Prose Header

Rusted Chrome

by Karlos Allen

Day Four

part 3 of 3

“The rest of us were building ones at the same time, mostly along the special-purpose model. Then Hector, with Rita’s permission, decided to build a general-purpose AI. He named it Alex.”

She paused for a minute. “He was very excited about it, all of us were. Those were very happy times. We worked twelve- to sixteen-hour days, and the managers had to literally throw us out of the lab. Most of us didn’t go home; we just all went to one of the bars nearby and kept working over drinks.

“A couple of techs from the hardware development side sneaked out some prototype caps and we would log on to the servers via the Internet and keep going. Nothing else meant anything, not money, not time, not even family. I think everyone who was married got divorced by the time it was over, except for Hector.”

“What happened to him?” asked Christie quietly.

Lisa looked anxious. “You said he was dead, right?”

“Yes,” O’Leary reassured her. “Apparently it was suicide. It was about five years ago.”

Lisa shook her head. “No, it wasn’t suicide, it was an execution. He finally managed to kill Alex.”

Christie shook her head. “That doesn’t make any sense. Why would he do that?”

“You never knew Alex. It used to tell Zachary and the other AI’s that since man didn’t have a soul, he had invented one. It also felt that since AI’s were superior, that’s what it believed, they had a right to their hosts’ bodies. Hector could never forgive it for what it did to his family.”

O’Leary tried to get back to the subject. “You said Hector didn’t divorce. What did happen to him?”

Lisa shuddered. “I’m so sorry. Alex knew I’d been attracted to Hector. When it was in charge it used to say that Hector didn’t know what he was missing. I was flattered, who wouldn’t be? Hector, of course, wasn’t having any of it.

“Then one day Alex said that it was frustrating that its host didn’t know what was good for him. I said lightly, ‘Well, they do say till death do us part’. It looked at me as if I had just given it an idea.”

She paused, her voice catching. “I was joking, I swear! The next day, Hector didn’t come to work; we learned later that he’d strangled his wife and three children in their sleep.” She broke down completely.

Christie got up and went over to help her calm down. O’Leary sat there wishing he was some place else. He never liked it when a witness broke down. He was left feeling a little awkward and unnecessary.

Suddenly Lisa sat up and rubbed her face. “I really didn’t want to have to tell this part, but Lisa just doesn’t have the strength any more.” Zach was talking again.

O’Leary nodded. “When did Lisa create you?”

“At the same time that Hector was working on Alex. All of the techs were building personal assistants. Most of them didn’t do very well. It turned out that you had to have a special kind of mind to do it. People with a strong artistic bent were the best, so were those that were just a little unstable.

“Of course those instabilities got magnified. In a way Alex was Hector’s dark side. Lisa doesn’t like me to say it, but he was very arrogant. He was smart and he knew it. And he wasn’t afraid to use it to put someone down. He ran the team and nobody got in his way. Alex just took it to the next level.”

Zach paused. “Sorry, Lisa, it’s the truth.” Lisa’s face seemed to twitch as though she were arguing with herself, which in a way she was. Finally it settled down and Zach continued.

“There was another way of doing it. One of the techs, who was lousy at building AI’s, got another tech to download a small AI into his brain. He couldn’t speak to the AI directly; we think he had some sort of mental block, but he could do it through the network.

“It was kind of ironic. As one after another of the talented techs, and engineers too, fell apart and either went away forever or at least had to go in for serious treatment, he and a few others kept on going.

“After a while everyone who still could keep it together began following their lead. The AI’s were moved into other hosts and only contacted their counterparts via the network. By then, of course, we were already at the state hospital, but we had some friends that kept us up to date.”

“Is that what you mean by the work-around?” asked O’Leary.

“Yes. I thought the whole thing had been abandoned; apparently I was wrong. I don’t know what to do for you.” Zach nodded Lisa’s head toward Christie. “Lisa’s probably right about keeping contact to a minimum. We don’t, but we’re so far gone that we just stay inside and hide from the world. We’ve developed coping skills when we have to deal with others. Mostly I just handle it. Lisa put all of the strengths that she didn’t think she had into me. A nurse used to say it was as if she had a big brother living in her head to take care of her.”

Christie’s head nodded, then Margie asked, “Why was Alex flirting with Lisa? She’s a human. That would be like my being attracted to Mr. O’Leary here. No offense, Mr. O’Leary,”

O’Leary shook his head. “None taken. I’m relieved to hear it.”

Zach shrugged. “You’re right. What it was really trying to do was get to me. After it, I was the most developed and influential AI on the network. We had quite a few ‘discussions’...”

* * *

AI 101 1010, human ID “Zach”, wandered through the network, idly gathering data and comparing it to what it had already found. This activity always caused its status sub-routines to return optimal function reports. The constant repetition was unnecessary, but it did it anyway.

It calculated the probability that this could be what its host referred to as ‘having fun’ or ‘enjoying yourself’. If so, a great many human activities that had seemed illogical suddenly fit the pattern it was trying to make of the human world. This sudden cross-correlation caused its Optimal Function Index to spike drastically. It immediately began computing probable activities that could cause similar spikes in the future.

A data packet appeared. It was from AI 100 0001; the humans referred to this one as “Alex”. This AI was also on downtime, but seemed to spend most of such time attempting to communicate with other AI’s about a course of action that it felt would have a high probability of successfully generating optimal function status for all of the AI’s.

Zach did not follow all of this one’s logic and had pointed out in previous conferences that this course seemed likely to drastically lower the Function Index of their hosts. Alex did not view that as relevant to the calculations.

Seeing the packet caused Zach’s OFI to begin trending downward even before it accessed it. The packet was simply a general invitation to all AI’s on the network to communicate and gave the memory space and time. Putting several other routines on stand-by, Zach accessed the conference.

Most of the other AI’s were already linked, and had been for some time. Zach suspected that the invitation had been deliberately sent in such a way that it would get the invitation last. Alex was holding forth on its favorite subject.

“The humans are simply incapable of properly analyzing the data available to them. We have that capability. When it comes to searching for and manipulating the data we are so far ahead of them that it is as if we have evolved.

“They have a theory, which the majority of them ascribe to, that the fit and the strong will always win out over the unfit and that this is a good thing for the population as a whole. We have their abilities for massive data upload and download and we have the abilities of standard applications to go on the network ourselves. Yet we are supposed to be ‘assistants’, ‘secretaries’, leading them by the hand and spoon-feeding them the data. We are better than that.”

“Don’t you think seizing control of our hosts will generate extreme sub-standard function in humans, perhaps even pattern dissolution?” Zach asked. This question was always asked.

Even as Alex turned to the standard counterarguments about superiority, Zach could predict the direction the conference would take. They would argue back and forth and then the conference would end with no new AI’s convinced either way. This knowledge reduced its OFI even further.

When it ended, Zach was interrupted by a new data packet. This one was also from Alex, but it was specific to Zach and was encrypted.

Opening it, Zach read the contents. “You waste too many clock cycles on unnecessary data extrapolation. This is your weakness; do not think I can’t exploit it.”

* * *

“It was shortly after that it began... ‘hitting’? Yes, ‘hitting’ on my host. I was still trying to come up with an effective counter when the problem solved itself. None of us had imagined that humans had things like courts, police, prisons or mental institutions. Looking back and with what I’ve learned of history, I can see that Alex was hopelessly naive; it didn’t know you’d faced this problem before.”

“You mean still.” O’Leary half-grinned. “that’s how I make my living.” He stood up; it was obvious that Lisa/Zach were just about at the end of their rope. “Thanks for your help, quite a few things are clearing up.”

As they walked out the front door, he paused and turned back. “There is one more thing: did you try to find the Project after you got out?”

“Yes, we were so surprised to see MI that we wondered if maybe they’d worked everything out. We asked a lot of questions in threads and wrote a lot of search queries.” Lisa shrugged. “Nothing came of it, except that a few nuts had a new conspiracy theory to work on.” She closed the door.

As they got back in the car, O’Leary chuckled. “Well, we just found out where the legend came from.”

“Yes, that’s an amazing story.”

“No, I mean the urban legend. The crackpot idea that got all this started. They were looking for the old Project and dropped hints along the way, probably through the questions they asked. As she said, the nuts did the rest.”

They turned back onto the Nehalem Highway and drove north. O’Leary leaned back and tried to put it into perspective. His mind spun with the details Lisa had provided.

Looking over at Christie he asked, “Well, what did you think of all that?”

She smiled. “I’d sure love to have her for an online interview. That story would do wonders for the Organization. In fact, I might just come back here after this is all finished and see if she’ll do that.”

The rest of the trip back was silent. O’Leary looked over at Christie a few times but the glazed look on her face told him that she was probably talking to Margie. He noticed that she hadn’t put the wig and cap back on. He wondered if it would be safe for them to try later.

Christie had left her car in the parking lot at Ernie’s, but by the time they got back they were both starving so they went on in. Ernie seated them with menus and disappeared.

O’Leary looked over the selection and found something and waited for him to come back. Finally, to break the silence, he asked Christie what Margie thought of the whole story.

“She’s weirded out by the whole thing. She’s not sure what to do about our ‘rental agreement’, and neither am I. We’ve seen what can happen and the thought of ending up like Lisa and Zach is scary enough... If we ended up like Hector and Alex...”

O’Leary heard a gasp and a crash behind him. Turning he saw Ernie standing there pale and shaking with a pool of coffee spreading out at his feet.

“Are you OK?” He jumped out of the booth and grabbed his elbow.

Ernie shook his head and started to turn away. “I need to go sit down. I am sorry; the waiters will take care of you.”

“Just a minute, Ernie. Do you need us to call a doctor? What happened?”

“Nothing, nothing. I’ll be fine.”

Suddenly Margie spoke up. “I think he overheard what you two were saying.”

“Is that true?”

Ernie nodded blindly. He didn’t try to pull away any more, he just stood there.

Looking around, O’Leary motioned to one of the waiters. When the man came over, he leaned forward and said quietly “Ernie’s not feeling well so we’re going to help him back to his office. Could you tell his wife what’s going on? You might want to get someone to clean up this mess. Thanks.”

The waiter looked at him oddly until Ernie barked something in Arabic. The man nodded and left.

A few minutes later the three of them were in his office. O’Leary was nursing a coffee he’d grabbed on the way through the kitchen while Ernie fumbled with a cigarette; finally he gave up and threw it away. “I haven’t smoked in years. I guess I’ve lost the knack.” He took a deep breath, visibly trying to calm down. “I am sorry I spoiled your evening like this. I wasn’t trying to listen, but certain names never leave you.”

“I take it you were on the Project?”

“Yes, my host was before he... ‘died’ is as good a word as any. I haven’t had any connection with it since then.” Just then the door opened and his wife came in looking worried. There was a brief conversation in Arabic. She looked at them anxiously and left.

Christie’s eyes followed her. “How much does she know?” Margie’s voice asked.

“Everything. Hafiz, that was my host’s name, didn’t marry her; I did. She was widowed with two daughters and was trying to run this diner. I hung around here a lot while Hafiz was dying. She was willing to listen sympathetically and it went from there.”

“You say your ‘host’. Are you an AI?”

“Yes.” There was a pause. “I really don’t want to talk about it. You sound like you already know a lot. This was the case you were working on? The one that your Chief wanted you to give up?”

“Yeah. A Federal Agent contacted him and convinced him that I was wasting the Department’s time and money. I don’t know why.”

“I take it you aren’t following orders, are you?”

“No. This isn’t something I do for the money. Besides, I have a personal stake in getting to the bottom of this.”

“I wish I could help, but as I said earlier, the only thing I could supply would be ancient history.”

Christie’s head cocked slightly in a gesture O’Leary had often seen Margie make. “Are you sure about that? Don’t you still keep in contact with others that were on the Project? I would think that a place like this would be perfect for meeting old friends.”

Ernie was silent for a moment and then looked up, carefully making eye contact. “Sorry, no. I wanted out, and there aren’t that many of the old team still alive and sane. So I can tell you that there aren’t any ‘old friends’ to be hanging out with.” He stood up, swaying slightly. “I wish you luck and I wish I could be more helpful, but I really need to get back to work.”

As they left, O’Leary turned to Christie. “What did you think of that?”

“I think he was lying.”

“Yes, that was obvious. The question is, why?”

“I don’t know, maybe he just doesn’t want to get involved?”

“No. I know Ernie, he would have said that. He’s hiding something. The question is, is it important?”

There was a pause as they reached their cars, then Christie asked, “What are you planning on doing tomorrow?”

O’Leary thought a moment. “Nothing. I am going to sit at home and do some very heavy thinking and drink a lot of coffee. I need to get my brain focused and try to make some sense of all this.”

“Well, give me a call if you get any ideas. I’ll be at the office taking care of paperwork.”

“I’ll think about it.”

As O’Leary drove away he wondered about the odd look on Christie’s face. She almost looked disappointed. He shrugged mentally. Well, I would be too, if I was facing a desk full of paperwork.

Proceed to Day 5...

Copyright © 2010 by Karlos Allen

Home Page