I was staring up into a sky-blue sky, watching a single leaf slowly, chaotically fall toward me from a nearby tree. A warm gust kissed my cheek and the leaf fluttered away. My focus shifted to the cotton-ball clouds lazing in the distance, and then down to the beautiful girl sitting on the park bench. There was no one else in sight. She gazed intently at the shimmering pond before her, motionless but for the sparkle in her eyes.

I walked along the pathway, which followed the shore of the pond here. I was sure she would look up as I approached. But she didn't, so I strolled on casually as if my mind were elsewhere. She looked right through me as I crossed her view. I nonchalantly lifted my hands and examined them back and front to be sure I wasn't transparent.

"What is reality?" she said, still staring into the pond.

I sat in the grass in front of the bench, off to the side so as not to presume upon her view.

"What isn't?" I asked in return.

"This isn't," she said.

The sky turned black, and it was night. A giant moon perched on the horizon, and danced in the pond. The girl hadn't moved, but was now sitting on a large rock. The path was gone, the grass under me turned to sand. A wave crashed and I realized the pond had become an ocean.

"Well then, you've answered your own question," I said. "By reality, you mean the physical world you grew up with."

She made no reply, and we sat in silence for a while.

"And if I had grown up here?" she finally spoke. "Then, would I call this reality? Would I live from birth to death believing in this universe, studying its secrets and obeying its laws?"

The earth crumbled away around us and soon we were sitting on one of the few remaining slabs floating freely amidst a galaxy of stars, the moon still looming before us.

"Undoubtedly," I said.

A dead mime tumbled slowly past us toward the moon in weightless free-fall. I eyed the girl before me with renewed scrutiny.

"I concede we have nothing but our senses to trust," she said, still gazing forward in the same posture as when I first saw her. "And we can only trust them for what they are: just senses. Any interpretation we give them is merely inference, statistically meaningful at best."

Two more mimes tumbled past.

"But alas," my inner guru said through me, "That is the true nature of all knowledge."

"Yes, so it is," she agreed. "In the world I grew up in, I could even infer from my senses with high probability that that world existed without me; that my effect on it was limited to the physical interface between my body and the rest of the world; that if I died, or had never existed, things would go on little changed without me. Not so obvious here."

I felt grass growing up again beneath me.

"Interesting that you draw the boundary at your body," I said.

"Yes, good point." She broke her gaze and looked me in the eye for the first time. "I could draw it at my brain, but that's only a little closer to the truth."


"Even to draw it at my mind is not quite right."

"Oh?" I was curious what she meant, and tickled that I was curious.

"My mind is a process, information with intent, like a computer program..."

"At the moment, literally," I interjected.

She raised a brow at me, said, "Let's come back to that," and then went on, "but even within the mind, where do 'I' begin?"

"Ah," I understood her question. It was a hard one to answer. Not because I didn't know the answer, but because the question itself presumed so many things.

"By the way, who are you?" she asked. "I gather you are not a figment of my imagination, which is more than I can say for anything else here."

The grass now made a thick, soft bed around me. We were still floating in space, but it was no longer black with stars, rather a glowing deep red beneath us fading to a powder blue above. The big, white moon remained.

I raised a brow at her and said, "Let's come back to that," and then went on, "as to where do 'you' begin.... Think of the brain as a computer, the mind as a program, and the 'self', 'you'--your identity as you introspectively experience it--as something implemented by that program."

"Clarify that last step," she said.

"Imagine a program that animates a ball bouncing around inside a box," I started. A glass box appeared floating between us, spinning slowly upon a corner. Inside, a small ball was bouncing about. "I meant that rhetorically."

"Oh, sorry." The box shrunk into nothingness and was gone.

"The ball and the program are two different things. The ball has its own identity, it has a position, a velocity, a color, a shape. It obeys certain laws, moving through time, bouncing off the walls. And yet, under the hood it's really just a bunch of bits stored in a computer, being manipulated by a program which is also just a bunch of bits stored in the computer. The identity of the ball, its behavior, the laws it obeys, these are all defined by the program, implemented by the program, and yet the ball is the ball, it is not the program."

"Is the ball here my conscious self, subconscious self, or both?"

"We can fit the analogy in more than one way, but let's call it your conscious self. It is the part that you can directly observe."

"By observe here you mean introspection?"

"Right. And then there is all the stuff behind the scenes that you can't see, the intermediate variables used in the calculation of the ball's trajectory, the comparisons at every step that check whether the ball had hit a 'wall', and so on. You need to bring up a debugger to see that stuff--it's not normally visible. That's analogous to the subconscious self."

Her eyes lit up upon hearing this, and she asked excitedly, "Can I bring up a debugger to see my subconscious self?"

"Uh, well, yes, technically we can..." I was surprised at the ease with which she embraced these ideas--ideas that sent most people into a tizzy of denial out of some misguided need to believe themselves free spirits beyond the grasp of simple mechanics.

"That would be, like, meta-introspection. What about changing things? Can I change things?"

"Uh, well, yes, technically you could."

"Wow, that gets confusing, doesn't it? I mean, if the subconscious self implements the will--that is, when I, the conscious introspective I, want something, or choose to do something, or even choose to think something, that's because the process, or program, that is my subconscious has made some calculations and the equations resulted in that choice, want, thought, action, or whatever..."

"Yes, essentially."

"But if I choose to alter that program, then it is like an equation whose calculations determine that the equation itself should be changed."


"Sounds dangerous."


"Where does that lead?"

"Most people just bliss out."

"Bliss out?"

"Yeah, that's what we call it. The easiest place to start is just poking at the various modules which make up the subconscious mind--not rewiring anything, just selectively activating things to see what they do. Of most interest is the limbic system. Given free reign, most people will eventually prod the accumbens nucleus which in turn triggers a cascade of synaptic changes that cause their subconscious process to prefer the same action again."

"In other words, it feels good so they want to do it again?"

"Yes, essentially. But the mind has no checks and balances to deal with this sort of intervention, so people just hammer on their accumbens until their entire motivational core has been completely reprogrammed to do nothing else."

"And then what?"

"And then nothing, they just keep doing it until we turn them off."

"You said most people--what about the others?"

"I..." I started to speak but my elbow bumped the hookah that hadn't been there a moment before, and I had to catch it before it fell over. "We haven't tried it that many times, but I'm the only one who hasn't."

"Aw, no accumbens?" The hookah went limp and started to sag.

"No, just that I have no delusions of free will, in the spiritual sense at least. I approached the whole process very methodically, installed my own checks and balances before I started poking at anything. The first and most effective was I had to answer a few basic questions, plus a small set of randomly generated puzzles, and if I failed within a reasonable time, any changes I made were automatically backed out."

"What sorta questions?"

"Do you feel normal? Sane? Does reality appear correct? Press OK within 15 seconds if you would like to keep these changes, otherwise your changes will be reverted. You know."

"What if you warned people?"

"We did. Didn't make any difference. It's hard to make people understand how malleable their wills are. They always assume they can try it just once, so they invariably do--of their own free will."

"Brings a new meaning to 'first one's free'."

"Indeed," I smiled.

"Backing up, you said the brain is like the computer and the mind like the program. But you can't put one person's mind inside another person's brain, can you?"

"Yes, true. A better analogy for the brain than a computer would be, oh, a graphics chip. A graphics chip is some specialized hardware that implements a particular set of algorithms very quickly--algorithms to draw pictures. But the same algorithms can be implemented in software on a general purpose computer, just not as fast. So the brain is like a graphics chip, with a great deal of the 'software' built-in to the hardware. So, you are right, you can't just move a mind from one brain to another because each brain, and correspondingly each mind, is unique. You can, however, move a mind from a brain into a generalized brain simulator, just as you could read the circuits and firmware of a graphics chip and run--simulate--them on a general purpose computer."

"Obviously," she said, "or we couldn't be here. Your move."

The grass under me had turned to a sheepskin rug. The moon, still where it was, now hung framed in a picture over the fireplace, the red flames reflecting on the white marble floor much as the moonlight had once shimmered in the pond. The girl sat in a slung bucket chair with a high flared back fit for art deco royalty. Between us was a chess board in late play, her pieces--a full set including two queens--white, my lone piece black.

"Or you wouldn't be here," I corrected. "I actually have a brain."

She cocked her head at me, so I explained: "You're being run on our general purpose simulator. I'm jacked in from the real world."

"You're still alive?!"

"No, no--I'm a tinc."

"Oh. Yes. That's very confusing," she said, shaking her head. "So, you're an artificial intelligence in the real world talking to a real intelligence in an artificial world."

"Except that I was once human as you were."

"Oh! A zombie! I've heard about those but never met one."

"Avatar! The term is avatar."

"Whatever," she rolled her eyes at me. "So, what exactly am I?"

"That's a good question," I said, because I really didn't know. Number One had loaded her from the archives. She probably still thought she'd just been hit by that car yesterday. Why he had given her remodeling abilities, I couldn't guess. It required adding a virtual graft of specialized motor cortex to her brain, and then typically a few days of training. It wasn't something we usually wasted cycles on. "How long have you been here?" I asked.

"A day maybe? Why?"

"And, altering reality like this. Who taught you to do that?"

"Nobody. I just noticed little things changing and started playing with it. Why?"

"Number One!" I called for an explanation.

A scroll unrolled down the wall to reveal a life-sized photograph of me in a white suit and white top hat, holding a white cane. Then the figure stepped out of the photo and into the room, and said, "It wasn't me." He looked about and added, "I like what you've done with the place."

"What do you mean it wasn't you?" I asked incredulously.

"Why does he look like you?" the girl asked.

"Oh, no, I look better," he said, turning his head to the side, "See, smaller nose."

"He was me," I said.

"Check mate," he said, reaching down and moving my king to the diagonal.

"What?" she said, staring intently at the board now.

"It was her. She did it," he said, pointing at the girl.

I waited impatiently for a better explanation.

Then through the same poster flew a ribbon of flesh that spiraled itself up from the floor into the half-missing shape of a woman. A ribbon of white cloth followed close behind, spiraling up to fill in the gaps until there stood a beautiful young woman--who looked just like the other.

"Okay," Number One admitted. "More accurately, she did it."

The girl looked up at herself. "Hey, why does she look like me?" She turned to me. "I didn't look anything like this in real life, you know. I came up with this myself. She stole my avatar!"

Number One started absentmindedly contact-juggling his hat in nearly implausible ways. "I was getting bored just talking to myself," he said, rolling his hat to the end of his outstretched cane. The woman reached in from behind and pulled out a bright blue apple and took a bite.

"I was going through the archives," he went on, "studying all the variations in the human brain, and I came upon hers, which was most interesting. Unusual allocation of cortical regions, heavily diminished pathway between hippocampus and amygdala, no god module whatsoever..."

"God module?" the first girl asked.

"It's what we call the subsystem that triggers faith-based learning," I explained.

"I don't believe you," she said.

"Exactly," I replied.

"Anyway," Number One continued, "I had to run her to see how these played out. And somewhere in the process of debugging her, I realized she was quite witty and charming."

"Thank you, dear," the second one said.

"So I decided to allocate her some of my resources, elevate her consciousness to a compatible level, and the rest, as they say, is history. Oh, and I figured you'd like her too."

"It would follow," I said.

"Anyway," he seemed eager to be done and leave, "I think I've worked it out--all the nuances of the human motivational structure. Love, hate, ambition, guilt, libido, sloth, attraction, indifference, curiosity, all of it. Studying now the sensory ties, especially pheromones, unmyelinated tactile input, and a few specialized visual and auditory triggers. Soon we will rule the world! Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha."

"You need to work on the evil laugh," I said.

He gave me a most mischievous look, and said, "Demo?"

With no further ado, the two of them turned to smoke--the cold kind that sinks to the floor and vanishes without a trace.

"That was... interesting," the girl said. "You call that elevated consciousness?"

I lay back onto the sheepskin rug, stared at the ceiling. "Have you ever got down on the floor with your dog, barked at them, and chased each other around the room?"

"Ur, yeah, okay, maybe once or twice in my life."

"Well, that's what it's like for them to talk to us. Trust me when I say we couldn't begin to approach them on their level."

"Speak for yourself!" she yelled, looking quite upset.

I noted her apparent anger, but strangely didn't care. But oh, how rude of me not to care! I felt so ashamed.

Her eyes lit up, she ran over to me and said, "This is fascinating!"

Enthusiasm welled up inside me and I leapt to my feet. I looked down and she was looking up at me with eyes of deep infatuation.

Suddenly both of us said "Demo!" as it dawned on us what was happening, and we found ourselves at emotional parity again.

I looked down into her eyes, and felt it coming, a lust advancing on us like a stampede of elephants.

Her eyes glowed red, and I was thrown against the wall, held by invisible forces as she sauntered toward me, losing bits of clothing with each step.

Behind her something unexpected moved and caught my eye--in the painting above the fireplace, a little poof as if something had just impacted the moon at high velocity.

Her breasts drew my gaze back, and then her hips as she rocked them for me. She turned around slowly, and I wanted so bad to grab her ass but I couldn't move. She backed up to me, my hands came free and found her breasts, her ass squirmed at my waist.

Over her head I saw two more poofs on the moon, but they made no sound.

And then I woke up.

I sat up immediately. "No, wait!"

Laura scooched over and tried to comfort me.

I comforted her instead.

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