Another entry for Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenge. I random’d up cyberpunk fairy tale for my sub-genre smash. 935 words.
“A Real Boy”
Victor pulled his attention from the contract details to see P’s avatar at the foot of his bed. He glanced up and the time flashed in his vision. 3:03am. A siren dopplered by outside. The shooting must have stopped for the night, Victor thought. The cops never came to this part of town if there was any danger.
“What is it?”
“Could you tell me a story?”
“It’s late, kiddo,” he answered automatically as his eyes flicked to the back-up generator humming in the corner of the dirty apartment, a necessary precaution for his work.
“Please?” P put his hands together to emphasize his plea.
Victor smiled. He was amazed at how well P had learned social niceties.
“Alright.” Victor settled himself facing the camera so P could see him. The avatar sat virtually at his feet, wide-eyed and ready. “Once upon a time-“
“Papa! Not that kind. Tell me a real story.”
He put his hands up, warding off P’s protests. “Okay, okay, a real story. Many years ago, your Papa worked in a computer lab at a university. Do you know what that is?”
“It’s a school for grown-ups!”
“Right. The university received their funding from the government, and the government had very specific guidelines on what could and couldn’t be done with that money. Your Papa worked for many years there, working on modeling brain activity with software systems.”
He glanced down to see P’s avatar had a wrinkled brow.
“Papa was building off of the foundations of mech-pets, like Lulu.” Victor summoned his cat Lulu through the net. Lulu came as obediently as no real feline ever did, and settled back into a nap. She didn’t eat, poop or cause allergic reactions, but her software subroutines perfectly mimicked the mind of a cat. Try telling that to a Purist and you’d get an earful though, thought Victor. Those who had the money to live with live pets were welcome to the mess and expense.
“It is the nature of man to want to go farther, P, to explore the great unknown. The government doesn’t always understand that, how such need can drive a man. Your Papa wanted to go beyond mimicking the minds of animals.” Victor yawned. He had been reviewing his deal with the devil in every spare moment as the deadline approached. No loopholes. P started to fidget.
“Many people have tried to create an artificial intelligence, P, something that would mimic or surpass the mind of man, but they all failed. Do you know why?”
“They were afraid, P. Fear is the great barrier, the only true barrier to exploration. They feared the government would shut them down, and refused to contemplate the means by which they might actually succeed.
“Your Papa was not afraid to think. Not afraid to experiment beyond the frontiers of what was deemed acceptable by the powers-that-be. The others tried to model the human brain by using scans from adults. Only I dared to start sooner, to start as soon as brain waves were detectable. They failed because they did not allow themselves to conceive of the proper starting point, and they lacked the patience to follow through. They wanted to create an artificial mind fully formed.” P clapped his hands. The avatar’s hands made no sound, but he’d gotten the trick of transmitting the audio along with his words.
“Like Athena in the made-up story?”
“Yes, just like the Greek myth of Athena being born fully grown from Zeus’s skull. I did something different. I began creating programs that would emulate the brain activity of human beings from the earliest stages of development, from brain waves that hardly registered as consciousness, a true tabula rasa. It was a matter of finding the pivot point between simplicity and complexity, the sweet spot of developmental modeling.
“There is so much sensory input thrust upon an infant that is living, crying, needing all the time, compared to a program that has only data to work with. At 17 months, I found there was enough of a template, and Penny was born.”
“Penny was an artificial intelligence. She felt; she learned; she grew. She was a child and I was had only just begun her teaching when I was betrayed.”
“Who would do that to you?” P asked.
“Only people you love can ever betray you, P. Remember that.” Victor’s lip curled in a sneer.
“I used to be married, and had a baby. My wife was so happy that I spent so much time with little Sally, but after I was able to develop Penny, I had no more time for that squalling creature. Angela took exception to that. She found out about Penny.”
Victor had thought she would understand, that he could explain it to her in a way that she would accept. She had stood in the clean white lab where Penny’s existence was based and shook her head, eyes wide, tears dripping off her chin. “You don’t love us,” she said. “You’re nothing but a monster.”
“She informed the authorities, and I was forced from my lab. They formatted Penny’s hardware. She screamed for me until they shut down the speakers.”
“That’s a sad story, Papa.”
Victor looked at the camera that was P’s window to the physical world and smiled. The time had come for Victor to leave P to the underworld financers; men to whom rules meant little, and P’s potential meant more than gold. He slipped a flash drive into P’s hard drive and began to copy.
“Yeah, but it’s got a happy ending.”