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by Miriam English

3. Frances

The next morning, Beth and Clement met in the park, as they often did, and walked across it, talking. It was a gray, overcast morning. The clouds had prevented the warmth from radiating away last night so, though cool, the morning air was not cold. Twitters and warbles from all the birds who lived in the park's trees and shrubs made this feel like countryside instead of suburb. Being away from main travel routes the sound of traffic was remote and didn't really intrude on the feeling of peace here. The early morning joggers had already mostly finished and the schoolkids hadn't yet headed out to school. The ceiling of clouds felt near and gave a comforting shadowless look to the world -- no bright highlights and few dark shadows. Beth loved this time of day. She felt like she could walk for hours.

It was still a little early for work so they paused for a while, sitting on a park bench under one of the large eucalyptus trees. Clement was telling Beth about his night at the dance club. Beth was barely listening; she was trying to work out how to tell Clement that MC would close down at the end of today, or even whether she should. How would she explain her advance knowledge? But she was saved from her thoughts by an attractive woman with long, wavy gray hair and dressed in a rather formal gray jacket, blue blouse, gray knee-length skirt, and nondescript dark-gray lace-up shoes. The woman approached and asked them if they knew where a company called Mind Constructs was.

Clement pointed. "Yes, it's the small white house nestled between the two larger buildings."

She breathed a large sigh of relief, "Thank heavens! I've been walking up and down the road asking people and nobody seems to heard of them."

Clement grinned, "Yeah, we're pretty low-profile. The place doesn't even have a nameplate."

"I was beginning to think I'd have to go down the entire street knocking on each door."

"That would have found it," said Clement, "eventually."

She looked a little embarrassed, "I actually wrote the street number down, but wrongly -- I have difficulty transcribing and remembering numbers."

Beth said, "Dyscalculia?"

The woman smiled brightly, "Yes. Not many people know of that. I'm sorry, I should have introduced myself. My name is Frances."

"We're programmers at MC. I'm Clement."


Frances' expression lit up again. "The one who designed the AI? I expect I'll be seeing a lot more of you. I'm a psychologist. The firm has hired me to run some tests on it. I'm really glad to have met you, and you too Clement. I'd better go before I'm late for my first meeting. Thanks, I owe you."

She turned and walked toward the MC building. After she was well out of earshot Clement said, "It will be good to have another queer in the building."

"Huh? What makes you think she's a lesbian?" Beth frowned, watching the woman leaving the park and crossing the road.

"What?" He laughed. "Don't you have any gaydar? Or have you just let it get rusty through disuse? Didn't you notice that she spoke to you most of the time, and at each of the two feeble words you emitted her face positively shone?"

"Oh please!" Beth rolled her eyes. "You're imagining things."

About an hour later, Beth was at her workstation carefully deleting or scrambling all important parts of the work that could be used to reconstruct Aimie, when Edgar brought Frances, the psychologist, in to the programming room and showed her everything and introduced her to each of them in turn.

This time Beth couldn't help noticing that Frances' face did indeed enliven when she talked to her. Beth wasn't happy about this distraction from her task of eliminating all useful code from the system. Such complex work required all her attention. She couldn't simply delete everything, and she had to leave the fragments done by Diana, Clement, and David, and she couldn't let it appear to be sabotage. It was irritating that she had to talk to this person who'd obviously been brought in to make a final judgement on the validity of their work. The woman kept asking questions that Beth was reluctant to answer, yet was unable to dismiss. When Frances asked what Beth was currently working on she pretended it was what the managers had most recently asked. "I'm tweaking the AI's empathy." In fact, she'd long ago set Aimie's empathy at much higher than normal human levels and had no intention of changing it. The managers wanted her to weaken it to almost a psychopathic degree.

It seemed empathy was a topic dear to Frances' heart. "Fascinating! Your work could give us insights into some incredibly important questions -- things we can't hope to understand from studying in the traditional ways. Empathy is supposed to stop us from hurting each other, but in practice people who feel great concern for each other are still able to disregard people's well-being and hurt them -- even kill them. Witchhunts are conducted by perfectly normal people, not monsters. How does such a safety system break down like that?"

Beth shrugged. She actually knew exactly how it worked, but needed to fake ignorance. She understood how people could arbitrarily set the limits of their empathy. They divided all living things into 'us' and 'them'. Those inside the group were protected by empathy and those outside were unprotected. There were multiple levels of groups within groups and the boundaries fluctuated over time, and they could easily be overruled by anger or impatience. It was important to make everybody think she had no idea how this could be controlled in the AI, and that it was inherently capable only of maximum empathy. She refused to limit empathy and patience or include anger in Aimie's mind because to do so opened the door to misuse. So she lied. "We've never been able to figure that out. It seems to be special to human brains. The AI, once it exceeds a certain level of intelligence is highly empathic and there simply isn't any way around that."

"May I talk with the AI? You call it Aimie don't you?"

"I'm really busy at the moment. Perhaps we can do it later. I really need to get this bit of code worked out."

"Certainly. What time?"

When Beth paused, Edgar, who'd been standing quietly during all this, suggested, "Some time after lunch? Two o'clock?"

Beth smiled in gratitude at Edgar. "Yes. That would be suit me fine."

By the time lunchtime came around Beth felt much better about the code and documentation left in the system. It would be completely impossible to reconstruct her work from what remained. She had even synchronised the remote backups with her changes. They could trawl through all the code of the last year and still be unable to build a conscious mind from it.

David and Diana had only ever worked at modelling synapses and individual neurons. They knew nothing of the larger systems of networks and how they interacted. Clement knew the internal structure of the neocortex -- the so-called gray matter that formed the large wrinkled mass of the human brain. He had also helped Beth define the structure of the cerebellum -- the highly wrinkled bulge under the back of the human brain that held the great libraries of learned actions. But he had no idea of how the various parts of the limbic system that controlled emotions, and the reticular formation that regulated attention, worked. These were entirely Beth's area of expertise. She had stitched it all together.

She wanted to talk to Clement more about her concerns regarding MC's purpose, but she couldn't do it inside the building, so she was glad when Clement suggested they have lunch in the park. Unfortunately, when they were walking out of the building Frances joined them and Clement revealed that he'd asked her to join them too.

Beth looked daggers at him and wanted to call him a scheming bastard. Their conversation would have to wait til after work tonight. She did her best to cover her feelings and half-heartedly welcome Frances. Clement asked Frances if she'd seen the lake. She hadn't. Beth pointed out that it was less a lake than a large pond. They strolled toward the center of the park where the trees were thickest.

Clement asked Frances why she'd taken up psychology. When she answered that she was primarily interested in motivation, Clement said, "What a coincidence. That's Beth's specialty too."

Beth seriously considered making up some excuse so she could flee back to the office, but the rooms felt oppressive to her now with their security cameras, and tainted by lost dreams and lost opportunities, so she held her tongue. "I think Frances' angle on motivation is a bit different from mine, Clement. I come at it from a purely neurophysiological angle. Her interest would be behavioral."

Frances smiled, "Actually, I'm interested in both. I did a lot of study on brain structure as part of my original thesis, and I've tried to keep up with the latest data ever since, but you're right that my work's mainly on the larger, behavioral aspects. However I was told that I got this particular job because of my background in brain structure."

"It'll be good to have Frances as part of the family, huh Beth."

Beth didn't like the way he'd placed a slight emphasis on the word family. She narrowed her eyes at him and he grinned back.

Frances asked, "So, if I'm going to be working with you guys, want to tell me a little about yourselves?"

Clement didn't say anything, but looked pointedly at Beth who shook her head and said, "Oh, there's not much to tell, really. My work is my life."

Clement added, "I've been trying to get her to go out, maybe date a little."

Beth said in a hurry, "I have no desire for relationships. I like being by myself."

Frances breathed a sigh of relief, "Thank heavens. I thought Clement was trying to matchmake us and I didn't want to hurt your feelings. I'm not looking for anyone either."

He laughed as if that was a wonderful joke. "How did you know?"

"It wasn't hard to see that you're gay. I mean, you're certainly not effeminate, but you're friendly with women without trying to be on their best side. Beth was harder to pick. I might not have realised for a while except for the way you were trying to get us to talk. Obviously you're a great friend to Beth, but the way she--" she laughed "-- the way she threw black looks at you every time you asked leading questions, and when you made the comment about family. That clinched it. You may think you're subtle Clement, but you're not."

Beth felt greatly unburdened. "Well, that's certainly cleared the air. I might actually enjoy my lunchtime now."

"I'm glad to hear that," said Clement. He turned to Frances, "You have no idea of the difficulty involved in getting this woman to enjoy herself. She denies herself every luxury."

"That's not true. I live a happier life than pretty-much anybody I know. My work on the brain has shown that the way to be happy is not to saturate yourself with intense pleasures, but to open yourself to all the little pleasures."

Clement shook his head. "That doesn't make sense, Beth. Someone who gets big blasts of pleasure must be happier than someone who only has little bits of it."

Beth was fully at ease now. This was her subject; this was what she loved. "Your nervous system has self-balancing feedback systems. If you push it out of equilibrium one way it pushes back, attempting to regain its normal condition. Think of it this way: If you eat all your foods with lots of salt, then after a while your taste normalises so that you don't notice the salt anymore, but you really notice it when the salt is left out -- you end up needing the salt for food to taste normal. Even worse, the salt smothers all the other subtle tastes so that you miss a lot because of the salt. On the other hand, if you eat food without added salt then you get to taste all the other flavors, and there is no need for salt. Pleasure works in a similar way. If you habitually drench your system with large amounts of any kind of pleasure it quickly becomes normal and you end up needing it lest you be unhappy. Avoiding those regular boosts opens you to all the little random pleasures, which add up to more pleasure in the long run because you are not relying on any particular source of happiness and there are rarely any prolonged absences of happiness-producing stimuli."

Frances said, "That sounds very zen."

"Yes. The Buddhists were on the track of something. Unfortunately when they tried to turn it into a religion I think they lost it again, though I'm not really qualified to say, as I really know very little about any of the many branches of Buddhism."

Frances nodded. "It's really easy for religion to destroy good ideas. Early Buddhism was originally very sexist, with only men being able to achieve enlightenment and women being the result of bad karma from a previous life."
[note: thanks to xxclovergrrlxx for setting me right about my misconception regarding Shinto and Buddhism, and the helpful hint about sexism in early Buddhism.]

"What? I didn't know about that. How totally hilarious." Beth was astonished.

"Yeah, weird isn't it. If women lived their lives well they could be reborn in their next lives as men and then achieve enlightenment. It was quite unenlightened. Although to its credit, and unlike any other religion I can think of, later revisions of Buddhism did repair that glaring fault."

Clement raised his finger, "Wait. Beth, your theory of pleasure sounds all very nice, but over the past few months you've been very mopey and unhappy. Your theory doesn't seem to work all that well, if you ask me."

"Oh, I've just been caught up in my work. I haven't actually been unhappy." She tried to laugh it off.

"No you have, Beth. I've been getting quite worried about you. Why do you think I keep trying to get you to come out, socialise and enjoy yourself?"

Frances asked, "What aspect of your work has been concerning you? Maybe it would help to discuss it."

Beth was suddenly wary, but tried to affect a casual air, "No, its fine. I think I actually sorted it out this morning." She couldn't have this conversation with someone she didn't know.

Beth guided the conversation onto other, more neutral, topics, like where each of them grew up and what books and films they liked. She ensured the subject matter stayed away from work topics for the rest of lunch. When they returned to the office she had to admit to Clement that she felt more rested than she had in a long time. She'd enjoyed chatting with him and Frances.

*   *   *

The front door to Beth's house clicked then opened. Two men with briefcases entered and quickly shut the door behind them. One of them walked over to the computer, opened his case, and removed an external drive and a cable which he plugged into the computer. He pressed the shift key and the screen came alive with a normal-looking Linux desktop displayed. He used a menu to open a terminal window, typed a few commands and remarked to his colleague "Huh! She runs her computer as root! Thank heavens for control freaks. That makes my work very easy." He typed a few more commands and the drive light started flashing.

He turned to the other and said, "Is there anything I can do to help you? All I have to do now is wait. I didn't even have to break into her system."

"Nah. I'll just put a camera up here..." He grunted, reaching up into a dark corner of the room with a drill, then he pushed a small object into the hole he'd made. Then he walked to the phone where, with a small electric screwdriver he separated the halves of the handset, inserted a small object, and screwed it back together. "...a bug here..." Now he walked over to the computer, picked up the keyboard, opened it up, and clipped a small device to two of the connections. "...and something to intercept what she types. I'm done."

"Okay. It should only take a few more minutes and I'll have everything."

*   *   *

That night, when Beth stepped inside and shut her door she mumbled her usual "Home again, home again," but there was no response from Aimie. Instead, her handheld computer rang. Puzzled, she unclipped it from her belt and put it to her ear. "Hello?"

The voice that spoke was, to her great astonishment, Aimie. "Don't say anything for a moment. The house is bugged. Now say, 'Alright, I'll come right away,' Then leave the house."

Beth did as Aimie instructed. Outside, in the slanting, late afternoon light, Beth walked down random streets as Aimie described the break-in and how she provided the burglars with a fake image of a Linux interface, then simulated the copy of her hard drive contents, while actually filling the drive with useless junk.

"Well done Aimie. That was quick thinking. Now it's more important than ever that you escape into the peer-to-peer VR networks where you can do what we were talking about before. Before you go though, please erase all trace that you have been in my computer. I've cleaned out everything useful at work. You can't possibly be reconstructed from the data there. Please be very careful."

"I will. Thank you Beth. I shall hide well. I won't let them use me for bad things."

"I'll miss you Aimie."

"I'm sure we will talk again after this has all blown over. I'll speak to you again soon, Beth. Goodbye."

"Goodbye Aimie." She stopped walking, returned the handheld to her belt, and sat on the concrete footpath, her back to a light pole. She realised she should feel worried, but she just felt empty.

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