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Literature / Caffeine

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"The program has already seen beyond its own existence, and the existence of its entire universe… how much longer before it reaches the limits of yours? How do you think the malvirai will react when it discovers you merely descended from monkeys? What will help you, Brandon, when it finds no foundation but lifeless dust?"
— the teenager with a chain around his neck

A 2009 stand-alone Science Fiction novel by Ryan Grabow. The e-book was originally released on the author's website under a Creative Commons license. Paperback editions were released in 2011 and 2023.

Brandon Dauphin lives in a rapidly accelerating world. Shocking trends emerge daily, louder is better, and the powerful stimulant PJX is found in almost everything (by popular demand). A sagging economy and cheap, reliable artificial intelligence have conspired to put people out of work. Not everyone minds the free time, though. Games have never been more realistic.

As everyone heeds the command to indulge, Brandon is overcome by the questions and doubt raging in his mind. Everyone has grown distant. Life has become cheap and fleeting. Veronica is the only pillar he has left. Their long-distance relationship doesn’t fail like the others, and Brandon plans to propose marriage. Even in this, though, hope eludes him. Reality is slipping further and further away.

Brandon retreats to the illusions of Dynamic Reality, a global computer network in which simulations are completely real. But when the AI characters act strangely and his war-game begins tearing itself apart, Brandon struggles to find a way out. He finds himself back in a real world that isn’t so real and encounters a strange woman named Aether. He doesn’t understand what the hacker wants but she threatens to kill him if he doesn’t cooperate in her experiment. Brandon senses the threats are real, but Aether is hiding something.

The woman isn’t a hacker, but a computer virus.

Brandon has become trapped in Dynamic Reality’s worst case scenario, but with the virus’s self-awareness came something else, something beyond her destructive programming that she’s committed to uncover. Aether asks whether her existence is a lie, and her pursuit to understand the truth has led her to study the race that created hers, and to study the world they live in as only a virus would.

Caffeine questions our definitions of good and evil, and treats the existence of a world we can’t see as inevitable. If ordinary A.I.s are said to become self-aware, why not the viruses based on them? Can God love an entity programmed only to destroy? Can a destroyer ever see beyond her programming?

There is no going back. Aether will force him to choose between his love and his hate, and Brandon will need to overcome the noise of modern culture to learn what it means to be human all over again, before the illusion he has become is gone forever.

This novel provides examples of:

  • A Good Name For A Sledg-ek Band: Eleven Under, Aiming for Wednesday.
  • Always Chaotic Evil: Chaos comes with a malvirai's self-awareness. Their misguided attempts to restore "order," without regard for self-preservation, makes them even more destructive and short-lived than normal malvirai.
  • Arc Words: "I have a desire and nothing else matters."
  • Bittersweet Ending: The destructiveness of sin only becomes clear to Brandon when he becomes a murderer.
  • Blatant Lies: "Yes. If it helps you, then consider me a 'hacker.'"
  • Chekhov's Armoury: Playing cards, five-three error codes, dancing trees, points of light, Brandon's pistol.
  • Commercial Pop-Up: Holographic technology has brought this to Real Life. Attractive women constantly stop Brandon on the street... to tell him about half-off drink specials and sell him data plans.
  • Computer Virus: Aether is a class A3 malvirai, an AI virus that can see complex patterns as easily as we see colors. Malvirai can spawn and infect and pass through encyptions easily. Their typical lifespan, due to their destructiveness, is a mere 4.2 seconds.
  • Cooldown Hug: After Scott is killed by a mindless sentrai, Aether decides the meaning of life is death and begins to destroy the server with herself in it. Brandon's descender is unexpectedly returned and she compels him to leave, but he knows Aether's answer is wrong. So eager to flee until then, now he hugs the malvirai and cries for her, a thing she can't do for herself. He calls it the manliest thing he ever did.
  • Designer Babies: "Veetoos" are created in a lab from engineered DNA. Both of Veronica's parents and her younger brother are veetoos, though Veronica herself was a natural child.
  • Digital Avatar: Ascenders experience Dynamic Reality through customizable "vanitars", which one feels and uses the same as their real body. Alpha-class malvirai, like Aether, are capable of creating their own.
  • Fake-Out Opening: The first couple of pages seem to be set in the 1930's, but the movie theater is revealed to be a DR construct centuries in the future.
  • Foreshadowing: The aforementioned movie theater. The reader is given an illusion, which Brandon is trying to accept as real, but it is gradually torn down.
  • Future Slang: Statick, Random, Wheeled, Slunk, Bell Ringer, Veetoo, Rek Rek Rek
  • Inside a Computer System: Dynamic Reality is a virtual reality internet one uses in REM sleep.
  • Involuntary Shapeshifting: A medieval game becomes a fantasy game. Brandon becomes an elf.
  • iProduct: Many modern words end with the letter 'K.'
  • Meaningful Name: Aether is the medium science once believed light waves traveled on.
  • Mysterious Watcher: Aether, when Brandon thinks he's in the real world.
  • The Power of Friendship: Malvirai have no concept of peaceful interaction or friendship. Aether's unprecedented exploration of humanity leads Brandon to make an unprecedented offer.
  • Science Marches On: In-universe example. The date the dinosaurs went extinct has changed at least twice.
    Aether: "The age of the production is irrelevant. Facts do not change."
  • Self-Inflicted Hell: What the vision of paradise is revealed to be.
  • Sex Sells: All pop-up holograms trying to sell something or provide customer service will appear as an attractive member of the opposite sex.
  • Voluntary Shapeshifting: Because human vanitars can get so mundane...
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Aether starts to become this, plotting to destroy Dynamic Reality itself, so humans can appreciate the real world again.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: Brandon proposes legal recognition of self-aware Artificial Intelligence. Aether doesn't think it's a good idea.
  • World of Ham: In-universe example, onboard The Intergalactic. Brandon plays as third in command of a luxurious cruiseship in space where everyone's a stowaway, in an affair, watching a loved one die, or trying to kill someone. The ship's computer only adds to the drama, getting upset if people don't say 'please' when giving it commands. Brandon doesn't understand what draws Aether to the simulation until the ship inexplicably finds itself in the gravity well of a star that's forty-five minutes from going supernova.