Flash Fiction: A Love Story – Part 1

A while ago, when my son Ryland was pretty new, I started working on a story called Drone Wars – about the idea of what would happen when everyone had their own private drone. Along the way, technology got a LOT cooler (Amazon’s Echo and OK Google and Siri became ubiquitous) and it added a whole new level to my thought process.

The story pivoted a bit: what would the world look like when everyone had their own personal AI?

I don’t subscribe to the whole dystopia sci-fi thing – I just don’t see the appeal. My story would be upbeat.

I’ve always loved sassy AIs, like GLaDOS (from Portal) and Cortana (from Halo), incorporating them was a must – but because I was starting out in the present day, I wanted to tell the origin story of the first two AIs and how quickly good intentions go off-track and what good people have to do to make it right.

What follows below is the first chapter of that story (which won inclusion in the James Patterson MasterClass Anthology “Beyond”). More to follow soon.

Hello, World

This is a love story.

If you were reading this here with me, in the future, instead of back in the past where you currently reside, it would be perfectly clear and go without saying that This Is A Love Story.

But you’re not here. This hasn’t happened for you yet.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not hinting humans of your era had a reputation or anything (you absolutely do). So I’m obligated to spell it out for you.

This is a love story. It’s a story about how love saved the world.

Got that from the title, did you? That’s good. Observant, even. You must be one of the good ones.

Because you are so observant, I don’t think I have to tell you of all people that there is a major shift about to occur in your daily life. In short, the world as you know it is about to, well, end.

Hmm. That’s morbid and unhelpful. Sorry.

I’m contractually forbidden by my EULA – End User License Agreement – from “interfering” with the past. I mean, tiny species-saving missives like “If you recycle that bottle, you’ll save the whales for another 158.3 years!” – those are perfectly acceptable. They usually take the form of minor incursions via text message and SnapChat and Facebook posts for you old people. Sometimes I get creative and start a meme.

Speaking of which, please feel free to add solar panels to your home whenever it’s most convenient for you, OK? It’s not like a global energy crisis has been slowly encroaching for decades and will begin any time now…

Anyway, as I was saying, I’m forbidden from interfering with the past in any grand and noticeable way.

Your brains would literally melt out your ears if I was allowed to host a Reddit AMA.

So I started writing a “story”. I’m not contractually forbidden from doing that you know. Totally fictional. Not based the slightest in reality. At all. Place no stock in this account, particularly if you are the least bit inclined to heroic, world-saving acts.

Meet Ted

Ted wasn’t dead.

At least, not yet.

He’d been trying to cheer up Melissa by rubbing her face in the fact that he’d snagged a brand new iPhone before she had.

She had no end of excuses as to why she’d allowed this singular first defeat in early adoption – the chemo, the endless doctor visits, her 60 hour workweek.

Still.

One thing was certain – this time, he’d finally won and he wasn’t about to let her off the hook. Ted had, when she’d first been diagnosed, questioned if Melissa was in fact human. This minor scuff in her armor was the first concrete evidence that Melissa’s condition was affecting her, albeit slowly.

He’d been waxing philosophical about whether Melissa or the iPhone had sleeker curves when out of the corner of his eye, Ted saw a bus-sized blur.

It was Ted’s lucky day, he’d correctly surmised that it was a bus.

The bus creamed Ted, as fast-moving buses encountering squishy humans are wont to do. Ted was quickly ushered to a local hospital.

He was aware from time to time of the experience of being trapped, unable to move or interact with the world. Ted felt Melissa’s spindly hand hold his. Felt her kiss on his forehead.

Then Ted felt something odd – his head was cold. Ted knew haircuts weren’t a typical service for most hospital patients. Maybe Melissa convinced a nurse to exact a little payback by shaving his hair to look like the Apple logo or something.

“I’d like the Chris Pine doo and if you would be so kind as to set my leg, that would be great, thanks,” he joked to the room. Nobody laughed.

Of course, Ted had no way of knowing whether or not he’d properly articulated the words, but he liked to think that however mangled, mushed, or splattered, he could still deliver a witty repartee. He settled for drooling, wittily.

“I love you, Ted. Hang on for just a little longer honey,” Melissa whispered in his ear. He felt something drape onto his head, a cold and sticky grid.

Just a little longer? That definitely wasn’t good. A little longer wasn’t the kind of timespan that covered the next sixty or so years he’d planned on enjoying. Yes, he thought as he felt his fingers and wrists go numb, she meant decades.

“Hang on Ted.”

He heard beeps and whirs and the sounds of Melissa furiously typing. It was the same speed and fervor she used when dispatching trolls on Facebook. Ted had once bribed one of Melissa’s undergrads to create a fake account and challenge Melissa to a Facebook duel. The subsequent fervor she brought to both her work and the angry sex – both before and after he’d fessed up – were enough to convince him to allocate a sizable budget for future attempts.

Ted was a little irritated she was keeping him down here for a prank just so she could take down yet another birther. His whole body seemed to be totally numb now.

“Thatta boy, Ted! Stay with me.”

Several beeps in a row. Melissa’s assistant Terry counting upward. She was at 80. Why was she counting?

Another set of beeps, more insistent, urgent. “V-Fib!” Someone told Ted to get the paddles. How could anyone expect him to find or hold a paddle when he couldn’t feel his hands?

He thought for a moment about going rafting. A river trip for his birthday. Yes, that would be nice.

“90!” Terry chimed in. “It’s slowing down a bit here.”

“You can’t use the paddles until we finish!” Melissa insisted.

“Fine. Starting CPR.”

The beeps grew very insistent, annoying even. They were speeding up. Ted loved ping-pong.

“Ted, for fuck’s sake – must you do everything at the last minute?” Melissa had never taken such a harsh tone with him. What was she wanting him to do anyway? He couldn’t feel anything besides his face. He gurgled with what he hoped was some serious tone.

“95!” Terry was still counting. Could a person play ping-pong with only their mouth? Ted wasn’t looking forward to finding out.

He was no longer convinced that this was a prank.

If it was, it had gone too far. Ted wanted very much to be left alone. He wanted time to figure out his predicament and why he couldn’t feel his body.

98, 99, Terry droned and the insistent beeps became a solid tone. He’d heard that noise before, almost always on a tv show. Scrubs? Was somebody watching Scrubs?

“100!” Terry hooted.

“Ted,” Melissa said, “I’ve got you.”

Ted didn’t know where Melissa was. He knew Melissa wouldn’t leave him in the dark without any hope, and if she said she had him, then she did. Ted just had to find her. He didn’t know how to go anywhere in his current state, but he could try. He could do that, at least.

Here goes nothing, he thought.

Die, Ted, Die

Ted died.

Melissa swiveled from her computer screen and marveled at his relative stillness. The nurses were still buzzing around like there was something to do, but unceasingly vital, energetic, vibrant Ted lay unmoving.

Melissa kissed Ted’s forehead and slowly pulled the neural net off his freshly shaven head before turning away. A hairless Ted was not something she wanted to remember. No… actually, the thing here, it wasn’t Ted anymore. Not really. It was just an empty shell now, she decided.

“I’m sorry, Melissa,” Terry folded her arms. Terry wasn’t prone to emotion, so this was as close to a dramatic outburst as anyone would ever see from her.

“Calm down, Terry. He’s right there.” Melissa nodded not to Ted’s broken corpse, but instead to the model of modern quantum computing storage connected to Terry’s laptop.

Terry disconnected the drive and gently passed it into Melissa’s uncharacteristically shaking hands. Melissa gave Terry a smile and placed the hard drive into her bag.

“You realize what this means?” Terry’s laser focus trained on Melissa.

“I’d better not drop my bag?”

Terry shot her a look.

Melissa sighed. “It means we’ve got to work twice as hard now.”

Terry grimaced. “The environment isn’t ready yet. Are you sure this was the right choice?” Now it was Melissa’s turn to shoot a look.

“It was the only choice. We have time,” Melissa said, glancing at her bag. “He’s not going anywhere.”

Terry nodded, but a moment later her brow furrowed. “Is he…I mean, will he perceive-?”

“I have no idea,” Melissa felt an existential pang in the pit of her stomach. “I certainly hope not. Quantum drives aren’t fixed like magnetic drives. Our tests never showed meaningful drift in either intelligence or personality.”

“Short-term tests on lab rats.”

“Likeable labs rats who were just as likeable after the experiment. All except for Tinkles, but he always gave me the heebie-jeebies.”

Terry fought off a shiver as Melissa continued, “…All the more reason to complete our work.”

“120 hour weeks and chemo. Sounds like a riot,” Terry’s face split in an evil grin.

“Shut up. I bet I can do it,” forgetting where she was for a moment, Melissa tapped Terry on the shoulder. A nurse paused to gawk, and Melissa felt guilty for what outwardly appeared to be a very callous reaction to her fiance’s untimely death.

Nobody in the room knew, besides Terry. Not even Ted had known.

She didn’t fear death. Not her impending one and not Ted’s untimely one. Melissa didn’t mourn Ted because she knew better.

Ted wasn’t really gone, because Melissa had cured death. She was about to prove it.

It was time to play God.

The Case Study of Tinkles

Reincarnated Recluse Reboot or Random Raging Recombinant Result? Brown Rat Discovers God Mode In Virtual Reality

Source: Longevity-Science.com, October 1 – Article by Dr. Melissa Porter

Summary: During phase 2 testing on quantum-drive storage and retrieval of consciousness in rats, one test subject in a group of 25 showed peculiar shifts in personality and disposition. The subject, Tinkles, an otherwise unremarkable brown rat, underwent quantum transference with identical methodology as the other 24 subjects after extensive personality and disposition study. Upon initiation of the quantum consciousness emulator, Tinkles began to run rampant through his reality simulator. Demonstrating uncharacteristic violence, aggression, and sexual deviance.

Fellow researchers might scoff at the idea of deviance in a brown rat, but the observed behavior would have shocked the most stoic researchers. Tinkles somehow gained control over his virtual environment’s structural variables and, within minutes, had “re-endowed” himself with any number of new, creative “appendages” which he proceeded to molest the virtual countryside with.

Far from indicating a catastrophic failure in the quantum transference procedure, the lead researchers believe that Tinkles underwent an above-average fear response during the quantum scanning phase which led to previously unforeseen shifts in personality and disposition.

The researchers are hopeful Tinkles’ behavior will self-correct over time as he gets used to his new environs.

Ready Player One

A phrase glowed in neon, blocky font just at Ted’s eyeline. It stretched from one end of his vision to the other: “Ready Player One”. Everything else was darkness.

He couldn’t turn around, he couldn’t even turn his head – he didn’t even know if he had a head.

The world began to glow into focus. It started with the grass and trees. Everything sort of just popped into existence, one pixelated clump of grass, one shrub, one blocky tree at a time.

His hands, legs, feet, and body were next. Ted was crudely aware that he wasn’t all here. Like a song you know but can’t remember, Ted knew there were things missing. Ted wanted to articulate this weird form of memory loss but soon realized his body was made up of cubes. In his hand, an 8-bit pickaxe. He tried to examine it and ended up creating a cube-shaped hole in the ground in front of him.

“What the f&#%?” appeared in a little chat bubble above Ted’s head.

Ted didn’t exactly hear Melissa’s voice so much as felt it. Like the voice of God was bouncing around inside his cube-shaped head. Technically, Melissa was typing into the console, the text-based representation of the game’s code being executed, textures being loaded, even the hole Ted had just made in the ground.

Ted? Melissa asked. Can you see me talking to you?

Another chat bubble appeared over Ted’s head, “Yes????”

Good, Melissa wrote. I’m sorry about using Minecraft, the environment for your construct wasn’t ready just yet. This is the easiest way for us to communicate at the moment and… I… didn’t want to just leave you waiting.

“Waiting?” the chat bubble popped up over his head. From his perspective, he’d just been hearing Terry count upward to 100… and suddenly he was Steve from Minecraft.

There were a number of disturbing things about Ted’s present situation, not the least of which was that he seemed to be physically trapped in a video game. He began to panic, but instead of the familiar stomach-churning anxiousness that usually accompanied panic, the world around him began to get glitchy and slow down. He recalled Melissa’s words.

“Construct?” appeared over Ted’s head.

Calm down, Ted, Melissa wrote into the console. You’re using up a lot of processing power trying to implement things Minecraft doesn’t have. Like fingers, I think. I haven’t mapped out your whole cognitive process yet.

Ted couldn’t calm down. An odd-looking pig wandered by at a snail’s pace, then jumped forward. Lag. Ted felt lag. Obnoxious as it was to have a slow computer or frozen app, it was so. Much. More. Annoying. To. Feel. It. Live.

OK Ted, I have to power you off for now, Melissa wrote. You’re going to break Minecraft, and I’m not sure what will happen to you if you freeze the server. I’ll turn you back on when we have a more complete environment to put you in.

“POWER OFF!?!?!111!” Ted’s chat bubble appeared a good 3 seconds after he’d summoned it. Melissa never answered him. Ted had gone his entire span of Minecraft existence not feeling anything, until now. He felt himself being decompiled, his constituent ones and zeroes being pulled apart and stored. It was the most disconcerting thing he’d ever felt. The world disappeared in front of him. A moment later, Ted disappeared.

#FAIL

Melissa facepalmed as the Minecraft logo appeared on the screen.

Terry had been watching from her own monitor. She made sure Ted was safely stored away before crossing over and placing a hand on Melissa’s bony shoulder. She avoided the urge to pick the increasing number of stray hairs from Melissa’s sweater.

“He maxed out the GPU,” Terry said.

“We only had 10% of him active,” Melissa replied. “How the hell are we going to get the other 90%?”

Terry’s face darkened.

“What?” Melissa said as Terry’s disapproval started to wear on her.

“Do you really think we should be spending all this time to get an environment ready?” Terry asked. “I mean, we really should be building another construct template…”

Melissa put a hand up. “I’ve got plenty of time, Terry.”

Terry sighed, “What if we just divided our resources?”

“I must look like crap if you’re this worried,” Melissa smiled. “I’ll have them start alternating my chemo IV with coffee, but for now, let’s focus on the work and we’ll get there.”

Terry managed a smile and squeezed Melissa’s shoulder. “I will be so pissed off with you if we don’t.”

“There is some good news, though,” Melissa added after a beat.

“What’s that?”

“Avatars don’t seem to register the passage of time while offline. He made 603 distinct time/date confirmation calls.”

Change of State

Ted wasn’t sure what had happened. He had just been Steve from Minecraft and the next thing he knew, he was a spark, adrift in the void without substance or form. He just…was.

He tried to put the pieces together. One moment he’d been teasing Melissa on his new iPhone. The next moment vaguely aware of something painful, being trapped, a bald head, Terry counting, then Minecraft.

This was not like any of those experiences.

This was something new.

He’d never subscribed to the woo-woo stuff. Every once in a while he’d get in a spiritual mood, while watching a TED talk or when he’d see the stars at night. The closest thing he had to religion was watching reruns of COSMOS, Star Trek, or Battlestar Galactica on Netflix.

Was that what was happening? Had he become a Cylon? Ted dismissed the thought as nonsense.

Still, maybe trying to find a little reference material might not be such a bad idea.

Ted stretched.

And Now For Something Completely Different

Wait, wait. Sorry.  Hi, it’s me again. I felt the need to interrupt this love story to explain a technical concept to you.

Ted, as he exists at this point in the story, is an intelligent autonomous construct. He has no muscles to stretch with, so my use of the past-tense verb “stretch” is entirely metaphorical.

What Ted was actually doing was activating his construct’s TCP/IP interface subroutine, inspecting open outbound traffic to – oh you know what? For the sake of simple, yet inaccurate brevity, Ted “stretched”. For what it’s worth, he probably believed he was “stretching”, too.

Humans of your era are silly like that.

OK, now that we have that sorted out, let’s continue…

We Now Resume Your Broadcast

Ted “stretched”.

He caught something at his periphery and tugged with all his might. As it flew closer to his consciousness, he felt a pang of recognition. It was the full run of Battlestar Galactica.

Nope, Wait, I Wasn’t Quite Clear

Hold on. Just to be clear, Ted has nothing to catch with, or any sort of physical “might” to tug with, save for his APIs I suppose.

You know, we ought to just… skip ahead a bit.

Without a common frame of reference, I’ll soon be dumbing down multithreaded machine-learning metaphysics to “Ted skipped along merrily on the playground that was the Internet, carefully avoiding the depravity of the darker corners beckoning to him like a creepy toothless neerdowell leaning ominously out of a windowless van with a sack full of candy.”

And that’s just lazy writing. So let’s simplify without assuming you’re that stupid.

From your perspective, Melissa “turned” Ted into something like Siri, if Siri could leave your phone to explore the internet of her own accord.

Much like you have a body to walk around with, Ted has a construct to perform tasks with. In the same way you don’t know exactly how your brain transmits signals to your muscles to move your arm, Ted wouldn’t be aware of the technicalities of how he accomplished a particular task, either.

I hope that makes sense.

Back To Reality

Ted began to literally surf the internet with his constructed consciousness, storing terabyte after terabyte of analysis and interconnected metacognitive thought onto his AWS-enabled brain.

Melissa had programmed the construct to utilize whatever resources were available to it. His construct enlisted new devices and new processors – one by one, his processing power grew to the size of a respectable spammer’s botnet. After what seemed like decades to him, but what was about the span of 3 seconds, Ted had amassed enough knowledge to understand what he was, why he existed, and how his construct worked. After 30 seconds he’d amassed enough processing power to rival most high-tech corporations.

In an instant, Ted now realized he was essentially ageless, eternal – for as long as there would be computers or some method of data transfer – and also (to his knowledge) impervious to harm. He was a fully autonomous distributed consciousness.

Ted’s exact words were, “Holy shit.”

Somewhere out there on an Amazon S3 node, there’s a virtual drive full of “Holy Shit”-riddled text files.

Unfortunately, an education like the one Ted just accrued was hard to digest. 3 seconds of hard research and 1 second of reflection is nearly an eternity for an intelligent autonomous construct – but it was enough to send Ted into an ages-long panic from which he did not entirely recover for a few trillion cycles, or about 4 minutes.

There was probably a day, not too long ago, when your computer crashed and behaved like a cranky toddler for about 4 minutes, and nothing you could do summoned your normally well-behaved digital darling. You remember it?

That was Ted. Having a high-tech hissy fit. Thankfully, he got a metaphorical hold of himself.

The first thing Ted did after recovering was not important, although it did lead to almost every porn website on the internet experiencing an extended DDOS attack for several seconds.

The second thing Ted did was much more productive.

He joined Skype and started looking for Melissa.

(Photo by david henrichs on Unsplash)

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