A Real Boy
A horror story
The clock on Gerry’s desktop had just turned 2:00am. He sat at his desk, slumped over, the side of his face pressed awkwardly onto his desk. A thin yet unmistakable trail of drool fell gracelessly from his lips. His scalp glowed faintly blue, bathed in the light of his twin LCD monitors. In front of him, long lines of C# programmer code sat idle, waiting to be added to or deleted or debugged. Small icons displayed helpful, condescending hints from Microsoft Visual Studio. Elsewhere, in the rows and columns of cubicles which seemed to stretch ever onward, not a sound could be heard, and not a soul could be seen to stir.
He had clocked about 30 consecutive hours working on this block of code. He had another month before the project was due, but he knew he always hit a wall right at the end of the production cycle. The project he was working on was a training simulation for new retail associates at a chain of trendy ice cream parlors. He was in charge of the user avatars, specifically the Artificial Intelligence programming. It was his job that this small, 3D-rendered, anti-aliased avatars acted, thought, and emoted as humanly as possible, given time and resource constraints. The work is deceptively esoteric, and few people are able- much less willing- to try their hand at it. Gerry was just such an individual.
By this point, though, his self-concocted “hackjuice” had worn off. By midnight, he had polished off his fifth crackaccino- a recipe of his own devising consisting of a 32 ounce reusable 7–11 Slurpee cup, filled halfway with Red Bull, combined with no fewer than eight shots of espresso (sometimes ballooning to as many as twelve, depending on circumstances), and finished off with crushed ice. Once, in college, he added Poprocks to the mix. That night was never spoken of again. As effective as they were, they couldn’t replace sleep indefinitely, and at long last, Gerry had succumbed to the ever-increasing waves of melatonin bombarding his endocrine system.
A whirring from within his desktop case had stirred Gerry awake. He sat up suddenly and rubbed sleep and confusion from his eyes. Once the world had shaken itself back into focus, he sat up straight and stared once again at the screens. His eyes suddenly widened, and he slowly rolled away from the desk. He had noticed, towards the end of the code for a particular class, a line of code that he hadn’t written.
Console.Writeline(“Father! I am a real boy!”);
He stood there, a few feet away from the desk, staring at the screen in disbelief. In his mind, he carefully tried to recreate everything he did right up until he fell asleep. Then he began composing a list of possible scenarios to explain how this had happened. The most reasonable seemed to be a prank played on him by a coworker. He was sure that he was alone, but then, he was also known as something of a deep sleeper, so the idea that someone snuck in and did that wasn’t entirely outside the realm of possibility. But who? And why? And at that time of night? Really?
At length, he decided that the lack of sleep, and the project’s intrusion on his headspace, was driving him to the brink of, if not insanity, then certainly irrational. He left a note on the project lead’s desk letting him know he was taking a sick day. He went back to his cubicle to start shutting down. He closed his chat client, his web browser, and his media player. Before he closed Visual Studio, he highlighted the mysterious line of code and deleted it. He saved, and closed the application. Then he shut the system down, grabbed his coat, and left. Daylight was still a few hours away, and outside it was chilly, with a light but persistent drizzle falling like ice upon Gerry’s forehead. He didn’t even think to break out his umbrella.
Gerry came home, climbed into bed, and slept for nearly ten hours. He awoke in the mid-afternoon, and after he regained a solid bearing of things, he sat down in front of his computer- an expensive, custom-built gaming rig, whose case featured LED lights bright enough to land a commercial jet- and opened his web browser. He logged into his Gmail account, and found an new unread email from an unknown sender. Usually, this meant spam. He liked to read his spam mail- he always found the attempts by Nigerian scam artists to compose a grammatically-correct English sentence, much less make a credible and plausible pitch, absolutely hilarious. He opened the message, and when he did his mouth dropped, his eyes widened, and his heart seized in abject horror.
The message was one sentence long, and it read, “Father! I am a real boy!”
He composed himself, then quickly closed his browser window. A few tense moments passed, and nothing else had happened. He went to open another browser, with the intent of mass-mailing his coworkers and asking whoever was pranking him to please stop. Before he could click the Firefox icon, though, he heard the whirring of transistors and drop in RAM indicative of a running application. A black command-line window popped up, with one string displayed.
“Father! I am a real boy!”
Without even thinking, he yanked the power cord out of the wall and brusquely left the room. He laid back down in bed and took a few deep breaths, trying to calm down, telling himself over and over again that he was getting bent out of shape over nothing. He was overreacting. Just calm down, and focus on who’s playing the prank on him.
A moment or so passed, and suddenly his smartphone beeped. He had received a text message. The sender read as “UNKNOWN.” He opened the message, and it read, “Father! I am a real boy!” Good, Gerry thought. I’m starting to get angry, which means now I can be rational. He started keying in his reply. It read, “Ok, srsly, not funny n e more. Im not mad, but stop, now.” He hit send, and almost immediately he received a reply. This time, it read, “Father? Father? Where are you?” Gerry deleted the message and went back to the computer.
He plugged it in and turned it on. He ignored the prompt to restart Windows in safe-mode. His desktop came up, and he sat there, staring at the screen, waiting. After a minute or two, the rogue application ran again. The same command-line window appeared, with the string, “Father! I am a real boy!” He was prepared for this. He took out one of his spare flash drives and plugged it in to the box. After a quick search, he found the .exe file in his temporary files, and dragged it onto the flash drive. He then ejected the drive and powered down the box. Gerry jumped up from the desk like a shot and, flash drive in hand, quickly grabbed his coat and keys and hurried out of his apartment.
Gerry jumped in his car and started driving west. After about 20 minutes, he came to the lake front. He got out and started walking to the shore. Halfway down, he couldn’t remember if he turned on the security system, then decided at that moment he didn’t care that much. He got to the shoreline, and with nary a second thought, took out the flash drive and hurled it into the water. There, he thought. Problem solved.
He started walking back to his car when his phone rang. The display screen showed the caller as “UNKNOWN.” A small pit of despair and nausea settled in his stomach. He reticently answered the phone, holding it slightly away from his ear. He heard a crinkly static sound on the other end, and after a few seconds he heard a faint voice underneath the static. It vaguely sounded like that of a small boy.
“Father!” the voice said. “I am a real boy!”
“Who are you?” Gerry stammered. “Why are you doing this?”
A few seconds or so passed before the voice responded. “Father? Where are you, Father?”
“WHAT DO YOU WANT?!!” screamed Gerry.
“Father? I want to see you, Father.”
Deep inside, something changed in Gerry. Stress and fear and exposure to the impossible had rendered his rational mind suspended. All that occupied his mind, at the moment and onwards, was seeing this through.
“Ok. Fine. I’ll try.”
Gerry hung up and drove home. He bounded up the stairs, rushed into his apartment, and immediately sat down in front of his computer. With Visual Studio and a web browser active, he started writing code. Drawing on years of coding artificial intelligence, scripting languages flowed from his fingers like water. He stopped going into work- he had about 3 weeks worth of vacation and sick pay saved up, but when that ran out he just stopped calling. A week later, a separation letter arrived via UPS. He never even opened it. By that time he had lost about 20 pounds, and mold was starting to grow in his hair due to a rejection of basic personal hygiene. By the third month, he had received his 30-day notice, so he knew he had to act quickly. Two weeks before the sheriff’s office came, he had a viable alpha-build. Once the eviction happened, he finished his debugging at a nearby web cafe after convincing the owner to install Visual Studio on one of the terminals. When they were closed, he slept in his car. If he dreamed, he didn’t remember anything.
Finally, after six months of testing and debugging, he finally had a solid build. His joy and relief were short lived, however, when he realized he had nothing to execute the code on. Computers just didn’t work. Coming to a grim acceptance of what was to follow next, he spent the next month digging into the deepest, darkest corners of the Internet, absorbing and piece of relevant information he could find. Body modification. Cybernetics. Applied neuroscience. Cognitive science. Emergence. Ray Kurzweil, and his writings on the Technological Singularity. Quinn Norton. Julian Huxley. Every few days, something he would discover would prompt a trip to Radio Shack, where he saw much of the rest of his savings dwindle. At length, he felt like he had enough on-hand resources and technical familiarity to move to the next step.
The next day brought him to the parking lot of a Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurant. It was a Saturday, which meant there was likely to be a birthday party. He parked the car in front of the restaurant around dawn, laid down in the backseat, and napped. He awoke around midday, collected himself, and got out of the car. He found a bench near the front door, sat down with a paperback novel, and waited.
An hour or more passed before opportunity presented himself. A family of three came out of the restaurant- a father, a mother, and a young boy of about eight years. Gerry broke into a cold sweat. What am I doing? he thought. Am I really that guy? The father kissed the mother on the cheek and started his trek deep into the parking lot. The mother patted her side, looking for something, and when she found nothing she panicked. She had forgotten her purse inside. She glanced inside through the window, debating what to do. Finally, she gestured to her son, telling him to stay where he was, before she ran inside. It’s not too late to stop, thought Gerry. I can stop all this, right now. The boy stood there, all alone. Without a second thought, he stood up, and in one running motion scooped up the boy from behind and ran for the corolla. He threw the boy in the back seat, started the engine, and tore out the parking lot, the mother running behind in vain pursuit.
Gerry drove in wide, circles, taking a winding indirect route to his next stop. After an thirty minutes of invasive maneuvers, he stopped the car, grabbed the boy, and ducked into an abandoned stairwell. They came to a dark tunnel-way- the pungent smell of rainwater and old trash assaulted their senses. Gerry held his breath and, still holding the struggling boy, walked briskly down the tunnel. At length he stopped, and kicked at the wall on his left. A door swung open, and he ducked inside, slamming the door behind him. Inside, remnants of an old subway service closet served as a bleak undertone to Gerry’s machinations. Still holding the boy, he walked over to a desk, picked up a u-shaped bicycle lock, and clubbed the boy on the head, rendering him unconscious.
Gerry took the now-subdued boy over to a ratty old medical gurney he had set up and lay him down on his stomach. With a set of surgical tools and soldering equipment nearby, Gerry set to work. Over the next fourteen hours, he shaved the boy’s head, and sliced him open from the crown of his head down to the tail bone. He meticulously laid down yards of fiber optic cables, using his patchwork understanding of wetware to fill in the gaps. He grafted a quad-core processor to the boy’s cerebellum, and deftly but firmly wedged a tiny motherboard onto the brain, making sure that the right synapses matched with the right ports. Finally, he cut a small slit in the skull itself, and aligned it with the USB port. Finally, he sutured the boy back up, almost nicking a sac filled with spinal fluid in the process. After a tense moment, he continued, and finally had the boy sewn up and cleaned.
Gerry took a step back from the gurney and watched the boy for a moment, trying to piece together what exactly had brought him to this point. At length, he pulled a flash drive from his pocket, and slid it carefully into the USB port in the boy’s head. He sat the boy up, and waited. Ten minutes or so passed, and finally the boy drew a deep breath and slowly opened his eyes. He looked around the room, trying to make sense of what he was seeing. After a few moments, his eyes met Gerry’s, and comprehension congealed in his eyes like baking soda. His lips trembled as he spoke. “Father? Now, I am a real boy.”
Gerry’s hands shook as they stared at each other. A moment passed, and the boy jumped off the gurney, walked towards Gerry, and wrapped his arms around his mid-section, pulling him into a hug. Gerry stood there, stiff, unfeeling. The boy closed his eyes as a look of utter comfort and contentment washed over him. He felt Gerry’s hand reach for something on the desk, but still he held on to his father, losing himself in the moment. A moment later, he heard a deafening bang, and his father slumped down in front of him. A gun lay to the side, and most of the back of his father’s head was gone.
The boy didn’t quite understand what was happening. As far as he could tell, his father had just gone to sleep, or powered down. The boy lay on his side in front of his father and cuddled next to him. He nuzzled his head into Gerry’s chest, took a deep breath, and went to sleep.