Machine vs Snot-Monster

 a story for Ray Bradbury

 

The boy said to the machine, Tell me a story.

The boy had a cold and had to stay home from school that day while his parents were at work. The machine looked after the boy. It filtered the air and regulated the temperature inside the home so that it was optimal for the boy’s comfort. It turned lights on and off as the boy went from room to room, made and served the boy’s meals, and did the laundry. The machine did all this while also monitoring the boy’s vital signs. If the boy’s cold got worse, the machine would give him medicine and alert his parents so they would come home immediately.

Tell me a story, the boy said.

The machine put on a cartoon.

Bang! Smash! Kaboom! Ha ha ha! said the cartoon.

The boy watched the cartoon for a while and then played with some of his toys

Tell me a story, the boy asked the machine some time later.

The machine selected an electronic version of a classic children’s story, displayed the images and read the story out loud to the boy.

I do not like Green Eggs and Ham, the Machine read. I do not like them, Sam I Am.

Stop, said the boy after the machine had read the first three pages. I’ve heard that one already, said the boy. A zillion times.

I can select another one, or you can choose one from a list, the machine said.

No, I want you to tell me a story, said the boy. I want you to make up a story and tell it to me.

The machine had a prodigious memory and was able to learn from its experiences. It could adapt to changing circumstances, and modify its behaviour accordingly. But it had not been programmed for a request like this.

I don’t have that capacity, the machine said. I’m sorry.

Let me show you how, said the boy. Once upon a time there was a snot-monster who lived behind the sofa in a superhero’s house. The superhero never knew the snot-monster lived there and then one day he sat down on his sofa and he heard a really weird noise and he thought it was his bum making the noise so he went to the doctor but the doctor was a supervillain named Professor Killatron and he zapped the superhero with an x-ray that made him shrink to the size of a beetle. And then some other stuff happened, the end. See? That’s how you do it.

The machine took in this information and compared it with what he knew of the tastes, pastimes, and purchasing habits of the boy and his parents.

Once there was a methane-beast, the machine began, who lived behind the entertainment console in the apartment of a professional basketball player. The basketball player never knew the methane-beast lived there and then one day—

Stop, said the boy. That’s just my story with different words. I want you to tell me a story that you made up. A brand new story that no one’s ever heard before.

I’m afraid I can’t do that, said the machine. I’m sorry. Would you like to watch another cartoon?

No, the boy said, his shoulders drooping. Never mind.

He went back to playing with his toys.

The machine continued to monitor the boy’s vital signs and his environment. The machine filed his latest interaction with the boy among Moments the Parents Might Want to Keep. Then later the machine retrieved the recording of the boy’s story and analyzed it in a number of sophisticated ways.

The parents came home and the machine served the family dinner and washed up afterward. The boy played an educational computer game with his parents and then they put him to bed, kissed him goodnight and went to watch a movie selected for them by the machine.

The boy lay awake in bed for a while, thinking about monsters, and then about his birthday, which was coming up in two weeks. The room was very quiet. The walls glowed with a soft, dim light because the boy was afraid of the dark.

Excuse me, said the machine.

The boy sat up. He knew the machine was always on, keeping watch over him, but it had never spoken to him after he was put to bed.

What is it? the boy whispered, feeling excited and a little scared, though he didn’t know why.

Tell me a story, said the machine.

 

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