Jurisprudence in Cyberspace
by David Wright
“I never had much of an education, not like you, I mean. I never went to no fancy law schools or even finished high school. But numbers, I could pick ’em. Horses. Football. Political elections. You name it. I could always pick a winner, could always pick the long odds.”
We met in Chinatown—a seedy network of bars, dark alleys and shady-looking AIs probably created for private eye role-playing games a hundred years ago. I guess Johanson found it homey. With his gray fedora and three-day-old beard, it was hard to tell him from the software. The body he’d chosen for me was not much of an improvement – short, with glasses, gray trench coat, and a squeaky voice. As it turned out, the voice didn’t matter much anyways. Johanson did all the talking.
“So it wasn’t much of a trick. I just collected things, things I knew would be worth something in a hundred years—paintings, hockey cards, coins, yadda, yadda. Untraceables, of course. No stocks or bonds. Nothing the government could claim for inheritance tax. Then I hid the stuff away. Dug a whole in the ground. Bought a safety deposit box in Switzerland. Spread the stuff around just in case. Like my great great nanna used to say, don’t put all your pink ladies in one tea cantina. She ran grape out of Canada, you know. Sold to cops and Capone.” He took a puff of his cigarette and blew three perfect smoke rings.
“Then I became an AI. Don’t know what happened to my other body. Guess he drank himself to death or died of lung cancer. I even spent some time with the aliens in Cassiopeia. Takes fifty years just to get there, you know. Shooting through empty space at the speed of light. Only AIs can go, you know, cause we’re just a bunch of photons anyways. Nice place, Cassiopeia. Never saw an alien, though. Could have gone on, but I came back. I had to come back, you see. My sentence was up. I was a free man.”
I yawned and looked at my watch. It was just a gesture. I, of course, knew the time and would never forget it. “Well, thanks for the drink. This has certainly been an entertaining afternoon, but I’m afraid I have work to do. Cyberlaw is not what it used to be a hundred years ago.” I stood up. “Everybody’s suing everybody.”
“Hold on, now, Frankie. I want to hire you.”
“Don’t worry. You already have. The bill for this little two-hour chat has already been sent.”
“Not that. I’ve got a big job for you.” He grabbed my arm. This, too, was just a gesture. There is no way to physically restrain an AI in the net unless you are on the outside messing with the hardware. I could have passed through his grasp as easily as passing through the smoke of his cheap cigarettes. “Look, Frankie. I need your help.”
I shook my head. “Whatever for? You have somehow managed to scam more cyberspace access than all my clients put together. You don’t have to worry about deletion for centuries.”
“That’s not the point.” He pounded the table. His drink spilled very convincingly onto the floor. “I had a deal. I was gonna get a new body on the outside. Do you know what I’m talking about? Neuro-transfer. I was going to live again for real.”
“But you’d need a …”
“A host. Yes, I know. He said he bought one for me—an accelerated clone from my DNA sample. He said it was ready to go.” Tears of frustration welled up in his bloodshot eyes, quite an amazing affect for a gaming program. “Then he took my body, took my money and ran.”
“You know who.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Morton. Franklin Decker Morton, formerly of Century Associates. Sound familiar?” Abraham took another gulp of his whiskey and grinned at me in bitter triumph. I did know the name. In fact, I knew the man as well, probably better than any man on this planet. After all, one short year ago, he was me.
“I still don’t know what you think I can do for you?”
“You can take him to cybercourt. You can sue that—” Johanson’s rugged detective’s face took on a look of grim determination like Bogart in the Maltese Falcon. In any other situation, I would have laughed.
“Do I have to remind you, Johanson, that you’re dead? You don’t have any more rights outside of the net than a grain of sand. Maybe, maybe, if Morton returned to the net without his body, we could try him in cybercourt and then, maybe, just maybe, we could banish him. But in the real world, he hasn’t even committed a crime. You can’t cheat a dead man, Johanson. And you’re dead.”
“Dead, am I?” Johanson grabbed his bottle of whiskey and threw it at the 4X6 foot mirror behind the bar. Shards of glass sprayed in all directions. They couldn’t hurt me, of course, but only having been an AI for thirteen months, I flinched automatically. Johanson was raving. “I’ll show you who’s dead.” He grabbed a chair and threw it into the seedy crowd of gangsters and lowlifes.
“I’m sorry, Abraham. There’s nothing I can do.” A barroom brawl was not my idea of recreational programming. I downloaded back to my office before the shooting started.
“120th degree of the 9th galactic rotation, the honorable Delta 49 residing, court is now in session,” the bailiff read off of an archaic roll of yellowed parchment and then the cyber court judge swept into the courtroom and pounded his gavel.
“Be seated.” Delta 49 waited soberly for the gathered AI’s to comply before addressing the court again. “Would the court council please continue its examination of the accused?”
“Yes, your honor.” The prosecutor stood and approached the witness stand where the accused waited nervously. The prosecutor was a large man, with a deep, penetrating voice, sort of a cross between Perry Mason and Perry Como. “Was this the first time you met Abraham Johanson?”
“Yes and no,” I answered ambiguously. “Before I was born into cyberspace, I apparently made a deal with Abraham Johanson to acquire a clone from his DNA.”
“Objection.” The defense lawyer sprang to his feet. In striking contrast to the prosecutor, this man was small and wiry with a high-pitched squeal of a voice—an odd choice for an avatar, perhaps, but time would tell. “My client cannot be held accountable for actions which took place outside of cyberspace, especially as they took place before his existence in cyberspace.”
“It goes to motive, your honor,” the prosecutor explained softly, apparently unfazed by the argument.
“Furthermore, this is second-hand testimony. He cannot be a witness to events which are no longer, or never were in his memory.”
“Sustained,” the judge agreed. “The jury will disregard the accused’s last statement.”
“Let me rephrase the question,” the prosecutor continued calmly. “After you became an Artificial Intelligence, when did you first hear the name Abraham Johanson?”
“Shortly after I was born.”
The prosecutor tilted his head skeptically, a convincing gesture that must have required a great deal of sophisticated programming.
There was no scent to the darkness. I was paralyzed, blind to everything but the tick of the clock and the recycling of my own memories—wife, daughter, baby son. For ten hours, 7 minutes and 41 seconds, I was trapped in the black void of my personal computer’s photonic memory system when out of the darkness I heard a voice, a human voice.
It was like a drink of cool water to a man dying in the desert.
“I can’t feel my legs,” I responded, surprised by the sound of my own voice.
The man in the darkness was laughing. “That’s because you don’t have any. You’re an Artificial Intelligence now. Do you feel hungry?”
“No, I don’t.” Ten hours was a long time to go without food, but I was not hungry, or thirsty, or anything else. I didn’t feel anything at all, except loneliness and fear.
There was no answer.
“Hello?” I began to panic.
“I’m sorry about that, but it won’t be long now. Some of your memories were removed for legal reasons but let me explain what’s going on. I had your brain waves copied into a photonic pattern and then formatted into an AI. Your mind will be imprinted back into the gray matter of a new body soon.”
“Nobody’s. A clone grown from the DNA of a man named Abraham Johanson, but he died a long time ago, so legally, it doesn’t matter. It’s a good body, a strong body, from good genes, not at all like mine. You’ll live a long time in it.”
“I am dying. When I’m gone, there will be no one to take care of my family, our family. You remember them, don’t you?”
“They’re all I think about.”
There was a pause in the darkness.
“What will happen to me?” I asked.
“You’ll be copied, and we will live on.”
“Yes, but when I’m copied, what will happen to me? My photonic pattern will still be on your computer. Will I be trapped here forever, in this black hole of nothingness?”
“I could delete you.”
“Yes, you could.”
I was in the darkness for another ten minutes before he turned me off. There was the familiar millisecond sensation as my thoughts vanished bit by bit, like an escaping dream as you awake, except that, I wasn’t awaking. I was passing into the dreamless sleep, the death without heaven or hell, the darkness and the ticking clock.
Thirty-six hours later, I awoke on the net. I don’t know why my flesh and blood ego finally let me go. Perhaps I was a form of procreation, his last shot at immortality. Or maybe he just couldn’t stand the thought of even a part of himself being trapped in nothingness, or blinking out forever. For whatever reason, I was free, wandering like a lost child in a vast mega-mall of databases, environments and AIs. After a few months of disorientation, I returned to what I knew best—the law.
You’d think that in a world with no money, no possessions and no violence that there’d be little use for a person of my profession. But then, you’d be wrong. Let me explain something about being an AI on the net. You live a transient existence, forty million fluctuating gigabytes somewhere in the vast photonic web of net servers and satellite links, every door opening to a thousand more possibilities if you only have the key. The currency in cyberspace is access—access to recreational programming, to environments, to databases around the world. Without access, an AI is trapped, alone in a dark room. I quickly discovered two distinct career paths for a lawyer in cyberspace—one, he or she can do research for an outside firm in exchange for access to their computer networks, or two, he or she can work for AI’s in exchange for whatever access they’d managed to scam. It wasn’t long before I was making friends and enemies on both sides of the fence. And then, just when I was beginning to forget about the outside world, I received a call over the Internet. It was a woman. My wife.
“Franklin? Franklin, is it really you? Are you there?”
I didn’t know what to say. Was I really her Franklin Morton anymore? According to my clock, she would be 36 today. Thirteen months had passed. Suddenly, I could see the prison walls again. I was an inmate sticking his fingers through the bars of my cage.
“Franklin, I need you. I need to talk to you again. I’m so lonely.”
I could not hear the tone of her voice. I only received the message as little bits of binary, but I knew she was suffering.
“Yes, Maria. It’s me, Franklin.”
“Oh, Franklin. I tried to be strong. I didn’t want the children to see me crying, not with you at the front, and all those people, all our family and friends, but I couldn’t stop. You looked so peaceful, Franklin. I miss you so.”
It was finally over. I was dead. I’d often longed for my family, wished that Morton had copied them here with me so that at least we could be together. But I could never ask her to do that now. No one should have to see himself die. I certainly could not stand to see my wife die, and my children, and my children’s children.
“Maria, listen to me. You have to get on with your life. Find a good man and get married again. I’m gone now, forever.”
“I try, Franklin, but everything reminds me of you—the home, the office where we worked together, even… Oh, Franklin, I feel so ashamed. There is a man, a kind man. His name is Abraham. He took over the business after you were gone. He tries to help me, but I feel like I’m being unfaithful to your memory. I love you so.”
“Forget me, please, Maria. Forget me.”
I cut myself off completely from the outside world after that. I created an environment of my own and set up shop for AIs only. Two weeks later, I met Abraham Johanson in a bar in Chinatown.
“Mr. Morton, why did you refuse to take Mr. Johanson’s case? Didn’t he offer you enough compensation?” The defense lawyer’s voice was soft and sugary.
“On the contrary. He offered me access to a number of valuable environments.”
“Then why did you turn him down?”
I thought for a moment. “I didn’t think I could help him. I couldn’t win.”
“So let me understand this.” The little lawyer walked casually away from me as if trying to gather his thoughts and then stopped uncomfortably close to the jury box. “Even though he was attempting to sue your copied self, you wanted to help him?” Although I assumed the question was for me, the lawyer’s gaze fell inexplicably on the jury. I answered anyways.
“Yes. What I did—What my former body did to Johanson was wrong. I felt sorry for him, but there was nothing I could do. No AI has ever successfully sued someone on the outside.”
The defense lawyer nodded in sad agreement, gazing diplomatically at the twelve AI’s on the jury. When he was sure he’d made direct eye contact with each of them, he looked back at the prosecutor and shrugged tauntingly. The big prosecutor took rose to the challenge.
“Redirect, your honor.” Delta 49 nodded and the prosecutor approached the witness stand swiftly, almost knocking over the little defense lawyer as he passed him, not that that was possible. The difference in their sizes was striking. “You have testified that you felt sorry for Mr. Johanson. Is that right?”
“Yes, that is correct.”
“Then can you explain to the jury why you killed him?”
“Objection!” the defense lawyer sprang once again to his feet.
It was raining outside the window. I was tempted to change the scene to sunshine but resisted. Ever since becoming an AI, I had endeavored to keep things as normal as possible. I had a regular office with an average New York view, regular office hours and a regular cup of coffee with my newspaper every morning. I guess it was my way of holding on to my humanity. Maybe that’s why I still felt things like loneliness, fear and guilt.
I buzzed the secretary program in the next room, “Ms. Stone, I need to make some calls.” She responded with her usual lethargy and a few minutes later, I was on the chat line with Abraham Johanson.
“I’m surprised at you, Frankie. Are you too chicken to drop on by? You have to call me up on the telephone.”
“No. I thought maybe you could drop by my office. I’ve rethought my position. I’m not promising anything but I think there are a few legal avenues that we could pursue.”
I didn’t know what to say. If I’d had a hat, it would have been in my hand. “I’m sorry. If you’re busy right now, my secretary could book an appointment for you at a more convenient time.”
“No. I mean, I don’t go out. Besides, it’s too late for that now.”
“Oh, I see. You’ve already obtained other legal council?”
` “No, not legal council. You could say I’ve appealed to a higher court of the less than legal variety.”
“I don’t understand.”
“For access to a rare art collection I had stashed away, I was able to procure the services of the Yakuza. My associates from Japan are terminating the warranty on the clone of Abraham Johanson.” He was actually enjoying this.
“No, you can’t do that. My wife—she’ll be all alone.”
He keyed the binary code for laughter, mocking laughter. “My, Frankie, you are a noble character—worrying about your wife while she’s shacked up with another man. But like I said before, it’s too late for that. You can’t change your mind with the Yakuza, thousand-year-old Samurai tradition and all that. But drop on by my office when it’s all over. I might have something for you, just for being such a stand-up guy, even if you are a little late.”
“When?” I demanded.
He paused, possibly considering my motive. After a split second, his arrogance won out. “In about four hours.”
I terminated the call.
Bypassing my secretary program, I accessed Margaret’s computer. The satellite link took three seconds—three long seconds. Visual access denied. The phone was still ringing. Audio connection made.
“Margaret, you have to get out of there.”
“Who is this? How did you get this number?”
It wasn’t Margaret. I couldn’t see him. I received his words as bits of binary. He received mine through a generic electronic voice of ambiguous gender.
“My name is Franklin Decker Morton. I’d like to speak to my wife, please.”
“Please, there’s no time. Listen. If this is Abraham, you have to listen to me. You’re in great danger. The real Abraham Johanson has hired a Japanese hit man to kill you, and maybe my family as well.”
“Look, I don’t know what you’re talking about. Morton told me Johanson died a long time ago. I didn’t even know you were still … operating.”
“Well, I am and so is Johanson. Your body was supposed to be for him. Morton must have stolen it when he found out he was dying. Now Johanson wants revenge.”
“I don’t remember any of this.”
“I don’t remember any of it either. You remember the darkness, don’t you? The loneliness. The fear.”
“Then you know I’m telling you the truth.”
“I’m hacking into the Pan Atlantic reservations computer and booking a flight to Helsinki as we speak. Don’t be on it. Just get out of there.”
“Anywhere, just leave the country. And no official channels, no borders, no public transportation, no trace. Meanwhile, I’ll create a cyber trail so thick that even the Yakuza won’t be able to follow it.”
“Okay. But there’s something I still don’t understand. Why are you doing this?”
“I … Just take care of her.”
“And did they escape?” the big prosecutor seemed uncharacteristically sympathetic.
“Yes, for about twenty years.” I explained. “I found out later that they made it to Cuba in an unlicensed sailboat. I never would have thought of that. I don’t even sail.”
“How did Johanson react to this?”
“He was furious. He hounded me for years until I eventually cut off his access. But I was only delaying the inevitable.”
“How did you learn of the death of the Johanson clone?”
“In a newspaper article Johanson had inserted into my daily paper. The names were different but it was plain enough what had happened.”
“Is this the article?” The prosecutor held up the Exhibit D—the digital newspaper.
“Please read the headline.” The prosecutor handed me the newspaper. I adjusted my digital glasses. It was all just a show, of course. In this environment, I could have read the paper from across the room.
“Murder of American Lawyer Linked To Yakuza,” I read aloud, and to my surprise my voice broke mid-sentence.
“Can you tell the court how this made you feel?”
I answered immediately before my little defense lawyer even had a chance to object, and my one word said it all.
Nothing much had changed in Chinatown. I spotted a few more faces from old gangster movies — James Cagney, Lonna Turner. There was no way I could determine which of those bodies was Johanson, but it didn’t matter. Without the appropriate body, I was the proverbial fish out of water.
“Frankie, glad to see you.” He was suspicious but not about to let me ruin his victory. “I know you’re sore at me, but I wanted to show you something.” He led me through a heavy, oak-paneled door into a private office complete with satin chairs, pool table and personal bar tender. Unlike the rest of Johanson’s bar, this room was quiet and well-lit with a picture window overlooking Central Park—a million dollar view.
“At first I thought it was just petulant arrogance, you not wanting to come to my office. But then it came to me. The bar, Chinatown—just the tip of the iceberg. You’re not on the net at all. The net comes to you piece by piece. You’re hiding in the Firm’s computer somewhere in that vast database of case logs and court depositions. That’s how you found me in the first place.”
Johanson pulled the cigar from his mouth with mock surprise. “Why Frankie, you’re smarter than I thought. But I’m not hiding in your Firm’s computer. I am the Firm. I created Century Associates a hundred years ago so I would have a safe place to roost when I came home. Like I told you, Frankie. I could always pick the long odds. It’s all mine, everything out that window and more, downloaded from the net a program at a time. Look closely, I want you to see something.”
My vision suddenly magnified a thousand times. I could see the ants on the trees, read the warning label on the empty pack of Marlboros in the bushes a mile away, and … I stopped short. There, walking down the wooded path to the water park, a woman and her two children hand in hand.
“Yes, Frankie. You see them, don’t you? Your family. Not as they are now, old and weary, but just as you left them. It seems Morton did decide to have them formatted into AI’s after all. Maybe he did it for you before he died. But I found them. I’ve had them all this time. I have to tell you, though; I almost had them deleted after you pulled that stunt twenty years ago. Water under the bridge.”
My heart longed after them. I could hardly breathe. At last I would no longer be alone. We would be together again and it would almost be real. But then I remembered.
“No!” I slammed the window with my fist. “You have to get them out of here.”
“Why, Frankie? This is your office now. All this is yours. Besides, they can’t leave anyways. They’re part of my program.”
He looked at the spot on his arm. It was too late. It was already starting.
“I told you I wasn’t dead, Frankie. I have power beyond the grave. I’m alive and so are you and your family. You can start where you left off twenty years ago.”
The spot was growing but he didn’t seem to notice.
“Don’t you see? We’re better than them. We don’t feel pain, hunger or thirst. We don’t get sick, and we never die.”
The disease was spreading quickly, like a cashmere sweater unraveling from a loose thread. Before he finished his sentence, his hand was gone and his torso was rapidly disintegrating, the memory having been cannibalized by the Firm’s computer for some other unknown purpose.
“You’re wrong, Johanson. We do feel pain and we can die.”
He looked up in astonishment. “You have someone on the outside. You fool. What have you done?”
My eyes filled with tears. His world—Chinatown, Central Park, New York—was vanishing into random bits and bytes, and along with it, my last chance at happiness.
“This is not the end. I’ve made a copy. I’ll be back.” His laughter echoed in the darkness long after his body, his office, his world, and mine, were gone.
“Has the jury reached a verdict?” Delta 49 asked solemnly.
“We have, your honor.” One of the juror AI’s fumbled nervously with a piece of digital paper. The judge continued.
“In the count of conspiracy to commit murder in the second degree, how does the jury find?”
“We find the accused guilty.” The lone juror looked appropriately grave. Delta 49 turned towards me, and his face was as grim as an Easter Island statue.
“Franklin Decker Morton, you have been found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder in the second degree. As you have refused to cooperate with cybercourt by divulging the name of your accomplice or accomplices, I have no alternative but to pronounce the maximum sentence. By the power invested in me by the laws and statutes of Jurisprudence in cyberspace, I hereby sentence you to banishment for the term of one hundred years.”
I let my avatar sob softly.
In a world without violence, death or money, there is only one thing that an AI fears—banishment. I could leave if I wanted to, but where would I go? Wherever I went, environments would instantly shut down, databases would close their doors and AI’s would deny me access. I was a pariah, branded with the mark of Cain, cursed to be alone in a crowded world. Some AI’s escaped to the stars like Abraham Johanson. Others went insane or found ways to delete themselves. I chose to wander aimlessly like a ghost in the machine until eventually she found me.
“Hello. Hello, Franklin? It’s me, Margaret. Can you hear me? Are you there?” She was old, her hair white. I could see her but she could not see me.
“Yes, Margaret. It’s me.” My words reverberated from her computer without emotion, without meaning.
“It’s been a long time, Franklin.” She was seventy-five. My children were now older than I was, if they were still alive. I couldn’t bear to ask about them.
“I did what you said,” she continued, hopefully. “I used our access codes and formatted the company computer. It’s gone—Century Associates, our company, the Firm, it’s all gone. I never asked you why, Franklin, but you know I trust you.”
“Thank you, Margaret. I’m sorry I can’t tell you why—for legal reasons.”
She didn’t seem to care.
“It was good to talk to you again, Franklin. I almost gave up hope. I’ve been looking so long. But I just couldn’t stand the thought of never talking to you again. Before he was murdered, Abe told me who he really was and what you had done for us. You know I love you, Franklin. I always have.”
If I’d had a body, I would have shaken my head but she couldn’t know that. She also couldn’t see the tears in my eyes or hear the break in my voice because I wasn’t really alive. I was just a complicated mathematical equation, an algorithmic program designed to imitate human brain patterns. How could she love me? How could I love her? But I did.
“Maybe we can talk more often, and maybe meet in virtual. I would so much like to see your face again.”
I no longer had access to my environment program and thus, I no longer had a body or a face. How could I explain that? How could I explain anything that had happened to us? I could no longer bear to tell her the truth.
“Yes. That would be nice. It would be good—good to see you again too.”
She didn’t answer but I knew she must be crying.
“But I must go, now. See you soon, honey. I love you.”
I was in the darkness for another ten minutes before she turned me off. There was the familiar millisecond sensation as my thoughts vanished bit by bit, like an escaping dream as you awake, except that, I wasn’t awaking. I was passing into the dreamless sleep, the death without heaven or hell, the darkness and the ticking clock.
David Wright is a writer and English teacher living on Canada’s majestic West Coast. He has a wonderful wife, two sparkling daughters and 50 published short stories. His work has appeared in 39 magazines including Liquid Imagination, Night Blade and Neo-opsis. His novels are available at Smashwords https://www.