by R J Astruc

The Diacon sprite was fraying his nerves - but then they always did get snappy when they thought you were trying to shut them down.

It stood behind Singh with its tiny hands on its hips, its patent-leather shoes floating above the runnel of cracked concrete he’d had to claw through to rip out her surveillance connections. Physically it looked like a little girl—they were always little girls. A fluffy ‘fro stuck up around her head, a bow stuck on the right side. The bow was pink; the bows were always pink. Singh had met ex-sprite programmers before and wasn’t surprised.

He slid under the primary Diacon console on his back, feeling more like an automechanic than ever, and used a broken aircon grate to jimmy open the sprite’s systems. A quake had shattered most circuits, but the sprite’s main functions remained intact, a tiny prism of code gleaming amidst multicoloured wires.

“I order you to stop right now,” said the sprite. It was speaking in English now; it had previously tried Hindi to no avail. “Otherwise I’ll be forced to take serious action.”

“If you could have taken ‘serious action’ you’d have done so by now, kiddo. But don’t worry, I’ll get what’s coming to me. How much radiation are you emitting right now?” He diddled her circuits onehanded, slowly undermining her perfect tech-qi with data-blocks as sharp and fine as acupuncture needles. “In five years when I get leukaemia, I’ll go out cursing your name and karma.”

“I couldn’t be nuclear.” She was offended by the suggestion. Singh guessed the last time someone had switched her on had been when the power stations in Mumbai started combusting. Maybe the fall-out had reached as far as Diacon by then; she would have seen pieces of the city raining down around her, dust and ashes that glowed like false stars at night. “I’m responsible for… for lives.”

Lives. There was a familiar tinge of despair in her voice. Singh had heard it from other sprites he’d woken. There was always that moment when they realised that they’d failed, that their systems had been destroyed by a combination of quakes, pulses and the apocalyptic Mumbai nuke-plosion. That the people they’d been protecting had died. That their reason for existing was gone.

Most of them decommissioned themselves after that, flicking whatever internal off switch they used to commit electronic suicide. Singh had hopes for this one though—the more indignant a sprite was, the more likely it’d stick around. “What did Diacon do? Medical?” he asked.

“Cryogenic.” The sprite started to pace—he heard the tinny, fake sound of her audio simulating foot falls.

“I suppose they’re all really dead now.” She laughed unexpectedly. “Not that anyone would want to come back to life in this burnt out old world.”

Singh sighed. His old sprite, Millie, had been a pleasant kid, too polite to talk about human mortality, who sang when he was feeling down. She’d come from a children’s hospital in Beijing; being nice was part of her core module. Evidently the Diacon sprite’s programmers had no such construction requirements. “We get by,” he muttered.

The sprite snickered. “Barely. Look at you, dressed in rags, breaking into a broken-down cryogenics factory to survive… Wait. What on earth do you need from me anyway?”

“My truck’s broke. Need spare parts.”

“Your truck?” Now she was really offended. “I may have been officially out of order for over a decade, but I’m still a multi-million dollar corporate sprite with a 98% perfect artificial intelligence. I coordinated one of the largest cryogenic networks in the world. They wrote an article about me in Time magazine. And you want to steal bits of me to stick in your stupid truck?”

“It’s not a stupid truck.” With the last data-block squeezed snugly into place, Singh plugged in a hard drive and started the file-shift. He crawled out from underneath the console to find the sprite glaring down at him. Up close she was visibly translucent. He could see dusty health and safety signs behind her, slightly distorted like objects viewed through a balloon. “It’s a clever automated truck—or it used to be, before some punks with a pulse-gun fried out Millie. I needed a new sprite fast and Diacon was on my way.”

“Wait. You’re stealing me? For your car…” The sprite looked thoughtful. “Like… in Nightrider?”

“With you, kid? More like Christine.”

She pouted, then blinked out of vision for a second as the file shift finished, and reappeared four metres away looking out of focus and two dimensional. Sprite in a travel bag, Singh thought, scooping up the hard drive. She grumbled as she followed him, unhappy in her stripped-down form, but Singh could tell the idea of being his onboard AI appealed to her. Maybe it was the thought of being useful to a living human for once, even if he did have to live in this burnt out old world. Or maybe, more likely, her cryogenic programming had instructed her to preserve human life, no matter how desperate things looked.

Singh grinned. He could work with that.

Copyright © 2007 R J Astruc.
First published in our Infinitas Newsletter, August 2007 .

This page last updated 16th September 2008.