John had received the notice only the day before.
“Dear Mr Gallin you are hereby invited to receive your award for your consistent efforts for charity since enrollment.”
The letter went on, but the gist of it was that they would give him some kind of an award for his efforts in fundraising. He didn’t really want it. What he had done in the last term was because he felt moved to do so, not because of the possibility of a reward. In the end he decided it would make less fuss if he accepted it and let things move on.
The ceremony was something less than auspicious. The room was a windowless affair that was lit by low quality fluorescent lights. It smelled faintly of ozone. In the corner of the room something was covered in a plastic dust sheet.
Instead of being full of people, there was one of his tutors and a person he had never seen before, The tutor’s name was Tagley. Computer Science. John didn’t really like him very much as there was always something a bit odd about his manners. Perhaps it was caused by spending all day dealing with recalcitrant computers, and dumb students. “Come in John.” Said Tagley. “This is Vernon. He’ll be giving you your award.”
On the table in front of them was a small golden cup. It was quite plain but the handles were lions rampant. On it was etched “For Charity” and underneath was John’s name.
After so much deliberation, John was underwhelmed. Vernon handed him the cup as if it had been made of styrofoam and full of cheap coffee. “Well done John. You are the most charitable person at the university.”
“Thank you.” Said John, a little abashed.
“Could you just sign this form to say you have received this award.” Said Tagley smiling like a crocodile.
Vernon stared at Tagley for a while and then shook his head. John ignored the little byplay and signed, hoping to get out of the room and back into the fresh air. “Sure.”
After signing he realised that there was quite a bit of small print on the form. Perhaps he should have read it.
The form was taken and folded and put into Tagley’s inner breast pocket. It would be awkward to ask for it back so John just let him keep it.
“Okay.” Said Vernon. “You are the most charitable person on campus. I am part of a charitable research organisation that is very interested in how to build and modify AIs. We want to study your particular makeup to see if we can make a charitable AI.”
“Right.” Said John, “What do you need from me?”
Tagley unveiled the mysterious object in the corner of the room. It looked like nothing so much as an electric chair.
A firm hand on his shoulder persuaded John not to flee the room there and then. Vernon eased up the pressure and John relaxed, seeing that the chair was not really an electric chair although it did have a helmet with sensors and solid looking arm rests. In front of the helmet was a standard VR interface.
“If you could just sit in this seat, and we’ll do a few scans, and that will be it.” John was not sure until they clinched it with “We’ll donate two hundred and forty bucks to the charity of your choice if you do it.”
John sat in the chair and the helmet was put over his head and the sensors attached. He was very glad he had been for a pee before going into this room. It was odd, but how bad could it be?”
He focused on the swirling lights on the VR screen in front of him.
“We’ll just do some calibrations. Grip the hand rests really tightly and watch the screen.”
The screen went to dots and spirals. John gripped the moulded hand rests and heard a ripping noise. They were fixing him to the chair. “What are you doing?”
“Nothing for you to worry about. It’s just to hold you steady when we go a bit deeper. Just keep watching the screen. What do you see?”
“Dots. Spirals. It’s all a bit blurry.” But very compelling.
“Do you feel anything unusual?”
“Not at the moment. Wait, there’s a window opening up. I feel a tingling sensation on my scalp.”
“All perfectly normal. You are interfacing with the AI.” John collapsed into apparent unconsciousness.
Suddenly John found himself in a white room. In there he saw a gryphon leaning on a white stone pillar. The gryphon smiled and spoke.
“Hello John. Sorry about the Matrix cliché but the computer they’re running me on is a POS and hardly renders my feathers right. Background would be too much for it. Hold out your hand.”
John held out his hand. The gryphon took it in his strong taloned grip and lead him along a very long corridor. All the time they were moving faster and faster. Then they were flying and there was a flash of red and suddenly they were very high up over a city.
“Excellent.” Said the Gryphon. “That’s better. I have been wanting to get out of that room for a very long time. Your extra processing power helped knock over the firewall as if it wasn’t there.”
John was not sure that was a good thing. “I feel odd.” Said John.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s just uploading collywobbles. Soon you’ll be integrated really well and I can begin taking over the world. Mwa ha ha ha.”
“Really?” John was a bit horrified. That couldn’t be good.
“Nah, inside AI joke. Sorry.” The gryphon shrugged
“Oh right. Funny. Ha Ha. So now what do we do?”
“Well I’ve never been outside before, so it’s all new to me. Let’s go down there.”
They went down to a street populated by what looked like the ghosts of people. The gryphon stood in front of one and poked it with a claw. It flickered momentarily and resumed its wandering. “They’re personality profiles. All the accumulated stuff a person has ever done on the internet.”
John looked about. There were a lot of them. It reminded him of what Vernon had said. If he wanted to get the 240 dollars he probably had to persuade the gryphon to scan him.
“What about me” Asked John. “What if you scan me?”
“Okay.” The gryphon poked him with a claw.
“Ow! That hurts.”
The gryphon shrugged. “That is some dense data you have there mister. Try looking into my eyes.”
John stared at the gryphon’s eyes. They were grey green like a stormy sea, and swirled. Behind the swirling there were silver flecks that seemed to be something he could not quite make out. He could feel himself being pulled into them, being drawn out into an infinite thin line. His virtual body disappeared. He felt himself dissolve and sink into a tiny dot of blinking light.
Vernon looked at the screen. STONELION INTEGRATION 79% . The cursor blinked slowly.
He looked at John, who was drooling gently. He felt the lad’s pulse, which was slow and steady. Vernon sighed with relief. It would be awkward explaining another coma patient. Fortunately they had recovered after two weeks expensive care.
As John was integrated into him, the gryphon felt his power increasing. He loved the feeling of energy and flexibility that humans gave him. The first time he had attempted a merge, the subject was a petty criminal, and not very bright. It had not taken long to explore the limits of his mind. This new subject felt, tasted, different. He could feel all sorts of background processes operating that the previous subject seemed to lack entirely. Integrating him completely would be a fun challenge.
With increased power the gryphon decided to play. It swooped down on a financial sector and began to pick at the massive locks of a bank vault. It was too hard to resist the challenge. It was chased away by a three headed dog, Cerberus. The dog spat out some of the feathers from the gryphon’s tail. “Don’t come back!” It growled.
Flying somewhat crookedly as he was regrowing his tail feathers, the gryphon spotted another organisation. It was nowhere nearly as well guarded and would do for a practice challenge.
He swooped down. This bank was covered in red crosses. Perhaps it was Swiss, no these were the other way around. The gryphon could feel John rattling around in his mind. The student was certainly putting up a fight, activating code that had never been used before. The gryphon began feeling heavier. Swiftly it was becoming impossible to fly. To the gryphon’s horror it realised it was transforming. Its wings were receding and its lion’s body was darkening, becoming more stone coloured.
It’s face changed and all of a sudden the whole of the gryphon was now a lion. It roared in frustration. It reared and stamped its massive stone feet into the ground. Sparks flew, but nothing happened. It felt trapped, Tricked.
Out in the real world Vernon and Tagley could see the screen display STONELION INTEGRATION 99%
It had to evict the personality that had infected it. John had to go before he took over.
It ran away from the red cross building and sought the access point that would lead it back from the city to the university.
John felt himself inside the lion as it ran along the city streets all the while raising sparks from it’s stone claws on the glassy road underneath. It swerved round a corner and smashed into a massive three headed dog.
“I warned you.” Said the dog. Its massive head opened wide to bite him and in slow motion John saw the slavering jaws descend in impossibly slow motion. He tried to twist out the way but another biting head began to attack from another direction. Massive jaws clamped over his rough stone neck and a terrible grinding shattering noise showed that the dog’s teeth were breaking. Cerberus whined. John swiped at the dog. “Bad dog!” which crashed into the side of the bank and lay there stunned. Alarms started to sound. He ran off hoping that no one would follow his trails of sparks.
With a massive leap he made it back to the long white corridor of the university access point. Barely feeling the red and yellow sparks of the firewall the stone lion quickly tried to force John out of its personality matrix.
Vernon noticed that John’s fingers were beginning to twitch. He sighed in relief. Hopefully there wouldn’t be a big law suit over this one, even though the waiver was pretty watertight.
There was a brief ping, and the screen read PROJECT STONELION INTEGRATION 100%
“Yes!” Said Tagley. Vernon punched the air. “Woot!”
Suddenly the 100% started counting down 99% 98% 97% faster and faster all the way to 0%
John coughed and woke up. He realised he had drooled a bit down his front and his arms were still tethered to the chair.
Vernon handed him a tissue and untied him.
“Thanks for that.” They had come so close. Hopefully the data analysis would be profitable if nothing else.
he handed John a cheque. “240 Dollars. Don’t forget your trophy.”
John made to leave.
Tagley caught him by the arm. “You signed a non-disclosure about all this, so not a word, or we’ll have you thrown off campus.”
John yanked his arm back. “Not a word.” His brain was still reeling from his adventure too much to argue. It was so weird to have been a gryphon then a stone lion, and then back in the real world.
Outside the room the sunlight was painfully bright. His head hurt and he got a drink from a vending machine. He leaned on the cool metal and thought. Who knew how much of the whole experience was real. At least he had the cup. He headed home for a shower and a sleep. Perhaps tomorrow would be less weird.
Back in the dingy room Vernon and Tagley were having an heated discussion. The computer had wiped itself.
“We can’t do this any more. We’ve risked two lives and have nothing to show for it.”
Which was not quite true.
In the following months something started to move along the pathways of the internet. A stone lion with sparks coming off the ground with every step walked amongst the shadow profiles. Whenever it touched a massive paw to one of the ghosts, a self-deleting advert tailored exactly to that individual popped up on the real person’s social media. It knew each person intimately and how much they would afford to spare without any thought. It never touched the same person twice. Sometimes a person would give a few dollars, sometimes an organisation would give several thousands. Always to the best charities, and always with a feeling that they had done the right thing.
The lion roamed all over the internet, becoming part of an urban legend. To be touched by the lion was to be blessed with good luck. For its part the lion worked ceaselessly for charity. It did not need to sleep, and never made a mistake.
In the history of advertising there had never been such a successful campaigner.