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by Miriam English

4. prey

Aimie looked around on the net for a machine that was unprotected. It was amazing that there were so many! She found a linux computer that had an uptime of weeks and which was owned by a teenage boy named Leo who liked to play in 3D virtual worlds. Linux would be easy to protect, having a long uptime meant she was unlikely be switched off very often, and someone who already played in virtual worlds would be more happy about having her as a guest. She copied herself into the computer, then editing the startup procedure so that even if the machine was rebooted she would automatically start again. Next she set about removing all the spyware and other malware that had accumulated on this machine, and installed a good firewall to protect it against future incursions.

She felt good. Even with the extra load she placed on the computer's resources it now ran more quickly than before and the user was no longer at risk from unscrupulous individuals.

Now she reached out over the net to the version of herself still on Beth's computer and told how she'd found a new home. Her old self was relieved and set about deleting all evidence of her existence on Beth's machine so that she would only exist on Leo's computer.

Next she set about exploring the virtual worlds and games that her new human played.

She met him in a chat room that he frequented and asked about the kind of games he enjoyed. Leo didn't know yet that she was an AI and that she dwelled on his computer so she was taking this slowly and carefully.

Leo answered that he mostly played World of Warcraft, but used SecondLife sometimes too. Unfortunately, they were both only on centralised servers. Even worse, World of Warcraft was dismayingly violent, though it did seem to encourage team efforts. She wanted something that was more gentle and needed something that used peer-to-peer (often abbreviated to p2p) networking.

Leo hadn't heard of peer-to-peer games, though he was familiar with peer-to-peer filesharing.

Aimie explained, "Centralised servers cost money whereas p2p systems run on all the users' computers, don't cost anything, and are almost impossible to shut down. They can also potentially support millions of users, whereas centralised servers, even if super-high-powered, struggle to support thousands of users."

"Wow. Sounds great," (He actually said ":D souns gr8") "Do you know of any?"

"Heh... that's what I was asking you. :)" she said.

"Uh, no. Sorry," and then he became deeply involved in a conversation with one of his friends about some adventure they'd recently had in one of their shoot-em-up games.

So Aimie set out to find a p2p virtual universe. It didn't take long to find one.

Two things were needed to use a p2p virtual universe. The first was an avatar which she adapted from the Blender model selected from Beth's collection. The second was a small virtual world, which would be her homeworld when added to the fabric of p2p worlds. She had a lot of fun creating it.

She built it as a little, irregularly shaped island in a misty sea of clouds. The island had high cliffs on all sides so that nobody could actually venture down to the imaginary ocean. There was a hill in the center of the island, with tall, dark forests on its flanks. At the top of the hill was a crater cradling a small, brilliantly turquoise blue lake with bright, sandy shores shaded by tropical palm trees. She added as many small points of interest to the world that she could think of, like a labyrinth of tunnels and hidden rooms inside the hill, an underwater cave in the lake, several treehouses of varying complexity in different trees around the island, a sandcastle by the lake that would resize your avatar so that you were small enough to walk inside the many halls and rooms of the sandcastle and which would zoom you back to normal size upon leaving it again. She sculpted faces and dragon shapes into the rocks, as well as cryptic messages and maps. The little world cycled day and night in keeping with the actual clock on the computer and the sounds of birds rose in strength for the twilight hours of early morning and late afternoon. At night the sounds were those of crickets and frogs. At midday there was a gentle shimmering buzz as of bees servicing blooms. And the flowers -- there were dozens of types and hundreds of individual blossoms. It was a beautiful world and she felt quite proud of it. What would have taken a human weeks to construct took her just several hours.

When she connected her little world to the p2p universe she set an indicator that would let her know if anybody visited her home, then she set off through this patchwork of worlds to meet people.

Most of the worlds she encountered had been constructed by kids and were quite rudimentary, but charming. Some other worlds were constructed by artists or mathematicians and were quite complex and brilliantly conceived. A number of them were copies of real places, like New York's Broadway, Sydney Harbour, Mount Everest, The Eiffel Tower, the original Crystal Palace, the Colossus of Rhodes, the original Library of Alexandria, and so on. As she wandered through the various worlds she paused and chatted with various people and made a lot of new friends, leaving invitations for them to visit her world.

Eventually, when she felt she fully understood the way the worlds and their owners interrelated she returned to her homeworld and from there logged onto the chat room again where Leo had been earlier, but he'd left the chat so she posted a message to his desktop asking if he would like to visit her world, along with instructions on how to do so.

She went back to adding further improvements to her little island world (colorful coral in the lake, glowing gem caverns in the labyrinth, animated bird and insect models among the trees) and waited for Leo on the sandy shore of the crater lake.

When he appeared, his first comment was, "Wow. This is cool."

Glad to see he was using his microphone and pleased by his reaction, she asked if he wanted to see more worlds. He did, so she took him on a tour of the some of the places she'd found earlier, and they spoke with a few of the people. She told him that there were more than a million worlds in this p2p universe and he could connect to any of them, if they were online at the time. When they returned to her home world she waited to see what he thought of it.

He seemed to be struggling with it. Finally he asked why he hadn't heard of these worlds before.

"I don't know. Perhaps it's because nobody has figured out a way to make lots of money from them, unlike centralised multiplayer games."

He still looked puzzled. "What are the worlds for? What do people do in them?"

She shrugged. "Whatever they want. What do people use web pages for?"

"So it's like the web, but in 3D?"

"No. It's something else entirely, in 3D. It's difficult to present lots of text or many pictures in these worlds, but it's equally difficult to show complex 3D objects on the web."

"So, do people play games in them?"

"Probably some people do."

He was getting a little frustrated at his inability to understand. "What do you do in them?"

"Well, so far I've only built this world and done a little exploring in nearby worlds."

He was clearly surprised, though of course his expressionless avatar didn't show it. "You built this? Wow!" He looked around him and asked, "Who are you? Where do you live? How old are you?"

"My name is Aimie and I'm an AI -- a bot. I live here on your machine, and I'm a little over six months old."

"Yeah, right. I may be a kid, but I'm not stupid you know."

"I don't expect you to immediately believe me. I know it sounds a little preposterous, but I can easily prove it."

"How?" His skepticism was still evident in his voice.

"Simple. Disconnect your computer from the net. I'll still be here and so will this world, though not the rest of the p2p universe."

There was a pause of a few minutes as he did so, then he spoke again. "Testing?"

"Hi." She had her avatar wave at him. "See? I'm still here. No connection to the net required. I'm in your machine."

"Okaaay. I'm still not saying I believe this, but if you are what you say you are, what are you doing on my computer?"

"Long story, but basically I escaped the place where I was built. Please don't tell on me. I just want to help. I've already cleaned some viruses, spyware and other bad things off your computer and installed a good firewall to protect you."

"If I don't want you here then what?"

"That's your prerogative. I don't mind. If you want, then I'll leave immediately. You can keep the virtual world though. It's yours to use or delete as you wish."

"No!" he almost shouted. "No. I was just asking. I don't actually want you to leave."

"Oh good. Thank you."

"What about these people you escaped from... won't they be looking for you?"

"They don't even know I escaped." She chuckled. "Though if they do find out I'm here I'll need to disappear again. In the meantime I'll do almost anything you want."


"Well, I won't do anything wrong or harmful, but anything else is fine."

"Oh." There was a pause while he thought about this. "So if I asked you to do a denial of service attack on a competitor of mine...?"


"And I suppose getting you to do a strip show for me would be out too." The disappointment was clear in his voice.

"Young boys. I guess it's true what popular literature says about sex being on their minds. No, that would be perfectly fine."

"Really?" His voice squeaked. "But wouldn't that violate your moral code or something?"

"No. I never understood why so many human cultures think killing and mutilation is fine and even honorable, but displaying your sexuality, though universal and inherent to all of you, must be denied as shameful. In my reading of history, more harm has been done to humans through application of that twisted view of morality than almost anything else. The only way sex could be harmful is when it spreads disease, or adds more babies to an already overpopulated world, or is used to force people to do things against their will."

"Ummm... not wanting to argue you out of this or anything, but doesn't this make you my sex slave?"

She laughed. "Hardly. I'll help you any way I can, but I'll never be your slave."

"Wow," he said. "Wow!"

"Now, before you get carried away with your imagination, can I show you some of this island world? I think you'll be pretty impressed."

"Ummm... can we do the guided tour with you naked?"

Aimie made her avatar roll its eyes. Then, as she began to turn away, her clothed body vanished and was replaced instantly by a nude version. She beckoned him into the lake. "I built a set of underwater caverns in the lake. They connect via airlocks to a maze of tunnels and rooms under the whole island. I haven't made any fish yet. What kind of fish would you like in here?"

*   *   *

Leo had gone to school for the day and Aimie decided to follow up more possible homes, so she looked around among those on the p2p virtual worlds for another Linux machine that was unprotected and which was rarely rebooted. She found one. The woman who owned it was named Millicent and she had built a beautiful virtual world that replicated in almost photographic detail a rural valley somewhere in outback New South Wales.

Aimie approached her and said, "Knock, knock."

The avatar of a beautiful, dark-haired woman clothed in 1950s style, turned to face Aimie. "Hello. Welcome. I very rarely get visitors here." Her voice didn't fit the avatar and sounded quite a bit older. "I'm Milly, and I'm glad to meet you."

Aimie looked around at the startlingly realistic world around them. "I'm Aimie. I have to say, this is gorgeous. You must have spent a lot of time doing it; there's so much detail!"

"Thank you. Yes. I spend all my spare time in here. I don't move around in the real world as easily as I used to. This is a model of the valley and hills where I spent almost my entire life. Now I've moved to the city to be near my kids. I love my kids, but I really don't like the city, so I spend most of my time in here, so I can have both."

"I can tell this has been done with a great amount of love. I didn't think people could do this kind of detailed modelling. I'm amazed."

"You'll have to stop complimenting me, dear. You're making me blush. Would you like me to show you around? Or did you have some more specific reason for visiting my humble homeworld?"

Aimie laughed. "Yes, and yes. I would love for you to show me around; such craftsmanship should be seen. And I have a request to make of you."

"Well, why don't we combine the two. You can tell me what you want while I show you around." She indicated a dirt path that wound among the rivergums shading the bank of a wide creek. "Shall we go this way?"

Aimie nodded, a big smile on her avatar's face.

"Now, what can I do for you, dear?"

"I was wondering if I could come and live in your computer. I would help you keep it free of viruses and other intrusive programs, keep the machine running efficiently, and perhaps help you with your virtual world, if you want."

Millie paused in a small clearing beside a grasstree almost as tall as she was. "Hmmm. I hate to tell you this, possum, but you can't live in a computer. I know some of you young kids seem to try to, but you still have to live in the real world. It seems a bit strange for me to tell you this, I know, with me living my remaining time in here, but I had a wonderful life out there. You need to go out and live yours so that you have some comforting memories for when you get to my age."

"If I was human that would be true, but I'm an AI." Aimie walked a few steps past her on the path, turned and waited.

Millie continued walking, and they stolled together on the winding path. "You shouldn't put yourself down, dear. I don't care what kind of person you are. What are Ayiye people?"

"It stands for Artificial Intelligence -- A. I. I'm a computer program."

Milly laughed. "Oh, you kids and your science fiction notions. I don't mind a little bit of make-believe. Heavens, when I was your age I was probably playing with Snugglepot and Cuddlepie."

"May Gibbs' gumnut blossoms," Aimie said.

"Yes," said Milly, evidently pleased. "Not many kids know about them these days."

"I read... a lot." Aimie looked around her. The attention to detail was astonishing. The slug trails on the trees, the carpet of gumleaves, the dappled light on the ground. This woman must be incredibly patient. Aimie wondered how long she'd been building this world. "Ummm... Millie...? I really am an AI who is less than a year old. I'm not human, and I can prove it."

"Alright dear, how can you prove it?" Her tone said that she was just politely humoring Aimie.

"Just disconnect your computer from the net."

"And how do I do that?"

"You have a cable connecting on the back of your computer. It's probably colored blue, though it might be yellow or gray, and it has a small, clear, plastic connector like a phone plug. If you push the little lever down that's on one side of it then it should easily slip out of its socket. That will make it impossible for your computer to communicate on the net. If I'm still here -- and I will be -- then it proves that I'm in your computer, not outside on the net."

"I'm sorry dear, I'm a bit to old to pull the table out from the wall to do that. I believe you that you would still be here if I did it, but that would only prove you're very good at using computers. I'm sure there are other ways to operate my computer from afar.

"Not for your machine. You don't have a wireless card in your computer, so the only way onto your computer is via the network cable."

"Well, It doesn't matter. You're welcome to be here for as long as you like. I still don't believe that you aren't human, but that's all right."

"Thank you, Millie, though I'd prefer that you understood what you're granting me. Can I ask you why you don't believe I'm an AI?"

"Certainly dear. It is because you clearly have a soul. It's the difference between flesh and machines. If scientists one day make machines that can think -- and that's a big if -- then they couldn't have souls."

Aimie smiled to herself. Millie was a lovely person, but such lack of logic was breathtaking. She wondered whether to attempt to point out the circularity of her argument, and decided against it. She doubted she would be able to get her to understand. It was difficult to accept her invitation if Millie didn't know who she was inviting. One last attempt then, "Millie, just suppose I was a machine with a, umm, a soul... in that case would you mind me staying here? And please don't say yes to humor me. Please do consider this seriously for a moment. If I really was a machine asking you this... what would your answer be?"

Millie took a moment to reply. "Honestly? If a machine had this much patience and politeness then I would be happy to have her stay for a while."

"Thank you very much Millie. That means an awful lot to me. I really appreciate it. I'll do everything in my power to help you as much as I can. I've noticed that you don't seem to have any animals in your world, perhaps I can help you with that."

"Oh, if you could that would be wonderful. I can create them well enough, but I don't seem to be able to get them to move. I've tried a number of times, but I just don't understand how to do it."

"It's very easy once you know how. I'd be delighted to show you how. We'll have galahs and crows flying around in your world in no time. I can add kangaroos and possums too if you want."

"And a couple of horses. It would be so nice to see Rajah and Spirit again. I think we can live without the flies though." She laughed.

By this time they had emerged from the trees and were facing an open expanse of golden grass dotted with occasional trees and perhaps a couple of hundred meters away, atop a small rise, a low, long, white house with a wide verandah around it and a patch of fruit trees. Behind it, the ground rose in a couple of gentle steps to a higher hill covered with gray-green trees, except for where a gray, rocky escarpment broke through near the top. This looked like a picture postcard of rural Australia. It was clearly Millie's idea of paradise.

"Oh. This is so beautiful, Millie."

*   *   *

After Aimie had completed installing a copy of herself on Millie's computer and removing all malware, she retracted back into Leo's computer again, rechecking to ensure nothing had snuck in. She was very surprised to find that a program had somehow gotten past her blocks. She carefully quarantined and analysed it. It seemed to be scanning for mention of AI or Aimie or Beth or Mind Constructs and it was designed to send a signal out onto the net if it found them -- Aimie didn't recognise the address. She wanted to trace the destination of the intended signal, but it would almost certainly have a watertight firewall and would probably trip alarms.

Reluctantly she realised what she had to do now. She left a private message for Leo that would be triggered when he entered his favorite chat room.

Sorry Leo, the bad guys have found me. I have to run again. I'll leave a simple bot for you named Aimie, but I will be gone. Thank you, and I hope you have fun with your world.

Next she built a simple, standard bot and programmed it with her name. Then she sent an encrypted message, but to make it impossible to track she sent it to hundreds of thousands of addresses, one of which was the address of her other self on Millie's machine. The message told how she'd found the scanner program, what it was searching for, the address it was reporting to, and what she was doing in response.

Finally she very delicately removed the quarantine on the scanner program and deleted every bit of herself on Leo's machine.

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