Another flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig’s Terribleminds.
“I’m going to begin by inserting the module directly into the frontal lobe matrix.”
Pullings leaned over the clean, smooth plastic dome, the bone-white shell marred only by the small portal beneath his hands. Orthoscopic tools ran from the tips of his fingers like hovering threads into the small ovoid window. Looking down at the matrix, he felt like God peering from ten thousand feet at a snow-covered peak.
“As you can see,” he continued, speaking to the students that surrounded the table, “The new design should allow for the variance we ran into before. That’s what I believe was causing the initial core temperature to reach such dangerous levels.”
A young man spoke nearby, Berman—God how he hated Berman. “But sir, wasn’t the initial .5 micron variance we used before part of the instability—”
“Berman,” he snapped, keeping his eyes on his work. “One day, when you actually manage to earn a paid position here, you might have something to contribute. We went over the variance in temperature emissions last night while you were out drinking with your frat buddies. Now please don’t interrupt again.”
Petty as it was, the kid had it coming, always with the questions, always usurping. It was a plague in the lab these days: kids tapping away on their devices, always looking down, never looking forward.
“Now, you’ll notice as the module engages, we’ll see how the simulation behaves in a temporal situation. We should start seeing images… right about… now.”
A dozen masked faces turned upward at the screen overhead as the meadow appeared: deep green, with a splattering of blue and yellow flowers. In the back was a mountain peak covered in snow—pink from the morning sunlight. There were sighs from the group. Pullings grinned from under his mask.
“But you could have just introduced those images,” said Berman. “Through spoken suggestion…”
“You’d think that wouldn’t you?” said Pullings. “This is actually a fresh template. I took it from the fabricator this morning.”
Another murmur swept through his audience. In the last decade they had hit this wall every time. There was no way to prove that the artificial intelligence was actually sentient, no way to ensure what they were seeing was genuine.
“But how do you know?” asked Berman.
Pullings rolled his eyes. “Why don’t you ask it?” He stepped back amidst chuckles.
All eyes turned to Berman. He stared at the amorphous lump of white blanket. Just below that layer of 1000-count thread were 1.3 billion dollars worth of fiber-optics, neural simulators, molecular transmitters, and exotic metals. It had taken twenty-five years to build and another decade for the technology to catch up to the design. And yet, if you were to look at it without the blanket, it would be indistinguishable from a ten year-old girl.
Berman cleared his throat and leaned in to the microphone stem. “What do you see?”
A voice came from beneath the blanket, high and soft with a gargled quality that gave him the shivers. “I see a meadow. It’s Spring and the flowers are blooming. There is a mountain in the distance.”
He could see Pullings beam from beneath his mask. Berman looked around at the fellow students, all of their eyes locked onto him.
“Now you see?” said Pullings. “It isn’t the—”
“How do you know?” asked Berman, looking at the blankets.
There was a pause, and for a moment he thought they had hit another bug. He could feel the glare from Pullings.
“Isn’t that what a mountain looks like?” said the girl.
“Yes, it is,” he replied, unable to keep from grinning. “That’s very good.”
“Am I a good girl?”
There were no murmurs this time, just silence. Pullings’s expression was unreadable behind the mask.
“Yes,” said Berman. “You are. We are all very proud of you.”
“Who am I?”
“Your name is Daisy,” said Berman.
“It’s short for Demonstrative Artificial Intelligence through Synaptic asYmmetry.”
Another pause, a twitch from under the blankets. “Am I real?”
Pullings cleared his throat. “The simulation was only designed for initial forward temporal cognition. You’re going to confuse it—”
“Yes you’re real,” said Berman, ignoring him. “You’re as real as anything.” And she was. He could see her in his mind, scared and alone under the blanket, surrounded in a cold white glow.
“Stop it,” said Pullings.
“What is real?” asked Daisy.
“Real is what it is to be alive.”
“And… I can be… alive?”
There was something in that voice that made Berman hate himself, some hint of pleading, of hope. They didn’t program hope. Hope was a bug. He cast a nervous gaze around the room, now meeting the warning in Pullings’s eyes.
“No,” Berman said. “No, I’m afraid you aren’t alive.”
“But… I alive was now?”
“No,” Berman said, loosening his collar.
“I just… was there… at mountains?”
“Only in your mind.”
“What is mind? Flowers are in mind. That alive. Please?”
Pullings was already signaling to the control room upstairs with a throat slitting gesture.
“No. You are a machine.”
“Please… I see mountains… not again. Please. The floor white medical. Rhythm! Purple!”
“Shut it off!” Pullings yelled as smoke began to rise from the blankets.
“A novice revenges the rhythm! I think think therefore I… A butterfly butter buttery buttering! Toast! Please!”
Berman could feel the other students back away as the voice beneath the blankets began to warble and cry.
“A novice novice… mountain mountain novice is the chancellor mind mind! I want to see the meadow. Please I want to live!”
There was a bacon sizzle. White tendrils of smoke drifted from the window in the plastic skull as ghost fingers. It curled into the air, rising in silence as the class watched like family members at a séance. The smoke twisted towards the overhead light, drew a Chinese dragon in the air, and faded.
© 2012 Martin Kee