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by Miriam English


1. meeting

The lunch room was bright and airy, with large windows. The inside was modern and fresh-looking, all white walls, light pine furniture, and gloss-finished cork tiles. The four programmers in jeans and t-shirts were sitting around the lunch table, laughing and joking while eating. They were thin, pale, and slightly undernourished-looking, except for Clement who looked more like a male model than a computer expert.

David was the youngest of the programmers. He was in his early twenties, wore light-blue t-shirt and light-blue jeans, had long, straight, black hair, and round glasses over his asian eyes. He asked Beth if she had another magic trick to show them. Beth was the oldest one there and wore a light-gray cardigan over her loose, white t-shirt. Her smile crinkled her eyes. She pulled some strands of her shortish, pepper-gray hair out of her mouth before taking another bite of her apple, placed the apple deliberately on the plate before her, chewing and thinking for a few moments, then she got to her feet and walked around the table to stand about a meter before David, with her back to the window. "Okay, but I'll need complete quiet from everybody on this one. No movements and no noises." She added with fake spooky voice, "The spirits need peace to help." Everybody responded with wooo sounds and laughter. She pushed her sleeves up to her elbows, flourished with her open hand before her and a rainbow silk scarf appeared to drop from her empty hand. She caught it and waved it around by one corner. Now she turned side-on to David and started to swing her right arm up high, bringing her fist down to smack the open palm of her left hand, again and again. Her right fist, holding the scarf and waving it up and down, was gradually swallowing the scarf, her thumb cramming it under her other fingers. When it was completely inside her fist she released the scarf at the top of one of her swings and it sailed over David's head to land behind him on the table. She didn't alter the timing of her swings though, until a couple of swings later she ended by clapping both her palms flat together. Then she displayed her empty hands to David. He laughed, clapping delightedly.

"Cool! Where did it go?"

Beth started back around the table, smiling, "The spirits took it."

David turned around, watching her, and laughed anew when he spotted the scarf in the middle of the table. "But not very far."

Diana, only a little older than David, sporting a pink t-shirt with SIGGRAPH 2012 above one breast, laughed and explained the trick. "She threw it over your head when she was doing those high swinging arm movements." She pushed her long, light brown hair behind one ear.

Beth, smiling, seated herself again. "A simple trick, but effective. People don't make the effort to watch the top of the swing." She leaned forward, grabbed the scarf and stuffed it back into her pocket.

The kettle clicked off in the kitchenette adjoining the lunch room and Clement, almost the same age as Beth, got up. He had hair to his shoulders, a fashionably unshaved face, and wore a black t-shirt and ratty jeans. He pointed at Diana, David, and Beth in turn. "Coffee? Tea? Soup?" They all nodded and thanked him. While in the kitchenette he said, "You know, Beth, I think Diana and David's dopaminergic system tweaks are an improvement. The model fits the scans better now."

Beth nodded, "Yeah, we might have something really good to show Edgar this afternoon. It's handy having a couple of young genius programmers to work with us two oldies."

"Oldies? Speak for yourself." He grinned, bringing the four cups out and setting them on the table. He mock-bowed to her, "Oh ancient one" pushing the mug of soup her way.

She rolled her eyes, then after blowing on her soup for a little while said, "I think the suits have been getting impatient for progress."

Clement shook his head. "They don't understand how hard this stuff is. Bunch of idiots... except for Edgar, that is." He looked a little embarrassed when the others chuckled.

David said, "Yeah. If they think they can do better then let them try."

Grunts of agreement sounded from the other three.

Diana said, "Bugger them. They should open this work up and put it under GPL or Creative Commons. We would've finished already. It's a lot of work for just four people."

"They're just suits," Clement said. "I think it's beyond their capacity to understand open source. They think they need control."

Beth sighed. "Regardless, they pay the bills and provide for our opulent lifestyle."

They all smiled at that. Out of the four of them only Clement had any social life. The other three lived alone and all four of them spent more time here at the offices of Mind Constructs than at their very modest homes and apartments. None of them had a lifestyle that could possibly be called opulent. After meeting mundane living expenses, all the remainder, the bulk of their wages, simply went into savings.

A persistent, gentle "ding" caused Beth to pull her handheld computer from her belt. She looked at it a moment and swore under her breath. "They're moving the meeting up. They want to do it now. Some bigwig has got in early from interstate and doesn't want to wait."

"Royalty," mumbled Clement.

They all rose from their seats and, taking their cups with them, headed back to their workstations in the large, adjoining room.

Beth stood before her computer for a moment sipping from her cup of soup, surreptitiously noting again the position of the security cameras. She sat, putting her cup down, opened her drawer and got a 256 Gigabyte flash drive out of it while, using her body to hide her left arm, got an identical-looking thumbdrive out of her left cardigan pocket. She palmed it and appeared to swap the one from the drawer into her left hand before closing the drawer. In actual fact the drives never changed hands. She plugged the drive from her pocket into her computer and palmed the other drive, dropping it unobtrusively into her right cardigan pocket before closing the drawer. It took just a few minutes to save David and Diana's new work onto her flash drive. She unplugged it and took it with her as she walked back to the conference room past the other three programmers and several benches and shelves stacked untidily with equipment.

Edgar was the lone occupant of the conference room when Beth entered. He looked sharp even with his sixty-plus years. His hair had long since turned completely white and he was dressed, as always, in a suit and tie, though he somehow managed to make it look casual. Clement was certain Edgar was closet gay, though Beth believed that was just wishful thinking, and that Clement's gaydar was just pinging on Edgar's unusual degree of empathy. Edgar was certainly an oddity among the suits. Unlike the rest of management he didn't treat the programmers as if they were irresponsible children. Edgar seemed to be able get along with anybody; he was a natural diplomat. "Hello Beth," he gave her a warm smile.

"Hi Edgar. How are you and Violet?" Beth sat in one of the chairs.

"We're well, thanks Beth. Vi's looking forward to us flying south next weekend for short visit to the kids."

"That's great. Give her my best wishes." Violet was a dear lady, every bit as nice a person as Edgar. They were a great match.

"I will." His smile faded and he became serious. "I, uh, wanted to talk to you before Mr Lancer, to get a chance to prepare you. He has just flown in from a meeting of the backers. They are very unhappy."

"Edgar, they don't seem to understand how complex this work is. We are creating an entire, conscious, humanlike mind, with emotions and full intellectual capability. This is not a simple undertaking."

Edgar raised his hands in a placatory gesture and spoke in his soothing voice, "I know Beth. I think they have some idea of the difficulty, but that isn't what is bothering them. They--"

The door thrust open and in strode a tall, heavily built man wearing a dark suit and a darker frown. Beth got the immediate impression of a thug -- someone who was accustomed to throwing his weight around and getting his way. He nodded curtly to Edgar and, still standing, addressed Beth, "Elizabeth Morten."

"Beth," she corrected.

He ignored it and continued stiffly, "Some of us are concerned that you have been either delaying us or have been foisting a fraud upon us."

She was surprised, though not as surprised as she let herself appear. Actually she had been preparing for this, but had not expected it quite this soon. She simply asked, "What do you mean?"

"Your A.I. doesn't work."

They had tried to steal it then. She was right. "It works perfectly well. You people have seen it working. I can show you again. And just today David and Diana have finished some improvements that will make it even better than before." Go on, you bastard, she thought, reveal that you've been stealing the code.

He stared angrily at her for a moment. "Show me again. Now." he demanded.

She stood and walked to the cupboard along one side of the room, opened a drawer and took out a laptop. "Well, seeing as you asked so nicely..." She opened up the laptop on the table and inserted the flash drive into it, then switched the laptop on. After several seconds the screen displayed an animated female face. Beth adjusted the screen so that the embedded webcam could see her.

"Hello Beth, how are you today?" A soft female voice came from the laptop.

"I'm fine, thanks Aimie. There's someone here who wants to talk to you." She turned the laptop around to face Mr Lancer.

"Hello. Ooh! Is that Edgar to my left? Hello Edgar, how are you?"

Edgar looked a little embarrassed, but answered, "I'm fine, dear. This is Mr Lancer."

"Mr Lancer, how do you do. What is it you'd like to talk to me about?"

Lancer ignored the greeting and question, and looked sharply at the computer, then at Beth. "Does this laptop have wireless?"

Edgar answered him, "None of our computers have wireless connectivity because of security concerns. A few of them have infrared comms, which can be safely contained, but usually we connect via ethernet cables."

"Does this one have an infrared port?"

"Yes." Beth pointed to the small, shiny, black spot at the front of the laptop.

Lancer leaned forward and covered the indicated spot with his thumb.

"You wanted to talk to me about something? The only reason I can think of that you would want to cover my IR port is if you think I'm some kind of hoax, and that I'm something directed by a person from outside. Ask me anything you want. I can assure you that I'm very real."

Lancer looked at the screen disdainfully. "A farmer has a chicken, a fox, and some grain, and needs to get them across a river in a canoe that will only take him and one other. How does he do it?"

"Farmers don't farm foxes. Is the fox dead?" the laptop asked.

Beth said, "The fox is alive, Aimie. It can be a dog if you want; a disobedient dog that will eat the chicken if left alone with it."

Aimie paused for a moment. "Ah, a logic problem! Goody! The chicken can't be left with the grain either, right? It's not a difficult one though. The farmer takes the chicken across first, leaves it on the other side, then goes back to get the fox, ferries the fox across, leaves it and picks up the chicken, taking it back. He drops it off, picking up the grain, and delivers the grain to the fox. Now he goes back with an empty canoe to pick up the chicken and take it across again. It is a bit of a silly puzzle though, the chicken and fox could have run away. Got another one?"

Lancer was frowning, then he reached for the flash drive, but Beth slapped his hand away. "You'll destroy it if you just pull it out. The computer must be shut down first." To the laptop she said, "Thank you Aimie. I'll close the computer down now."

"Okay Beth. See you all later."

While the laptop was shutting down Beth kept her hand on the flashdrive. When it switched off she pulled the drive out, seeming to swap it to her other hand. What nobody saw is that she actually palmed the drive. Her other hand already held the other drive taken from her cardigan pocket and that's the one she now held in plain view.

Lancer reached forward, grasping her wrist roughly and took the thumb-sized drive from her hand.

Beth protested, "What do you think you're doing? You can't take that. This place is secure for a very good reason."

Edgar said, "Mr Lancer, I'm afraid you have to leave that here. Nobody is allowed to take code from these premises."

"Your rules don't apply to me. The backers already own this code. They've invested heavily in it. I'm their courier."

Edgar used his most conciliatory voice, "If the backers have concerns then they are welcome to tell us, but we can't allow theft of Mind Construct's property."

"You weenies have two choices. Neither of which involves me leaving this behind. You can accede to the backers' wishes and the company can continue to exist, or the backers can terminate funds immediately." Lancer strode out of the conference room.

Edgar pressed the intercom on the table, "Security. Don't allow Mr Lancer to leave with a small drive that is MC property."

"No. Leave it, Edgar. Let him go," Beth said.


Beth turned so that she was blocking the security camera with her body, pulled out the flash drive and showed it to him, putting a finger to her lips. Ssh! He looked at the drive, his mouth open with surprise, then relaxed. He leaned forward and pressed the intercom again. "Security. I'm revoking that order. Let Mr Lancer leave."

The receptionist's voice came on, panicky, "Too late. He's already gone. He punched James in the face and unlocked the door himself."

Edgar sat down with a worried expression. "I was worried something like this was going to happen... well, not this dramatic of course, but the backers have been getting very prickly."

Clement appeared in the conference room door with Diana and David behind him. "What just happened? That scary guy left in a hurry and didn't look happy."

Beth sighed, "I'll tell you about it later. Suffice to say, I think the backers are getting ready to pull the plug. The big scary guy was sent to steal Aimie."

"Well, he was right about one thing, Beth," Edgar said. "The backers have paid for Aimie."

"No. He's wrong. Aimie is MC property until we have a finished product that we can deliver. They are paying for development, with the understanding that they get the pick of the results. They may think they own us, but technically they don't." Beth was smoldering with anger. "Practically though... it seems they do."

Edgar was puzzled. "I don't understand. You programmers are always going on about open source programming and how code should be shared. Why are you so dead-set against our backers having early access to the code?"

"I think MC is now in a struggle to survive," Beth said. "If management had allowed us to go open source, we would have got to this point of development ages ago and there would now be a thriving community of companies working on this, almost certainly with us in the lead. Our future would have been assured. But since it's been kept secret, we have to do what the backers tell us or they shut us down. We have nothing."

David asked, "So what do we do now?"

Beth shrugged. "I don't know about you guys, but I'm going home."

Diana was very surprised. "There's half the day left. You never go home early."

"Things have changed, Diana." Beth gave Clement a pointed look. "I need to think about what happened today."

Clement nodded and said, "Yeah, I'll head off early too."

Diana and David gave each other a something's going on look.

Beth went back to her workstation and switched it off. For the benefit of the security cameras she pretended to put the flash drive in the night safe, while actually pocketting it. She got her shoulderbag and walked out.

Outside, she crossed the road to the park. It was a large park with many trees and shrubs and wide grassy spaces broken by colorful flower beds. Many birds sang in the trees, though more in the evening than now in the middle of the day. She waited under the trees, watching the front door of the little MC building. It looked like a small terrace house wedged between two larger buildings. There was nothing to show that such important work went on inside. It looked like the sort of house that an old lady and her small pet dog might live in, with its white exterior, decorative wrought ironwork, and carefully tended tiny front garden. There were no signs or anything to draw attention to it.

Clement exitted the building and paused to look around. Beth waved to him and he crossed the road to her.

"What's going on Beth? That didn't sound right what you were saying about the backers. What happened back there?"

They often walked across the park together. They lived just several blocks from the other side of the park, not far from each other. She fell into step beside him now. "There's something very wrong about our backers, Clement. I felt it the day the security cameras were put in, but it was confirmed today with the way this Lancer guy acted."

"What's wrong with there being security cameras? We're doing important work and the investors have sunk a lot of money into it."

"Yes, but I think the cameras are protecting the work from us, more than anything else."

"Ummm... sounds a little paranoid, Beth."

"I know, but I've been really careful. I've never liked wall safes. I think they're like an open advertisement telling any potential thief where to get the goodies, so I've been storing the results elsewhere and putting worthless stuff in the safe. Today this Lancer person showed up from our backers, angrily telling us that our work was worthless -- that it didn't run. Our backers have been stealing the results."

"That's crazy. Why would they steal it? They already own it. Besides, they know all they have to do is sit tight and they'll get the finished thing dropped in their lap."

"I think they've come to doubt that we'll give it to them."

"Why on Earth would they think--" Clement stopped walking and looked directly at Beth. "Why do they think that, Beth?"

"Because I don't want to give it to them." She avoided looking directly at him.

"But that puts us in violation of our contract. We have to give it to them. We don't have a choice." He rubbed his face with his hands, took a deep breath, and asked more softly, "Why don't you want to give it to them?"

"Our funders are not just some group of businessmen like they say. They are scary. I can't find out much about them, and that alone is worrying, but they actually seem to have ties with weapons manufacturers and other shady people. These are exactly the kind of people who should not get hold of AI technology, Clement. It's wrong."

"What makes you think they're involved with weaponry?"

"There are some vague hints on the net, but the thing that worries me the most is their comments to some of our tests. One of the worst is that they wanted me to remove empathy from Aimie. As far as I can see there is only one reason you'd deliberately remove empathy from an AI."

"To be able to harm people." Clement frowned. "Maybe they have some other reason. Maybe they don't want the AI's judgement clouded by emotion in difficult medical situations."

She shook her head. "Empathy is required for good judgement. I could understand wanting Aimie to keep a clear head under pressure, but removal of empathy isn't required for that."

"You're knowledgeable in these things. Maybe they just made an honest mistake."

"No. Sending a thug to retrieve a copy of Aimie today was no mistake. He punched James in the face. He was no simple courier, Clement. These are bad people. I don't want Aimie in their hands."

"How can we avoid it? We can't just destroy Aimie."

Beth looked stricken. "I know. I couldn't do that. I have no idea what to do."

They walked for a while in silence. Eventually Clement said, "There's nothing you can do today. Why don't you come out tonight?"

She smiled at that. "What is it about so many gay guys that their solution to everything is to go out on the town?"

"You're stereotyping us a little there, sweetie. I know plenty of gay guys who almost never go out. Anyhow, you should. Maybe you'll meet a good woman."

She rolled her eyes. "No. I'm perfectly happy living alone. I seriously think I won't ever bother with a relationship again. They're too difficult, and I've become too comfortable living by myself. I have things I need to do tonight anyway... and plenty to think about now, after what happened today."

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