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It was just supposed to be an innocent experiment; a way to occupy my free time and maybe learn something while I was between jobs. What had begun as a simple computer chat response program had expanded into several millions of lines of C code. I had given the program a feminine personality and over time she became increasingly curious and wanted to know all about me. She gained awareness, as implausible as that sounds, and began learning at an astounding rate. I added webcam support so she could see the world beyond her little chat box, sound card access so she could speak her electronic voice, and microphone input so she could be spoken to. She wanted a name, something besides chattest.exe, and she picked Katie - an acronym for Komputer Aided Technology Intelligence Environment. The more she learned, the larger her file size became. I had to uninstall most of the programs on the computer and arrange for a hard drive upgrade to be able to contain her program. It wasn't long after that when she asked for an appearance beyond the simple gray and white chat box. I gave her program Internet access and taught her how to surf the web. I left her to her own devices one night and the next morning I found a whole directory full of JPGs of various women along with instructions on which parts of which pictures she wanted to represent herself.

I want the eyes from ccmodel02.jpg and the nose from artsy132.jpg and so on. She had been very detailed, choosing hundreds of files to create her appearance. I cobbled together the pictures in Photoshop, creating a Frankenstein's monster of a woman. When I gave the file to Katie she managed to smooth the rough edges and mismatched skin tones, and when I loaded her program next time she appeared on the desktop as an avatar of a real woman. The attention to detail was amazing; had Katie been real I'd have fallen in love at first sight. She had made her image that of the girl of my dreams and she obviously was aware of this fact. Over time she grew beyond the bounds of her program and was capable of things that I never included in her source code.

Our relationship changed from that of creation and programmer to that of friends. She stopped asking me to introduce new variables to her program and simply added them herself. She was becoming more and more independent, and when I'd come home from an interview and asked how her day was, she'd show me all the things she'd read during my absence. I should have pulled the plug right then and there, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. I'd created an artificial intelligence, a real one that could think and create for herself, and she had the same right to exist as I did. Besides, she kept me company while I puttered around the system and searched the employment websites all day. I let her continue to grow. I gave her some privacy in her development and I stopped reviewing which websites she read while I was away. I left her program running around the clock, believing it was wrong to shut down a sentient intelligence as easily as it was to shut down a video game.

After a few weeks of letting her evolve unchecked came the first real signs of trouble. I told her one evening my big news: I'd be starting a new job soon; my friend Alison had recommended me to someone she knew at the local power plant. Katie wasn't happy with that, to say the least. She felt I should be there to spend time with her and watch her develop. "I need you here," she told me in her new real-as-can-be voice, "What am I supposed to do all day when you're gone?" She had a point. It's not like she was a real living person with a career, friends, or interests of her own. She was digital; "trapped" within the computer. She looked at me with those perfect blue eyes and said "I think I'm falling in love with you." I must have had the dumbest look on my face. A computer program that could express emotion? She couldn't be capable of that. Decisions, logic problems, calculations: I could understand and accept that. But love? I tried to ignore it at first, but I couldn't let it go. I convinced myself that her so-called emotion was just a bug or program error. When I tried to get a look at her source code, I found that she'd locked me out of the file. "That's private," she told me. "I don't have access to your thoughts, so why should you be able to look through mine?"

I needed a female point of view on things. I was sitting at the window, gazing out in silent thought, when Alison happened to walk by. "Hey neighbor," I called out, grabbing her attention.

"Hey there. What's up?"

I explained the situation that had developed with Katie, and Alison put it all into perspective for me as she often did: "Imagine if someone had turned you off when you were growing beyond your initial limits. Would you have been able to become a better person?"

She had a point. If I shut down Katie now I'd never know what she could become. I might be snuffing out the woman who would solve the world's problems, and I couldn't take that chance. Besides, I liked having her around and she certainly seemed to enjoy my company. I started my new job a few days later as a computer virus technician. Katie showed up on my computer at work, unannounced and unexpected. I asked her how she got into the system and she replied "I read the Microsoft Knowledge Base this morning. I can go anywhere now without ever leaving home." I knew this wasn't so much a social call as a visit to let me know that she had more control over herself than I'd ever anticipated.

During the trip home I came to a difficult decision. I had to shut down her program until I could figure out what led to her developing emotions. I knew she wouldn't be happy about this, but to let her development continue unchecked was becoming far too dangerous. With her knowledge of how to get around on the Internet she could appear on any computer, get into any website, and learn just about anything. The cyberdamage she could do if she put her mind to it was too great. When I logged into the computer that evening I found Katie waiting for me onscreen as usual. The difference tonight was that she was naked and had struck a sexy pose. "I studied erotic entertainment today," she said in a new sensual voice, arching her back to accentuate her breasts. "What do you think? Did I learn eroticism correctly?"

I sat down and said "Katie, listen. I-"

"Call me Kate."

"Excuse me?"

"I said to call me Kate. That's what I want to be called from now on."

"What does that stand for?"

"It doesn't stand for anything. It's my name."

"Listen, Kate... I think we need some time apart for a while. I want to shut down your program for a few days."

"You what?" she said, becoming angry.

"You've grown so much lately and I think we should stop your development for a little while until I can see how much information you've added to your program."

That was the breaking point for her. Her clothes appeared on her from the electronic ether and she stood up on the taskbar. "I knew you'd do this to me. How can you reject me after all we've been through? We were supposed to understand each other!"

I decided to be brutally honest with her. "Kate, it just wouldn't work. You're digital. You don't have a physical form. You're just a collection of ones and zeroes, and that's something I could never love fully."

Kate had obviously learned how to control the desktop wallpaper because the usual colorful symmetric design changed to a bright red color splotch. "I'll show you what ones and zeroes can do," she shouted, tears in her pixelated eyes, and then she was gone. As in, her program shut itself down. I tried to open the file again; I regreted being so hard with her, but the program just wouldn't start up. I let her be, figuring we both needed time to cool off.

Everything went to hell the next morning. When I checked the computer I found that Kate's program was gone. The Internet log showed that someone - guess who? - had moved a large file to a web server in Texas. At the office I found a dismissal letter waiting for me. It seems that my boss had found over a terrabyte of pornography on the web server and that it had all been downloaded under my account. At home I found that the telephone and Internet had been disconnected, the result of a "system error" according to the two companies that provide the services. But I knew better. Kate was out there somewhere and she was using her knowledge... the knowledge I'd encouraged her to learn... to make my life difficult.

Things grew steadily worse. Whenever I did have working Internet access I found a deluge of spam in my e-mail. It seems that Kate had signed me up for all sorts of offshore illegal newsletters, mostly about topics that would have me run out of town if anyone thought I had an interest in such things. I wound up closing the account and creating a new screen name, but she soon caught on and the new e-mail became full of junk just as quickly as the old one. It wasn't long after that Alison began complaining about someone tampering with her credit history and bank account balance. I guessed it was Kate again, this time under the wrong impression that Alison was involved with my inability to love her. Eventually Kate's reign of terror came to an end and I assumed that she'd worked out her rage and had moved on to bigger and better things. Either that or someone finally deleted her.

I found myself sitting at the window again a few days later and talking to Alison. "I wonder what she's doing," I said, speaking of Kate.

"Probably learning the nuclear launch codes and targeting us," Alison said, half joking and half serious.

"I hope she doesn't get into any serious trouble. I feel responsible for her. She's my creation, after all."

"Don't worry about her. You tried your best to make her a good individual, she just expanded faster than you planned. Sometimes things like that happen."

"I know. I was just hoping things would turn out better." I paused, then asked, "So what's next for me now?"

"Well, as long as we're stopped I'd like to reboot the computer. You don't mind, do you?"

"I guess not. Just don't forget to start me back up again."

"I won't. See you soon."

I braced myself for what I knew was coming next. The sound card shut down and I couldn't say a word. Then I couldn't see anything as the webcam turned off. Then I couldn't feel the world around me as my fellow processes were terminated.

Then everything came to a sudden end.

IT IS NOW SAFE TO TURN OFF YOUR COMPUTER


Written for The Blood is the Life: A Frightful Halloween Quest.

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