Fondled by the Firm Hand of Rutger Hauer

Violet midday skies.

Wrathful, lingering thunder.

Smoldering carcasses heaped inside shelters of opportunity.

Roche Harbor was no more. Tiny monstrosities from beneath the waves were in the midst of arriving to reclaim their lost domains.

We fled by diesel. The three of us: me, Dave, and Audra between us, wedged neatly into a cheap, reeking, chip-oil-powered Pontiac once driven by a vacationing Kevin Costner. Our morose trio careened towards Friday Harbor, heads nodding in time to every ragged pothole along the way. Islands, I’ve noticed—particularly those chiefly served by ferries—are seldom plagued by the traffic jams of the mainland. My best guess is that islanders are more prone to taking refuge in place. I suppose if you witness titanic explosions in Seattle, you might be inclined to believe that ferry service might be temporarily suspended. Whatever the case, our worst impediment was the sorry condition of the roads. Our second worst impediment was Dave’s insistence on exploring the nature of identity while trying to flee an eldritch, nameless horror.

“What do you suppose counts as a person, Sam?”

“I give up, Dave. What counts as a person?”

“It’s not a riddle.” He chuckled. “Well, not that kind of a riddle, anyhow. It’s a puzzle. I don’t think I know the answer. I thought you might be able to help.”

“I don’t know, man. Arms, legs, a head, a functioning torso? Probably a working brain. A living human.” The point of the conversational prompt eluded me. “What are you getting at?”

“It seems like it should be an easy question, doesn’t it? Close your eyes, picture a normal living human being, and there you go. Bob’s your uncle.” He veered around a fallen tree. “But how important is the mental state?”

“The mental state?”

“The mental state. Is someone in a vegetative state a person in the common-sense, uh, sense? How important is the capacity for thought? How critical is the mind?”

“A person in a coma is still a person, dude. Watch out for that branch.” A low-hanging fir bough thumped the roof of the vehicle. “Being impaired doesn’t suddenly make someone not a person anymore.”

“No? Then what does make a person not a person anymore?”

“Dude, I don’t know. Death, I guess.”

“That’s it? And when does personhood begin?”

“What the hell? Are you ambushing me with an abortion debate? Not only am I not interested, but I can’t imagine a less relevant topic anymore.”

“No, no. Just curious is all. Thinking about old religious doctrine.”

“How so?”

He doubled clutched to downshift as we began climbing a hill. “Well, maybe the small-a anabaptist approach is right and you can’t be a proper person until you’ve developed a mature moral sense. Or maybe the materialist types are right and as soon as gametes mix to form a brand-new DNA combination, that’s good enough to count.” He downshifted again. “Could it be that the word ‘person’ is imprecise and English would be better off with new words to distinguish some kind of hierarchy of personhood?”

“I like cutesy neologisms, Dave. The ones that rewire fundamental understanding are usually more trouble than they’re worth.”

“Maybe. Maybe you’re right. I still can’t help but wonder though.”

“About religious doctrine?” I gripped the handle that for as long as I can recall I have referred to as the oh shit bar, located above the side window. I did my best to ignore the precipitous cliff that had suddenly materialized to our left.

“Yeah. You agree, as a moral person yourself, that you owe certain duties to other persons, right?”

“Sure. Respect others’ wishes, be judicious, all that stuff.”

“Yeah. It’s immoral to hurt a person or take a person’s stuff without their permission.”

“Obviously.”

“Obviously. But a non-person can’t give permission, at least not in the way we’d ordinarily use the word.”

“I suppose so.” My grip tightened to match the increasing sharpness of the road’s curves. “That’s why kids have legal guardians and people write general powers of attorney if they think they’ll be incapacitated.”

“Is that still a thing on the mainland?”

“Some places, yeah. I think. I never really stuck around long enough to get a feel for most places’ civil law systems. Let’s ask Clay and Brigit if they know any better.” I added, under my breath, “if we get there in one piece.”

“So children and invalids can’t be considered people, not legally anyway.”

“I suppose. By the same token, organizations could be considered people, at least for the purposes of tort recompense. Legal doctrine sure was weird.”

“Sure was. Imagine how weird it would have gotten if we would have found a way to boost primate intelligence?” We seemed to be past the worst of the cliffside road. Dave relaxed a little. “Or better yet, made human-level AI or brain uploads or something.”

I relaxed too, imperceptibly. “Didn’t some science fiction author do a whole series of books on that? Like the premise was that people turned chimpanzees and dolphins smart and they had to deal with the weird bureaucracy of an already-existing galactic civilization or something?”

“I don’t read a lot of science fiction.”

“I remember liking the books, but I don’t recall if your specific question was addressed. My gut tells me that most humans would consider an animal with human-like intelligence to be worthy of self-determination, of personhood if you like.”

“Yeah, maybe. You might be right.” He dropped the Pontiac into third to descend the next hill. “You might be right, but I think there would still be plenty of room for reasonable debate. A monkey ain’t a person, no matter how well he can recite Shakespeare.”

“Primate.” I corrected. “And yeah, I won’t disagree with that. But it’s a question that would be eventually settled. Moral questions like that usually are. Sooner or later.”

“Usually sooner.”

I was less sure about the non-biological entities. “I don’t know about the artificial intelligence though. People catch up with technology eventually, but I’m not sure they’d catch up quickly enough with rapid advancements in machine intelligence to let changing moral sentiments alter the way folks do business, you know?”

“So your verdict on AI is that they’re not people?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know if my verdict really matters all that much. I think the typical verdict would be that AI can’t have the same status as regular people, and I suspect that the time it would take for those moral intuitions to change would be longer than it would be for AI to dominate the world of flesh-and-blood humans. I’m not sure why my own feelings would much matter.”

“And how about those brain uploads? Are they people?”

“I’m not sure what that means. Refresh my memory.”

“If I’m remembering right, the idea is to take a high-resolution scan of a human brain, and run an emulation on a dedicated machine. You can make a bunch of copies real cheaply, so it’s like super cheap labor, and you can even overclock it to get the thing to work super fast.”

“That’s,” I searched for the right words. “That’s obscene. But something like that sure sounds a lot closer to a person than strictly machine AI.”

“That’s your opinion?”

“Well yeah.” I quickly realized I had committed an elementary error. “But your question about AI has sort of bookended my thinking. I suppose that if I wasn’t already thinking about the pure machine case, I’d be less likely to use it as a comparison, so I should downgrade my estimate for people thinking of brain uploads as people.”

Dave was unusually pensive for a bit. “These things chasing us. I wonder if they’re people.”

“What, that… that swarm?”

“Sure. You’ve heard of hive minds, haven’t you?”

“Yeah, but isn’t that a, you know, what do you call it? A metaphor? A colony of bees doesn’t actually have a collective mind. It just acts as if it does.”

“Are you sure about that? Are you sure it makes a difference?”

“I, well, I guess I don’t know one hundred percent for sure, but I think that I know the common use of the word ‘mind’ well enough to say that a swarm of bees does not constitute a mind. Not in the commonly-used sense anyway.” My confidence was slipping away even as I spoke the words.

“I bring it up because I wonder if maybe we should be negotiating.”

“Negotiating?”

“Sure, with the swarm. What if it’s intelligent?”

“Are you sure you’re fit to be driving, Dave?”

“I bet you that if a termite colony were smart enough, they’d negotiate a peace accord with the exterminator.”

“Huh? Are we the termites or the exterminator in this analogy?”

“Too soon to tell.”

“Hm. Termite. Exterminator. Do you think those words have the same entomology?”

“I see what you did there, Sam.”

“It doesn’t matter. Insects are not people, even if they end up smarter, morally superior, or more technologically advanced than humans. Not without a lot more convincing.”

“So the dreams they’ve been sending you haven’t been working?”

“I assure you, I have no idea what you mean.”

It was then I noticed that Audra had been clenching her fists tightly enough that her newly-trimmed fingernails had dug into her palms, leaving thin rivulets of blood to drip onto her elk-leather trousers. I worried about the rest of our friends. Out there. Alone.

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