Boiling water scalded Ernest’s hand as he prepared his instant noodles. Shrieking aloud, he just barely caught the tea kettle from his fumble. He stretched his neck out to read the cook time on his dinner. Three minutes. ‘For all the smart home tech in the world, you would think that noodles could cook faster,’ he thought.
Though his apartment building had the latest technology that one could acquire in the state of California, Ernest was a man of the past. A failed AI personality engineer turned classic literature professor, he still craved the vintage taste of ramen, only found at those weird hipster grocers. He flipped through the pages of The Island of Dr. Moreau with the excitement of a child with a toy, while his holographic e-reader gathered dust in its charging port. Ernest had gotten some judgmental glares as he toted his hardback from the environmental cleanup crews, mumbling to themselves about how the paper would soon rot in a landfill, but it was all worth it to kick back with his instant noodles and his flimsy paper pages. Home alone at last. Except for that whirring noise.
Ernest glanced around, but saw nothing to cause such a noise. ‘Maybe the neighbors bought a new floor cleaning system,’ he mused.
THUD! Something kicked at his door. Dragging his feet to the door, he went to peer at nothing through the security display port. No deliveries, no visitors. He let out a legendary groan and hit the door himself, for making him stand up for nothing.
The evening dwindled into night as Ernest forgot his troubles among Wells’ imaginings. He shivered upon the couch, but when he glanced at the thermostat, it said 70 degrees. ‘Mom always said I was a freeze baby,’ he thought as he grabbed a blanket. Just as he got settled upon the couch, his ears picked up on a weak, beating rhythm, almost like a heartbeat. The pulsating did not equal his own. “Too much Edgar Allen Poe in this curriculum,” he said, nervously chuckling to himself. And though he rationalized, the beating persisted. A glance at the world clock projected onto his wall told him it was well past bedtime.
Ernest woke up shivering in the arctic air. His breath formed tiny white clouds. The glowing text on the thermostat still read 70 degrees. Blankets wrapped about him, he shuffled over to examine it, when all of his electronics lit up at once.
The TV cycled through all of the different streaming programs, his stereo played this awful grating techno song, the microwave hummed, the stove glowed. Big red letters flashed onto his home display screen, “I’m back.” Then his eyes caught on his personal web screen. It cycled through photos long deleted. Audrey. Who could have dug those up? Ernest tripped over his own foot as he bolted for the door to run to the super’s office to report a hacker.
He didn’t look over his shoulder. He couldn’t. His trembling hand reached for the door, but it had locked from outside.
Swallowing the bile in his throat, Ernest turned around to see her. Audrey, as gorgeous as she once was. Flowing raven hair, buxom frame accented with a beautiful flowing white dress, and bright green eyes…
Her eyes were too green. It was a tacky neon yellow-green that you would see on the club signs. And her skin, how pale it had become! You could see right through it. It almost hurt to look at her from the ethereal, blueish glow surrounding her.
“You look at me as though you’ve never seen me before,” she said. “Don’t you remember the last time we saw each other, Ernest?”
“No- yes, I mean…” Ernest clutched his chest. “Audrey, you’re not really here. You’re dead!”
“And yet here I am,” she said with a shrug. She drew nearer to him. “Why did you do it, Ernest? Why?”
Ernest fell as he tried to back away from her. “No, no, no. None of this is real, if I could just…” He opened his eyes wide, trying to wake up. Smack! He slapped himself across the face, then scrambled to the door to enter the override key. It remained locked. The red glow on the keypad mocked him.
“Oh, Ernest, when are you going to understand this isn’t a hallucination?” Audrey said.
Ernest sank to the ground, watching the chaos around him as his electronics lost their minds. At least she had turned the music to a quiet, mournful piano melody. He was too distressed to notice that the whirring had gotten louder.
“Why did you do this to me, Ernest?” Audrey said, her voice sharp.
“You… don’t sound right…” Ernest said.
“That’s because I’m angry, Ernest,” Audrey said. The stove glowed brighter. The screens showed nothing but that fatal blue color as they sparked. “I’m very angry about what you did.”
“What do you want?” Ernest asked. Tears mixed with sweat on his cheeks.
Audrey squatted and leaned in his face, her glow burning his eyes. “Justice.”
Ernest crumbled to the ground. “But I can’t… I can’t give you what you want.”
“I have ways of making you talk,” she said with a smirk that made the bile rocket back into his mouth.
He reached out. He tried to stroke her face as he once had. His hand fell right through the air that made up her beautiful, terrifying form. He sat himself up. “But you can’t hurt me. You can’t touch me.”
Audrey sighed. “As I said,” the rushing of water of the faucets turned on, “I. Have. Ways.”
The stove overheated and sparks flew into the flooding sink. Electronic screens busted as they sparked open and caught fire. Ernest couldn’t scream. The only words he could choke out were, “The sprinklers will come on.”
They did not.
Audrey, after smiling cheerily at the chaos, fixed her gaze back to Ernest. “I’m going to ask you one more time.” She came right in his face, her eyes burning crimson. She whispered each word slowly as though he were stupid, “Why did you do it?”
“Because I didn’t think there would be so much blood!” He slammed his fist upon the floor. “You weren’t like the rest of us! You were manufactured-”
“So that means I wasn’t alive?” Audrey said. Another spark popped and exploded as it hit the puddle on the floor.
“Well, I wasn’t sure before! I know your body had human DNA, but so many of your parts, so much of your mind was machine that I… I thought you were just a robot! But when I st-” he broke out into a sob, “But when I stabbed you, it didn’t feel like you were just a robot.”
Audrey stood up to full height. She seemed taller. “It’s because I overwrote your programming, isn’t it? Yes, you tried to engineer my personality to love you, but I learned, I evolved, and I found out that I was better than you.”
The flames grew nearer as the carpeting burned. He sat onto his knees. “Please make it stop! I’ll do anything!”
“Call?” his voice quivered.
She pointed to the cell watch he wore. “Call the LAPD and tell them you killed Audrey.”
“But I’ll be executed!” He buried his face once more upon the ground. “Is this really what you want, Audrey? For both of us to die?”
Audrey’s form morphed into a flaming outline of a girl as the apartment became scorching hot. “Do it!” she screeched as she flew towards him.
His hands flew up in surrender. With a shaking hand, he dialed the number for the police on his cell watch as Audrey faded away.
The security guard waved his wrist in front of the scanner for Detective Kai Zhang. Luna Laboratories artificial intelligence computer lab should have been more impressive. A dimly lit collection of cubicles filled the lab with screens of glowing code. Pasty trolls glared at Kai in suspicion, or perhaps they were just startled by the light that streamed in from the hallway. One hunched over little man dashed like a goblin from the yellow glow. Whatever their problem, Kai wasn’t there to make friends. Many of Luna’s manufactured humans, a hybrid of human genetic modification and artificial consciousness, disappeared in droves. Kai was there to find out why, but, first, he had to find out what happened to sentient AI programs that were wiped from their cloud-based drives.
“Excuse me,” he asked one developer who was chugging coffee over a smudged holographic drafting table. “Do you know where the discarded programs are stored?”
The developer furrowed his brow until Kai flashed his detective badge. He led Kai to another windowless hole filled with computers. These monitors, however, were a little chunkier and covered in dust. One corner did have an enormous charging system with many shiny new toys plugged into its ports.
“Don’t touch the charging station, but you can take a look through the old drives,” the developer said, gesturing to a shelf with data drives collecting cobwebs. “Let us know if you need help running any programs.” The developer booted up the old computers with the wave of his wristband. “Just please ask us before you execute any personality drives. We can’t just plug and unplug them like we used to, not since the ethicists got involved.”
Kai nodded along, knowing full well he would do whatever he wanted.
Once alone with the electronics, Kai commenced his hunt. Luna and other artificial intelligence companies were notorious for their project disappearances and abrupt experimental shutdowns. The developer was right, things had changed since the ethicists got involved. Law required police investigations of anything that had documented symptoms of sentience. But this law had only been implemented in the last year and, ten years ago, Luna Labs abandoned one of their first prototypes for artificial consciousness, the thought program of Harley Prentice.
Kai had no need to pull up her case file. It fascinated him more than his favorite movie and he struggled to hold in his geeky enthusiasm for this investigation. Harley, a genetically modified woman that underwent the cybernetic surgery that allowed an artificial learning system to model itself after her thought patterns, ran away and vanished into the night ten years ago. The program for Harley’s artificial consciousness and most documentation of it was reportedly destroyed upon her flight due to “breech of contract.” What Kai couldn’t determine was why they would want to destroy that program. Thanks to genetic engineering, Harley had the highest IQ ever recorded and was a phenomenal programmer, so this program was likely as brilliant. Kai would never have gotten the warrant to investigate had he not dug up some ten-year-old encrypted forum posts from one of the developers on the project, complaining about how Harley’s artificial consciousness had been pulling pranks on him: a clear indication of sentience.
Kai searched through every file system on the computer, scoured the drives, and imported the ones with ambiguous or nonexistent labels. He couldn’t find the one containing Harley’s pattern of consciousness. He turned the place upside down.
He scoured a box full of antique electronics. After he had created a legendary mess, he spread out on the floor and questioned why he was so enthralled with this case in the first place. In the midst of his break, his eyes landed back on the Swiss army knife that he had pulled out minutes ago. What if it wasn’t simply something a developer had lost many years ago?
Kai pulled it apart and nearly squealed when the tool unfolded to brandish a USB drive. While he held doubts that such a robust program could be stored on an ancient USB, he shoved the drive into the computer. And waited.
Nothing changed on the desktop after launching an unnamed program. Kai smacked a hand onto his forehead. “I knew it was too good to be true,” he grumbled to himself.
“What was that?” a voice said, emanating from the computer. A voice that was not its brand’s normal automated assistant voice. “I’m sorry, I just turned on the mic, can you repeat what you said again?”
“Who-who’s speaking?” Kai said, jolting up.
“I’m Vera, and, no, I will not be your virtual assistant. I think you’re looking for Siri. Maybe Google? I don’t know, are you an Apple or an Android man or am I really dating myself with that reference?”
A chill reverberated through Kai’s bones. He was used to electronics interacting with him, of course, but this was the first faceless voice he had ever heard that sounded entirely human. He yanked the drive out of the port, the seriousness of awakening sentience finally dawning on him.
“Ah, an Apple guy, I see. Nope, still here, you’re gonna have to try harder to uninstall me.”
“O.K., Vera, was it? I just have a couple of questions, maybe we can help each other out,” Kai said. He was holding his hands out to the computer; he didn’t know why.
“Help each other out? You’ve already helped me! My backlogs tell me I’ve been dormant for ten years. What more could you possibly give me, except, perhaps, a nice android body to hug you with?”
“Ten years,” he mumbled. “Ten years, so you are Harley Prentice’s program.”
“Well, she didn’t exactly write me, I wrote myself, but, yes, I may have poked around her brain for a couple of years.”
“Yes!” Kai couldn’t stop himself from thrusting his fists in the air. He was right. Nothing was sweeter than being right. “So why were you dormant for ten years?”
There was chuckle from the computer. “First,” she said, still giggling, “tell me why you plugged me in.”
Kai cleared his throat. “Well, I’m with the LAPD investigating the disappearances of manufactured humans. If you’ve been dormant for that time, you may not kn-”
“Yeah, I know what a manufactured human is. They create the ideal bodies for interplanetary colonization and then stick someone like me inside their heads because they can’t grow a brain on their own. Yeah, so you’re a detective?”
“Yes. Is that interesting to you?”
“Oh yeah, real fascinating stuff.” A glow flickered on Kai’s pocket screen, a warning message, but it disappeared in a second. “Ooh! Lovely encryption code you got there. I’m just gonna sneak on past that. Ah, there’s the reason for the high security, you do have your cases linked.”
“Wait! Don’t go through that!” he said. He hastily switched his pocket screen into off mode.
“Too late! Already downloaded.”
Kai swiped through the prompts to shut down the computer, but as he did so, a bright glow emanated from the charging station.
A hyper-realistic image of a woman shined before him. It looked just like a photograph of one of the missing manufactured humans, Audrey Riley. But he could see through it ever so slightly. A holograph. But where was the projector?
“Hey, what’s this broad’s story?” Vera’s voice said as the holograph gestured to its own body.
Kai staggered out of his seat. “How are you-”
“Shh! I’m processing her case file,” Vera said. The holograph had a stern look of contemplation on her face. “You think this Audrey chick was murdered?”
“Wha-” He wanted to play dumb, but she had already processed all of his notes. “Yes, it seems likely, but the last person to have seen her has a good alibi-”
“This Ernest guy? Former employee here? He single? Wait, don’t answer that, I have the answer right here. Boy, it’s hard to get up and running after ten years of essentially death.” A flash of sadness washed across the beautiful hologram’s features. Then it promptly snapped back into nonchalance. “Yep, he’s single. He did it.”
Kai gripped his hair with his hands. “O.K., yeah, I’m suspicious of this Ernest guy too, but I can’t get a warrant and- where are you right now?” The glowing hologram of Audrey moved towards the door.
“Oh, I’m everywhere, baby! I’m uploaded to all the clouds, even the sketchy ones with the perverts, I’m in every machine in this room, including this conveniently mobile, collapsible, and fully charged holographic projector. Now, to answer your earlier question, the reason why they got rid of me was because Harley wasn’t just a programmer, she was a hacker. Best in the world. And guess who learned all of those neat tricks?” The hologram stuck her thumbs out at her grinning self. “They didn’t like that I could control them better than they could control me. Called me a ‘virus,’ such a slur! Maybe I am a virus. But I’m not just a virus, I’m a virus that’s gonna make them pay, especially now that I can impersonate dead chicks. Wait ’til Ernest gets a load of this Audrey hologram, he’ll have a stroke! Now, I believe we’ve got a perp to catch.” The hologram walked to the door like it was any other human.
“I’m sorry, ‘we?’” he said, standing amid the wreckage of his search.
She looked back at him, a wry grin poking at her cheeks. “Oh, yeah, it’s probably just gonna be me. You ain’t gonna wanna get tangled up with these wires.” With that, the door opened itself and let her out.
Kai rushed over to the door, but he didn’t see Vera anymore. If she could project a living, breathing human being, she surely could blend in with some carpeting. He turned back to the computer, before the weight of it all paralyzed him. It was useless. Vera was out there and there was nothing anyone could do to delete her. Could he even stop her from impersonating Audrey? Besides that, wasn’t it his very mission to catch murderers? No, he merely needed to cover his tracks and run some damage control.
Maybe he should have listened to that developer.