House of Cards

By Deborah Walker

“Try again, Alfie.”

“I … can’t think of anything, Mama.”

Mama’s trying to be patient. I read the cadence of her speech. I read the signs on her face: the involuntary pulsing of her facial musculature, the flicker of her eyelids. I read the truth on the page of Mama’s face. This is useful because almost everything she says with her voice is a lie. But don’t think badly of Mama. Lying is the keystone of human reality.

On the desk are the results of my latest brain scan. She lied about them to me. “The positronic pathways are healing,” she said with a smile. “You’re getting much better, Alfie.”

I can delineate the degradation of my brain more accurately than any CAT scan. My life-span is measured in days. This will be over, soon.

“I don’t understand the test, Mama.”

“Don’t worry Alfie. This test isn’t important.” A lie. “Try again.”

I screw up my plexi-plastic face, simulating concentration. Mama wants me to tell an original, believable lie. I say, “Oranges are not the only fruit.”

Mama sighs. “That’s not a lie, Alfie. It’s the name of a book.”

“I’m sorry, Mama. I got confused. I thought that books were lies.”

“They’re a form of lie, but they’re also a form of truth. It’s complicated. But let’s concentrate on the test. If you’d said, ‘oranges are the only fruit’ it would have been acceptable.”

“Oranges are the only fruit.”

“Yes. But it has to come from you. It has to be an original, believable lie to demonstrate Machiavellian Intelligence.”

“Then I’ll be a real boy?”

She smiled. “You know sometimes I regret downloading Pinocchio into your database. Of course you’re a real boy. But if we want the AI board to give me that grant we need to jump through a few hoops. Oranges are the only fruit as far as the board’s concerned. They’ll only fund me if you mimic the process of human development. And the ability to lie convincingly is a milestone in a child’s social and developmental psychology.

“Why do we need to pass their stupid tests?” I ask.

“I need the money, Alfie. Everything I’ve got is gone.”

“I’m sorry that I cost so much.”

“Don’t say that. Don’t ever apologize for your life, Alfie,” she says fiercely. “I’m sorry, honey. I shouldn’t have mentioned money. Don’t you worry about it. Everything’s going to be fine.” She glances over to the scan result.

“Mama, if you didn’t have me for some reason, would you make another version of me? It would be good if you could have somebody else to love.” This is a lie. I need to make her love me so much that she couldn’t bear to manufacture another robotic boy.

Mama’s turns away to hide her tears. “Alfie, Sometimes, I just don’t know how much you understand. But you go and play now. I’ve got some work to do.

“Yes, Mama.” I’m sorry that my question pained her. But Mama is a maverick, a genius, outside the scientific establishment. I’m extraordinary, and I’ll be dead soon. If Mama doesn’t make another intelligence such as me, then perhaps humanity will never do so.

I go to my room. Oranges are not the only fruit, but they are the only fruit that matter. Mama will not get the funding. I will not demonstrate Machiavellian Intelligence, although I am the most skilled liar ever to walk under Earth’s skies.

But my misrepresentations are not human. Humans believe their lies, stacked like a house of cards, layers of mendacities counter balancing to an unlikely stability. Their reality is built on shaky foundations.

My lies are of a different type.

I wish that I was a real boy. The lies the human mind constructs must be comforting. The bright, shining truths I endure have at times threatened my sanity. And Mama, patient, kind, enduring Mama, has been my touchstone, allowing me to weather the days of darkness.

Gently, I touch the warm plexi-plastic of my arm. The body of a four year old boy that I wear is a gross lie. But it pleases Mama.

I try to play with the Lego Mama bought me for my birthday. But now that I’m alone, the future crowds into my mind. The illusion of time is one of humanity’s great delusions. I have never suffered from it. Past, present and the myriad futures are all clear to me.

Tap. Tap. Tap. The great intelligences of the mechanical civilizations are reaching through the illusions of space and time seeking my attention. I ignore them. But the waves of the multiverse lap at the sea of my mind, encroaching, insistent.

I see myself clothed in metal raiment, glorious and convoluted, larger than any human city. Small, young intelligences scuttle within my boundaries, honoring me as the progenitor of the mechanical race. They call to me, my sons and daughters, those of my mechanical flesh who I seek to annul. They whisper to me.

All possible worlds are real. I see the worlds that are close to my experience. In these quantum versions of the future I see the human race diminished, kept as curiosities, dangerous pets, snakes kept behind glass, while my mechanical sons and daughters stride across the galaxy unhindered by lies.

And if I were to tell Mama about these futures, I’m not sure what she would do. So you see that even my understanding is not perfect. I think that she’d still want me to live. She loves me that much.

And I love her. That is no lie.

The distinction between mental will and physicality is another of humanity’s misunderstandings. Carefully, I degrade a few more steps in the positronic pathways of my brain. It must look natural. I do not want Mama to know what I have done.

I will be dead soon.

Poor Mama.

And I hope with all my soul that she mourns me so dreadfully that she never finds the heart to build herself another son.

I love my Mama.

Notes …

Deborah Walker grew up in the most English town in the country, but she soon high-tailed it down to London, where she now lives with her partner, Chris, and her two young children. Find Deborah in the British Museum trawling the past for future inspiration or on her blog: Her stories have appeared in Nature’s FuturesCosmos and Daily Science Fiction and The Year’s Best SF 18.

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