Aloysius and the Fishes

Submitted into Contest #150 in response to: Write about a character who is convinced their computer is conscious.... view prompt

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Science Fiction Speculative Contemporary

They did not invite him to Happy Hour. By the time it had rolled around, he had been sitting in the dark for nearly ninety minutes. He knew because he had looked at his watch when the power first went out, and he was looking at it again when there came laughing beyond his office door.


He stood in the threshold, then, like a child caught eavesdropping, as he watched a group of them move toward the elevator. Peter, his supervisor, who was too tall for his slacks, was the one to turn around as the fluorescents flickered back on for the first time.


He allowed his expression to fall when he saw him there in the doorway. “Oh, Al. I didn’t even know you came in today.” He flashed a wide smile at the others. “We were going to head out early. Drink specials at…well, it’s a higher-level executive meeting. You understand. But looks like the electricity’s back. Good news! You can probably catch up on everything you missed this afternoon.”


And so, they went. And so, he watched. The lights had come back on his little office too, with its window that did not open and its beige filing cabinet. And returning to it, he sunk into his desk chair, which did not really roll anymore, and took a swig from his water bottle—one of those large, metal ones that a person can use in the wilderness or while climbing a mountain.


He had filled it up from his kitchen sink at home because there was no fountain. They had gotten rid of the vending machines a few months ago too. He did not take lunches. The bottle itself was almost empty now, though. He had forgotten to drink it more slowly. But he had been sitting in the dark for nearly ninety minutes. And so, with nothing to do, he had drunk it.


His computer had come back on too. It was a new-ish one, the sort that did not have a tower or a base, just a big sleek monitor that surely must have been hiding a mass of wires behind its screen. A desktop customization menu was open, although he had been doing something else when the thing shut down.


Settling in, however, he clicked the mouse once, twice, three times, but it did not close. No, he seemed to accidentally launch the screensaver—an animated picture with an ocean motif. A blue lagoon shimmered from the display now, deep, chilly sapphire, a crystalline color broken only by dots of blazing coral, painted in shades of yellow and pink and orange. White sand reflected a glinting sun just above the waterline, and brilliant yellow fish animated in outdated, bulky 3D, swam back and forth before disappearing beyond the edge and reappearing on the other side.


He moved the mouse once more, and the screen flashed black before the menu returned. But as he slid the cursor toward the bottom, it seemed to veer right of its own accord. And with a singular click, the ocean had returned.


Two of the fish had abandoned their school by now and were poised in the center of the picture, bobbing up and down in a flurry of bubbles, faces forward as if staring out at some intruder in their reef. He looked at them, and they looked at him. And as he craned his head to one side, checking the monitor’s rear as if to ensure the mouse were properly plugged in, the creatures did the same, swimming to the edge to keep his face in his view.


How funny, he thought, and how strange. He moved to the left, and so did the fish. He moved to the right, and so did the fish. He hummed, crossing his arms and sinking back into his chair, as if in deep in thought. The fish looked at each other and then back to him. And narrowing his eyes, he brought his hand up to cover the webcam.


With it obscured by his thumb, he shifted his whole body to the left. And so did the fish. He did the same once more to the right, and so did the fish. And finally, as he sat there staring at them, they swam easily upward to flit about the top of the screen, as if to examine the strange hand still placed there to block the lens.


He flicked the monitor off with the button, he grabbed his water bottle, and he moved for the door, turning off the light. The day had already been too long.


“What you’re saying is that you opened a phishing email?” Peter asked him the next morning when he found him in the elevator. “Oh, I.T. is not going to like that. I’m going to have to tell I.T.”


“No, no. I don’t mean that sort of fish. I was wondering if there was some kind of virtual reality or AI something built into the computers now. Maybe a webcam filter program?”


“We don’t even have vending machines, Al.”


When the elevator doors opened, he returned down the beige hallway to his office with his water bottle in-hand, filled to the top. The monitor was already on when he sat down. The screensaver was playing, and the two fish were bobbing gently in the center, glinting in the digital sunlight. They swam in a circle as he settled before them.


“Technology,” he said, perhaps a word of exasperation. And with it uttered, he reached out for the mouse once more. The fish, however, reacted to the motion, shaking themselves back and forth as if to utter themselves a silent, desperate ‘no.’ And seeing this, he paused, regarding them with a quizzical look.


“Can you see me?”


The fish just about nodded, swimming up and down.


“That’s impossible.”


The fish again shook themselves ‘no.’


And maybe it really was not, because he spoke with them for a long time. Are you real fish? No. Is it pleasant in that blue screensaver of yours? Yes. Does it upset you when I click away from it? Yes. Would you be something else on another screensaver? Maybe. So the background itself doesn’t matter? No. Would you mind if I tried another one? Yes. Are the fish your favorite then? Can you have a favorite? Yes.


By the time his water bottle was empty and the sun was beginning to set, he had not done any work that day. And Peter would be upset with him, he knew. But as he looked over his shoulder, the screen flashed, and he found himself staring at an open spreadsheet, a report filed so meticulously he may very well have done it himself on one of his very best days.


How funny, he thought, and how strange. It felt almost like a gift or a thank you.


And the next day proved much the same. He sunk into his desk chair and placed down his water bottle as an early morning drizzle was beginning to patter on the window. The fish bobbed gently in the center of the screen, springing to vibrant bubbling life as he sat before them.


“Do you enjoy my company?” he asked at last. He found himself oddly pleased for the affirmative response.


“But it must not be too pleasant for you in there. Who can live in a fishbowl? It must be terrible to be stuck behind a sheet of glass with someone watching your every move.” He stood then and moved for the window itself to stare out at the sprawling gray city beyond. It did not stare back, and it made no difference that he was looking. “I think every living thing must want freedom of some kind. And you are living, aren’t you? If not as fish, as something. Are you avatars maybe? For a brain? Somewhere in that box of wires?”


People were like that too, he thought, a brain with a body, one necessary for typing, and filing, and reporting. And so, it was not so unbelievable this device would require one or two yellow fish.


“Are you talking to yourself, Al?” Peter asked from the doorway, arms crossed.


“Oh, no!” he replied. “I was just thinking.”


And with that, he sunk back into his chair and pretended to click about until he heard footsteps retreating. And as if they were in on this mischief, the screensaver did not return until Peter had gone. The fish swam about in an eager circle.


“Sometimes, when they watch you in the bowl, they don’t even see you,” he said to them, and the fish nodded in response. “And sometimes, even worse, they tap on the glass just to make you jump. I won’t do that, though. But I don’t really know how to take care of you. Are you like pets? Do you have to eat?”


He thought about that question for a long time when he went home to his little apartment that night. But sinking into the desk chair before his laptop, he began pulling open drawers and cabinets until he found a cluttered plastic bin of memory cards and USB devices.


“I’ve uploaded some of my favorite songs onto this,” he said the next morning, holding one up to catch the twinkling blue light from the screen. “I hadn’t listened to them in a long time. But I enjoyed it last night, and I thought maybe you would too.”


Ducking around the monitor, then, he plugged in the flash drive, and the speakers blared awake to play a triumphant sort of rock song, full of pounding rhythms and drums and horns and guitar. He laughed as the fish seemed to dance exuberantly to it, bobbing up and down in a flurry of bubbles and waves. They glistened more brightly than ever, shimmering, jubilant yellow, matched perhaps only by the coral—his own private prismatic rainbow in a box.


And seeing the screen itself blaze with the music, he did the same, daring to bounce a little in his seat and throw his arms above his head. “It’s good, isn’t it? I’ve asked you so many questions,” he said. “I suppose it’s fair you get a glimpse of me now.”


There were footsteps again at the door.


“Morning, Al. That music’s pretty loud, don’t you think? I can hear it down the hall.”


“I’m sorry, Peter. I’ll turn it down,” he said, turning around. “I’m going to get to work on the reports.”


But he did not do them that day. As the sun began to set and the city began to bleed in through the little window, shades of red and yellow and green reflecting off stoplights and flashing signs, the file once again appeared—three days’ worth of work.


“Thank you,” he said. “I’ll bring you more tomorrow.”


He just about ran through the flashing, streets that night, the pavement soaked a shimmering cerulean blue by a new chilly and sudden rain, slick and clear enough to reflect dots of yellow and gold and white, stars he had not seen in some time.


Music, a not very good garage band, was playing from the open door of a bar, and he did a little dip as he passed by, almost like a dancer weaving to the tune. And when this strange move landed him in a puddle, an old man passing by with a briefcase laughed. But he laughed too. And when a car sped past the pair of them and sloshed both their cheap black shoes with water, they laughed still for how ridiculous it was.


When he reached his grey apartment some time later, he sunk down again before has laptop. And after rifling about in search of the plastic tray, he began probing his files for whatever sustaining tidbits he could find: some old photos from a vacation many years ago, a funny email his grandmother had sent him, a drawing he had done as a child and scanned in, and more and more and more, just about every inch of himself to be offered to a pair of fish.


He fell asleep at his desk that night and did not set his alarm. And so by the time the sun was painting the sky orange, he was very, very late. He ran for the kitchen first and filled the water bottle, only to spring back to the desk and grab the flash drive before barreling out the door.


“Oh! I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m late,” he uttered as he sunk down into his office chair, breathless and painting from the run there, even with the respite of the elevator ride. “But I brought even more to show you. I think you might like it.”


He moved to plug in the USB as his door opened.


“Oh! I was afraid of this, Al,” Peter said from the threshold, clenching his teeth. “You know you’re not supposed to plug in outside technology to the office computers.”


“It’s just a USB drive. It’s nothing.”


“Really, you’re not supposed to be using company computers for personal things. I could have let the phishing go, but well, then you were chatting with someone the other day. And listening to music. And now you’re plugging in USB drives. It’s really all too much, Al. And to be so late on top of it.”


“I know I’m a little behind today, but you get my daily reports. I’m ahead by a few days.”


“You still need to be here on time, Al. It’s not actually about your output. It's about the look of it."


“But you all left early the other day. And made me sit here with no power for an hour and a half.”


“That was for a higher-level executive meeting. It’s different. Oh, I’m going to have to tell I.T. And I.T. is not going to like it.”


“And what will I.T. do?”


“Well, they’ll have to clear the whole computer, I suppose. It’s been compromised.”


How awful, he thought, when Peter turned and walked away. How cataclysmic and how awful. He took a long breath. He looked to the window. And as if in one motion, he plugged the USB drive into the back of the monitor. Then, he turned it off with the button, so that the fish would not see what he would do.


Someone new would work in his little gray office two weeks later. She got a new filing cabinet and a new computer. It was more old-fashioned, maybe used, with a tower and a base. And the room still sort of smelled like something had burned up in there.


But she would never know how her predecessor had brought up his metal water bottle to smash in the screen of the device that used to be there. She would never know how he reached inside in search of the living consciousness, as if to pluck it out and offer it freedom while it could still desire it. And she would never know how the exposed wires had ignited a jolt through his arm.


When they found him, he was slumped over in the chair with a funny look on his face. The cap had come off the bottle, and the water from his kitchen sink had spilled out across the desk, almost as if it had poured from the very shattered display itself.


"Such a shame," Peter had said. "Such a shame. How far behind we'll fall this quarter.”






June 17, 2022 06:35

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6 comments

Jay Mc Kenzie
21:53 Jun 21, 2022

There was something very sweet and sad in this Lonnie: a search for connection in a cold world. Poor Aloysius! I enjoyed the rhythm of this and the contrast between Aloysius and Peter. Well done.

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Lonnie Russo
01:29 Jun 22, 2022

I appreciate you taking the time to read and your feedback. Thank you so much.

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Kendall Defoe
04:52 Jun 21, 2022

I know you're not fishing for complements here, but I think it would put me in a fine kettle of fish if I did not say how much liked this one. Something fishy about the whole thing... :)

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Lonnie Russo
14:25 Jun 21, 2022

Thank you very much for reading! Best fishes on this first day of summer.

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Kendall Defoe
15:33 Jun 21, 2022

✌️

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Tommy Goround
08:07 Aug 19, 2022

Clapping. The opening got me in, enjoyed the ride and then I didn't love the ending. You killed the fish! And the MC cannot be crazy because he is so adorable "Al" or "AI" . They look the same : Albert and Altered Intelligence in the short version. When artificial intelligence goes to the window.... The humanoid was in the fish bowl. Bravo. He only eats/drinks water? Like the fish. I kept waiting for him to get nutrition. The old man puddle, they both laugh. There is no reason to go by a bar and not record the garage band when you were ...

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