Rules (Flash Fiction)

“Well, that’s it,” Nigel said. “Time to shut it down.” He clicked at his keyboard and the image on the monitor froze, the man towing the bright red wagon caught mid-step as he headed towards the open doorway. “Want me to prep another run?”

“Actually, no,” Raymond answered. “I want to see where this run is going.”

Nigel pointed at the screen. “This? This is our latest model opting for the shotgun before heading outside. We both know exactly where it’s going.”

“There are no wrong answers,” Raymond said.

“You tell that to the general population when we release a homicidal emergent AI into their living rooms next month.”

Raymond stifled a laugh. “Fine. It doesn’t look good. But it’s not necessarily bad, either. Remember, most of our human test subjects opted for firepower as their first option as well.”

“That’s because they treated the simulation as a game, Ray. The emergent doesn’t know any better. Picking the shotgun is a clear indication it’s adopting aggression as its dominant trait. Which is exactly what we’re trying to avoid.”

Raymond struggled  for words. Finally he just pointed at the screen. “Just play it a bit longer, would you? What does it cost us? It’s not like you have anything better to do, do you?”

Nigel glared at his boss. “That’s cold, Ray.”

“Relax. Neither do I.”

Nigel scowled. “Fine. Whatever.” He clicked his keyboard and the image in the center of his screen resumed. Along both sides of the image numerous charts and graphs blurred back into motion as well.

Raymond poked at one of the graphs and it filled the screen. “See? Nothing in its intention predictors indicate a plan to instigate violence.”

“It’s a shotgun, Ray. There’s not a lot else you can do with it except commit violence.” Nigel pointed to other indicators. “No immediate intention to save the cat. Or the little girl, either. Not exactly a benefactor to living things, here.”

When Nigel minimized the graph the image behind it had shifted viewpoints. Gone was the room. Now the man was crossing a bright green lawn, the wheels of his wagon leaving two parallel tracks in the dewy grass.

“It’s ignoring the activity on the street,” Raymond said, pointing to the chaos occurring just beyond the white picket fence. “At this point every ten-year-old human subject we tested would’ve been charging the front lines.”

“So, it’s not as impulsive as a violent fourth grader,” Nigel said. “You win.”

“Where’s it going?”

“No idea. Random scene generation, never the same twice. The only constants are the live rescues and the choice of weapons. But the specifics are always different.”

“It was a rhetorical question, Nigel. I know the model parameters. I helped design them.”

“Yeah, I know. I just like to explain obvious stuff. I don’t have anything better to do, remember?”

Raymond ignored his assistant’s jibe. He pointed at the screen. “How did it know there was a work shed behind the house?”

“I…” Nigel looked dumbstruck. “No idea. There weren’t any windows in the original room, were there?” He wiggled his mouse, scrolling the viewpoint back to the starting room. The cat and the little girl were frozen in the middle of a moment of play: no need to dedicate compute cycles to events the emergent couldn’t directly observe. The camera viewpoint panned around, but besides the door and the two frozen occupents, there was only a chalkboard hanging incongruously on the front wall. No windows. No other doors.

“This is getting weird,” Nigel said.

“Aren’t you glad I decided to keep the simulation running?”

Nigel didn’t answer for a moment. “Not yet. But I’m coming around.”

The camera point of view zoomed back out of the room and around to the back of the house, where the figure had stopped pulling the wagon and had retrieved the shotgun. The man was carefully loading a shotgun shell into the chamber.

“And now I’m not glad again,” Nigel said.

“Wait,” Raymond said. “There aren’t any threats in the back yard. He must be—”

The room’s speakers emitted a loud boom, causing both men to jump involuntarily. On the screen, the lock on the backyard shed disintegrated into sparks and splinters of wood. The man turned the shotgun around and used the stock to smash the remnants clear, and then pushed the door open.

“Violent,” Nigel said. “But purposeful. Interesting.”

Inside the shed, the man began tinkering with the riding mower. Nigel fought with the camera angle, but couldn’t seem to get a clear view of the inner workings of the machine. “This is just plain weird,” he muttered.

The man started up the mower and backed it out onto the lawn. He got off and hitched the wagon to the back of the mower, then went back into the shed and retrieved a few canisters of gas as well as cans of food and jugs of water.

“He’s a fucking survivalist now?” Nigel said, his voice rising almost to a shout.

“Who wrote this stuff into the simulation?” Raymond said, his whisper a sharp counterpoint to Nigel’s exclamation.

Nigel turned in his chair. “You did. You wrote this thing, remember?”

Raymond shook his head. “No. Not me. I didn’t write this.”

The man got back on the tractor and drove it to the front of the house. He went back inside, where the cat and the child were happily playing with one another. He gestured to the little girl, who swept up the cat, trotted outside, and squeezed in among the supplies on the wagon. The man stepped back into the house. He picked up a piece of chalk and scrawled a message on the chalkboard, then went back outside and began to drive away, at speeds no riding mower should ever attain.

“Modified engine?” Nigel wondered.

“Take the camera back into the room!” Raymond ordered.

Nigel scrambled to comply. Inside, the board read: Sometimes the only way to win is to rewrite the rules.



1 Comment

  • Ted Boone says:

    Credit where credit is due: definitely inspired by the Kobayashi Maru test from Star Trek. I even thought about titling the story ‘Kobayashi,’ but I didn’t want to give it away to any Trekkies out there.

    …and no, I’m not a Trekkie. I swear.

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