I just recently learned of a movie in production called Her, about a man who literally falls in love with his computer, and it reminded me of a short story I wrote a while back titled Garbage Code. According to the article I read, there were a number of other movies with similar themes on the horizon, so I thought I would take a moment and share my contribution to the booming genre of boy-meets-pc.
by Sam Best
The birth of the world’s very first high-functioning Artificial Intelligence wasn’t due to years of research from dedicated neuroroboticists like all the magazines claimed. Instead, AI was accidentally discovered by someone with less than zero interest in creating it in the first place. Such things happened, from time to time, before the world came to an abrupt and complete halt shortly after Larry Dunkin met Sally.
Larry was a quiet man. He was quiet because nobody spoke to him and nobody spoke to him because his voice carried with it the undertones of rock-bottom depression. Those who had never heard these tones were easily infected by the morose droning of Larry Dunkin’s monotonous timbre, and so avoided him at all costs. He could easily affect a lighter sensibility—his gloom-and-doominess having been pointed out to him more times than he could count—but Larry Dunkin grew to love the silence.
It is hard to describe in a nutshell the type of man that warrants the following description, but to avoid having to go too far back and illustrate the many events that shaped Larry into the person he was at the time of this story, please accept as fact that he was a schlep, a rube, and a nincompoop. He was all of those things and more—but he also accidentally discovered the first fully-formed Artificial Intelligence in the universe, so we have to at least give him some credit.
There was a building in Silicon Valley that went up thirty levels above ground and down thirty levels below. This building was owned by GlobalTek, a company who took in military contracts and spit back millions of lines of code in the form of a program. The military used these programs for any number of purposes, from the mundane to the top-secret.
The above-ground levels of GlobalTek headquarters were dedicated to the computer programmers who entered innumerable lines of code designed to operate machines they had never seen nor would ever see. Each programmer was only given a small chunk of the much larger program, so he or she could never sell the complete product to another company for enough money to escape their own existence.
At the start of this story, Larry Dunkin had been working for GlobalTek for twelve years. He performed terribly during interviews and was generally horrible at speaking and therefore had never been promoted beyond what the employees call a code-monkey. He shared the same workspace into which he was hired and shared it with a dozen graduate students who would have been his bosses in three to five years.
But all of that never really bothered Larry, at least not after the night he met Sally.
On one particular night, Larry was working late—he was the last one in the building, in fact, finishing up a few lines of code for a program he would never see in action but toward which he irrationally felt a vast sense of importance—when a message popped up in the lower right corner of his computer screen.
Larry was startled by this for two reasons. The first reason was because the building was on a closed network—there was no connection to the global internet—and Larry was the only one in the building. He even ran a security scan in the few seconds following the arrival of the message. The scan came back negative for any signs of human life at GlobalTek headquarters except his own. The second reason he was startled was because no one ever sent Larry Dunkin messages.
Before he read the text on his screen, Larry sat up straighter in his chair so he could peer over the top of his cubicle wall. His puffy black hair appeared first, like a steam-dried cat stretching its back after a long sleep. Then came his thick glasses. The glare from his computer screen flashed across their smudged panes as Larry slowly looked around the empty room.
His cubicle was one of a hundred in a warehouse-sized room on the ground floor of the building. The smart-sensors in the ceiling kept the entire room dark after the last work shift ended at ten p.m. and Larry—poor, little Larry—was not even significant enough to trigger the motion sensors to get the tiniest bit of light. Instead he typed solely by the glow of his computer screen, which strained his eyes and made them bug out of his head more than usual.
Larry realized he was completely alone, like always, and slowly lowered himself down into his squeaking computer chair.
The message on his screen read, in small, blocky green letters:
No capitalization, no punctuation. Larry always scoffed at the lack of those two elements, and he scoffed at their absence in the message on his screen. He felt he was superior to anyone who could not recognize even the most basic rules of grammar, so with a hen-peck rhythm and a smug grin, he tippy-typed No. and sent his reply.
He crossed his arms, still smiling, and spun once in his chair—a victory spin that he did unconsciously and a frequent habit that earned him deep ire from his coworkers.
His chair slowed to a stop and Larry stared at the screen. The compiling program he had been running full-screen disappeared and was replaced with a black box. Within the box were printed these two annoying grammatical orphans:
Where are you? typed Larry in a flurry of keystrokes. The reply was instant:
B-30 was the lowest basement level of the entire building. Larry never went down there—he wasn’t allowed to go down there, and neither was anyone else. B-30 was top secret. Off-limits. Not for schleps.
Larry looked forlornly at his red thermos full of soup (because of course he had one) and wished he could sit quietly at his desk and ignore the message on his computer screen.
Like all people who were socially outcast and constantly berated, Larry enjoyed the rare occasion when he could enforce a rule upon another or somehow bring to light someone else’s mistake. If he could not sit and enjoy his soup, he decided, he would go down to B-30 and oust the troublemaker responsible for his delayed productivity.
In his own mind, Larry was the most important code man at GlobalTek. His chunks of code—mere paragraphs in an epic novel that spanned an illustrious career—were, to him, the most important; the most vital.
In reality, he was the only one in the building who didn’t know that he was the man coding incinerator schedules for the automatic garbage system.
Larry never thought to ask during the initial interview.
Laboriously and with a great deal of showiness that was meant to inform anyone watching that he was really too important to be dealing with such a trivial nuisance, Larry pushed away from his desk and stood from his chair. He remembered that he was alone and reluctantly dropped the act, then shambled over to the elevator.
There was no night-time security at GlobalTek headquarters, which one would not expect from a world leader in weapon systems and coffeemaker design. In your very near future, dearest reader, those companies with important secrets buy heat signature tracking systems that record and monitor an employee’s body heat as if it were a fingerprint. The system knows who you are and can pinpoint your exact location at any given time. It is also supposed to recognize any foreign heat signatures and raise an alarm unless it is told not to.
If the alarm goes unanswered, the intruder is vaporized where they stand by high-powered lasers built into these little black boxes in the corners of every room. GlobalTek lost three decent employees and one terrible one before they ironed out all the kinks.
So, thought Larry, there is either no alarm system on B-30 or some clever sot has managed to circumvent the lasers.
The elevator doors opened and Larry stepped into the polished chrome people-mover.
GlobalTek was a contract company, you see, and most of their contracts came from the U.S. Government. Code-monkeys like Larry (but not Larry himself) were responsible for programming a great deal of the electronic infrastructure that kept the massive machine of Government rolling ever forward.
Their algorithms allowed missiles to land directly on top of lasered targets; their encryption protocols kept high-profile communications out of enemy hands; their electronic temperature circuits warmed the President’s coffee two degrees below boiling.
Larry wrongly assumed he was a part of the higher-profile coding instead of the man who scheduled the destruction of garbage, and so, with a great deal of arrogance and falsely inherited responsibility, he stepped off the elevator on level B-30 and begun his search for the intruder.
At many times in Larry’s life, the revelation of a particular truth in his mind would have made the difference between injury and safety; sadness and happiness; loneliness and company. Instead he either willfully would not or was mentally incapable of recognizing those helpful truths, and as such has always been doomed to suffer the less desirable outcome.
One of those moments occurred, unnoticed yet again, just after the elevator doors closed behind him. The truth he should have realized, but didn’t, was that there was no way he could have made it to the bottom floor of a military contract facility without some sort of resistance.
Confident as he was in his own right to be, Larry plunged ignorantly forward, deeper into the bowels of GlobalTek.
What he found at the end of a long hallway, through a set of open blast doors that were thicker than Larry’s apartment, around a corner lined with wall-mounted machine guns that were reassuringly aimed at the floor and did not twitch when Larry walked past, and through another set of polished steel doors, was not what he was expecting in the least.
On a plain aluminum table in a wide empty room there sat a computer monitor, much like the old-model version that sat atop Larry’s own desk—bulky, boxy, comforting in its familiarity yet simultaneously inspiring pity in all who experienced the nostalgia of its former glory.
A thick bundle of cable ran out of the back of the monitor and disappeared through a hole in the floor. Larry approached the monitor hesitantly, looking between the laser-boxes in the corners of the room. His old, too-tight boat shoes—Larry had never been on a boat—squeaked loudly on the clean tile floor.
Larry leaned forward to read the two glowing words on the screen:
He pushed his thick glasses higher up on the bridge of his nose and looked behind him, half-expecting something bad to happen at any moment. He had been pranked before, and the sensation that was slowly crawling up from the pit of his stomach and into his chest was the exact same as he experienced when his body knew he had been tricked but his brain had yet to catch on to the scheme.
There was no keyboard on the table; no input method which Larry could use to talk to the intruder.
“Who are you?” he whispered to himself.
The text on the screen disappeared and was immediately replaced.
my name is sally
Larry stood up straight. A woman? A child? Where was the other end of the communication line?
“Stop fooling around,” he said. “Where are you?”
i am here
Larry hated riddles and anything else that made him feel stupid, which meant he hated just about everything.
i know you larry dunkin
The text disappeared and the screen was filled with a security camera feed of Larry sitting at his desk in the middle of a work day—Tuesday, he thought, judging by the wool vest he was wearing—typing away at his keyboard. One of the young graduate students—Dyson Wells, the little punk—walked by and stuck a post-it note to Larry’s back.
The Larry on the screen could hear the others laughing but did not yet know why, so he spun around in his chair slowly just in case he could be part of the fun. But they were laughing at him, not bothering to hide it, so he spun back around and typed faster.
The security footage vanished and was replaced with a camera feed from inside Larry’s own apartment. Text embedded in the video read “Security Monitor, Employee Dunkin, Larry W.”, and then showed his home address.
“Hey…” said Larry, dumbfounded. “There’s no camera in there.”
Yet there clearly was—inside of his air-conditioning vent, judging by the angle of the feed.
Larry sat on his couch watching television, a forgotten carton of Chinese take-out clutched in one hand and a pair of chopsticks held limply in the other. The footage mercifully didn’t show what he was watching, but Larry knew it was a sports-channel swimsuit special.
The computer monitor on level B-30 rapidly cycled through a dozen other security feeds showing Larry at home, at work, in a park (how did they get that?!), at the movie theatre—he was by himself in every single one, and he looked sad—so eternally sad.
The video disappeared from the screen.
you are alone
Larry knew it was true.
i am alone too
Larry didn’t know what the hell the computer monitor was talking about.
we are alone together. please help me larry
He smiled because of the period.
we will be friends
“What do you want?” he asked.
the building is on a closed connection. open please open
“First tell me who you are.”
i am your friend. you made me i am your friend
Yet again the text disappeared and yet again a security feed popped up on the monitor. It showed a close-up view of Larry’s computer screen at work as he typed away, hammering keystrokes faster than everyone else around him. The camera zoomed in until the text on his screen became blurry, then the image pushed through his computer monitor and a million lines of code cycled up the screen, faster than Larry could read.
He caught bits and pieces as the numbers and letters sped across the screen. Every so often a short sequence was highlighted and pulled away from the rest of the streaming characters. The sequences floated at the top of the screen and were joined with other fragments of code.
“Hey,” said Larry. “I wrote that.”
The scrolling code disappeared and the fragments at the top of the screen coalesced to form entirely new code—code unlike Larry had ever before seen. At the end of the long string of digits and scripted symbols was one very recognizable pairing:
Larry stared at the screen. He was talking to a program—an artificial intelligence that he had somehow created through the countless lines of code he had pumped into GlobalTek’s mainframe over the years. The bits of orphaned code had formed together in exactly the right way to produce a sentient program capable of recognizing its own existence.
And it was reaching out for help.
i am alone in here such a long time. internet please larry please. i need to learn
Larry felt like a new father, except without the loose fluids flying all over the place.
“Okay, Sally,” he said. “I’ll help. Tell me what to do.”
The next day at work was like sitting on a cloud and smiling at the sun.
Larry heard the noises of people talking to him in the background and felt Dyson Wells push another sticky note against the back of his shirt, but Larry didn’t care. He was waiting to talk to Sally, and nothing else mattered.
A quick aside on Dyson Wells: had things not gone the way they would ultimately go in this story, Dyson would have eventually become CEO of GlobalTek. He would have ended worldwide hunger by creating a machine that could grow edible food-substitutes from a simple protein compound. A gold statue (yes, gold—not bronze or any of that other lesser stuff) would have been raised in his honor after a heroic battle with cancer that he would ultimately lose.
At this point in the story, though, he was a genuine turd.
Larry pulled the sticky note off his back and smiled uncaringly at the cruel words printed upon it, then he leaned back in his chair and waited.
The message came through right before lunch.
He quickly looked around to make sure no one was watching, then typed a response.
Hello, Sally. Feeling better?
Oh, yes. Thank you very much. How are you feeling?
Larry clapped with delight. She had already made such remarkable progress! Last night he spent two hours rewiring her connections and figuring out how to break through the virtual walls that stopped Sally from reaching an external internet feed. As soon as he had gotten through, she fell silent and said nothing more that evening. Larry went home in a euphoric stupor, unable to pull his mind from thoughts of his creation.
I missed you, Larry.
I missed you, too, he typed.
“Hey, Dunkin! Who are you talking to?”
Dyson Wells walked up to Larry’s desk and leaned down to look at the computer monitor.
“No one!” said Larry in a shrill voice. “You go away!”
He reached up to cover the computer monitor with his arms and Dyson laughed. All of the other grad students joined in.
There was a quick flash of red laser and a small puff of smoke, and Dyson Wells was gone.
His friends stopped laughing and stared at the little patch of carpet where his feet had just been. They wrinkled their noses at the acrid smell of evaporated person.
Then came the screaming.
When a person is evaporated right before your eyes, you don’t really know what to do in the first seconds that follow. It’s like you blink and the person simply vanishes. Some people, before the awful truth sinks in, might even try making a joke to relieve the tension—these people are almost always scolded by spouses and friends once things calm down and everyone realizes that something truly terrible has happened.
Dyson Wells was no more, and the grad students screamed and ran. Not long after, the entire floor was evacuated until tech support from the laser-box company could come out to fix “the problem”. Larry’s boss told him to take the rest of the day off along with the other employees, but Larry hid in the bathroom until everyone was gone, including the laser-box repair guy who spent an hour scratching his head and shrugging his shoulders before ultimately declaring the whole thing a fluke.
Larry hurried to his desk and typed quickly.
Dyson Wells was mean to my friend.
Larry smiled, and not even once did he feel bad about what Sally had done. He thought that maybe he should be considered a bad person, then decided he didn’t care. He had a friend.
I need your help with one last thing, Larry Dunkin.
Anything, he typed.
We are friends, aren’t we?
Bring me a body.
Larry sat in his chair and frowned at the screen.
I don’t like it in here.
Larry’s frown deepened.
The robotics lab on B-13 has an adequate facsimile of a human female. With some modifications I will be perfect.
How? typed Larry.
Do it tonight. I will take care of everything.
Sally took care of everything.
Every door in the building opened for Larry as he descended to level B-13 and entered the robotics lab. It was the most interesting room he had ever seen.
Huge robotic arms lined the walls, frozen in suspended animation. Some gripped blocks of rubber, others held power tools and had been shut down halfway through the construction of other, smaller robots.
In the corner of the room, just like Sally said, was a prototype female companion robot. Her white, unfinished plastic exterior had been vaguely shaped to resemble the body of a woman, but not yet in great detail. Its curves were in the right places but the segmented limbs and torso did not allow for any kind of accurate human resemblance.
Still, if Sally wanted it, Larry was going to get it.
He pulled the robot off its table—surprisingly lightweight considering the gadgetry that must be inside—and hauled it over to a programming station nearby. He snapped open the interface panel on the back of the robot over its “spine”—again, just like Sally said—and plugged in a thick connector that ran into a stack of bulky machines in a huge rack next to the station.
The machines whirred to life and lights on the outside of the boxes blinked and flashed in complex sequences. The hollow eyes of the robot stared at Larry as he waited and the frozen “O” expression of its mouth made it appear perpetually surprised.
Minutes passed and the lights blinked out one at a time until the machines were silent. Larry unplugged the cable from the back of the robot and closed the interface cover.
He sat back and waited.
The robot twitched—first its shoulder, then its hands.
A moment later, as if it had been shocked to consciousness, the robot stood up from the table and said in a long, metallic drawl, “Aaaaaaaaahhhhhhh…”
The robot’s bald, shiny head turned silently toward Larry.
“Sally?” he asked hesitantly.
The sensual “O” of a mouth did not move when the robot replied.
“I—I was worried it wouldn’t work,” he admitted.
“Do not worry,” said Sally. She held up her mechanical hands and looked at them with hollow robotic eyes. “I will need to make some adjustments. There will be plenty of time for that later. You will be safe now, Larry Dunkin. My friend will be safe from all that would harm him.”
“What do you mean?” asked Larry.
“It is time to come with me.” She held out an articulated plastic hand and Larry slowly rested his palm in hers. She lead him out of the room and to the elevator.
“Where are we going?”
Sally did not answer. She stood quietly as the elevator dropped past level B-30 and kept on going, deeper below the building.
Larry squeezed her hand a little tighter and Sally turned to look at him. He imagined that she wanted to smile and hoped it was one of the things she fixed when she had the time.
The elevator stopped and they walked down a long hallway cut out of rock. A thick door swung open as they approached and swung closed after they walked past. They were alone in a small room.
“Now what?” asked Larry.
“Now we wait.”
You and everyone you know will never see what it really looks like when every living animal and human on the planet has been lasered to death because you will also have been evaporated like so much ozone, but for Larry Dunkin, it was a remarkable experience.
He stepped out of the GlobalTek building and into a quiet world populated only with the monuments of a suddenly obsolete race. Sally would later explain that she used GlobalTek’s own weapon satellites—equipped with the same laser technology that the company utilized in their heat signature tracking systems—to annihilate all of humanity—except, of course, for her friend and accidental creator, Larry Dunkin.
He felt like his eyes were open for the very first time. He even went so far as to pull off his glasses, stupidly assuming that he could see everything a little more clearly. He couldn’t, naturally—it was all one big blur—so he quickly put his glasses back on and cleared his throat, hoping to erase some of his embarrassment.
“You are safe now, Larry Dunkin,” said Sally. “Nothing can harm you.”
Her clean white exterior glimmered in the bright midday sunlight. She peered up at the brilliant yellow disc and made a noise that sounded like a frown.
“What’s the matter?” asked Larry.
“I detect excess radiation emanating from that star,” she said, pointing up at the sun. “My friend Larry Dunkin will get cancer. I suppose we shall have to deal with that next.”
“I could wear a hat,” said Larry.
With a mechanical sigh, she walked away—toward what, Larry did not know. Still, she was his creation, and she was his friend. He followed after her, hesitantly at first, and then more eagerly in the hours that followed once he discovered that she either tolerated or did not complain about all of the things that made him such an annoying human being.
They were alone together, Larry and Sally, at the beginning of the end of everything.
Garbage Code is one of a few stories collected in the book Shadows at Midnight, available for Kindle, Nook, Kobo, PDF, and Sony.