This is a piece in an ongoing series of artistic explorations and personal reflections on electronic cigarettes and vaping. This series will include fiction, journalism, and personal essays. Feedback is welcome. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you have an e-cigarette experience worth sharing.
Peter Terrell’s nose was small and delicate, as if painted on his face with just one flick from an artist’s brush. Round, wide lips hung on his mouth, and his chin was square and strong and just barely dimpled. It was Peter’s eyes, however, that drew the most attention - seeming to shine their own light in all directions, in the same illusory way that a pair of flawless blue diamonds would. The resulting face gave off the impression that Peter understood more about what was happening around him than anyone else.
Gabby Rogers stood at the entrance to Peter’s office knocking on the doorframe to draw attention to herself. She was a thick bodied but smoothly toned woman with visible biceps under a short-sleeved blouse. Her triangle nose, jutting cheek bones, and tight jaw made her look like a beautiful woman whose face had been slightly pinched. Today Gabby’s neckline was too low for Peter to keep his eyes on hers, so he looked away from her altogether as he spoke. “What is it?” Peter asked.
“I’m going home, and you should too.”
“I’ve just been sitting here vaping and sipping whiskey with no appointments left?”
“I thought there might be a walk-in. Anyway, it’s after six and you got here at eight. I’ll grab dinner with you if you want.”
“Go home,” Peter said.
Gabby looked hurt, took a deep breath, slumped her shoulders and left the office.
From the waiting room, Gabby heard leaving through an old, loud door.
For a few minutes Peter just sat there and vaped. As he puffed the room began to get cloudy. Then the loud door sounded again. He assumed it was Gabby and that she had forgotten something, until he heard the tiny footsteps. Peter quickly put a cap on his flask and slid it into his desk drawer along with his vaping pen.
In walked a girl, not a young woman by any stretch, perhaps twenty at most. She seemed to float rather than walk, so thin were her limbs and bone structure, and so deft were her steps. If a painter were to capture her likeness, the focus would be on her black perl eyes whose size dominated her face in a pleasing way, as if she had somehow managed to become a greyhound puppy and a beautiful girl at once. There was nothing like a smile on her face.
“I’m Lilith Dover,” she said.
“I hope I can help you,” Peter said - his standard line with a new case.
“There’s been a murder. The case is a week old and the authorities have nothing. Someone needs to help, so I’m here.”
“Of course, I’m so sorry for your loss. Can I get you a…” He stopped himself short because he only had booze and this one looked too young. He looked at her closely and saw that she we softly crying.
“You know how I work right?”
“Of course,” she said. “You hack into people’s minds when their online. There’s nothing you can’t solve, they say.”
She began to fidget and squirm in her chair, like a schoolgirl who was made to wait to use the restroom.
“What’s wrong?” Peter asked.
“Other than murder?”
A beat of silence. A distant siren sounded.
“No, I just mean you look doubtful. Trust me, I’m good at this.”
“You’re not hacking a mind of a person this time,” she said. “You’re hacking an AI.”
There were only a few AIs in the world, real AIs that had their own will to kill with. All of them were cordoned off from the cloud, existing only in LANs that had no connection to the world beyond a closed network.
“That’s difficult to believe. There is no AI with access to the cloud. It would have had to kill someone who was working with it in a private cloud.”
“What makes you so sure?” Lilith asked.
“Because if an AI got out it could be terrible, we could all be in a computer-run utopia, or we could all be killed.”
“If we’re all killed by an AI someone will have to be the first one to die. That’s who I’m asking you to investigate.”
“I get it, I get it,” Peter said. This was a nightmare if she were right. Peter broke down and started vaping in front of this girl. She was asking so much. He took a long pull and watched the cloud form around him. “So who died?” Peter asked.
“Me,” the girl said. “It uploaded me into the cloud and then it took my life.”
Peter shut off his access point to the cloud, a desktop machine with the augmented reality system he worked off of, one that made his whole surrounding world into a computer screen. If Lilith were telling the truth, she would disappear once his system shut down. Probably just a piece of malware out there to sucker him into something. Nothing she said could be true.
Finally the system finished shutting down. She was still there. That raised two possibilities: that she was an actual girl pretending to be the ghost of a person uploaded to the cloud; or worse, that she had been embedded into him while he was online and hallucinations of her would never really end. There would only be one way to know: if someone else saw her.
Peter flipped open his phone and called Gabby back into the office. “I need you, Gabby” he said. “I need you now.”
“I’ve been waiting so long for you to say that,” she said. He thought he could hear her wink through the audio. Then she was gone and on her way.
“You think she won’t see me. She will. Has it occurred to you that I might be projected from that phone, and from every phone on Earth at once? That anywhere there can be a signal I will seem to be there?”
“It has occurred to me that I need a drink,” Peter said. “I need quite a few. That’s hocus pocus shit that maybe the government can do, maybe, and no one else. Go home, little girl. You’re game is up. I know you’re real.” He started really hitting the vape pen hard and soon the room looked a steamy as a bathhouse. Then Peter drank a long gulp of Canadian Whiskey straight from the flask.
“For an investigator, you’re not very inquisitive,” she said. “You’re missing the most basic tool there is. Take out your phone. Search the news for my name.”
And there she was. The same face, body, but most frightening, the same clothes she was wearing were in the yearbook picture shared to show the victim. Like someone took her likeness from the news and now here she was made alive again.
“What do you want?” I asked.
Gabby stepped in and glared in Lilith’s direction.
“Who is she?” Gabby asked, trying to hide her jealous disappointment. “A bit young, don’t you think Peter?”
“I want you to do the impossible. I want you to stop the singularity even though it has already happened. I want you to save us all.”
“I’m going home,” Gabby said.
When she was gone, Lilith said, “Turn off your phone. Get some sleep. When you switch your phone back on in the morning, I will return. Then it begins.”
Peter switched off everything, and Lilith snapped off into nothing, like an image on a screen being shut down. Then Peter drank himself into a blackout to find his own nothingness.