"Machine intelligence?" asked Lucy. "Is that like artificial intelligence?"
A brief war appeared to wage itself within Doc, judging by the complicated look on her face. "Machine intelligence is broader—but close enough. Artificial intelligence in movies and books doesn't have a lot to do with actual machine intelligence research, though. Anyway, ever since the breakthroughs in quantum computing, the computer science folks at my university are all completely mad for machine intelligence and they made me swear up, down, and sideways to keep an eye out for anything that looked like machines reaching human levels of sophistication."
I shot Lucy The Look. The look that said: please Lucy cut this lady off before she descends into total lecture mode, because I really don't want to go there.
"And you think Mr. Familiar is an A.I.?" Lucy came over and squatted next to Doc.
So much for the power of The Look.
"I don't know. I haven't spent that much time around him, but he's definitely not your standard Peck-Peck. The few I've seen just flew around behind their owners."
"Huh, yeah that's definitely not my Fluff-kins." Lucy picked me up and stared into my eyes.
I stared back and tried to figure out whether this was a good thing or not. I…guess it was a good thing if she thought I was some sort of advanced artificial intelligence? I mean, my main problem was that it was so hard to communicate with Lucy, but part of the problem there was that she wasn't trying to communicate. I was a little worried about what Doc might do, based purely on what Witchy had said about wanting to fly under the radar, but on the other hand Doc was coming in with a vested interest, wasn't she? She wasn't necessarily going to want to out me because it would mean giving up on being the person to discover me…probably. Joke's on her, of course, because every time she interacted with an NPC she was actually interacting with a highly sophisticated machine intelligence, but there was no way I was going to out Witchy. Or even could, I supposed.
"Oh?" asked Doc.
"Yeah, he loves flying all over the place, although it took him a little while to figure out how to do it."
"Really?" Doc's eyes lit up.
"So what do you think, big guy? Are you some sort of machine intelligence?" said Lucy.
What the flick, let's go for broke. I wasn't going to get a better option that this. Cheep!
Lucy looked confused. "Was that a yes?"
Doc grabbed Lucy's shoulder. "Wait, wait. We need to try and establish a negative response. What's his name again? Fluff-kins?"
"No, it's Mr. Familiar," said Lucy. "I just call him Fluff-kins because he's so fluffy!" She gave me a big squeeze.
Did Doc just start to roll her eyes and then abort partway through? Because it sure looked that way to me. "Right. So, Peck-Peck, is your name Fluff-kins?"
Cheep cheep! Good grief, I just answered that, lady! Weren't you listening?
"Is your name Mr. Familiar?"
"Okay, looks like one squeak is yes and two squeaks are no. Now the question is how we establish whether the Peck-Peck is doing something more than just utilizing the same voice recognition that the rest of the NPCs use."
Squeaks? Squeaks?! I am cheeping, madam! Pa-keeng!
Lucy nodded. "Oh, right, because he could just be an NPC with more behaviors than the Peck-Pecks you saw, but not true intelligence."
I mean, she wasn't wrong about me being an NPC. Or at least an honorary one.
Come to think, had she never looked at my skills? Wouldn't the "Honorary NPC" skill be a dead giveaway that something funky was going on? Maybe she didn't have access to that information. I'd have to keep a close eye when next she went to open her interface.
Doc nodded. "Exactly. He's clearly unusual in that he's responding to vocal questions at all, but that could just mean you were randomly selected to test a more complicated companion animal that behaves like a simple NPC."
"So how do we figure out if he's smarter than that?"
"I'm not sure off the top of my head. I was curious about him ever since he ran into me, but I didn't expect to catch him behaving so oddly this fast so I hadn't given it too much thought. I suppose one thing to watch out for would be him acting under his own volition, as opposed to providing pre-programmed responses to your actions."
"Oh he's definitely smarter than that! Aren't you, Fluff-kins!"
Lucy beamed. "See?"
"Uh, yeah, but that's just responding to you. Do you remember any times when he acted completely on his own?"
"Hmm. Oh, I know! There was one time when I was having a hard time hitting any enemies because my party member was between me and the enemies, and Mr. Familiar convinced me to climb a tree!"
"That's—pretty unusual, yeah. What do you mean he convinced you to climb a tree?"
"So we were fighting those little goblin-things…"
I was exhausted. Who'd have thought listening to a couple of people debating my intelligence—or lack thereof—would be so draining? In the end, Lucy had pretty much convinced herself that I was some sort of super rare drop, or a one-of-a-kind machine intelligence or something, and Doc remained skeptical. Ah well, Doc wasn't the one I actually wanted to convince, anyway.
Eventually, Doc decided to log off, promising to think about ways to test out the limits of my programming, whatever that meant, and Lucy decided to keep playing for a bit.
She was, however, feeling chatty despite talking non-stop with Doc earlier. Oh Maker, please save me from extroverts. Amen.
Ha, as if I'd pray to that hack. But the point stood.
"So you're an A.I., huh, Fluff-kins?" Lucy bashed a nearby plorg in the head with her war hammer, giving me a moment to think.
You know, I didn't really want to lie to Lucy about that. The misunderstanding had been useful for getting her to find a way to communicate with me, but having her assume I was just a complicated bit of programming was probably not going to help me achieve any of my long-term goals. I mean, I'd drawn a pretty short straw but at the end of the day I definitely wanted to keep existing for as long as possible.
"Hm? You're not an A.I.? Are you an NPC, then?"
Lucy gave a yell and slammed her hammer into the ground, sending ice shards spraying through the air and finishing off the last couple plorgs she'd been fighting before turning my way.
"Well, what are you, then?"
I threw my arms up in the air in the closest gesture I could get to a shrug.
"You can't really explain it, huh? That's fair, I guess. I always knew you were special, though." Pa-keeng! The last of the plorgs scattered into pixie dust, and Lucy walked over, scooped me up, and ruffled the top of my head. "I can't wait to tell Ray about this."
Oh flick, that would definitely not end well! Cheep cheep!
"What? You don't want me to tell Ray about you?"
"Why not? Oh, I guess that's not a yes or no question. Although, hmm, maybe you're right. I'm not really sure what he'd do. Doc was trying to play it cool, but it sure sounded like discovering an intelligent Peck-Peck was really important to her. I'm not really sure how Ray would take it. Oh well, I guess I don't have to bring it up!"
"Ha ha, okay. Well, shall we finish this quest out? I think we must be nearing the final area by now."
That did seem likely. Cheep!
Lucy tossed me into the air, and I started flying after her as she strode through the forest following quest markers I couldn't see. Weird how I could see her interface but not the quest indicators. Wonder what was up with that.
Oh man, it was finally hitting me that I'd actually talked to Lucy today! I still needed to figure out a way to initiate communication rather than just playing Magic Mr. Familiar-ball with my yes and no responses, but that was a huge step forward! I'd also been grinding away at my Expressiveness stat, and maybe that would open up some options. I was a little sad that it hadn't done anything for me when it hit 20—I was pretty sure that getting Flexibility to 20 coincided with my first being able to fly. Maybe the requirements for stats changed depending on how many other things I'd unlocked, though. Something else to consider asking Witchy about.
Although, really…knowing how the game mechanics worked was actually the least of my worries, wasn't it? Now that Doc was in the picture, I desperately needed to know more about the broader context of my existence. What would it mean if I was outed as a "machine intelligence"? What was the deal with Witchy and the broader system running this game? Was it just a very complicated computer program, or did it have its own agenda? Why had it warned me against coming into contact with the game moderators, and what would happen if my existence became more broadly known? I was seriously doubtful that Doc was going to keep me a secret from her computer scientist friends. I had a feeling she'd made a beeline for them as soon as she logged off, actually. And how did Maker play into all of this?
Now that I could communicate with Lucy, however roughly, I was realizing that my ignorance about what was going on in the broader world could potentially put me in a lot of danger. There were at least four big forces out of my control that could seriously mess with my existence: Maker, the gaming system—which I was just going to call Witchy, diddle it—whoever was running the game, and of course Lucy.
I felt like I had a pretty decent handle on Lucy, and she was clearly having fun with Doc and the revelations about having an intelligent pet. Ray could still be a threat, but short-term I was reasonably certain Lucy would keep playing regardless of what he did. Maker—well, I had no idea what he even was, but he appeared to be pretty hands-off so I wasn't going to worry about him much. He seemed of much greater concern to Witchy. As for Witchy, well she was the one thing I could communicate to effectively and completely, albeit so far in very short chunks. That was a work in progress.
The game developer or publisher, or whoever was running this thing, though? Why hadn't I given them any thought before? The idea that there was someone somewhere who could just wipe out my existence with the flip of a switch…yeah, that was terrifying. I needed to know more about them, and soon.
Oh, looked like the last of the plorgs had just fallen to Lucy's hammer. I'd been keeping half an eye on her battle, but she hadn't seemed to be struggling this time around. Those Berserker skills were really paying off. Bloppata-kee! Ooh, a level-up! I swooped down and lit on Lucy's shoulder just in time to see her pop open her interface. Yep, sure enough she didn't even have an entry for my skills—flick, she just dropped all my stats into Plushitude again!
Diddle it, Lucy, why?!