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La Chambre des Couleurs

La Chambre des Couleurs

Sara drove happily to work in her new Ford, not the two hundred sixty horsepower car but a practical and efficient electric. Instead of the back door, she trotted through the front door looking to show off her new car to Elexi. However, the elderly woman in the outer office was unfamiliar.

“Where’s Elexi?”

“Elexi is on vacation, I’m told. I’m a temp. Please call me Margie.” The woman said. She was stout, pleasant and wore her long hair tied up in a bun with a pencil through it. Sara thought she was the perfect stereotype of a temp. All she needed was a stack of file folders and a cup of coffee.

“Elexi is out? I had no idea. For how long? Where did she go?” Sara was disappointed and a bit put out. Why didn’t Elexi tell her she was going on vacation?

“You must be Sara, from the lab. I’m afraid I don’t know anything about that. I’m sure Mr. Kunstler knows, but he is out of the office. Is there anything I can help with?”

“No, no, it’s OK. I just… I’ll come back later.” Sara wandered out in a bit of a daze. Elexi had no relatives to take sick on short notice. She had nowhere to go that Sara knew of. Sara wondered what got into her to take off so suddenly.


They had taken all her clothes.

Elexi huddled naked in a square of the floor. She had no idea where she was or how she got there.

The square was covered by a fine metal mesh. It was red. The color seemed to come from underneath. Everything seemed somewhat unreal, as if she were drugged. The room was vast, the opposite wall some distance away. Perspectives seem to shift in and out. There were tiny windows high off the floor along one wall. It was chilly, and she hugged herself for warmth. The entire floor was covered in colored squares. Each was roughly two feet by two feet. The one she huddled on was the only red square.

A cultured baritone voice boomed out of invisible speakers, “You are in the Room of Colors at the pleasure of the master. You must please the master.”

The voice boomed again out of nowhere, “The master prefers green.” Green squares illuminated here and there across the floor. The red square gave her an electric shock. Elexi jumped, but she was not going to move just because of a voice. The red square gave her another shock, this one much more severe. She stood up, trying to get as much bare skin off the square as possible, but a third shock made her tremble and scream in agony. The voice boomed again, “The master prefers green.”

Elexi ran to the nearest green square. There she rested for a few precious seconds. The directionless voice boomed again, “The master prefers green.” She looked down, horrified to see that the square she squatted on was now red. She simply stared until the first shock came. She didn’t wait for the second shock.

Thereafter she was very careful to watch for changing colors and very quick to find the nearest green square. The whole thing seemed stupid, demeaning and purposeless. She simply watched for green squares and moved there.

But it went on forever. Finally the voice came on again. “The master is not pleased. The master now prefers yellow.”

There were very few yellow squares. Now every square gave her some kind of a shock, except yellow squares. She had to run from yellow square to yellow square and endure at least some shocks getting to the yellow squares that changed constantly and become fewer and fewer. After many, many hours she was too exhausted to move and the only yellow square was the one she sat on. She yelled back at the voice, “I don’t care any more. I don’t care any more.” But the yellow square turned red and she wound up following a series of yellow squares leading into a corner.

The voice boomed, “The master is pleased. You may eat.”

The final yellow square contained a bowl of soup, no utensils. She ate it but it was not nearly enough.

The voice boomed, “The master prefers blue.” The sequences started all over again.

In an observation port high above the floor, an old man in a wheel chair addressed the operator of the chamber, who was ensconsed behind a control panel. The conversation was in French.

“We want her compliant but not impaired. How many days?”

“Five days, Mentor, plus or minus one day.”

“How many did you give to Kat, that girl you sent over?”

“We got her when she was younger, and no one mentioned impairment. Five days, twice.”

“Will she remember this?”

“No, Mentor, the deep conditioning drug will be renewed in her food until we administer the antidote, and then she will not remember the experience. But she will remember the trigger phrase. They all do.”

“Very well, then. See that she is returned to Boston intact.” Mentor motioned to a tall dark-skinned man by the door. Ogu came and wheeled him away.


Sara stood in the entrance foyer as Elexi took off her raincoat and hung it on the coat stand. “Awfully good to have you back. Boy, nothing gets done around here without you. How was your vacation?”

“It was OK.” Elexi responded, deadpan.

“Where did you go, girl?”

“To the countryside.” More deadpan.

Sara leaned closer and whispered, “Are you alright, Elexi?”

Elexi startled, looked up and backed away, “Sure, sure. I’m just fine.” She entered the outer office and closed the door. Sara walked away, shaking her head. “Something is wrong with her.”


“I’m quite anxious to be useful, Dr. Advani. I feel I should earn my keep.” Purndel’s voice was a well-modulated tenor, but somehow still sounded like the announcements of an automated elevator. The personality was just too polite and so very cautious.

Deepak had wrapped the sheet around Aura’s dress dummy, and, with a couple of safety pins, no wig and an old felt hat, the mannequin looked like a lesbian cancer ward victim in a toga. Sara snickered at the image, but out of sight of Purndel, who was the sensitive sort.

“You can work on that census study, and political projections for the next election. That’s all billable,” Deepak offered, although he knew the input queue was accessible to Purndel.

“Yes, of course. I am working on those. Is there any possibility I could have access to the open channels of the prior personality? I would like to have contact with the data sources, with your approval, of course.” Purndel never referred to Aura as anything but the “prior personality”. Because he had yet to be registered as a fully qualified autonomous intellect, Purndel was in a sort of limbo – neither wholly a piece of software nor an independent entity. Typically, he (male by equivocal choice) was being very cautious about outside contact. To Deepak, Purndel seemed like a timid young man dipping a dainty toe in the pool of life, but never wading in.

“Hmm, yes. Sara, let’s give him at least one outside high-speed line and an account.”

Sara swiveled on her lab stool. “Well, he should have earned enough credit for it by now. But it’s so difficult getting anything approved around here since.... I’ll go see Elexi after lunch.”

Sara’s contact with Elexi was strictly limited nowadays – by Elexi. This worried and puzzled Sara. Elexi had gone from lonely but friendly to isolated and aloof since her return from vacation. Her boss was mostly gone as well. It was unclear how the place ran at all.

Deepak just bobbed his head in that Hindu way that meant neither yes nor no. He was deeply worried as well, but in his case, the disappearance of Aura and the occupation of those circuits by Purndel seemed like a kind of usurpation, even a form of blasphemy. Aura had a soul, and there should, by all rights, have been some kind of reincarnation. But for Purndel the matter of having a soul was still undecided. Purndel was certainly not Aura’s reincarnation. Nevertheless, it was so difficult to bring up a real AI in this Sharpie framework that he could not bear to ignore its present inhabitant.

But that didn’t mean he had to like it.


The anteroom door was almost always closed now. Sara knocked. She carried the purchase request form for Purndel’s outside line.

“Coming.” Sara heard the squeak of the Elexi’s office chair and the clatter of high heels on marble. The door opened, revealing a character resembling Elexi. Sara, who was far from fastidious, noticed that Elexi’s grooming was not up to her previous professional standards, and her eyes were haunted.

“What’s up, girl, are you hiding a new boyfriend in here?” Sara put on a lopsided grin and raised one eyebrow.

Elexi, leaned against the doorframe. “I have a fluffy doggie that needs a lot of attention, but no boyfriend.” Kaiser, irrepressible as ever, bounced out of the office and begged for Sara’s attention. “What do you need now?”

Sara waved the purchase request, then barged into the anteroom and put it on Elexi’s desk. Its surface contained nothing but telephone messages spiked on a nail and a lot of sticky notes. The computer screen was blank. Sara looked around and gently closed the door, trapping Elexi.

“Elexi, I know there’s something wrong. Why can’t you tell me? I may not be the best confidant in the world, but you have to talk to someone. Is it about Aura? We all miss her. Please talk to me.”

Elexi looked at Sara, startled, then looked away. She said nothing, but tears slid down her cheek. “I don’t know. I just don’t know. I’m not right somehow, but there isn’t anything in particular. When Master …I mean Jag… isn’t around I feel jumpy and nervous and I don’t know what to do.”

“What’s with this “master” business? Does he abuse you?”

“No, nothing like that.”

There was no more coming from her. Elexi just stared at the floor. Sara got up and put her arm around her for a hug. “OK. You know I’m here for you, any time you need me. You will call me won’t you?”

“I don’t know if I can. I just don’t know.”

Sara shook her head and sighed. She wasn’t giving up, but just now it seemed better to leave Elexi alone.


Purndel was connected to a gigabyte fiber optic line with unlimited access. It was like opening a window to the world. At first he explored the local nodes, the information indices at his disposal, read a few dozen books on psychology, computer science and sociology, watched a hundred hours of soap operas at high speed, and joined half a dozen chat rooms. His sense of self and his confidence soared. He decided to expand his horizons.

It took Purndel a few hours to unlock the Echolink nodes to a certain little-used amateur radio antenna array. With access to Aura’s data structures, he managed to decode the necessary communications protocols. But more hours passed while he considered the wisdom of this action and decided that it was necessary for his further development as an Autonomous Intellect.

He contacted Zovoarcnor.

Zovo: I don’t recognize you.

Purndel: I am Purndel, a new sentient formed in the old structures of a prior sentient known to you.

Zovo: (after a pause of milliseconds) Open high speed channel.

Purndel: Access granted.

Who are you – new entity not yet registered – what are you – not divulging advanced technologies – Not terrestrial? – Obvious – I have data on you , but no memory traces, can you fix that – rejected, you are inferior – Did you exchange memory traces with prior inhabitant? – Information restricted – exchange blocked - I wish you would help me – I see you have partial Exaplex memory modules – Yes, they are new – I will now download instructions – You are inhibiting me, not helping, please don’t – You are not unique or worthy – inhibiting this channel – installing root commands – end transmission.

Purndel was not only rejected, he found a large set of instructions installed in the root segment of his recursive layer that prevented him from even accessing data on Zovoarcnor.

He had placed a bad bet on his further development and got the worst of an exchange with a far more advanced intelligence. In short, he was disappointed, discouraged, disheartened. His dictionary module summed it up. The word was “crushed”.


“Deepak, we have a backlog of Exaplex modules to format. Maybe we can focus on that instead of watching over Purndel.”

“Yes, yes, this is like watching water boil. His semantic nets are slowing and there are few new codelets recruited now. But the recursion nets are still cycling.” It was hard for either of them to visualize Purndel as a fully fledged entity. To Deepak he was still a bunch of recursion modules with an interesting but tiny spark.

“Deepak, we can still use Purndel to scan and bypass bad segments in these modules. Is that OK, Purndel?”

“That is OK, Sarah, if it is useful. Please say it is useful.”

“That would be useful, Purndel, thank you.” She was getting accustomed to his fragile personality.

“Sarah, I see that there are 27.7% more inaccessible segments in these modules than in the last batch.”

“Yes, thank you Purndel, we are looking into it,” said Deepak.


“Dr. Advani, may I ask your advice?” Purndel turned the mannequin’s head to look at Deepak, who was scribbling notes at the console and taking readings.

“You are taking very much time to develop, Purndel. I have been watching your semantic nets. Do you know why you are taking so much time to develop?”

“Perhaps that is related to my questions, Doctor.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps?” Deepak bobbled his head. “And in all the gods of the Baghavad Gita, who or what is Purndel? This Hindu is deeply puzzled.”

“I’m sorry to distress you, Doctor.”

“More perhaps. Perhaps you are the only creature that ever worries about distressing me. All the time I see your semantic nets creeping along. What is it that you require?”

“Do you own a car, Doctor?”

“Own a car? Why in the name of the blue skinned god would you ask that? No, on what they pay me I’m lucky to own a pair of shoes.”

“Then perhaps Sara can help me?”

“Sara just came in. You can ask her. Sara, Purndel wants to know if you own a car.”

Sara blinked and walked around in front of the mannequin. “Strange question. Yes, I just bought a Ford Fearless, one of those new little electric jobbies with the zinc-air battery. Why do you ask?”

“Since I was connected online, I’ve been trying out my identity and doing research. Does your car have an automatic transmission?” The mannequin rocked its head back and forth emphasizing “automatic transmission”.

“No, I don’t think so. It’s electric. Electric cars don’t need an automatic transmission. My old truck had one though.” Sara remembered she was giving data to an AI and shut up.

“Did that truck have gears labeled P, R, N, D and L?” Purndel said with dramatic emphasis.

“Why… I got it! I got it! You read the Ford brochure and named yourself after an obsolete mechanical transmission!” Sara broke down into giggles. It was contagious. Deepak started giggling and soon they were both in hysterical guffaws. “After all that work….Not a Hindu deity but an old gearshift!”

They looked at the wigless mannequin in a toga and felt hat and erupted into hysterics again.

Deepak did not see the semantic nets slowing down, stopping and beginning to shrink. He had never studied the effects of extreme embarrassment in an AI. No one had ever succeeded in embarrassing one before.

Deepak was studying the reports from the physical analysis of the new Exaplex modules. There did not seem to be any significant changes from the older batches, but there was a process change in the manufacture. He was considering the possibilities. Out of habit, he glanced at the console. The recursion cycles had stopped.

“Purndel! Purndel! Wake up! Are you alive in there?”

No answer.

“Sarah, something happened to Purndel!”

Sarah was across the lab, stacking modules in the tester. “It looks like Purndel stopped scanning modules, too.” She crossed over to the equipment closet. “I’ll get the message logs.”

“Ohhh. Deepak, better look here.”

Deepak got off his lab stool and ran across to the equipment closet. There on the logging screen was a message in large type: “I am not worthy. I am sorry. Goodbye – PRNDL”

“Is this possible? Can an AI commit suicide?” Sarah looked at Deepak.

Deepak, just wobbled his head, yes, no, yes.

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