jueves, 10 de julio de 2014

A Lady Named Iris

Droplets of water exploded against the corrugated sheet ceiling like tiny cosmic grenades. A lightning roared far away in the foggy coast of the Detroit River. And then another one roared louder, as if the heavens were challenging themselves. Rehearsals for the Armageddon groups of humans never get tired of prophesying, perhaps. 

The tantrum of Mother Nature, which 24-hour news broadcasts were already calling "the storm of the century" seemed, to Dr. Bergman, as negligible as the passing of time itself.

"You've been silent for almost two hours. Something on that mind of yours?" he replicated, directing his sight towards a dusty computer monitor that displayed some indecipherable cyber-blabber written in unicode. 

Her voice resonated from another corner of the room, as dry and rusty as that of an elder smoker. 

"I guess I have nothing great to say... The weather sucks. There. That was small-talk. Now tell me that was worth it." 

She spoke slowly, with little inflection in her tone. Her speech carried the defying mark of piercing sarcasm, which Dr. Bergman seemed oblivious to pick up on. 

"You know it was. You could be calling my dead mother a slut in that voice and it would still sound like a charm to me." he replied with a sincere laugh. 

Her response to this manufactured complement was a flat, synthetic humming. 

The atmosphere continued it's crusade to declare war on the terrain. The river reverberated with movement as heavenly waterfalls kept flushing the streets of the city and the thunders continued their deafening orchestra. But it all seemed ever so far away. The shed, cruelly recycled from an old, torn-down residence in a portion of Detroit that stood completely devoid of life, was the source of the only beam of light in that somber ghost-town. The occasional pursuit between a cop and a gang member or a car that frantically throttled its way out of that god-forsaken neighborhood were, to the inhabitants inside, the only hint that signaled human life on earth was indeed not yet extinct. 

A partially rotten wooden door on the left corner of the room, the only connection to the outside world, was pushed open by the decisive arm of V., Dr. Bergman's sister turned personal assistant. She carried with her a tray, loaded with all the usual supplements: a mug of hot tea, two doughnuts, a glass of water, a bowl of cereal which didn't have milk, and the little cluster of pills which Dr. Bergman ingested daily for pain relief and probably a couple of added kicks. 

"Thank you sweetheart. Would you turn of the light, please?" said the doctor, with a look that prompted the pale, speechless, grey-haired girl to put down the tray on a dusty stool and rush out of the space enclosed by those four grimly walls as she pulled the switch that killed the only dim, brownish lightbulb and brought darkness.

Dr. Bergman ate in silence, looking at the blank computer screen. The percussion of water banging on the windows and ceiling, beating that precarious shed with all their fury, was again the only thing keeping that room alive. 

"I can tell V. likes you. She's got that look." he finally resumed. Upon a silent response he added "I just hope she doesn't plan to steal you from me" and a naughty laugh.

It was two minutes since that phrase got a proper answer.

"God forbid, my dear. All these manifestations of Stockholm syndrome belong to you and no one else. Ha. Ha." she vocalized, her voice still ridden in disturbing ambivalence.

"That was funny and mean, Iris. Wanna know why I take these?" Dr. Bergman rattled the bundle of pills in the palm of his hand. 

"Your hip still hurts from that war injury. Yes. We went over that." 

"Not only that, Iris" he explained "They make me forget. They allow me to escape. It's not just the pain in the body they are supposed to cure. It's also the pain in the mind. And boy, they do a wondrous job at that." 

And in the context of black murkiness in which both stood, that phrase was the last sound that could be heard that night, save for the usual background concert of heavy rain, of audible breathing, of the electrical hum sprinting through the circuits. 

Dr. Bergman woke up to the sight of a still V. looking behind a black cloak of fabric. He maintained a static gaze of disapproval, following the girl through the realization it was time to leave the room, which she did in her usual mute, ghostly manner.

"Good morning Iris" he muttered as he contained an insistent yawn and shook off the slumber off his face. "Is it a good morning to you?"

As usual, it was a couple of laps from the clock before words were corresponded.

"Sure. We are alive and... In perfectly regular state of body and mind. Guess that fits into your definition of "good" not "regular" which is odd... But who am I to judge?" she took a small pause, as if trying to process what she had just said "So yeah. That. To you too."

The sky continued to wash away the earth. Inside the shed, a leak of water drummed from the ceiling with an eternal stream of "tics". V. promptly lay a bucket on the floor and left without gaining notice. The hollow sound of the drops on the metallic container was the only pathogen breaking the barrier of quietness. The electric humming still whispered subtly.

Dr. Bergman spent all afternoon without muttering a sentence. He worked on a bench, crudely braiding copper strings together and sticking things with scotch tape.

"Aren't you interested in knowing what I'm doing, Iris." the way in which he finished each sentence calling her as if trying to clear confusion between several possibly alluded inhabitants of the room let through an obsession with trying to get an answer, an inert impulse to let her know she wasn't to dodge his attempts at a conversation.

"That's like asking a person at gunpoint on which side of the head they want to be shot. They are still going to die instantly, and you are still going to tell me what you are doing. So what the hell, skip the common courtesy." Her dragged answers attempted to be a buffer in the conversation, to draw a distance between her and the doctor, to possibly silence him in a sea of her own words. They were, suffice to say, utterly worthless.

"The human being is a failure, Iris. You wanna know why? Because of our bodies." he took a pause "Yes, Iris, our bodies are a burden. They urge us to satisfy them every moment, override our capacity of thought with primal instinct. And even then, they go to waste in a couple decades." there was another long break, as Dr. Bergman placed screws on the undefined contraption he was fabricating. "You see. It's about keeping our minds preserved forever, while they are still on their prime. About ditching our bodies to allocate more mind power to..."

"YES! You are trying to perfect artificial intelligence. I get it. I have heard countless versions of that speech. You know... From sci-fi and stuff." Iris violently interrupted Dr. Bergman with a strong tone of voice that had been probably building up on her insides for a long time. But it didn't take away from the careless monotony of her voice.

Dr. Bergman stayed quiet after this. He worked on his shapeless device for a couple more hours before marks of frustration began to circumvent his focused look. By the time V. swayed the door open again with the tray of food and a bag of tools, the clock placed close to the double digits and the gray cumulus of the heavens were tainted by the white of the moonlight, which filtered past the heavy curtain of rain and through the blinds and into the room as a beam in the obscurity.

Dr. Bergman pierced his assistant with a menacing look.

"Why are you so late? Did you happen to leave the house for any reason other than to purchase groceries?" he demanded, the second question in a rougher, more brutal voice

She remained wordless as she put her load down.

At this point Dr. Bergman stood up and with a decided stomp he approached her, his hand swerving at full speed in the air and landing, palm open, on her cheek. The woman was thrown into the ground with an acute shriek of pain so raw it seemed to be the only vestige of a voice to fly out of her mouth in years.

"You little ungrateful bitch." groaned Dr. Bergman as he turned around to face his work. As a quick movement of his eyes went back to check on her, V.'s presence had already faded.

In the ensuing nine hours, the humming of electrons and the rainfall were overshadowed by the pervasive sounds of machinery. A hammer clanked into iron with determined force and a piercing drill carved holes onto a wooden surface. At times, the gloom of the night was interrupted by fervent sparks that jumped into the ceiling before dying abruptly. Only for an hour and a half was the incessant rhythm of labor interrupted as Dr. Bergman succumbed to the insistence of his shutting eyelids.

"You haven't slept all night. Something in that burdened little mind of yours?"

Iris' unexpected morning query turned the head of Dr. Bergman like a magnet. Her usual coat of sarcasm didn't seem at all distant to the old man. He picked it up like a genuine, kind approach, as always. But something seemed different in Iris' one-note voice. It exhibited a shy spark that signaled she might have actually intended to cause such a reaction.

"Now you are in a good mood today Iris." he said trying to simulate his own incredulity. "As an answer to you, I took the liberty to forsake sleep in order to advance on my little project. You are going to love the results."

"Tell me about how it works, Doctor!" her voice caught up to him with what seemed to be the most surprising exchange of words in their entire relationship. She had actually referred to him explicitly, something that evoked both a dose of skepticism and a sort of morbid pleasure in the mind of Dr. Bergman.

"I don't want to bore you with nonsense about engineering and physics. Just trust me, my girl; this will be a gift to both of us. It will be a gift to you." he claimed assertively, with a hint of caring in his voice that seemed to be just the tip of an iceberg of passionate feelings towards the woman he had confined himself to that putrid space with.

The storm of the century came to a sudden end as the dense clouds ceased to a crack of timid baby blue struggling to reveal itself. The day was grey but calm and the noise of the rain had vanished. The electric buzzing of the cables still vibrated ever so strongly, hidden in some remote area where the eye would not reach its source.
“I cannot wait. I am like a child... a dying child… without kidneys, being told he will get a kidney. Oh boy isn’t it a fairly decent day today?” she exclaimed with glee, a glee that nonetheless couldn’t penetrate the barrier of flatness in her speech.
“I need to see you Iris. I need to admire you, my girl”
Dr. Bergman walked towards the back of the room. The never-ending humming vibrated stronger, as if releasing a powerful tension, trying to cope with surges of current. The Doctor stood before a mass covered by the black curtain and pulled it partially, so that a side of it still hung from the ceiling and enclosed the corner. There was Iris, in all of her splendor.
“You are beautiful” Dr. Bergman sighed, his eyes fixated on his creation.
The core was a cluster of old, dusty tower computers, connected to several devices by a messy web of cables that stretched in every direction and into an unknown dimension hidden by the curtain. A microphone crudely hanged from the ceiling and two large speakers were located on the sides. From them, the rusty, robotic voice of Iris quietly thundered into Dr. Bergman’s attentive ears. Broken circuit boards were exposed to the environment and precariously held together by scotch tape. The lights in the towers beeped frantically as Iris processed the world around her and reacted accordingly. Three bulky monitors displayed fragments of Unicode; the screen on one of them was partially blackened and the glass cracked.  Around this tragic, improvised industrial arrangement, spider webs housed little colonies of arachnids which urgently ran and hid as they sensed the black curtain being swiveled for the first time in their lifetime. To the eyes of the inventor, the sculpture that was Iris seemed as sensual and provocative a futuristic Venus de Milo. A triumph of art and science alike, all created with and held together by scrap shrilly collected from the metro Detroit junkyards. 

At this time, V. crossed the threshold into the room with the tray of supplements. She laid it on the floor and turned around to leave, floating in silence like a ghost before the authoritative tremulous call of Dr. Bergman attracted her like an unwilling magnet succumbing to the claws of its opposing partner.

“I need more copper strings and a new set of twizzles. Oh, and more adhesive. Get it all in here when you can.” he rushed through this phrase before dismissing V. by simply deviating his sight from her.

The steps of her sneakers resonated on the wooden floor, before her foot became trapped in a puddle of black draped fabric and almost made her trip. The body of Dr. Bergman contorted into an aggressive confrontational pose, ready to propel himself at his sister with the intention of delivering brutal corporal punishment. But the drape still held as V. untangled herself and checked the ceiling in fear for a second in which tension rose to stratospheric heights. The doctor shook off his primal instinct of hostility and let her go with a grunt and a warning. “Be careful next time you spastic, mute freak.”

For the rest of the afternoon, Dr. Bergman soldered, nailed and glued components together, plugging and unplugging cables onto Iris’ nucleus. As he worked the electrical current running through the cables sounded like water in a rapid crushing against wet rocks. The weather was soothing and even a few birds dared to sing reticently in the open.

“If you feel anything off, Iris, just know that this is all to make you better. It must be nerve wrecking not seeing what I am doing to you.” He took a pause as he struggled with a particularly hard nut. “Aren’t you interesting in seeing what I am like, Iris? We met once, but you must not remember.”

“I don’t, but really, it’s okay, I just like to picture you like Humphrey Bogart. It makes it even more pleasurable talking to you. Don’t spoil it with one of your little science tricks.” Her rudeness seemed more affectionate than ever before.

That was the last exchange before that night as Dr. Bergman’s eyes closed and he lay on the rotten wooden floor, his body finally relieving hours of insomnia. The thump of his body alerted Iris, who immediately processed it.

“Good night, doctor” she said softly.

The sky was quieter than it should have been entitled to. The electrical whirring still pulsated like a micro-earthquake, and V. had not set foot in that room for a long time. Dr. Bergman finished adjusting the last few bolts in his newest creation. One last push with the twizzles was accompanied by an aroused exhalation.  

“There it is.” He gasped in ecstasy. A couple of minutes passed before he could follow through. “I made it” his poise changed abruptly as he prepared to communicate the news to his robotic companion. Every inch of reality stood still, even the electrical hum seemed to quiet for a second, as if impatient to hear what he had to say.

“Iris, you are my first attempt at artificial intelligence. And you will be my last. I can’t make you better; I don’t want to make you better. I just want us to be together.”

The buzzing was the only response.

“It’s okay. Don’t be afraid. Now we can be.” He said, before connecting all the cables for the first time. A couple of light bulbs turned on to a maniac laugh. “It works! It works!” he screamed joyfully as he fit a metallic ring on his head, which all sorts of connections protruding from his skull and into the system.
Everything froze. Even the handles on the clock stopped ticking. Iris was as inert as a corpse.
But the flow of electrons sounded louder than ever, the strain of volts building up inside the system ready to blast its way out towards definite freedom.

Dr. Bergman pressed a button in his hand that was connected by cables to the rig. Then he pronounced one last set of words.

“This is a gift to both of us. It’s a gift to you, my girl.”

The whole circuit exploded. A cloud of smoke and sparkles covered the whole room and fragments of machinery shoot out like missiles towards all possible angles. Through this blinding blanket of dense smolder wailed the cries of Dr. Bergman, in excruciating pain, as voltage poured into his brain and sadistically fried his grey matter one neuron at a time. His body romped nonsensically as he tried to rid himself of the device, but failed miserably as he tripped and fell on the black curtain, causing it to collapse into the ground and wrap itself around the agonizing man.

Behind that curtain stood Iris, the human.

The young lady, now a lifeless pile of flesh, sat on a chair with her hands tied to the armrests and holes drilled into the top of her skull, every piece of conceivable equipment strapped to her body. She had already seen Dr. Bergman, the wrinkly, skinny old man. She had already been in that shed, every inch of that structure consumed by the forces of decomposition. She had already been given the speech about artificial intelligence and  heard Dr. Bergman call her “my girl” for all the years she spent locked on that room, silently crying for help but showing nothing but resignation as her body was abused and experimented upon like a toy in the hands of a psychotic kid. The last glimpse she had had of the deserted street outside had been that sunny afternoon, as her eyes peeked through the broken blinds before being shut off for eternity.  She longed for that street until her last second before her senses became null and her mind was trapped inside a storage disk.

And now, her killer turned father fought for a last breath as his own body shut down, overwhelmed by the electricity, the very source of Iris’ life; that one element responsible for her death.
A final wave of flickers and smoke resounded before the whole scene became motionless. The sky rumbled again and the heavy rains battered the shed. The electrical humming continued quietly all night.
The next morning, a ghastly V. entered the room. No tray on her left hand, no bag of tools on the right one. As if completely unaltered by the remnants of the events that had unfolded in her absence, she proceeded to hang the curtain again, and from one of the towers, she retrieved a compact disc, the name “Sally” crudely written on it with indelible marker. A broken smile cracked through her dull expression as she did this.
As she left the chamber one last time, she disconnected a plug from a socket on the right the door. The electrical humming became silent, once and for all.