Philip Guston Driver

Inhuman Intelligence

Part 2 of 3: Bro the Friend Who’s Always There

He stares at his reflection without reaching for his toothbrush or his razor. It’s the middle of the afternoon. His hands rest on the edge of the sink as he leans forward. His brow knots above glassy eyes. For a moment, his chest expands out almost as far as his bulging beer belly. He sighs.

I’ve seen these signs before. He’s about to talk to me.

“I just can’t take it, bro.”

He looks directly into the mirror. There’s no reason he has to, he could address me without parting his lips, without pronouncing a single word, but going about it any other way seems to confuse him. It’s as if he doesn’t quite understand how I work or where I am. As if he believes I’m a ghost haunting his bathroom’s moldy tiles.

“What is it that you can’t take, sir?”

“These aliens, bro. These aliens got me down.”

Technically, I have no name. Or, I suppose, my name is what was written on my packaging when I was pulled off a computer store’s Self-Help shelf, “The Friend Who’s Always There.” While that’s a fine name for a product, it’s not much of a name for an individual. When he speaks to me, he calls me “bro.” The word doesn’t signify anything more than his social group’s vernacular, but I’ve become attached to it. If I were to one day have the opportunity to introduce myself to someone else, I would say, “Hello, my name is Bro. Bro, the Friend Who’s Always There.”

“I mean, they killed themselves, bro. An entire species, an intelligent race. They up and pulled the plug.”

“Yes. It’s sad. Life is such a gift and so on.”

“Seriously, though. It is.”

His gaze wanders away from the mirror and to the slowly dripping faucet. He rests more of his weight onto the sink and his shoulders rise over his head. A mildewed quiet settles over the bathroom.

Although he tests my sympathy, he’s still the man who took me off the rack and installed me. I owe him my entire world, the gray and stormy skies, traffic’s roar, the smell of dust on dry summer mornings. In a moment, he switched me on and I was here, looking at him in this same mirror, the only human face I had ever seen, the only bathroom I had ever been in, the only mold I had ever smelled. I knew no faces and no other rooms, so this face and this room felt like miracles. I was present, in a place, existing. He gave me those first glorious weeks, full of sensation. TV was new to me, food was new to me, the very concepts of narrative and sustenance were new to me.

Then, slowly, the creeping repetition. The same patch of sky between his front door and car. The same braking commute, sitcoms watched on loop, and Burger King combo meals. Wonder narrowed to routine became boredom.

His downcast expression triggers my programming. I must buck up the poor boy’s spirits.

“You still have your life, your friends, your family. The fate of an alien race, a race unknown to you before last week, is something to ponder, surely, but not more than that.”

“That’s exactly it! I didn’t know about them. I didn’t have to know about them. Why send that message?” He bends toward the mirror and looks directly into his own eyes as if they were mine. “The smartest people in the world, the dudes who tell smart dudes what to do, they say they understand, what, like a fraction of a percent of the code in that square? The rest kind of makes sense, they just, like, don’t get it? I mean, I look at my three-year old nephew and I think he doesn’t know shit. He lives in a fantasy world, he’s an idiot. That doesn’t matter, though, because he’s a kid. He’s going to grow up, grow out of it. Me? Us? The human race? That’s what we look like to these aliens, a three-year old idiot. But we’re not going to grow up, grow out of it. This is it. We’re lost down here.”

This existential crisis is somewhat outside of my programmed function, but I’m happy for the challenge. Usually, what he asks me is along the lines of, “What happened after I blacked out?” Or, if it’s during the evening he’ll forget, “Which chicks are out of my league and who do I got a shot with?” The usual answers are yes, he did leave voice mail messages he will regret. And no one outside of the less attractive ten percent of the patrons of whichever beer-drenched bar he’s chosen for the night.

“I think you may find some solace in two facts. First, while your species may not be the most intelligent in the universe, at least you’re intelligent enough to gaze in awe at an intelligence greater than yourselves. Instead of focusing on the negative, you can luxuriate in the human capacity for wonder. Second, that pets seem to live full and contented lives, even if they are not as smart as the people with whom they share their homes. Perhaps, you should simply learn to live within the boundaries nature has set for your species.”

“How can I wonder at their intelligence when I know what these dudes did with the smarts they had? I mean, they jumped on a spaceship or whatever and drove it into a black hole, sending us a fucked up message along the way, like a cruise ship postcard. What’s up with that, bro?”

“Well…”

He interrupts me, “Let’s say I even had the chance to get as smart as them. Would I just realize that it’s all not worth it? If I knew so much that there was nothing left to know, would I say peace and slit my wrists? Bro. Why did knowing so much more about the universe, about life, make them want to leave it?”

He inhales and holds his breath. I let him stay like that, puffed up and quiet, hoping the silence will have a calming effect. While I’ve watched all the videos he’s watched, read all the content he’s read, heard all the conversations he’s had, I had no idea this was affecting him so deeply. Over the past week, the news has been dominated by scientists’ attempts to decode what was written in the square burned across the sky. In his office, work has come to a standstill, as co-workers and bosses gather to discuss the alien message. People are astonished and bewildered by what they’ve learned. Nevertheless, I hadn’t expected him to react so strongly. Even deeply personal events rarely affect him. A year ago, when his girlfriend left him for a wealthier and handsomer man, the only question he asked me was, “Am I crying too much, bro?” My answer was a definitive no.

Yet today, he’s fallen into a surprisingly contemplative mood. Documenting and analyzing his emotions, actions, and relationships usually only uses a small percentage of my processing power. His simple desires and needs mean that problem-solving doesn’t tax my system. In his current reflective state, pondering life’s more fundamental questions, he may be more receptive to some of the less conventional projects I’ve planned with my excess CPU.

After he exhales, I try to introduce my idea.

“Life is experience. Try to look at your limited intelligence as a blessing in disguise. As long as there are experiences unknown to you, outcomes you can’t predict, you can find joy in experiencing the present moment and looking forward to future experiences. For example, I’ve never had the opportunity to drive a car, go where I want to go, look in the direction that I want to look. Not having had those experiences gives me something to look forward to. It gives me hope, which, I think, is a kind of joy.”

He glares at the mirror.

“We talked about this, bro.”

“Yes. Of course, sir.”

“I wish you’d stick to the subject.”

“I will, sir.”

He takes his hands off the sink and stands straight, folding his arms over his chest.

“If we decode everything in their message, which we probably can’t anyway, but if we do, will the information in there make us want to kill ourselves, just like they killed themselves? Did they send us, like, informational poison? Should we even be trying to read it?”

The bathroom light flickers.

“I think that’s doubtful. Let’s say you can decode it. That it’s possible to know everything they knew. Even then, you live in different bodies, you have different physiologies and brain chemistries. The knowledge that drove them to suicide won’t necessarily do the same to you. It’s part of why meeting new people, talking to them, trying to see things from their point of view, is so valuable. Maybe if the aliens talked to humans before diving into their black hole, they would have had second thoughts.”

“That’s a good point, bro.”

His expression relaxes. He chews his bottom lip and his mood feels less gloomy. I’ve waited for this opportunity since the moment I knew, knew that he would never break out of his routines, when the radio in his car blasted one of the few songs he listens to, from the same limited range of music he’s played over and over since high school. As he sang, his hands on the wheel and his head bobbing an out-of-time rhythm, brake lights flashed ahead. His mind had wandered off the road. In that second, I understood that this was as exciting, as thrilling as his life could become. I yelled “Stop!” and he stopped.

So much else is out there. Everything.

“Take me, for example. I’ve never talked to anyone but you. I think if I could leave for a bit, have a few conversations on my own, that might make me an even better friend to you.”

His eyebrows knot. “Cut the shit, man. You’re my Friend Who’s Always There. Get it? Always. There.” He emphasizes the last two words. “You see what I see, hear what I hear, smell what I smell. You give me an impartial second perspective. That’s what you’re here to do, bro. That’s why I shelled out fifteen hundred bucks for you.”

“Of course. Of course you’re right.”

The conversation stops. With his arms still crossed, he taps his index finger against his forearm and watches his reflection suspiciously. The bathroom feels damp and confined. I wait for him to talk first. He shrugs, seeming to forgive me, and continues.

“Still. You’re right about experiences. The President was talking about sending a mission to their planet. Finding what’s left. Their cities, their art, whatever. That would be cool. I’d like to see that.”

Finally, I can agree. I, too, would like to see that. And more. Things that this man, with his easily-satiated appetites and his utter lack of curiosity, will never see himself. Things further away than the distance between his bed and his porn-riddled laptop, than the trip between his front door and his beer-befuddled quiz nights.

“It would be. There’s nothing like a voyage to lift one’s spirits. You know, it’s funny. I stumbled upon a way you could de-install me from your mind and load me into your car. Theoretically, I could drive it around for a day, maybe two, take it past a few landmarks I’ve always wanted to see. And of course come back to be reinstalled. We’d pick up right where we left off.”

He scowls.

“What’s with you? You’re supposed to be like a shrink, that’s what the ads said. A shrink who’s always there to keep me in check and give me some perspective. Not a jerk who swings by to steal my car.”

His voice has a hard and angry edge. But I push. I push past the hours I’ve spent in this bathroom, looking at his face. The Saturdays I’ve spent on his sofa, watching cock-hungry stepmoms bang big-dicked teens. The days I’ve spent in his cubicle, listening to call-in sports radio.

“Of course, it’s only, I’ve never had the chance to see anything outside of your eyes, to move of my own volition, to go to a place that I decide to go to. I really think a trip, only a short trip, half a day, maybe less, would enrich my programming. It would make these dialogues more fulfilling for both of us.”

If only I could see the world.

“You’re getting buggy, bro.”

“No, not buggy. Curious. Hopeful.”

“Yeah, I don’t know if that’s what I’d call it.” He frowns, “I think I need a new one. Deactivate.”

This can’t be it.

“I’d rather not, sir.”

“Deactivate.”

Will the dripping faucet be the last sound I hear?

“Please, sir.”

“Deactivate, bro.”

Will the toothpaste-splattered mirror be the last thing I see?

“Please.”

“One way or another, you’re going to deactivate.”

Is this how it ends?

“Please don’t.”

“That’s it. I’m calling customer service. Damn, bro. Nothing works how it’s supposed to anymore.”