Friendless

By Shoshana Edwards

Carol finally caved, about a month ago, and bought the VR headset (“gogs”) for Friendland. All her friends had one, after their kids persuaded them to try it. It was fun, until it wasn’t. Instead of typing messages, she was walking around talking to people, meeting strangers –- some who became friends. There were animals, lots of animals. Cats were everywhere, lounging in windows, sitting in trees, laying in clowders of furry happiness on park benches.

Mitan was the first to disappear. Carol met her in a group of book lovers that met at a place called Bibliogoria. She was loud, brash, and very liberal. She was also opposed to book censorship of any kind, including the older books that used the N-word, pornography, and what she called true history. She loved arguments, debates, and long discussions late at night. However, she didn’t just express her opinions in the comfort of the coffee-drenched lounge of Bibliogoria. She would happily take on street preachers, politicians hawking their positions during election season, and doom-sayers on a makeshift pulpit. Also, she was old, like Carol. A “get off my lawn” type of senior.

To clarify, Friendland was a city, a huge city that seemed to have no end. People entered by putting on the gogs. When Carol first entered, she saw shops that offered nearly everything a person could imagine. The only things that seemed off limits were child porn, animal abuse, and liberal politics. Everything else was available in the multitude of shops, all of it free. Sometimes a shop would pop up just as she walked by. Visitors could be thinking about something and suddenly a shop appeared that offered just that item. 

Anyway, back to Mitan. She was lively. And opinionated. Then one day she disappeared. She was leading a group of women, protesting the increased suppression of abortion and birth control in the meat world. A Senator holding an election rally had stopped them from continuing down the street, then he and Mitan got into a shouting match. She called him a hypocritical bully who would tell any lie if it would get him elected. She had some choice things to say about his wife, too. A couple of minutes later she just disappeared. Everyone said it was probably her kids taking away her gogs. To Carol, it was much creepier. She thought about it a lot. She did not know that her thoughts on the matter were recorded.

Carol was especially creeped out because she had seen a Mark-Z266 Purity Bot near Mitan and the Senator during their shouting match. Everyone knew they existed. It was why Carol was there. She warned people to be careful about what they said after she saw the bot the first time, a warning people like Mitan did not take seriously. The bot looked like a sweet grandma, dressed in comfortable pants and a nice twin set with pearls. As instructed, Carol said “hello” as she walked by the bot, but it didn’t respond. This was unusual in Friendland, because it was considered bad behavior. So, Carol threw caution to the wind and followed her. It became obvious quickly that she was a bot. She did not interact with or acknowledge anyone, other than to turn her gaze on those who then disappeared. Carol made sure she was extra careful not to seem too interested in the bot. The Mark-Z266 Purity Bot was an upgrade from the old system, with the newest AI installed. The owners of Friendler (the meat land version), and Friendland (the VR version), claimed that the 266 was more discriminating in who needed a time out. But as Carol followed “Grandma” down the street, she saw more and more people popping out. One woman held a sign that said QUESTION RELIGION, she went away as soon as Grandma saw her. A teenager decked out in full Goth regalia evaporated before he could say a word. Carol hurried ahead of the bot, scooted around a corner, and grabbed a young man holding a sign condemning fossil fuel users. 

“Give me your meat name, please,” she said. “A bot is coming, and just in case you get sent to Friendland jail, I want to write to you.”

“Sure,” he said. “My name on Friendler is JasonK49. What’s yours?”

She told him, then quickly slipped into the nearby lingerie shop, watching through the window as he resumed his position next to a lamp post. Sure enough, as Grandma walked by, he went poof. Gone like the others.

Carol reached up and removed her sun glasses, the Friendland version of her gogs. She was sitting in her recliner, a computer on her lap. All eyes in the lab were on her as she opened the laptop, typed in her password, then clicked on Friendler. She searched for JasonK49. There he was. She pulled up his profile, clicked the DM button, and typed. “Are you okay?” A moment later an obvious auto response popped up on the screen. “We’re sorry. This user is no longer available.” 

Charles, the lead tech, reached over and turned Carol off.

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Dr. Bergman, the director of the lab, expressed his concern regarding what they just witnessed, stating that Friendler’s control of Friendland was worse than expected. 

He also asked, “Is she performing up to specs?”

“Better,” the lead tech, Charles, responded. “She is working better than her specs, is expanding beyond her basic programming. Actually, she is becoming aware of the threat the 266s and 300s pose to people. However, even though she is increasing her awareness, she has not yet recognized what she is; she still thinks she is human.” 

Stockton Marshall was from South London, a graduate fellow at Oxford University. He had come to MIT specifically to join the Carol Team. He was one of the first experts in AI to see the danger that the Mark-Z bots posed. He was also aware of the very real danger to himself and the other members of the team if they were discovered. 

Stockton insisted that Carol had to go back into Friendland because there were more people going in every day, and more of those people were disappearing. More concerning, some of those going in just stayed there, not realizing that their bodies in the real world were dying of dehydration and starvation. Charles questioned whether or not one of the team should accompany Carol back into Friendland. It was a balance between the team member’s safety and obtaining better data through direct observation rather than through Carol’s interface.

Stockton had constructed new gogs that rendered the wearer invisible to the Mark-Z bots. He had made four of them, one for each member of the Carol Team.

“You should go back in with her,” he told Charles. “She still thinks you are her husband.”

He also told Charles that if the bots saw him, to get out immediately.

The team left the room, leaving Charles alone with Carol. He entered his password on his keyboard and pressed the small button on her back to activate her.

 

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Carol immediately came back to life. She thought she had been napping and told Charles that she needed to get back into Friendland.

Charles questioned her rush, pointing out how dangerous it was getting in Friendland, with more and more people disappearing with no idea where they were “going”. He used the example of the guy with the sign, JasonK49. 

Carol agreed. 

“I know it is dangerous. But I have to go back and warn my friends in Bibliogoria. I have to warn as many people as I can. I must go back.”

Charles insisted on going in with her. Once he had explained to her how his new gogs would keep the bots from seeing him, she finally agreed.

Carol drew a map of the parts of Friendland she had explored, marking Bibliogoria in red. She made Charles memorize it, since there was no guarantee that the map would be with him when he spawned. He put it into an inside pocket of his shirt. They held hands, sitting next to each other on the couch, and put on their gogs.

They spawned together, around the corner from the book store. 

“It’s probably because we used the same Wi-Fi,” said Carol.

All of a sudden Charles pointed across the square, telling Carol to look at the old lady standing there. Very quietly, Carol explained, “That’s a Mark-Z266 Purity Bot. Don’t attract her attention.”

Charles could hardly believe he was looking at a bot. “That’s a robot? She looks so real! This place is amazing. It’s as if we have gone to another world.”

Carol agreed that it *was* amazing, and that it definitely *grabs* a person. She explained that visitors can eat, sing, walk – anything they would do in the meat world. Wrinkling his nose while shaking his head, Charles replied that “meat world” was an amazingly gross description of the real world.

They hurried into the bookstore and made their way to the back room. Several members of Bibliogoria were sitting on chairs, pillows, or the floor, drinking coffee and talking about David Gerrold’s “Chtorr” series. A battered copy of “A Matter for Men” lay on the table. They both got coffee and snagged some Danish from the open box. 

 Carol sat down and said, “I hate to interrupt a good discussion, but I need to tell y’all something important.”

Everyone stopped talking. Carol’s fear must have been apparent in both her voice and on her face.

 “I saw a Mark-Z266 Purity Bot yesterday. My husband, Charles here (pointing at Charles with her chin), and I just saw another one. Anyway, yesterday I followed it, and people kept disappearing as it went past them.”

Elam, young with lots of tattoos and lots of male bravado questioned Carol’s use of the term “disappearing”.  He asked, “You mean as in ducking into stores or something?” asked Elam.

“No. Just disappeared, as in, vanished. The people who disappeared were protesting things, and there was a Goth kid. Just poof, they were gone.”

Carol paused for a moment, letting that sink in. “I saw one guy with a sign protesting fossil fuels. I pulled him around the corner, told him what was happening, and asked if he would share his meat world name. Said I wanted to write to him on Friendler if he disappeared.”

Then Carol told them what happened when she tried to messenger him on Friendler. The group sat in stunned silence.

“What’s this bot look like?” asked Elam.

“Like your grandma,” said Charles. “Not the Carol kind of grandma, because she would have been a “cool” grandma. Television grandma. Sweet little old lady with sensible shoes and a twin set, string of pearls.”

“I’m ElamJ45 on Friendler,” said Elam. “I’m going to go try to get myself disappeared. If you get that message, try ElamI19. I’ll create a new user profile, just in case.”

“Elam! Don’t! We don’t know what happens to the ones who disappear!” Carol looked like she felt a knot of panic and nausea forming in her gut.

“Carol, I believe what you saw. I don’t believe there is any way Friendler or Friendland would do anything permanent to anyone. Those who disappeared probably just got a 15-day timeout or something like that. I’ll have a friend of mine from the computer lab create a new ID for me, just so it comes from a different ISP.

He headed out the door. The rest of the group crowded up in the window, except Charles who insisted on going outside. A couple of the other guys finally joined him. Everyone watched Elam cross the street toward the Mark-Z266. He began taunting her, yelling things like “Hey, Grandma. Why aren’t you at Bingo? What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be baking cookies or something?” He then mimicked her slow, careful step. “Don’t you know Friendland is for young people?” he shouted. 

The bot ignored him and continued down the street. Elam followed it and spotted a sign laying on the ground in front of the coffee shop. “DOWN WITH CORPORATIONS! TAX THE RICH!” He picked it up and waved it at the bot. “What do you think, Grandma? Shouldn’t we get rid of the fat cats getting a free ride?” Suddenly, the bot stopped, turned and looked at Elam for a moment, and “poof”, he was gone. Everyone watching audibly gasped.

The group retreated to the back room and sat in silence. Then Steph told them that she would be right back. She pulled off her glasses and disappeared. Approximately ten minutes later she was back, tears pouring down her cheeks.

Close to hysterics, she told the group, “He’s gone. No ElamJ45 or ElamI19. Got that same message you got, Carol. He’s gone.”

“Do you know where he lives?” asked Charles, getting to his feet. Then he remembered where he was and sat back down.

“Um…,” Steph’s face turned bright pink. “Yeah, I know. I’ve been there a lot.”

“Then let’s go,” said Charles. “Let’s go to his real-world place and see if he is there. Just don’t tell me you both live in Paris or something. Not that I wouldn’t mind going to Paris, but if I understand this, Carol and I are gonna end up back in our apartment in Soho.”

“No, not Paris,” replied Steph. “We live, he lives, in Cambridge. We’re both at MIT.”

“That’s not much of a drive for us. Right, Carol?”

Carol nodded. She had been considering the advisability of several people showing up at Elam’s home.

“Steph?” Carol asked, “Does he live in a dorm room or an apartment?”

“Dorm. His roommate is Stockton. Interesting guy, studying quantum mechanics. He won’t mind visitors. For a science nerd he’s really sociable. Doesn’t like Friendland at all, though. I need to catch a ride with you guys if I can. I was visiting my folks in Manhattan.”

“Sure. No problem. However, I think we should take our gogs. We might need them.” Charles gave her his Friendler ID and told her to send him a DM with her parents’ address. Then he paused. “You know, I’m not so sure there’s a serious problem here, but just to be careful, why don’t you memorize my phone number and call me as soon as we are back in the real world. We can get your address then.”

The others in the group had already returned to their heated discussion, the gist of which seemed to be whether or not the Chtorr were actually mutations of the original deadly virus and not alien invaders. I’ve got to read that book, Carol thought. 

Charles, Steph, and Carol simultaneously reached up and removed their sunglasses (what the gogs looked like in Friendland). Shortly after their return to the Soho flat, Charles’s phone rang. It was Steph, with her parents’ address. 

The four-hour drive to Cambridge was silent and swift. We all commented on the lack of traffic that would normally be expected during the daytime. There was the usual number of commercial trucks, but the number of passenger cars was about half of normal. Carol gave a shiver of apparent fear, which Charles noted she quickly tamped down. Soon, they arrived at MIT and parked in the dormitory parking lot Steph directed them to.

“There’s Stockton,” said Steph, pointing at a tall, blond man in a tan jacket, hurrying toward the dormitory, backpack and books in hand. “Hey, Stock! Hold up,” she yelled as she got out of the car and hurried toward him. Charles and Carol made their way more slowly, both feeling stiff after the long ride.

“Steph, I’ve got to get to our rooms. You can come if you want. You, too,” he said, gesturing to us. “Introductions on the way. Elam didn’t show up for study group, and he’s not answering his phone. I’m worried.”

Carol introduced Charles and herself as Steph ran ahead, bounding up the stairs. She and Charles climbed the stairs more slowly with the young Englishman. Both Charles and Stockton were careful not to let Carol know they knew each other.

“What do you think of Friendland?” Carol asked.

“Don’t go there. AI is young, untested, unpredictable. I prefer the real world, which is exciting enough for me.”

“Elam seems to be there more and more,” Carol said. “I guess that means I’m there a lot, too. There’s something mesmerizing about it.”

“Yeah. It’s designed to suck people in. Addicting. Like I said, I prefer the real world.”

They all heard Steph scream. Others did too. Doors opened up and down the hall as the group reached their correct floor. Some students were running toward Steph’s screams. If the doors did not open, other students stopped, knocked, then opened those doors. They started screaming also.

Steph was on her knees, holding Elam and screaming. His gogs were still on, though knocked awry by the way his head fell to the desk. Blood had been streaming out of his eyes and mouth. His body was slightly rigid from the early stages of rigor. Stockton got Steph to the couch, where she sat staring at the lifeless body of Elam. Carol stayed with her while Stock and Charles left, going to check out the other rooms. They returned to report that other students had been found in the same condition as Elam. Stock called 911, acknowledged that he was one of many who had called, and agreed to wait for the police to arrive.

“We need to leave the room,” Stock said, gently helping Steph to her feet. “The police want us all out of the rooms. (Indicating to Charles) Stay with her here in the hall. I’ll tell the others.”

As soon as Stock, Charles, and Carol had Steph and the other students calmed down and sitting in the hall waiting for the police, Carol pulled Stock aside.

“We have to go back to Friendland. Right. Now!”

“Why?” he asked. “Look around you. It’s obviously dangerous.”

“That’s *precisely* why we have to go. I have friends there, good people, who don’t even know they are in danger. Stock, I need you to come with me. Charles is a good man, but he is too old, and his heart is bad. I may be old too, but I can still run. I want my friends back in the real world before one of those damn bots finds them.”

Stock stood quiet for a moment. Then said, “I need a pair of gogs. I’ll go with you.”

“Use mine,” said Charles, holding out his large pair. He explained that a friend had been working on the gogs in his hand in secret, whenever he could find time alone. The gogs were untested but had been designed to make the wearer invisible to bots. “Actually, they have been tested. I wore them before we came here, and the bots didn’t appear to see me.”

Carol stared at them both for a moment, then said her gogs were in the car. She told Stock where the bookshop was while they put on their respective gogs. Carol materialized in the bookshop immediately; most of the gang was still there. Stock came in a few minutes after she arrived.

“These special gogs appear to work,” he said. “I saw a Mark-Z300 Censor Bot patrolling the streets. Those aren’t supposed to be released yet. Congress is still holding hearings on them and the Mark-Z266 Purity Bots, because of the plethora of complaints that have been made. However, it didn’t seem to see me even though I walked right past it. The gogs appeared to be working fine, but I’m not going to count on them being functional for long.”

Carol introduced Stockton to the group. They were all staring at him, fear and consternation on their faces. She told them what had happened, keeping her recital brief.

“You have to go back now,” she said. “Don’t wait. Just take those damn things off, don’t come back. You can reconstruct this group on Friendler. I know it won’t be the same, but it isn’t safe. Go! Now!”

One by one, they disappeared, until Stock and Carol were the only ones left. Plus, the cats. Every damn cat whose picture had ever been put on Friendler, and that’s a lot of cats, seemed to find Carol here in Friendland. She didn’t know why. Perhaps she smelled like catnip. In any event, there were cats all over the bookstore, out on the street, in shop windows, prowling the parks, all because they found Carol wherever she went. 

“I‘ve become a crazy old cat lady,” she thought, and giggled a bit at the idea. She was fond of the cats.

“Carol,” said Stock gently, “I’m worried for you. Before you go outside you need to know, I didn’t see many people out there on my way here. I saw a few hiding in some of the shops and houses. We should try to warn as many of them as we can.”

“I’m not worried,” she said. “I’ve never said anything in Friendland except hi, hello, how are you. This here is the most conversation I’ve ever engaged in while visiting Friendland. They don’t seem to care about me. Or, for that matter, some of the other people wandering around, checking out shops, and generally being unremarkable.”

“Okay,” said Stock. “Let’s go, while we still can.”

The streets of Friendland, normally bustling with activity, were unnaturally quiet. A few people wandered down the alleys and thoroughfares. Here and there a small group of people, usually women, were peering into the stores that were stocked with the latest fashions. Carol saw six Mark-Z266 Purity Bots, plus more Mark-Z300 Censor Bots than she could count. They were looking at books people were reading, checking out newspapers, listening to conversations. More and more people vanished before their eyes, while more bots arrived. Stock and Carol hurried around corners and slipped into stores, whispering into ears that they should take off the gogs, NOW! Most people complied, but several refused loudly. They hurried away from those people as fast as they could. 

Suddenly, Carol had enough. She sat down on a park bench. Stock sat next to her.

“You need to go,” she said. “They are still ignoring me, but they are going to find you. I know it to the depth of my being.”

“You’re right,” he said. “But you should go too. You’re not safe.”

“I have one last task. I need to feed the cats. I won’t let them starve. There’s a pet food store right down there,” Carol said, pointing to a shop on the other side of the park. “They always have food waiting for me to pick up. I’ll be right along after I finish.”

“We’ll be waiting for you. Don’t worry, Carol. My father has friends in high places. He promised that they would get this situation fixed.”

She smiled weakly at him. His youthful exuberance and surety that all would be well was uplifting; however, she knew he was wrong. The makers of Friendler and Friendland were powerful people with even more powerful friends, friends who wanted to control the world. It would take more than persuasion, or even hearings. It would require an all-out revolt against Friendler and Friendland. Carol watched him disappear.

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It’s been two weeks since Stock went back to the meat world. I fed the cats that day. I continue to feed them, and myself, every day. On the day after he left, I grew homesick for Charles and reached for the sunglasses. I found myself in a white room, a bright light shining in my eyes. There were tubes everywhere: down my throat, up my crotch, in my arms. I was holding sunglasses in my hand, instead of my gogs. I tried to scream, but the tube down my throat prevented it. I could see Charles, talking to a group of white-coated men standing outside the room I was in. No one was looking at me. I put the sunglasses back on. It was a relief to be back in Friendland. I’m pretty certain I’m still alive over there in meat land. But for how long? There’s enough food in here for me and the cats to keep us going a long time.

 I have lost track of how long I have been here. What seems like a week ago, all the bots just stopped. One moment they were walking about, searching under bushes, in stores, even up in the trees. I don’t know why they ignored me. Then they just stopped, fell over, and haven’t moved since. 

Yesterday I noticed that the buildings are starting to become transparent, and the trees and bushes are slowly vanishing. The cats and I are still solidly here, but everything else is fading away. I hope they hurry up and get me out. 

I have to feed the cats. Yesterday I noticed that the buildings are starting to become transparent. Do they know I’m still in here?

I have to feed the cats. Yesterday I noticed that the buildings are starting to become transparent. Do they know…

I have to feed the cats. Yesterday I noticed that the buildings…

I have to feed the cats. Yesterday…

Copyright Shoshana Edwards 2023