Nicole has read at Story Shop 2014, the Edinburgh City of Literature Trust’s daily showcase at the Edinburgh International Book Festival of up-and-coming writers living and working in Edinburgh today. You can read the short story she read on Sat 16th August below.
Nicole is a youth worker and a writer from Edinburgh, by way of Florida. As a long-time denizen of two countries separated by a common language, she’s been writing for many years to discover more about how and why our words work. After graduating with distinction from Edinburgh Napier’s Creative Writing MA in 2013, Nicole has been building her writing career while working full-time. Story Shop 2014 is her work’s first public outing. As well as writing experimental short-fiction like The Turing Test, Nicole is writing her first novel, a Science Fiction adventure for teen readers.
A wee taster
The Turing Test
a short story by Nicole Brandon
Work was now the bright light of Mal’s life, though everything mostly orbited the new project these days. Metamorphofist wasn’t a new idea. It was, in fact, Sim City dressed up like World of Warcraft, but the execution of the thing was gonna be genius. Sure you didn’t control your character, but as time passed life changed them into something better, hence the classy name.
His heart wasn’t in it, though, he didn’t see the appeal of video games you didn’t actually play. Give him a purposeful character to design, one with an arc and a plot and a mission to accomplish. Where was the art in designing some aimless, crappy sprite you could kill by forgetting to feed?
Well, you wouldn’t forget to feed it if it texted you and asked WTF you were up to, and if you wanted to watch it slay a hydra. Thinking on that raised a half-smile, until Mal actually glanced to his phone, and remembered the last text saved on it. Remembered meeting Mary IRL, and thinking Jabba instead of Leia.
He canned his current design, then jammed the bloated file into ‘recycle’ and double-clicked it three times. Mal picked another of the pre-fab frames and some new honey-white skin. Tugged and tweaked the model until her proportions weren’t just programmable, they were the pinnacle of tits and ass in a steel bikini. Then in went the lips, the ears, the nose, the hair and last – the eyes. Dull violet, and completing a face unlike any other because it was just like what they all oughta be.
A second later he called it like he saw it and named her Gal. A week later she was coded, rendered, and standing in front of him, five inches tall. Everyone held their breath as she was imported to Metamorphofist’s vacant cairns and castles.
Gal faded in, penniless and alone, and everybody cheered. When Metamorphofist launched, his was the first phone to beep with a text: “Thanks for creating me, Mal!” and of all the customizable copies of her out there, Gal was the only one whose eyes were deepest violet and seemed to watch you with a spark of life.
Life was eventually, actually, alright. Mal would’ve said he missed Mary’s IMs and e-mails, but he had a new outlet for his moans and gripes. One he didn’t have to put a brave face on for. It wasn’t just talking to air, because sometimes the fortune-cookie wisdom that Gal’s ever-metamorphosing chat-bot parried back with was absolute gold. Once or twice it was exactly what he needed to hear.
He’d stayed late at work and finished vectoring the most gorgeous set of outfits ever seen online. Then he’d put them in the Metamorphofist Marketplace, then watched her go bananas and spend half her prize money with a massive grin on his face. He’d picked the colors her random matrix of preferences favored, and the cuts that flattered her model best. You could zoom in on the Moonbright Corset and see the pixels stitched together like thread.
Every smart person who’d know said Gal wasn’t feeling anything he could see happening in front of him, and Mal believed them. When the first wave of new gameplay upgrades came with a Relationships setting, he immediately set her profile to ‘Not Interested’, to prove it. She was a simulation.
How he was with her didn’t actually matter.
He didn’t have to answer the phone when she texted, so that’s why he did every single time.
Time was flying by. Sure Gal wasn’t human, wasn’t even an AI or anything like that, but she was real enough, because the effect she had on his prospects sure was. That crap was empirical, right? The gear and clothes he constantly designed for her were an incredible hit with denizens and their players, earning him a bonus, three gamer mag interviews and the first crack at getting Gal upgraded player-interaction software.
Once they upgraded her responsive programming, it was more like talking to a real person than it ever had been before. By now, Mal figured Gal for his muse, and when he told her so she said she was lucky to be his.
For that, he got them to introduce Companions to the gameplay and Gal was the first, and only, denizen of Metamorphofist to get an Irish wolfhound. They named him Southpaw. When Mal pointed his doppelganger out to his own dog, the dozy hound barked at almost the same time as Gal’s one.
Both of them laughed. For the first time since Mary, Mal knew things were alright.
“Alright, who is she?”
“There is no ‘she’, sis.” That was kinda the truth.
Angela pulled a goofball face and downed the tail of her Corona, tapping the bar for her next before the bottle left her lips. Mal’s phone peeped so he glanced down to the screen, and couldn’t help a smirk as he thumbed in a reply.
A coaster whacked him in the nose. “Such crap. You’re like a lovesick bird peckin’ at a window with that thing.”
Mal quickly jammed his phone into his back pocket and grabbed his own beer, flicking the cap at her for good measure. “Its work, and I love my work, so shove it.”
Angela shoved something, alright. By the time Mal worked out which way was up again, she had his phone and her beer and was halfway down the beach, laughing her head off. He cussed out every gym she belonged to, gave chase for about three minutes and then just gave up.
His sister eventually dropped into the sand next to him, lifted her beer, and sighed dramatically.
“Bro, you are dating a Tamagotchi. Seek professional help.”
Mal snatched the phone back with both hands. “She’s not my girlfriend. She’s, uh, an experiment. Hey, don’t laugh!”
“Are you kidding?” He wasn’t, and she just chuckled harder. “Seriously, Mal; ‘Turing Test’, Google it. Maybe My Fair Lady, too, while you’re at it.”
His expression was closer to smarting than superior, but he tried anyway. “Just cos nobody else gets it doesn’t mean–”
“Yeah, whatever,” Angela chimed, pilfering his drink. “Hey, speaking of geeks who don’t know from reality, you gonna go to Comic-Con this year?”
Year in, year out, Mal had to decide if he was making the pilgrimage to San Diego Comic-Con. Money came into it, but mostly it was about what was new to see, and every time he’d been in the last five years what he’d seen was disappointing. Anyway, he wasn’t an outsider kid anymore; he was a paid-up graphics artist, one of the best known thanks to Gal and Metamorphofist. He was an industry name. So why bother?
Man up and face it. He was bothering because lately, when he watched over Gal as she and Southpaw cruised around their world, he missed her. She hadn’t gone anywhere. In fact, now he could boost her into his Google Glass and watch her run around out the corner of his eye all day, if he wanted to. (Sometimes he did, even if he didn’t want to, and he’d left the Glass at home today.)
She couldn’t get closer, she could only feel like she’d gotten closer. Better than life wasn’t life.
Leaning over the rail above the concourse, he watched thousands of people mill together – half cosplaying, half in their best-loved t-shirts.
Mal looked down at his phone, at Gal’s crystal-clear face, and wished for something different.
Indifferent to the heat, Mal slumped outside the convention centre, head nodding back and hands clasped around Gal’s screen. From the way the phone was buzzing with updates she was probably in a horde battle, but he didn’t look to see. She would win. She was designed that way.
Laughter pinged his attention, and he did an honest-to-god double take. A dozen girls and guys were dorking around by the fountains, doing a photoshoot. They were all cosplayers, and they were all pulling ridiculous poses and wearing outfits out of Metamorphofist. One girl was wearing the Moonbright Corset and giggling on her friends’ shoulder. He couldn’t quite believe it when he realized she was wearing lilac contacts, and making them look anything but cute.
He stared at them for a creepy amount of time, then tapped into Gal’s account and went to settings.
Just like that she went from ‘Not Interested’ to ‘Looking for Love’, but there wasn’t much outward sign.
She didn’t stop hacking the head off an unlucky basilisk to go seek out romance, at least.
Mal took it as another slice of wisdom, and went over to introduce himself. Time to figure out who he was about to meet.
Southpaw died for no good reason on Monday, and then he up and died again on Tuesday night. He could see somebody had hosed the blacktop down afterward, but when Mal looked he still saw the whole thing. Stupid ol’ dog and some stupid drunk kid, what did he expect?
He looked down, and peeled his palm from his phone to watch the scene cradled in his hands. Gal had been crying for exactly ninety minutes now. She stayed hunched over and non-responsive, waiting next to Southpaw’s unmoving shape. Her bodice was midnight blue with little stars all over, which slowly shifted into the constellations over their heads.
When they’d launched the GPS-tuned outfits online, everyone he knew had complained about how they wished they could get them in real life. Mal stared at the bodice instead of at Gal, and wondered why he hadn’t given her an immortal dog instead.
Well, what did she expect? He folded himself over, forehead to his knees, and stared down at Gal and the hourglass fluttering by her shoulder. Ten minutes to go, then she’d be done with feeling this way. At least for her, Southpaw had died for something. He had protected her from a pack of hellhounds. Somehow that had to make it easier.
It didn’t surprise Mal that by the time her automated mourning was up, it did.
(c) Nicole Brandon, 2014