by Abi Godsell

From Issue 11 (July 2011)
[audio: |titles=The Silver City & The Green Place by Abi Godsell]
approx 21 min

The doctor is small and grey-haired. He talks rapidly and jumps between subjects. It’s hard to believe that this abrupt little man headed up the team that implanted the world’s most advanced artificial intelligence into the body of a brain-dead teenager.

My editor is going to have a field day.

“It worked out well though. Her parents had given up, they were looking for a reason to pull the plug. Donating the body to science must have seemed easier.”

“And the purpose of the project Doctor, just to remind our readers?” My tone is neutral and engaging, but in my head I am grinning.

The little man looks up at me sharply and I stare back, feigning good-natured interest.

He picks up a biscuit and replies carefully, “We needed a way to teach them. The AI’s I mean. There was no other way they’d process us properly. Not without ‘knowing’ human, without experiencing it.”

He studies his biscuit intensely and I can see the slight tightening of his jaw as he speaks.

“It was a… a learning experience”

In my head, my grin becomes wolf-like.

Outwardly, I smile pleasantly and ask him about the science, to keep him relaxed. I will ferret out your secrets, Doctor; every horror, every monstrosity, every small abandonment of ethics. Everything that causes you to tighten your jaw as you lie to me.

I smile again, and sit back listening, as this unassuming old man plunges into the story of the most controversial science experiment of the century.

“The problem with the surgery was its technical complexity, keeping the synaptic connections alive, making sure the organic tissue didn’t reject the synthetic material and… are you listening?”

I nod placidly, watching his irritation with private amusement.

He is charmingly straightforward, this old man.

“Anyway, after the project stabilised, after the surgery – we managed the surgery seamlessly by the way –”

There is a touch of wounded pride in the offhand way he says that.

Perfect. Let him be angry, let him be defensive, let him be vulnerable.

That’s how people get careless.

“Anyway, after stabilisation the team decided to choose a name. No one had ever dreamed of attempting this before, and we had just done it. We wanted a name to, you know, celebrate.”

His face is softened for a moment by some distant memory.

“But the name had to be perfect, you understand.”

He is all enthusiasm now, trying to draw me into his long ago excitement. He forgives quickly then, this elderly scientist. That is useful too.

“We needed something to show that she -“

I start at the pronoun.

“- was a groundbreaker. Some of the others wanted Virginia, but that was vulgar.” He frowns.

“I suggested Core. Like the middle of a reactor.”

He looks at me pityingly. “Like Persephone, daughter of the Greek goddess of the moon and deity of spring and new life. Core was her other name. It means Maiden, as in ‘first’.”

I nod, stupidly, trying not to wince at his horrible pronunciation. Kohree, old man, not Core. And Demeter was never a moon goddess.

He continues, looking out into the garden. He has an omnitree orchard. It’s a nice touch, something like that in the middle of the city. He continues. “Well, I suggested Core- “


“- and Core stuck.”

“The first few years were hard. For a long time she -“

This time I can’t help myself. “Wait. ‘She’? As in the machine?” I ask, gesturing incredulously at the thing wheeling itself clumsily along the path between the omnitrees. They’re producing pomegranates today. Nicely ironic, although I’m sure the reference is lost on the old man. He is talking again.

“We couldn’t just shove in a computer with no concept of personality or gender or social interaction or anything. The transition was hard enough, even after we programmed her with everything.”

I berate myself silently for being distracted by the trees. I almost missed that opening.

“Everything? Even emotions?”

Caught off-guard, he looks away sharply.

I swallow a small smile.

Then he turns his head back to me, his eyes on the ground and a softness like defeat in his shoulders.

“No,” he says evenly, “No, those came later.”

After that he natters on for a while, every bit the retired scientist. I tune out his heartfelt descriptions of the hardship of the years of catatonia, as he waited for the programme to learn its new operating system. I tune out the quiet regret with which he tells me how his team splintered around him, leaving him alone with the experiment. These are not what I have come here for. My editor pays me for scandal, not sentimentality.

It’s really only when his voice changes, hesitating, that I prick up my ears.

“It was after she woke up… after she began to adapt to the body that the … unexpected developments occurred.

I listen, waiting.

He steeples his fingers and sighs. A frown etches the wrinkles deep into his face, making him look older than he is.

“We were watching a film. ‘Human movies’ she calls them. Even now. I had to leave the room, I can’t remember why, and the next thing I knew she was calling for me desperately. I didn’t think. I just ran. She’d fallen out of her chair. She could hardly move then, worse than now, though I doubt she’ll ever be able to walk, not without major surgery to try and fix the damage to the donor body, at least.”

I file this away for a possible sympathetic slant on the machine, although the thought of doing that makes me cringe.

“I… tried to pick her up, see what had happened. And she just clung to me. She clung to me and she was, you know, crying.”

He tracks an imaginary tear trail down his cheek.

I watch, fascinated by the way the memory affects him.

“Crying uncontrollably, just like a scared little girl. A scared human girl.”

He lifts his head to the garden again and his eyes soften.

“She’d cried before but not … nothing like that.”

“Why?” I ask it candidly without meaning to, and clench my jaw in frustration. I don’t like uncalculated moves.

The Doctor doesn’t seem to notice though; he’s too caught up in his story.

“I sort of, tried to pick her up off the ground, but I couldn’t lift her. So I just…” He looked lost then. “I’ve never had children.”

I could see them then; the man struggling to hold it, this machine he had built into the body of a girl. I could see the way he’d try to comfort this thing that he had watched growing into a young woman while she was catatonic. I could see him afraid, he who had never had children. I wouldn’t have been afraid. I’ve seen chat-bots that cry, computers that laugh – hell, even skytrains are programmed with basic emotion simulation routines. Tears are easy enough to fake.

I ask again, controlled this time, “Why was she crying?

He looks up at me and for a moment I think he must have noticed my earlier lapse, then his expression evens.

He drops his voice conspiratorially: “You know, I asked her that too. She couldn’t tell me. She didn’t know.”

He sits back, regarding me keenly. “I think she has a lot less control than she pretends sometimes. Control over the body, I mean. The donor body. There’s so much we don’t know about cellular memory.”

It would have been heavy. A young woman’s body is heavy. He’d have known that he’d never be able to lift it, but he’d tried.

The Doctor is talking again. I swear under my breath and feign interest.

“Wait, cellular? Forgive me Doctor, but I don’t really understand computer terminology.”

Any act becomes more convincing with a grain or two of truth.

He sighs and begins explaining to me slowly: “Not battery cells, human ones. The biological unit of living matter.”

“But… cellular memory? What do you…”

“It’s a well documented phenomenon. Well, inasmuch as we know it exists.”

I can see him warming to my interest now, drawing closer to me through my questions. His animation almost brings out my smile.

“Cases of transference of properties, tastes usually, from the donor to the recipient, even if all they share is a kidney.”

I can see the trust, kitten-cautious, as he sneaks a glance at me. I keep my eyes gentle.

“- research into facial recognition of the donor’s family by the recipient. It was inconclusive, sure, but that was because it was never finished.”

I will win him over with gentle eyes and soft questions.


The Doctor smiles, rueful and knowing.

Just a little closer, old man.

“Funding was cut. The board couldn’t see enough practical application.”

I glance out at the machine under the omnitrees and quirk an eyebrow. The old man laughs with me.

“We know that something happens. Knowledge shifts from one body to the other, carried by constructs that are surely too small, too simple to have memory. But they do. Even a single cell of a single organ of a single human being… knows. And sometimes they can share that knowing.” He’s holding my gaze now, leading me along a chain of reasoning, confidently, surely.

I have no choice but to follow.

“I saw her crying and shaking and cringing away from the screen and trying to get out of her chair. There was a train wreck, you see, on the screen.”

He looks at me as if I should understand. I shake my head.

“The body donor was on the one-four-seven.”

I know that name… It was something to do with … “That was the skytrain collision? Head on, derailment, no… no survivors…”

I gape at him.

“If I were looking for a trauma so great that it imprinted onto the very cells, I wouldn’t look much farther than that.”

The fragments of science suddenly mesh into clarity

“That’s preposterous! Isn’t it?” I only just manage to soften the end, moderating my cynicism, giving him space to correct me. “The body wouldn’t – couldn’t- remember something like that surely?”

My tone is coaxing, placating, because even this nonsense, mad as it is, is not what I’m here for.

He doesn’t correct me, though. Just sits back and looks away.

“That’s what she said too, when I suggested cell memory. But it would happen sometimes. She’d know things she’d never learned, hate things she’d never experienced, prefer things for no reason. At first it terrified her.”

I must have looked sceptical because he smiles indulgently at me.

“Imagine a rationalising machine, because that’s all an AI is, when it starts out. Imagine a… a fancy pocket calculator that suddenly encounters uncontrollable, inexplicable reactions? It’s no wonder she hated it. It undermined her sense of self-determination. ”

I pick up a biscuit, nod to keep him talking and try not to scoff at the idea of a machine with a sense of self-determination.

The Doctor goes on. “Soon enough though, she adapted to that too. She even began to enjoy it, the freedom that irrationality can confer. She discovered baseless preferences, choices without recourse to objective logic. Free will, if you like.”

I nearly choke on my biscuit. A machine with personal preference? A computer making choices for nothing but itself? With the same ability that allows each one of us to become whatever we dream: writers or wreckers, dancers or dictators?

He laughs into his cup, glancing at the thing in the wheelchair and then at me. I swallow my shock. This is the moment.

I may not know machinery and I may not know science, but I know this.

This is the moment that he decides if he will trust me with it. He will choose if he will tell me the thing that has been shifting his eyes from mine, keeping his fingers drumming the table top. Now he decides if it’s safe to reveal to me the scoop that my editor is waiting for, the transgression or mistake or lapse that would shut down his project if it were to be printed. (It will be printed, old man, because scandal sells papers.) Now he is deciding if he will give me that which I have come looking for and if I will protect it as he has.

The Doctor licks his lips. I hold my breath, pulse racing. I have played my part well, but…

He darts a glance at me, something like shrewdness in his gaze.

Trust me, old man, my eyes say. Trust me, trust me.

He laughs into his cup, glancing at me, the kind-eyed journalist in front of him.

“Can you imagine a rationalising machine with fears and favourites and dreams?”

His tone is gentle, but still I’m stunned. Dreams? Tears I can buy, you can fake tears. Preferences I can buy, because of that whole cell memory thing, but dreams? We still know almost nothing about dreams. We can’t create what we don’t understand right? Right?

“You programmed it to dream?”

“I didn’t, no, but human can never be just a casing.”

“What?” the idea shocks me into honesty.

He drops my gaze then.

Incredulous, I realise he has more to say.

He stirs the coffee in his glass cup. It is probably cold by now. And then he tells me how they, how he and the machine, were sitting here a few days ago, when it told him it had been dreaming.

“She surprised me the way she said it. So unselfconsciously, totally unaware that nothing in her programming, nothing in her code should have given her dreams.

She just looked at me, her lips blue from that terrible children’s cereal she eats (that she eats because she likes blue). She sat here -”

He gestures at the empty seat next to him.

“- among the grass and the synth-soil and the omnitrees, and she said to me…”

The Doctor pauses and I wave him on impatiently.

“She said: ‘I dreamed of a green place where I could no longer go.”

He switches his gaze to mine and his eyes are sharp and wise.

He holds up his coffee, catching the late afternoon light in the depths of the dark liquid. “Don’t you think,” he asks, appearing to address the cup, “don’t you think that we’re just lonely? Humans, I mean. As a species. Why else would we chase the hope of other intelligences out among the stars so desperately? Why else would we ache to build machines that could understand us?” He turns the cup and the light splays out through it, refracting onto his fingers. “I think that. That we’re desperate to be seen by something other.”

“Can you imagine,” he asks, something thrilling through his voice that I have not heard before, “can you imagine being seen by an Other that is neither servant nor judge?”

Before I can answer, he points at the machine.

“There are things that she can never know because she is not human.” He pauses momentarily, decides against saying something more and then continues. “And there are things we cannot imagine knowing, because we are not her.”

I shake my head violently. “Rubbish!”  But the word is hard to say.

Outside in the garden, the daily four-fifteen shower has started.

“That’s rubbish!” But it’s an empty phrase. He knows that I hear him. He knows that I understand and that makes me hate him.

“You’ve done nothing more than put an electric motor in a dead human. That thing is nothing more than a twenty-first century zombie!” But his eyes see my confusion and laugh at me. I have no words now, no accusatory, shocked, righteous words, and he knows it.

He’s won.

But the Doctor’s gaze does not hold a winner’s complacency.

He sits up, pointing.

The machine is holding its hands up to the rain. It doesn’t seem troubled by it. In fact, it is singing.

I think I can see what he’s trying to show me. I think I know now what he wants…

“That’s nothing,” I croak, “nothing. The body is just used to songs.”

The Doctor shakes his head. “The voice is an instrument of the body, but the words… She chose that song for herself. The body donor never listened to vintage music.”

I begin to tremble.

I demand: “What have you done here?” but I already know the answer.

It sings of silver cities and flowing rivers.

“What have you made?”

The Doctor looks at me, almost kindly. I look at his creation, reaching from its wheelchair to the sky with the dead girl’s wisdom in its fingers.

“I’m not sure what I’ll send my editor now. He was expecting something big, you know, something shocking. This is the first interview you’ve allowed, after all. It was supposed to be a scoop.”  I try for annoyed but it comes out whiny and lacking conviction. I want to say more, but I can’t find the words. The Doctor is silent. His eyes say enough.

I watch the blonde girl tasting the rain.

Neither servant nor judge.

“The garden path will be slippery by now. Too slippery for that chair to manage. She’ll need someone to fetch her.”

He doesn’t move. I hesitate and stand up awkwardly.

I think I want to be seen.

As I step out onto the lawn, she turns her head towards me –

(Things we cannot imagine knowing…)

– There is hope in her eyes.

I walk out across the wet grass, calling over my shoulder as I do so:

“What do I even call her, now?”

The Doctor smiles very slowly, and tells me:

“Something New”


Copyright © 2011 by Abi Godsell
Illustration © 2011 by Vincent Sammy

[hana-code-insert name=’ArticleBlockOpen’ /]

Abi Godsell

Abigail Godsell is a first-and-a-half year civil engineering student at Wits university. She has been writing for the past few years and learning to write for almost double that time.

She enjoys specifically writing science fiction, fantasy and horror and believes that a society that has forgotten how to dream is not a society that will survive very long in the zombie apocalypse.
[hana-code-insert name=’ArticleBlockClose’ /]

2 Responses to “The Silver City and The Green Place”

  • darius:

    So does she learn how to stand and walk, in the rain. ???? In time. ?

  • Cyan:

    (Author) I dont know (I only write this stuff down when I stumble across it) but, in time, I think so. At least I hope so 🙂