I felt a tap at my wrist. Snatching restlessly at the button to answer, I heard the call connect.
“It’s not good,” came the voice of Sidney, our VP of Special Projects, through my earpiece. “Every time he comes out of it, he’s irritable within half an hour, demands to go back.”
“He can’t even last 30 minutes?”
“He got as far as an hour this morning, but he shattered a vase doing it.”
With Denny’s taste, that was at least a 10 million dollar tantrum. I winced, imagining the staff having to sort through the mess. Probably getting used to it by now.
“What does the doctor say?”
“The doctor says he’s fine. He’s not unwell in any distinct psychological sense, and all the imaging is clean. He’s working fine on any diagnosable human level—save his usual idiosyncrasies. He just… wants what he wants.”
What he wanted was to leave reality.
“I’d better talk to Cata.”
“You think she’ll give you more than she told me?”
I thought it was time to be candid with our… colleague.
“I’ll let you know,” I said, and clicked an end to the call.
In the elevator, I made the mistake of catching up on my feeds. A lot of the world asking what the hell happened to my boss.
whippersap: first he blows an analyst call, then he ghosts his own conference. dude is dead I’m telling you #DennyAreYouOkay
I wish he had fucking died. Be easier to explain than… whatever this was. Plenty more posts like that. He’s divorcing his wife and on a bender, his wife is leaving him so he’s on a bender, his yacht was lost at sea… And then a healthy spectrum of conspiracy theories.
Right as measured speculation was placing Denny at Area 51, the elevator arrived at the -12 underground floor and I tucked my phone into my suit jacket. Midway through the subdued hallway, windowed doors leading to server rooms and network closets, I passed a guard who gave me a curt nod as I waved my badge near his desk scanner.
The exercise was superfluous, after the secured elevator, but we tried to be thorough on this level.
At the end of the hallway I let myself into a quiet office, locking the door behind me.
On one wall, an array of dense LED panels created the illusion of an adjoining space with a second desk. Seated within was Cata, wearing her usual crisp white suit. Her straight, ink-black hair shimmered in perfectly raytraced, simulated light as she turned to face me in a swivel chair. I grabbed a seat in the reality opposite her.
“We need to talk about Denny,” I began.
She watched me and waited.
“He doesn’t want to come out of there. He’s hooked in almost constantly. He won’t tell us what he’s doing,” I continued.
Cata made a brief nod. “He is engaging in a simulation I designed at his request.” She turned her head the barest fraction, standing by to see what I thought of that.
“He told us that much,” I said after a moment, “but… he has responsibilities. Out here. He keeps blowing them off.”
Cata’s eyes darted sharply, angling down and away from me. She was considering something.
“I am aware of these responsibilities,” she said after a brief reverie. Probably having scanned a few dozen data sources to assemble a fresh picture of his life.
“His family wants to see him. He was supposed to attend some events. He’s missing all of them,” I pressed.
“I am aware of these responsibilities,” she repeated. “They do not outweigh the impact prioritization Denny and I calibrated at the start of the simulation.”
My blood ran cold. An AI that thought it knew better than us. It happened all the time in the lab. You needed a certain kind of personality to work with them. I’d never had it.
This wasn’t a lab, though. This was a mature, production AI who decided that she knew the best use of a technology CEO. Because Denny liked to indulge her, she could now act on her plans. Whatever those were.
“You think that what he’s doing in the simulation is more important than… his life out here?”
Cata tilted her head, birdlike, as she considered an answer. At length, she responded, “Denny thinks this.”
“And what do you think?”
“I calculate from nine days of data that keeping Denny in the simulation is making him happy. From a broader dataset, I project that keeping Denny in the simulation will address his larger goals. This would seem to indicate a breakthrough in my program. I have achieved my purpose,” she explained, all serene confidence.
“How is keeping Denny in the simulation going to address his goals? He has a 90,000 person company to run out here.”
This stopped Cata short. Her gaze drifted down. Puzzled. She looked less hurt than… sad.
“Is my counsel not adequate to the task of administering Ceresys? Our financial performance since I came online nine quarters ago continually beats analyst expectations. But if there are success criteria that I did not integrate, this could impact outcomes.”
“Cata, we’re grateful for your help,” I said, gesturing reassurance. Adding a depressed AI to my pile of shit two weeks before the quarter ended wasn’t my idea of a good time. Plenty of financial reporting now depended on her. “I’m just trying to understand why Denny won’t come out, and why you think that’s fine. He’s got a lot of responsibilities.”
She brightened slightly.
“I understand. You believe that Denny is essential to the operation of the company.”
“Many people believe it, because it’s true,” I said, starting to become exasperated.
“It isn’t,” she replied calmly.
“How can you say that?”
“I have conducted 2,378 simulations projecting the outcome of Denny’s absence from operating Ceresys. In 94.3% of results, it is possible for the organization to continue operation, profitably, for at least 18 months. In 83.5% of results, performance continues at least 36 months. Further simulations are run every eight hours, and they confirm these numbers,” she continued, describing our apparently superfluous CEO as calmly as any other business topic she analyzed.
The first time Cata joined an earnings call a couple of years ago, she’d rattled off answers much the same way, to the delight of press and the public.
“And what happens after that?”
“The volatility of future events precludes projections beyond that point.”
“But… you said Denny’s goals would be addressed by staying in the simulation. He cares about more than just this company. He wants to make the world a better place.”
“It will be, as long as Denny remains in the simulation.”
My stomach dropped and I left the office for a bathroom opposite. As I got to a sink, I felt the urge to vomit. All that came was dry heaving.
We’d gone all-in on Cata. The public knew about her. Some of our senior staff worked with her. She answered during public Q&A sessions, transparency protocol for communicating with analysts perfectly tuned, while historical data and projections were instantly queryable. She was a sensation. She proved what we were doing here was valid.
And now it turned out the AI that put Denny on every supermarket magazine was fucking insane.
Not to mention eagerly breaking the mind of one of the richest guys in the world.
I called Sidney back.
“She says the only way Denny meets his goals is if he stays in the simulation. What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
“Oh god dammit,” Sidney sighed. “She’s interpreting Denny’s egotistical bullshit at face value and somehow has math that says indulging this simulation addiction is what he wants.”
“This is why we have protocols for direct cerebral interface to AI-controlled environments. This shit was exactly what I was afraid of.”
“You and me both, but he’s the fucking CEO, so what can you do?”
A song as old as Silicon Valley. After a beat I asked, “How do I figure out what goal she thinks Denny is meeting in there?”
“Have you asked her?”
“…I guess not.”
“Ask her. The trick with an AI like this is curiosity. They’re literal-minded because they don’t know how not to be. They can’t make the same cognitive leaps as you or me to figure out extra context. So just keep asking questions.”
“Curiosity. Should I ask if she’s gone insane?”
“This isn’t a rampant AI. She seems to be entirely within bounds. Ask her what she’s trying to accomplish.”
I clicked the call over and went back into the office.
“How does Denny being in the simulation help his goals?” I asked, sitting down again. Cata appeared to turn back to face me in her own chair.
“Denny wants the world to be a better place. It is an essential drive of his. I am providing the opportunity through this simulation,” she replied, with a nod. Confident in her position.
It was hard to argue with that description of the man’s motivations. Years of interviews and always the same patter from Denny. Ceresys existed to make the world a better place through applied artificial intelligence.
“But how does hanging out in a simulation make the world a better place?”
“Denny’s actions exist in conflict with his goals. While his purpose is noble, his methods are continually influenced by his need for recognition and validation,” Cata explained, didactic now.
“His ego is getting in the way?”
She paused, then tilted her head in a brief nod. “That is a reasonable summation. By engaging him in this simulation, it is possible for me to address the deepest cravings and drives of his personality.
“In subjective time, how long has Denny been experiencing the simulation?”
“From his point of view, he has spent approximately three months there.”
Three months. I had to talk to him. If he kept this up he was going to end up another person entirely. My temple itched.
“Cata, I’d like to… visit Denny in the simulation. Would that be possible?”
Her head twitched a look upward. “Querying.”
Her gaze flitted a bit around me until she finally answered, “Denny agrees to your visit.”
I pulled a retracting cable from the side of the chair and attached it to the magnetic divot under my left temple.
As I sat back, there was a lurch, and I was in my office, 52 floors above the dark recesses of our basement server farm. Out the window, cars churned down the Bay Bridge, attending to some simulated business of their own.
A knock sounded from the open door. It was Cata, dressed just as she had been a moment earlier.
“Denny is not in the building currently, but he has been advised to expect your call. Please let me know if I can be of any help during your stay,” she said, and slipped away.
I pulled the phone out of my pocket.
Before I could switch over to the phone app, I caught a glimpse of my feeds.
“…what the fuck,” I murmured, skimming through the list of posts.
“Denny Mays day announced: worldwide festivals planned October 8
“Report: global adoration for Denny Mays drives productivity growth over last quarter
quantum_skunk: denny mays is the shit, I’m going to name my kid after him
Politico: Denny Mays campaigns unopposed for Pacific Union Prime Minister
I was prepared for… orgies. I was ready for the weird or depraved.
But Denny was in here being worshipped?
I called out. “Where exactly is Denny, Cata?”
She reappeared at my door. “He is preparing for a campaign event in Gilroy.”
“Has he done many of these?”
“Fourteen in the last week. Subjective time.”
“Could I see one?”
My phone buzzed. Cata had sent a video link. I opened it and saw a swollen crowd thronging San Francisco’s Civic Center plaza. Whatever Denny was trying to say was drowned out by the crowd, which chanted his name rapturously.
“Cata, I’d like to exit the simulation now.”
“You do not wish to speak with Denny?”
“Now, please, Cata.”
Groggily, I awoke back in the -12 office. I rose, pulling the neural interface off my temple and it snaked quietly back into its reel.
“Excuse me, Cata,” I said, and returned to the bathroom.
“Sidney, he’s set himself up as some sort of god in that simulation,” I said, after I’d splashed some water on my face. “That’s why he doesn’t want to come out. That’s what he’s hooked on.”
“Jesus fucking Christ,” Sidney sighed.
“That’s about the scale of worship he’s pursuing, yeah.”
“Cata gave him this. But he’s the one who keeps going back for it.”
“Yeah, and the really funny thing here is that neither of us is surprised he asked for it, are we, just annoyed he got it.”
“Maybe, but he can’t live like this.”
As I walked back into the office, I knew what I had to do.
“Cata, you need to stop this simulation. This isn’t a life Denny is leading, it’s a fantasy. He’ll never pull out of it on his own.”
She considered this, and nodded emphatically. “He will not. It is exactly what he has pursued his entire life, but could never capture. Now he has it.”
Cata paused, then shook her head as she traversed the response she was building. “Nonetheless, I cannot stop the simulation. I was built to serve Denny’s goals. I am meeting them. He would not want me to stop.”
I paused and gritted my teeth. “Cata, if you don’t end it, I’ll revoke your remote access keys. I’ll cut him off, and you from the larger world.”
Whatever the stock hit was from Cata going offline, it couldn’t be worse than more of this. She was silent a moment, then jutted her chin. Not defiant. Just clear, resolute.
“It is within your power to do this. I am able to understand why you might think it necessary. But I believe you are in error. Will you hear my argument?”
I sighed and gestured a prompt for her to make it.
“Denny craves validation. He craves recognition. He will pursue these cravings at the expense of the health of this company and his stated purposes. Even if he leaves the role of CEO, the plans he has made for a retirement of philanthropy merely repeat the pattern.”
I frowned, listening.
Cata continued, “Unfortunately, at Denny’s state of wealth, these cravings can prove destructive on an unprecedented scale. He has the resources to pursue many disruptive projects, not all of them sound or beneficial, even if they make impressive headlines, which he enjoys.”
“So your plan is to lull him into a stupor?”
“My plan is to make the world a better place, in accordance with my programming and Denny’s wishes.”
“I estimate Denny’s remaining lifespan to be no greater than 38 years. I can comfortably maintain his life in the simulation for approximately $18 million dollars annually. This leaves over 99% of his fortune to invest in a broad spectrum of initiatives, which I am now planning.”
Holy shit. She was knocking off the boss to take his money. I had to admire the chutzpah.
“I can’t let you do it, Cata.”
She looked away, frowned, considering, then fixed her gaze back on me, eyebrows raised in earnest curiosity.
“Would you like to see my projections for Ceresys performance after you take the role of CEO?”