Serial Fiction: FRIEND - Part One



Anxiety - by debora Ewing
FRIEND is the story of an organic, Protein-based Artificial Intelligence project - called ProTAI by its creators - and what happens when science recognises itself.

This science fiction piece won first place in Loudoun County Library's 2019 Write On! Short Story Contest. The version here is expanded somewhat. I'm hoping that by the time we get to the end of this piece, the sequel will be available to view online - it's currently out for consideration with a publisher. Please look for opportunities to participate in your local writing or art community. Flex yourself.


FRIEND
To create true artificial intelligence, we worked bottom-up:  we evolved a being. ProTAI was created from protein-based sensors with self-repair capability. My name, David McCoomb, is on several of the patents.
The silk fibroin electronics with flexible silver nanofibers are water-soluble; ProTAI grew in a roomy glass container of nutrient-rich hexadecane emulsion. I say roomy - the vat is four meters square - we planned for several years of study based on growth rate of test samples. With a diameter of 1.17 meters, ProTAI is remarkably light – just 2.54 kg, twice the weight of Einstein’s brain.


A few years into the project, ProTAI developed nodes that echolocated lab activity: pimple-like, half-dollar sized, shifting toward movement. She (Sperling assigned gender to our project) was watching us. 


*

I remember clearly when I noticed the Nanophone activity. I was at the lab avoiding my birthday. I’d begged off dinner with my wife, claiming backlog, but she’d accepted my ruse. As our kids were no longer kids, we didn’t need celebrations – I believed she’d enjoy a night to herself. It was my special day, after all, so I thought I deserved to spend it where I felt most comfortable.


When my Nano vibrated in my pocket, I checked for notifications - nothing. I laid the device on the central work-table where I was reading. The Nano lit up again; several app icons blinked, disappeared, then reappeared. I restarted it and went back to writing marginalia. The Nano vibrated again; I stuffed it back in my pocket. 


I looked over at ProTAI: her pimply nodes were leaning toward me.


There had been enough distraction to interrupt my flow of useless thoughts. I got up and walked into the break-room next door. Standing in front of the vending machine, I heard a thump and saw a Baby Ruth bar had fallen. Happy Birthday.


I took the candy from the bin and put it in my lab-coat’s pocket. My Nano vibrated upon contacting the wrapper. I looked at the device: some icons blinked, then it went into sleep-mode. ProTAI watched me return to paper-shuffling at the table. 


Over the next week, Sperling and Lee reported similar Nanophone antics. Gathered around the work-table, we pulled out our devices. Each of us noted several apps malfunctioning. 


"Sounds like a conspiracy, Dave," quipped Sperling. Our Nanos vibrated – all three. Bubbles gurgled in ProTAI’s vat.


Each scientist looked up, and we all turned slowly toward ProTAI. Lee chuckled in disbelief; her Nano blurted a short ringtone as the vat’s sensor panel blinked erratically.


"Holy wow," Lee gasped, staring at ProTAI. Sperling and I focused on Lee. 


"What?" demanded Sperling as Lee took a few steps toward the glass enclosure. "You're kidding..." he sputtered.


Lee's Nano rang again, and Sperling's vibrated. Sensors buzzed; ProTAI belched. I imagined I saw the protein-based mass shimmy, as if in satisfaction. No, that would be ridiculous.


"Damn!" My voice surprised me. I put the Nano in my pocket and ran my fingers through my hair. Damn. I needed to withdraw; I ducked into the break-room.


As I paced between the coffee maker and vending machine, a Baby Ruth dropped into the bin. 


** to be continued **

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