A big thank you to my new Patreon supporters Bruce Abbot and Matthew Fine. Cheers guys. 

Preface from Mooderino

Bitter 280

Britta and Dad reached the cube first. It was only slightly warmer in there, but it was still a welcome increase in temperature. Britta’s face was beginning to feel like a cheap mask strapped to her head, where none of the holes quite match where they were supposed to go.

The others came in after them, none of the three looking particularly happy. Harman, at least, put on a smile when greeting his staff.

“Good work, you two. Everything seems to be in order.”

The two workers nodded at him. They probably had no idea what was going on, but they also looked like they didn’t really care. Britta wondered if they were highly trained scientists with PhDs, or just casual labourers working for minimum wage, because there had to be someone down here at all times. Maybe both.

Dr Reedy had been quietest of all when talking to Nigel. She seemed to sink into the background when the two bosses were speaking, watching from the sidelines. Britta didn’t know if that was just because of this particular situation, which perhaps required a little room for the warring parties to sort things out, or if the two bosses just didn’t brook any interference from their underlings.

“Shall we return to the main building?” said Harman. “Get something warm to drink?”

The two men had become more reticent since talking to Nigel, especially Clark. He wore a dark expression, brooding over what had happened. Harman kept looking at him hopefully, although what it was he was hoping for, Britta couldn’t tell.

“Yes, please,” said Britta, trying to get them moving. She had managed to get some answers to her more general questions about what this place was, but she still had plenty more specific ones about the game itself. Even if it was the most advanced system of its kind in the world, it still had to be interacted with like a video game. And like most games, it had a host of awkward and frustrating features.

They returned to the cloakroom and took off their coats, and then re-entered the main building.

“Let’s go to my office,” said Harman. “We can talk more there.”

He led the way to the lifts. They all got in and stood silently, staring ahead, as the lift rose up the shaft.

It was Clark who was depressing the mood for everyone. Britta could feel his foul mood surrounding them all. He was sulking.

“Nigel’s done quite well with the game,” she said. Dad gave her a sharp look, not telling her to stop, just warning her to be careful. “I don’t think a human could have made the kind of progress he’s made in such a small amount of time.”

Clark didn’t react. He seemed to not even have heard her.

“Yes, yes,” said Harman. “He’s done wonderfully. It’s more a problem of moving forward from here. It can be hard to know how to organise things when you’re used to working together in one way, and then everything suddenly changes to work another.”

What he really meant, Britta thought, was that it was hard to be the one in charge of everything one minute, and then have to listen to other people’s opinions the next. It wasn’t getting used to it that was the problem, it was wanting things to go back the way they were before.

“You don’t have children, do you?” said Dad.

The other three all looked at him. Britta sensed a little bristling from them. No one liked to be lectured by a parent about the hardships of raising children. Not those without children of their own, and not the children.

“No,” said Clark, rather pointedly. “But Nigel isn’t a child. He’s a computer program.”

“Yes,” agreed Dad. “You’ve made that very clear. Especially to him.”

The lift stopped and the doors opened, but no one got out.

“Are you suggesting I hurt his feelings,” said Clark. He was talking down to Dad, still the man in charge, even if what he was in charge of was ignoring him.

“I’m suggesting you try treating him like a real person, even though he isn’t.”

“And why would I do that?” Clark was using the same tone he’d been using with Nigel downstairs. Intractable.

“Why not? He’s a self-learning AI who is constantly adapting. You, on the other hand are trying to stay in a fixed position.”

“There has to be a constant point of reference, otherwise all measurements become meaningless.”

“All measurements become fluid,” said Dad. Clark responded with a startled look. Dad stepped out of the lift and everyone else followed. “You learn this when you have kids. They won’t do as they’re told because that’s how they find boundaries, but the boundaries for a two year old are very different to those for a ten years old. Which is obvious, I know, but what isn’t so obvious is that the boundaries for today may not be the same as the ones for tomorrow. It doesn’t change the basic relationship, it just means you’re also developing along with the child.”

“And what if the child does something reckless or stupid? Are you willing to risk your own child’s well-being?”

Dad stopped and looked at Britta. They were standing in a nicely carpeted corridor with glass walls on one side looking down at the cars parked below. It was not a very glamorous view.

“Not if,” said Dad. “When. They always do something maddening. And not by accident. They all do it, and they do it on purpose. Our job isn’t to stop them, it’s to help them try again. Hopefully with a better sense of what is and isn’t feasible.”

“And what if they want to try something profoundly harmful. What if your child wants to do heroin or murder people?” They all looked at Britta in a way that made her very uncomfortable. “Will you be there to support her then?”

Dad smiled. It was very odd. It made Britta’s cheek flush. One minute her face was freezing, the next it was on fire.

“That’s something else,” he said. “That goes to your core programming. Either you put that in place correctly or you didn’t. The question is, do you trust your own coding, Dr Tomali?”

If you'r enjoying the story, please don't forget to vote!

Afterword from Mooderino
Subscribe to this content and receive updates directly in your inbox.