This is a piece I wrote back in college. Rediscovered, tidied up and given some love! It's always been a story that I remembered writing but it's been many years since I've read it (9 years?!) I think it's one of my favorite pieces to this day. Thanks for reading! Hope you enjoy.
Donninger wore sunglasses as big as his head, bigger than his nose and elbows put together. It was like he was preparing for the sun to drop down from outer space to say hello, and he wanted to be able to look it in the eye when it did. The frames were silver, like the wings of an exotic bat and the lenses flashed blue then green then red as if they were reflecting the Christmas lights tacked to Jeffrey’s mother’s windows, the ones that lit up even in June and July.
It was July, in fact, on this day, when he wore his sunglasses, fly-like eyes scanning the beach for his beautiful babe. He knew he would find her here, because they were all beautiful in their strappy bathing suits and fresh skin, gleaming with oils and sprinkled with sea salt. But they weren’t all his, unfortunately. And it was his loss, not theirs, he knew this. They weren’t missing anything not having him in their lives, because there wasn’t much to him that one would like besides his big silver specks.
He didn’t have a real voice, and he didn’t have hairs on his chest. He gleamed in the sun, but it wasn’t oil on his skin, because he didn’t have skin either. He didn’t have a liver or toe nails. He had never experienced the strange sensation of vomiting, because he didn’t have a stomach and he didn’t eat. He never went to college, because he didn’t need to. All of the data he could ever want to know or need to know or could ever dream of knowing was born with him. Jeffrey had put it there.
There were some good things though, about being who he was, what he was. He didn’t have to sleep. As long as he could plug into his base every now and then to re-juice, he would never crash. He didn’t have to eat, which would be a bad thing if he could smell, but he couldn’t. So he never had to stop what he was doing to wait in a long line and dig through his wallet for money and then waste all that time chewing and swallowing. He could speak to anybody, in any language, and he was smarter than them too. But his favorite thing, the thing that made his existence worth continuing, was chess.
Chess was the reason he was created. Jeffrey designed him so that he could mathematically calculate the odds of every move in the game of chess from start to finish. At the start of every game, white has 35 possible moves, and black has 35 possible responses. This is twelve hundred and twenty-five possible outcomes after just the first move. The number of outcomes grows exponentially with each turn, the second yielding 1.5 million possibilities, the third, a massive 1.8 billion. When two people, or a person and a robot, sit down to play a game of chess, there are 10123 possible unique outcomes.
No wonder it is so stressful for even the smartest humans to play. Jeffrey is one of the smartest humans, and chess frustrated him. Jeffrey grew up infatuated with numbers and all the ways you could put them together and take them apart. They were pieces of the biggest, most complex jigsaw puzzle in existence. Numbers could be the answer to any question in the world. They define and redefine our existence and the physical possibilities and limitations of the universe. Jeffrey loved numbers.
As a kid, Jeffrey counted every step he took in a day and marked it in his log. At the end of the week, he would total them up, and calculate the amount of pressure put on his foot with each step based on his weight. He would multiply this by the number of steps for a total amount of pressure his feet had sustained that week. He would compare this figure with the weight of a truck and equate it to 3 or 4 or 7 trucks – the amount of trucks it would take to equal the pressure put on his feet. On Sundays, after church, he would sit in his mother’s rocking chair on the porch and he would stare at them. They were so small and soft, the bones so thin. He’d imagine truck after truck slowly making their way down the road to come run over his feet. Then he would rub them. His mother would come out with a sandwich for lunch, looking at him as if he were crazy.
Jeffrey may be crazy, but he is brilliant crazy. Ivy League universities competed for him. But in the end, he was bored by them all. He graduated from one, then another, with degrees and credentials piling up like pancakes. But he wanted more; he wanted a challenge. Then one night, he found it. He found chess.
He had been sitting on his mother’s porch, counting the stars, when the screen door squeaked open.
"You must have been as bored with those women in there as I am. Mind if I join you?" It was his sister’s husband, Larry. He was holding a chessboard. "This is probably suicide, but you up for playing a game?” Jeffrey ginned, his mind flashing back to the game manual he had read online as a teenager. Pawn, one space forward, attacks on a diagonal; Rook, attacks by moving forward or to the side in any direction, for any amount of spaces.
"Sure, how hard can it be?"
Jeffrey lost to Larry two games out of three. Larry was in awe, his ego growing like a snake after a six-mouse meal. The whistling of the teakettle in the kitchen may as well have been the sound of steam blowing out of Jeffrey’s ears. Chess frustrated the life out of him. He began to read about it, study it, play it every day. He got better at it indeed, until you could even say he was quite good. But as hard as he studied it, he couldn’t master it. There were just too many possibilities. That’s when he created Donninger.
Donninger could do everything that Jeffrey couldn’t do, and while Jeffrey gleamed with pride in his creation, deep down he burned with jealousy. Never before had he recognized all of the boundaries and limitations that plagued him as a human. He was smarter than the average human, sure, but his own creation could out-think him at such speeds that Jeffrey’s head spun. He liked to think of Donninger as an extension of his own intelligence – after all, it was Jeffrey who had programmed that knowledge into Donninger. But somewhere in him, he knew that Donninger’s mind had grown somewhat independent of Jeffrey. If he had to, Donninger could survive on his own. Jeffrey couldn’t say the same for himself.
And Donninger, that ungrateful hunk of software, he was so unappreciative of his superiority over the human race. Where was he now, anyway? Probably rolling along the beach, wishing he could be demoted to a mere mortal. For being so all knowing, he sure was an idiot. "Jeffrey, what is it like to bite into a peach? Jeffrey, what does it feel like to sleep? Jeffrey, how does the skin of a woman feel?” Shut up, you imbecile! Where had Jeffrey gone wrong with him? He had been looking for a bug in the programming for months, since Donninger has begun exhibiting independent and even human behavior. But he had found nothing. Jeffrey’s work was flawless. There must be some other force working on Donninger.
The door slammed shut. "Hello, Jeffrey,” Donninger’s mechanical voice rang out from the other room.
"Hello, Donninger. Come here, will you?”
Jeffrey was going to run another one of his tests. Donninger just knew it. He would have to sit still in his base for hours now, maybe even days.
"Snap into your base, please. And hurry up. If you hadn’t disappeared all day, I could be eating dinner by now."
Donninger rolled over to his base, flashing through his smell directory, wishing he could understand their savory descriptions to the full extent. Pot roast, mashed potatoes, green beans. They sounded so lovely. It must be wonderful to have dinner.
"How long will you be testing me, Jeffrey? How long will I have to be turned off today?"
"Just be quiet, Donninger. You ask too many questions. You will be turned off until I turn you on again. So snap yourself in, and let’s get going with this. I have a date tonight."
Donninger scanned his memory for a video of the beach. He looked at the women until he saw her. Her skin was dark, bronzed by the sun, brushed with sand. Her face flashed with something special when she laughed. Her hair was long and soft. Donninger focused his memory on her eyes as he plugged himself in. She turned to him, smiling, and the world went black.
"Goodbye, Donninger. Sleep well, you good for nothing sack of bolts. This scan better find a glitch, and when it does, I won’t have to deal with you and your questions anymore."
Chicago-born citizen of the globe, rich in the things that really matter. Let's get weird.