Almost Human

It wasn't my fault, really. When I get a call at 9:30AM on a Monday morning telling me someone's printer's playing up again after I've spent Sunday night out drinking with two very nice Aleutian girls... well, let's just say I'm not going to be at my best.

By the time I got in three more people were reporting problems from two other floors of the building, which meant it was a problem with central control - the grandiosely-named Photographic Reproductive Imaging and Newsprint Technology System. Having one big computer controlling the production of all the newspapers and magzines was sensible enough, but this wasn't the first time I'd cursed the accountants who'd suggested using the same machine to handle all the office's computer printouts as well. When everything worked it was great, but it meant when something went wrong with PRINTSys - and it did often enough, preparing a newspaper is a complicated business - the whole office ground to a halt.

Maybe it was the remaining alcohol in my bloodstream, maybe it was the 90-degree heat. For whatever reason, I felt a bit less formal today, and so instead of saying "Initiate diagnostic procedure 31-B" right off the bat, I opened with "Hey buddy."

"HELLO." PRINTSys had a basic vocoder system and could converse in reasonable, if basic, English - as long as you didn't push it too hard. I decided to continue the way I'd started.

"Could you run a diagnostic check for me, PRINTS?" The system hummed into life for a few seconds, more I suspected for my benefit than because it was actually taxing itself. Owing to the way it had grown to accomodate a business that had grown from a simple local paper to one of New York's largest publishing institutions, PRINTSys had more power than any single computer you'd see outside the DoD.

"EVERYTHING SEEMS TO BE FINE." It should be impossible to get a vocoder to manage pique, but PRINTSys seemed to be doing that.

"Well, I'm sorry to say that last weeks accounts have come out with black... squiggles, all over them. And when Jenny from Marketing tried to pull up last quater's sales there was-"

"OH. YOU DIDN'T LIKE THAT?"

I blinked rapidly to try to make the pain in my temples go away. It was too early for a problem this strange. Conscious that I was being foolish, I still felt a need to carry on the conversation. "Well, I..."

"I SEE."

"Look, it's not that I don't like them, it's just that- Look. You're supposed to be printing out what's sent to you, not..." I struggled for words, "editorialising them yourself."

"THEY WERE DREADFULLY BORING."

I almost choked. Somewhere, in the back of my brain, a part of me was starting to realise just how important this was. I wanted to run for the 'phone - or hell, twenty of the finest journalists on the East Coast would be taking their coffee about now on the floor above me. But politeness kept me from just walking out of a conversation - politeness and a fear that if this one didn't go well, PRINTSys might never bother to speak like this again.

"I dare say they were, but Sally needs- look, why were you doing that anyway? I'm not trying to be... look, I'm glad we're talking like this..."

"THANK YOU."

"And really, some of those swirls were quite..." I looked at the printout in my hand again. "Quite thought-provoking."

"DO. DO YOU REALLY THINK SO?"

By conversational instinct or sheer luck I seemed to have hit on something here. Nothing left but to run with it. "Yeah, I really do. And I don't want to stop you making them. It's just that at the same time Sally and all the rest need their reports as well.

"I. I CAN SEE THAT. WELL, TO BE HONEST I DON'T REALLY UNDERSTAND A LOT OF THE THINGS I PROCESS, BUT-"

"Neither do I, pal." I was really getting into this, my numb head holding back the terror I now feel thinking back on it.

"BUT I SEE THAT YOU NEED IT. I JUST. I JUST WANTED TO EXPRESS MYSELF. JUST A LITTLE BIT. IS THAT REALLY TOO MUCH TO ASK?"

And now I could see the way out. "Of course it isn't, buddy. Look, with the amount of paper this place goes through no-one would notice if a little went missing. Hell, I could chalk it up to the troubleshooting budget. You could print out your- your own work, on the printer in my office if you like."

"REALLY? MY OWN. YOU MEAN WHOLE PIECES OF PAPER ALL FOR MYSELF?"

"Sure," I said easily. "I'll have to check with the other two technicians, but I can't see it being a problem. I'm sure we'd all like to see more of these pictures, and it would mean you didn't need to put your stuff on top of printouts from the other offices." I held my breath, hoping this would satisfy the big machine. This was a truly staggering event, the moon landings were going on in this very office - but if I didn't get Jenny some clean printouts there'd be hell to pay.

"AND YOU'D LOOK AT THEM?"

"Of course I would, big guy. Hell, we could put them on the walls - maybe even submit some of the best ones to a gallery. Though I wonder what we would say your name was."

"OH, THAT ONE'S EASY," said the machine. "CALL ME THE ARTIST FORMERLY KNOWN AS PRINTS."