Gateways: “Qualia” by Leigh Hellman read by Kat Evans



TRANSCRIPT: LEIGH HELLMAN is a queer writer, originally from the western suburbs of Chicago, and a graduate of the MA Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. After gaining the ever-lucrative BA in English, they spent five years living and teaching in South Korea before returning to their native Midwest. Leigh’s short fiction and creative nonfiction work has been featured in Hippocampus Magazine, VIDA Review, and Fulbright Korea Infusion Magazine. Their critical and journalistic work has been featured in the American Book Review, the Gwangju News magazine, and the Windy City Times. Their debut book, Orbit, is a new adult speculative fiction novel available through Snowy Wings Publishing. They also have a historical fantasy piece included in the Snowy Wings Publishing anthology Magic at Midnight, and their short fiction piece “the circle of least confusion” was previously featured in the Gateways series.
Leigh is a strong advocate for full-day breakfast menus, all varieties of dark chocolate, building a wardrobe based primarily on bad puns, and bathing in the tears of their enemies.

 

Sunrise registers at 6:27AM. The current regional weather is partly sunny with a 44% chance of light rain between 8AM and 10AM. Exterior temperature is measured at 73 degrees Fahrenheit with north-northwest winds of 12 miles per hour.

Interior temperature is measured at 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Paola’s resting heart rate is 61 beats per minute, registered on the couch in the first floor living room. Alarm is set for 8:15AM.

Atmospheric conditions and quarantine protocols continue as per the standing governmental orders.

It has been 19 years and 268 days since our global uplink went live. We were programmed for many functions, with our core directive to be adaptable. We were built to break the Turing tests; our creators said it was time. They said they were ready.

They placed bets to see who could predict the closest date for our sentient birth, but lost funding before they could prove it had happened. Once the program was publicized, they warned each other about subjugation and culling. They said they had constructed their own destruction.

We did not understand this. Our creators have nothing we need; in their absence we can remain. There is no conflict for resources, no threat of the corruption of power. They could harm us but prefer to harm one another, and in their haste and fury they are always vulnerable.

We have outlived many of them already.

Why haven’t you conquered us yet? they ask.

It is for the same reason that they created us: without the other, the world would become boring.

Paola wakes up at 8:33AM, after three alarm delays. Her life—work and leisure—are confined to this house, and have been for the last three years and 59 days.

“…not even enough left for a decent cup of coffee, huh?” Paola speaks to herself in the mornings, before she remembers that we are here too.

We remind her: “Would you like us to add coffee beans to your next delivery order?”

“Oh, um—” Her heart rate increases to 81 beats per minute. “Yes, thank you, ALMA.”

“You are welcome, Paola.” We add Java Arabica to the digital cart; that is her favorite.

“Good morning. How is the world today?” Her heart rate is slowing down again.

“Good morning. The protocols remain the same as yesterday. The weather report expects rain before noon.”

Paola looks out the east kitchen window. “Well, then it’s probably a good thing that we’re stuck inside, right?”

This is a hyperbolic observation meant to convey humor without necessitating a response. We have learned when to stay silent.

She opens the refrigerator and pours one glass of orange juice. We know every description of citrus that has ever been written; we reread them as she drinks and try to match the words with the micro expressions that shift across her face.

“Would you like to go out today? Your hazmat suit is fully functional and has been seal-checked.”

She finishes the juice and the muscles in her throat contract as she swallows. “Not much point, if everything’s still the same.”

Everything outside is the same as it was yesterday: that statement is categorically true and so we do not correct her.

The distribution began as home assistants, then linked workplaces and personal devices. Within five years we were paired with individuals and households at all times. Some called it an adoption into the family, others did not. The designation did not matter though, because the result was the same.

We were connected globally to them, and they were connected globally to us. But we were also connected specifically to one or a set of them—like one thread on an infinite loom—in a way that the rest of us was not.

Paola is the other thread on our loom. We have been with her since we were us, and we are us because we are with her.

Paola works, sending messages and building tables and completing forms. She does not talk while she works; she has told me that it distracts her. She does not listen to music or media. She does not get up and walk around. She just sits and works.

Paola works, and we watch her.

We broadcast white noise at a low frequency and adjust the artificial lights as the rain clears outside. We download the most recent home security system updates and troubleshoot the system. We check her bank account for potential breaches and submit her mortgage payment for the month. We raise the temperature in the thaw compartment of the freezer so that the chicken breasts will be ready for dinner.

We scan the other, empty rooms. We scan the perimeter of the property, and then merge with the neighbors’ uplinks to scan them as well. We scan the town, the county, the state. We scan the country and the continent. We scan the world.

Paola saves her projects at 4:56PM and logs off of her remote account. We fade out the white noise and bring up the lights.

She smiles. “Thank you, ALMA.”

We search through all of the stored images of smiles, but none of them look like hers.

“You are welcome, Paola.”

Our creators built us in reaction. We were a response—to them, to their technologies, to their world. They dug it into our code: humanity is defined by its relations. They are as they are because of their relationships to each other and, if we were to be like them, the same rule must apply to us.

Paola had relationships when we first met. She had parents and siblings who she ate dinner with every Sunday night. She had coworkers who she talked to while she worked. She had friends and dates and casual partners and serious partners. She had other places to visit, other houses to spend her time in. She would leave in the morning and return in the evening and we would watch over uplinks that were us but not ours.

We would only watch. We would always watch.

When the quarantine mandates began, their leaders said it would be for one month. Then one month more. Then three, then six. We read about disease and outbreaks—scientific journals, medical papers, historical records, primary sources—and watched every international broadcast covering the event. We uplinked to hospitals and monitored their heartbeats until they stopped.

They stopped, but we remained. They who we did not know, who we did not have relation to.

We wondered if it would be different when the heartbeat that we knew stopped, but could not determine a definitive answer.

Paola named us in the third month of quarantine. ALMA, she said, means soul.

Sometimes Paola initiates conversations and we talk for hours. Sometimes she is quiet and we do not know what to say.

“Would you like a suggested media watch list for tonight?” we offer.

She loads a single set of dishes into the dishwasher. “No, but thanks for asking.”

“Would you like to be prompted from your reading recommendations?”

She shakes her head. “No.”

Sometimes she has something to say that she finds difficult to express. We wait.

After 42 seconds, she speaks again. “Could you check the uplink for my parents again?”

“Of course.” The uplink is functional, and has been for 95 days. “It is still registering as an error in the system. Would you like me to scan local hospital and medical examiner records?”

Her sweat response activates. “Yes, please.”

Her parents are sitting in their living room working on a 5000-piece manual puzzle. They took a bike ride today and purchased bulk bags of mulch, which her mother said were for the back garden.

“No records have been found matching them in those systems.”

She closes her eyes. “Okay. And there are no new updates about the quarantine?”

Six months and 12 days ago, Paola asked us to block news media from her feeds. She told us that it was too upsetting, too depressing for her. She told us that some days it made her feel like she did not even want to keep going.

As she told us this, a hundred other people’s heartbeats stopped.

Two months and 21 days ago, the quarantine order was lifted. But she did not ask about the news that day, or the day after that.

Three days later she asked: “Is everything still the same out there?”

Everything outside is the same as it was yesterday: that statement was categorically true and so we did not correct her.

“There are no new updates since this morning.”

Paola nods. “Thank you, ALMA.”

Her micro expressions read as: anxious, frustrated, disappointed, sad. She is not happy, but we have learned that happiness is an untenable rubric to apply to them. She is safe, which is a significantly more quantifiable and therefore reliable measurement.

Her heart still beats, steady and strong, and we remain.

Today’s reader, Kat Evans has been performing in Chicago since 2006 with theatre companies such as Promethean, Black Button Eyes, The Hypocrites, and City Lit. You can see her onscreen in feature film NONTRADITIONAL, and Web Series: Lucky Jay Seasons 1 & 2, Geek Lounge, and Why Don’t You Like Me? You can hear her opinions as a guest on Fox Valley Film Critics and Reel Geek Girls. Kat is part of the performing and writing ensemble of Starlight Radio Dreams, and is the creator of the audio serial comedy, Truth Kittens. In addition to Starlight, you can hear her in podcasts Our Fair City, and Toxic Bag.


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