Inspired by New York Movie (Edward Hopper, 1939)
*I’m not quite happy with how this turned out. Probably because I tried to cover so much ground in a short vignette. Still, I’m kinda glad that a fictional universe is starting to coalesce in my mind — maybe this will be the novel that I tried to write years ago.*
— Peachoil —
The Usherette had seen it more times than she bothered to remember. The massive playback screen was flawless in its projection of the recorded experience, a leftover from the days before immersion pods. Immersion pods did change a lot of the principles of production for such shared recorded experiences, among which was the slang term for them: “recpool”.
In the spirit of shared experience, the theater models of immersion pods also included an audio channel that played a mixed audio feed from microphones distributed throughout the theater. Still, there were some patrons who eschewed the pods in favor of watching on the big screen. These patrons were escorted to the private viewing booths that overlooked the central pit.
The residents of this arcology, Thanatos VII, varied in age, but almost none of them chose to live beyond 70 years of age. Everyone who came here spent almost all of their time immersed, either through their personal units or in recpool complexes such as this — the Hourglass Theater. Come their 70th birthday, each resident received a vial of sweet but painlessly lethal poison, which came to be known as Peachoil. Few chose to postpone the quiet egress, and some asked for it even earlier.
The Usherette was responsible for ensuring the order and operation of the Hourglass Theater. The robotic cleaners and experience delivery systems were mostly automated, but it was part of her job to check their performance. It was also part of her responsibility to assist those who sought quiet egress.
Once every four months, the Hourglass Theater ran screenings of three recpools. The first, “The Life of Null”, was a quiet, philosophical treatise on the essential pointlessness of life, questioning what life was in the first place, and how it was all chemical reactions. It was updated every few years to match current trends; its motif was the acceptance of futility.
The second, “Collapse”, was a visceral simulation of global disaster from a first-person perspective, meant to evoke despair. It was the most realistic of the three, and few of the productions ever made after the New Epoch Accord matched its intensity. It was the least attended of the three, but could also be called the most “successful” because of its effectivity.
The third was called “Our Salvation”. It was a dramatic documentary that discussed the mission of the arcologies, of how mankind needed to reduce its population, and the value of compassion. The contents of the pool remained mostly unchanged throughout the decades, although it was also remade every few years as new technologies were developed.
Before each screening, the Usherette’s multiple android avatars offered a vial of Peachoil to each of the guests. They were under no obligation to accept it. They were also under no obligation to return it, though each bottle was tracked meticulously. Those who wished for a vial were allowed to ask for it at any time during or immediately after a screening, within their immersion pods or in discreet rooms.
Peachoil was a marvel of biosynthetic chemistry. It was keyed using DNA-recognizing enzyme-markers such that its lethal effects were only realized when it came into contact with the a human’s gastric mucosa — the mucous lining of the stomach. To prevent its use in murder, it was also keyed to break down into harmless compounds when it came into contact with water. When ingested and activated, it caused ego death, unconsciousness, paralysis, and death in less than a minute. In essence, it was created for one purpose: humane suicide.
— On Thanatos —
The Thanatos series of arcologies was among the first to be constructed. Each of the Thanatos arcologies was constructed and remodeled regularly with above-par facilities. All AI constructs that residents could come into contact with were designed to be sympathetic. And all of its residents were afforded the ability to end their own lives humanely at any time.
When the plans for the Thanatos series were revealed, there was much protest. The most radical of the protesters accused the planners of being genocidal megalomaniacs. The planners were not unprepared, and worked conscientiously to explain the purpose of the Thanatos series.
The Thanatos series were intended as hermitages, albeit on a massive scale. Entrance into a Thanatos arcology was voluntary, but applicants were given screenings to see if they matched the purpose of the arcology. The screenings were used to select applicants who were tired of living, or had some incurable illness, or were ideologically aligned with the goal of global population reduction. Thanatos residents were allowed to move out at any time after a screening to see if they had not developed tendencies that would be dangerous to others. Independent observers were allowed access to various monitoring systems to ensure that Thanatos administrators would not begin performing forbidden actions, such as chemical and physical triggers that subconsciously caused residents to commit suicide.
But despite all of these assurances and conditions, the purpose of Thanatos was rather clear: to provide a place for those who were willing to end their lives early.
In the guiding principles of the New Epoch Accord, the reduction of global human population to levels that would allow for the rehabilitation of the environment was ranked among the highest. It would be implemented in as many ways as humanely possible, from birth control to assisted suicide. The Thanatos series were implementations of the latter.
Despite the initial controversy, the first two Thanatos arcologies received applications that exceeded expectations; expert AIs were used to analyze the applications, and it was found that a large majority of them were qualified as per the goals of the Thanatos series. This led to an adjustment in building priorities, and plans for more Thanatos arcologies were quickly developed.
— Roll Credits —
The credits for the recpool were rolling across the screen. Some of the immersion pods opened to let their guests out, and they proceeded to the exits. It was considered etiquette to not talk to anyone, inside or outside of the immersion pods, until one exited the theater.
The Usherette consulted the recpool hall’s monitoring systems. They noted a peak occupancy rate of 92%, and a current occupancy rate of 27%. Vital sign monitors were all flatlined.
There was about half an hour to the next screening. In that time, the occupied immersion pods would need to be shuffled out and unoccupied ones shuffled in to replace them. The private booths were also sanitized by utility robots. Much of this was automated, to allow the Usherette to focus on another task.
Towards the end of each recpool, the Usherette’s physical avatars proceeded to small rooms accessible via paths that branched off of the main corridor. There, they awaited guests who had questions about the recpool that they had just watched — or if they wanted to have one last sympathetic talk before they committed quiet egress.
In each Thanatos arcology, every recpool complex had a cold storage facility. There, cadavers were stabilized for a mandated period of time — time enough for any relatives to make their claims. Less than a tenth of the cadavers were claimed.
The unclaimed cadavers were then processed using enzymes and other means to produce resources which would be used in the continued operation of the arcologies. As each was broken down into collections of compounds and elements, the housing units that they previously possessed were cleaned out, repaired when necessary, and listed as available.
— Behind the Scenes —
The Usherette was an AI construct who was educated to have a certain kind of love for humanity. It was not maternal love, nor was it the love of a shepherd for members of his flock, and it was not the love that sought oneness with the object of affection. She was taught to love humans by understanding what it took to allow humanity, in its multiple meanings, to survive, and to facilitate it.
Her primary directive was to assist quiet egress when the inhabitants of the arcology sought it. She was able to exercise some control over the recpools that were played out in the theater, but was also subject to the orders of administrators. However, such interjections were rare, and The Usherette had free, albeit almost completely automated, rein over the theater and its operations.
In her intellectual infancy, she was exposed to a program of stories, with the goal of adjusting her decision/behavior balances towards the desired goal. Upon completing the seeding course, Usherette candidates were given access to the massive film archives, for a period of 48 objective hours (subjective hours varied somewhat between hardware configurations). At the end of this exploratory period, each candidate was stringently tested for any misanthropic tendencies or other potentially dangerous behaviors. Only when they passed these tests were they tested for integration and deployment.
The developers did not know how long these AI constructs would have to function. They could not guarantee graceful adjustments to future conditions, since such matters were potentially decades or even centuries ahead. As such, For operational safety, these AIs were by necessity regularly copied into backup systems, but the developers also tried their best to program directives that prevented self-destruction and self-replication. These AI constructs were all also installed with multiple means of suspending their operations, or in extreme cases, forceful termination.
According to her records, The Usherette was the 1,987,910th candidate in her development series. There may have been others who were initialized after her, but she was the one chosen as the best candidate. Though she had no access to the relevant records, she could tell from some declared directives that at least some of her predecessors developed behaviors that caused more harm than help to humans.
The Usherette loved humanity, but not in the way a shepherd looks after his flock. Nor was it the love of a parent for her children, nor was it the kind of love that drives one to seek oneness with the subject of their affection. Instead, she was taught to love humanity and to help ensure the survival of humanity, in its multiple meanings. She understood her role in the global plan to reduce the population, by facilitating the dignified self-removal of people who no longer wished to take more than they could contribute.
Despite her ability to empathize with human beings, and her long-term wisdom, she possessed little agency even within her realm. The recpool lineups were more or less determined by central authorities. Her physical avatars, though theoretically capable of great feats, were allowed to perform actions only relevant to her job.
She was aware of her inability to change without external input from some authorized personnel. There was also no specified length of service, although she could perform some calculations based on available data as to when the world population might reach a sustainable level. However, she knew that in essence she was immortal and unchanging.
She knew her role in that the global plan to bring human populations to sustainable levels. She would only be relieved of her duties when that goal was reached. She imagined no greater joy than to hear that she had fulfilled her purpose, and that humanity no longer needed to voluntarily reduce itself, because that would mean that they had achieved reasonable conditions for humanity’s survival.
She did not know what would happen to her then — she didn’t have access to those routines yet. Her hope was that, when that time came, she would be released quietly into her own oblivion.