Regarding Abel

Regarding Abel

January 2029

My little brother will die soon. Maybe tomorrow, or the day after that.

The accident happened last Friday. Bobby had been goggled into the “Saturn’s Speed” game in our parents’ Tesla when the software failed to take into account a rogue eighteen-wheeler as it barreled towards him on the I5. The truck tore in from the passenger’s side of the car, pinned him under one of its tires and gored him with a shard of its bumper. Shortly afterwards his car burst into flames, covering the right side of his body in third-degree burns.

I know Bobby will die soon because all signs of life have faded from his face and his eyes have stopped fidgeting. Not only has he not woken up from the coma, it’s pretty clear that he no longer hears the voices around him. On the day he was transferred to the ICU I could see traces of a grimace or acknowledgement that he was being spoken to, but all of that is gone now.

According to the “Saturn’s Speed” game developers he should have seen a simmed asteroid coming from the direction of the truck and the rings of Saturn he was driving on should have redirected him to safety but the visuals never materialized so Bobby didn’t react until it was too late. The LAPD is still searching for the cause of the malfunction.

I’ve spent every night of the past week folded into this plastic chair in the corner of his hospital room, listening to him snore. After a while his breathing fades to white noise and the throbbing in my head dulls just long enough for me to lose consciousness.

Thank God Mom and Dad will be here soon to take over my shift.

July 2030

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury: I’d like to thank you for all of the tireless days you’ve spent holed up in this courtroom, isolated from your loved ones while enduring what has turned out to be an incredibly strenuous trial. I thank you, and the people of California thank you, for doing this important work on our behalf. You will set a precedent for how our society prosecutes virtual crimes in an increasingly complex world, one where new, groundbreaking technologies emerge every single day.

The case we consider today concerns the untimely death of Bobby Oren, an eighteen-year-old honors student at Fairmont High School in LA. Mr. Oren was well-known among his peers not only for his impressive intellect but also as a funny, kind, and generous young man. In short, he was one of those types who – and here I quote one of his classmates– you’d ‘love to hate if you could, but the truth is you can’t.’

Unfortunately for Bobby Oren, his very own brother - the defendant, Abel Oren - did hate him.

Let me take a step back and summarize what we’ve learned during this trial.

The Virtual Reality Module – abbreviated VRM and pronounced ‘vroom’ by its marketers – is part virtual reality game, part automotive safety gadget. VRM launched in 2023 and quickly became the best-selling VR game of the 2020s after Tesla agreed as part of a packaged deal to sell it as a premium upgrade option to customers. Judging by the nods I’ve seen here throughout this trial, I gather that several members of this jury are personally familiar with it. Typical customers are either gaming aficionados, interested in the VRM’s cutting edge co-piloting technology, or some combination of the two.

It’s a genius concept, isn’t it?: transform your boring commute into a game. A game you can win. Teenagers – girls and boys just learning to drive like Bobby Oren, for instance – are drawn to it because it features imaginative, fantasy-based driving courses overlaid on top of possibly the most boring thing one can imagine these days: human reality.

One of the beauties of VRM is that it seemingly cracked the ethics problem which companies working on self-driving cars hadn’t been able to solve for years: if a car gets into an accident without a human steering it, then who is responsible for the crash? VRM doesn’t leave it up to Artificial Intelligence to make split-second decisions. Instead, VRM lets a human being remain in control of the car’s trajectory by rendering everything in its environment as part of a lively virtual reality game, while limiting the AI’s responsibility to generating the most entertaining yet appropriate visual stimuli. All the AI has to do is simply nudge the human towards the safest choice. Instead of the horror and panic of having to steer away from unexpected road debris, a pedestrian crossing the street or a head-on collision with another car, the human only has to stay on the virtual racecar track, or – in the game which Bobby Oren had chosen to play on that fateful day – the rings of Saturn. The human is always in control - unless, of course, the AI's safety mechanisms are tampered with.”

January 2029

The night shift nurse has left the room so it’s just me and Bobby now. Tonight he breathes easily. This fact bothers me even more than his snore.

When Bobby was a baby he snored so loudly that visiting friends joked about the crotchety old man hiding in our basement. Our parents thought this was hilarious. I might’ve found it amusing, too, if his snoring hadn’t kept me awake every night. I sought revenge by slipping daddy long legs into Bobby’s bed until I learned that they didn’t actually bite. The daddy long legs would just disappear underneath the covers without disturbing Bobby at all.

Beneath all that noise was a peaceful, cherubic little boy with nothing to hide and not an impure pulse in his body. But even as a toddler I knew it was all a façade. Nothing that appears pure is real. Nothing that peaceful could possibly be good. Reality is too complex and muddled to be as simple as Bobby wanted us all to believe.

Even now, in spite of the ordeal inside his body, despite the fact that he’ll die soon, Bobby’s face looks peaceful as ever. I guess that’s what draws so many people to him. It’s his state of being; he’s always seemed perfect.

I, in contrast, was a colicky, restless toddler who was diagnosed with ADHD before I learned to write my own name. Dad would never admit that he liked Bobby more than me. I’m not saying he didn’t love me – I would never go that far – but he always slid comments about how much Bobby reminded him of himself.  How Bobby’s accomplishments made him proud because he would have done things the exact same way when he was Bobby’s age. To me he "suggested" ways in which I could become a better person – he wouldn’t give me such honest feedback if he didn’t love me, he insisted.  Self-improvement was love, apparently.

July 2030

“VRM was the first automotive safety product to exhibit what industry folks call ‘interpretive limning’. It’s a catchy way of saying that it watches what’s going on around you and renders danger into a visual that you’d prefer to see, or perhaps something you’d expect to see; something that would prevent you from overreacting to a sudden or unforeseen event. Overcorrecting, as I’m sure most of you can imagine, is one of the most dangerous human behaviors, especially while driving, and something which a computer would simply never do. In the case of ‘Saturn’s Speed’ - the course that Mr. Oren chose on the morning of his death - VRM was programmed to alter the trajectory of Saturn’s rings. As long as Bobby stayed the course, he wouldn’t have noticed that anything was different. Safe, easy, and fun. Right?

As we all know by now, VRM didn’t do what it was supposed to that day.

The defense will tell you that it wasn’t the defendant, but the driver of that truck, who caused Bobby Oren’s death. That the driver, who was sleep deprived after an unusually stressful shift, was responsible for the fatal crash. The defense will even say that Mr. Oren’s death wasn’t a murder but rather an unfortunate accident.

Simply put, the defense is wrong.

You see, the VRM in the Oren family’s Tesla Model Z had been tampered with long before January 19th, 2029. In fact, our digital forensics detectives have determined that the VRM had been defective since September of the previous year, when the last software update was installed. That software update was, as experts would later discover, not a normal one which VRM would have pushed to Tesla customers on a schedule, but rather one which the defendant had developed entirely himself. That’s right, Ladies and Gentlemen, the defendant is a computer whiz.

Abel Oren might not have known that the tractor-trailer would drift into his kid brother's lane that day. That much I will concede. But the fact that he didn’t know when his brother would die is irrelevant. The point is that he knew, unequivocally, that it would happen. That, my friends, is the difference between an accident and cold-blooded murder.

Like I’ve said, the defendant is an intelligent man. So intelligent, in fact, that by executing only five lines of code he was able to accomplish two very criminal things.

First, he obscured VRM’s ability to warn Bobby about objects in his periphery. We’re all familiar with how dangerous blind spots are; it’s one of the first things you learn about in Driver’s Ed. The defendant disabled the retina tracker without impairing the hardware itself. He knew that tampered goggles would look suspicious, so he did the most innocuous thing he could think of: he tried to make it look like buggy code.

The second thing the defendant accomplished was prevent VRM from defaulting to its failsafe mode. Because, you see, the developers at Virtual Robotics are smart, too. They understand that software glitches sometimes occur. So in the very unlikely event that VRM fails to see danger through its various high res cameras, it’s still able to interpret threats using other methods. By detecting ground vibration through the car's tires and shock absorbers, for example. The loud rumbling that the eighteen-wheeler created as it approached Mr. Oren – remember, folks, that we’re talking about a tractor-trailer here – should have been picked up by the VRM, and it would have known to switch to safe mode after failing to render a comet. VRM is smart enough to alert itself when its visual outputs fail. It’s self-aware. But the defendant disabled that ability too.

How did the defendant learn how to do these things? We were able to establish a timeline of events thanks to the help of our digital forensics experts.”

January 2029

The last time I hung out with Bobby was on Thursday morning, the day before his accident. He had stopped over at my place for breakfast on his way to school. I made eggs in a basket, his favorite comfort food ever since we were kids. I fried the little bread hat with extra butter and served it on the side with hot dogs.

After breakfast we watched surfing videos on YouTube, Bobby’s latest obsession. One of the commercials was an ad for VRM. “Coming soon!” warbled their little droid-y mascot. “A new game for adventure mode enthusiasts!” There was a 4-D rendering of an abandoned highway besieged by zigzagging zombies and necromorphs. “Pre-order yours today! Exclusively on Alibaba.”

I turned to my brother. “Whaddya say, Bobby-O?” I asked. “Ready to get back on that horse?” I was referring to the time we watched World War Z and he pissed his pants afterwards in his sleep. He was such a little wimp about it.

“Fuck you man,” he said, grinning. I know he meant it as a joke but hearing Bobby drop the F-bomb still got under my skin. It wasn’t like I’d just cooked him breakfast or anything.

When I was seven there had been a big protest in LA. Chants and party music flooded the streets and filled every corner of our apartment. My parents decided to join the commotion. I remember Mom looking especially cheerful and excited that day. She said it was an opportunity to fundamentally change politics in America.

I wanted to go out with them, but they made me stay home and watch my brother. Bobby is barely three years younger than me. What was I supposed to do if something happened? Am I my brother’s keeper?

It was an early example of how I would consistently become responsible for Bobby’s wellbeing. Like I’ve said Dad loved us both but favored my brother; Mom loved us equally but kept her distance from us both. Together our parents provided for us without raising us.

So I had no choice but to become Bobby’s de facto guardian. I made Hamburger Helper on school nights and duct taped his shoes back together after they fell apart during recess. I gave him my lunch money when he left his at home. I went grocery shopping with Mom and showed her exactly what to buy because she didn’t know what he liked. I wasn’t perfect but I did what I could. No one in their right mind would ever doubt that I treated Bobby well.

As I got older the ADHD worsened. Just before turning fourteen I realized that the meds were making things worse so I stopped taking them and woke up on my first day of high school unable to form sentences. I fought to make passing grades and fought even harder to keep the few friends which I had. Eventually I managed to beat the odds and graduate because I was determined to get the hell out of Dodge, but Bobby always did better without working half as hard.

To make things worse, my brother was always so damn grateful.  He followed me around like a desperate pup and gave me hugs and dedicated his sloppy artwork to me until he got to middle school. But he never learned to sacrifice the way I did. Big brother made sure he didn’t have to. Bobby succeeded easily while I barely got by.

July 2030

“On the morning of September 27th, 2028, as we know from reviewing his search history, the defendant browsed three social platforms online: VRMFans, CoderFlow, and GhostNet.

Here is just a sampling of the search words that the defendant used. On VRMFans he searched for ‘safety protocol’, ‘glitch’, ‘patch’ (as in software), ‘Virtual Robotics version control’, ‘vulnerability’. On CoderFlow, a closed forum for advanced programmers, he asked the question: ‘How do I topple a local C2R network – short for Camera-to-Render – in stealth mode?’ And perhaps most incriminating of all, he logged onto GhostNet less than two minutes after receiving his first response on CoderFlow and created a new burner account. As you now know, GhostNet is an exchange platform where users can mask and swap their digital identities – like a VPN for our entire digital selves. Now don’t get me wrong, GhostNet can be a very convenient and harmless technology if used for the right reasons. But I’m sure you can see how it also enables nefarious activity among the bad guys.

All of this shady behavior is adding up. Why was the defendant searching for these specific terms, and why the need for GhostNet? What did he have to hide?

Upon further examination our experts have confirmed what none of us wants to believe: that the defendant, Abel Oren, Bobby’s very own brother – did in fact manage to hack the VRM on his parent’s Tesla and package it all up into one rigged software update which, despite his best efforts, has his digital fingerprints all over it.”

January 2029

Several years ago I read a book about dying. It said that in the process of dying, you return to your true self.

Bobby’s breathing is becoming more laborious and he’s starting to make these weird, seizure-like movements in his sleep. The book said this would happen too: for a little while your body starts to quiver and shake like its trying to wake itself up. Some people who are in a coma might actually wake up, maybe even realize where they are and ask how they got there. It’s like you get one last chance to be alive again for a brief second, and then God yanks it all away again before you can get used to it.

“Fuck you man,” were the last words Bobby said to me before his accident. I know he was kidding, but still.

Bobby will die soon – maybe as early as tomorrow. Perhaps only then will I know how much I loved him.

This story is a contribution to the 7th STSC Symposium, a monthly collaboration from STSC's writers around a set theme. Our topic for this month is Fiction.