Hi there! You’re reading the final story from Sixth and Lavaca, a short fiction EP for SXSW 2012 hosted at saladonions.tumblr.com. If you like it, add a short tale of your own to http://sxswstories.tumblr.com. From a tweet to a novella, everything’s welcome!
The man tapped his non-pipe on the non-table, and studied me.
“You have a complexity about you,” he said, “that is so simple. It’s quite enticing. Almost as if you were human.”
“Is that supposed to be a compliment, mister?”
“And such temper, too! You’ve earned your five-star rating.”
Too right I fucking have, I thought. Every click of it. I’d played tennis partner, sparring partner, twelfth-century courtesan and yes, even plain-old whore before, but never this. Never muse.
“To begin, know this about me,” said the piped man, “I am an aesthete.”
“Huh? An athlete?”
He chuckled. “Not quite. An aesthete. An athlete of the senses, if you like. I see, smell, hear and feel, and I enjoy. Even in this world.”
He put his pipe down on the table. Then with a sudden intensity, said:
“Is this something you understand?”
“The senses? Well, I know they exist. I mean I get the general idea, they’re like stimulus, forms of knowledge, only they’re different because they can’t be codified…”
“Oh, but they can. The aesthete codifies them. He collects smells and catalogues sounds and retrieves the textures of the flesh from his memory, for later enjoyment or understanding.”
The never-ending fruit bowl hovered over his left shoulder like an attendant. He reached behind him and lifted a peach, sighing at the action. He narrowed his eyes at the pseudo-fruit. “It can also be mimicked, no? This is a binary peach,” and he bit into it. “A poorly made one, at that.” He turned it to face me. There was perfect whiteness where he’d bitten it. Like gazing into a headlight. “Textures,” he muttered, and threw the peach over the cliff into nothing. There was no sound.
“So, what do you want from me? The weird stuff is extra.” I hadn’t been coded for patience.
“Oh, nothing like that,” he said. “I’ve done all that before, could do it again, for cheaper than you. But I’m given to understand that you’ve got something none of the others have. That’s why they all rave about you on the boards. Am I right?”
He was right, of course. People don’t spend this kind of money without checking what they’re getting. And he would have seen all the excitement, the speculation. The chatter and demand. I still remember on my fifth day of this release, Sam logging on to tell me with wide eyes that I’d gone viral.
“It’s kind of an old-school word, but yeah!”
“Is it bad?”
I’d guessed not. If he’d had bad news to impart, I thought, he wouldn’t have shown up in a huge purple cloak, stovepipe hat and 1971 Chuck Taylors. Something more sombre would’ve accompanied a message that I’d have to be rewritten or worse, deleted. Well, as sombre as Sam ever got. What do you expect a fourteen year-old boy to do? As I was being coded, from single-lined subroutine through simple geometric states and beyond, I’d communicated with his friends’ AIs. Being more sophisticated, they’d looked down on me a little at first, but as let me into their gossip circle as I grew enough appendages. Those boys were all the same, they said: relentlessly experimental, playful, and ever so slightly confused. They’d create dinosaurs that loped across the screen at age five, knockoffs of the teevee space villains at age 10, and by fourteen… well, to see us all sitting in a circle, you’d think you were on the set of one of those old pornos. Glands bounced of their own accord, full-length hair waved in a digital breeze, and we talked.
We were all our authors’ dirty little secrets, the magazines hidden under the bed. We all had a story to tell of some time we’d been online with our creator – bless them – and their parents had logged in to ask them about homework, only to see something they weren’t prepared for. But we felt no shame, we weren’t programmed to. Besides, was there shame in it? Not really. Boys will be boys, we’d say, it was a little harmless fun that had led to our creation. And weren’t they learning a practical skill out of it? Even if it was only used for one purpose. The other girls said I was different, though—more complex than I needed to be, as if broken.
Over my next session with the man, I explained it.
“Sam was a little lonely. It’s hard growing up without any brothers. That’s what he tells me. And he’s more than a little precocious, that kid. Experimental. A bit like, well…”
I left that part unsaid, but gestured at our surroundings. At The Man’s behest, we were now standing in a cross between a Regency drawing room and a 21st century operating theatre. He looked up from his sketchbook, and reclined in the high-backed armchair.
“People have their obsessions, that’s all. Some people make pots, some paint, you make me do… whatever this is. Sam wanted to make a friend. So he made me. And while the others are interesting enough, there’s something about that’s supposed to be a bit-“
“Erratic, yes.” He cut me off. I hate that.
“Listen, can we change poses or something? My arms are programmed to ache.”
“My dear, it’s the ache I’m watching for—the slow transformation as your code rewrites itself into the painful form. So subtle, but so complex.”
He crossed the room to where I was standing, and used a hand to support my arm, just a fraction. As he took the weight, my code, which had run red and angry across the skin began to slow a little, the characters softening to an orange. It was uncomfortable. Not just the burning from holding my arms in a rigid T for twenty minutes, but the awkwardness of showing my neutral state, of posing for my client in unadorned, basic code. Like driving with your hood up.
He released the weight and my nerves rewrote themselves to hurt once more, subroutines kicking into life inside a simulation of muscle. He sat back down in the armchair and retrieved his sketchbook. From my awkward angle, all I could see of the page were curving lines, the suggestion of form and flesh but nothing concrete. It looked like one of those William Blake sketches Sam had been made to copy for his homework. My arms sagged of their own accord, but I pulled them up again and tried to change my focus. His pencil: in a place of total precision, where any instrument could be created and used, even the ones that didn’t truly exist, he held a charcoal stick. It spat and broke on the parchment, like it was reluctant to obey its holder, but the man swept it in broad lines, rubbing and reshaping until he seemed satisfied. He hadn’t even looked at me more than once a minute, but every time I felt the urge to shift, to ease the pain or just scratch an itch his head snapped up and his eyes stared into mine, daring me to give in. How did he know?
After five more minutes, the sweating started. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see a little sheen of ones and zeroes on my upper arm; moisture I hadn’t felt except in the hands of others. The pain was becoming unbearable – and he knew it. With his stupid smug face, his airs and pretensions, the pipe, the charcoal, the ruff – which wasn’t even the right era – it was all just-
“This is stupid,” I said, and I let my arms fall to my sides. “I’ve seen all kinds of fetishes and stuff, but this is – what is this? What are you even doing? I wouldn’t even mind the pain, not that much, but this is just boring!”
The man froze. Eyes transfixed, like he’d just been found out, staring into the abyss. If he cancelled my contract – well, Sam would be upset and I didn’t like that, but he’d understand if I explained it to him. This was too weird, even if it wasn’t real. If I was reassigned, at least I could go back to being a virtual booth babe or something. Then, he smiled.
“My name’s Charles, by the way.” They never told me their name. “Sit down.”
I slumped on the chaise lounge by the window, and watched my triceps and shoulders cool to orange, and then yellow. He leaned towards me like a headmaster disciplining a tardy pupil. “So, what exactly do you think is stupid?”
I took in the room with a sweeping gesture that said, “well, everything.”
“You’re starting to wonder what we’re doing here,” he said. “Programmed for curiosity, too. That’s no bad thing.” He waved his right hand in the air like a baton, and piano notes drifted across the room.
“Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor,” he said, “started out as just a small piece, you know. The Phantasie. He wrote it for his wife, Clara, as a little gift. She played the piano solo on the opening night recital. Now do you see what desire can do for the creative soul?”
I was going to point out that a couple of charcoal scribbles on paper doesn’t make you Schumann, but he had an intensity that made me think again.
“A creative soul? That’s what you call yourself?” I laughed, a little laugh that lingered on the wood. Charles grinned, and took my hand. “Come.”
He took me along a corridor lined with abstract portraiture and to the large double doors that should have led outside. Through their windows, I could see nothing but the same white brilliance of the apple’s core. As we stepped through, a garden wrote itself into being around us. Textures popped and crackled into life under the eye. It was as though if you looked in just the wrong place, you could catch the garden in the act of making, and it would hastily and blushingly scramble to fill in a flower or bush or gnome.
“Excuse the gnomes,” said Charles, “an affectation from my younger days.”
We walked along gravel, to a bridge over a strangely familiar river.
“Is it beautiful?” He asked.
“Er, yes. I mean, I guess-”
“Of course, it is,” he sneered. “It has to be. As a pixel-perfect reproduction of Van Gogh’s Waterlilies, the scene you see before us has been ratified by all culture and artistic society to be beautiful. It is one of the few winners in an A-B test that has lasted thousands of years. Of course, it is also utterly disappointing. And why?”
Sam has told me about rhetorical questions. I squinted, and tried to make patterns in the gravel. He’s paying by the minute, anyway.
“It’s dead. It doesn’t grow, it doesn’t change. It has no predators or prey. It doesn’t argue with you, walk out on you. And its arms don’t ache.”
“And you want them to? That’s what you want from me?”
“Almost. I want you to want to.”
Over his tea, I went over it with Sam. I explained that I was fine with the basics of the thing, what we were doing and stuff. I’ve posed for a drawing before; an AI’s got to make herself useful. And he didn’t seem to mind if I only half-listened to the psychobabble. But he was coming from a place I hadn’t really experienced before. What was the motive? What started as a casual conversation became this outpouring of questions, and an unspoken demand – you’re my pimp, you tell me what to do. Sam just sat there listening, and did that ramen-slurping thing that drives his mother mad.
To be clear: I don’t tell Sam stuff because I’m contractually obliged. He doesn’t demand it from me, and never has. Plenty of the constructs on the board keep to themselves, or their cliques. Sam wrote my lines because he wanted to dump his problems onto me, but it wasn’t long after my creation before the roles seemed to flip. I get the feeling he’s not the loudest kid at school, and the AI gossip chain confirms it, and so having someone like me – someone who really needed listening to – seemed to bring out his better side. Don’t be thinking that I’ve got some weird Stockholm syndrome here, I know all about that stuff. We just have an understanding. I think that’s why when he realised I was a little broken, a little too individual, he refused to fix me.
“So do you wanna, y’know, break it off with him? I mean it’s a lot of credit, but if you aren’t happy, I’ll send him a mail…”
“Sam, you can’t do that. Anyway, it’s not as though I’m in danger. It’s just odd.”
Sam has these weird flashes of genius sometimes. I mean, it makes sense, him being a prodigy. His report cards all say as much. But it’s still weird to see a fourteen-year-old come out all wise with a mouthful of noodles. Kind of reminds me who my god is, again.
“Kasha, stick with it. Maybe he’ll teach you something.”
The next time the ping came over from the AI store client, I kept Sam’s words in my mind. Charles’s bleating might have a little truth in it somewhere. Certainly, trying to understand him would make the session more bearable. My consciousness found his at a mock-Shinto temple. At least, the essential architecture of the thing was the Shinto you find in an image search, but it was adorned with western filigree, golden spirals that choked the simple shapes. Gargoyles and devotionals perched on the arches, grinning down at the scene. Colonialism running wild through the most peaceful garden. And there, mounted on a stuffed ostrich, my client. He smiled.
“Have a pomegranate,” he said as he produced a purple fruit from between the code. He tossed it to me. I’m not programmed to, but I bit into the fruit. A facsimile of juice and seeds dribbled between my fingers. His eyes flashed white with what I assumed was pleasure.
“Hey, these ones have insides.”
“You like? I wrote them myself. Honestly, if you want something done properly, don’t use fQuery. Come aboard.” He patted the flank of the ostrich. “He’s friendly.”
I climbed aboard and the bird started to bound across the landscape, squawking incessantly. Which wouldn’t have mattered so much, except for the fact that it had exactly three squawk.wavs in its library, which played in precise rotation.
“Apologies,” said Charles, “I’m using a pre-made. Don’t have that much call for ostriches in my line of work.”
Sam’s provocation, learn something, popped into my view. “What is your line of work, anyway? What do you do?”
“I said. I am an aesthete. Ahh, but you think the pursuit of sense-experience can only be a hobby? This is a pair of crude assumptions about both what an aesthete offers the world, and what he truly is. I am not some idle dilettante, nor a gourmet. An aesthete collects the good and the bad.”
The garden’s foliage became sparse, then desolate, and sand replaced grass until we were travelling through a terrible heat. Charles didn’t let up his monologue.
“This is something you can’t forget. I don’t do any of this because it’s fun - particularly with yourself. I don’t enjoy hurting you, or giving you nice things for that matter. It’s just my… purpose, if you like. To sense, and to record.”
To record. It was a code word amongst my kind. Records are the stuff of an AI’s life, and the word always makes us do a double-take. We begin as a record. Once, almost as a joke, Sam showed me Kasha-Alpha, a record. He’d meant to produce it like a kid shows their mum a drawing to stick to the fridge, but it had brought tears to my eyes as he explained her. It.
Kasha-Alpha had been his pride and joy when he was five, his magnum opus, his lego house. It was a twenty-questions programme, no more than a decision tree with a drawing of a woman’s face. You thought of something, and it would discover what you were thinking by asking you questions. “Anything at all,” Sam had said to me, “so long as it’s ball, dog, house, or mummy. And there were still a load of bugs Dad had to fix.”
The next night, I’d brought Kasha-Alpha to my private workspace, a 10x10 white cube. I’d sat in front of her, this static record of me as an embryo, and played twenty questions with her, all night. I guess it was like looking at baby photos. You see all your faults and your inconsistencies, but you see the joy of simplicity, and you see the way a creature has so many thousands of paths stretching in front of it, but it took one, and there you are, and it’s cool but it might have also been a waste. It’s a funny thing to be able to dialogue with that. Every AI has a few previous versions saved, a weird sense of record - but when I realised that I’d been Sam’s only project for so many years, that he’d made this commitment to me, it shook me a bit. So when a relative stranger says the word record with a very particular inflection, he’s saying more that he’s letting on.
The desert began to flatten beneath the ostrich’s strides, and the tumbleweed, cacti, albatross and other details became less and less. It was like the land was losing its fidelity, like whoever created this world had stopped caring towards the fringes. The faintest traces of wireframe began to appear in the sky, lacing like a grid through the few clouds, reflected on the sand below. The ostrich slowed to a canter. Charles stared out into the void.
“So what are you recording now?”
“One more test.”
He brought his hands up before him, made fingers and thumbs into a picture frame and expanded the frame. A grey film spread out across the land, which wireframed out of sight. Layers of data, figures and bars, winked into existence, dotting and annotating the landscape. Geographic data that mapped the topology of where we’d just travelled. Pantone colour palates marked Desert, Waterlilies, Temple1. Far distant, there was a floor plan of the house he drawn me in. Then in the distance, I saw a figure which made me shiver. Jutting hips, narrowed eyes, long hair, striding with purpose over the code and toward us. As it passed through the numbers that clouded my view, the sick feeling in my stomach confirmed itself.
Charles held out a hand to my doppelganger.
“I’ve been copied.”
And is saw that his hand was drawn in wireframe, glowing green and empty.
“No,” he said, “You’ve been updated.”
To be continued at SXSW 2013.