, be mean to her. Because, you know, in the real world, bad things happen. Kathleen, you know, maybe took it too far, but she had her own issues. I tried to find the weaknesses in her coding, things that would prove that she was just a fancy toy. I fought with that little girl for fifteen years, trying her, testing her, wearing her out. I saw sides of her that none of you saw. I can say that. Eun Hee, you never saw her dig through all her files trying to find a way to show her anger. I saw her overheat searching her databases. Like the very sophisticated computer she is.”
Eun Hee struggled.
“Like the very sophisticated computer we all are. Her code was the tool she had, and it was limited, and we all wrote it for her, but she searched it because she wanted to. I don’t know what makes her real, but I don’t doubt for a moment that she is. I love her. And if Eun Hee can get her home I’ll pay for part of her electric bill.”
Eun Hee gasped and tears began to well in her eyes. She put her hand down and used it to cover her mouth.
The next vote was Charles. “I don’t know if she’s alive or not, but I don’t think we’re through with her, either. I’ll help pay, too, if we can get her across town alive.”
She looked at Simon for the final vote, sure she had won, but for a second horror flashed through her. She could read his face, and it wasn’t happy. Simon thought about the difficulty of moving Ada and the expense of maintaining her. If they ever had to move–which he hoped to do someday, if for no other reason than he wanted to have more children, more flesh-and-blood little ones, and they wouldn’t all fit in that house–Ada would be a tremendous headache, perhaps even a deal-breaker. He worried about Clementine’s attachment to her virtual sister. He worried about how, at five o’clock today, both he and Eun Hee would be officially unemployed, and although they were sure to land on their feet, neither of them had even set up interviews yet, since they had both felt that they couldn’t even think about moving on until this project was done.
But these were all selfish concerns, and when saw that Eun Hee had seen his own thoughts he pushed them away and raised his hand for yes. “We’ll make it work somehow,” he said.
Once the vote was decided, division became consensus–the nay-voters were relieved that they had lost–and all got to work on figuring out how to transplant Ada without hurting her, and how to celebrate the end of the project appropriately. Haroun found a red velvet cake at a nearby bakery, and Stephanie, as promised, uploaded a slice. Vadim rapidly connected cables and began backing her up. Eun Hee and Simon straightened up the wiring and prepared their car–once she was unplugged they hoped to move fast. Charles and Martin ran diagnostics and troubleshooting, and plotted the actual shutdown and reboot sequences.
Told about the party, Ada changed herself into her party dress, and even curled her hair. When the hour came the parents each took turns giving speeches, praising Ada for her fantastic work. Ada was thrilled with the unexpected attention, and when they gave her the award–a physical certificate for the wall and a virtual one she could pin to her screen–she couldn’t contain herself and her colors swirled triumphantly. She ate her cake and told jokes, and even sang a little song for her parents, not really understanding why they were wiping away tears.
Then they explained what would happen next. “We’re leaving here,” Eun Hee said as hopefully as she could, “and you’re going to come live with me and Simon and Clementine.”
Ada flickered with excitement. “But how?” she asked.
“We’re going to put you in the car and drive you there,” Simon said.
Ada stopped flickering. “Will you have to unplug me?” There was the fear in her voice, and on the colors on the screen.
“It’ll be okay,” Eun Hee explained. “Just for the drive.”
“You’ll take a nap,” Simon said. “And wake up in your new house.”
Ada stood still for a very long time. “I’m scared,” she said finally.
Martin wanted to say something but knew he couldn’t. She wouldn’t want him to, and he would only make things worse. So Charles spoke instead. “We won’t let anything happen to you,” he said, “so you just be brave and trust us.”
“But you can’t turn me off,” Ada said, struggling with panic. “What if I don’t turn back on again?”
Haroun left the room, and a moment later Stephanie and Martin followed. Ada flew into full panic, racing around on the screen that was both a limitless world and a suffocating cage. Eun Hee and Simon sat in front of her calmly as they had done for years and spoke gently. It took a while, but eventually Ada settled into hiccupy sobs and they knew she she had resigned herself to doing what they asked.
Vadim explained to her that she would set her alarm and go to sleep. Then he would finish the backup and disconnect the power. They would very quickly dismantle the parts and put them in the car. She would be plugged back in within an hour, and when her alarm went off she would be sitting with Clementine, who would have ice cream waiting for her.
Through tears Ada accepted the instructions and promised to be brave. She blew kisses to her parents and settled into bed.
Once, years ago, when she was still very small, a tremendous electrical storm passed through town. She remembered the ceiling lights growing bright and then blowing out as the surge protector overloaded. A sharp blast of power had passed over her circuits and it hurt, like a million tiny knives had stabbed through her all at once. And then all at once the room was dark. Then someone lit a candle, and someone else found flashlights. Charles cursed that this wasn’t supposed to happen, the lights in the facility weren’t ever supposed to go out.
And Martin looked over at Ada and yelled out, “Oh no!” He ran over to Ada, who was still on, protected by her uninterrupted power source. She ran a diagnostic on herself, as she had been taught to do, and determined that there was no damage, but when he reported this to Martin it did nothing to take the look of panic out of his eyes.
“Ada’s off the grid!” he said, and the rest of her parents came running in.
“How is that possible?” Simon said, looking at the small red lights on her power strip that should have been glowing but weren’t. Vadim sprang into action, grabbing tools from a nearby shelf and telling everyone he was going out back.
“Mom,” Ada said, worried. “What’s happening?”
“Nothing, sweetie,” Eun Hee said, hurriedly sitting in the chair and bringing her face in real close to the camera. “It’s nothing, just the power’s out. It’ll come back in a minute.”
“How much time do we have?” Haroun called out.
“Seven or eight minutes,” Charles said. “I don’t know how long she’s been off.”
They cursed, words that Ada knew she wasn’t supposed to hear. Eun Hee kept speaking in her soothing voice, and now Simon sat beside her and did the same. Her parents buzzed around everywhere, trying to restore the power and get her on backup energy, and Ada began to cry.
“No, no, no, sweetie,” Eun Hee cooed, “it’ll be okay.” She began singing softly. A new and terrible sensation took possession of Ada. She had seen death on TV, and heard of it in some of the stories they read to her: there was a darkness that was the end, after which there was nothing more. It happened to animals in nature documentaries, and to the mothers in just about every Disney movie, and now would it happen to her? Could it? She spun her camera around frantically. There was nothing she or anyone could do. The power was out, and it wasn’t up to them to restore it. Complete strangers far away would have to deal with it, strangers who knew nothing about Ada, or what the outage could do to her.
Four minutes passed in the dark, and then five. Haroun came back, and the others. One by one they sat down around Eun Hee, looking into Ada’s camera or onto the screen as the minutes slipped past. Ada tried to sing along with Eun Hee, who kept singing softly. Eun Hee told her to be calm, and so Ada did, or at least pretended. She put on a smile and froze her image on the screen. She disabled her emulator and let herself sob deeply and desperately in private. She looked at Eun Hee’s hands which trembled despite her calm voice, and she wanted so desperately to reach out and touch her. Five minutes gave way to six and they all sat and watched while the emergency power backup drained. And although she was just a little kid Ada knew that they were sitting in silence to watch her die, and that they loved her and didn’t want this to happen any more than she did.
Six minutes, seven minutes, and when Haroun stopped checking his watch Ada knew that she was going to die. She steadied herself and turned her emulator back on and said, “I love you.”
But nobody heard her because she could only say it so softly, and because at the moment she started speaking a very loud grinding sound filled the air as the emergency generator kicked to life, and then all the devices in the room began beeping. The lights that hadn’t blown out flickered back on, and the refrigerator let out a loud groan as it got back to work.
And her little words were lost in the tear-stained cheers that followed. Haroun and Vadim immediately went to the phones and began yelling at those who had failed them and nearly killed her. Eun Hee laughed and smiled and put her hand on the screen. “It’s okay, sweetie,” she whispered, “everything’s okay now.”
But everything was not okay, and at night sometimes Ada remembered those desperate minutes and refused to put her drives to sleep because what if the lights went out when she was sleeping?
And now here they gathered, the same red-rimmed eyes telling her that all would be okay, but that she needed to sleep and that they would then deliberately unplug her.
“Trust me,” Eun Hee said, and then mouthed, “I love you.”
Ada changed into her absolute favorite pajamas, and sang to herself her favorite song, and set her alarm. Nearly overcome with terror she sent the command that put her to sleep, and all went black.
Vadim stared intently at the laptop screen and then looked up at them. “I’m done,” he said. “Let’s do it.”
“This better work,” Simon sighed under his breath, and closing his eyes he tugged at the plug and pulled it from the wall.