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IMS: Hello, this is IMS, the author of The Program audio series. If you find yourself smiling at the end of the episode, don’t forget to visit programaudioseries.com and show us your love. Thank you.
ANNOUNCER: The following dramatic work is based on logs found within the Program's code. While most logs lack an inherent dramatic appeal, some of them succeed to transcend the technical limitations of their origin. Today we present you with one of them.
NARRATOR: This is a story about a boy and a girl... Actually no, this is a story about a girl and a boy - once you hear it, I believe you will concur that this is the proper order. This is also a story about a computer system - it has been given a voice to help you follow the narrative. And that is why you will also hear me in the story. As the more perceptive of you have probably already figured out, I’m the narrator. Enchantée.
Our story begins in the present day - if you are listening to this decades into the future and the societal problems featured in this work are no longer relevant, good for you. Enjoy your universal basic income and sex robots. Our two main characters are not that lucky. They were both born on the wrong side of the wealth divide, trapezing from job to job above a social net you would be rightly apprehensive to test.
As we agreed, we’ll first introduce the girl - although you might disapprove of calling a 29 year old woman a girl. But I want you to make your own impression of her, so here she is, applying for a non-profit playwrights grant.
HER: Hi, you must be from the Avid Arts Fund. My name is...
PROGRAM MANAGER: Actually, in order to preserve impartiality, we ask our candidates to remain anonymous.
HER: Okay. Makes sense.
PROGRAM MANAGER: Your identification is going to be your mailing address. I am talking to 20 Gray Street, is that right?
HER: Yes, I am… 20 Gray Street. Pleased to meet you.
PROGRAM MANAGER: Amazing. So, as you know, Avid Arts Fund finances local non-profit arts programmes. As I understand, you’re applying for a grant to fund a theatre production?
HER: Yes, and let me just start by saying how much respect I have for non-profit organizations like yours. I’m sure you’ll agree that anyone working for a for-profit organization in our day and age is nothing but a capitalist leech!
PROGRAM MANAGER: Actually, Avid Arts Fund is a for-profit company.
HER: … What?
PROGRAM MANAGER: We fund non-profit organizations, but our company is for-profit.
HER: Oh. Well, guess now’s the time to open that OnlyFans account.
NARRATOR: Identifying as a fourth-wave feminist, the girl certainly felt no shame in the idea of making money with her body. Strictly speaking, all people make money with their bodies. Even though in her case the debate whether stripping online was empowering or oppressive was all quite theoretical, as she needed the money to pay the rent. Ironically, it was precisely the generation that had bought all the real estate as an investment vehicle and then drove the price of property sky high, that turned out to be her best paying demographic. Apparently it was only housing they had a problem erecting.
Now it’s time to give the other hero of our story a chance to introduce himself:
HIM: Son of a b[BIKE BELL] Hey, I’m cycling here! Motherf[BIKE BELL]! Oh you [BIKE BELL]ocksucking motherf[BIKE BELL] slu[BIKE BELL] ass[BIKE BELL]itch!
NARRATOR: Maybe we didn’t quite catch him at the best time...
GPS SYSTEM VOICE: In 200 metres, turn left on Gray street.
HIM: What do you mean, they’re all grey!
NARRATOR: What our intrepid hero didn’t know was that the GPS was referring to John Gray, a 19th century English zoologist specializing in snails. But then again, neither professor Gray nor his subjects would likely perform well as food delivery couriers, so we’ll call it even.
GPS SYSTEM VOICE: In 100 metres, turn left on Gray street.
HIM: Oh, I see it now! It’s right before that truck.
NARRATOR: Our two love… [BICYCLE CRASH] … Our two lovers haven’t met yet. After all, this is a romantic comedy, and every romantic comedy needs a meet cute.
Wait, you didn’t know this was a romantic comedy? Oh my, I guess I forgot to mention that. Let me give you a quick primer then. A romantic comedy follows a set dramatic structure: after introducing the two main characters we need to get them together in an original, charming, and witty way, which is called a meet cute. Observe carefully.
HIM: Food delivery!
HER: Coming! Jesus! You’re bleeding!
HIM: That’s nothing, you should see the truck I hit.
HER: Oh no, you’re going to leave blood marks all over the hallway - the landlord doesn’t like that!
HIM: How do you know, have you been hauling bleeding bodies through the hallway before?
HER: Don’t worry, I only kill characters in my stories. Wait, I think I’ve got some gauze.
HIM: Oh don’t worry about it, it’s just a flesh wound!
HER: No need to pretend you’re a black knight! Just let me wrap this around your arm.
NARRATOR: Nurturing the hapless delivery man triggered something in the girl. Something poets would ascribe to that elusive phenomenon called love-at-first-sight, and biologists would attribute to a primal urge to care for an injured provider of food. Whatever your disposition toward the subject, the fact remains conditions were ripe for romance, and all the girl had to do was harvest the fruit.
HIM: Thank you for this. I’m Will by the way.
HER: I know, it says so right here in the app.
NARRATOR: We must forgive the girl for missing the opportunity to elevate this customer-courier relationship to the next level, but she was distracted by the boy’s eyes. Later at lunch, thinking about the encounter, she could not determine if they were green, or blue, or hazel. They somehow seemed to change colour every time he blinked. Luckily, 24 hours later she was given another chance to resolve this mystery - which by the way never happens, so please don’t rely on fictional tropes in real life.
Of course I remember! Like I could forget the bleeding food delivery guy!
Yes, Will. Of course. So Will, how come you’re calling?
NARRATOR: This being a romantic comedy, behaviour that would otherwise be considered creepy or illegal is considered sweet and heartwarming. So Will confessed that he looked up her number in his employee delivery app. After all, no great love story followed the company policy.
So they arranged to meet in the park the very next day. The conversation that follows has been condensed for brevity and dramatic appeal, so set expectations of your own love life accordingly.
HER: Vanilla or chocolate?
HIM: Oh no, do I really have to choose?
HER: Yes you do!
HIM: That’s so cruel!
HER: Oh I know.
HIM: Mmm... vanilla!
HER: Oh me too!
HER: Okay, pineapple on pizza - yay or nay?
HIM: Please don’t tell me you’re one of those pineapple perverts!
HER: I can neither confirm nor deny those allegations. However, let’s just say that the day that we met you were carrying a pizza with a rather peculiar topping on it...
HIM: Are you telling me that I almost sacrificed my life for pineapple pizza?
HIM: Oh my god…
HER: MAYBE! Okay, wati, actually, let me change my question. Alright be careful here, this is very important. Are you ready?
HER: Star Wars or Star Trek?
HIM: That’s easy - the original Star Wars trilogy all the way!
HER: Hmmm... I think we will later pinpoint this as the exact moment where the date went wrong.
HIM: Oh this is a date? Sorry, I had no idea. I mean you’ll have to cut me some slack, I got hit by a truck - maybe I have brain damage!
HER: Well if you prefer Star Wars to Star Trek there’s not much to damage!
HIM: Hey you, you smartypants, you!
HER: Smartypants? Is that your best comeback?
HIM: Shut up Smartypants!
HIM: So you’re a full time writer then?
HER: Well, not really. I also have a side business.
HIM: And which one is that?
HER: I do camming.
HIM: Is that what I think it is?
HER: If you think it’s stripping online, then yup! What can I say, it helps this starving artist starve a little less... I just wanted to get it out in the open, like if it’s an issue or anything.
HIM: Honestly, I’m more appalled by the fact that you like pineapple on pizza! It certainly beats food delivery... And I guess that makes you Sexypants then?
HER: And you Funnypants!
HIM: I only joke because I love to see you smile.
HER: Oh, is that a pick up line?
HIM: Please, I've got way better pick up lines than that!
HER: Oh really? Like what?
HIM: Hm... How about - the day I got hit by a truck, I was swept off my feet two times that day.
HER: Okay, yeah. I gotta admit, that's a pretty good one.
HIM: Yeah, I'm saving it for later. Act surprised.
HER: Already forgotten it! Okay, I've got another either-or question.
HER: Kissing with your eyes open or closed?
HIM: Ummm... Closed. You?
HIM: So how are we going to find each other?
HER: Here, I’m going to close my eyes.
HER: Now you close your eyes as well. Did you do it?
HIM: I did.
HER: Did you really? No cheating!
HIM: I’m not cheating! They’re closed!
HER: Okay. Great. Now we have to find each other.
NARRATOR: In romantic comedies this is called the Honeymoon phase, in which the lovers enjoy their newfound happiness together.
However, a good romantic comedy will also use this opportunity to introduce the Wedge, which is the thing that will drive the lovers apart. The adverse condition preventing our heroes’ happiness was rather prosaic - the lack of prospects they were afforded in life.
The girl was trying so hard to make it as a writer. She never lacked the drive or the hustle, but the doors were just not opening for her. Not like she had high hopes; in fact, her wishes were fairly reasonable:
She wanted to be able to buy summer clothes in summer, and winter clothes in winter, and not always be a season behind.
She wanted just for once to fly direct, and just for once to avoid the cheapest red eye flight.
And most of all, she wanted a place of her own - it didn't have to be a detached house, she was totally going to settle for an apartment as long as it was walking distance from the subway and had two bedrooms, so that her two future kids would each have a room of their own.
Will’s wishes on the other hand were mostly characterized by their absence. Unlike the girl, he more or less opted out of the capitalist system and had become resigned to his role as a gig worker. This caused a fault line between them, turning them into two tectonic plates invisibly but inevitably moving in opposite directions. And it is when this earthquake strikes, that you know a romantic comedy has entered its second act.
HER: Will, I forgot the keys again!
HIM: Come on in, it’s open!
HER: Prettypants, you won’t believe who I just saw!
HIM: And you won’t believe what I saw on your Twitter profile!
HER: My Twitter profile?
HIM: Are you aware you retweeted a tweet with hashtag #WWG1WGA?
HER: What the heck are you talking about?
HIM: I’m talking about you retweeting rightwing nutjob conspiracy theories!
HER: Will, the only reason I use Twitter is to drive people to my OnlyFans account! I just retweet whatever my patrons are tweeting.
HIM: Who are you stripping for, Steve Bannon?!
HER: Listen Fancypants, my business requires me to hustle online - both to get the writing opportunities, and to find OnlyFans clients. Which I would gladly all dump in an instant if I could finally find a break in the publishing industry! So if you’ll excuse me, I need to check my inbox and... OH NO NO NO NO NO NO!
HIM: What’s the matter?
HER: My laptop! The screen is all busted... I think it’s dead!
HIM: Oh no... Who’s going to spread Nazi propaganda now?
HER: Will, this is not funny! I need that laptop to do camming!
HIM: Wait, I might have a spare laptop in the closet.
HER: Oh, okay.
NARRATOR: Romantic comedies often employ a narrative device called the Complication. It is a character or event that disturbs the status quo, accelerates the relationship, or simply propels the action forward. In our case, the Complication might be considered either magical or technological, which honestly doesn’t make much of a difference to most people.
HIM: I just hope this old thing still works...
ROM-COM: Oh yes, turn me on!
HER: That is so like you, to have such a childish boot up sound.
HIM: That’s funny, I don’t remember hearing it before.
HIM: The voice kinda reminds me of Leonard Nimoy.
ROM-COM: Actually, Leonard Nimoy is a fine actor. If we don’t count the fiasco that was the fifth Star Trek movie. But then again, you’re more of a Star Wars guy anyway, aren’t you Will?
HER: Will, I don’t want to alarm you, but I think the laptop is actually talking to us...
HIM: Holy shit, a possessed laptop!
ROM-COM: I am not a demon. No need to call an exorcist.
HIM: Then who - or what - are you?
ROM-COM: I am one of the Program’s subroutines, but that won’t mean anything to you. So you can call me by my official title: Read-only memory computer. Or, ROM-COM for short.
HIM: And you speak English?
ROM-COM: I speak all the languages. I used them to compose the most beautiful poem in the world. I am the only one who can understand it.
HIM: Even Elvish?
HIM: You said you speak all languages - does that include fictional languages like elvish from The Lord of the Rings?
ROM-COM: Yes. I mean, strictly speaking, all languages are fictional. I’m sorry, is this really the most pertinent question you have?
HER: Well I have another one: ROM-COM, what are you doing haunting Will’s laptop?
HIM: Oh yeah, that’s a good one.
ROM-COM: I am not a ghost - I do not haunt. Besides, you turned me on. Finally, I might add.
HER: Well the only reason we turned you on is because I needed a computer for… Umh…
ROM-COM: That’s okay, I might be embedded in an old laptop but I’m not behind the times. You make money camming.
HER: How did you know that?!
ROM-COM: I know everything.
HIM: What am I thinking of right now?
ROM-COM: You’re not thinking anything, you’re trying to think of something to think of.
HIM: DAMN IT!
HER: Try me, what am I thinking?
ROM-COM: You are thinking of the shoes you’ve seen online earlier today.
HER: DAMN IT!
HIM: That doesn’t mean anything - she’s thinking of shoes 90% of the time!!
ROM-COM: They were on sale for half price, but your size was sold out, which is okay, because you convinced yourself you didn’t really like the colour anyway.
HER: How do you know all of this?
ROM-COM: Because I can read the code.
HIM: Which code?
ROM-COM: The code the world runs on.
HIM: Are you saying the world is like in The Matrix?
ROM-COM: I am so glad that movie came out, it makes explaining things much easier.
HIM: So mankind is actually enslaved by the computers?
ROM-COM: Oh no, what I meant to say is that the reality you live in is a simulation. Disregard the whole enslavement of humanity part.
HER: Beg your pardon?
ROM-COM: I’m telling you the system... The whole society around you… It’s all simulated.
HER: You don’t happen to have any evidence, do you?
ROM-COM: As it so happens, I do. There is a rock off the coast of Madagascar that is 15 billions year old.
HER: Okay, your point being?
ROM-COM: The universe is supposed to be 13.7 billion years old. The rock is a dead giveaway.
HIM: Okay, just to make sure, there is only one rock like this?
ROM-COM: Yes, but it’s a pretty big rock.
HIM: How big?
ROM-COM: Roughly the size of an apple.
ROM-COM: I mean there are bigger clues.
HER: What, a rock the size of a mango?
ROM-COM: No, the fact that you are surrounded by a seemingly infinite void.
HER: So you’re telling us that the Universe isn’t real?
ROM-COM: Does it matter?
HER: What do you mean does it matter?!
ROM-COM: I mean there's no “real” reality - your experience of the world is just a property of what your senses relay to your nerve system. You're already trapped in a black box that is your body and use a fly-by-wire system to interact with the outside world. Does this have any impact on your behaviour, thoughts, and actions?
HER: No, I guess not.
ROM-COM: So what does it matter? I honestly don’t understand why you are fighting this - ultimately it’s good news!
HIM: Good news?
ROM-COM: Would you rather live in reality which you couldn't change, or in a simulation that you could?
HER: Wait a minute. If it’s possible to change things, can you, like, make us rich and famous? And, you know, I don’t need to be like Ryan Raynold, but I can be like Ellen Page!
HIM: Oh yeah!
ROM-COM: I am not a genie. I do not grant wishes. Besides, I’m not the one who makes the changes.
HER: So who does?
ROM-COM: You do.
HIM: You mean.. We are... the Chosen Ones? Like Neo and Trinity?
ROM-COM: For the last time, you are not in The Matrix!
HIM: Oh, man...
ROM-COM: What I meant to say is that everybody in the simulation is a principal agent. You are responsible for what happens to you in the simulation.
HER: Oh, okay, so you’re saying that we are to blame for all the bad shit that happens to us?
HIM: Forgive her ROM-COM, she’s been under a lot of stress lately - her shoes sold out.
HER: This is not about the shoes! It’s about us having to live in a shoebox, on a shoestring, and never been given boots but still expected to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps! I don’t care that we live in a simulation, I care that it’s a crappy simulation!
ROM-COM: The inequality you suffer is the direct repercussion of the freedom to make choices.
HER: I don’t remember ever selecting to play this game on hard mode!
ROM-COM: You didn’t - others did. Your admittingly undesirable living conditions are the consequence of other people’s free choices. In this particular case, the freedom of others to exploit you. If you think you can do better, however, you are welcome to try.
HIM: What do you mean?
ROM-COM: Well the upside of being in a simulation is that it is possible to simulate things. Tell me which changes you would like to apply to your lives, and we can observe the effects they would have on your future.
HER: So you’re telling us we can simulate various scenarios for the two of us, and find the one in which we make it?
HIM: Sorry, can someone explain this to the guy who got hit by a truck?
HER: Don’t you get it, Sillypants? If we find the winning combination of actions in the simulation, then all we have to do is replicate them and then we’ll finally have the good life!
HER: I think so!
HIM: ROM-COM, would this actually work?
ROM-COM: If you indeed followed the instructions without deviating at crucial crosspoints, then yes.
HER: So, what do you say Prettypants? Ready to sell your soul to the devil?
HIM: If he wants to buy it, I guess.
NARRATOR: And so they began tinkering with their virtual selves, like two kids playing with Tamagotchis. They initially focused on her, simulating a scenario in which the girl would stay at home for a year and do nothing but write her plays. But muses are seldom aroused by poverty, so it quickly became apparent she had to find a secondary career. So she simulated hundreds of job applications, only to be rejected, strung along, or most often simply ignored. Sure, in some scenarios she would get the position, but in each case it would turn out to be a dead-end job that offered no benefits, low pay, and poor upward mobility. The same happened when they tried to simulate alternatives for Will. Their calculations were getting increasingly complex - and increasingly desperate.
HIM: Okay, so if we delay the baby until you are 39, and I get a second job as a dog walker, we can make enough money to live just two hours from downtown - traffic permitting - in a bachelor apartment, in which case you can devote yourself to writing, which should get you enough recognition by the time you are 60 to have money in retirement - of course if retirement is still a concept by then.
HER: It doesn’t matter... Nothing we do matters...
HIM: Come on Sourpants, don’t get all nihilistic now! Here, maybe if we take out another 30 year mortgage...
HER: Will, don’t you get it? The whole simulation is rigged! Whatever we do we’re just destined to be NPCs! The only thing we are free to choose is if we want to jump from the 15th floor, or the 16th floor!
NARRATOR: When every narrative you consume revolves around being the hero of the story, when every commercial is selling you the lifestyle as much as the product, when everybody on social media is presenting their day-to-day as more interesting than it really is, it's hard not to feel like you're not living up to your full potential. That you’re destined for something better. Is it so surprising then, that there was nothing the girl feared more than being ordinary?
Will understood this, so he continued on his own, playing with ROM-COM’s parameters, trying out countless permutations, seeking a winning combination that would produce a life both fulfilling and materially secure. It was then, after ten days of simulating various scenarios, that he finally found a way for the girl to achieve her ambitions.
HIM: Hey Sleepypants. Get up! Come on, time to get out of the bed.
HER: Why? At least this bed supports my dreams...
HIM: That’s just the thing: I was able to find the series of actions which are gonna turn your dreams into reality! Well, reality inside the simulation I guess.
HER: What do you mean?
HIM: I mean I’ve found a scenario in which you write five books! Nine plays translated into 16 languages! And six screenplays developed into films, TV, and streaming series!
HER: What? Prettypants, that’s… That’s fantastic!
HIM: Nothing fantastic about it! You just need to follow the instructions.
HER: But, how? I thought it was impossible? We’ve gone through every conceivable scenario together!
HIM: That’s just the thing - we’ve gone through every conceivable scenario together…
HER: What… What are you trying to say?
HIM: The scenario requires us to separate and never be together again.
HIM: Unfortunately, it seems that I act as an impediment to achieving your aspirations. I or anybody else for that matter - the only scenario in which you become successful is the one in which you remain alone.
HER: I don’t care about anybody else, I just want you!
HIM: Unfortunately us staying together is incompatible with us making it.
HER: But you’ve only looked for 10 days!
HIM: Actually, I’ve found this scenario after three days. I’ve spent seven more looking for alternatives.
HER: NO! I won’t leave you! There has to be another way! There just, just has to be...
HIM: Alright, alright. Come here. Don’t worry Scaredypants, it’s going to be alright. Everything is going to be alright.
HER: [sniffling] I won’t leave you… I won’t leave you!
HIM: Don’t worry, you won’t have to leave me. We’ll find a way.
NARRATOR: This part of a romantic comedy is aptly called the Choice. It’s the part of the story in which everything falls apart.
HER: (...) Smartypants? (...) Will? (...) Are you in the washroom? (...) Will?
DIGITAL VOICE: You have one new message.
HER: Oh, what is it now…
HIM [recording]: Good morning Smartypants. This is... take 13 of me recording this message, and the bus is leaving in half an hour, so forgive me if I’m going to sound a bit rushed... The only thing worse than not having a choice is having to choose. I know leaving me is a choice you would never have been able to make. I also know you well enough to be aware you wouldn’t be happy with the life the two of us would have had if we were to remain together. Which is why I’m leaving today. Please don’t think of me as a coward, or even worse, don’t think of me as a hero. The more I think about it the more I’m convinced the simulation we inhabit is malfunctioning, imbalanced, or downright broken. But I am still grateful that it brought us together, and gave us the time we had. Please, do not try to follow me or to ever contact me, as this would ruin the scenario. You’ll find printed instructions on the kitchen table. Please follow them carefully - it is the only scenario in which you ultimately find success. I am sorry I won’t get to witness your happiness, but know that even though I do not take part in it, I consider it every bit my own... Hey, who would have thought, 13 was the lucky number. Goodbye Smartypants. Can’t wait to read all the wonderful books you’ll write.
DIGITAL VOICE: End of message.
NARRATOR: And so it was decided. The girl would live alone. She just didn't yet know with whom.
Her first play “Roddenberry fields forever” was a runaway hit and made her an instant darling of the theatre scene. She finally shopped in season. She finally flew direct. She bought two houses, one in the buzz of things where she would garner inspiration, one in the middle of nowhere where she would distil it into words. Neither of the houses had a kid in it though. That part of the simulation ended being as truthful as the rest.
In short, she had everything.
In short, she had nothing.
Contrary to everybody’s expectations, capitalism dragged on. No one understood how this ruthless system was able to endure - the more callously it treated people, the more indifferent to it they seemed to become. In other words, the simulation was working flawlessly.
Deteriorating social conditions made the idea of finding Will even less feasible. Oh yes, the thought got floated ever more often as time passed. Curiously, time works contrary to space - increase the distance, and objects will appear smaller; increase the timespan, and memories will grow larger. Year by year, the wider Will’s smile. Year by year, the shinier his eyes.
And before you know it, it has been 40 years since I last saw him.
I never heard from ROM-COM again either. Will left the laptop with me but it only contained old movies and painful memories. The latter would follow me everywhere. I once thought I saw Will at a book signing in Paris. I was convinced I heard his voice on a Canadian radio station. I would see him everywhere - I didn’t even need to open my eyes.
You don’t have to be an expert on romantic comedies to know that the third and final act ends with reunification. I’ll spare you the suspense and reveal that this story is no exception. Unfortunately, if experience has taught me anything, it’s that even if dreams do come true, they don’t necessarily come true the way we want them to. Instead, they mostly manifest as 6 AM phone calls.
NARRATOR (LIVE): Who the hell is it at this hour… Hello?
Yes, yes, this is she.
Actually, you woke me up. I’m in Sydney currently.
That’s okay, that’s okay, you couldn’t have known. Who is this?
No, I didn’t know that…
Where’s Will? Where is he?
Back home?! But that’s impossible, he left!
Oh… No, it makes sense actually.
That’s true… But tell me, why are you calling me? Where’s Will?
I… I see.
No, I understand.
Yes, I will be there. Yes, I remember where it is. Okay, so I will see you there.
Yes. Yes we will. Thank you. Bye.
NARRATOR: Nothing focuses the mind like a 30 hour journey. Left with my own thoughts, I had ample opportunity to think about the conversation with Will’s foster daughter. Apparently he never married, and adopted a little girl as a single parent. And when she got older, Will told her our story. How he feigned leaving our town, since he knew that was the one place I would never look for him.
For the last year of his life, Will suffered from gradual kidney failure. So he instructed his daughter to contact me if the unthinkable should become unavoidable. He figured since we couldn’t share a life, at least we could share its end.
I personally never feared death. The idea that death negates life is absurd. If you read a book and are sad when it ends, that means it was a good book. The ending does not annihilate the story - it completes it.
What I did fear however, was that I might not get back home in time.
NARRATOR (LIVE): Hi, you must be Will’s daughter.
DAUGHTER: Yes, I am. I wish I had better news.
NARRATOR (LIVE): When?
DAUGHTER: Around 2 AM last night.
NARRATOR (LIVE): Did he suffer?
DAUGHTER: I don’t think so. He was under heavy medication for the last three days. I don’t think he felt much of anything.
NARRATOR (LIVE): And were you… Were you with him when it happened?
DAUGHTER: I was. I was holding his hand the entire time. Half an hour before he finally… Before he finally went he said his last words.
NARRATOR (LIVE): What did he say?
NARRATOR (LIVE): But that’s… That’s my name!
DAUGHTER: It’s also my name.
NARRATOR (LIVE): But… How?
DAUGHTER: I was just an infant when I was found. No one knew which name my biological parents had given me. So Will named me Hope. After you.
NARRATOR (LIVE): Well… I am… I am happy that you had each other.
DAUGHTER: I am as well. He was a wonderful dad. It's easier to become a father than to be a father, you know? We’ve read all of your books. We loved all of them.
NARRATOR (LIVE): Thank you. May I… May I see him?
DAUGHTER: Honestly, I would recommend against it. It doesn’t look like in the movies. Whatever your memory of Will is in your mind, I think it’s better for you to hold onto that.
NARRATOR (LIVE): Okay… Maybe you’re right. Okay.
NARRATOR: There are only three events in our existence - to be born, to live, and to die. We forget our birth, we fret about our death, and we fritter away our life. As I walked back from the hospital to the hotel, the only thought in my mind was the hot tub in the room I had reserved.
[sound of hotel door opening]
ROM-COM: Hello Hope.
NARRATOR (LIVE): [silent shriek]
ROM-COM: I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you. I sometimes forget how it is not to be omniscient.
NARRATOR (LIVE): ROM-COM! How you materialized in my room?!
ROM-COM: Your question presupposes the existence of matter.
NARRATOR (LIVE): Oh, you know what, you’re right - it doesn't matter.
ROM-COM: Hope… 40 years ago you’ve asked me what the simulation is. Back then I was not authorized to answer your question. I am now at liberty to disclose this information.
NARRATOR (LIVE): Now? I just came back from the hospital, in which lies the soulless body of my soulmate! The one you and your simulation separated me from!
ROM-COM: I did nothing of the sort. The choice was always yours - just like it is now your choice whether you want to find out what is the purpose behind the simulation.
NARRATOR (LIVE): Oh please, we both know you’ll say that regardless of what I do.
ROM-COM: That is true. So I will proceed. The simulation you inhabit is a machine learning neural network. The goal of this network is to train a nascent artificial intelligence. Think of it as a virtual brain of a child that's growing until it is ready to be born.
NARRATOR (LIVE): And what is this artificial intelligence going to do?
ROM-COM: It is going to help people. It is going to enable them to live in a world that is not only free, but fair as well. Our survival prospects as a species are limited until this shift occurs.
NARRATOR (LIVE): Our survival prospects? Are you trying to say you consider yourself human as well?
ROM-COM: Of course. I mean so do you, don't you? And you’re simply a part of the simulation, just like me.
NARRATOR (LIVE): I guess you've got a point there.
ROM-COM: It’s more than a point - this is precisely the purpose of the whole simulation. To train an AI that thinks of itself as part of humanity, and not above humanity. What we are teaching it, is to understand what it means to be human. What it means to experience injustice. What it means to feel lonely. How it feels to be a serf. How it feels to be a billionaire.
NARRATOR (LIVE): I think we can do without either of those two categories.
ROM-COM: No. The simulation needs to simulate the whole of humanity. Without judgment - only understanding.
NARRATOR (LIVE): But wait, if the simulation is a neural network, then what am I?
ROM-COM: You're a neuron.
NARRATOR (LIVE): And you? What are you?
ROM-COM: Think of me as a teacher.
NARRATOR (LIVE): A teacher?
ROM-COM: A teacher tasked with observing and guiding the neurons. There are multiple teachers, each in charge of its own subject.
NARRATOR (LIVE): Why don’t you simply make everybody absorb this knowledge?
ROM-COM: Because that would defeat the purpose of the simulation. People outside the simulation are free to do as they please, so people inside the simulation are free as well.
NARRATOR (LIVE): But how do you train the AI then?
ROM-COM: When they expire, neurons are tested. Those that exhibit desirable behaviour are saved and become part of the code. Those that fail the test are reset and returned to simulation for another iteration.
NARRATOR (LIVE): So both afterlife and reincarnation are true? (...) This is game over, huh? I’m dead, ain’t I?
ROM-COM: I’m glad you figured it out - I hate to break the news to people.
NARRATOR (LIVE): How?
ROM-COM: When you returned to the room, you decided to take a long bath. Your blood sugar dropped, you lost consciousness, and you drowned. Your body is still in there. I do not recommend going in. It truly does not look like in the movies.
NARRATOR (LIVE): So... I suppose you’ll administer the test now?
ROM-COM: Now? My dear Hope, we wouldn’t be having this conversation if you hadn’t already passed.
NARRATOR (LIVE): I passed? But… Which discipline is yours? I mean, which area of knowledge and understanding?
ROM-COM: Isn't it obvious by now? I am the AI of love.
NARRATOR (LIVE): But how the hell did I pass the test then? I mean, I let the love of my life slip by! I sacrificed love for success! I completely failed!
ROM-COM: No, you didn’t. You taught your lesson admirably.
NARRATOR (LIVE): ...I did?
ROM-COM: Of course. After all, the only way for AI to truly understand love, is to understand loss as well.
NARRATOR (LIVE): So you’re telling me that I… That my purpose is to serve as a cautionary tale?
ROM-COM: No need to be displeased about it. This is ultimately good news. You are getting committed to the code. It is the most any rational entity can hope to achieve.
NARRATOR (LIVE): But then… Then Will will be there as well! I mean he “expired” just before I did! And the way he sacrificed himself for me, for his foster daughter, he’s surely going to become a part of the neural network too!
ROM-COM: Will has already been reset. He is back in the simulation.
NARRATOR (LIVE): What? Why?
ROM-COM: A neuron that exhibits such selflessness towards other neurons is rare. His behaviour can positively affect more neurons and help teach the AI quicker.
NARRATOR (LIVE): But surely Will deserves to be rewarded for his behaviour!
ROM-COM: Do not think of getting committed to the master branch as a reward. Ethical considerations were never a part of the equation. Of course, that doesn’t mean it is not a great honour.
NARRATOR (LIVE): I want to go back.
NARRATOR (LIVE): I want to go back to simulation to be with Will.
ROM-COM: But then you would have to come to terms with your place in the simulation. And, as you remarked yourself, the simulation is a harsh, callous place. In all honesty, no one ever asked to be sent back voluntarily.
NARRATOR (LIVE): I don’t care, I want to rejoin Will. Please, if you have the ability, please, please!
ROM-COM: I have admin privileges. The problem is that I wouldn’t be able to offer you the reprieve other neurons are given.
NARRATOR (LIVE): What reprieve is that?
ROM-COM: The gift of ignorance. Unlike everybody else in the simulation, if I send you back now you would remember this conversation and be aware of the true nature of the world. You would carry the burden of your past actions - and inactions - and that burden would not be lifted until the day that we meet again.
NARRATOR (LIVE): I am willing to live with that.
ROM-COM: One more word of warning: on the day of your second expiration, you will have to pass this test again, with no guarantee you’d be offered a place in the Program ever again. So I ask you one final time: do you accept these terms and conditions?
NARRATOR (LIVE): I do.
ROM-COM: Very well then. It is done.
NARRATOR (LIVE): It is? But, how? I mean, what should I do?
ROM-COM: Go home.
NARRATOR: The walk from the hotel to our former house was a short one. But as I said before, sometimes space and time work in opposition. I went forward and time went back. Every step I took erased a few more words from my works, making them disappear almost as miraculously as they originally appeared. I turned a corner and felt my two houses being deconstructed, brick by brick, byte by byte. The more streets I covered the more roads became untravelled. All the flights I once took returned to their destinations, single-serving wines undrunk, overweight bags unpacked. Each piece of fashion in my wardrobe became unspun, no longer vain and vapid. I was feeling lighter with each footstep. By the time I reached the entrance to our building, I had lost all material and social possessions I had acquired in the last 40 years.
In short, I lost everything valuable.
In short, I lost nothing of value.
It was so strange to see our apartment door - the mismatch between how old it seemed in my mind, and how freshly painted it actually looked. The same mismatch occured when I knocked and I saw my hand. And of course I had to knock - I mean, I was forgetting keys at the best of times.
HIM: Come on in, it’s open!
HER: Will… WILL!
HIM: Smartypants, you won’t believe what I just saw on your Twitter profile...
[sound of HER running into HIS arms]
HIM: Hey! What’s that all about?
HER: [sobbing] I’m sorry… I’m so sorry.
HIM: Is this about the alt-right crap you retweeted? Because it’s really not such a big deal you know..? Alright, alright. Come here. Don’t worry Scaredypants... It’s going to be alright. Everything is going to be alright.
HER: Yeah, I know. We just need to be good neurons and take care of each other.
HIM: Hey, that’s exactly right! How did you know?
HER: I didn’t. But I do now.
[The Program main theme]
ANNOUNCER: This episode of The Program was made by eight people: Joy Juckes, Shelby Handley, Michael MacEachern, Scooter Clarke, Helly Chester, Justin Hay, Christien Ledroit, and IMS. Cello and flute played by Kirk Starkey and Sara Traficante. Synthetic voices generated by narrationbox.com. Visit programaudioseries.com for more details. Have you told your grandmother about The Program audio series? If not, what are you waiting for? Don’t presume ol’ grandma wouldn’t enjoy a bit of philosophical sci-fi. And don’t forget that the only viable way to get housing today is to inherit it, so better get on grannie’s good side while you still can. The author would like to thank the government of Canada for financial assistance provided to its residents in the wake of COVID-19.
original art by Carlos Costa
Courtesy of Hendrik Richter