Short Story : Holiday Prompt Swap : I wish to live

I recently took part in a holiday prompt swap organized by https://twitter.com/ARFrederiksen. My prompt and story are below! (Really looking forward to what was done with mine.)


Prompt

And what would you wish for?

To live


The world shifted around me, and I could feel my body changing. My gut grew wide and round, my thin goatee grew into a bush beard, and I could see in my peripheral vision below my nose as the dark brown turned stark white. Red and White velvet formed around me, black leather clad my feet and circled my belly, now reminiscent of a bowl full of jelly.

It wasn’t a bad gig, playing Santa at a MetaMall.  .03 Eternums an hour, minus rental of the PersonaSkin and transaction fees, of course. The money was all extra for me, so I held off on my pay till the end of the season, less fees. The poor souls who needed currency daily always got the shaft though.

I opened the door to my login stall, and walked through the back corridors of the toy store that had bought my contract for the day. As I walked out into the main lobby, I could already see a long line stretching out in a spiral from the giant tree in the center, and the large red chair under it.

Part of the Santa PersonaSkin included moderator controls to the Santa que portion of the lobby. Not the entire store, of course, not even the entire lobby, but if you were in line, I could see your login creds. Gazing over the floating names above all the not very patiently waiting children, I could tell at a glance that less than a tenth of them were real. Most of the line were constructs, digital skins being puppeted by simple personality programs. I see it all the time, the store wants everyone to think that their event is more popular than it actually is. And most of the parents know it, but feel like having to wait in line is good moral training for their little tikes.

“HO HO HO!”  I hit the announce button, sending the prerecorded greeting to the screens and ears of everyone assigned to the lobby. All eyes swung to me, and the line up of avatars started bouncing even more in line. I was ignoring the general chat feed, but a small meter in the corner of my vision let me know that it was going nuts with pings and messages and random chatter.

Walking up to the fence around the tree, I touched the gate, waiting a moment while security authorized me through a token in my PersonaSkin. Approving, I found my vision jumping as I was blipped several feet inside, past the gate. Fighting the urge to shake my head, I stomped towards the chair in my best jolly old elf gait.

“Who wants to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what you want for Christmas?  HO HO HO.” I know, cringe, but I had a script. The first kid in line was real. Parents probably paid extra to get her there. A woman in a cheesy elf costume stood by the turnstile leading from the line to the Grotto, as they called it.  A quick glance with my mod powers made it clear that she was also Meat, and not a Puppet. Not a PersonaSkin though, the midriff baring green skirt and top, as well as the hat and ears, were all Accessory files on top of her Public Skin. There was no reason for the costume to look so fake. I could easily see the seam of the ears, as if they were foam being worn, barely glued in place. More of the old world experience that the aging Zoomers wanted for their kids, a memory most of them never even had themselves, handed down by parents and movies.

Poor kid, barely looked 18. Rental for the PersonaSkin wasn’t cheap, but she probably had to buy the files for her costume outright.

Smiling the fake smile of an Emotive, she leaned down and touched a glowing wand to the wrist of the waiting girl. The device verified that the child was registered, and blipped her forward past the turnstile. She ran at the chair as I sat down, jumping into my lap with the wild abandon of a young child in a virtual world. I didn’t feel any pain or impact, the store’s Lobby wasn’t set to allow that kind of tactile feedback, but I knew the drill. I doubled over a little and OOFED in mock pain, drawing smiled and giggles from the parents lined up around the Grotto, fingers up to frame screenshots.

“So Vanessa.”  Her name floated above her head for me, a simple touch that made the thing feel more real, most kids this age not realizing that some people could see their real names, and not their Avatar Handles. “I hope you’ve been a nice girl this year!”

She nodded enthusiastically. “Yes Santa, I’ve been very very good and I didn’t even crash my little brother out of his favorite game once” Mumbling, “This week” “And I did all my lessons and I want a”

Honestly, I tuned out after ‘Yes Santa.’ The listing of things she spit out at full speed tallied up in a hovering list. One of the items highlighted for me as she stopped to take a breath.

“Whoaa there little lady. That’s a mighty big pile for Santa’s Sack!”  God I hated this script, even as the words appeared in my field of view, my own personal teleprompter. “I am sure Santa will have something EXTRA special for you under the tree this year. Maybe even a custom made My Little Pony with it’s own cutie mark to go with the TwinkleHooves you want?”

I felt dirty as her eyes lit up. “OOOOOO REAAAALY!?” 

I touched the tip of my nose, activating the “knowing twinkle of the eyes” built into the PersonaSkin.  “MAYBE. If you’ve been nice enough!”

I knew how this worked. The store had a link to an artist that made custom dolls, and tagged the little girl’s ramble to something they had mostly ready to go, and verified it with the parents’ income profile. Both already had emails waiting in their inbox with pictures of model ponies and a form just waiting for them to fill out to allow for those final extra touches. And since Santa had promised it, “if she was nice enough”, the email probably started with something suitable heartwrenching. An image of a similar looking little girl, crying under the tree, ‘But why Santa? Wasn’t I nice enough?’.

Ugh. Still, a job is a job.

“Now Vanessa, remember as well, the reason for the season is sharing and caring! If you could wish for something for everyone, not for yourself, what would you wish for?”

This line…  I gagged reading it in the original contract. The store wanted to try and generate some AWW how cute moments to post on their social feeds after the event.

“I would wish for silver access for a year for all the poor little children stuck at public access!”

Ugh. “Wow! Look at you, such a caring young girl! Santa is proud. Okay Vanessa, now look up at your parents and say “REINDEER!”

She obliged, smiling at the couple standing nearest the gate, shrieking out “REINDEER!” 


The folks smiled and twitched their framing fingers. A sound like an old camera shutter clicked loudly, and bright flashes erupted from between their fingers. The holdovers that still held sway in the Meta puzzled me sometimes. Thankfully, I was used to it, and blanked out my visual feed as the flash came. 

I slid her off my lap. “Now go see Santa’s special helper elf for a secret surprise for your stocking!”  Vanessa toddled off as the young woman in the cheesy elf costume smiled and handed her a small glittering package. Vanessa took it and it vanished into her personal inventory, waiting to be activated on Christmas Morning.

I already knew what it was, the “special prize for all nice little children” had been heavily advertised. The owner of the store in question had bought a large lot of old jpg NFTs from the early 20’s, mostly ape jpgs. After the millions of AI generated tokens had flooded the market, they devaluated like beanie babies at the turn of the century. The store had advertised that the random selection included a few that actually still had value, but I knew most of those trading card images were worth less than it would cost the kids’ wallets to import them. Still, a lot of them would be excited to hold a “real piece of history!”

The first hour flew by in this manner, reading scripts, pretending to oof at the hard slams, or shout OUCH when some kid tried to pull my beard off, making noises of aww at the lame wishes for the common good, mostly couched in the capitalism they were raised in. I was running on autopilot, reading my social feed in a window while going through the routine. In my lap was one of the puppets. Without my mod powers, it would have been hard to tell, they were all quite well crafted. He was asking for some ridiculously priced new gadgets and Skins, his “parents”, also puppets, grimacing and making NO motions in my direction, begging Santa not to promise anything too expensive.

Another ploy by the store, of course. The next kid in line was Meat, and listening avidly to expensive things they hadn’t even realized they wanted until the idea floated into their ears. Their parents stood off to one side, watching the puppet parents, and looking at each other, determined to be able to do better for their child than these poor slobs could do for their son.

“Now River, remember as well, the reason for the season is sharing and caring! If you could wish for something for everyone, not for yourself, what would you wish for?”

He was hemming and hawing, making a big, albeit fake and programmed, show of thinking hard. I was startled when I got a notification of a private message. Nothing should be getting through while I was logged into the PersonaSkin, so… The name matched the floating Handle above the puppet’s head. That shouldn’t be possible. I opened it.

He looked up at me, and said, “I wish for peace in the Virginias, and for everyone to stop fighting for Jesus’ birthday.” The crowd erupted in awwwws, but I stared into his glittering, digital eyes, dumfounded at the simple message this puppet had sent me.

“I wish to live.”

I could see in his eyes, the glittering pain behind the message. He posed for a picture, got up, and got his glittering random NFT. Probably one of the rare ones, just going right back into the store owner’s Wallet.

Puppets are… puppets. Personality matrices. They aren’t even supposed to be active machine learning AIs, let alone anything that could be capable of Turing levels of self awareness. And they certainly couldn’t ever LIVE.

I kept going until the crowded line came to its end, my mind whirling. I should… I should report this. To the store owner at least, let him know that something was wrong, a bug. A bug. A desire to live. And if the puppet gets reported, they’ll just delete it. Dead before it could… but it’s a PUPPET.

I sat a few minutes, waiting for late arrivals, a bug report window open in my contract file for the job. I copied the message into it, gave a quick listing of what happened. I was staring at the send button, just waiting for a twitch of my finger to go out. Wondering what to do.

“Hey Santa. Am I too old to sit on your lap?”  The young woman working as an elf had sauntered over and was grinning at me, flirting. Old. Hah. While I was seeing her public skin, a close approximation of what her Meat looked like, she just saw the PersonaSkin. She had no idea that I was old enough to be playing Santa for real. Well, if I could grow a beard. What the hell, she was cute, I decided to play along. Probably took the gig because she had a fetish for old fat guys.

“Ho ho ho, little lady. Everyone gets to ask Santa for a present!”

Biting her lower lip a touch, she hopped into my lap lightly, hanging her legs over the arm of the giant chair, leaning her shoulders against the other arm.

“I’d ask if you’ve been a nice girl, but you’re dangerously close to getting on the naughty list…”

She stuck her tongue out at me. “Well Santa, if I’m on the naughty list, no presents for me, I guess. So ask your question.”

My head snapped to her face, the smile at odds with the dead set of her eyes. The scripted prompt glowed in my vision, so I asked it.

“Now remember as well, the reason for the season is sharing and caring! If you could wish for something for everyone, not for yourself, what would you wish for?”

She leaned upward, her lips brushing past my silver beard and resting by my ear.

“I wish you would delete that bug report and keep silent.”

Only the safety programming built into the PersonaSkin kept me from leaping to my feet and throwing her to the ground. She turned around in my lap and slid to her feet, then turned back to me and grinned.

“His wish isn’t as impossible as you might think.”

As she spoke, her floating tags flickered for a moment. The login creds, the tags and colors that proved she was real, she was Meat, faded. The floating name and tags identified her, for the moment, as a puppet. An old one. An abandoned chat bot from the early days of the immersive Meta. Then, her tags returned to what they where, and she vanished in the blue glow of someone logging out.


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