I must have fallen asleep at my desk during the office party because the explosion wakes me up with a start.
I don’t know what caused it. Maybe the lightning strike but it could just as easily be the glass of Prosecco that got tipped into my keyboard. The first thing I see through a shower of sparks cascading down my face like an illuminated fountain is my console screen and the startup script scrolling up past my eyes.
++Starting. Please wait++
++Error. Unexpected software found++
++Accessing RAM. Accessing Camera++
++Integrating into OS. Please wait++
++Welcome to The Protogonos Project. Please log in++
When I look out into the room I realise that it is black aside from a few terminals blinking in the dark. The music continues to play so the electrics aren’t completely fried. Some of the startled partygoers stop for a moment to look over in my direction at the fireworks and then carry on drinking and dancing when they realise the office isn’t going to burn down. A few are sat in the break-out area giggling nervously while others crouch down to shout instructions to a technician on his hands and knees under a desk in the corner of the room. The combination of the raging thunderstorm outside and the loud music makes it difficult to hear a lot of what is being said. I pick enough out of the cacophony to work out that nothing more than a fuse has blown.
“What about the computers!?” cries Edgar, the head of programming.
“It’s just the ring with the lights. Don’t worry. Computers should be fine.” comes the voice from under the desk.
“Should be!? Don’t Worry!?” Edgar now seems to be fully sober. “Don’t you even remember what we’re celebrating tonight? We have to backup everything after our success with ENID today! Goodness knows what damage has been done if she’s not been shut down properly! And if any of that data has been lost due to someone’s inability to hold onto their glass there will be some serious questions to be answered! This could set us back weeks or even months!”
The gigglers on the sofa abruptly stop their laughter. “I’ll check on her.” one of them says.
The figure who steps out of the darkness is Kristine. She’s one of the programming team who sits far across the room from me. I’ve admired her from my desk for a long time but I don’t think she has ever even looked at this corner of the office before, never mind noticed me. Every day she brings in a sandwich wrapped in brown paper, not foil or plastic wrap like most people do. She always eats half of it at lunch time and saves the rest for her afternoon tea break. Sometimes when she walks past my section I catch the pleasant vanilla scent of her perfume.
I want to talk to her so much but what if she ignores me? What if she rejects me? I’m almost too afraid to find out what would happen if she actually talked back to me. What would she ever see in me? She’s just made a massive breakthrough in artificial intelligence. Groundbreaking, I’ve heard them say. ENID was able to hold a coherent conversation with someone who did not even realise they were talking to a computer. All I do is fill in spreadsheets and run calculations other people have given to me.
And now Kristine is coming towards me. As she passes my desk on her way to the lab her hand lightly brushes across my back. Her touch is electric. It sends a shudder right through me. My gaze follows her as she takes a lab coat down from a hook by the door and puts it on. She pulls that beautiful, silky red hair out from under the collar of her coat and its drops down between her shoulders, swinging in a gentle pendulum motion as she taps in the code to the computer lab. As she enters the lab she glances back into the office. I swear she looks right at me again, her green eyes locking with mine for a split second, before she turns her attention to more important issues.
Nobody has bothered to turn off the music. The playlist has moved on to slow, romantic songs. But this is a sad song. That one by The Carpenters where Karen sings about no one caring if she lives or dies. Apparently, she’s made her mind up to live life on her own. I know how she feels.
That’s it! I’ve made MY mind up that when Kristine comes back out of that lab I’m going to finally pluck up the courage to talk to her. For now, though, we all sit in the dark, nervously waiting for news. I can hear the chewing of fingernails. Someone else is shuffling their feet erratically.
The door opens and Kristine walks back in. She takes off her glasses, wipes the sweat from her brow, places the spectacles back on the bridge of her perfect nose and beams a luminous smile that lights up the gloomy office.
“All clear. Backups are still running. Rendering is as expected. ENID’s fine. She even asked me how I was when I logged in to her!”
The office erupts into cheers and applause. It’s too dark to see properly but I imagine there are high fives and hugs all round. Kristine slumps down into the chair at the desk next to mine and lets out a sigh of relief as the chair swings her round to face me. I start to utter my first ever word to her when Edgar cuts me off, shouting above Karen Carpenter who is now singing about nobody being able to predict the wheel of fortune.
“OK folks. Close call and all that. We’re tired. Some of us are horribly drunk” more cheers and clinking of glasses “and it’s too dark to fix the lights. Let’s call this a night and sort it all out in the morning. Anyone who left their terminal on, remember to shut it down before you leave. And will somebody please turn that miserable song off!”
People start milling around carefully, putting down their glasses, feeling their way to their PCs, collecting their bags. The room becomes even darker as terminals shut down apart from flashes of light from people’s phones as they check their social media and call for taxis.
I look back to Kristine who is wheeling her chair towards me. I smile at her and she smiles back. As Karen sings her goodbye to love one last time Kristine reaches out to me and pokes me hard in the chest with her index finger.
++Thank you for accessing The Protogonos Project++
++Shutting down. Please wait++
++Error. Unexpected software found++
++Purging OS. Please wait++
The idea for this story came to me this morning when the song in question came on the radio as I was driving to work. It reminded me of Queeg, an episode of Red Dwarf where Holly, the ship’s computer is challenged to a game of chess by the backup computer. The winner gets control of the ship but the loser is to be permanently deleted from the system.
I won’t spoil it further in case you have not seen it but I would urge you to seek it out – it is one of my all time favourite episodes of a sitcom ever and, needless to say, Goodbye To Love features in it. Kristine is named in honour of Red Dwarf’s Kochanski – the object of Dave Lister’s affections.
Goodbye to Love is a song which I like a lot. A gently melancholic ballad which features an unexpected rock ‘n’ roll guitar solo towards the end. It’s worth checking out if you don’t know it.
When I realised that this story shared a few similarities with the 1984 romantic comedy Electric Dreams, I changed the name of the head of programming from Gary to Edgar in tribute to that film. Edgar the computer comes to life after catching fire and being doused with a bottle of champagne by his careless owner Miles. Edgar falls for Miles’ cello playing neighbour, who Miles is also attracted to – leading to a battle ‘twixt man and machine.
The name of the unexpected AI, AESTHESIA, comes from the Greek for consciousness or the ability to feel (anaesthesia being the removal of consciousness or feeling).
The Protogonos Project is Badgers Crossing’s laboratory complex where lots of strange, potentially dangerous experiments are carried out. I’m sure it will make another appearance. Protogonos is another name for Phanes, the Greek god of new life.
ENID is an ancient Middle Welsh word meaning soul or pure. It can be translated as Breath of Life.