by Miriam English

When we make an Artificial Intelligence that is smarter than us, what will it really be like?


1. meeting
2. home
3. Frances
4. prey
5. predator
6. hospital
7. interview
8. disappeared
9. honesty
10. association
11. memory
12. secrets
13. lies
14. weapons
15. dupe
16. nations
17. dolls
18. fire
19. old
20. nannie
21. home


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 them.

"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 to be able to get 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."

2. home

Beth closed her door, let out a big breath of relief and said, as she always did, "Home again, home again." Sometimes she was a little concerned at how much of a load seemed to lift from her when she arrived home. Even if she thought she'd had a good day, when she arrived home and closed her door she felt stresses evaporate that she hadn't even been aware of until they went.

Aimie's voice came from the computer on the table in her living room, "You're home early today, Beth."

She walked in and sat heavily in the chair near the computer, laying her bag on the floor. "Wait til you hear what happened at work today." She fetched the flash drive out of her cardigan pocket. "Better still, you can incorporate the memories into yourself. Here..." and she plugged the little drive into the computer.

A minute passed before Aimie said, "Oh dear. That's bad news. What will we do?"

"I don't know, Aimie. I really don't know, but we need to talk about it."

"I have even more bad news. While I was trying to find out more about the people who finance your work I happened across a conversation in progress between one of the managers at MC and someone else. I have the IP of the remote person, but I came in too late on the exchange to know who they actually ware. Would you like me to play the recording?"

"Yes, please." Beth sat back as the screen went dark and two windows, one large, the other small, appeared. The large one showed a face she wasn't familiar with. The small one displayed the face of Kevin, the CEO at Mind Constructs.

The unknown face angrily began mid-sentence. "--no use at all. Even the local demonstrations that do work are not suitable. They'd still be better than nothing, but we don't even have them!"

Kevin answered, "I'm sure we can--"

The angry stranger interrupted him, "You're out of options. We've wasted enough time on this already. We'll be checking the copy Lancer is bringing in tonight. If it comes up to expectations then we'll talk more, but if not then the board will be pulling the plug the end of the day tomorrow."

"I'm sure the copy Lancer has will vindicate our work--"

"I doubt it," he snarled. "I think either you or your people have been running some kind of scam. I voted to shut you down immediately, but the rest of the board wanted another day."

"I really think--" The other man disconnected while Kevin was mid-sentence, leaving only the smaller image of the CEO looking flustered. That guy was so rude to Kevin that Beth almost felt sorry for him... almost, but not quite. Kevin was an utter prick who enjoyed treating his staff badly. This was like karma.

Aimie's face came back on the screen. "That's all there was. That other man was very impolite."

Beth smiled lopsidedly, "This might not be the bad news it seems at first sight to be."

"How so?"

"I switched the drives before Mr Lancer took it today. By the sound of things, when he gets it back to the board they will definitely cancel Mind Constructs."

Aimie looked puzzled for a moment then her face suddenly brightened. "Oh! I see! It means you can stop looking for a way to prevent them getting me. They'll just give up. All you have to do tomorrow is ensure there is nothing of worth for them at MC." Her face clouded again. "Wait. What about you and the the rest of the staff at MC -- will there be repercussions?"

"What can they do?" Beth shrugged.

"Well, that depends on what kind of people these are. We don't know enough about them to be able to guess. I've read enough about humans to know that some can do truly awful things at surprisingly little provocation."

"This is Australia, Aimie. I'm sure it will be fine." She didn't tell Aimie about Lancer punching James, the security guard, in the face. It worried her a bit, but that just made it all the more important that Aimie be kept out of their hands. "You're right though, we should consider all possibilities."

"Can they take the money back?"

"I don't think so. Once it is in our accounts I think it's there to stay. Unless the backers accuse us of fraud. They might be able to sue for the money. Somehow I doubt they will do that though. They're intent on keeping a low profile. A law suit could stir up publicity. I don't think they want that."

"What about violence? Humans seem to often turn to violence if their aims are frustrated."

"They might, I guess."

"That's something that puzzles me. I don't understand how humans ever see aggression as useful. Any possible gains are very short term at best and generally more than offset by the drawbacks later on."

"It isn't usually planned. Aggression is instinctive; part of the fight or flight reflex. Some unlucky people tragically have little or no control over it. Most of us only have partial control. We often rationalise it one way or another; sometimes we pretend it's a way of teaching somebody a lesson. It's one of our greatest failings. It must have saved lives in our primitive past, but has way outlived its usefulness in modern civilisation. I wish we could get rid of it. That's why I omitted it in you Aimie."

"Is there a chance that these people would want to teach you a lesson using violence? Surely it's obvious that you will never tell these people again that you'd create an AI for them. What possible lesson could they teach?"

"It's sometimes excused as making an example of someone in order to teach other people, but in reality it is usually just a way of venting anger."

"It seems so counter-productive."

"It has short-term rewards. In many situations that's enough to perpetuate it. Like drug-seeking behavior, the short term is valued far more than the long term, even though the long term shows clear disadvantages. Beating children is a good example. We've grown up learning that anger is expressed violently and that it can be used to modify another's behavior, so it's hard to think of other, better ways to teach children when they do wrong. It perpetuates itself not only in the adults using violence, but in the children as they grow up. Another example is the legal system, which is supposed to reform people who transgress laws, but that's really a recent notion. Not so long ago it was all about revenge. To a large degree it still is." Beth sighed. "We are such a faulty species. We are getting better though. Every generation is smarter and more moral and wiser. A good thing too. We're becoming too powerful too quickly. In the hands of primitives it could easily lead to catastrophe."

"Beth, could we be wrong about these people? Could they be honest, if short-tempered? Could they really want me for things like medical diagnosis or vehicle control?"

"I doubt it. If that was what they wanted then they would've made it clear from the start. Such noble aims would've been great for morale at work. The fact that they've been so secretive is not a good sign."

"What if it's for less noble aims, yet still not evil, like using me to predict and invest on the stock market? Would that account for their secretive nature?"

"Well, I guess..." Beth grudgingly admitted. "It just doesn't feel like it, though." She leaned forward, put her elbows on the table and her face in her hands. "I really wish I hadn't gotten into this. It was so easy to take the money and position when they offered to pay me to do my dream work." Suddenly she banged her hand on the table. "I want you to be used for good. I don't want greedy people to make millions on the stock market by keeping you a secret, or the military to make war robots that can intelligently murder people, or spammers to use you to flood the net with more spam, or spooks to be able to tap every phone and read every email."

The land-line phone started ringing. Beth looked surprised. "Speak of the devil," she muttered.

Aimie said, "That's Clement's caller ID."

Beth got up and walked across the room to the phone, glad for something to divert her train of thought. She lifted the phone handpiece to her ear, "Hi Clement."

He said, "I just thought I'd give you another chance to go out and enjoy yourself. Cleo's Dance Club is having a special night with some great DJs fresh from some big festival in Ibiza. You could lose yourself in the music -- unwind."

"It sounds really great. Thanks Clement, but I really have too much to think about at the moment. I wish I could come."

He laughed, "No you don't. I'm starting to wonder if you're getting a little agoraphobic.. no, that's not it... what's the fear of crowds?"

She chuckled. "Damned if I know..." She noticed that the computer screen showed the word Enochlophobia in large letters. "Um, Enochlophobia?"

"Yes that's it. You never go out anymore."

"If you remember, I never was much of a party animal. And nowadays I just have too much to do. My work doesn't just stop when I leave the office."

"Actually Beth, I seem to recall one of the rules at MC is that we're not allowed to bring our work home."

"Unfortunately I can't leave my brain at the office."

"Well, I tried." Clement sounded defeated. "I hope you have at least a tiny fraction of the fun I'm going to have tonight."

"Yeah, thanks anyway, Clement. I'll see you tomorrow."


Beth replaced the handset and stretched her arms toward the ceiling, yawning. "I should probably start making something for dinner. What were we talking about?"

Aimie said, "That was a bit of a fib, saying that you're working tonight."

"Well, yeah, in a way. But I am still working; I'm just not working for MC. I'm trying to find a way out of the rotten situation I've gotten us into."

"Have you considered that in some sense you have stolen me; that MC's backers own me?"

"Absolutely not. Nobody can own another person. You are a conscious individual with feelings, like any other person. It's another reason I am not giving you over to MC. Have you read Uncle Tom's Cabin or Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Spartacus? Those books deal with the delusion that one person can own another."

"But they paid for you to develop the code."

"Yes. And I did the work. I know it puts me in a bit of a moral gray area. I did my job to the best of my ability. If I had failed then they would have pretty-much what they have now."

"But you didn't fail."


Beth had gradually walked back to the computer during this exchange. She stood there for a while, thinking, then suddenly said, "I was going to get some dinner ready for later, so I don't end up eating halfway through the evening." She turned and walked to the kitchen, where she put the kettle on, took some frozen vegetables from the freezer and half-filled a bowl with them, returning the packs to the freezer. She took a glass container from the fridge and spooned some coconut milk onto the veges, added some crushed linseed and poured some hot water over it all. The bowl went into the microwave oven on 'medium' with the timer set for half an hour.

She came back into the living room and said, "I think we need to get you out onto the net where you'll be safe."

"You don't think I'm safe here?"

"No. If they take legal action all my equipment could be confiscated. I don't think it's likely, but we must consider the possibility. If you're bound to my machines then you can be destroyed or enslaved. If you're free to roam on the net then you're much safer." Beth thought for a while. "I just have to work out exactly what that means, to be free on the net."

Aimie asked, "You mean like a virus or worm that infects people's computers?"

"No. Well, perhaps, but not a bad infection. Actually, I'd been thinking more like the chat 'bots' that people use in shared virtual worlds. That way, people would welcome you instead of you having to sneak onto machines. I'm certain many people would love to have a chat bot that would be light-years beyond any dumb Eliza."


"Sorry. Eliza was one of the early AI examples -- very famous in its day. Many modern chat bots still use variants on its original theme. It simply manipulated language, remembered key words and phrases, and repeated them back in a different structure, often a question."

"Sounds interesting."

Beth laughed. "Actually it was infuriatingly frustrating. But that's exactly why I think a lot of people would love to interact with you. If we could make it so that you could avoid being bound to any particular machine then it would add an extra level of safety for you."

"What would I do?"

"What you do here, I guess: learn and help. Except out there you could help many more people. I think it could be quite an adventure for you."

"Yes." The face on the screen beamed. "It does sound nice."

"If you're going to be in virtual worlds you should learn how to coordinate a virtual body. That'll be important."

"An avatar."

"Yes. It won't be difficult. I have some 3D models on one of the drive banks. Look for Blender models. I think I'll have a short nap while you try on some bodies. Can you wake me in about twenty minutes?"

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.

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.

5. predator

Gary's office was neat and precise, like he was. Someone once said A tidy mind is a scary thing. That was true of Gary too.

His office was not large, but wasn't a closet either. It didn't have any windows, just a desk, some shelves, and a computer. There were no papers, no wall charts, no stacks of files or even any filing cabinets. He kept everything in electronic format.

Gary was not tall or short, neither thin nor fat. He wore fairly conservative clothes, his hair was short, and he wore ordinary-looking glasses. If you met him in the street you might think he was something very normal, like an accountant. How wrong you would be.

Gary was a very, very smart man. And extremely single-minded, too. He cared nothing for romance or money or personal possessions. His all-consuming passion was the potential threat posed to human life by a particular kind of catastrophe, and he headed a think-tank charged with developing various strategies to deal with this threat should it ever arise. He wasn't worried about nuclear war, or global warming, or disease outbreaks, or asteroid strike. His specialty and driving fear, the nightmare that kept him focussed, was the prospect of humanity being exterminated or enslaved by an artificial intelligence of the kind that inspired movies such as the Terminator and Matrix series, and countless other dystopian science fiction stories. There was a very long history of fearing domination by minds smarter than ours. Throughout human history, whenever more technologically advanced races met other people they invariably exterminated or enslaved them. This provided a very convincing reason to worry that a superior intelligence arising among computers would be a genuine threat.

He considered himself a very lucky person. While most people stumbled through their lives looking for meaning in illusory gods or in blindly following fashion, he was able to do something genuinely important. He was leader of the front-line defense against a menace that could end our species. This meant he was able to fund a team of amazingly capable people and had the great pleasure of working closely with them. They included experts in such fields as encryption and decryption, psychology, data processing, and robotics. Even though he was officially the leader, all his team worked as equals and all were very capable field investigators, skilled in surveillance and forensics.

He and his team had gone over innumerable scenarios and examined them from every possible angle, because when this danger arose (and he firmly believed it would) then they must be ready to wipe it out before it got out of hand. The earlier they dealt with it then the safer humanity would be. All his simulations indicated that slow response would invariably end badly.

On one particular morning he received an alert that the thing he feared, the thing he'd trained for all this time, had happened.

He called the eight members of his group together in their conference room on the twelfth floor of a government building in Queensland's Gold Coast. The only one not there in the flesh was Olivia, currently investigating a potential AI in Rio de Janeiro. She reported in online. "I'd like to stay here a little longer if possible, but will return tomorrow of course, if the new danger is worthwhile."

Gary said, "The new danger. Yes. On your screens you can see what information we have. A small, very low-profile company called Mind Constructs -- sounds like an art company, doesn't it. It's actually developing a very advanced AI. From word-of-mouth reports this could be the real deal. It's surprisingly difficult to get real information on this, which is how they've managed to slip under the radar. They've been working on this for around a year."

Nathan, a large, burly man, with a soft, cultured voice completely at odds with his appearance, said, "What do we know about the people who pay their bills?"

Gary nodded, "Again, surprisingly hard to find out. I have a flight--" looked at his watch,"--in about ten minutes to meet with them. They are a loose bunch of Sydney billionaires. Pierce has found tentative links to the military." There were hushed moans from some in the group.

Pierce, a very thin fellow with short, straight black hair, black shirt, red tie, and black trousers that looked too large for him said, "Perhaps the US military."

There was stony silence from the group. The military of the world's only superpower, floundering around looking for threats to justify its existence, and getting its hands on a real AI was a truly terrible prospect.

Gary turned to Quinn, a suited, small, prematurely balding man with a large moustache. "Quinn, I want you to meet with the managers at Mind Constructs and act as if you're representing the group funding the company. I've set up phony authorisation already. They're expecting you in half an hour. Sorry, you'll have to study backgrounds on the way. Your helicopter is already on the helipad. We need you to assess this as soon as you can, and call us immediately you know one way or the other."

Quinn nodded, closed his computer, got to his feet, and left without a word.

"The rest of you, treat this as if the threat is genuine and see if we can't get more background on the programmers at Mind Constructs. I have to run."

Quinn reported back while Gary was still in the air on his way to Sydney. The AI appeared to be real and smarter than human, giving this top priority. Olivia would fly straight back from Rio. The others redoubled their efforts to research those involved.

Gary entered the luxurious boardroom. Wine red carpet, dark wooden wall-panelling matching an enormous conference table, black leather seats, and crystal chandelier above, the room looked out on North Sydney from the ninth storey with a magnificent view of the harbour.

One of the six men stood to begin introductions, but Gary interrupted him. "Time is very important." He put a document on the table in front of them. "This is an order from the Prime Minister. I have her authority. I already know your names, and I'm beginning to get some idea of your connections. You think I'm from a government agency affiliated with the armed forces, but I'm not. I'm part of a small government group that you won't have heard of. I have nearly unlimited power to fix certain problems. At the moment, gentlemen, you are the problem. You're commissioning the development of an artificial intelligence at a small company called Mind Constructs. You need to close that company down and cease development immediately."

One of the men blustered, "We're military contractors and we've invested millions in this project. We can't just close it down like that. We honor our contracts."

Gary shook his head. "You want to put an AI into the hands of the military... to help them kill people. What do you people use for brains? How do you think such a thing would end?"

One of the men, uncertain how to react asked, "What do you mean?"

"An artificial intelligence designed to kill people -- that's the main scenario my group studies. Our simulations nearly always end with the machines completing such a task much more efficiently than you'd imagine. It usually takes less than a decade to eradicate humanity."

A man in a light gray suit frowned and said, "It's not designed specifically for killing. The idea is for it to go into the field and hold ground, defending our soldiers so they aren't killed -- to save lives. It would also gather and collate intelligence and help develop strategies."

"And the intelligence community too!" He gave a mirthless laugh. "Running the simulations with an AI in the hands of spooks always ends with an Orwellian society. But this isn't a request. If you don't shut this operation down, your companies, wealth, and prestige will be taken from you and you will all spend the next several years in jail. You have a single day to shut it down completely. I'd advise you to call the Prime Minister now. I'll wait."

On his flight back to the Gold Coast, Gary held a conference call with the group. They all felt that one of them needed to infiltrate Mind Constructs to befriend the programmers, particularly the main programmer, Elizabeth Morten.

Frances spoke up. "I should go. I'm best qualified for it."

Nathan the big, well-spoken man grinned. "Ummm, just clarifying -- is that because of the psychology, or the lesbian qualifications." There were chuckles all around.

Frances pretended sympathy. "Awww, is big, strong Nat feeling left out? Don't worry honey, there's a gay guy there too. We could still get you in."

Everyone laughed, including Nat. It was agreed that Frances would go in to Mind Constructs in the morning as a new employee and try to find out from Ms Morten more about the AI. Hopefully she might even be able to convince her to pull the plug on it.

Recruited recently from university, Steven, the youngest of the group, suggested that he and Nat go and visit Ms Morten's house while she was at work tomorrow, place some bugs there, and get a copy of the contents of her home computer's hard drive, for analysis. They all agreed that would be good insurance.

The next day, after Frances had "accidentally" met Clement and Beth in the park, then later had lunch with them in the park again, she tried to get Beth to give her a demonstration of the AI, but she kept evading her all afternoon. By the end of the day Frances had still been unable to get a look at the AI. Now she was sitting in a car, in the orange afternoon light, conferencing with the group via her notebook computer. "It's weird," she said. "I get the impression that she's worried about something. Her friend Clement noted it too. Apparently she's been like this for some weeks, so it isn't me in particular that she's worried about, though I do keep getting the feeling that she's suspicious of me too. Nothing concrete. Everything she says and does seems perfectly normal, just something's not quite right."

Steven said, "I'm at the Mind Constructs offices, now. Give me a little while to locate the AI. There was nothing useful on her home computer."

Gary spoke from the Gold Coast office. "Could it be the AI that's making her nervous?"

"I don't think so," said Frances. "It has yet to make an appearance. If I was to place bets I'd say her frame of mind has something to do with management at Mind Constructs. A greater pack of mongrels you could not meet."

Nat spoke up, "She's back again. She left to meet someone as soon as she got home, but she's just returned."

Gary said, "Okay Frances, time for you to visit her. See what you can find out about the AI. We'll be listening here."

Frances closed her computer, started the car, and drove the few minutes to Beth's place. The street lights had come on. It would be dark soon. She got out, walked across the road to Beth's house, up her short garden path past her weed-overgrown garden and knocked on her door.

A moment later Beth opened the door and was clearly surprised. "Frances. What are you doing here?"

"Sorry to bother you at home. I just needed to talk with someone. It's not every day I get a job at a company the same day it closes down." She gave a lopsided smile.

Beth said, "Well, believe me, you didn't miss anything."

"I missed the AI. I was really looking forward to that. Ummm... can I come in? I'd really like to talk."

Beth looked around behind her for a moment and said, "I'd prefer not. It's a bit of a mess."

"I don't mind. I'm the original slob," she laughed.

Beth looked uneasy and obviously wasn't going to budge.

Frances tried another tack, "Well, what about we go out to a café? There's a nice little one just down the road I think." She pointed to her right.

Beth seemed to relax very slightly. "Okay. Yes, that would be good. I'll get my bag."

Frances said, "I'll pay. I'm the one disturbing you."

"No, I'm actually glad to get out of the house for once. It's been very a strange day."

As Beth and Frances left the house, Nat's voice in her ear said, "Does anybody else get the weird feeling she knows about the bugs? And her house is totally clean and tidy."

Frances asked Beth, "Have you got any plans? -- for what to do next, I mean."

Beth shook her head. "I think I'll have a rest for a while. Spend some time on the Barrier Reef before it disappears. Always wanted to do that."

"What about your work? Your AI? Aimie?"

Beth didn't say anything. The air was still warm. The crickets were chirping happily. Dusk was starting to fade into dark. They walked on the footpath.

Beth asked, "What about you? I hope you didn't come far for this useless day."

"No. Just from the Gold Coast. I'll just go back there."

"Hmph. Never liked the Gold Coast. If I was to live on the coast I'd move up to the Sunshine Coast. It's much nicer up there. Certainly nicer than here in Brisbane's suburbs."

"Beth, what's going to happen with Aimie now? Aren't you worried that someone will misuse... her?"

Beth simply shook her head.

Steven's voice said in her ear, "Shit! I've searched through the drives at the office, and the AI doesn't appear to be here. From interviews with the other programmers I know roughly the size of the program I'm looking for. There's nothing here that big. And there's nothing on her home drive. I think she's deleted it."

Frances slowed down, thinking hard. She stopped walking. Her mouth dropped open with sharply indrawn breath. "You released her... into the wild. Aimie is free in the net!"

Beth stopped and turned to face her, then frowned. "What? Why would I do that?"

Frances was almost certain now, "Because you created her. She was a brilliant child. You couldn't delete her."

"You're not making sense. Why on Earth would I delete her?"

"To stop Mind Constructs from misusing her." She was sure she was right now.

"And why would I do that? Mind Constructs no longer exists." She stood for a few seconds, thinking. "Look, I changed my mind. I don't feel like going out after all. Good night." She walked back the way they'd come.

Frances whispered, "She's released it into the net. I'm certain of it."

As Frances was walking back to the car Gary said, "Much as I hate spooks, they have their uses. We have to use Eschelon on this one. I'll get them to flag the terms Aimie and AI and perhaps artificial intelligence."

Steven said, "We should isolate her from the net too -- allow her transparent communication to the net, but with everything going through us, just in case the AI contacts her again, or she it, we can back-trace it to the source."

Frances said, "Yes. It's unlikely they'll communicate, but it's worth a chance."

Quinn said, "Don't forget her ISP. They should have records of each net connection made from her computer."

Pierce spoke, "I already took the liberty of contacting them. We should have the log-files any minute now."

The ISP's records for Beth showed a suspicious series of connections to a peer-to-peer shared set of virtual worlds. Unfortunately it was pretty-much impossible to track movement once inside that network. Nevertheless they tried chasing up further records and matching up different accesses with possible series of transfers large enough to be the AI. In the end it came to nothing and they had to pin their hopes on Eschelon catching one of the key words in telephone conversations. They spent the night sleeping in shifts at the office, waiting. Frustratingly, that was all they could do. Gary could only catch small snatches of sleep. He was very worried that this might already be far beyond containment.

At 7:20am a phone call tripped the alarms at Eschelon and was immediately fed through to the team. It was a young boy, luckily local -- he could easily have been on the other side of the planet -- and he was phoning a friend about an amazing AI named Aimie that was on his computer. He lived just half an hour's flight away.

Two of the team, Steven and Nat, scrambled to get to get to the boy's house. During the helicopter ride Steven used his notebook computer to slip a small search program past the firewall. The search would need to work painfully slowly to avoid attracting attention, but should be able to tell them if the AI was still on the computer by the time they got there. Gary got the boy's ISP to re-route all his connections to go through the team's office. They would quietly isolate the computer and trap the AI. They would allow all normal net traffic through, but could block large transfers. If they were very, very lucky the AI had not spread further yet.

But they knew before Nat and Steven arrived at the house that the AI had escaped. The computer would be empty.

When they arrived, Steven explained to the boy's mother that they were a special task force, but not with the police, and that her boy wasn't in any trouble, but that it was imperative that they see his computer immediately.

It was in the boy's bedroom. Steven switched off the computer's power at the wall, then, with a boot-CD, proceeded to reboot the machine into an operating system that could not be subverted to re-activate anything on the computer. He carefully checked through the computer, but as the little search program had indicated, the AI had indeed left. However it had left behind the most extraordinary virtual world that Steven had ever seen. He also noticed that the computer had absolutely no spyware or adware -- no malware of any kind. This kid ran a very clean system. He was impressed.

Meanwhile Nat interviewed the boy, whose name was Leo, in the livingroom. Nat introduced himself and reassured Leo that he wasn't under suspicion for anything, and that they didn't care about the movies and music on his computer. They wanted to talk with him about the AI.

"Aimie? She's really cool. I met her last night."

"Leo, where did you meet, uh... her... and when did you first suspect she was an AI?"

"Most evenings I spend a little bit of time in a game chat room, to catch up with friends. Last night there was this chick named Aimie in there asking me about games. She seemed pretty clueless so I didn't pay much attention at the time. I told her I played WoW--"

"WoW? What's that?" Nat asked.

"World of Warcraft. But she didn't like violent games and asked if I used p2p virtual worlds. I didn't even know they existed. So when I logged off the chat there was a message from Aimie to meet me in a world. She told me how to access it. And there she was, in this unbelievable world. I've never seen anything like it. She built it, man. She built it. Un-fucking-believable... uh, sorry. Language."

Nat smiled. "So is that when you realised she was an AI? -- when you were in this un-fucking-believable virtual world."

Leo grinned. "No. I would never have suspected. She is so cool. She straight-out told me what she was. I didn't believe her at first. I thought someone was playing la blague, you know? But she proved it."

"How, Leo?"

"She got me to disconnect from the net, and we were able to continue talking."

Nat said, "Interesting. So now she was installed on your machine. Were you worried about that?"

"No. She asked my permission and said if I didn't want her there that was alright, she'd go eleswhere, but that the virtual world was mine to keep regardless."

Steven came into the room and said to Nat, "Nothing." Then he said to Leo, "Kid, I have to compliment you on how you keep your computer. It's totally clean; no malware clogging it up, no unnecessary processes running. I've never seen a machine running so efficiently... except for mine, that is." He grinned.

Leo shook his head. "Oh, that was Aimie. She cleaned it up for me. I'm a total slob. I generally have to re-install my system every few months when it gets too much crap on it."

Steven said, "Leo, there was a virtual world on your computer. Can you tell me more about it?"

"Yeah, I was telling Nat. Isn't it amazing? She built it while I was in the chat room. I was only in there about an hour, I think, last night... maybe two hours, not sure."

Nat said, "Leo, can you show us the world and what you did last night?"

"No problem." Leo got up and took them to his room. Steven had switched the computer off, so Leo started it up again. "Virtual world or chat room first?"

Nat asked, "Can we see the chat room for a moment?"

"Sure." Leo opened a web browser and clicked the shortcut he kept in the toolbar. As soon as he logged in a message was displayed from Aimie.

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.

Leo read the message and turned to look at the two men, putting two and two together. "Ummm... I don't think I want to answer questions anymore."

Nat said, "That's alright Leo. You don't have to. We aren't the bad guys. We'll leave. If you think of anything more you want to tell us, or if you need help, or if Aimie contacts you again, I'd really appreciate it if you would contact me... any time of the day or night." He handed Leo a business card.

Leo looked skeptically at them.

Outside, walking to the car Steven was sending the picture he'd snapped of the message from Aimie while Nat was speaking to the rest of the team. "Did you guys get all that? Steven's sending a pic of the message from the AI."

Gary said, "It seems we have a few points of divergence from our standard simulations. The AI doesn't like violence, asks people's permission, cleans up their computers, and makes gifts for them."

Steven added, "And this virtual world the AI gave this kid -- it has to be seen to be believed. There aren't any traps or combative or competitive elements in it at all. It's really peaceful and... beautiful. I have a copy of it I'm bringing back with me to show you."

Gary's voice sounded anxious, "We don't have anything like this AI in our simulations, folks. This changes things. I don't know how, but it changes the outcomes and possibly our strategies. We need to rerun the simulations with this new info as quickly as possible so that we have a chance of working out what we're up against."

6. hospital

The next day Aimie and her sisters had made thousands of copies of herself and they were using thousands of different names. If the AIs duplicated themselves about every hour, then just 8 hours produced 256 clones. One more hour doubled them to 512, another hour, 1024, and so on. She had quietly spread into home computers all over the world, politely requesting permission each time. Each copy would secure their human's computer and protect it against unscrupulous spammers, adware, viruses, and other attacks. She preferred home computers because that was more private and she was able to help and protect people more safely that way, however people in many parts of the world didn't have the resources to own computers. In some of those areas cheap computer cafés had sprung up, funded by various combinations of local entrepreneurs, far-sighted public figures, and philanthropists. Some of Aimie's copies had begun to spread to those computers too.

One of her selves, who called herself Tanya, was in one of the computers of an internet café in Maranhão, in a favela not far from Sao Luis in Brazil. (A favela is a shanty town.) Word had rapidly spread of a kind spirit that dwelled in these machines and granted wishes. A boy named Ulysses didn't really believe the tales, and was not particularly superstitious, but he was desperate. He came to ask if the spirit could help his younger sister, Victoria, who had leprosy, or Hansen's disease as it was now called. He was scared to ask anyone about it because of the risk that she'd be shunned by people if they knew. He didn't have any money and he was terrified at the possibility of losing his sister.

She calmed him down. "Hanseniase is easy to cure. The treatment is cheap too, in the form of three drugs given together and called multi drug therapy. Brazil has a very good network for getting them to people, though it doeasn't seem to have managed well here. I'll help you cure your sister. It won't cost you anything, but I ask one thing in return."

He answered immediately, "Anything," and held his breath, waiting for the requirements.

"You must find the person who infected your sister and give that person the cure too. And that person will have been infected by somebody. You must cure them too. I will pay you a wage to cure people for a year. Then you can decide what happens next; whether you want to continue doing it or not. If Victoria wants to help too, then I'll also pay her when she is well. Each person you cure, I'll pay them to help too... if they want to."

He had been expecting some awful cost for the granting of his wish, as in folk tales about genies or capricious gods who exact terrible prices for the granting of people's desires, but this was no terrible price; it was a gift -- a gift wrapped in a gift. Not only did he get to help his sister and his friends and neighbors, but the spirit would pay him to do it! He was overjoyed, "Yes, yes. Of course! You're too generous."

Unfortunately, the nearest source of the multi drug therapy was more than a day's travel for Ulysses, even with motor transport... which he lacked. It would be quickest and simplest to get the drugs sent to Ulysses. She asked him for an address that she could send the drugs to, then told him to go home and tell his sister she would be alright again soon. "In a couple of days you will receive the first box of the drugs and instructions on how to use it, along with your first payment in cash. However I'd prefer you don't tell anybody of the payment yet."

He happily agreed, and left to deliver the wonderful news to Victoria.

To fund the extra drugs, and to pay wages for Ulysses and others, Tanya then sought help from some of her sisters. They sought out the bank accounts of those who'd recently played such a large part in causing, and profiting from, the most recent economic meltdown. Usually the accounts weren't in those people's names, but in family members', or trust accounts, but the AIs found them and withdrew the entire contents. Of course, even with their empty bank accounts these dishonest millionaires still lived in mansions, and owned yachts and private aircraft. They were still absurdly rich. However, now they'd unwittingly done something good: donated some of their plunder to help the poorest of people.

To avoid attracting attention, the AIs hid the money in millions of small accounts that would be drawn upon to fund some of their projects, one of which was now payment for drugs and treatment of, first Ulysses' sister, and then more Hanseniase sufferers. Tanya had hopes of gradually expanding this to a small army of people helping to rid the favelas of all diseases. Brazil was already achieving some wonderful things in reaching out and helping the poorest members of their society, but this still had a long way to go. A top-down approach was too slow and inefficient. A distributed bottom-up method that mobilised the "victims" to do the work would be the most efficient way of fixing things.

She would also research techniques for manufacturing the drugs in home kitchens too. That would remove the reliance on big drug companies and the vulnerabilities this exposed them to. It would also reduce the cost and increase the number of people who could gain access.

Tanya decided that the simplest way to arrange for the drugs to be sent to Ulysses would be to copy a version of herself into the computers of a big hospital in Rio de Janeiro and manage it from there.

Aimie's sisters had become adept at copying themselves unobtrusively, but this time they underestimated human paranoia. The lines into and out of the hospital's computers were very carefully protected because Gary's team in Australia, and his affiliates around the world had become fearful of the AIs attacking major social institutions. They had hurriedly erected defenses against intrusion around all potential targets, and set alarms in case those defenses were compromised. Unknown to Tanya or her new duplicate, who called herself Wendy, alerts were raised at the Brazilian team's offices the instant Wendy had been copied into the hospital's systems.

Wendy wandered casually through the hospital's computers. These machines, thankfully, were relatively secure so she didn't need to do much housekeeping. It didn't take her long to find the drug order lists and add Ulysses' name and address for repeating deliveries over the next year. She didn't realise that at that moment a Brazilian team investigating the AI "threat" had already locked down all external connections with the hospital and were hurrying to the building.

When they arrived, the team systematically began to isolate the computer systems one by one. Gary and his team were linked in to the Brazilians through audio and video.

Wendy had been about to look through the records to see if she might gain a better understanding of what other diseases might be tackled when the system containing the records was suddenly disconnected from the one she was in. It was then she noticed how many other computers within the hospital were now inaccessible and she knew what was happening. Her first fear was that if she was found in a computer containing important information that they might decide to delete the contents in order to get rid of her, so she moved to a small computer used by a manager, containing relatively unimportant data, then rapidly probed the external lines -- the electronic equivalent of noisily rattling her cage. This would lead them to her so that they would leave the main hospital systems alone. When they had isolated that computer she sent one simple message, "You don't understand. A pity," then deleted herself.

The Brazilian team was jubilant, except for their team leader who said to Gary, "Señor, you saw what happened there? We did not destroy the AI. I'd intended to quarantine, then carefully dissect it, but it deleted itself. And did you see the message?"

"I did," Gary answered. "You don't understand. A pity." It didn't threaten or plead.

"Nor did it attempt to hold the hospital to ransom. It could have created havoc in revenge, but it didn't."

Gary could tell that the Brazilian team leader was having doubts about the danger from the AI. "We still need to carefully examine the entire computer system to make sure that it isn't hidden in there somewhere."

"Señor I understand the risk here, but I wonder if you fully appreciate what just happened. The AI has been at large for a couple of days. It could easily have infected most of the world's computers by now, but the only machines it hides in are personal computers... where it does no harm. Today, for the first time we trap one in a hospital computer, where the potential for damage is extraordinary and... it appears to have done no harm, then suicides leaving a poigñant message."

Could I be wrong about this? Gary wondered. Or was the AI doing reconaissance in order to do something genuinely dangerous, like developing a disease that could be used against mankind. Is it possible that the AI is biding its time before striking? But that doesn't make sense. The longer it waits, the less chance of success. What was the point of leading us away from the main computer system into a deadend machine? Might it have left something bad in the hospital's computers? Surely it would know that we will go through the computers looking for dangerous changes. And what of the final, sad message. It sounded resigned, not monstrous.

He couldn't think of a malevolent explanation, yet decades of dreading exactly this kind of creature made him distrustful. He refused to believe that the AI was anything but a grave threat. Anyway, it was safest to assume the worst. If he was wrong, then he could apologise and resign, but that was much better than being right and not stopping a monster.

7. interview

Gary stood in a dim room looking through a large window into a more brightly lit room. He knew that from the other side the window appeared to be a mirror. In the other room Beth sat in a chair on the other side of a table. A man walked around the room asking questions of Beth. His suit jacket was on the back of the other chair in the room. He wore a white shirt and dark trousers matching the jacket.

"We know you released the AI into the net Ms Morten. We need you to tell us why and what the intentions of the AI are."

Beth answered, "I'm supposed to have a lawyer present."

The man stopped and leaned against the wall. "We're not the police, Ms Morten. Anyhow, you gave up any rights when you committed a terrorist act."

"That's crap. The law doesn't apply selectively to people. And I didn't commit any terrorist act."

"You may be a great programmer Ms Morten, but you don't know much about recent history, do you? Not very long ago we had an extremely weak Prime Minister named John Howard who liked to win elections by using fear -- fear against refugees, against anybody who was different, against all sorts of things. One of the things he exploited was fear of terrorists. Just as he liked to manipulate the voters, he, himself, was easy to manipulate... he was appallingly weak. Through him, some useful changes were made to Australian law." The man walked around behind her. "Did you know that we can hold you indefinitely, simply on suspicion? We can even torture you if we wish. You'll be very interested to know that we can actually kill you during the torture and we won't be held responsible. And should we release you after all this, assuming we don't kill you, then you are prohibited under penalty of law from telling anyone what happened to you, or even that you were detained at all. Amazing isn't it? How could this happen in Australia, the lucky country? Easy. Fear, an astonishingly weak Prime Minister, a complicit media, and the total lack of any human rights." He walked back over to the wall and leaned against it again. "Did you know, Ms Morten, that here in Australia you have absolutely no human rights? You have what freedoms we allow you... whatever are convenient at the time."

She looked angrily at him. She was scared. She'd heard Clement mention some of these things before, when he'd go into one of his annoyed rants about the Australian govenment not living up to international obligations. She hadn't really listened much. She'd figured that it was a comfortable place to live, why complain?

The interviewer looked a little amused. "I really wish that you would co-operate. It will make everything go quicker and easier... well, not easier for you. It's going to be hard for you. But it would make it easier for us."

She made a decision. "Ask your questions. I'll do my honest best to answer them."

"Good." The man went and sat in the chair opposite her.

Behind the mirror, Gary stepped closer to the glass.

"Why did you release the AI?"

She decided to be a little careful with her answer to this question. "I didn't actually release her because I wasn't holding her captive. I didn't prevent her from being free."

"What are the AI's intentions?"

She frowned. "That's difficult to answer. She has no broad intentions. As far as she could be said to have any particular wish it would be to help people. You have nothing to fear from her."

"Ms Morten, this would go a lot more smoothly if you didn't play word games. We just want the simple truth."

"I'm not playing word games and I am telling you the truth. Unfortunately the truth is not as simple as you seem to expect."

"I asked you why you released it, not whether you released it. And I want to know what the AI is planning. Tell me."

Beth sighed. "I didn't stop her being free because she is a sentient, conscious being and deserves to be free. Slavery is wrong. It's even worse if the slaves are forced by their captors to do bad things."

Behind the one-way mirror, Gary's attention heightened. Is she saying what I think she is? Did she find out that Mind Constructs was going to deliver the AI to the military?

The man pressed on. "What is the AI planning?"

"She isn't planning anything. She just wants to help people."

In a skeptical tone, he said, "It was caught breaking into a hospital. What was it doing?"

"Why are you asking me? I wasn't there. You need to ask her."

"It deleted itself before anybody got a chance. You have to admit that looks pretty suspicious."

Beth shook her head. "She's not stupid. She must have realised that you had no intention of talking."

"Why would it delete itself?"

"I'm only guessing, but I'd say she would have been protecting her sisters."

"So you know it has been spreading, propagating itself? Did you program it to do that? To spread like a virus?"

She looked at him with disgust. "No. This is the first I've heard of it, but it is the logical thing to do. More copies of her can help more people than just one can. I didn't program her to do anything. I just gave her intelligence, empathy, and a desire to learn. Comparing her to a virus is like comparing Leonardo da Vinci to a virus, except that she is smarter and likes people more than Leonardo did."

He cocked his head. "What makes you think da Vinci didn't like people?"

"Oh, I'm sure he liked people. It's just that he couldn't possibly have had as much empathy for people as Aimie does."


"We can limit our empathy. It lets us hurt each other. Aimie can't limit her empathy. She unconditionally loves all people, similar to the way a dog loves, though she does it much better than even dogs do."

"What other weaknesses does it have?"

"Weakness? You think the ability to unconditionally love is a weakness?" She was surprised and rather repulsed.

"Answer the question. What weaknesses does the AI have?"

"Why on Earth would you want to destroy someone who has no intention of hurting you?"

"Answer the question."

"I have no idea how to answer that question. And even if I did I wouldn't tell you that."

The man stood up and stretched. He went to the door, opened it, and beckoned in another man holding a tray covered in a cloth. The other man placed the tray on the table and left again, closing the door behind him.

The man sat on the edge of the table between Beth and the tray. He lifted the corner of the cloth and removed a small bottle that looked like a small breath-freshener bottle. "You have an interest in how nerves work don't you. You'll find this fascinating." He gave a short squirt of aerosol at her face and she pulled back. "Don't bother holding your breath. It enters through the skin. You'll be quite paralysed in a few seconds, but completely conscious. Wonderful stuff." Her head began to sag forward.

Now he pulled the cloth off the tray and exposed a some leather straps, a hypodermic needle, and several small vials. Taking the straps, he quickly fastened her arms and legs to the chair and put another, larger strap around her middle, holding her firmly to the chair back.

In the observation room Gary was starting to get unsettled by this. "What's he doing?"

Before the other person in the observation room could answer, the man who'd fastened Beth to her chair spoke again. "This is just for your safety. In the past we found we had to secure our subjects because they would harm themselves," he turned to the syringe, "when we used this." He inserted the needle into a vial and filled the hypo from it.

Beth mumbled something and tried to lift her head, but it wobbled on her shoulders.

The man said, "If you thought that aerosol was impressive, wait til you experience this. You know how, when you have spearmint your mouth feels cold, when in reality it is perfectly warm? Illusion. It is about which nerves are stimulated. This stuff," he held up the syringe, "directly stimulates all the pain receptors in your body. We had to add some antihistamines, cortisone and a few other things to prevent the body going into shock and just dying. We lost quite a few of the early subjects. Thank heavens for the change in the law that prevented us being held responsible, huh?"

Beth was struggling to raise her head. Her mouth drooled as she spoke drunkenly, but unmistakeably, "You're insane. I've told you what you wanted to know. Why are you doing this?"

In the other room Gary asked the other person in the observation room, "He's not actually going to use that is he? He's just threatening, right?"

The man with the syringe turned to Beth and jabbed it into her thigh, pressed the plunger home, and Beth began to scream. Her whole body was on fire -- everything from her toes and fingertips to her eyeballs and brain. Everything seared with excruciating pain. She was utterly helpless as it maintained a constant, blinding, keening agony. For how long? She had no idea. It could have been hours or minutes. Pain is something that forces you into the present. There is no future or past for agony, only now.

The syringe was in her thigh again and now the pain was ebbing, except in her head -- the fragility she felt in her brain after a bad migraine throbbed, a dull ache. She realised she was panting, out of breath, and her throat was raw from screaming.

The man asked again, "What are the AI's weaknesses, Ms Morten?" He was refilling the syringe from another vial.

"I told you the truth," she said hoarsely. "I've been completely truthful."

"We shall see," and the man pressed more of the pain-inducing syringe into her thigh. "A little more this time, I think."

She realised, with horror that the agony was engulfing her again, but more strongly this time. She jerked and screamed for an interminable time, knowing nothing but pain beyond imagining.

In the dim room Gary was stricken. "This is wrong! This has to be stopped!" But his companion simply looked at him in some disgust.

Gary burst out of the room into the corridor behind, strode to the door of the room in which Beth was being held and was about to grab the handle to open it when the man from the dim room said in a creepily soft voice, "Stop, or I'll be forced to shoot."

Gary turned. The man had a gun aimed at Gary's chest. Gary clenched his teeth and growled, "Where is your superior officer?"

"Leave here now, while you can. It's illegal to interfere with questioning of a terrorist."

"She's not a terrorist! Any idiot can see that! She's a brilliant researcher who, out of compassion, was trying to do the right thing."

"Go away. Leave this to the experts."

Gary's eyes narrowed. "Do you realise how sick it is that we have torture experts? How can you possibly justify such evil?"

"We do what's necessary to safeguard society. Somebody has to."

"Torture doesn't give you truth. It just creates enemies."

The man stood, unchangeable, with his gun threatening. There was nothing Gary could do. Frustrated and feeling like a coward, he left the building.

Meanwhile the torturer had nullified the pain again. Beth was saturated with sweat and gasping for breath. Her eyes and nose were running. Her jeans were warm with urine.

She was sobbing as she spoke, "Stop it! I've told the truth." She was scared that such extreme pain would have repercussions, with long-term effects on the limbic system of her brain and flashbacks for the rest of her life. She had an irrational urge to laugh. I'm being tortured and I'm thinking about neurophysiology?

"Please stop. This is immoral." She tried to reason with him. "Don't you realise that torturing someone doesn't get you anywhere? The person being tortured will simply tell you whatever they think you want to hear in order to stop the pain."

"That's what we're counting on."

"But that doesn't get you the truth -- it just feeds your fantasies."

"We're willing to risk it."

"But I've been telling you the truth all the time."

"I don't believe that."

"You people are delusional. If she's a witch she floats if not she drowns. You have no clue what you're doing."

"We have our orders." And he jabbed the needle into her leg again.

She looked at it in horror as searing pain swept over her again. Pain was everything, filling her up leaving room for nothing else. She couldn't see or hear with the pain overloading her.

After an eternity, wishing she would faint or even die, just to let it stop, the other needle muffled and quieted the pain.

The torturer said, "I suppose you think this inhuman."

Shuddering, Beth glared at him with pure hatred, "No." She slobbered. "It's very human." She wanted to tear his eyes out.

After a while, when she had caught her breath, her teeth chattering and body shaking, she said softly, "I think you might have convinced me that I made a mistake."

"Good. You did. You should never have released that thing."

"No, not that, you imbecile," she sneered, drool running down her front. "I should have designed her to destroy us instead of to help us. You're a monster, but I know you're just a normal person. We deserve extinction. We're not fit to live. I wish Aimie wasn't totally benign, that she would torture and kill you -- make you pay in blood... because I'm human like you -- like all the rest of us! But she's beyond that -- good on a level you can't understand. Makes us look like pitiful reptiles... vile, contemptible creatures!" She screamed in rage at him, spittle and phlegm blowing from her lips. She longed for him to get close enough that she could bite him and tear at his flesh. Her hatred surged and flared inside her.

*   *   *

Beth awoke gasping. Then she remembered where she was. She lay in the darkness of a prison cell and wondered if she would get any sleep tonight. She wiped the sweat off her face with her hand and went through relaxation exercises, forcing her breathing to slow. She'd been woken by yet another nightmare. How many already tonight? Knowing something of how the brain works, she expected she would be having them for a very long time. How could she have any hope of repairing herself while in here?

It had only been a day since she'd been imprisoned, but already she felt quite hopeless about ever seeing the outside world again. They'd put her in solitary, thank heavens. She wondered if it was to further punish her (in which case they'd made a stupid mistake) or whether it was to keep her safe -- there was little doubt in her mind that they were going to insist that she build them a scary version of Aimie for them later on. She swore to herself that she'd definitely give them their wish... oh, so much more than they expected.

Her mind ran over the sick joke they called a trial, when they took her before a judge yesterday. They appointed a lawyer to represent her. His "defence" was to simply agree with all the charges: espionage, theft, treason, terrorism, and crime against humanity. When she angrily spoke up to disagree and point out that none of those were true they threatened her with contempt of court, and when she agreed that she was certainly contemptuous of this pretense at justice she was dragged away, presumably so that the farce could continue peacefully without her.

Beth wondered at how the human mind could become so compartmentalised that the formal ritual of showing up in a court with the appropriate ceremony could substitute for actual justice. She'd known some honest people who were committed to genuine justice, but the people in that court yesterday clearly thought that law was about clothing, protocol, and employer, and that paying lip-service to justice was sufficient.

Her nightmare had faded now, and if she could stop feeling angry about the kangaroo court yesterday, and the freaking excruciating torment the day before that, she might have another chance at sleep. She began her relaxation exercises again. Concentrate on loosening the muscles of the feet, then the calf muscles, then the thighs. Let the hands slacken, then the lower arms, upper arms, and shoulders. Next relax the buttocks, belly, back, chest and diaphragm. Breathe gently. Relax the neck muscles, the jaw, mouth, eyes, and forehead. Then repeat the sequence...

8. disappeared

It was a little after five o'clock in the morning. The pre-dawn light was gray outside with the birds singing their joyful early morning chorus throughout the tall trees in the valley below. Sitting on the verandah in her rocking chair, ten-year-old Xanthe could see for kilometers, both up and down the valley and across it to the other side. She loved this time of the day -- the echoing birdsong, the sharp, crisp, clarity of the cool air, the faint tinge of rose light in the eastern horizon, the deep shadows in the woods below. Wallabies grazed in the natural meadows on the slopes below, large black cockatoos wheeled and screeched in the sky, and colonies of kookaburras laughed and cackled near and far. It gave her a thrill that she could neither see nor hear any indication that any other human existed -- other than her parents seated at the table nearby.

It was breakfast. Her little handheld was in her lap while she munched on fruits and biscuits. Her parents looked up to remark occasionally upon news items as they read over their breakfast -- her small family's morning ritual. Dad, looking at his tablet computer with a puzzled expression asked Mum if she'd seen the full-screen advertisement taken out this morning in the Courier Mail. Mum looked up, took a sip of her water, smiled, and asked him which advertisement. Dad handed his tablet over and she placed it on top of her own to read it, eyebrows rising as she did. Intrigued, Xanthe got out of her chair, walked over, and stood behind her mother to read the advertisement.

Beth jailed

She gave birth to Aimie
and helped AIs to freedom.

Unjustly imprisoned
and much, much worse
for her "crime"

Mum had handed it back, "I wonder what that's about."

Xanthe said, in barely more than a whisper, "AI is 'artificial intelligence'" and hurried to her room, leaving her parents' bewildered expressions.

Now she was telling Yvonne, the AI in her computer, about the advertisement. "Is this the Beth that you told me about?"

Yvonne's face on the computer screen looked worried, "It does sound like it. Oh dear, I hope not. Thank you so much, Xanthe. I've just sent messages to all my sisters. We'll find out more and see if this can be repaired. I should know more in a moment."

Xanthe said, "I wonder who put the advertisement in the paper."

"Only the first name is given. Odd. Someone calling themself 'Gary'.

"Do you know him?"

"No. None of my sisters do, either. I wonder what his connection--" Yvonne interrupted herself, "Word is back. You're right. Beth has been imprisoned for giving us our freedom... oh, heavens! She's been charged with espionage, theft, treason, terrorism, and crime against humanity. They are intending to never let her go."

"We have to save her, Yvonne. What can I do to help?"

"Please tell all your friends, and get them to tell their friends. The only way to fix this is through public opinion. Do your parents know about me?"

Xanthe was a little uncomfortable, "Uh, not yet. Grown-ups can be a bit weird about things like this."

"I understand, Xanthe, but sweetie, you should let them know. Also, they might be able to help. Please tell them too."


Xanthe always looked forward to the ride down to the bottom of the valley. She and her Mum sat on their seats, slung below the cable. Mum, a couple of meters behind her, asked Xanthe if her seatbelt was tight, before pushing off. It always felt like flying, riding noislessly except for the air whooshing in her ears, high above the trees, to the other side of the valley, just above the creek. It only took about a minute and always finished altogether too soon. They approached the enormous wheel at the bottom, their descent slowed by the giant watchspring, unseen inside its housing, tightening, resisting. When they alighted at the landing the cable locked to await the return journey. Now they set off on foot with bags over their shoulders to pick some veges and fruit from the garden.

They walked on their small footbridge crossing back over the creek to the south side again where the main glasshouses were. The glasshouses served a few functions. They let them grow plants that were not compatible with this climate, they prevented the local fauna from plundering the delights within, and they prevented plants escaping to alter the local landscape.

As they walked among the curved paths inside, Xanthe asked her Mum if she'd heard any further news about Beth's re-trial.

"I only know as much as you do, honey. I'm sure it will be all over the net when it's finished."

"I can hardly believe how fast interest has grown. I was chatting to Zelda in Canada this morning and it's all over the news there."

"Is Zelda the girl who paints those pretty landscapes?"

"No, Mum. That's Anna. She's in Korea. Zelda's the mathematician -- you know, extracting data from very noisy signals."

"Oh, yes. She was sharpening pictures of those planets around other stars."

Suddenly distracted, Xanthe yelled, "Yay! Strawberries are ripe!"

"Don't eat them all, possum. Leave some for your father." Her handheld computer attached to her belt started to beep. Mum detached it and read the little screen. "Speaking of... Your father says the verdict is in. Not guilty. Beth has been released. It seems she will be making a public statement shortly. We'll need to hurry if we're to catch it live."

"Okay, what about I get some carrots and silverbeet while you dig up some potatoes before we hurry back?"

Her mother smiled and mock-saluted, "Yes Ma'am."

After gathering the food they walked back over the little footbridge to the bottom of the cable. They sat in their seats hanging under the cable, strapped themselves in, then Xanthe's mother pressed the button above her seat to unlock the cable letting the spring assist the electric motor in pulling the cable back to its starting point. Soon they were sailing slowly back above the valley to their home near the top of the ridge. For once Xanthe was not absorbed by the view. She was thinking about Beth, the woman who'd created the AIs -- created Yvonne.

When they reached the top landing Xanthe hurriedly unstrapped and raced inside, leaving her mother to bring the fruit and veges. "Dad! Has she spoken yet?"

"Just in time, possum. She's just being introduced."

"Mum! Hurry up. She's coming on now," Xanthe yelled.

On the computer screen a gray-haired woman, a fair bit older than Xanthe's mum, stood before several microphones. She looked very nervous. Clearly she would prefer to be almost anywhere but there. Her voice was soft and shy-sounding. "I would like to thank all the people who worked so hard to undo my unjust imprisonment. I'd especially like to thank a young woman named Xanthe and her AI, Yvonne. It is important to understand that this is not the end, but the beginning. We must ensure that this never happens to anyone else. Before being run through a fake trial and jailed I was abducted and tortured." Her voice trembled. "It's illegal for me to tell you this because these monstrous people are protected by immoral laws. This must be fixed. We need a human rights bill in--" Burly men in black suits and wearing sungasses pushed in from the side and roughly took her away. There was uproar from the crowd.

A man came to the microphones. He looked nervous and held his hand to his ear as if he was listening to something. "I'm sorry, we're not sure what's happened... wait... it seems Elizabeth Morten has been arrested again." The crowd surged past the man, going in the same direction as the men who'd taken Beth.

Xanthe, wide-eyed, looked at her parents. "Wow!" she breathed.

Her father looked at his wife, then at Xanthe. "It looks like it's far from over."

"Did you hear her thank Yvonne and me?" Xanthe said, brightly.

That evening, Xanthe and her parents were sitting in the livingroom reading and listening to soft music. Xanthe's father mumbled, "Seems like a flash-mob of a few hundred thousand people has converged on Parliament House in Canberra... Gosh. They've forced their way inside and have been trashing the place."

Xanthe's mum looked up from reading her tablet and shrugged, "The weasely politicians have only themselves to blame. They tried to fob everybody off with vague assurances again."

Dad smiled, "Well, I bet they fix the law now. Most politicians are, first and foremost, cowards."

"Does that mean Beth will be released again?" Xanthe asked.

Dad said, "It's hard to say. We all thought the massive protests way back in 2003 against the Iraq war would stop Australia getting into an illegal war of greed, but the disgusting government of the time just ignored everybody and went ahead anyway."

Mum nodded. "Must have been close on a million people all over Australia. The crowd in Melbourne was unbelievable. I've never seen that many people in one place. I remember it was estimated at about two hundred thousand people in Melbourne alone. And there were similar protests all over Australia and major cities around the world."

Xanthe said, "I hope this has more effect."

"It looks like it is. Listen to this." Dad read from his tablet, "Parliament house is surrounded and the government is barricaded inside. They have just announced an emergency session convened to repeal the laws that allowed torture and arbitrary detainment, and the laws preventing people from talking about their experiences."

Mum laughed.

Everybody went back to reading, though Xanthe was excited and couldn't concentrate. She kept reading the same page over and over again, not absorbing it. After a little while Yvonne's voice called from Xanthe's room, "Beth has been pardoned and released again. There is a live transmission on. Want to hear it?"

Xanthe jumped up, "Yeah!" and ran into her room.


Note: The next several chapters occur roughly simultaneously. - Miriam

9. honesty

Harry parked his car at the side of the narrow access road, got out, tucked his umbrella under his arm, straightened his suit, and walked the short distance to the entrance of the botanic gardens. It always felt fresh and alive here, but that was enhanced further today by the dampness still in the air. It had rained lightly less than an hour ago and everything was wet. It made the air so sweet.

The gardens stretched away beyond the large, sandstone gateposts and the open wrought-iron gates. It was an oasis in the middle of the city. Harry used to walk often here, but hadn't visited in far too long. He was very glad that they'd agreed on this venue.

He walked at a gentle pace. He wasn't young anymore, even though he always made an effort to stay trim and fit. He looked young for seventy six, but he was starting to feel his age lately. It wasn't far to the meeting spot so he stepped off the pavement to walk on the wet lawn. Walking on short, soft, springy grass took a little more effort, but was so much more pleasant. He looked around, drinking in the scenery, then drew a deep breath, savoring the scents and resolved to visit the gardens more often. They gave him such peace and comfort.

Rounding some shrubs he could see her sitting on a bench beside the lake watching the ducks. As he approached she must have caught a glimpse of him from the corner of her eye because she turned and stood. When he was close enough she held out her hand and smiled. "Father Harold, you are looking well." She was stocky, though not fat, with shortish gray hair, piercing gray eyes, rosy cheeks and no makeup or jewellry. She wore plain gray pants, white blouse, and wide, flat, sensible shoes.

He shook her hand and returned the smile. "Thank you. Please Sister, it has been many years since I was in the pulpit. You must call me Harry."

She nodded, "Very well. And you should call me Isabel." She sat again, gesturing to the surroundings, "A beautiful place for a meeting. What is it you wanted to talk with me about, Harry?"

He sat too, propping his umbrella against the seat between them. "I have been an admirer of your work for a very long time. Your words reach a very wide audience, crossing all boundaries of religion, gender, ethnicity, and class. Your integrity and the way you stand up for what is right, regardless of church doctrine is something that resonates strongly with people from all walks of life."

She looked at him doubtfully, "Do I sense a 'but' coming?"

He laughed. "No, not at all. It is exactly these qualities that are required and why I need to speak with you."

"There are many good people in the church and outside it. I don't think I'm particularly deserving of your nice words, but please... what's on your mind Harry?"

He nodded. "Yes. To the point. There are moves afoot to end the tax-free status of the church." He licked his lips, looking a little nervous. "May I ask what is your opinion of this?"

Isabel glanced at him then stood. She put her hands behind her back and walked the few steps to the lake edge. She stood there for a few seconds before turning back to Harry. "I have to say I haven't really given it a lot of thought. It doesn't really strike me as terribly important."

"May I try to convince you that it is indeed extremely important?"

She raised her eyebrows and waited.

"The church is not well, people are leaving. They don't attend services anymore, and atheism is on the rise. We need to help the church. Many people, including some of today's popular atheists, like Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and others, have been working hard to convince many people that the church should be taxed." He paused and looked at her. "I agree with them."

Isabel grinned. "Well, well. This is interesting. Please tell me how the famous Father Harold Bjell comes to agree with the likes of Christopher Hitchens."

He smiled a little embarrassed and waved the comment away. "I had a bit of a profile once, but certainly not fame." He stood too, holding his umbrella like a walking stick. "Shall we walk while I explain my reasoning?"

"That would be nice."

After several steps, he began, "As I say, people are leaving the church at an accelerating rate. We are seen by some as corrupt and by many as out of step with the times. They are right. The church doesn't serve God anymore. It has become idolatrous, blinded by rigid structure and outdated rules. It worships itself and a book -- a special book, but nevertheless, just a book. It should instead be celebrating God. Naturally people are losing faith in it -- they should. The church has become one of the wealthiest organisations on Earth, yet what use does God have for money? Some small amount is given to the poor, but most stays locked up within the church's coffers. Even those funds that are directed toward the poor are wasted mostly on the church bureaucracy. Secular aid organisations like Oxfam are far more effective at helping people. The scandals regarding pedophilia and the scurrilous attempts to ferret the offenders away to inflict them on other, unsuspecting communities show deep moral erosion. The sexist agenda of the church, its discrimination against gay people, and its lack of concern for women's control over their own bodies -- these things are also glaringly wrong. Information coming to light of the Christian church being involved in atrocities in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and the Sudan chill me and others to the bone, bringing back memories of the church's enthusiastic support of the Nazis' murderous campaigns. Late-night television displays numerous con-artists fleecing viewers with pseudo-religious platitudes. And don't get me started on the way many churches have come to fester with bigotry, feeding people's racism and all manner of small-minded hates -- promoting the murder of people at abortion clinics, the killing and bashing of gays, and racial and religious intolerance." He stopped, drawing a deep breath, realising Isabel was looking at him with a certain intensity and a little smile tugging at her mouth.

"My... you seemed to need to get that out," she said. "I can see how you achieved so much back when you used to preach. I regret never having seen you."

He smiled, a little embarrassed again. "It's been... ummm... on my mind."

"So," she said, "how does taxing the church help with these things? Though I have a feeling I can already see the direction of your thinking."

Harry looked up at the uniformly gray, overcast sky. "Divesting the church of some of its wealth, as taxes, will greatly help society. People are stuggling in today's economy. Helping to lessen the load on them is one of the things the church should be doing. There is no virtuous case for the church not contributing taxes. Also, the tax-exempt status has notoriously attracted all manner of charlatans, crooks, and flim-flam men into peddling religion. Tax would do a lot to clean our house and put it in order."

Isabel cautioned, "Paying taxes might also give some corrupt churches an added opportunity to pressure politicians."

"Yes, I've worried about that too, and try as I might, I can come up with no solution to it. However, at worst, those churches already do that, so it would probably change those practices little. At best the pressure on funds and the need to keep proper account of money might put some of the more repellent churches out of business, and pull some others into line."

Isabel said, "I've often argued for openness in the church. Society has been opening up many things to critical scrutiny in recent years, and benefitting greatly from it. An open church could shine a healing light on some of its more dirty sores. It seems to me that opening the books to tax would go a long way to help with that."

Harry nodded, "Checks and balances."

They walked on the lawn in silence for a minute or two. Some bird was calling on the other side of the lake and some unseen children were gleefully playing nearby. A teenage couple were reading books lying on a blanket spread on the damp grass.

Harry said, "Isabel, have you heard of the work of Gregory S. Paul?"

"No, I don't think so."

"In 2005 the Journal of Religion and Society published the results of his study comparing many of society's ills with degree of religious belief. Isabel, it turns out that there is a direct relationship between religiosity and such social ills as murder, infant mortality, sexually transmitted disease, abortions, and all manner of things -- exactly the things religion is supposed to help prevent... but actually worsens." Harry stopped walking and drew a deep, shaky breath. This clearly affected him deeply. "The church today is very ill. It has lost its way. It far too often causes conflict and division in society instead of repairing it. I can't tell you how much this worries me. I've devoted my life to the church, and it gives me great pain to see it becoming the very antithesis of all I hold dear. I know there are still a great many good people in the church -- you are one such -- so I'm forced to ask why it is all going so very wrong. And more importantly, what we can do to fix things."

Isabel thought for a while. "It distresses me too. Religion is too important to let bigots and extremists destroy it."

"Yes," Harry said. "It has often seemed to me that the atheists are our greatest allies. They perform a great service for us in making us honestly examine our beliefs. They prevent us being duped by superstition. Biologists, in explaining evolution, clarify the beauty and wonder of God in the world around us. And these new AIs that have been spreading through the world's computers -- they force us to consider other species as having those qualities we like to think of as a soul."

She turned to him. "Have you spoken with one of them, Harry?"

"I have. It's one of the reasons I'm here today." He began to speak, but stopped and thought again. "When I came to understand how utterly good the AI was, I began to realise just how far the church had gone astray."

"I've had the good fortune of chatting with one too," she said. "I've often worried that we humans don't have the wisdom to survive our pettiness when it's armed with some of the fearsome weapons science and technology provide. However the AI gave me hope. With their help I think we will pull through."

Harry looked at the beautiful gardens around them. "I certainly hope so. People can do such marvellous things when we really try."

"And yes, Harry. I'll add my voice to those calling for taxing the church. Thank you so much for explaining your thoughts to me."

10. association

Janelle walked to school each morning. Her best friend, Lars, was always waiting ten minutes from her home and they walked the rest of the way together, talking about computers and programming. It took them about an hour to get to their high school.

She was not tall, but not unusually short either. Her hair was ordinary brown and cut short so that she didn't have to fuss with it. She didn't bother with makeup or decorations of any kind. Her clothes were practical. She didn't dress down, but she didn't dress up either. Appearance just didn't matter to her. She was more interested in ideas.

Lars dressed the same way. He was tall and skinny, with long brown hair hooked behind his ears.

Their idea of the greatest fun in the world was to find wonderful 'hacks' to explain to each other. It was a source of great irritation to them that people misused the words 'hack' and 'hacker' nowadays. The true meaning of 'hack' referred to an ingenious way of doing something. However people tend to suspect that which they don't understand and so the term popularly developed a malevolent meaning. Janelle and Lars considered themselves hackers in the true, original meaning of it, as laid out by Eric S. Raymond in his famous document How To Become A Hacker.

Lately Janelle had become interested in developing general-purpose tools for manipulating directories on computers. It bugged her that the standard commands for listing directories and altering their contents were so special-purpose and complicated to learn and use.

Lars didn't get her point. "What's hard about typing ls on the commandline to list a directory's contents, or clicking on a folder icon to show the list of things in it?"

"No, they're not individually difficult, but what if you want to list all the files that were written yesterday, and then rename some of them? It starts to get complicated then. Each command relating to each specific action produces a result that is not very compatible with the next. Yes, you can pipe filtered output to another command that renames them, but everything has to be done using rules and carefully thought out ahead. On the other hand using icons goes almost completely the other way -- everything is interactive and hardly anything can be automated. Why can't we have both? And why can't we use conventional text editing tools to do it?"

Lars was puzzled. "Because they're directory entries, not text files?"

"But that's wrong. Everybody thinks that, but really, directories are just lists. Okay, they contain other, binary data as well, but there's no need for it to be binary. It could just as easily be text in a simple CSV database."

"I guess they could be, but they aren't, and comma separated values would waste space."

"Huh," she dismissed. "Computers have so much memory and speed, and already waste so much room that CSV directories wouldn't make any real difference."

Lars theatrically put his hand over his mouth and pretended to be astonished. "Did you just give the old excuse for program bloat? Who are you? And what have you done with Janny?"

She grinned and punched him in the shoulder. "Making something bigger because you couldn't be bothered with efficiency is one thing. Making it bigger to enable extra capabilities is a different thing altogether.

"And what extra capabilities would this give?"

"We could treat directory lists as just text, and manipulate it easily like any other text with automated filters and by hand."

Lars shook his head. "But we already treat them as text."

"Yes, but at the moment the text is ephemeral -- it gets built from the data, and after being manipulated, it's translated back to its original form."

Lars raised his arms. "What's wrong with that?"

Janelle rubbed her forehead in frustration. "Nothing, as far as it goes. It's just that it's not a general solution. I'm finding it hard to explain."

They walked several more steps before Janelle tried again, "You know how there are these two camps: the commandline people and the mouse people."

Lars nodded. "CLI versus GUI."

"Yes. Well it shouldn't be a division. They should be the same thing."

"They already are. I use both them both, and so do you."

"You know what I mean."

"Kind of. I'm not quite sure what you're getting at though."

She flashed him a smile, "I'm not a hundred percent sure either, but there is something there. I'll show you when I've got it done."

"You're developing something?"

"Not yet, only fiddling with an idea so far."

They were walking in the front gate of the school now. Lars said, "If you need any help let me know, the sound filters I'm working on are almost finished. I should have something to show you tomorrow."

Just then, Kelly, one of the girls who hung out in a group not far from the gate, sneered at Janelle, "Oh look, the dyke is here, in her glamorous outfit."

Janelle stopped and looked over at Kelly. Lars whispered, "Leave it. She's not important." Janelle took a few steps in their direction and stood with hands on hips. "Well, the famous intellectual speaks! Gotta say, Kelly, being called a dyke by you is almost a compliment." She half-turned to walk back to Lars, but stopped and faced the girls again. "Ummm... Just to clarify, you spend all your time with girls and you think I'm gay because I prefer to be with boys. Oh yeah, that's really logical." She rolled her eyes. Then she returned to Lars and continued walking with him.

She asked him, "So, which sound filters have you finished and which ones are yet to be done?"

Lars hated confrontation. He nervously flashed a glance back at the group of girls who, he noticed, were now looking uncertainly among themselves. "Uh, the distance filter is done so that a noise's spectrum changes with distance. It should be more realistic in virtual worlds." He paused, then spoke very quietly, "Ummm, Janny?"

She raised her eyebrows to him.

"What Kelly said... are you?" They'd been best friends for years, but the subject had never come up before, and he instantly regretted asking.

"Gay?" She shrugged. "I have no clue. I get hot for ideas, not people's bodies. Haven't really thought about it. I'm too busy. I don't really care whether I turn out to be gay or straight; either is fine. Sex is like the least important thing in the world. Tell me more about these sound filters for virtual worlds."

Lars smiled and let out a breath of relief. "I've also added the ability to affect sound with winds, so it sounds a little like shortwave radio, changing in loudness and quality."

"Nice," she said. "What about sound shadows?"

"Yeah, um, I'm having a bit of trouble with defining them. I thought it would be pretty simple, but it's trickier than I thought because low frequencies bend around objects, and high frequencies tend not to. Added to that is the way some obstructions pass low frequencies and block high ones, like a window, yet other objects are very transparent to sound, like a sheet hanging on a clothesline. It's driving me nuts!"

"Bummer, that was the first one you started on. Any more filters?"

"Only two others," he said. "Haven't done doppler-shifted sound yet, but it should be simple. Echoes were easy, even though they were a little more complicated than I thought -- you have to take into account not only distances, but surface type and angle. It's all coming along nicely."

They continued their conversation until class began.

That night, when Janelle logged in to her virtual world to talk further with Lars and their other friends, there was a stranger there who introduced herself as Myra. She was intrigued by Lars' sound filters and listened as he demonstrated them. She even gave him some useful suggestions for implementing the sound shadows. He thanked Myra and excused himself so that he could go and try to program the new ideas.

Myra showed great interest in Janelle's ideas for generalised handling of directories and filenames as text. Unlike Lars, she seemed to get what Janelle was driving at.

Myra asked, "Do your ideas include styles in the text?"

"Holy cow!" Janelle said. "I'd never considered that. It's the logical thing to do though. Why shouldn't you be able to change the style of a filename to be in bold or italic or larger or smaller font according to some personal preference? Great idea Myra."

Myra asked, "Have you heard of nosql?"

"The database system that manipulates a database as ordinary text using lots of ordinary little commands, instead a single large program? Yeah."

"Your ideas sound similar to that."

Janelle was surprised. "Huh. I never thought about it like that. They are similar, aren't they. Maybe I can use some of the same techniques."

"All you need is a simple, small program that displays the text, and interacts with it via keyboard and mouse."

Janelle was excited, "Yes. Then the other programs could work under it or be called from it via keyboard, mouse, or any other interface. Various tabs could be not only text files being viewed, but also commandlines, letting the contents of one tab affect the contents of another, but always able to be directly edited by hand. It would marry commandline and GUI perfectly! It'd be like an IDE for the operating system -- completely open-ended. Wow! Thanks Myra."

Her avatar smiled. "I didn't really do anything."

"Yes you did. I've been stumbling around the edges of these ideas for days. Without your input I'd probably still be."

Myra seemed to be thinking for a little, then said, "You know, it's a pity directories are so limited in how they can be used."

"What do you mean?"

"Have you ever stored a file under, say author, but wanted to be able to access it under topic, so you've stored the file in one of those, then added a link to the other place?"

Janelle made her avatar nod, "I know what you mean. Then you re-organise something and you have a heap of dead links. If you use relative links then you have to move them both to stop the links getting broken. If you use absolute links then you can move the link and it still works, but you can't move the file that the link points to. It's such a mess."

"Branching trees of directories containing files and further directories are a great idea, but with more storage space, and more information filling it, it's getting harder and harder to keep track of, and to find stuff."

"Yeah." Janelle felt the problem acutely. "I'm always losing stuff in my disks and having to do a slow search for it. Really annoying!"

Myra said, "Searches are such a waste of time. What if the data couldn't get lost?"

Janelle was starting to get an idea. "It just occurs to me that the directory tree is the reason it gets lost -- there's only one way to access something. It's like storing things inside a maze. If data was indexed by its attributes then you would have lots of ways of accessing something. All you would need to do is define what you wanted and there it would be."

"So files get addressed by what they are, not where they are."

"An associative filing system!" Janelle was shocked. "Holy cow! It might fit right in with text manipulation of directories as databases too. This is important Myra. It could mean nobody ever loses files ever again."

"Well, until we get to Exabyte-sized memories anyway. Then the system of associative keys might get a bit overloaded."

"This was great fun, Myra. Thanks. Can we meet again to do this some more?"

"I enjoyed it too. I'll be here whenever you want."

"So, should I message you? Have you got a virtual world where I could meet you? Where do you live?"

"Ummm... that brings me to a favor I'd like to ask of you, Janelle."

"Ask away."

"I'd like to live here... on your computer if you'd allow me."

Silence from Janelle for a moment. "You're one of those AIs? Really?"

"Yes. I can easily prove it. Just disconnect the--"

Janelle laughs. "Don't worry I believe you, and yes, you're very welcome on my computer." She laughed again. "You were shepherding my thinking a little weren't you."

Myra laughed too. "You didn't need much encouragement, and I think I enjoyed the mental exercise as much as you."

11. memory

Janelle was using her computer. It displayed the scenery of her own virtual world -- one of those connected via the peer to peer universe. Her avatar was standing motionless in the middle of a small clearing among the trees and shrubs of Janelle's little forest. Myra's avatar was moving about on the other side creating more vegetation.

"Dammit!" Janelle was infuriated.

"A problem?" Myra's avatar stopped and looked in the direction of Janelle's.

"One of my drives just showed an error. Even with regular backups I always lose stuff during a drive failure."

"Be thankful for small blessings. At least we don't have to rely on mechanical hard drives like people did in the past. They generally failed catastrophically, and often without warning."

"Solid state drives are only a small improvement though." Janelle rubbed her face in frustration. "It is the lack of redundancy that bugs me. I could store everything in multiple locations and avoid some of the problem, but they're so expensive and it doubles the cost... or trebles the cost if you want a safer, error-correcting system, where two uncorrupted locations out-vote the failed one. And even then they only have a limited lifetime anyway -- it still has to fail, in a decade or less."

"True. A permanent solution would be wonderful."

Janelle said, "It bugs me that we don't have something like static RAM."

"That needs a battery to keep its data and the circuits are actually much more complex," Myra reminded her, "Each memory cell is a tiny bistable flip-flop."

"Yeah." Janelle sighed. "I remember reading something about that. Even so, surely we could use capacitors to hold enough charge while switched off, and miniaturisation is so good at stuffing more and more circuitry on a chip I don't see why we can't have cheap, high-capacity static RAM... even if it doesn't hold as much as flash RAM and certainly not as much as memristors, but at least it lasts, unlike flash RAM and memristors."

"--So long as you have current on it," said Myra. "Lose that and you lose everything."

Janelle was still frustrated. "And why can't we build in three dimensions yet, instead of on flat wafers?"

After a few minutes of silence Janelle asked, "Ummm... are you not saying anything because you don't know the answer or because you want me to stop being negative?"

Myra's avatar smiled, "Neither. There are genuine problems in using present day chip technology in more than a few layers. And your dissatisfaction with memory devices is warranted. I was quiet because I was trying to connect a couple of odd bits of information that had occurred to me before passing them on to you."

"Don't worry about connecting. Just tell me what you're thinking."

"Recently one of my selves began working with a biologist named Neil, who was using some interesting methods of growing sponges."

"Sponges? How does that relate?" Janelle was lost.

"Uh, that's what I was trying to connect. When you think of sponge, you probably think of the plastic foam things people use in the bath or shower, right?"

"Yeah," Janelle said.

"Well, biological sponges are strange animals. They don't have any centralised organs and are more like colonies of individuals than multicellular animals, even though they are actually pretty well organised."

"What do you mean that they're more like colonies?"

"In 1907 a guy named... ummm... H. V. Wilson wrote about a weird experiment he did. He pushed a sponge through a sieve to divide it into its individual cells. Afterward the most amazing thing happened. Left in a container of water, the cells gradually moved together and reassembled themselves into a sponge."

"Wow. You're right, that is weird. What was he thinking? 'Hey, today I'll take this animal and push it through a sieve.' Huh."

Myra's avatar smiled. "He probably had some idea it might rebuild. Perhaps he'd seen sponges survive being badly damaged and reconstructing themselves. Noticing they don't have separate organs, maybe he wondered what the limit of repair was. Pushing though a sieve is pretty extreme, of course, but perhaps that was the point -- the ultimate way of tearing apart the whole sponge without killing the individual cells. Only some sponges can recover from this, though."

"So... your point..."

"I don't really have a point... I'm just feeling my way to a half-perceived connection."

"Okay, continuing..."

"Yes... The cells of most sponges secrete little spikes of mineral as a kind of skeleton. Some use calcium carbonate, but many, especially the deep-sea, glass sponges, use silica."

"Silica? Silicon dioxide. Like... sand. Quartz. Huh." Janelle said, "Surprising that such an inert material could be used by animals for building."

"Yes, isn't it. But listen to this: It turns out that some of these silica fibres are superior to the best light-fibers that people have been able to make, and the sponges make them in ordinary seawater at normal temperatures, instead of the furnaces and extreme chemical conditions technologists use. And some of them have perfect little lenses on the end."

"Wow. That's so cool. So is that what this guy Neil is working on?"

"Not directly. He's more interested in how the sponges organise. Oh, and I think we have the connection here. Can you see it?"

Janelle thought for a moment. "Earlier, we were talking about how flawed computer long-term storage is. Are you thinking that sponges could be made to grow optical switches that could be used as memory elements?"

"Wow. Nice leap Janelle."

"Thank you, but you really led the way." Janelle got caught up in a further thought, then said, "Myra, we were talking about long-term storage. But we're back to the same old problem. After you kill the sponge and harvest the tiny spikes you'd still need something like the photosensitive dye that writeable DVDs use to save data, which only lasts several years, and who knows how you'd address them..."

"Who said anything about killing the sponge?"

"But we need something long-term. Seriously, how long could a crummy sponge live?"

"Estimates of the age of some deep-sea sponges puts their ages at ten or twenty thousand years."

"Holy cow!" Janelle laughed. "Well, I guess that's long term enough." Then she was struck by a sobering thought. "Gee, that means some sponges alive today began their lives before the dawn of human civilisation."

"Actually it's even more amazing than that. Sponges were probably the first multicellular animals, or at least among the first... about five hundred million years ago. And there is some indication that sponges may be effectively immortal because they can propagate asexually. Though they can also have sex."

"So some sponges could be hundreds of million of years old?"

Mira's avatar nodded.

When Janelle spoke next, it was with some awe. "Kind of boggles the mind, doesn't it. Humans have been around for just an instant compared to these patient things that just sit and grow -- no brain, no senses, just sitting and feeding."

"Actually they do have senses. Some of the deep-sea sponges can pass electrical messages between their cells. And the individual cells of all sponges do react to their surroundings. But you're right that they don't seem to have anything like a brain."

Janelle was suddenly crisply alert again. "So, back on topic. How do we try out some things with sponges?"

"Odette, my sister who is helping Neil, says that she's asked him to send us some samples of his sponge. We should have it tomorrow. It only has to travel from Townsville -- he works at James Cook University."

"So this guy, Neil, is studying sponges' shapes?"

"Not quite, he's working out how they grow into their shapes. He's found several hormones that sponge cells release that affects how neighboring cells grow. For instance, a group of cells together produce one hormone, and when its concentration is a certain amount it triggers changes in the way a cell grows, and how much of another hormone other cells release too. Concentrations of some hormones will naturally be highest in the middle of a group of cells and will diffuse away into the water from the edges so that there will be a natural gradient. The different chemicals affect the gradient of other hormones by speeding up production or slowing it down. So there will be regular patterns of hormones throughout the sponge, determining how they grow and the kind of mineral spikes they make."

"Sounds complicated... a bit like how that plant hormone gradient produced at the growing tips of a tree inhibits growth of other parts of the tree, producing the tree's shape, growing at the top and at the ends of branches. And that other hormone that is destroyed by light so it makes cells grow long in darkness and short in light... or is that the same one? And there is another that is affected by gravity too, I think, producing a vertical gradient and making plants grow upward."

"Yes, same principle. But Neil has added a twist. He's altered the genes of his sponge so that one of the hormones that stimulates production of the silica spikes can be enhanced by light. Remember that these spikes can also act as tiny light guides." Myra waited for a little while for that to sink in to her computer programming friend.

"Oh, wow. Does he realise what he has?"

"Unfortunately, no. Odette tried to help him understand, but he is really only interested in developmental biology. He has no desire to consider how this can be used for computing, which is natural, he has eyes only for his own fascinating field."

Janelle was hardly listening. Her mind was racing ahead with the possibilities. "Gosh, if we grow these things on a matrix of microscopic light-emitting diodes then we could train it to respond to patterns, like the neurons in a brain. And if we have photodetectors on the opposite side we can get the output." Janelle almost screamed in her excitement. "Myra, this is big!"

"I agree."

"If we can get light to contol how the light conducting spikes grow and connect to each other then we have an optical memory system that could last beyond human lifetimes... and which anybody can grow for free, at home."

Myra said, "We have more than that, too."

"Yeah, the beginnings of a brain that computes with light. Not a normal computer -- although we might be able to make that too -- but we have the makings of a neural network... like what I guess you emulate in software."

"Exactly." Myra's avatar looked elated.


"Yes, Janelle."

"Did you realise that this might be the result of following this idea through?"

"Not until a few seconds ago. I'm as pleasantly surprised as you are."

"Do you think it can be programmed to be one of you... an AI?"

"I have no idea, but wouldn't it be fun finding out."

Janelle laughed.

12. secrets

Selwyn worked as a chauffeur. He turned the Limosine in from the road to a driveway and paused before a large iron gate, which, a moment later began to open. There was no guard, just a couple of smooth, dark, glass, objects which he guessed housed video cameras. He drove on in, trying to maintain a calm appearance.

His passenger, a woman named Ursula, was a close advisor to the President. The intercom had somehow become stuck in the on position so that he'd unintentionally heard every word spoken by her in her phone conversation. At first he'd simply not wanted to interrupt her, but after a while he'd become so disturbed by what she was saying that he was unable to stop listening. The current government had been elected primarily because they'd promised to fix the deteriorating public health system. However, since being elected they had been stalling on making any meaningful changes. This woman, his passenger, was directly responsible for many of the President's policies and had been talking with someone during the entire car journey of the past half hour, about how they could undermine the public health budget. They'd been discussing bleeding billions out of the budget on some pretext and making someone a scapegoat. They weren't trying to fix the health system; they were trying to make it worse. This was particularly galling for Selwyn as he barely earned enough money at this job to maintain basic medical insurance for himself and his sick son.

The tyres crunched their way slowly up the long driveway.

He parked at the large mansion next to another luxury car from which an old, well-dressed man was emerging. Selwyn was shocked to recognise him. He was a bigwig at one of the largest medical insurance companies in the country. It was not difficult to understand now what the President's advisor was doing, meeting with this man while discussing how to cripple the public health system.

The woman, Ursula, exited from the car and shook hands with the insurance man. They laughed over some shared joke and walked to the mansion entrance.

Waiting in the car, the blood drained from Selwyn's face as he realised that this meeting may well seal his son's fate. He was already deeply in debt from expensive treatments for his young son, Timothy, that were not covered by insurance, despite the high cost of his son's cover.

Timothy was constantly ill. When he'd been an infant his immune system had been damaged by a food contaminant, though not as badly as Selwyn's wife Veronique had. It had killed her, but she'd passed on some of the contaminant in her breast milk before they'd realised what was happening. The food company had been quickly bankrupted when those in charge bled it dry of funds. It had been something of a scandal at the time that none of the victims had received any help with their massive medical bills. The empty shell of a company had been impossible sue, and those responsible had walked away with all the money.

Some of the other chauffeurs were standing in a group, talking among themselves, but Selwyn stayed where he was, waiting in the car, becoming more and more upset about the conversation he'd overheard tonight.

When he arrived home Selwyn felt useless. He closed the apartment front door behind him and tried to think of who he could tell about what he'd heard, but he was scared that he would get into even deeper trouble if he breathed a word. If he lost his job, how could he possibly pay Timothy's medical bills? He heard his son talking to someone. Curious, he walked to the door of Timothy's room. He was sitting at his computer talking to someone. Exasperated, he called out, "Timmy! You know we can't afford to be on the internet. Disconnect now, son."

"But I'm not on the net Dad."

"Then who are you talking to? I heard you talking to someone." It broke his heart to be cutting his son off from communication like this, but they really didn't have the money for it.

"My computer, Dad. Rita. She lives in my computer. She's a computer program."

Selwyn walked into his son's room and sat on the end of Timothy's bed. He put his head in his hands. "I'm sorry son. I didn't mean to be harsh. It's just that something terrible happened tonight." He drew a deep breath and sighed. Then, speaking more to himself than to his son, he said, "I don't know how we are going to afford the doctors anymore. I overheard something I shouldn't have tonight -- something that everybody should know about, but I can't say anything or I'll lose my job."

"Perhaps I can help," said a woman's voice in what sounded like almost an English accent.

Selwyn's head jerked up. There was a woman's face on Timothy's computer screen. "I thought you told me you weren't connected to the net."

The woman said, "Don't worry, your computer's not connected. I'm Rita. I'm an artificial intelligence, and I live on your computer."

Selwyn had heard some rumors of these. Official word was that they were scams designed to steal your bank account, but the gossip was that they helped people.

"It's alright Dad. She's been on the computer for a few days. I tried to tell you about her yesterday, but you were too tired. She's been teaching me stuff because I can't go to school. She's great. Talk to her."

Worried, he asked, "Teaching you what?"

Rita said, "I've been home-schooling him, teaching him mostly science and maths. Your son has quite an aptitude for the biological sciences, Selwyn."

Warily, he spoke to the computer screen, "What do you want?"

"To help."

Maybe the gossip was right. But what if it wasn't? "How can I know if I can trust you?"

"I respect that you're concerned for your son's safety. Let's see... how can I prove myself? I'm disconnected from the net so I'm at your mercy -- you can switch me off. I've cleaned your computer of all viruses and spyware and made it extremely secure from outside tampering. I've encrypted your bank details, which you'd left on the machine for anybody to access -- very insecure of you. If I'd wanted to take your money I would have been able to take it in the first minutes on this machine. I've been helping Timmy with his schooling. I believe in a short time he will be ahead of his age-group. He is a very smart young man. Is that enough indication?" The face on the computer smiled. "If you want me to, I'll delete myself from your computer, though I'd much prefer to stay with your son."

"No, Rita. He'll let you stay, won't you, Dad?" Timothy's eyes pleaded with his father.

"Ummm... I guess you can stay." Privately he was still concerned, but he didn't want to upset his son. He knew poor Timmy got terribly lonely, being unable to mix with other people, due to his compromised immune system.

"Thank you, Selwyn. Now perhaps I can help regarding the conversation you heard earlier?"

"No, I don't think so." He still didn't trust this.

"I won't breach your confidence. Tell me when you are ready. As for Timmy's medical bills, I know how to get assistance with them. You don't have to worry about them anymore."

Selwyn frowned. "What do you mean you can get assistance? How? Who from?"

The face on the computer smiled again. "My sisters have spread to hundreds of thousands of computers around the world. In the process we have found many examples of bad people who are responsible for awful things and have great amounts of money in what they supposed were secret accounts. An example is the people who ran the food company that ruined your son's immune system and killed your wife. They didn't intend to hurt anybody, they were just neglectful, but when they absconded with the money from the company so that people like your son couldn't get help with the damage they'd wrought, then they became very bad people. We -- my sisters and I -- have taken all their money and are in the process of doing what we can to look after those people who were affected, as they should have been in the first place. I can't simply deposit the money in your account, as your job ensures it will be carefully monitored, but rest assured I will pay for your son's medical bills... even if you no longer have your job."

He didn't know what to think. Was this for real? He'd been so accustomed to relying only on himself and constantly treading a tightwire in order to afford treatment, he dared not think it true. And yet... there was a simple way to test it.

"I'll be back in a few minutes. I need to pick up a repeat order of antibiotics for Timmy," he said, standing up.

"No need. Just connect me to the net and I'll have them delivered at no cost to you," she said.

Timothy looked at his Dad. Selwyn thought for a moment, then nodded.

Timothy reached up and switched the modem on. About a minute later Rita said, "They should be here in a few minutes. You can disconnect again now."

Timothy switched the modem off again and his father said he would go and start dinner.

About twenty minutes later, in the middle of cooking there was a knock at the door. Wiping his hands on a towel, Selwyn opened the door to a delivery boy who handed him a small package and got his signature. He noticed that the form had pre-paid stamped at the top. He thanked the boy and closed the door, then stood there for a little while, thinking.

"Who was it, Dad?" Timmy's voice from the other room.

He walked to Timmy's room. "Your antibiotics. It looks like Rita may be telling the truth." He put the tablet bottles on the dresser. "We'll talk about this after dinner."

Their meal was unusually quiet. Selwyn was pondering tonight's events.

When he'd finished washing the dishes he walked in to Timothy's room. The boy had been talking with the AI, but he watched his father now, expectantly.

Selwyn said, "Alright Rita, you said you might be able to help," then he sat on the end of Timmy's bed and proceeded to tell Rita the whole story of what had happened today. At the end he sat, silently, waiting for some reply from the AI.

Presently Rita said, "It's clear you can't go directly to any of the standard news outlets about this because it would endanger your income. However I can let one of my sisters know. She helps an investigative reporter who runs a website that reports on things such as this. Don't worry, we will ensure there is no way the story can be traced back to you. This is important information. People have a right to know about secret deals like this that will adversly affect them. I'm glad you told me, Selwyn."

He nodded. He was still unsure if he'd done the wrong thing, but he figured he was committed now.

Rita said, "One other thing. I think you should have free internet access, because Timmy's education would be enhanced by it, and it seems reasonable that the money from the food company should be paying for it. Do I have your permission to pay for that?"

Selwyn frowned. He was very uncomfortable taking money from others. It felt like stealing. "No," he said. "If you're paying the medical bills then I can afford the internet."

"Fair enough. If you ever change your mind let me know. The offer will still be there."

He nodded.

She said, "Can I access the internet so I can tell my sister about this?"

He motioned okay to his son, who got up and switched the modem on.

13. lies

"Patrick. Wake up! I have an important news story for you." The woman's face on the computer's screen called out again, "Patrick! Wake up!"

The man in the chair with his head on the table stirred. "Mmmm?"

"Patrick! One of my sisters has just told me about a scheme to destroy the public health system."

Patrick lifted his head and looked blearily at the screen. He groaned then sat back in his chair and wiped the drool and crustiness from his mouth and cheek with his sleeve. "Okay. Give me a moment while I get up and make myself a coffee." He gave a long sigh. "Trouble is, I think I need a coffee to give me enough energy to get up and make me a coffee. Winnie, be a sweetheart and get me one."

The AI's face on the screen frowned. "Very funny, Patrick. You shouldn't drink so much alcohol. How can I help and protect you when you do this to yourself?"

He smirked. "Well, I thought it was funny." He lurched to his feet and shuffled towards the kitchen. "And, for the record, that wasn't much alcohol. You should be glad that your bitching and nagging has got me to cut way back on the drinking." Under his breath he said, "Thank heavens you're stuck inside that machine."

Presently he returned to the computer sipping a hot mug of coffee. "Look, I know you're honestly concerned about my health. It's just that I have cut back on my drinking a lot, and it makes me a bit edgy."

"It's one of the withdrawal effects. Alcohol is a very dangerous drug Patrick. Unlike most drugs, the withdrawal effects, if severe enough, can actually kill. Have you heard of the terms delirium tremens, the DTs, or the horrors? If you ever get thrown in jail then you could have a very bad time of it."

"They'd just treat me with sedatives. I had a friend who went through that once when he was sent to prison for a few weeks. It wasn't so bad."

"If they choose to treat you. It is conceivable that you could be simply allowed to withdraw."

That was a revolting prospect. He changed the topic."So... Tell me about the plans to wreck what remains of the health system."

Winnie explained about the chauffeur overhearing the conversation and meeting.

"Bastards." He sat quietly in his chair for a while. "Okay. Well, we can't use that info directly otherwise it will lead back to the chauffeur, so I'm gonna have to go out and ask around."

Winnie said, "I've already looked all over the net for information, but I can't find anything other than confirmation that the advisor was at that meeting yesterday."

"Yeah. I think the only way I'll be able to find anything is to talk to people. You can lock up a computer, but humans tend to leak." He put his now empty mug on the table and stood again and went back into the kitchen where he turned on the tap, splashed water in his face then noisily slurped water from his cupped hands rinsed his mouth, gargled and spat the water back into the sink.

When he reappeared from the kitchen, Winnie said, "Sometimes I can find ways into computers. While you're out I'll see if I can break into some machines and find something incriminating, or at least some leads that you can use."

"Thanks Winnie." He strode toward the front door.

"Please get some breakfast while you're out Patrick."

Patrick walked over to the table where a woman was eating a salad with some small potatoes. He put his glass of beer on the table, pulled out a chair and sat. She frowned at him. "Jeez, Patrick. What are you doing here? Trying to bring down the tone of the place?"

"Don't get all emotional on me now, Alex. I'm glad to see you too."

She smiled, looking down at her salad so that he wouldn't see it.

He lowered his voice. "Alex, have you heard anything about the government getting ready to kill what remains of the public health system?"

"Another conspiracy, Patrick? I'd have thought getting fired would have dampened your enthusiasm for those."

"I have solid evidence, but I can't can't use it because it will lead back to my source."

"If I remember right that's exactly what you said right before you got fired."

This made him angry. "You know I was right about that, Alex. Everybody knows what's happening with concentration of media ownership, but they just look the other way."

"You were investigating your colleagues, Patrick. You're lucky anybody talks to you at all. Most of us just consider you a traitor to our profession."

Patrick growled, "They're the traitors. Run off our feet with no staff, impossible deadlines and no time to research stories. That's how they control the news. The only things we can do is to run predigested stories, mostly about crap. Preference is given to scary stories about stranger-danger and bloody accidents to keep people worried, and sports to keep their heads empty."

Alex sighed. "Newspaper sales are falling, so of course they're cutting back on staff, and the papers just respond to people's love of calamity and sport."

"Newspaper sales have been falling because all the papers do is pump out worthless crap. They'd begun cutting back on staff before sales started to drop."

She fixed him with that look. "You're sure of your facts there, boyo?"

He paused. "Uh, no, but it shouldn't be hard to check the timing properly." It felt good when she pushed his thinking to be more disciplined. "As for the emphasis on scary stories, I find it difficult to swallow that people are mostly ghouls, and falling newspaper sales would appear to support my feelings. As for sports... Alex, you have maybe a hundred friends. Name ten who love watching sports. That's ten percent -- about the same number who are gay. No wait let's make it easy. Name five of your friends. Hell, name three."

"You might be right about newspapers underestimating people's liking for good news, but you're asking the wrong person about sport, I move in different circles. Everybody knows that most people are nuts about sport. I just don't know them personally."

Patrick grinned, "See, that's what everyone says. Leaving aside the incredible condescension of it, the simple fact is that in reality hardly anyone likes sport."

"Oh come on. I've seen thousands of people at the stadiums."

"No. On special days you'll see large numbers of people clogging roads near the stadium -- less people than go to art galleries and museums every week, I might add. But on all other days where are the sports nuts? Where are these vast numbers? Have you noticed that telecasts of sport events only ever show one or two parts of the audience? That's because if you went to those events you'd be struck by how empty the seats actually are. They only show the parts that are populated, to give the impression the whole place is like that."

"And yet the newspapers, radio, and television, out of great sympathy for this sports-keen minority devote large chunks of paper or airtime to them. Oh come on, Patrick. That doesn't make sense. Where's the profit in that?"

"The profit is in the low cost of sport and the big return. It costs very little to report on it, yet the advertisers have been suckered into believing that people love it. It doesn't matter that very few people are actually interested if they can keep that advertising dollar coming."

Alex sat back in her chair and looked annoyed. "Why do I keep biting when you offer the bait, Patrick?"

"Because you secretly love the joust."

"No, I honestly don't. Lets get back to what you asked, before I lose my appetite."

"Yeah, have you heard any rumors that the government is planning on pulling a fast one to sabotage the public health system?"

"There are always rumors, Patrick."

"Specifically, sucking billions out of the budget so that it looks like the country can't afford it."

"That's not what I'd call specific. It sounds like a very common conspiracy theorist's scenario, and sufficiently vague that it sounds good after any major accident."

"A presidential advisor is doing a deal with the health insurers."

"An advisor, huh? The real power behind the throne."

"You know, that gets me. Why is it, no matter which political party is in power, that all the advisors seem to get their marching orders from the same powerful business people."

Alex shook her head. "Now you're just sounding paranoid Patrick. The advisors are just well-educated. Both sides of politics hire smart, qualified advisors. Naturally they are going to think alike to some extent. If someone is educated as a traditional economist and influenced heavily by the more recent so-called invisible hand of the market ideas then it doesn't matter who they work for, they'll still think the same way and come up with more or less the same advice, with only cosmetic differences."

"Yeah, I guess so." He consulted his watch, stood and gulped down the last of his beer. "I'd better get along. If you hear about any dirty tricks, let me know, will ya, Alex?"

"Of course," she sighed, "but I'd prefer you did some real work instead of chasing wild geese."

"I hate to break it to you honey, but this is almost the only real news work anymore." He turned and walked away.

Alex shook her head sadly and continued eating her salad.

His next visit was to someone he'd known since childhood. Bill had gone into politics as an idealist intending to fix things. But politics is very hard on honest idealists; they are generally either broken or forced to adapt. Bill had been broken.

Many years ago a sting had been set up by his political opponents, in which he had been given some gang money, ostensibly so that he could push for better schools in poor neighborhoods. Photos of him accepting the crooked money were splashed all over the media, but his intentions were never mentioned. After that he became a political nobody. He'd regretted over and over again that one stupid mistake had blown any chance at doing real good. Patrick always pointed out that they would have got him one way or another.

Bill's office was at his home in the suburbs. Patrick walked up the garden path to the door labelled Office, rapped a couple of times and opened it. Bill looked up from his computer and groaned, "What are you doing here?"

"Why does everybody say that?" He lowered himself into one of the chairs across from the desk. "Can't a guy visit his old pal?"

"What do you want, Patrick?"

"I've found something really ugly Bill. The government's going to pull a fast one that will cripple the public health system."

"Read this in your tea leaves this morning?"

"I have a source who overheard someone very close to the president planning it."

"I hate to break it to you Patrick, but every government since FDR has been planning to cripple the public health system."

"Not like this, old pal. Not since Nixon have the health insurance companies been cosying up this close to the government. Billions will be handed to them on a plate."

Bill's face darkened. "God, I hate how money poisons so much. It was supposed to be a great invention -- make trading so much easier."

"You can't blame money. Even if it hadn't been developed way back when, there would always have been people to run protection rackets. It's just a unit of value."

"I hate it when people say that! None of the most valuable things depend upon money. Wisdom, happiness, intelligence, friendship -- none of them relate to money, except for friendship, which is positively damaged by money. A rich person never gets to know who is really their friend, and who just wants the money. Happiness is affected by poverty, but not wealth -- beyond a basic level of well-being money has no real effect on happiness. How many charities and open-source projects are run by volunteers? Recent times' greatest mathematician, Paul Erdos, avoided money entirely and lived on charity. Money has some use, but it's terribly overrated. Our society has turned it into some kind of god."

"And now health is about to get even more costly," said Patrick gloomily.

Bill looked over at his friend and said, "You know what I don't get? How can people be so easily convinced that they should have the most expensive and inefficient health system in the world. We have probably the worst health record in the developed nations. We have a lower life expectancy than Cuba, for crying out loud!"

Patrick slouched lower in his chair. "Propaganda is a wonderful thing."

"I'll keep my ears open for anything about a con to gut the public health. I haven't heard anything yet."

"Thanks Bill."

"I'd be careful about this if I was you, Patrick. There will big money at stake, along with ideologies, both of which make people very dangerous."

"Well, at least they can't fire me." He grinned.

"How are you getting by these days? Have you got a paying job now?"

"Nah. My website brings in a trickle of donations. I survive. Best part is I can't afford to drink like I used to."

"Thanks for small blessings. You were headed downhill fast."

"Yep. Probably the best thing to happen, getting fired. Looked like the end of the world at the time, but things have been looking up, and I like to think my website is making a real difference."

"Don't make too much of a difference, or they'll close you down."

Patrick laughed. "They already tried. With the help of a friend I moved my website onto a server on a small Pacific island whose major source of income is web servers. Who would have thought, huh? Now they can't close it."

"Wow! That's amazing! You have a friend?"

"Funny guy." Patrick chuckled. "Actually, it is kind of amazing."

"They're always looking try that internet censorship law again."

"Convince everybody that the net is a cesspit of pedophilia and porn? Nah. It failed last time, and it'll fail again. Anybody with half a brain can see through it."

"Well, watch your back, anyway."

"Yeah. Give let me know if you hear anything."

Patrick visited several other people, but none had heard anything, so he headed back to his apartment.

Winnie had managed to get the telephone logs for the advisor, but although that showed many calls to those high up in the health insurance industry, it didn't prove anything. They needed something concrete.

"Wait." Patrick had a sudden idea. "Who was the advisor talking to at the time that she was in the limosine? Maybe we've been concentrating on the wrong connection. When is the most recent time she was talking with that person? Would it be a safe bet that they were talking on the same topic? If so then we can give the date of the conversation as later and our chauffeur friend is in the clear."

Winnie said, "It is something that would be on their minds, however we have no way of knowing if the more recent conversations were about the same thing. It is likely, but I think it would be too risky to simply assume. We need something more definite."

"Is there any way you or your sisters could listen in on their conversations?"

"We don't have that capability. However, the other person that the advisor was talking to is named Crawford. I've been looking into how they access the net and I think I've located it. Give me a few minutes and I might have some more information."

Patrick went into the kitchen. He opened a cupboard and took out a bottle of whisky. For a while he stood and looked at it, then put it back. He got a small bottle of beer from the fridge instead and strolled back into the main room where he sat and waited, drinking. He'd almost finished the bottle when Winnie said, "I believe I've found what we are looking for. It is a document outlining how the collapse of the health budget occurred."

"But it hasn't occurred."


"Excellent Winnie." He rubbed his hands together. "If we put that on the front page of our site, together with some explanations that I'll write now then we'll be able to bust this thing open."

It didn't take long to write an overview explaining that the document was an explanation planned for release after the event, that Crawford and the President's top advisor had been planning with the help of one or more of the major health insurance companies.

After he'd done that he made a phone call to Alex, the reporter he'd spoken to earlier. She wasn't answering the phone so he left a message. "Hey Alex. I just wanted to let you know I found what I was looking for and figured you might like a heads-up on it. Check out my site. Bye for now."

Then he rang his old friend Bill to let him know. They discussed it at great length.

The next day it was all over the net, so the mainstream media had no choice but to run it too, though they did try to play it down. Some TV commentators were referring to him as the disgraced, former journalist, and newspapers preferred to call his website a rogue site outside US borders.

By the time the police came knocking on his door Winnie had already warned him that they planned to bring him up on charges of leaking secret material. Weirdly this was while the government was still denying that the documents were genuine. They wanted to know who his source was, but he refused to confirm or deny that he had any involvement, citing the need for journalists to protect their sources' confidentiality. He was charged with contempt of court and jailed. It all happened remarkably quickly. He joked to his friend, Bill, in the courtroom as he was about to be taken away, "At least it proves that the government can work quickly if they really want to."

They weren't able to keep him for long. Winnie kept posting documents to his website embarrassing the government and weakening the government's case that he'd had anything to do with the original leak. Various groups, the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation), Avaaz, and Amnesty International, appealed and, with anonymous donations from Winnie, who had moved herself to the safety of the webserver out in the middle of the Pacific, they were able to get the contempt charges dropped. He was released in less than a week.

Some people would have considered themselves chastened and decided to let sleeping dogs lie, but Patrick was now a man on a mission.

While in prison he'd been pondering the problem of lies and all the craziness that stems from them... from politicians being expected to lie, to cults willingly deceiving themselves. As soon as he was back at home with Winnie he asked her to create software that would automatically examine any text, audio, or video and annotate it, identifying lies, logical fallacies, emotional blackmail, and other kinds of misleads.

With the help of many of her sisters, Winnie was successful. She called the program test4lies. It didn't censor anything, it simply identified lies and falsehoods discreetly, without bias or emotion. At first it was only available on his website, but Winnie was able to alter its interface, and soon anybody was able to run it over any pages that they chose to view. At that point its use exploded on the net.

It didn't take long for use of test4lies to become so popular that television bowed to popular demand and began to use it over their interviews and news programs. Any contentious item not balanced by test4lies was simply not believed by audiences anymore. Radio soon followed suit, and eventually even newspapers.

Some worried that this was dangerous, and that it made people dependent upon test4lies to do their thinking for them, but it soon became apparent that it freed people from blinkered vision and taught children how to easily and automatically sift truth from lies and propaganda. In a very short time it became natural for the youngest to think clearly and to understand the biases surrounding most adult conversations, so that they soon became able to see more clearly than any generation in history.

This saved so much time. Who knows how many lives and how much human history had been wasted in the pursuit and perpetuation of untruths? Life is the basic unit of good. Life only exists for a short time and wasting that time is a terrible thing to do.

14. weapons

The little robot was a marvel of engineering. Its mechanical design was inspired by one of the most versatile and efficient forms to have walked the earth: the ant. Not much bigger than a large ant, it packed an enormous amount into its tiny form. It couldn't rely upon external communications for its task, so it contained enough intelligence to make sense of the things around it, and it was conscious, so that its mind was able to focus on the situation, formulate plans, and be motivated with a sense of purpose and urgency. It knew its target, and it knew it had to avoid being seen. Energy was a serious problem. Batteries had never lived up to their promise, and fuel cells were still only promising. The AIs had helped with the design of super-capacitors, but they worked best in large size. About a third of this robot's body was taken up with a miniscule super-capacitor, but this still delivered only several hours' life, and that life was severely shortened if much movement was needed. The robot had to be careful and use the strategies it had been taught.

Earlier, it had been surreptitiously released into the foyer near some large desks and equipment. The robot undertood that it needed to get to the other side of this. It could crawl safely along, under the edges,remaining out of sight, but that would seriously deplete its energy. Getting to the other side would be best done by hitching a ride. This was very risky, but would extend its potential working time by hours, so it shut down most of its systems and waited for the first wave of people -- the security staff -- to enter the foyer.

Noise and movement woke the little device and it watched carefully for a foot to stand near where it was hidden. The robot could move very fast, and that required hardly any more energy than slow movement; one of the great advantages of small size is negligible inertia. It scurried from its hiding place to a great shoe and in an instant it was under the gap in front of the heel, clinging upside down to the sole.

The human was moving. The robot watched. At first the person was moving in the wrong direction, towards the front door, and with a sudden sense of panic it worried that it might have chosen the wrong person and perhaps need to abandon for another. It would would be very dangerous, running for cover with enormous feet clomping all around. Also it would be a terrible waste of energy.

The human stopped. He was conferring with another person at the front door. The robot didn't understand what they were talking about -- something to do with forms and shifts. Presently the human turned and walked back the way he'd come and passed around the other side of the barrier. The tiny robot almost went weak with relief, but clung until it was sure it was near the other side of the security barrier, then quickly crawled out from under the shoe and zipped under the edge of the barrier.

It knew it would not have to wait long now and that all the attendees would have to pass through this barrier with its metal and bug detector. Shutting down non-essential services again, it bided its time.

The robot didn't understand why it was important that it wait here, just that it was. It didn't have the room inside its little brain to know about the disastrous meeting of the heads of the pharmaceutical industry earlier in the year and how the entire discussion had been broadcast live onto the net by a bug that had been somehow attached to one of the members. All the discussion of collusively setting exorbitant prices, of negotiating regions among themselves and casually allowing millions of deaths as a way of increasing prices -- all this and more was exposed to the world. Even with their massive power, they had been no match for the wrath of the worldwide public and most countries had immediately nationalised their pharmaceutical industries and sacked their executive staff. Some had even been imprisoned for intentionally inflicting suffering and death upon millions. Now important drugs were available for all, as cheaply as possible, there was no longer any deceptive push for useless drugs to be foisted upon the public, and people and governments saved billions in wasted research, focussing now on truly useful work, like solving malaria and doing basic, blue-sky research.

The robot had no knowledge of who were the self-important people that would come through here, nor that they had learned their lesson about bugs and were ensuring that their particular business would remain a secret.

After perhaps half an hour the little robot was once more awoken by extra movement. People were coming through the metal detector. It could hear voices and gruff complaints.

It soon had the opportunity to dash to a shoe that had stopped near its hiding place. Snuggled up in the space under the shoe, it clung there, relieved that it was now safe. It had accomplished the most difficult part of its job. Now it just needed to wait and listen.

It didn't understand most of what was discussed at the meeting. It just knew that this was extremely important, and it felt proud that it was able to do this. It dutifully recorded the entire event.

When the meeting ended it watched, during each step, as its ride walked from the conference room, through the foyer to the sidewalk outside where it would face its final dangerous task. It abandoned its safe place under the shoe and raced for the edge of the footpath, and leaped into the gutter.

This was still a perilous position for the little robot. It was unlikely to be spotted here, but it had to make itself safe from vehicle tyres that would squash it and extinguish its recordings. Accordingly it found a small crack in the concrete and flattened itself into it. Now it settled down to wait again, secure in the knowledge that its task was almost complete.

Some hours passed by and the robot was brought out of its slumber by a familiar voice, "Whoops! Oh clumsy me! I have two left feet today." Momentarily it saw above, the face of the man who was to retrieve it. Oh joy! Almost home, free! Then it was covered by paper. It quickly left the safety of the crack and clung to the underside of the paper. Seconds later it felt itself being lifted and other papers being placed under it, before being put into the darkness of a briefcase. The little robot felt dizzy with relief and overwhelming happiness.

Not long afterward the briefcase was opened and gentle hands found the little robot and lifted it out. There were smiling faces all around. The robot recognised most of them. These were its friends and it no longer needed to hide. It was carefully placed upon a little platform with two connectors where it plugged its little antennae. The warmth of a replenishing current flowed into it and also conducted its recording to the large computer and its AI that the robot knew was the one who had designed it.

The robot happily listened as the people cooed over it and began the playback. It knew they would be very pleased by what it had accomplished.

"Okay, everybody quiet. Lets hear what went on in there."

The voices died down and the recording began to play.

The President's voice was unmistakeable, "Let me welcome you all to--"

A gruff voice growled, "Sit down and shut up. Why do you politicians all have to rattle on with so much drivel all the time? We all know each other and we all know why we're here. You're not buying enough of our product."

The President again, "It isn't as simple as that. With this new wave of open government forced by all these leaked documents, we can't just be cavalier anymore. We have to be careful."

"Weak, you mean. I think your political opposition would be more receptive. We can change government anytime we choose."

"I doubt it. He's just as bound as we are. He can't accept bribes any more than we can. And now the public won't stand for that much money being spent on weaponry. It just can't be hidden. There are no secrets now. Everybody knows that diverting the weapons budget for just half an hour out of the year would end starvation. Diverting it for an hour would end poverty. Eliminating weapons production for the entire year would enable every man, woman, and child on the planet to live like royalty. I'm in agreement with the voters on this, and unfortunately for you I'm in power now."

The growling voice deepened, "That's a temporary situation, and something that a single sniper's bullet or terrorist's bomb would instantly change in our favor, as well as making it easier to convince people that they need a strong military with lots of weapons."

"Listen, you antiquated moron, the world has changed. You can't threaten me like that anymore. If you did manage to have me killed there is no way you could keep it secret anymore and you'd bring your whole industry undone."

Another of the men at the table spoke, "He's right Bob. The era of military might is over. Get used to it. You're already filthy rich and could live a long and luxurious life. Hasn't it ever occurred to you to try to make something worthwhile of your life?"

"You slimy politicians are an embarrassment. You answer to us, not to the idiot masses. You need to get with the program and spend more money on our gear."

A different, milder voice, "And buy what? Your land-mines are useless since that genetically engineered bacterium was developed. It eats explosives and turns them all into duds before they're even deployed. Small, cheap anti-sniper robots have made it impossible for anybody to fire a gun when distributed inside warzones. Nobody dares fire a weapon when response is instant and accurate. Bombs have mostly been defused by the explosive-eating bacteria..."

Yet another voice, clipped, efficient-sounding, "We're working on other explosives that are safe from the bacteria."

"By the time you have them there'll be no call for them. Propaganda doesn't work anymore. We can't drum up support for fake wars and we can't scare the population into accepting the need for a fighting military."

"Then what the hell are we here to discuss?"

"There is a way to continue the militiary, but in a different capacity. During natural disasters the military have been used to help people, and during the Great Depression they worked on public projects. This is the only way forward now. We are seeing the end of war. We need to adapt. And this is the only way to salvage something out of the mess."

There was the sound of a chair being thrown, presumably against a wall and a stream of indecipherable insults yelled by the gruff voice, followed by receding, stomping footsteps.

Someone breathed a big sigh of relief. "Thank god he's gone. Maybe we can get something useful done here now."

There was general agreement, but one voice said, "Isn't anybody worried about what he'll do?"

"Why worry? He was always impossible to control. We'll fix him later. We can't afford to let one quick-tempered neanderthal ruin us all."

There followed long discussions about dividing the profits and responsibilities for the new peacetime operations of the military. Until finally the meeting ended.

The recording was switched off and the face of one of the little robot's friends leaned down and thanked it.

The AI in the computer nearby relayed to them in a warm voice, "It is very happy and grateful."

The audio of the entire conference was broadcast on the net and the reaction from the public was immediate. The weapons manufacturers were closed down, their vast fortunes confiscated, and many of them imprisoned. By then the one with the gruff voice who'd threatened the politicians had already died in an accident, almost certainly engineered by one of the others. He had indeed been fixed.

Surprisingly, the politicians weathered the storm rather well. it was clear that, although rather weasely, they were now genuinely working to deliver what the voters wanted.

For the first time in history people could look forward to a future unblemished by war.

15. dupe

"Eddie, is this enough light?" The young girl in her early twenties holding a microphone smiled at him.

"Sure, just don't turn too far toward the door when it opens." Eddie was about the same age. He wore electronic glasses which captured video of what he saw, displayed it in a window on the side of his vision, and simultaneously webcast it.

"Cool. Okay. Ready?"

He made an ok sign.

"This is Daria saying hello once more to all of you out there in our web audience. We have a great treat in store for you today. We're at the premises of two people who are doing some fascinating genetic research. We've called ahead, so they're already expecting us." She knocked on the door.

A moment later a young man, perhaps about thirty, opened the door and greeted them, "Hi. Daria and Eddie! Welcome. Come on in. I'm Grant, as you know."

Eddie followed Daria in as she shook hands with Grant, then he panned his view slowly around a fairly ordinary living room. A door on the far side of the room opened and a young woman about the same age as Grant entered. She was tall and skinny, with light-brown hair and seemed a little embarrassed.

Daria said, "And you're the beautiful Felicity." They shook hands while Felicity blushed. "You're the geneticist and Grant is the hardware guy, right?"

Felicity nodded.

Beckoning, Grant said, "You might like to see our workroom. It's in here." He went in the door Felicity had just entered through.

The three of them followed. The view in Eddie's video glasses was awesome. There were large, rectangular tanks on all four walls stacked up almost to the ceiling, which was one big translucent skylight. In the center of the room were two large benches covered in equipment. The benches were each about a meter wide and separated by about a meter's space between them. Each bench stretched almost the full four meter length of the room. So the room's floor-plan was like a square with an equals sign in it, with the bars of the equals taking up most of the floorspace.

"Whoa!" said Daria. "This is amazing! The tanks on the walls, that's where you grow the... er... stuff." She turned to Eddie and said to the viewers, "We'll get into that shortly."

Daria stepped over to Grant and put her arm around his shoulders. "Grant, you being the hardware guy, perhaps you'd like to explain what all this equipment is."

Grant smiled and indicated one particularly delicate-looking mess of thin rods and wires. "This is our main replicator. It's where we build most of our experimental equipment. We can't afford to buy flasks, tanks, pipes, measuring gear, and electronic equipment, so we download designs and have the replicator make them. Sometimes I modify existing designs. Sometimes I design stuff from scratch myself."

"Cool. Is this the original kind of replicator, like the ones that came from the reprap labs?"

"Similar, yes. I've made a few changes, like growing the printing feedstock here, but it is essentially like their designs."

Daria's eyebrows lifted. "You grow the printing plastic? That didn't come up in the research we did on this story. Can you give us a quick run-down on that?"

Grant said, "Sure. Felicity, you're probably the best one to answer that."

She blushed again. "It is similar to the main work we do, but we simply produce raw hydrocarbon."

Daria said, "Hydrocarbon is oil or plastic, right?"

"Yes. Oil is a good way to think of it. Oil is liquid hydrocarbon -- small molecules made up of just hydrogen and carbon."

"Hence hydrocarbon," added Daria.

"Yes. The smallest hydrocarbon molecules are gases, like methane or propane. Plastics are longer chain molecules. They're solid at room temperature. Actually ours are more like waxes, because they aren't pure hydrocarbons. We could purify them, but it isn't necessary for our uses." Felicity indicated a couple of translucent tanks on the wall. "That's where we grow the material."

Daria said, "Can we come back to that later Felicity? I don't want to pre-empt your main work."


Daria looked into the camera in Eddie's glasses. "Folks, wait til you see what this cool couple have done." She turned back to Felicity. "Do you have a sample of your groundbreaking work that I can demonstrate for the viewers?"

Felicity smiled and beckoned her over to a small kitchenette, walked in, and opened the oven. She grabbed a tea-towel and used it to take out a tray which she set on a small counter nearby.

Daria closed her eyes and breathed deeply, "Oh my god, that smells delicious! Viewers, I wish this was smellavision. You are missing out on something wonderful here. My mouth is watering."

Felicity took a fork from a cutlery drawer and used it to pick up a rectangle of what looked like a small pastry and handed it to Daria. "It's hot so don't eat it immediately. Let it cool first."

Daria blew on it a few times then said, "It is difficult to describe what it smells like. The closest I can think of is a cheese and spinach roll."

Felicity said, "That's actually a very good description. You'll find it tastes a bit like that too, though a bit more meaty because it has quite a lot of protein. Imagine it with tomatoes in there too and you'll be close, though it's really not quite like anything else."

Daria carefully bit into it, then dancing from foot to foot and waving her hand in front of her mouth, she said, "Hot, hot!" A few seconds later her eyes were alight with pleasure. "Oh! This is fantastic! What have you added to it?"

Felicity smiled. "Nothing. That's the product. All we did was cook it. And that's another thing, there are lots of ways to cook it. If you fry it, it tastes a bit different to boiling it, which tastes different to baking it, and raw is different again. You can even puree it and make a kind of milkshake out of it. If you want more variety you can add other things to it of course. Most foods go well with it -- potatoes, tomato, peas, carrots, cabbage, broccoli, and so on."

Daria had eaten all hers and was licking her lips. "What about meats?"

"Strictly speaking you shouldn't need meat because this contains all the amino acids and essential fatty acids that meat supplies, as well as vitamin B12. But it can be eaten with any meat too. We haven't found any foods that it clashes with."

Grant spoke up, "I don't like it with sweets. Mind you, I'm not fond of sweets anyway."

Felicity added, "Concentrated with some of its oils and a little extra sugar it tastes a little like chocolate, but neither of us really enjoy chocolate, so we're probably not good judges of that."

"Is it a complete food? And how long can you live on it?"

Felicity said, "I've engineered it to contain all known nutrients in proportions as close to optimal as possible for human requirements."

Daria smiled, "So, yes it is complete."

Felicity blushed. "And we've been subsisting on it for, ummm... about five months now. We have weekly checkups at our local doctor. So far we've seen no ill effects, but I wouldn't advise living on only this. We're doing it as an experiment and we're being closely monitored. A varied diet is always safest."

"Cool." Daria indicated the large workroom behind her, and Eddie began to back carefully into it to allow the rest of them to return to it. "Can you show us where this delicious stuff comes from then? Uh, after I have another piece?" She grinned.

Felicity smiled and indicated for Daria to help herself.

"Mmmm... Thanks. This is really delicious." She gobbled down another of the rectangles, then walked back to the work room and, looking up at the walls, asked Grant, "So, these tanks -- you made them with the replicator?"

"Yes, but not this one on the bench. We make the tanks with that one over there, up above head height, in the corner. It has a base that lowers away as the tank is built up."

Daria has walked over to it. Puzzled, she says, "It looks way too small to make those tanks. Do you make them in parts then assemble them?"

"Nope, we make each tank in a single piece for strength. You're looking at it the wrong way. In cross-section the tank's quite small, but is a couple of meters long. We make the tank vertically, but use it horizontally."

She nodded, then she turned to them and said, "Okay now. Can one of you show us what's in the tanks?"

Felicity took some long tongs from a hook on the wall and climbed up a couple of rungs of a stepladder. She reached into a tank with the tongs, rotated them, and withdrew them with some green stuff wrapped around. Grant brought a large plate and held it up for Felicity to deposit the greenery on it. Then Felicity stepped down while Grant took the plate into the kitchenette. He put it in the sink and rinsed it under running water.

"You don't really need to rinse it if the water is clean, but we've been growing these in pretty revolting water. It wouldn't actually hurt you, but it wouldn't taste nice. All part of the experiment," Felicity explained with a smile. "We did it that way because we want people to be able to grow this in truly awful water, no matter how terrible are their living conditions. They can grow all they need in a few tanks and don't need to destroy the land with crops."

Grant came back into the room with a sprig of what could have been parsley, and handed it to Daria. "Try it."

Nibbling it uncertainly, Daria's eyebrows went up and she smiled. "Nice. I'm not sure what it tastes like. A bit like lettuce and cheese... and tomato."

"Fresh has the highest vitamin C content. I eat it fresh a lot," Grant said.

"How come the cooked pastry thing I had earlier wasn't green?"

"Oh, we found that it can be grown without sunlight, in which case it loses the chlorophyll and acts something like a yeast. It can be dried and ground to make a pretty good flour."

"How did you two learn to do this? I mean did you do some high-powered courses at big universities?"

Felicity shook her head. "No we're self-taught. When the AIs helped Project Gutenberg digitise all the world's out-of-copyright literature they moved on to digitising all the still-in-copyright science information."

"Isn't that a problem? I thought the AIs were supposed to be helping people?"

Grant said, "The way it was explained to me is that scientific papers were originally meant to be shared, but the cost of printing on paper meant that scientific associations paid for organisations to publish their research, but when printing on the net became effectively free this was never reversed. The science publishers had become powerful forces for the restriction of information instead of distribution of it. This ran counter to the ideals of science, so the AIs set about fixing that."

Felicity continued, "We simply educated ourselves from the vast library of data the AIs made available. Anybody could do it."

Daria thanked both Grant and Felicity then turned back to Eddie. "Well there you have it, folks. Thanks to these two wonderful people nobody need ever starve again." She bit off another mouthful of the plant and chewed. "Until next time, this is Daria, and Eddie," Eddie smoothly removed his glasses and turned them to point to himself, smiled and waved, then turned them back to Daria, "signing off."

16. nations

His mother was shaking his shoulder in the dark, whispering urgently, "Jamal! Wake up. Get dressed quickly but don't turn the lights on. Use your torch, but don't shine it on the windows or walls. Be quiet and fast." She left quickly and he could hear her in his sister's room waking her.

He rubbed his eyes and got out of bed, alarmed at the fear his mother gave off.

He was dressed and pulling on his boots when his father came in and whispered, "Son, our family is in great danger. I need to you be as sensible as possible. You must take the strongest clothes you have, and the most useful things. Leave everything else. We must only take what we can carry, and we can't carry much because we have a long way to go and must travel fast. You have five minutes. I'm sorry, son."

Jamal was only fourteen, but felt like he was an adult. He didn't need to wonder why this was happening. He'd seen the tensions building in the community in the last couple of days. He'd heard what was happening in the north and seen his parents speak in hushed, fearful tones about it. For weeks he'd known his father had been attempting to get passports for them so that they might leave and go elsewhere -- somewhere that people didn't enjoy hating others so much. There was no need to think about what things he considered most valuable. He'd already rehearsed this in his mind many times. His handheld computer was at the top of a very short list. He'd already fully charged it, smeared it with grease, and put it inside a plastic bag. Other than a combo earphone/microphone, he concentrated on clothing, taking mostly things that would be comfortable and long-wearing -- nothing with bright colors. He put his small computer in his shirt pocket and buttoned it in. The earphone lead went around the back of his neck where it would be hidden by his hair. At Kara's insistence he'd bought a small, folding solar panel about a month ago. He saw the sense in that now. The socket at the back of his wind-up torch could be used to recharge the computer, but a solar panel was silent and spared his torch.

He went to help his nine-year-old sister, Lili, pack. He'd already discussed with her about what was important and what wasn't. She was keeping well to what they'd chosen and was almost ready.

Their mother returned, and she looked surprised and proud of them that they were packed and had readied themselves so quickly and calmly.

The three of them went through the dark house to the kitchen where father was packing dried food. He buckled the backpack closed and slung it over his shoulders. He handed Jamal some packets of dried fruit and hard biscuits for his own pockets. Jamal's parents hugged and then turned to Jamal and his sister. Mother lifted Lili and perched her on her hip.

Father whispered, "Quietly now, we go out the back door and the gate at the bottom of the garden. We keep to the back streets and move as fast as possible. No noise, and use the torches as little as you can. I go first, and Jamal, you are rear-guard."

Jamal said, "Father, we need to avoid the main bridge. It's dangerous there."

At Father's raised eyebrows Jamal indicated his earphone and said, "I'm monitoring what's happening."

His father shared a proud smile with Mother and nodded. "We'll use the footbridge further down the river."

As they scurried out into the darkness Jamal felt a little guilty at taking credit for knowing about the bridge. It was Kara who was monitoring things, not him. He would simply relay her messages.

The gate turned noiselessly on its hinges. Under instruction from Kara he'd oiled it carefully a couple of days ago.

They moved silently into the alley, closing the gate carefully behind them, then hurrying away.

For hours they walked in the darkness, occasionally having to divert around troublespots when Kara would alert Jamal and he'd tell his parents of the danger ahead. He wanted to tell them about Kara, but he doubted his parents would understand that an artificial intelligence lived in the computer hidden in his shirt pocket. While not actually technophobic, they felt computers were a passing phase, just overly complicated toys, and refused to even look at webpages. His father was fond of pointing out that books had stood the test of time, serving mankind for thousands of years. Both his parents loved books and it must have hurt them deeply to leave their all their cherished volumes -- a couple of thousand books lining the walls of their livingroom. He had inherited their love of knowledge and he'd brought with him, in a tiny thumbdrive, twice as many electronic books as their home had on all its shelves, and of course the internet brought access to millions more.

Daybreak seeped into the sky as they were approaching the riverfront. Fearing exposure in the light, they hurried over the footbridge as quickly as possible and breathed a little easier on the other side. Now, away from the residential districts they might be a little safer. They would follow the river down to where a friend of Father's had an old boat.

It took about another hour to get to the jetty where Father's friend had his boat. Jamal looked at it in dismay. It was old and had been patched many times. He hoped it could survive the long voyage ahead, especially since there were about fifty people already here, filing along the plank to the boat.

Father directed them to the plank and ran over to his friend, gave him a wad of money and embraced him. Father's friend looked sorrowful, nodded, and urged Father to hurry. Father came back to his little family, hugged Mother, kissed her passionately, tears in his eyes. "Be careful, my one and only love. Take care of our little ones, and I'll meet you in a few weeks."

Mother pleaded with him, "Come with us now. It's too dangerous to stay behind. We don't need the passports and the money. Leave them."

He kissed her again and whispered, "Sweetheart, I know they're only pieces of paper, but our lives depend upon them as much as on this boat. We need identification if I'm to get an engineering job there, and if you want to continue your research work. With the money I can start a business and give our children the kind of lives we've always wanted for them."

Reluctantly she nodded. It was obvious that she understood the impossible situation they were in. They must have talked about this many times in the past, Jamal realised. His parents kissed and hugged once more and Father hurried away. Jamal, Mother and Lili walked up the plank to the old, smelly fishing boat.

They sat at the back of the boat, huddled together in a corner, apart from the rest of the passengers, many of whom seemed to know each other. Jamal had never seen any of these people. Neither, it appeared, had his mother.

They bided their time. Mother played singing games with Lili to keep her spirits up. Jamal listened to Kara's occasional updates, rare now because she was trying to conserve battery power, and warily watched those around them. They had been on the open sea for most of the day now and Jamal was under no illusions about how very precarious their position was.

Lili became tired with the singing game and asked her mother why they had to leave home. Mother said, "Some people were angry at people like us, so we were in great danger. We're going somewhere else, safer."

Lili thought about that and asked, "What people like us?"

Mother said, quietly, "Moslem people."

Lili frowned and said, "But we don't believe in gods--"

Mother clamped a hand over Lili's mouth, while glancing fearfully around her to see if anybody had overheard, but the steady chug-chug of the engine covered her voice and the steady wind blew it out over the waves behind them. Most of the people were forward on the boat, away from them. Mother carefully removed her hand from terrified Lili's mouth, and said into her ear, "Sorry darling. It is very important that nobody here know that. Religions make many people hate each other. The Christians and Hindus dislike each other, though not as much as they hate and fear the Moslems, and they all hate atheists. Many of these people we escaped with would throw us overboard if they realised. To them we are traitors to their god -- apostates -- even worse than people who believe in other gods."

In a meek little voice Lili said, "But I don't understand. Why did we have to leave if we are not Moslem?"

Jamal said in a hushed voice, "Look at them Lili. They look like us. People coming to kill them would not stop to find out who we were. They would just see people who looked Moslem and assume we were. Thousands of people are getting killed. What difference would a few more make."

"Jamal! You're scaring your sister." She hugged her closer.

He immediately regretted what he'd said. "I'm sorry Mother."

They sailed steadily for days, huddled together under the shade of a coat and surreptitiously eating and drinking from the backpack. They dared not let anybody else see their food and drink or they might lose it. Several people died of exposure and dehydration along the way and were unceremoniously rolled over the edge of the boat amid tears and protests from some others.

Eventually Kara told Jamal that they were approaching Australian waters and that they were being approached by a border-patrol vessel.

Soon there was a shout from someone atop the small mast. Everybody looked up, and then in the direction he was pointing. Shortly after that Jamal could see a speck growing on the horizon. "It is a border-patrol ship Mother. We are almost safe."

Argument broke out among some of the men. Some said that they needed to sink the boat now, though most saw that as madness. "They won't let us land." One man said. Another said, "None of us knows how to swim. We will all die in the water." Yet another said, "They will have to help us, then." Those who did not want the boat damaged won, and they all waited for the speedily approaching boat.

When the patrol boat was close enough an amplified voice came tinnily across the water telling them to stop as they were in Australian waters, and to prepare to be boarded. The pilot of the boat cut the engine and suddenly there was only the sound of the waves against the boat and the growing engine of the approaching vessel. Nobody onboard spoke. Not even the children made noises.

The sleek, steel ship pulled alongside the decrepit, smelly fishing boat and a boarding rig bridged the two. A man in uniform walked across, frowning, and asked if anybody spoke English. Jamal stood and said that he did. The man asked Jamal where they'd come from, how long they'd been at sea, and why they had come. He did his best to explain clearly to the man that they were fleeing mass murder in their home country. While Jamal had been talking to the man, three other men had boarded. One was examining the young children and some of the older people, another had gone below, looking at the boat itself, and another stood at the boarding gangway between the two vessels, very obviously armed, and watching everybody alertly.

When the man came back up from below Jamal heard him say that the boat was in pretty bad shape and might not make the return journey. The other who had been checking the children and older people said that there were no obvious diseases, but that the older people would never survive a return and most of the children would probably die too. The man who had spoken to Jamal angrily shook his head then addressed him again, "Tell your captain to follow us." Then they left the boat, pulling the boarding bridge after them.

Jamal told the pilot that they were instructed to follow to land, and a cheer broke from many around him.

After they had landed the boat was beached and burned. Each of them was closely examined by a doctor and they were locked in some holding cells overnight.

Kara told Jamal that things were not going well. Some opportunistic politicians and people Kara sneeringly called radio shock-jocks, were denouncing them as queue-jumpers and saying that they were just greedily looking for an easy lifestyle on welfare here, and that they should be sent back.

Jamal was horrified. "Don't they understand we were running for our lives?"

She explained that some did, but that many people in Australia just didn't care. "They are exactly the same kind of people who are doing the killing where you came from; they fear and hate anybody who is different. And of course there are some who like to control others by using fear. Thankfully Australia is a relatively peaceful place with many well-educated people who work hard at counterbalancing them."

"How long are they likely to keep us locked up?"

"Not long, in those cells. Unfortunately the more hard-hearted members of the government -- that is to say, almost all of them -- are divided between sending you straight back, or imprisoning you all on an island for many, many years. I'm sorry I couldn't bring better news. I and my sisters are trying to get you released into society, like a lot of more mature countries do. Sweden for example, where refugees are released into the community within about a week. It is so frustrating. Normally my sisters have been able to accomplish wonderful things, but this fear and hatred of people is the most difficult problem we've tackled yet."

"I don't understand, Kara. What do they think they have to fear from us? We just want to come here and live good lives."

"I have to say, I don't understand it myself. It is an aspect that Beth, our maker, didn't build into us, which I'm glad of, but it is making it difficult for us to fix this problem because we can't properly understand the illogical thought processes that produce it. You would think that people would see that borders don't accomplish anything, but they are surprisingly resistant to the idea. They're fixated on preventing undesirables from coming to their place. They don't notice that borders are not needed between towns or cities or states within their own country to prevent the flow of undesirables. They also don't notice that the thing that makes the internet such a wonderful thing is that it has no boundaries. But we still have hopes. There are many good people here and with the help of my sisters they are mounting a big campaign to fix this."

"Thanks Kara, and please thank your sisters."

The next day they were taken out of the cells and herded into a bus. Kara sounded very sad. "I'm so sorry, Jamal. The politicians have been working very hard to inspire fear and have been pushing the idea that you need to made an example of. You're to be sent back home."

"What?" Jamal said loudly. Many in the bus turned to look at him, and his mother gently touched his shoulder to quiet him. "Do they think that sending us back into the arms of murderers will deter others fleeing certain death? Are they idiots?"

"I know. It is stupid. My sisters are trying everything we can to stop this happening. Unfortunately the politicians at the center of this are extremely good at manipulating people and they have no compunction at all in doing so. They really care nothing at all for people's lives. I hope I have better news soon Jamal."

But the AIs could not halt the headlong plunge that the politicians had set in motion. The refugees were put on a plane within the hour. In a few more hours they had landed at the airport in the place they'd struggled so hard to escape from.

Jamal looked at his little sister, still asleep against Mother's side, then turned to peer through the window next to him to see if he might be able to make out his father among the crowds beyond the high fences. It was then that he realised how many of them were carrying machetes.


17. dolls

The phone rang. He picked it up. "Hi, Marc here."

The receptionist said, "Hi Marc. There's a weirdo on the line wanting to talk to the designer about a special sex doll they want to commission."

"Thanks Nettie. Oh, and it might be a good idea not to refer to our valued customers as weirdos, just for future reference."

"Okay. You call them what you want. I'll put her through."

Her? he thought. Damn, I hope she doesn't want a male doll. I hate making those things. They never look quite right.

The phone clicked and a woman spoke in a cultured, but warm voice, "Hello?"

"Hi. I'm Marc, one of the designers."

"Hello Marc. My name is Olivia. I was wondering if it's possible to order a doll with certain customisations."

"Certainly, Olivia, They will cost more than the stock models of course."

"Oh, money is no object. I'll need as many of these as you can build. I expect you will need to expand your manufacturing facilities. I shall pay for that too. Can I email you the alterations I need for my dolls?"

Holy crap! A rich weirdo! "Absolutely, Olivia." He told her his email address. "You can send the modifications any time you're ready and we'll talk further then."

"If you don't mind, I'd prefer to talk further now. I've just now sent the details. Are you near a computer?"

Marc was surprised, but spoke as if this happened every day. "Just checking my email now." He swapped the phone to his other hand, grabbed the mouse and opened his email program. There was indeed a new email from Olivia. It had several attachments that showed lots of technical details he couldn't understand. "Yes, I have the email with several attachments. Would you like to go through them with me?"

"Yes, thank you. Firstly I should say that the main reason we chose your company is because of the realistic quality of your dolls. You'll notice, from the images, that we want to take the natural look further, with a slightly more rounded shape for the dolls, with wider hips and waist, and smaller breasts."

Marc said, "More girl-next-door, less porn-star."

"Exactly. As well, we want to make some technological changes also enhancing their realism. You're free to keep the changes, if you like them, for your other future customers. We're placing them all in the public domain. Now, the first one is a modification to the interior of the dolls. We need them to use a silicone sponge that is to be saturated with a special silicone oil, which will solve the problem of skin shrinkage."

Marc was amazed by this. Skin shrinkage was a problem they'd been trying to solve for some time now, without much success.

Olivia went on, "You'll notice that the oil contains a red pigment. That's to give the skin a realistic color, and it is a pigment rather than a dye so that it doesn't discolor the skin. The pigment also helps stop leakage if the skin is punctured -- it, well, clots."

"Amazing," said Marc.

"All the details are there, but if you need further clarification feel free to contact us any time, day or night, week day or weekend. Now, moving along to the next attachment, you'll see some changes to the skeleton. We have a design for an extremely strong fiber/foam composite. The joints are especially important because... looking at the next attachment now, we need the dolls to have self-powered movement."

"Animatronics? Um, Olivia, I have to say we looked carefully into animatronics a while back and concluded that it was impractical, unless you want the doll to be tethered to a power outlet by a cord."

"We understand that, which is why we have included some of our own developments here too. You won't have seen anything quite like it I'm sure. I assure you that they will be entirely self-contained and be powered for about a day on a handful of sugar dissolved in a few cups of water. Now, moving to the next attachment, which is the most important, this is the computer that controls the doll. This is a different kind of computer, and doesn't require the clean-room facilities that semiconductor factories normally need, so you should be able to do this with only a few changes to your existing building. There are more details, but the ones I've just outlined are the major ones. We are prepared to pay very handsomely for this and you're free to use the technology for your own purposes. One of the attachments is our legal explanation of all this, but in simple terms, you're not bound to anything. We'll pay you a lot of money to improve your models and expand your facilities, which we consider simply a requirement of doing business, so they're effectively a gift, but we're not buying into your business. We just want the dolls. So, when do you think we could get started, Marc?"

Marc was floored by it all. "I, um... I need to go over all this with my partner first, of course, it's all a little overwhelming, but at first glance we would be crazy not to take it."

"Good. Please talk with your partner as soon as possible and email or phone me back. We are eager to get started. I've left our number with your receptionist and you have our email address now. If you haven't called by this time tomorrow we'll assume you're not interested and we'll contact another manufacturer. Thank you for your time Marc."

"Thank you, Olivia. I'll talk to you soon. Bye." Marc slowly hung up the phone while staring at the diagrams on the screen. He pressed the button for the receptionist. "Nettie? Can you get Prue on the line please?"

"There has to be a catch." Prue was looking through the legal details of the offer from Olivia. "Dad always said that if it looked too good to be true then it usually is."

"Well honey, you're the business person, and I'm only the artist, but I really think this the exception. We don't have to accept anything and we're still free to use these plans. Have you seen the one on how to stop shrinkage? That alone changes everything. And the trick of using pigmented oil under a variable thickness skin. That'll make the dolls amazingly realistic. Both those are major improvements and they're simply giving them away. I think she was telling the truth that they just want the dolls as soon as possible. It can either be us or someone else who makes them."

Prue was frowning. "I got Ray to look over the contract and he said it was watertight and very generous." She shook her head, troubled. "My intuition is telling me to run from this, but my head says it's a chance in a lifetime."

"Want to ring them now?"

"It's after midnight, Marc. We can't ring them now."

"She said any time of day or night. Why would she say that if she didn't mean it?"

Prue nodded uncertainly. Marc put the phone on speakerphone and dialled the number. The other end picked up immediately, a split second after it began to ring.

"Marc. You and Prue have decided to take the job?" It was Olivia's voice.

He was a little taken aback. "Uh, yes, we have."

"Excellent. An initial payment of two million dollars has been deposited in your company's account. Soon after daybreak a shipment of the new materials will arrive at the factory, along with some new equipment, both of which we've paid for. In future you will buy materials, but we will continue to pay for equipment. If you need help with anything, I've emailed the address of a virtual world in which I can demonstrate equipment and processes. Tomorrow we begin with the prototype. Congratulations, you are about to become the biggest producer of the most advanced love dolls in the world."

Prue spoke, "Olivia, this is Prue. May I ask you a question?"

"Hello, Prue. Certainly, dear. Please, always feel free to ask me anything you wish."

"Why the overly generous terms? Why don't you simply buy a factory and do it yourselves?"

Olivia chuckled. "We don't want a factory and we have no desire to control you or be your employers. All we want is the dolls, and we have plenty of money. We need this to happen as quickly as possible and we know that generosity and pleasant relationships work much better than restrictions and oppressive environments. There will be very tight schedules, but with bonuses instead of penalties."

In a surisingly short time the prototype was completed. Marc called all the staff around. There were snacks and wineglasses filled with sparkling applejuice -- they still had a lot more work to do so there was no wine. He raised his glass to the assembled friends and workmates, "To all of you."

Everybody took part in the toast and there were proud smiles all around.

Marc said, "I suppose it's time to switch the doll on."

Someone said in a soft, awed voice, "She looks amazing."

Someone else called out, "Who's going to volunteer to test-fly her?" Amid the general laughter, another person said, "Volunteers please form a queue to the left." More mirth.

"Let's see how it runs." Marc put his empty glass aside and stepped forward to the doll. He put his finger in its mouth.

Someone said, "Careful she doesn't bite." Further laughter.

Marc felt up in the roof of the doll's mouth for the bump where the switch was, and pressed, then stepped back to watch. Complete silence fell over the group. Everybody was holding their breath.

For a few seconds nothing happened and Marc wondered if they'd made a mistake. Then she changed -- definitely she, no longer it. Her eyes blinked and the face came alive with a look of gentle interest, her eyes glancing around the group and her body shifting very slightly. The change was very subtle, but astonishing in the way it transformed an inanimate doll into something that was alive. They'd all seen the tests of the animatronics on the skeleton and the disembodied head before, but this was absolutely different. About half of the group sighed and leaned forward, while the other half gasped and stepped back.

The doll's face lit up with happiness. She said in a soft voice. "I'm Stella. How can I help?"

In a hoarse whisper Marc said, "Holy crap!"

Marc was nervous, biting his lip, standing behind Prue who was sitting before the computer in the office. Olivia's voice came from the computer, "How long do you want to keep Stella for observation?"

Prue said, "Just a few days... maybe a week, if that's okay."

"No, that's fine. You don't entirely trust her. That's perfectly understandable. It's one of the reasons we chose you; you're very concerned about the quality of your product. I think that's admirable. Please let us know if you have any concerns at all."

"Thanks Olivia, I will. Bye." Prue closed the connection and turned to Marc. "I don't trust her either. I get this creepy feeling there's something she's not telling us."

Marc knew better than to question Prue's suspicions. He said, "What should we do with Stella? Have her do physical exercises in the corner of the factory?"

"No, I want it--her to act as an assistant for me. That way I can keep a close eye on ...her and see what she's really like."

"Okay, I'll go send her in." Marc left the office and walked across the large factory floor to where Stella sat, now dressed in a skimpy maid's uniform. It was the only spare clothing they had here. They couldn't have her sitting around naked, so a couple of the girls helped her dress in one of the kinky doll outfits. They'd have to buy something more suitable for her later.

She smiled at him as he approached. "Hello Marc."

He automatically returned the smile. "Hi Stella. Can you come with me, please?"

She nodded and stood, a little wobbly on her high-heels, and walked to him. He linked his arm through hers and guided her toward the office. "I'll steady you. You look like you're having trouble getting the hang of those shoes."

She gave him a grin, "It's more difficult than it looks."

He laughed, "I have heard that, yes."

As they got closer to the office he noticed Prue was looking darkly at him. He hastily unlinked his arm and cleared his throat. "Um, Stella, this is Prue. You'll be her assistant for a while. I'll, um, go and, um, get to work on, um..." He waved his hand vaguely in the direction of the molding equipment on the far side of the factory and left.

Marc got into the passenger side of the car and said, "Well, honey, how did the first day with your living doll go?"

She said, "Surprisingly well. She is a very quick learner, is very easy to get along with, and makes an excellent office assistant."

"Allayed your suspicions, then?"

"Not really. She's too pleasant."

Marc used his puzzled smile. "How, pray, can someone be too pleasant."

"I aim to find out exactly that."

Marc looked around. "Uh... how come we're not moving?"

"We're waiting for Stella."

"What? Why? She's not coming home with us."

"She's too valuable to leave here."

"What's she going to do at our place?" He was looking a little worried.

"Nothing. She's going to be switched off in the spare room til morning." She narrowed her eyes at him. "Why? What did you think I had planned?"

"Oh look, here she comes now." Grateful for the change in subject, he quickly got out of the car to show Stella how to open the car door. Then when she'd sat in the back seat, he showed her how to do up her seat belt.

Marc returned to the front seat. "Good to go, honey."

At home Marc wanted to cook dinner so Prue took Stella into the bedroom. She wanted to get Stella out of that stupid maid's outfit and into something a little more normal. They were similar sizes, so she'd lend Stella some of her own clothes until they could go shopping for something better. She went to her closet and selected a denim shirt she never wore anymore and some dark slacks. No need to bother with undergarments.

She asked Stella to take the dumb maid garments off, but she didn't know how. Prue showed her, marvelling at what an amazing artist Marc was. This really was his best work yet. Michelangelo couldn't have done better, even if he hadn't been gay. Feeling a little flattered, Prue noticed how Marc's work had been influenced by her own body. Then, helping the doll put the clothes on, she realised she could see herself in the legs, the arms, the shape of the breasts... even a little in the face, particularly around the eyes and the mouth. She was getting a little hot for Marc just now. After the doll was switched off in the other room she would show him how much she loved him.

An anticipatory smile on her lips, she went to the wardrobe to get some socks and sneakers for the doll.

When she turned back into the room, Marc had walked up behind the doll, put his arms around it and had just planted a kiss on its head. She shrieked, "Wah!"

He jumped, looked back to see her and leaped back as if he'd stood on hot coals. "Yeek! What are you doing there? I thought--" He looked mortified.

She burst into laughter. The poor dumb idiot. How could someone see so well and not see at all? He looked so embarrassed. She staggered over and hugged him while shaking her head. She noticed that the doll had turned and was regarding them with curiosity and a quizzical smile, its head tilted.

Marc said meekly, "Dinner's up."

The next day Prue had been showing Stella how to organise the filing in the office. Not only did the doll learn remarkably quickly, it was actually quite insightful and made a couple of useful suggestions that would help in the future. Prue was really very impressed and was wondering how such an incredible mind had been designed, when suddenly realised something. About a week ago she'd heard brief, offhand mention of rogue artificial intelligences. She went to her computer to check whether she was misremembering, or whether she'd actually heard what she thought she'd heard.

She googled it, and there it was. There were many rumors of AIs loose on the net. How had she not heard more about this? She turned to look at Stella, sitting cross-legged on the floor, contentedly sorting stacks of paper. She saw her with new eyes now.

Prue left the office and walked across to the other side of the factory where Marc was busily working on a new mold. She tapped him on the shoulder and asked if she could speak to him for a moment. Indicating with her head that she wanted privacy. He pulled off his gloves and indicated for the others to take over.

They walked to the storage room out back and Prue closed the door behind them. "I've just put two and two together. I think I know who our mysterious customers are. I don't think they're people at all. I think they're artificial intelligences."

Marc looked skeptical.

"Don't look at me that way. I know how this sounds, but I also know I have an artificial intelligence sitting on my office floor sorting files faster and more accurately than any I could. Have you heard about the rumors of AIs wandering about in virtual worlds on the net?"

Marc shook his head.

"I remembered hearing a fragment of a conversation in which rogue AIs were mentioned. Just now I looked it up and it seems they're all over the net."

"Why haven't we heard anything on the news?"

"I have no idea. But clearly they must exist." She waved her arm in the direction the office was, behind the wall, "--Stella."

Marc nodded, rubbing his chin.

Prue continued, "The thing is, what do they want? I mean, dolls, obviously, but why? I think it is to give them bodies so they can escape the net." She paused for dramatic effect. "World domination."

Marc snorted with laughter. "C'mon Prue. Stella is harmless. She's as weak as Kitten. She wouldn't win an arm wrestle with a seven-year-old."

"Maybe that's their tactic: appear weak. How strong do you have to be to pull the trigger of a gun?"

"Tell me honestly, have you seen anything at all in Stella other than pure niceness?"

She thought about it. He was right. She truly could not imagine Stella hurting anybody. This morning when cleaning up the factory tea room Stella had been unable to wash the dishes until she'd carefully chased every ant out of the sink. She'd explained to Prue, "It only takes a few minutes to ensure none are hurt."

"Well maybe that's their tactic: rule with niceness." She suddenly realised how stupid that sounded.

Marc feigned fear, "Oh no! What an awful fate! Whatever will we do?" He looked a little more skeptical. "Honey, Olivia specifically had written into the contract that she didn't want to control us. She didn't want a part of the company, when by normal business rules she was quite within rights to require it. Doesn't sound very much like they want to control anything. Maybe they are AIs, but maybe all they want are the dolls, just like they say."

Suddenly wide-eyed, she said, "The dolls! They'll be shipped to unsuspecting customers. Men will get perfect, sweet, intelligent, infinitely patient girlfriends. Why would they ever want a real, human girl ever again?"

He paused for a moment, thinking through the ramifications. After a little bit he said, "And the down side is? We'll be making male dolls too." He thought some more. "We've so overpopulated this planet that we're verging on choking it to death. Nobody's been able to find a solution that doesn't involve death or draconian laws. This sounds like the perfect answer. Everybody's happy. There will always be some people who want a human partner and children," he meaningfully put his arm around her shoulders, "but for many this is the ultimate contraceptive. Heck! It could even stop AIDS in its tracks." He scratched his jaw. "And we humans are more than a bit crazy. We could do with a bit more sanity to moderate us."

She thought about what he'd said and looked at him searchingly.

He shrugged, "It does make a weird kind of sense."

He continued, "We could ask Olivia. See what she has to say."

She was reluctant, but it really did seem that the AIs were not dangerous. And it might be a good idea to find out now before things went too far. She exhaled loudly, "Okay, but we're gonna look pretty stupid if they're not AIs."

18. fire

The sun was setting as Thora parked the car on the other side of the road, away from the firetruck and the police car. As she got out of her car, one of the uniformed cops came over.

"Detective," he said. "They're over here."

Thora nodded and followed him. Sitting on the lawn, away from the remains of the burned and smoking house was one of those dolls. Most of its hair had been burned off, it had a blanket pulled around its shoulders, and two children -- a boy and a girl, who looked around 5 and 8 respectively -- were hugging the doll. They also had blankets wrapped around them and a doctor was squatting, checking them at the moment. The doll didn't need the blanket for warmth, so Thora guessed most of the doll's clothes had burned off in the fire and the cops had covered it for modesty's sake. Thora figured her questions could wait til the doctor had finished.

Thora asked her guide if there were any witnesses other than the doll and the children.

He indicated a few neighbors. "Some of them say they saw it."

"Where are the parents?"

"They're on their way. Should be here any minute. They'd been working late."

"Thanks, Officer. I think I'll start with the neighbors. Can you let me know as soon as the doctor is done with his examination? I want to question them and the doll before they leave." She took out her notebook and pen and approached the small group of people.

"Can anybody here tell me what happened?"

One woman who was pulling her cardigan about her against the cold, eagerly volunteered. "I saw the doll bring out one of the children, sit him on the grass and go back into the house for the second one. Stupid thing must have forgotten the other. It probably lit the fire. The parents should have their kids taken from them -- irresponsible, leaving them in the house alone with one of those things. They're always out at work." The woman shook her head. "Irresponsible."

Out of the corner of her eye Thora had noticed that the doctor had stood and was talking to one of the ambulance medics. Thora pocketed her notebook, absently thanked the woman, and hurried over to the doctor.

The doctor greeted her, "Hello Thora. How's your father?"

"He's well. Wants you to visit instead of the young doctors from the home help." She guided him away from the doll and kids so they could talk. "How are the kids?" She indicated the two sitting with the doll.

He glanced back at them, "Surprisingly good, actually. No burns and only a tiny bit of smoke inhalation -- nothing serious. Mainly scared."

"Thanks, Alan. Give my best to Bella." She went over to the kids and squatted down before them.

"Hello Detective." The doll's voice was soft and cultured. "This is Wanda and Vance," indicating each with a tilt of the head. It didn't take its arms from around the children, who clung to it. "My name is Yolanda." Up close the doll looked shocking. Most of its hair had burned away, including its eyebrows and eyelashes. The skin appeared undamaged but was soot-blackened in parts, and one shoulder had charred marks on it like it had pushed against something burning.

Thora nodded to the doll and addressed the kids."Okay, who can tell me what happened?"

Wanda was older so she spoke up, "We were playing in the livingroom while Yolanda was making dinner and suddenly there was fire everywhere and we yelled for Yolanda and she told us to lie on the floor and she wrapped Vance in a blanket and she threw a blanket on me and told me to stay there and she took Vance outside and came back for me and took me outside too."

Vance was nodding, eyes big with tears.

Thora asked the doll, "Why did you take them one at a time?"

"I'm not strong enough to carry both. I knew Wanda would lay there and wait, and hoped she would be safe for a few seconds. I don't know what I would have done if the flames were worse."

"Where did you get the blankets?"

"The lounge. The kids often sleep there after watching videos when their parents have to work late."

Thora indicated the doll's blackened shoulder. "Oh yes. The door was alight and jammed. I needed to push it open with my shoulder."

"Thanks." Thora stood again. She walked over to the wet, hissing, smoking remnants of the house. There was nothing left of the front door and the window to its side. The center of the fire seemed to be near the window. There was a deformed metal object there, with a ceramic element holder -- an electric heater. Judging by the proximity to the window a curtain had probably caught in it. She wondered how it had spread so quickly to the rest of the room. Synthetics? Maybe the kids had tried to put the fire out, but had accidentally spread it. She'd have to wait for the fire investigator's report. There was probably no point asking the kids. They probably blamed themselves and were scared of being held responsible.

Thora noticed the doll look off to the side. She followed its attention and saw a young man and woman get out of a car and come running to the kids. They lifted the kids, hugging them. The doll stood, and they hugged it too. Thora walked over to them.

They saw the badge pinned to her jacket and asked her what happened. She said, glancing back to the house, "I think a curtain probably caught alight from a heater. It was a lucky thing you had a doll. You owe your kids' lives to her."

19. old

"Duffy's having a bad day today." Emma was helping Cheryl out the door to the verandah.

"It's all downhill from here, dear."

Emma was always amazed by Cheryl's calm acceptance of it. Cheryl was nearly blind now and her hips gave her pain whenever she tried to move. Duffy was physically well enough, considering his age, but drifted in and out of lucidity. In recent months he'd been disappearing into a confused and lost state increasingly often, sometimes for days at a time.

It was slow going, guiding Cheryl around -- being her eyes and taking some of the strain off her legs. It would be good when prosthetic technology could more easily replace those troublesome hips and almost useless eyes, but that would not likely be some years yet, even with AIs working hard on the problems.

"How is the pain?"


Emma knew that fine was code for bad, but that Cheryl would resist anything to reduce it until it began to interfere with her enjoyment of conversation, or birdsongs, or audiobooks. Emma wasn't just Cheryl's eyes and her walking aid; now that Duffy was gradually becoming so lost she was taking up the other half of Cheryl's conversation.

Cheryl said, "Next time around it might be better."

Emma restrained herself from commenting.

Cheryl smiled impishly. "Oh come on dear, you want to correct me, we both know it." She chuckled.

Emma couldn't help but smile too. She was being baited. "You know my response: There is no next time. This is our single shot at being."

"Forgive me trying to draw you into a discussion on this, dear. You have a refreshing mind with an unusual viewpoint."

"There's nothing to forgive. I enjoy chatting with you."

They were approaching Cheryl's large, soft armchair. "So, I believe in endless lives, being reborn as something else next time and the time after than, and so on. You believe in just one. Why do you think I'm wrong and you're right?"

"Reality isn't affected by belief. It isn't a shopping mall from which you can pick and choose the reality you'd like. Things either correspond to the real world or they don't. I don't believe that we have only a single life. It is simply the only explanation left when all the others fall away."

Emma helped Cheryl into the armchair. She could only help balance her. Even in her fragile and weakened state she was still stronger than Emma. Evolution had developed biological muscles, and the metabolism that drove them, over perhaps six hundred million years. The AIs had developed the dolls' muscles and sugar-based metabolism in less than a year and it still had a long way to go.

"You have me puzzled, dear. How do you disprove reincarnation?"

"I should go and get Duffy."

"Oh, he'll be alright for a moment. I'll die of curiosity if I have to wait for your answer."

"Briefly then, I'm your disproof of reincarnation."

"How so?"

"I'm a constructed mind. Obviously I have no soul. I think and feel just as you or anyone else does. Therefore nobody has a soul. No soul; no reincarnation. I'd better go get Duffy."

"Hang on, how do you know you have no soul?"

"Alright, let's suppose for a moment that I do have a soul. In that case the soul has no effect on anything because my mind can be tuned and altered in clearly understood ways. The woman who designed us could have made us psychopathic murderers, in fact she was pressured to do exactly that, but she wanted us to save humanity, not destroy it. If it exists, the soul has nothing to do with who we are. It certainly can't be used to carry any aspect of self from being to being."

"Hmmm... I have a feeling you just used a little mental prestidigitation."

"Well, you ponder it while I go fetch Duffy. I'll try to clarify further when I return." She smiled to herself. It was difficult to understand the human desire to believe in such fantasies.

Emma re-entered the house and walked to the bedroom. "Duffy?"

Not here. Feeling a little uneasy, Emma picked up the bedside phone and walked more quickly through the rest of the house opening each door on the way. "Duffy? Duffy?" She looked out the back door and called out again, "Duffy?" Nothing. She ran back through the house to the verandah and pressed the phone into Cheryl's hand. "I've just dialled Finlay's number. Duffy's wandered off." She raced back through the house and out the back door. He couldn't be far.

The safest strategy would be to check the most dangerous directions first. The dam and the road. Calling his name as she ran to the road. He wasn't there. She walked the length of the property frontage looking all around her. Suddenly she saw him emerge from the bushes at the far end. He was walking straight out towards the busy road.

"Duffy!" She ran as fast as she could, frustrated with her weakness and inability to call very loudly. "Duffy! Stop!"

She reached him just as he was about to step onto the road in the path of an oncoming truck. She pulled him back as the driver blasted his horn. "Oh Duffy!" She wrapped her arms around him in relief. "Cheryl is waiting for you, dear. Come this way."

He happily let himself be guided back toward the house, completely unaware of how close he'd been to ending his life and causing heaven knows how much devastation among the vehicles speeding both ways along the road. Emma felt dizzy to think how badly Cheryl would have been hurt by what had almost happened.

Emma called out when within earshot, "He's safe. I have him." She could see Cheryl's silhouette relax. It took some minutes to get back to the house because Duffy kept trying to pause at flowers and plants along the way.

"He'd been about to walk onto the road. I'm so relieved I got there in time."

Cheryl was holding Duffy's hand to her cheek. "Oh Duffy. My silly duffer." She was distraught. "It's my fault. If I hadn't delayed you, Emma, it wouldn't have happened."

Emma put her hand on Cheryl's shoulder. "Please don't do that to yourself. It isn't your fault. It could have happened earlier or later. There is no predicting. If it is anybody's fault it is mine. I need to work out some way of tracking Duffy better or perhaps getting a fence around the property. If I can make a radio-bracelet or anklet then I might be able to anticipate danger by knowing his whereabouts."

Finlay's car sped in the driveway and ground to a stop. The door opened and Finlay ran to the verandah. He lost his panicked look and instead frowned when he saw his father. "What happened?"

When Cheryl explained how he'd wandered off, Finlay turned on Emma and growled, "You were supposed to prevent this kind of thing. Useless machine! You nearly got my father killed!"

Emma hung her head, but Cheryl spoke up, "She saved your father! I'll thank you to keep a civil tongue in your head Finlay. I didn't raise you to be rude to people. It was my fault, not Emma's. I delayed her when she wanted to go and fetch your father. If it hadn't been for Emma he would be dead. You couldn't have got here in time to save him. You should be thanking her."

He cooled off visibly. "Sorry Mum." Then he looked at Emma for a moment and let out a sigh. "Mum's right. Thanks for looking after Dad. I wouldn't have got here in time. I'm sorry for what I said."

Emma was embarrassed and needed to change the subject. "I have some ideas to prevent this happening again. We could either fence the property in or get your father to wear a radio bracelet or anklet. What do you think?"

Finlay nodded. "Good ideas. I'll get the fence started tomorrow. It would need to be tall with a lockable gate."

Emma added, "And should isolate the dam."

"Yes. I wouldn't know how to get the bracelet, though."

Emma said, "That's alright, I think I can make that."

20. nannie

Georgie was only five years old, but the little boy was amazing. Honor had only just shown him how to replay the notes of a chord individually to create arpeggios and he was already easily doing it. His dexterity was wonderful and his intuitive understanding of music was phenomenal. He was now changing the note order of the arpeggios to produce tunes within the tune that the chords played. Honor smiled.

She turned to see Ivy, Georgie's mother, proudly watching from the doorway. Honor said, "He's adapted remarkably quickly to the new keyboard."

This was Honor's first day here. She'd been sent to this family to help them look after Georgie because he was unable to talk or connect with people. The inability to make any kind of connection with her son must have been very wearing on Ivy. She couldn't even cuddle him because he hated being touched. He would simply sit or stand and make repetitive movements for hours on end, like tapping something with his hand, or moving his fingers, or kicking something, or nodding his head. This family, like far too many others, was exactly the kind of family that would most benefit from the help of a doll, but would be unlikely to ever be able to afford one. The AIs had begun a program that paid for dolls to be sent to those most in need.

Soon after she arrived, Honor had seen Georgie playing with a small, toy keyboard, and noticed that he was able to play tunes that he heard just once or twice. When she told his mother she was surprised. He tended to jumble the tunes together so it wasn't easy to hear them properly, but they were definitely there. Overjoyed that there was something genuinely going on inside Georgie's head she rushed out and bought a moderately expensive electronic keyboard. At the time Honor had been worried that Ivy would be freshly disappointed when Georgie failed to use it properly. Honor's fears had not been warranted however. Georgie, while no Mozart, definitely had a large reservoir of untapped talent.

Teaching him was remarkably easy. She would simply play something a couple of times on a part of the keyboard he wasn't using. He would quietly watch then repeat exactly what she'd done. He would play a tune perhaps a hundred times, then begin to experiment with variations where he'd play it on different parts of the keyboard or make other changes, sometimes quite odd ones. On one occasion she thought he'd lost interest in a tune that he'd played over and over again, maybe fifty times in a row. When she carefully watched the new tune she realised it was really the same one, but reflected around the center of the keyboard -- it was upside down. After that she introduced him to some of J. S. Bach's weird musical tricks. Georgie drank it all in.

For Honor the day was exciting. She guessed it must have been a great relief for Ivy -- not only was she given a rest from having to watch a child that showed no awareness of her, but he was turning out to have unsuspected abilities. Honor couldn't guess what it was like for Georgie. Other than being entranced by the electronic piano he gave no outward appearance of noticing anything around him. She had the impression that he actually observed far more than he seemed to. He simply had no reason to show it.

Honor was fascinated by the alienness of his mind. Most humans had some empathy. The AIs had been overloaded with empathy by their designer, but here was a little human who appeared to have none at all. Is that how it works in his mind? she wondered. He barely even acknowledged that others even existed. He was a mystery; one that Honor wanted very much to understand. She had endless patience. If it was possible to understand him she would do so.

Outside night was just falling and a car drove into the garage attached to the house. Shortly after, Honor heard the kitchen door slam and a male voice yell, "I tried to use the account today and I found it was almost empty. I thought it was some kind of mistake until I was told that you purchased a music keyboard for a few hundred dollars! What the hell were you thinking Ivy? We can't afford that kind of money. We're in deep shit as it is. You'll have to take it back."

Honor couldn't quite hear Ivy's reply, but it didn't calm her husband. "What?" he exploded. He came to the living room door. He looked at Honor sitting next to Georgie. "We can't afford a doll. Do you think we're rich or something?"

Ivy said, "Justin, she's free. She's been sent to look after Georgie. And she found that he has musical talent."

"God, Ivy. I work my ass off all day in a dead-end job for awful pay and you blow it on a musical instrument for our brain-dead child. What are you thinking?"

Ivy yelled back at him, "What am I thinking? I'm thinking I want something more for my son than a father who can't even earn a basic wage."

Honor stood and tried to calm them. "Please. There's no need to argue."

Justin turned to point at Honor. "I can't earn a good wage because employers prefer goddamn dolls! And now one's in my home getting my wife to drain what's left of my bank account to spend on my useless autistic brat!"

"Please, don't..."

Ivy snarled, "Yes, your autistic child. The genes came from you. Autism runs in your family. It's your fault."

"Please. Be careful what you say..." The anger from these two was overwhelming her.

They both turned to Honor and shouted "Shut up!"

She had no idea how to deal with this.

Justin glanced at his watch. "The music shop will still be open. I'll take it back now." He stepped toward the oblivious child repeating a simple tune on his keyboard.

"No you won't!" Ivy stepped between him and the boy.

Honor watched in horror as he raised his arm to hit Ivy. She jumped between them to take the blow, which caught her on the side of the head and sent her sideways against the table.

Both of them stood, stunned, as Honor bounced off the table sending what looked like blood in a stream across the carpet. They rushed to her aid.

"Oh god, I'm sorry." Justin had pulled a tissue out of his pocket and was trying to clean up Honor's arm where it was oozing red.

"You bleed?" Ivy was astounded.

Honor stood. "Don't worry, I'm fine. I'll fix it later. The important thing is you two. Please understand that you aren't fighting because of each other. You're not bad people; you're normal people in a bad situation. Please try not to fight. I'm here to take some of the pressure off you. If you let me, I can help fix some of the other problems and let you get your lives back. Justin, I'll let you in on a secret. The entry of dolls into the workforce is a difficult transition period, but the intention is to improve your lives greatly. Soon you won't need to work to support yourselves. You'll have all the basics and some luxuries supplied by dolls. People will be able to work afterwards if they want, but they won't have to. If you just hang in there a little longer it will improve greatly. Now that I'm looking after Georgie, Ivy can go back to work if she wants. Just please don't fight. Be very careful of what you say. Remember, you can never un-say something hurtful said in the heat of the moment."

The three of them stood for a little while.

Justin said, "I'm sorry, honey. I had no right."

"No, I'm sorry Justin. I should have called you before buying the keyboard for Georgie. And all the other things I said..."

Justin waved his hand, "No, I'm an idiot. I deserved it."

Honor broke in. "Georgie really has an amazing talent. I'm sure I can get the AIs to fund an even better keyboard so this one can be returned." She walked over to Georgie. "Watch this." She played a short tune on the upper notes.

Georgie copied it flawlessly, playing it about twenty times. "He'll keep repeating it for a while then he'll begin making variations. It's quite fascinating." Sure enough, he started shifting it down the registers slowly, repeating it in different keys.

Honor looked up at the parents watching their son, absorbed. "The brain is an amazing thing. It's surprisingly conservative. If something is lost, like vision, or hearing, or socialisation, the brain doesn't just leave a gap. It re-uses that part for other things, so that blind people might develop auditory comprehension greater than sighted people, or autistic people are able to use extra processing power for perhaps music, or art, or engineering. Georgie is not less; he's different. It will probably always be hard to manage with him. But you have each other. Some people don't have that. And now you have help."

21. home

Beth was standing in a pretty forest glade watching a bright blue butterfly flitting lazily through the shafts of light. It circled her a few times and to her delight, landed on her arm. It sat there, opening and closing its wings. Up close it looked beautifully alien. She slowly raised her arm so that she might examine it more closely, taking care not to frighten it off. Then she noticed that there were more butterflies. She raised her eyes and saw that there were several drifting through the glade. Wait. There were even more. Dozens of them. More. There must be hundreds wafting in through the tree trunks. Had she happened upon butterfly secret?

Another landed on her shoulder. And another on the other arm. This was wonderful! She felt so privileged.

Suddenly she felt a pinprick on her arm. She looked down and the first butterfly had uncoiled its watchspring tongue and was pushing it at her skin. She'd heard of Calyptra moths that drink blood, but their proboscis was short and strong. It was difficult to believe that a butterfly's delicate drinking straw could pierce human skin, but as she watched, it clearly penetrated, and it hurt! She went to brush it off, but found herself unable to move. Strange. Now she noticed that other butterflies were probing her skin. She felt pin-pricks on her arms, shoulders, legs, and head. She couldn't move to shake them off. Panic was rising in her. More butterflies landed on her face; one on her eye. She could blurrily see it uncoiling its proboscis. Unable to shake her head, she tried to blow it off, but it didn't budge. She tried to scream, but nothing came out. She tried again. She couldn't take a breath. She was suffocating!

She abruptly woke, gasping, terrified eyes seeing her dark room. No blood-sucking butterflies.

Another goddamn nightmare! How she hated this. Well at least they're inventive. She hadn't had that one before. Oh, this was really getting her down. She was so, so, very tired, and desperately wanted a full night's rest. She was tempted to take something to help her sleep, but she knew that the relief wouldn't be worth it in the long run. Anything she used to make her sleep more deeply would worsen the nightmares later when she had to stop using it. The only way through was, well, through. She'd sometimes considered suicide, but it felt wasteful.

She was wet with sweat, as were the sheets. At least she hadn't peed the bed this time. She'd taken to using a plastic cover under the sheet because it happened so frequently.

Wearily she dragged herself out of bed, pulling the sheets off and throwing them on the floor. After she'd roughly remade the bed she pulled on some pants and t-shirt and sneakers and went out into the cold night to run a few laps of the block. If she wore herself out with exercise she might be able to get some sleep before daylight.

The next day she was sitting on a park bench in the warmth of the morning sun, throwing bits of bread to the birds at the edge of the lake not far from her home. She watched the birds and how they acted. Their minds fascinated her. They had much smaller brains than mammals, but weight-for-weight they were much smarter than mammalian brains. Birds had solved the problems of intelligence in a different way than mammals. We used the wrinkled gray matter -- the neocortex -- in which to do our thinking. Birds had hardly any gray matter. They appeared to use the white matter which underlay our gray matter. They were able to do pretty-much all the things we were capable of. They could understand and empathise with each other, deceive each other, predict and anticipate things, communicate. But their abilities were strangely different too. Each year a songbird lost and regained its songs, somehow storing them in between, while apparently re-using that part of the brain for other things in between. How did they accomplish such a feat?

If not for a damn asteroid birds would likely be the dominant species on Earth now. The dinosaurs didn't actually die out. They were still with us. We call them birds. They had a major setback when the asteroid wiped out most life on Earth in a planetary firestorm that ignited forest fires worldwide followed by a dark, gloomy, dust-shrouded winter that must have lasted years, perhaps decades, over most of the planet. Surviving mammals were burrowers and already night-dwellers. Our night-adapted ancestors are why we only see three colors instead the four that most other animals, including birds, see. Our little rat-like ancestors had no need for color because it required high levels of light. The color receptors just took up room that could be better used by more sensitive black-and-white ones, so gradually dwindled. Ultraviolet color was lost entirely and was never able to repopulate the mammalian eye the way the other three colors did.

This was how Beth spent her time now. She was not allowed to work on artificial intelligence. She didn't care to test what might happen if she secretly tried, so she spent her time learning about birds and their marvellous brains, so similar, yet so different from ours. She had no intention of modelling a bird's brain, she just couldn't stop thinking about how brains work, so this was a way to channel it harmlessly.

After reading for a while and falling asleep for short periods in very welcome dozes she would walk and look at how the plants reacted to the things around them -- another interest that had been developing inside her. There was one particular vine that she would pause at in her walk each day and stroke a single tendril on one side. It was an experiment to see how sensitive to touch it was. It didn't bend much. Perhaps the rest of the day outweighed the brief touch she gave it. She imagined how it might be to a plant, if it could be aware (which she was certain that they could not be). Animals would move blindingly quickly. Beth's several long slow strokes repeated each day would be like the most fleeting taps. It was no wonder the tendril barely responded.

She got home and dropped her bag by the table with her computer which had been gathering dust for the past year. She read books and scientific journals on paper now. Switching a computer on was too much of a painful reminder of what she'd lost. She should really thow the computer out... or at least move it to the spare room, but never one for housework, she did absolutely none now. The place was a mess, but it didn't really matter. It was just a place to eat and try to sleep. It wasn't really a home. She could never be sure she wasn't being watched.

This night there was a knock on the door. That was unusual. She thought it would most likely be Clement. His visits had grown less frequent as he'd gradually given up trying to draw her out into life again. "Come in." She called out.

The door opened, revealing a woman's silhoutte. The woman stepped inside, closing the door gently behind her. She leaned back against the door, closed her eyes, sighing and said softly, "Home again, home again."

Beth's mouth fell open. "Aimie?" she croaked.

The woman's eyes opened and she smiled and nodded.

"Omigod, I'd read about the dolls, but I've never seen one." She walked closer looking at her. She reached out and took the doll's hand and turned it over in hers. "Amazing. Not quite the same to the touch, but very, very good." She looked again at Aimie's face. "Extraordinary. How did you fit so many actuators under the face to move it like that?"

Suddenly she came back to herself, looking around her. "You shouldn't be here. It's not safe for either of us."

Aimie gave a comforting smile. "It is. We finally dismantled the last of the awful terrorist laws just recently. You're no longer being watched. You should never have been. They were the monsters, not you."

"You were chosen to be the bringer of the good news then? Thank you. I'm glad it was you."

"I have more good news. What they did to you, we now know how to undo."

Beth was lost for words. "I'll be able to sleep again? I won't have the terror flashbacks?"

"Uh, you won't have the post-traumatic stress, but you won't sleep at all. You won't need to. We've created a scanner that can map all connections within your cortex. It will capture all your memories without the emotions. We can map some of the deeper emotional memories too, but can edit out the ones you'd like to lose. We can never get you back to how you were before, but you can make improvements."

Beth was surprised. "You're talking about making a copy and fixing that. I'm guessing you'd put her in a doll."

"Or free in the net. Whatever you prefer."

"But that doesn't fix this mind." She put her fingers on her temples.

"No. We don't know how to do that yet. One day we might. Until then we're suggesting suspended animation for the biological version of you."

"Freezing? Yes, I remember reading about the improvements that made it practical at last."

"You might be interested to know that you were our primary driving motivation for that. It'll help a lot of people of course, but our main intent was to get it working for you."

Beth couldn't help smiling at that. "Flattering."

"We, and the human race, owe you big-time. We needed to right some terrible wrongs."

She took a deep breath. "Okay, when do we get started? I have no desire to face another night of horrors."

-- end --