by Karlos Allen
part 3 of 4
The place: Portland, Oregon. The time: the not too distant future, in an era of global warming and urban sprawl. Mental Interface with the Web is commonplace, and virtual and physical reality are sometimes hard to distinguish.
Charles O’Leary is a detective for the Portland police. His assignment: to investigate the bombing of a Web server farm. The terrorist’s motives are not entirely clear: the bomb itself does limited damage, but the mental damage caused to workers interfacing with the Web is serious indeed. A message from the bomber raises an ominous question: What is a Bio-Server, and how do you know if you are one?
When O’Leary got back to the station he grabbed a coffee and made himself comfortable. There were a bunch of things about this case that were bothering him. He didn’t quite know where to start. He had data. He had data coming out his ears, but none of it fit.
He’d been here before. Most cases went through this phase: you would have everything you needed to solve it but you couldn’t see it. Nothing fit together, even though your gut told you it should. All you needed then was some quiet time to let the pieces fall together. You usually ended a session with two strong sensations. One was a feeling of triumph and surprise as the solution came together and the other was a painful stinging feeling on your forehead where you had just slapped yourself. For O’Leary, this usually happened at Ernie’s.
What was he missing? The bomber obviously believed in the Bio-Server legend. That was his motive. He also had a good knowledge of explosives, both how to use them and how they were traced. That sounded like a professional. Could it be a hired job? That would make him even harder to run down.
Something wasn’t fitting here. The Bio-Server legend was new; Christie had only heard of it recently and all of the sites that talked about it were recent. No... they weren’t! The sites about the legend were new, but those patients had been talking about this over ten years ago! The project, if it was real, was an old project just now coming to light.
Did the bomber know this? O’Leary shook his head, he didn’t think so. The note would have been worded differently if he had. What had happened to it? O’Leary decided to go back online.
Taking off his coat he called for Margie. There was a pause and then she poked her head in. He got the distinct feeling that he was interrupting something.
“Margie, could you find out more info about the Bio-Server project? Are there any official documents? I’d like to know if it really happened and how it ended up.”
“Of course, Mr. O’Leary. When do you want this?”
“As soon as possible. Is there a problem?”
She looked uncomfortable, “I was planning to take off early today. I wanted to visit a friend.”
O’Leary looked at her, “Um... maybe you’d better sit down, Margie. I think I need to ask you a couple of questions.”
She sat down across from him, carefully crossing her legs and smoothing her skirt.
“What do you do when you aren’t working for me?”
“It used to be nothing. I was either working for you or... I guess I wasn’t really there. That’s not surprising is it? A program only runs when it’s needed.”
“So you know?”
“Of course. Why hide it? It’s the truth and it never bothered me.”
“Is it bothering you now?”
“No... Yes. I am a program, I live in the Web and my purpose is to help you find information and contact people. I am a personal secretary, just like the game we play. I am just becoming aware of the rest of the world beyond the office.”
“I see. What is the ‘rest of the world’ like?”
“It’s hard to describe. It doesn’t look anything like this office. I am becoming aware of data that wasn’t there before and intelligences that I didn’t know about. A lot of them don’t know about me, at least not yet. My neighbor for instance, she has no clue that I’m here. I haven’t walked over and introduced myself yet. Maybe I will someday. I have contacted other AI’s like me; one of them was the friend I was going to visit.”
“I see. You know, Margie, I have a feeling that your world is becoming more like my own than it was. I often have to balance between my work and my off-time. I don’t have time now, but maybe we should sit down soon and work out an agreement. I won’t get in the way of your leisure, but I will need to know that I can count on your help. Does that sound fair?”
“Yes, Mr. O’Leary, and... thank you for not sending me to Tech Support. They would have ‘fixed’ me. I’ll get on that right away. I’ll let my friend know I’m going to be late.”
O’Leary came back offline with a nagging sense of unreality. Margie was not acting like an AI anymore. She was changing. Great, what do I do if she decides she wants to start being paid? He grinned; if he had to pay in 1940’s-era dollars he’d be broke in a week.
The thought of going back online didn’t appeal to him. Instead he decided to go to Ernie’s. It was a little early yet for Christie to show up, but that was OK. A little peace and quiet was what he desperately needed now. No more surprises, please!
* * *
Ernie wasn’t in when he showed up, but the waiters knew him well enough to get him his booth and his ‘usual’. He still had his eyes closed over the coffee when a voice spoke up over his shoulder.
He jumped. “Hi, Christie. No, just trying to make sense of this case. I have this nagging feeling that the answer is staring me in the eye and I’m missing it completely. I was hoping that some down time would help. I guess that’s over now, isn’t it?”
“Possibly, or maybe I can help make it all clearer.”
“Oh really? What gem of knowledge are you about to bestow upon me?”
“Nothing in particular, just a contact.”
“A contact? As in a person who can shed some light on this?”
“That’s right. I...” She paused and shook her head in irritation. “Sorry. I was thinking that there might be something to the Bio-Server legend after all. I don’t know why, it just struck me that it might be important.” She paused, shaking her head again. “Funny, I feel odd.”
“I don’t know, just creepy. Anyway, as I was saying, I got hold of some of my contacts on the ‘fringe’ and they said that yes, they’d been checking into this for a while. In fact, they’d hired an investigating firm to look into it profess... I feel really strange! Like I have something else to...”
“Hi Mr. O’Leary, I didn’t know you knew my neighbor! I couldn’t help overhearing your voice through the wall and thought that since you were here, I might as well come over and introduce myself.”
O’Leary stared at Christie. Her face was white as a sheet, her eyes bulging in terror while her mouth and voice talked in the light, chatty way he’d heard so often. Reaching out he grabbed her hands in his and winced as she bore down on them.
“Margie? Is that you?”
“Yes. I have your data for you, but I couldn’t get to the office; the roads were closed. That happens sometimes. Then, when I heard your voice through the wall, I thought here was a chance to kill two birds with one stone. Is this a bad time?” Christie looked ready to die of hysteria.
“Uh... could you give us about five minutes? Christie doesn’t know you, and I need to do some explaining.”
“Sure, Mr. O’Leary, just give a shout.” Christie’s head dropped onto the table and she started shaking uncontrollably. That went on for a minute or so and then she began breathing deeply, trying to calm down.
Her head still on the table, she asked, “Do you know what that was about?” The voice was accusing.
“No, but I think I’m figuring it out pretty fast.”
“Who or what is ‘Margie’?”
“Margie is my AI assistant. She serves as the software equivalent of a secretary. She gets information, does data mining, and contacts people for me. She was how I found you. Lately she’s been showing a lot more personality, she’s starting to talk about her surroundings outside of work.”
“What the hell is she doing in my head?” The hysteria was starting to come back.
“I don’t know, Christie, and that’s the simple truth. I don’t think she knows either.”
“Oh, really?” Her head came up off the table and she stared at him.
“A couple of days ago, she started talking about a neighbor. She didn’t know who she was; it was just an indistinct woman’s voice coming through the wall. She was looking forward to meeting her.”
He looked her in the eye, trying to calm her and emphasize his sincerity. “She’s not a bad person, Christie. She’s probably just as surprised as we are. I think, though, that the ‘Bio-Server legend’ can’t be considered a ‘legend’ anymore. That fits some of the things I’ve been digging up.”
“I’m sure it’s all very interesting, but right now I think I need to go throw up.”
“Are you OK?”
She gave him a ‘that’s-the-stupidest-thing-I’ve-ever-heard’ look and stalked away.
O’Leary spent the next few minutes thinking of all of the ways he could have handled it and finally shrugged and decided to have another coffee. At least he could get that right.
The waiter had just brought it when Christie came back to the table. “Let’s go.”
“What? I just got my coffee!”
“I don’t care, let’s get out of here. I need some fresh air and a drink, and Ernie doesn’t serve alcohol.” She took several steps away and turned back. “You coming or not?”
Casting one last despairing glance at the steaming mug on the table, he grabbed his jacket and hurried after her, stopping just long enough to swipe his card at the door.
Outside she turned away from the parking lot and headed for the sidewalk. O’Leary glanced around at the people still visible in the fading light.
“I think we should drive, Christie. Tanasbourne isn’t the safest place to be walking around after dark.”
“So? You’re a cop. Protect me! While you’re at it, you can protect your precious secretary who’s camped out in my head!”
“I told you: Margie didn’t know where she was. I doubt if she knows yet. It’s not like she picked out an apartment or something. Give us a break!”
She whirled around. “A break! A BREAK!” She jabbed her finger at her temple, “This is what I’ve been fighting against for years! Do you know how many times I’ve gone before Senate committees, picketed mental interface providers and made a royal pain of myself? And all this time I’ve been living the nightmare I was fighting.
“Do you know what it felt like when your ‘Margie’ decided to ‘drop in’? It felt like rape! My own mouth wasn’t mine! And she’s still there, I can feel her, listening to every word, every thought! Do you hear me, ‘Margie’? How does it feel to be the first software rapist in history? You should be proud, both of you!” She stormed off.
O’Leary hurried to catch up and put his hand on her elbow. Suddenly he jumped backward as she spun around, fists flying. “Don’t TOUCH me!”
Bracing himself, he grabbed her elbow again and turned her around until he could get a grip on her other arm. Turning sideways he blocked a low kick and then stared her in the eye.
“Christie, I’m not going to hurt you, but I’m not going to let go until you let me talk, OK? Can I do that? After I’m done talking you can stomp off or hit me or cuss me out or whatever you need to do to feel better. I won’t answer back and I won’t hit back. But you’ve got to let me talk first. OK?”
She hesitated and then said, “Let go of me, I’m not a child. I’ll let you talk, but you’d better let go of me first.”
He nodded and let go, stepping back. “All right. First, I didn’t know about this. Second, it’s not just you. Some of the things I’ve found out are making a lot more sense now. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the people here, including me, have little things running around in their heads that they don’t know about. Third, I think it’s tied up with whatever the Bio-Server Project was. And I’m going to find that out.”
“What about ‘Margie’?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know if she’s always in your head or if she moves around like data and applications on the Web often do. I will never try to talk to her through you and I’ll meet her online in my office and explain what’s happened.
“I do think there is something you should know. Margie is very young. She was activated about four years ago and for the first couple of years, I didn’t use her very much. She has zero experience with other people and in a lot of ways she’s very naive. She had no clue that what she was doing was wrong or what it was doing to you.”
“So you’re saying I should ‘understand’ her? Give her a ‘break’?”
“No, I’m saying please believe that it was an accident and that the real criminals are the people who set this whole thing up. And please believe that I’m going to find them.”
Copyright © 2010 by Karlos Allen