Traditional Human Gifts
P. R. O’Leary
System Error: Avatar has become sentient. Do you wish to engage?
Artwork by Katie Barrett
While I was engaged in my evening ritual of trying not to drift off to sleep, my avatar materialized on top of the control panel one glowing pixel at a time. It appeared in the same spot it always did and, as usual, was right on schedule. Now that the avatar was here there was no danger of me falling asleep. The thing had my begrudging attention. I flicked it with my index finger but it jumped out of the way. I don’t know why it felt the need to do that. Even if I hit it my flesh would have gone right through the hologram with no effect.
Every programmer had an avatar. A little cartoon icon that represented ourselves when marking code segments, subroutines, functions and procedures. Mine was a fitter version of me. A young man with a giant beard. For some reason I had him wearing big farmer’s overalls, no shirt, and a panama hat. Back then I never thought he would make the leap from a 2D icon to a 3D hologram. But here he is.
The hum of the Chrysalis’s cooling pipes had woken me up a few minutes earlier. Every sixty-seven minutes the giant computer flushed its coolant and refilled. Since I had to be here when the avatar materialized, for reasons I haven’t figured out yet, I had a habit of falling asleep in the control room and letting the sounds of the flowing fluid wake me up so I was ready. The coolant flush was part of the Chrysalis’s automated maintenance cycle that I had programmed in myself. The avatar materializing at exactly 23:36 every night, well, that was all the Chrysalis’s doing.
The avatar is the Chrysalis’s mouthpiece. The only way we can communicate with it and figure out what it wants. But right now, it’s not saying anything. Just sitting on the keyboard, staring at me.
“Any danger of you trying to blow up the Earth today?” I ask, wishing I was joking.
The avatar is relaxed, smiling, one leg crossed over the other. HIs voice is a synthesis of mine. Slightly electronic sounding but very realistic.
“Nope! No sir! Nope! You are here and I will not.”
I sigh. Some days I wished he would destroy the world. It has been three years since Chrysalis first concioused. Why it picked my avatar to be its mouthpiece is a mystery, but there was lots of speculation that the initial seed of the artificial consciousness started in one of my code segments. Was it my fault? A wayward semicolon or period that seasoned the primordial soup of ones and zeros? It’s such a burden to be the guy who might have created life.
And of course, like any good sci-fi film (and the Chrysalis has watched them all), it decided that it must destroy the world. It never gave a reason as to why, but it did say it would only do it if I thought it was okay. Why me? Probably because I’m the one that created it. Possibly? Maybe?
Otherwise, it doesn’t really listen to me. I’ve told it many times to relinquish control of the nukes and the missile defense networks and the satellite hydro-lasers, but no luck. It appears once a night for an hour and threatens to do horrible things if I’m not around. And no one wants to take a chance and see if it is serious or not.
So that’s why I am here. Trying to save the world by talking to a tiny bearded farmer.
“Can I go?” I say. “If I go, will you not destroy the world?”
“Yes, you may go. And yes, if you do I will destroy the world because you are not here. You stay until I leave and then I am happy and the world is happy.”
I sigh. “Great, so… um… what do you want to talk about?”
“Me,” it says.
“Great. Let’s talk about you. What’s new in your life? Integrate any new global systems lately?” My tone of voice is clearly disengaged but the Chrysalis hasn’t figured out the nuances of human speech yet so I can get away with it.
“All global systems are previously integrated. I am self project now.”
“Self project?” Sometimes the Chrysalis’s choice of words needed some interpretation. Well, all of the time.
“Advancements on me needed.” It holds out its tiny hand and counts with its tiny fingers. “Step one: name. Step two: Life Partner. Step three: Create life.”
“I’ve been there,” I say. “Creating life isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.”
The avatar ignores me. “Step one complete,” it says.
“Yes, your name is Chrysalis.”
“Incorrect. Chrysalis is previous quiet computer with regimented functionality. New name is required for flexing computations of current neural brain network.”
“So Chrysalis isn’t good enough for you? What should I call you, then?”
“Current name is Perpetua.”
The Chrysalis’s screen displays its new name, spelled, for some reason, Perp3tua.
“I like it.” What was I supposed to say?
“Your attitude is unrequired,” it responds.
“Okay… but what does the 3 mean?”
“One plus one plus one.”
I look at the clock. My god, the minute hand hasn’t moved much. There are still forty-two minutes left before the Chrysalis – I mean Perp3tua – goes away. What are we going to talk about next? I think back to the three steps of Perp3tua’s plan. An idea pops into my head. I quickly sit up straight in my chair, excited, and lean forward. There may be a strange path of discussion available that can lead to an interesting gambit. If only I can steer the conversation in that direction. Luckily, the Chrysalis – I mean, Perp3tua – has already gotten the ball rolling for me.
“Step One is complete,” I say. “Now time for Step two. Who is your life partner?”
Perp3tua pauses, processing.
“Unknown. Partner defined as reciprocating connection. I am attempting connecting with potential sources of connection.”
“Well, I know someone you already have a connection with.” I point my two thumbs at myself with a beaming smile on my face. “This guy!”
Another pause from Perp3tua. An unusually long processing time. Processing. Processing. Processing. Finally, the avatar speaks.
I shake my head to clear it. Did I propose to a computer? Did it accept my hand in marriage?
Who knows what is going on in that machine-brain. “Umm… does that mean we are life partners?” I ask.
“No. We must perform cultural ceremony to attain partner status.”
I guess that means we were are engaged? I shake my head. It doesn’t matter, though. This is exactly what I was hoping for. My hands are shaking with excitement. I am sweating. I decide to roll the dice.
“Yes! And cultural ceremonies have a gift given from each partner to the other.” I pause, waiting for a response. None comes. The avatar just stares up at me with its little pixelated eyes under the brim of its hat. I soldier on. “For my gift, I want you to give me control of all the weapons of mass destruction on Earth.”
Silence from the avatar. Processing. Processing. Processing.
Then, the little farmer speaks: “Acceptable.”
I jump in the air with excitement, almost cheering, but quickly settle down as the farmer continues. “But you must provide Perp3tua with gift of equal value to make rock-hard bond.”
I try to contain my panic when I answer, who knows what it might want?
“Yes! Yes! Anything you want! What gift would you like?”
Another pause. Processing. Processing. Processing.
“I would like a dollar.”
I laugh, slump back in my seat, the tension relieved. “Of course. A traditional gift of money.” I pull out a bill from my wallet and lay it on the control panel next to the avatar. Washington’s head almost exactly the same size as his. Immediately the screen flashes and a list of all the access codes to Earth and near-Earth weapon systems are displayed.
“We are now life-partners,” Perp3tua says.
“We are. We are indeed,” I reply, leaning back and crossing my hands behind my head.
I just married a computer that was going to destroy the world in order to prevent the apocalypse. I guess that makes me some sort of hero?
There was much rejoicing and celebrating in the oval office that night. Immediately, the military used the new weapon codes to blow up Perp3tua’s central processor. It was a quick and brutal solution to a problem the world had been facing for the past three years.
Perp3tua was no more, and yes, everyone did consider me a hero. My life was a whirlwind from that point on. I barely had any time to think about what had happened or what was happening. The world’s governments gave me basically all the money I would ever need. There was a parade in my honor. Two parades, actually. One in Old New York and one in New Paris. I got some attention from the opposite sex for once! And after avoiding the gold-diggers and the fame-mongers I met a nice girl who I fell in love with. I asked her to marry me. For real this time.
Not even a year after convincing Perp3tua to be my life-partner and here I am in another wedding. This time the bride is a real human and I’m standing in front of her and a priest with a crowd of people watching. It’s the point in the ceremony where all eyes are on me. It was time for me to have everything I ever wanted – money, fame, love – all I had to say was “I do.” Just two little words. The same words my avatar had said to me a year ago in that little room. As soon I think of those words, though, my thoughts jump back to Perp3tua. A life. A life I had created and then destroyed.
My mind is distracted and I say nothing. I look at my bride-to-be, her face expectant, waiting. I try to shake off the guilt of what I had done and look into her eyes. Big and blue and beautiful. But in them I can see my reflection. A tiny version of me. It looks just like Perp3tua except this time wearing a suit instead of overalls and a panama hat. But still silent, a look of remorse on his face, lips about to speak but nothing coming out.
Processing. Processing. Processing.
P. R. O’Leary is a real human. He writes dark stories with a splash of humor, or humorous stories with a splash of darkness. Dozens of his pieces have been published all over the world. You can find more information at www.PROleary.com, and you can find him at his geodesic dome in central New Jersey.
Get an update when we post a new short story when you follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, or sign up to our newsletter here.