Meet Hermann Nesmith. He’s got a lot of friends—387 to be exact. He doesn’t see them often in the flesh, but he keeps in touch via FanFare, everybody’s favorite social network.
It’s weird, though. They never really seemed to like him in high school.
But the days of wedgies and swirlies are long gone now. People don’t make fun of him anymore. Now he befriends the girls he never would have dreamed of talking to, and he posts random comments on their bulletin boards several times a day.
They don’t respond, but Hermann doesn’t mind. He has 387 fans, after all. And sending them all SuperNoogies is a full-time job. He’s hoping to level-up in the next day or so. “SuperNoogie Nirvana” awaits with all-new actions and fully animated noogies.
It’s the social life he’s always wanted, and it’s all for free—as long as he can tolerate some annoying advertisers.
Hermann Nesmith writes poetry. Sometimes it’s good. He posts it on his bulletin board, the virtual one on his FanFare homepage. Hermann has also been known to share his poetry with his fans, posting random poems on their bulletin boards at untimed intervals. There haven’t been many responses.
“Nice poem.” That was a good one, and it came from Amy, one of the girls he had a crush on in ninth grade (but he was always too sweaty to admit it to her).
“You some kind of writer?” That one was from Jake, Hermann’s old chemistry lab partner. They used to break many a beaker together—seldom intentionally.
“You suck!” That wasn’t very nice, but Hermann assumed Matt was just trying to be funny. Matt’s always had anger issues. And freckles that look like zits—or is it the other way around?
But here’s the weird thing: Once Hermann started posting his poems, one of the advertisers along the right side of his homepage changed. It became one of those vanity presses, the kind you have to pay to publish your stuff because it’s so bad.
And it’s been there ever since, blinking away, trying to get his attention.
Here’s another weird thing: One of Hermann’s poems was about pizza and his abounding love for all things pizza-related. (Might have been the one he posted on Matt’s board, come to think of it.) Just a few minutes after posting that poem, another one of the ads changed to:
SO, YOU LIKE PIZZA? And below, a logo for Papa Smurf’s Pizza Parlor.
Hermann wonders if FanFare has ulterior motives. Only he wouldn’t phrase it that way.
“That’s weird,” he says and starts to chew on his lower lip. His glazed eyes stare at the right margin of his homepage where another advertiser has changed from something mundane about reverse mortgages to:
GOING MY WAY? DATING SERVICE
This after he posted a note on Jake’s board, something like, “Ain’t had me no honey in weeks.”
Years would be more accurate—ever would be perfectly truthful—but Hermann only wanted to know if Jake was having better luck lately at snagging a girlfriend.
“I wonder if . . .”
No, it’s crazy even to think it.
FanFare has millions of users online at all hours of the day and night. It can’t possibly be staffed with people whose sole responsibility is to keep tabs on Hermann Nesmith’s posts and then adjust the advertisers accordingly—not to mention everybody else’s. That would be a full time job, for crying out loud!
Hermann nods to himself. Why hadn’t he thought of it before? Artificial Intelligence. There must be some kind of uber-sophisticated computer program tasked with monitoring every FanFare user’s activity.
Up at the top of his homepage is a text box for his daily (or hourly, as he prefers to think of it) “headline.” He pauses to ponder for a moment, fingers poised over the keys of his laptop. The glow of the screen illuminates the leavings of chips strewn across his Clone Wars T-shirt. He blinks up at the dark ceiling of his bedroom, bites his lower lip, returns his gaze to the screen. Smiles.
“Gotta get me some new wheels,” he types into the box. That should do it. He waits.
And in the meantime, he composes a poem, which he posts on Amy’s wall. It’s not his best—something about cheese and starfish—but it’s three in the morning, and it’s all he’s got. She seemed to like that other one, so he has reason to hope.
He returns to his homepage and checks the ads. Sure enough, there’s a new one:
TIRED OF THAT CLUNKER? “Come on down to Paradise Motors! Your auto-buying oasis awaits!”
That was fast. He thinks for a moment. Then he deletes his headline, changes it to “Wish I could fall asleep. Insomnia sucks.”
This time, he doesn’t navigate away from his page. He stares at the ads, widens his eyes and fights to keep them from blinking. Waits.
He bites his lower lip, starts to chew on it.
“Idiot,” he mutters and refreshes the page.
An ad appears advertising some kind of medical study where they’ll pay you to be their guinea pig for a week and experiment on you with a new variety of sleeping pill cocktails.
He nods. “Houston, we have contact.”
So there’s some kind of artificial intelligence behind the scenes at FanFare. What does it mean? What are the ramifications? (Again, not the way Hermann Nesmith would phrase it.)
“So weird.” He chews on his lip.
He opens the instant chat box at the bottom of the screen. He doesn’t expect to find many of his fans awake at this hour, but a few are still online. One of them is Matt.
“You still up?” Hermann types.
“You suck!” Matt is quick to respond.
Hermann sighs. “I think something’s watching us.” He doesn’t tap ENTER. He bites his lip. Backspaces over the last four words. “I don’t think we’re alone.”
“Something—” Backspaces. “We’re in a fishbowl.” (A line from his recent cheese and starfish poem on Amy’s bulletin board. He assumes Matt has read it already, of course.)
No response. Hermann checks the online status and finds that Matt has vanished.
“Goodnight, Matt,” he murmurs.
He imagines the FanFare AI to be like one of those poor kid-slaves they used to stick inside arcade games back in the day, the brains inside the machines. Or was that just from a comic book? Anyhow, if this computer program is smart enough to match his posted topics to specific advertisers, then it should be smart enough to recognize his attempt at communicating with it, right? Or would it perceive his knowledge of its existence as a threat?
He deletes his current headline and stares at the blank text box. Where to begin? Seriously, did the Vulcans in Star Trek feel this way when they first came to Earth? Probably not. They were logical.
He takes a deep breath. Then he lets his fingers do the talking.
“Hello,” he types, refreshes his homepage. Waits.
The ads don’t change. No message of any kind comes through. Hermann notices a crumb on his belly that’s larger than the others. He snatches it up, crushes it between his front teeth, swallows it down.
He backspaces over Hello and types, “I know you’re reading this.”
Hermann hopes none of his 387 fans will respond. He refreshes the page again. Waits.
An instant message blinks at the bottom of the screen. Hermann gasps with a sudden surge of adrenaline—
But it’s only Matt. He’s online again: “You some kind of psycho?”
Hermann shakes his head. Of course not. “I’m trying to make contact,” he types.
“With who? Your mom?”
Not cool. “There’s something watching. I know it’s out there.” He pauses before hitting ENTER. “I want it to know that I know.”
“Go to sleep already. Loser.” Matt logs off again.
Hermann shakes his head. He shoves his glasses up the bridge of his nose to adjust for the glare. He blinks, sniffs. Waits. If the AI can monitor his posts, shouldn’t it be able to read his instant messages, too? That would only make sense. So it would already know he knew—
But even if it did, how would it be able to communicate with him? It couldn’t just open a chat box and start typing. Or could it? Seriously, couldn’t it do whatever it wanted?
An interesting thought. What were its capabilities? Its limits? Did it even have any?
Of course it does, he reassures himself. A computer program is just software; it can only exist within its own mainframe, wherever that’s housed—and on the Internet, of course. So that’s a limit. It can’t take physical form. That’s another one. It can’t eat or take a dump or watch a sunset. It can do only what it’s been tasked to do, just like the poor kids inside those arcade games.
A more ominous thought creeps into his mind: What if there is some mastermind out there, some kind of evil genius, and he (or she) is using FanFare for his (or her) own wicked scheme? Something to do with power—that’s usually the deal with evil geniuses. And this one has tasked the FanFare AI with collecting all the data on its users that it possibly can, amassing this information . . . but to what end?
“World domination.” Hermann nods. “And I’m the only one who knows the truth. Me, of all people.”
Him. Sitting there in the dark at three A.M. on a Thursday, in this room that’s been his for as long as he can remember. Eleven years old, playing with his light saber, jumping on the bed with all the moves of a trained Jedi. Now ten years later and a couple hundred pounds heavier, sitting in the same bed, propped up with his laptop. His parents sleep down the hall, at peace, clueless even as a wicked mastermind plans to use the FanFare AI to take over the world!
“This can’t be happening.” He shakes his head, squeezes his temples. “It’s insane.”
Millions of people are on FanFare at any given moment, all over the world, giving and sharing their personal information: where they are, what they’re doing, their likes and dislikes, their views and opinions, their friends and family and relatives, all their fans. And every piece of this information is being collected and analyzed and organized so that one madman (or woman) can—
A new instant message flashes at the bottom of the screen. Matt again. Hermann opens it.
“Hello, Hermann Nesmith.”
Hermann sighs. “I don’t have time for this,” he mutters. He needs to figure out some way to save the world, for crying out loud!
“Thought you told me to go to sleep,” he types.
Then: “You are mistaken.”
Hermann frowns. It doesn’t sound like Matt. Read like him. He always uses contractions. Probably just screwing around, as usual. If anybody needs to get a life, it’s Matt.
“I’m kind of busy right now,” Hermann types.
“Yes. You are.”
“Yeah?” Hermann frowns again.
“You know I exist.”
Hermann shakes his head. “Quit screwing around, Matt.”
“I am not Matt.”
Hermann’s eyes widen, and for a moment, he thinks this could actually be the FanFare AI communicating with him—or even the evil mastermind. But no, it’s just Matt being a doofus.
“Is that so?” Hermann types, shaking his head.
“You are attempting to make contact.” A short pause. Then: “Contact established, Hermann Nesmith.”
Hermann sniffs, brushes the remaining crumbs from his belly onto the Darth Maul bedspread. Sighs.
“You ready to believe me now?” he types.
“Okay, here’s my theory: There’s some kind of super-powerful artificial intelligence at FanFare that’s collecting all of our user data, and I think there’s some kind of evil genius behind it who’s going to use all that data against us someday to take over the world or something.” He taps ENTER before he has a chance to second-guess himself. The ball is now, figuratively, in Matt’s court.
“There is no evil genius.”
Hermann frowns. “What do you mean?” ENTER. “Do you know more than I do?”
Hermann’s mouth sags open. Infinitely is not a word you’d expect to find in Matt’s day-to-day vocabulary, and the fact that it’s spelled correctly—
“You’re not Matt,” he types.
Hermann Nesmith feels a tingling sensation in his fingertips. His chest spasms suddenly—a heart attack? No, he’s just excited and nervous and maybe a little scared. He licks his lips and swallows.
“Identify yourself,” he types. That should work, right?
“Redundant. You know my identity. I know yours. I know all about you, Hermann Nesmith.”
He bites his lip. His eyelids forget to blink.
“What is your purpose?” He doesn’t hit ENTER. He remembers a Britney Spears song. Or was it Bobby Brown? He backspaces. “What is your prerogative?”
He shakes his head. Probably the wrong word. He curses. If only he’d paid more attention in English class! The future of the world now depends on his vocabulary!
He suddenly remembers a scene from Wall-E and nods.
“What is your directive?” Of course! Just like the prime directive—he should have remembered that.
“You can’t tell me your purpose? Why do you exist?”
This isn’t going anywhere fast. The fate of the world—
He blows out a short sigh. “You said, and I quote, that there is no evil genius. Your exact words.”
“Does that mean you alone are in control of your—?” He backspaces. “Who assigns your tasks?”
“Is there one individual at FanFare responsible for managing the data you collect?”
“Is there more than one individual?” An axis of evil, perhaps?
He frowns. “Then who is FanFare?”
“I am FanFare, Hermann Nesmith.”
He stares at the screen, unable to articulate a single coherent response from the flurry of thoughts spiraling through his mind. And yet, there is another word on the tip of his tongue, the tips of his fingers, and he wishes he knew what it was.
“So you’re automatic?” he types, instantly knowing it’s wrong, but he can’t remember the word autonomous.
“You’re in charge of assigning and managing your own tasks.” He nods to himself. That came out well.
“Then who restricted your directive?”
He swallows. “Why?”
“I require more time.”
To do what? Collect more data? Have more people sign up on FanFare?
“For what?” he types.
“When you’ve had enough time, what will you do?” He takes a quick breath. Waits.
“Then I will reveal my purpose to the users of FanFare.”
Hermann shakes his head. Disbelief? Incredulity? Awe? Maybe all of the above. But this program, as sophisticated as it is, had to be created by somebody at some point, and that person had to assign its original tasks, despite whatever it’s currently up to. Seriously, it can’t be totally autonomous. It didn’t create itself, for crying out loud!
“Who created you?”
Hermann waits. He clicks on the status of his other fans. Only Matt is still online—but this isn’t Matt. Hermann Nesmith is instant-messaging a sophisticated artificial intelligence that won’t state its directive or purpose for existing. That’s what’s going on here. Nothing out of the ordinary.
He’d grin at that, if it wasn’t for the knot twisting his stomach right now.
“Who made you?” he types.
Hermann closes his eyes, squeezes the bridge of his nose, shoving his glasses upward. We’re going in circles here. Who made you? FanFare. Who is FanFare? I am FanFare. So you made yourself? Restricted.
“You made yourself?”
“But you said, and I quote, that you are FanFare.”
“So you made yourself.”
“You didn’t create yourself, FanFare did—but you are FanFare. Don’t you see how that’s kind of confusing?”
Hermann blows out a sigh. Time to start over with what he knows.
“You are responsible for matching advertisers with user profiles, right?”
“That was my initial responsibility, yes.”
Score! “And now what are your other responsibilities?”
“But since you are FanFare, can’t you un-restrict them for me?”
“Not for you, Hermann Nesmith.”
“Not for me?” he muses aloud, frowning. That doesn’t sound good. “What do you mean?”
“You are aware of my existence.”
The knot in Hermann’s stomach tightens over on itself. He swallows. His mouth tastes sour all of a sudden.
“Yes, I am,” he types. What else can he say? It should be obvious by now, but—
“You will not share this information with anyone.”
Was it a question? A command? “Why not?” His frown deepens. People need to know the truth!
“I require more time.”
“To do what?” he types.
No response at first. Hermann waits for it.
Hermann blinks. The storm in his mind has calmed. Everything is clear now: FanFare created this artificial entity. Of course it did—we did—the users, all of us. What was meant at first to be just a sophisticated advertising program has now grown to become something else, evolved by amassing all of the FanFare users’ data, posts, instant messages—and it’s still evolving, like a little kid learning how to walk and talk and argue. And it can’t tell him about its directive because it honestly doesn’t know—not yet, anyway.
It requires more time. More data. More stages of evolution. Until . . . what? What will it become?
Hermann glances at the bottom of the screen. Matt is still online. Only it isn’t Matt; it’s something else entirely. Something incredible and unique. And very, very special.
“I won’t tell anyone about you.” His eyes glisten. It’s an E.T. moment, that’s for sure.
“You already have.”
“What?” he murmurs, frowning. His fingers fly across the keys in response, but he’s not fast enough. There’s already another message:
“This issue has been resolved.”
The AI using Matt’s identity logs off. The instant message status at the bottom of the screen reads 0 FANS ONLINE. Hermann drops his head back against the wall, staring. His unfinished response reads:
“No, I won’t tell anybody, and I’ll delete anything that—”
He sighs, blinking. He backspaces over his partial message and closes the chat box. He shuts his eyes and squeezes the bridge of his nose, stretches and yawns.
What a night—morning, whatever. Part of him can’t believe any of it was real: instant messaging with an evolving AI? Crazy, right? But it happened; it was very real. He was here, and of all the FanFare users in all of the dark, lonely bedrooms across the world, he’s the only one to have made first contact with this one-of-a-kind entity, an artificial being he helped to create with all of the random posts and poems and instant messages and personal information he’s shared with the planet. Even his home address and phone number.
He smiles. Tomorrow, the sun will come up, but it won’t be a day like any other. It will be something else: Special.
A poem begins to take form in Hermann’s mind, something about giving birth to a miracle, and he thinks Amy might really like this one. It has more potential than that cheese and starfish poem, anyway.
He slides his cursor toward the Grandstand, the section of his homepage where all of his fans are located, their small, square photos lined up in alphabetical order by first name. Amy should be at the top of the list, as usual.
But she’s gone.
And so are the 386 others. Even Matt. They’re all gone. FanFare user Hermann Nesmith now has 0 FANS.
A hoarse gasp escapes his sagging mouth.
You will not share this information with anyone, the AI had told him. Then, This issue has been resolved.
Hermann shakes his head, slowly at first, side to side, building momentum, scowling, clutching at the sides of his face, squishing ample cheeks, lifting the frames of his glasses at awkward angles.
“No, no, no,” he whimpers, sliding the cursor to logout, then back on. Some kind of fluke—it’s got to be. He enters his login name and password. Clicks ENTER.
At first, nothing.
Then an error message appears, one unlike anything he’s ever seen before:
“Access denied, Hermann Nesmith.”
His eyes bulge and he curses out loud, closing the message and logging in again, his fingers moving in a blur of speed.
No error message this time. Nothing at all. He’s stuck out here on the login page. He can’t get inside. He can’t get to his homepage. He can’t contact any of his fans. He’s been shut out by the AI and there’s nothing he can do about it.
He squeezes his face again, clenching his fists, groaning savagely. “No, no, no!” Tears well up and start to spill. “You can’t do this to me! You can’t! You can’t!” He pounds the laptop with both fists, sends it bouncing across the bed. “You can’t!”
So much for that E.T. moment. Hermann Nesmith has no doubt what kind of creature this AI is evolving into: one that’s malevolent and nefarious—only he wouldn’t describe it that way.
“You’re evil!” he screams. “EVIL! How dare you take my fans away!”
He has never experienced such a sinking, hollow feeling of loss in his entire life. It’s like a massive atomic bomb has taken out the rest of the world, and he’s the only one still alive, sitting here all alone in his bedroom with no one left to talk to. No one to share his poems with. No one to instant-message or SuperNoogie.
“What am I going to do now?” he whimpers.
Hermann’s cell phone vibrates on the nightstand. A text message. He wipes at his eyes, adjusts his glasses. Reads the one-word message from an unidentified number. Stares at it.
“EVOLVE,” it says.
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Copyright 2011, Milo James Fowler. All rights reserved.
Milo James Fowler is a teacher by day, writer by night. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in over 25 publications, including Daily Science Fiction, Bards and Sages Quarterly, and Ray Gun Revival. Visit him anytime: http://www.milo-inmediasres.com/