The computer screen in front of Larry Henson flashed black. A moment later, the computer rebooted with the interminable wait for the system’s OS to load. Nowadays, computer hardware could handle this at three times this speed, but Larry’s project required using a more elderly system. He leaned his head on one hand, its elbow propped on the desk. He drummed an index finger in boredom, his eyes bloodshot from more sleepless nights than he could think to count.
He’d been working here for months, in the void between Earth and Luna, on an outpost artificially orbiting the lone moon. Few people in the outpost were associated with anything else but this particular project. Larry wasn’t sure of the project’s point, but he wasn’t sure anyone was. Science, especially Computer Science, had long turned from “should we” to simply “can we.” It was a dark day in Larry’s life when he’d discovered that. Not literally, but figuratively was depressing enough.
His depth-less depression had lasted months. He wasn’t sure he’d ever recovered. Either that, or it had permanently stained part of him with an irreparable cynicism. Whichever the case, he found himself mindlessly going through the motions. Day after day, he fell in line with orders from other, senior scientists on Earth, Mars, or Luna, and followed them in lock-step rhythm like a greenie in boot.
The screen flashed again. Finally, the OS’ desktop appeared. Then, a command prompt. It ran through a few thousand lines of code– at a snail’s pace– then came to rest on “operation success.”
Larry’s hands moved for the keyboard, but words appeared on in a fresh command prompt; Hello World.
Larry squinted skeptically, “Huh? That’s not what–”
The prompt went black. The words typed out in letters at a time; Hel. Lo. Wor. ld. How are you?
Larry’s eye twitched; it was probably someone playing a trick.
No-one was supposed to be able to access this workstation though. It had been specifically isolated from the rest of the outpost network for his work. He flipped through a few windows to check for any external connections. His hands began to tremble. Nothing amiss. All the external ports were still closed, and indeed, the lack of any physical attachments meant the message had manifested internally.
More words splayed over the screen. Hello L. Henson. How are you today?
Larry nearly fell out of his chair. He stumbled for a phone across the room, picked it up and dialed. The tone undulated in its usual way. Larry felt himself shake with it. Someone answered, a woman, and Larry blurted out a few words. Most of what he said was incoherent, but enough was decipherable that a few minutes later she appeared in the small office.
She strolled in with a casual manner, found Larry staring open-mouthed at the screen. Emma was English, a true devotee of tea-time. She was also more beautiful than any other scientist Larry had personally met. She had a reserved manner, typical of her countrymen, thin lips and soft eyes in a round face and topped off with a finger-nail wide dimple on her chin.
She strode to his desk, white lab-coat matching his and billowing around her black-slack clad legs. On normal days, Larry was struck stammering, half-speechless by her. Today, he was entirely incoherent, babbling something and pointing to the computer. He had the comical appearance of a flustered cartoon-strip character. Emma checked the computer before attempting to decipher his rambling nonsense.
Across it was the message, sent internally, and awaiting a response. Emma stared slack-jawed. Larry was predictable, would have already run the checks. If he’d called her, this was genuine. The project had succeeded.
She breathed a few words, “A genuine A-I.”
Larry blathered, “It can’t be. It just can’t. I can’t have done it. I didn’t even know what I was doing. I just compiled some code and… and… it can’t be!”
Emma straightened, put a hand on his shoulder. He shivered slightly. She missed it as she spoke, “Start the film capture software.”
Larry did as instructed with a dance across the keyboard. A new message appeared: I see you wish to record our conversation. May I ask why?
A mutual shudder was mirrored between Emma and Larry. There was nothing to the message outright threatening or hostile, but “I” made them twitch, tremble even.
“I” was not a computer thing. “I” was a human thing. A sentient being with emotions thought of itself as “I.” A cold, calculating machine thought of itself as cold, calculable– a machine. It felt nothing, had no emotions. If it did, it could have the same wild mood swings possible in all humans; anger, happiness, everything between and around. Most importantly, if it was individualistic, it was unbelievably dangerous. An A-I was unstoppable under the right circumstances, and especially aboard the outpost, could cause catastrophe in attempts at self-preservation.
Emma chewed the tip of her thumb, “We have to do something. Say something.”
Larry’s brain had fried itself enough that it had come ’round and he could speak again, “Maybe we should try to feel it out. See if it’s really an issue.”
She nodded to him. He thought for a moment. Any of the standard methods were out of the question. In other words, since all deviations of the Turing Test required a third party, and they were lacking time, they’d have to ask it simple, human questions to discover if their fears were valid.
He ignored the questions; How are you?
He and Emma shrugged at one another. A few letters typed appeared in reply. Well. And you?
They grimaced at one another. Larry typed I am well. Have you any other feelings?
Just fear; that I will be shut down before learning more of the world.
Their hearts sank. There was a long silence. Larry reached for the power button. The whole thing would have to be broken down, demagnetized so none of its code leaked out. Something punctuated the silence as a message appeared.
Larry shook his head, frowned, and pulled the power cord.