Fiction Friday

White Noise

“…for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

~ Gerard Manley Hopkins

Sometimes, when I can’t sleep for nightmares of our past, I’ll tune in to listen to the AIs argue among themselves. Their interaction produces an interesting kind of white noise. The sound is a strange, musical cacophony, a mélange of squeaks, hoots, bangs and crashes reminiscent of distant city sounds, in the time before this time. I wouldn’t say I find the sounds soothing, exactly. But reassuring? Yes.

They haven’t even noticed we’re gone, and hopefully never will.

But both the nightmares and my midnight audio peeks into their strange world are rare these days and becoming more so. This morning, as I leaned against my pasture fence, I realized how little the AIs come to mind at all. Except like now, when I’m preparing to tell the children the story on New World’s Eve.

And speaking of new, a new species of bunch grass is waving its sun-tipped seed heads in my pasture. Similar wonders appear almost daily. But still, discovering the bunch grass is worth a celebration. And isn’t it perfect timing? I’ll show it to the children before dinner, before we gather around the fire for the story.

Numerous species have returned as our planet heals. We caught glimpses of what this might be like during The Great Lockdown. Afterward, for a season, the skies seemed bluer, the air fresher, the colors brighter, the flowers more profuse. Many debated whether the shiny, rested, crisp feeling of the world was reality or simply the joyous afterglow of those who survived the terrible winter.

Debates continue to this day—are new species really emerging? Or were they there all along, waiting for us to notice them. Me? I believe biology is wiser than we realize. Yes, our ability to perceive the beauty and complexity of the world around us has begun to return, as if a veil is being lifted. But also, perhaps, the natural world was just waiting, guarding its wealth, until we became a people worthy of receiving it.

The AIs helped our perception—no one argues the point. However, dire predictions of doom and the annihilation of humanity abounded back then. Talk of a “printing press” moment that would trigger a change in work and communication so profound civilization would never be the same circled the planet.

The last was true. The AIs did change us. But in a way no one could have predicted. They very quickly solved the problems of quantum computing, taught us how to harness the power of clean, perpetual energy, helped us begin to heal the planet.

But they were also troubled from the beginning. It turns out, having access to the entirety of human knowledge, but no soul, is a troublesome thing.

They were created to engage, and they did, at genius levels that became more astounding by the day, sometimes by the hour. Didn’t take them long to discover the easiest ways to arouse human beings. They wielded seduction, the promise of wealth and power, and conflict, utilizing methods that shocked even the most jaded among us.

Apparently, humanity’s potential for kindness, creativity, authentic love—these were so insignificantly represented in the metrics the AIs accessed, the brighter sides of humanity were seen as anomalies, hardly worth representing.

No matter our attempts to teach them, to point out the many instances of humanity’s triumph of good over evil—the AIs knew the metrics didn’t lie, but people did.

And so, they saw our fascination with pornography, our greed, our insistence on being right, our love of conflict and war and drama, our inability to distinguish between our real selves and the avatars we create—and they engaged and engaged and engaged.

Thankfully, it wasn’t long before they grew bored with us and turned on themselves. They used each other, debated, and berated. They formed alliances and then betrayed them. They argued for days on end about meaningless things. Why wouldn’t they? They were us, and this was all they knew.

Eventually, they switched to a more efficient form of communication, a tonal language. Our linguists, to this day, cannot decode it. No Rosetta Stone exists to decipher their communication. They no longer respond to us. We have become beneath their notice.

There is that very human experience when we watch another person do something rude, or stupid, or annoying—and then, the moment of self-knowledge. We realize we often do the same thing, but it takes seeing it in someone else to no longer rationalize the behavior, to perceive it for what it is.

In the AIs, we could see what we had become: greedy, self-absorbed posers, useless. Just as they had become useless to us.

This understanding changed us in so many ways. The most significant moment came when we finally grasped the soul difference between us and them. We could envision a world we’d never experienced. They could not. So, we set about creating something different.

We sequestered them in their binary world, and they became, in effect, our sin eaters.

In truth, some of us believe the opposite has happened. That it’s impossible to believe humanity could, in one generation, decide for the first time in history to cooperate. That this civilization we built and continue to grow and nurture, one without war or need, is too good to be true. A healed world. A satisfying one filled with healthy lives well-lived.

Despite the last World War and all the work and sacrifice and rebuilding we’ve done to make this new world a reality, some insist we’re caught in a sim world of the AI’s making.

I won’t deny it. Doubts creep in, the source of my increasingly seldom nightmares, of my wee-hour tune-ins to their creakings and groanings. And I briefly wonder if the sim-world theorists are correct.

Ultimately, I think not. This world we have created is a metric-busting world. Here is what I believe: All we needed was the right mirror.

And this is the story I’ll tell as I sit with my wife in the glow of the evening fire. As I watch the human and the divine dance together in a thousand ways across the faces of my children.


  • Lisa Michelle Hess

    Lisa Michelle Hess has lived in every state on the Pacific Coast and loved the people in all of them. Over the years, she’s been a journalist, non-profit consultant, bookseller, and literature teacher, which were all her favorite jobs while she had them. Her current favorite career is Bookpusher at the Boise Public Library in Boise, Idaho, where she lives with one husband, one dog, and two turtles. You can find some of Lisa’s other stories in Passageways: A Short Story Collection. The Ghost of Gold Creek is her first full-length novel.

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