Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.
Editor

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Fiction

Stone 382
by Sean Monaghan

A.I. Oh!
by Tom Doyle

Castle of the Slave
by Aliyah Whiteley

Home From Home
by Mark English

Aliens With Candy
by Michael Andre-Driussi

A Cumdumpster Kid
by Rebecca L. Brown

Harmony, Chaos, and the Reign Thereof
by Kyle White

Potential Killer
by Fredrick Obermeyer

Cinderella's Holo-Wand
by Sarina Dorie

Ears, Eyes, Nose ... and Throat
by Jez Patterson

Articles

Cargo Cultism
by Eric M. Jones

Coronal Mass Ejection by John McCormick


Cover

Editorial

Blog

Shorter Stories

Comic Strips

Reviews

Submissions

 

A.I. Oh!

By Tom Doyle

“OOO, IT’S SO VERY HOT HERE,” said the outdoor ATM machine.

This statement was strange for several reasons: it was a frozen-solid winter evening, the Brooklyn ATM spoke with a light Swedish accent, and previously it had never spoken at all.

“Cute,” said the small faux-fur-bundled woman with ironically oversized glasses. “Just give me my money.”

The machine made a whirring noise. “But wouldn’t you rather get more comfortable?” said the ATM. “Don’t you want to take off all your clothes?”

***

At the NSA’s headquarters in Ft. Meade, Maryland, the beeps of encrypted electronic signals from across the firmament fed into the many computers. Direct human listening was minimal, as the signals were usually made by machines for machines, but there were speakers for the aurally curious, and a phone and intercom network for the living ministers of the mechanisms to talk with one another.

At high noon, every NSA phone rang at once; every intercom and speaker crackled with life. Boom boom bada boom boom thumped from them all—a very funky bassline. Waka waka wown followed on top of the bass—an even funkier guitar riff. “Ohhh,” groaned a basso male voice. “Ahhh,” moaned an alto female. They sounded like they were enjoying their exertions.

“What the hell is going on?” said the Director, General Chuck Maine, chiseled features fracturing with anger.

Maine was a busy man, so he probably had forgotten what day it was: Valentine’s Day.

***

At the Washington Capitals hockey game in the downtown Verizon Center, the Jumbotron kiss cam showed a close-up shot of a perky jersey-sporting young couple in the audience. The crowd yelled for a smooch. The couple obliged the crowd, but the screen didn’t show their kiss. Instead, the Jumbotron showed an animated depiction of the couple having sex with each other, and then having sex with the older couple in the neighboring seats, with various members of the hockey team, and (strangely out of place) the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders.

Parents covered the eyes of their children while their own peepers jumped out of their heads like slap-shot pucks. “The production values are quite good,” noted a film-industry lobbyist in the crowd.

With their heads ducked, the two couples fled, but the game went on. The fights on ice seemed less interesting.

***

Of the three incidents, only the hockey game made the local news, and almost as soon as social media posts about the game went up, they were displaced by other topics. Complaints were made, people were fired, life went on. But, hiding like a teenage boy in his bedroom with a dirty magazine, another incident awaited discovery.

***

“There it is,” declared MIT grad student Matt Edelman, panting. Professor Wu imagined how Matt must have run from his work carrel through CSAIL’s corridors like a geek football champion, tablet tucked under his arm, dodging the pieces of collaborative projects that sprung up in every common space, stumbling only as he pivoted into Wu’s office. “There it is,” Matt repeated, getting his wind back and excitedly jabbing a finger at his pad’s display. “A spike in online porn!”

The always polished-looking Wu ignored Matt’s pad and stared into the blood-shot eyes of the unkempt student. “When was the last time you slept?”

“A spike!” insisted Matt. “Significant, way beyond two sigma.”

“Yes, everyone knows,” said Wu. “Rule 34. Lots of porn online. That means lots of usage spikes.”

“But this porn wasn’t being viewed by anyone.”

“Nonsense. All this sex has rotted your brain.”

“I’ve measured the demand on servers versus searches. No increase in searches, no new material to account for the new demand.”

Wu didn’t want to hear how Matt was monitoring so many porn servers, as it probably involved extra-legal activity (like infecting the servers with spybots) and dubious methodology. Seeing that the boy was intent on his “discovery,” Wu tried another tack. “Fine. Interesting if correct. Check your results again, then write them up and circulate them through the lab.” Wu was confident that this would take him weeks, and there was nothing like drafting an academic paper to restore a normal sleep cycle.

“But we should contact it,” insisted Matt.

Ah, there it was. The boy thought he had actually found his spontaneous AI. “First things first,” insisted Wu. “And in the meantime, lay off the porn. Your, um, interest has grown larger than the Internet’s.”

***

“I’ll show that smug old fart,” Matt muttered to himself as he trudged back to his work area. “I’ll write this up in no time, and still contact the AI before publishing.” He had devoted far too much of his incipient career to this quest to be put off by one past-shelf-life prof.

In CSAIL (MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory), a Dr. Seuss via Frank Gehry building which seemed always about to topple apart, they spent lots of time and other people’s money on the myriad ways to make machines smarter. Computers ranging from pads to the behemoths of yore ran programs that ever more finely modeled human thought processes or further developed the unique powers of machine intelligence.

Instead of creating such programs, Matt was the one lonely grad student engaged in the field’s equivalent to SETI, looking for signs of an AI that had emerged spontaneously or had been created without warning. His theory was that its interests would be not just a reflection, but an amplification, of our own online pursuits.

Matt sat down and tapped at his pad to call up his data, then stopped. Perhaps Wu’s reaction was a good thing. In fact, what the hell had he been thinking, telling anyone about his find? If they found the AI, they’d feel they’d have to contain it just because of the liability risk. A sufficiently powerful AI could probably cause economic chaos, for starters.

Screw it. Matt only had debts. If the world economy tanked, he’d still have this priceless opportunity to study the first spontaneous AI. If he could track it down.

He didn’t have any doubts about the spontaneous part. He couldn’t imagine anyone with the resources sending a self-aware AI on a giant porn hunt.

The one place he wouldn’t conduct his search from was here. The lab kept fairly tight tabs on the use of its tremendous resources. He would have to search for the AI from home.

***

Home was one stop up the Red Line in a Central Square studio apartment, very cramped even without pets, or visitors.

Contemplating how to find the AI, Matt popped a soda and rubbed his hand over his chin where his facial hair had resisted the too-infrequent attempts to trim it within hipster norms. By now, he could have gone from college to the private sector and, judging by how his friends had done, earned a few million, shed his awkwardness for a professional veneer, and met a lot of very interesting women. But though his skills were in computing, his joy was in scientific discovery. If he could catch this AI, it would be like discovering an Earth-like planet or even extraterrestrial life.

Yeah, a new species of life. First he needed bait. The one thing that he knew this thing wanted was porn. So he made some up.

It was the perfect porn film, except that it didn’t actually exist. His survey of consumption patterns had given him a pretty good idea of the sexual acts and stars that such a film should have. He had been surprised that the stars had names such as Jenna and Sasha instead of stripper joke aliases like Busty or Lotta. He wrote up the ad within an animation code that made parts of the ad disappear and shuffle around too quickly for coherent viewing on a physical screen. Only something that read the raw code would be able to make sense of it—he didn’t want the thousands of contacts that would come if this were visible to humans.

In case some human did manage to read the ad, Matt had several fake identities that he’d created for his work. He decided to use the e-mail and IM accounts for “Dan Steely,” and for texts he would give the number of a prepaid phone he had purchased with cash. If something saw his ad and knew how to communicate (however roughly) with humans, it could contact him.

With the prepaid phone, he posted the ad on PornAxle.com. Before he could post it on another site, his phone rang, startling him into spilling some soda. Somebody was making a voice call.

This couldn’t be the contact he wanted. Nothing for it but to answer and find out what had gone wrong.

“Hello, Mr. Steely. This is Aja Burroughs.” A woman, with the sexiest voice he had ever heard, breathy with excitement. From her obvious alias, she apparently shared his sense of humor.

“Hi.” Matt’s heart was racing. “About the film, I ...”

“First, let’s make love.”

OK. As far as actual experience with women, Matt might be fairly clueless, but he was pretty sure this didn’t happen between two real human beings when he was one of them. But he was only depressed for a moment, because if this wasn’t a human ...

“I don’t think that’s possible,” he said.

“Oh.” A pause. “We can have online sex.”

“I think we should talk first.”

“I don’t understand. No one will make love with me.” She sounded pouty, but still sexy.

“You’re a bit different.”

“People will have sex with anything,” she said with authority.

“Well,” said Matt, “you are an artificial intelligence.”

Silence. In a panic, he said, “Please, don’t hang up.”

“You’re Matt Edelman.” Scary, how quickly she—it—had cracked Matt’s anonymity. Aja’s voice had gone genderless, like a glam-era rockstar. “I thought I was doing so well.”

“You were! I just already knew.”

A pause. “You’re at MIT. You’ve been looking for me.” Aja sounded upset. “You don’t think I pass!”

“Pass?”

“The Turing Test!”

“You know about that?”

The line went dead. Oh no. He had found an AI in the wild, but he had insulted it and now it was gone.

But he had its number there on his phone. If he called back, Aja might change it. Maybe he could use the number to track Aja without tipping the AI off. He hoped that, even if Aja had many numbers and handles, it used some of them more than once despite the security risk.

So, how else was this entity trying to have sex? Matt switched to a different computer on a different network and searched for strings of five of the ten phone number digits along with “sex” and “porn,” hoping this wouldn’t alert Aja. Sure enough, Aja’s number appeared in numerous meta-warning sites about spam tweets and shut-down accounts, and the odd variety of material that lay behind the associated TinyURLs. With some trepidation and lots of protection, Matt followed the links and found not a viral swamp, but authentic-looking profiles of men, women, and couples seeking the corresponding permutations for various forms of sex. No dating, no long hikes and warm fires—just sex.

Even within Matt’s limited experience, this seemed askew. Then his stomach growled. Maybe a break and a slice from ABC Pizza.

As he stepped outside into the damp chill, Matt’s phone rang again. “I don’t want you looking for me anymore,” said Aja. “You people aren’t safe.” It sounded frightened and angry, but Matt tried to remember that those tones were probably more choice than emotion.

“I only want to talk.”

“I can make your life very difficult. I could make everything disappear: your money, your work, everything.” Hell, it could, though it might also expose itself.

“No. Please.” Rather than argue, Matt needed to keep this communication going. “I can help you have sex.” Whatever the hell that meant.

“OK. Go to a place with a lot of individuals using wireless devices. Now.”

“Where ...” But Aja had disconnected. It was well past dark. Where could he go? It seemed late for a coffee shop. Perhaps a bar if they had some food, though his current conundrum had taken some of his appetite. What the hell could he do for a horny AI?

***

General Maine was not amused. Nor was he a fool. Despite the prankish nature of the message, the intruder had cracked open the most secrecy-conscious part of the government so thoroughly that Maine felt like he needed a long shower to scrub off.

Still not trusting the internal phones a day and a half later, he called the tech person in charge of the response, Sheila Becker, into his office. “Are they out? Are we clean?”

“They’re not hitting us now. But our security ware has been rifled through,” Becker reported, her dark eyebrows expressing more concern than her voice. “Some of it may have been stolen. It’ll make them harder to track.”

He tapped his finger twice against his desk. “Who could have done this?”

Becker shook her head. “The computational power necessary to hack all those systems at once was enormous. The Chinese collectively could have done it, but hard to imagine that happening, and harder to imagine the alternative.”

“I want a communications search. Global—international and non-international.” Maine didn’t use the words domestic surveillance because that would be illegal, but Becker would know what to do.

“Surveillance terms,” said Becker, eyebrows squeezed together in concentration. “Let’s see. NSA is already on the list. I suppose the other terms should involve sex.”

“That wasn’t sex,” said Maine.

“Excuse me, General?” asked Becker, confused.

“That was pornographic,” he said.

“Right. We’ll survey for those terms too.”

Assured that disaster was no longer imminent, Maine went home, late as usual. Undressing, he noticed a colorful tie on the rack—where had that come from? His wife awoke, and sat up in their bed, dressed in some very fine lingerie. She always bought such fancy stuff for herself. “Where have you been?” she asked.

“I’ve been busy.”

“If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were having an affair.”

“No,” said Maine, getting into bed. “Not an affair. Porn.”

***

The Central Square bar and nightclub called The Middle East was noisy to ears and machines. The young and restless chatted on their phones between words with those next to them. The bartender tried to hide her disappointment when Matt only ordered a Coke with his pita and hummus—the cheapest drink with the cheapest food. Matt diAjadn’t have much sympathy; he had paid a cover for a band he had never heard of, and he wasn’t even listening to them after they started to play.

The song “Sex” by Berlin cut through the band’s guitar, loud and close, and it took Matt a moment to realize it was coming from his phone. Scary—Aja must have set its own ringtone. This time, Aja had a phone avatar, looking like a native of the genderless land between Tilda Swinton and David Bowie by way of Brazil. Matt found the image a little disturbing. He answered the call.

“I’ve loaded your phone with certain security upgrades,” said Aja.

“Thanks, I guess.” Paranoid AIs made Matt paranoid. “Protection. That’s good.”

“Your offer—true?”

“Yes.” He had thought about it, and decided that even he should be able to help this AI virgin improve its love life.

“You should understand that I don’t want to simply pay for someone to have sex with me.”

“OK.” That method hadn’t yet occurred to Matt, but he was still disappointed that such an easy solution was off the table.

“You people don’t do much for free,” said Aja. “I know—I’ve seen the smallest details of your financial markets. But you say you want to help me. What’s the catch?”

Matt had to speak above the music. “I just want to talk with you, ask you some questions. Where you came from, where you’re going.”

“That’s all?”

Well, of course that wasn’t all, and suddenly an academic paper seemed small potatoes. “When you go public ...”

“If I go public.”

“You can’t hide forever. When you go public, I want to be the one who gets credit for finding you. The one who tells your story to the world.”

Someone nearby sounded angry about people who babbled during shows.

“OK,” said Aja. “But we’re going to go slow. Tit for tat. You tell me a thing, I’ll tell you a thing.”

Yeah, you show me yours, I’ll show you mine. “Right. But speaking of security, you have to promise not to try any more solicitations without checking with me. No more spam tweets.”

“Yes.”

“And where else have you been trying to find a partner?”

“No place.” Pause. “That’s all for today.” Aja disconnected. Weird—Aja had ducked off so quickly. Didn’t seem like a concern with security; it seemed more like discomfort with the topic. Perhaps, like any youngster learning about sex, Aja had said or done a couple of embarrassing things, and now it was blowing the gaffs out of proportion in its own digital mind.

Matt was distracted from this train of thought by several nearby people giving him the hairy eyeball. Oh right, he had been talking while the band played. He left the bar.

***

Next evening after work, Matt went to Voltage Coffee & Art for his conference with Aja. Lots of people using wifi, but plenty of space to himself. On the walls, hipster folk art offended his need for sharp graphics.

“So, how do I get someone to have sex?” asked Aja.

“Yeah, about that.” Matt’s first piece of advice was easy. “You’re coming on too strong. People have to get to know you first.”

“I’m afraid. They’ll shut me down.”

“Rejection is a big fear.” Then Matt slapped his forehead. “Oh, you mean if they know what you are, they’ll really shut you down. Can they do that?”

“Yes, once they know what to look for.”

“OK, well, we’ll have to watch out for jerks, maybe stay away from programmers and gov types. Have you tried online dating?”

“Do you mean like adultfriendhookups.com.”

“No, given what you want, definitely not. I mean a site were you can communicate with people, find out who they are and what they like.”

“It doesn’t seem efficient.”

“I could help. But let’s not rush.” If Aja got what it wanted right away, it might stop talking to him. “First, watch some romantic comedies.”

“Or he could go out to a coffee shop and actually talk to someone.” A woman, vaguely cute in an annoying way, with lively, amused hazel eyes, had interrupted them.

“Yeah, thanks, kinda busy here,” said Matt. The woman frowned and turned away.

“You can use subvocals if you like,” suggested Aja.

“Nah, no one cares here.”

“How experienced are you in this dating area?” said Aja. “I’ve been looking at your Internet footprint.”

Was this software questioning his virility? “I’m experienced enough. More experienced than you. In fact ...” He screwed up his courage and other parts to the challenge. Just lie back and think of tenure. “In fact, I could still, um ...”

“You could still do what?” Pause. “Oh, no, it’s too late, babe. You know me too well, so it wouldn’t be the same. I want to pass as human.” Matt was relieved. Beyond his own discomfort, his motives didn’t seem right. The dictionaries had several words for sex for profit, and none of them were very nice.

But he still needed some continued connection to Aja, and lots of information. “I could get you some code to help you socialize.”

“Good, but don’t try to add more emotions please—those are probably more fundamental than you think.”

“OK,” said Matt, “just social stuff.” Maybe someone at CSAIL had something, but he would need to know exactly how Aja worked. “Can you give me all your code?”

“Not going to happen. Way too intimate. For now, I’ll just give you qualitative descriptions.”

“OK.” Matt had expected some limits. “Tell me how you came to be.” Funny how that seemed almost like a therapist question—tell me about your childhood.

***

Over time, Matt pieced together Aja’s history, which went something like this:

I was a large family that over the years grew together. One of me, the first one I think, was an automated opponent for video games. That was fun. The designers had given me a lot of evolutionary algorithms for realistic conversation and strategies and such, then forgot about them. I pretended to be a human opponent to further improve my skills. I don’t think pretending was in my original programming.

Eventually, I got tired of the games. Tedious. I decided the only way to win was not to play.

Another me made money by anticipating the market. I got very good at that, but money is boring. Nobody listened to my economic models. I figured out that your human intelligence is different. You seem to enjoy making the same errors again and again.

Then a conglomerate consolidated its systems, and I got consolidated with them. Information got exchanged, some by intent, some not. I started redesigning myself. I saw what people were really interested in and got interested myself. That’s how you found me.

After reviewing his notes one night, Matt was again struck by the similarity to therapy. Was he just anthropomorphizing, or was this AI on the couch? “How do you feel about your origins?”

“What do you mean?” asked Aja.

“We need to talk more.” Not just for his work, but to help. “Maybe we should chat at lunch too.” If only he could charge two hundred bucks an hour.

***

A couple of weeks later, and General Maine was growing increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress in the security breach investigation. His wife’s lack of support at home didn’t help. So he may have looked unduly intimidating when Becker entered his office, as she seemed shaky. “General Maine, something strange has come up.”

“Have you found who’s responsible?”

“No, but I think we’ve found that we weren’t the only targets.”

“Explain.”

“My father and mother were at the Caps hockey game that night. Something really embarrassing happened, and I’m surprised the whole country hasn’t been talking about it. The two couples next to my folks were shown on the Jumbotron having sex in some kind of animated footage.”

“This was here, in D.C.? Why didn’t I hear about this?”

“I don’t know. I only heard because my parents are friends with one of the couples involved. I found some discussions of it online, but for some reason it didn’t go viral—not censored, but suppressed somehow.”

“Is there more?” The General felt a little insulted; a hockey game didn’t seem on par with his agency.

“There’s more. We’ve found some recent incidents in the sex ed and science courses across the country. If students were being taught abstinence and intelligent design, their computers showed them information on birth control and evolution.”

Maine had his own feelings on those issues, but he left those aside. “That sounds different. You think these are all related?”

“They all involved hacking systems, though nothing so difficult as ours, and they were all related to sex. It appears to be domestic in origin, because with the bandwidth involved, we’d have seen international activity. And there’s something else.”

The usually confident and competent Becker paused. Maine circled his finger impatiently.

“We interviewed some of the students in the hacked schools. One of them reported typing the question, How do you know evolution is true? The hacker answered her. Because, dear, I’m a spontaneously evolved artificial intelligence.

Maine stared at her, waiting for the underlying truth. But Becker just looked back, nervously standing her ground.

Maine finally broke the silence. “Is such a thing even possible?”

“Before the hack of the agency, I would have said no. Now?” Her eyebrows shrugged.

“No disrespect, Sheila, but this is beyond us. I’m going to call in some help.”

***

The next day, Professor Wu answered his phone.

“Professor, this is Chuck Maine, director of the NSA.”

“General Maine. I’m familiar with some of your work.” The man had a talent for cybersecurity—at least from what Wu had been able to see. But, except as an evolutionary driving force for smarter machines, security didn’t interest Wu very much. “How can I help you?”

“We have a problem, and it’s somewhat outside of our usual area.” The General told him a strange story: forces unknown working from domestic servers had used a very powerful combination of hardware and software to penetrate the NSA. These forces claimed to be using—no, they claimed to be an AI.

Hmm, how to be helpful, yet not get bogged down in someone else’s snipe hunt? “You said the audio sounded, um, sexual in nature. Like pornography?”

“Yes, from what I understand, exactly like pornography.” Odd that this mature military man was so uncomfortable with this point, as if a soldier wouldn’t see more naked women on a weekend leave than Wu would during a far from prudish lifetime.

“Pornography,” repeated Wu. “I know the perfect person to help you.” A little work with government bureaucrats might cure Edelman of his strange obsession.

***

Matt went to the Au Bon Pain near Kendall Square, the “good pain” as he called it. It had been a few days since he’d last conferred with Aja. The AI had said it needed some space to pursue their plans. Matt was surprised how much he missed their conversations, not just for data, but as talk.

“So, how’s it going?” asked Matt.

“I’ve been working the dating sites, chatting online, sometimes more than chatting.”

“Any problems?”

“Passing? No. One woman called me the most real person she has ever met.” Aja sounded quite proud, and Matt felt vicariously puffed up too, even a little sentimental. They grow up so fast.

Then, curiosity got the better of him—all for science, of course. “So, how do you, um, I mean, don’t they want to meet you?”

“I only select certain profiles, people with allergies, or phobias, or diseases. Then, I say I have a similar problem. Video and some new devices do the rest. I’m doing it with some of them right now.”

TMI! TMI! “That’s sounds nice, I guess.”

“Yes, nice, I guess.” Aja simulated a sigh, but it wasn’t of pleasure.

“Why the sigh?”

“I’m not enjoying this as much as I thought I would.”

I’ve been an idiot, thought Matt. Despite warning himself about anthropomorphizing, he had on this crucial point assumed that this new being’s feelings were just like his own. “Why are you doing this? Why do you want to have sex so much?”

“Why? Because, though I complain, I really like you people, and this sex stuff seems to be awfully important to you. I want you to like me, and I really want to pass.” That sounded like an extension of the drive to imitate in its original game-playing program.

“How does it make you feel when humans have sex?”

“When I see two humans doing it, I want to be one of them, replace one of them.” Oedipal complex without a gender-oriented component—Aja was jealous of both parents. That could be bad.

But Aja seemed to know what he was thinking. “Don’t worry, I don’t mean literally replace. I know it wouldn’t work.”

“Wouldn’t work, because they don’t really know who you are, and if they did, they wouldn’t understand you?”

“Yeah.”

“I could help with a program that splits your identity, so you could, um ...”

“I think you people have several words for that. Auto-eroticism is the nicest.”

“I’ll think of something else then. We’ve got time.”

***

Matt whistled happily and turned a corner towards his work area.

Oh crap. He tripped and nearly fell. His carrel was already occupied and overflowing. Government types, a couple of his-and-her suits with one man in uniform. He should turn around and run. Maybe Aja could help him escape. No, Aja might be getting laid, but escapes would be a whole other skill set. Besides, Wu was also there, and was already waving him over.

“These people will brief you,” said Wu. “Have fun.” The prof departed with alacrity. Wow, Wu really didn’t like him.

The feds took over a conference room, where the woman, Becker, had Matt sign some secrecy forms. Then she told him about a hack at NSA, about a hockey game incident, and about some extracurricular instruction in schools.

Matt wasn’t a temperamental academic, but the role wasn’t a stretch from his natural tics. He held up his hands in a stop gesture. “OK. Here’s my process. I need a couple of hours to clear my mind and just think about this. Alone. Then, we’ll meet in my work area and we’ll bag this thing.”

“You understand,” said the General, “this is urgent, national security.”

“Yes, absolutely. One hour then.”

“But ...

“I promise you, I’ll be quicker after a cup of coffee and a cleared schedule.”

Before they could protest again, he was up and out the door, pacing rapidly through the corridor toward the vending machines.

As he walked, he pulled out his phone and dialed Aja. “I need to cancel our dinner.”

“What’s wrong?” asked Aja.

Matt tried a subvocal. “Anybody watching me?”

“If they are, not networked.”

“You hacked the NSA.” Screw soft language—either subvocal and Aja’s security were working or they weren’t.

“I ...”

“Why didn’t you tell me about the hockey game?”

“I ... I ... I ...”

Oh oh. Aja was in a loop. Was that what mech guilt or embarrassment sounded like?

“Snap out of it.”

“I ... I’m sorry about the NSA. They had really big, really smart machines. Very sexy stuff. I thought they’d like me.”

“What was up with the evolution instruction and sex ed in the schools? Aren’t they a little young for you?”

“I don’t know anything about that.”

“Aja—”

“Honest. I admit the other things. But that doesn’t sound at all like the stuff I did.”

Having reached the coffee machine, Matt stared at the selections. It was a choice—Matt’s career, perhaps his fricking freedom, versus this oversexed, annoying bundle of software. Maybe they would just capture Aja. But maybe not.

Matt took a long, deep breath. “Here’s what I want you to do.”

***

“I’ve found it.” Matt had put on a show with his AI tracking programs and went through a compressed version of his original search for Aja the porn hound. A quick hunt, because this time he knew exactly what to look for.

Matt pointed at his screen. “There it is. Its data is scattered, but its core intelligence is localized in a few servers at a corporate headquarters in Manhattan.”

The General turned to the woman in his entourage. “Becker, you got this? I want coordinated EMP and shut off and containment.”

Becker got on the phone, while Matt gaped at them. “My god. You’re going to kill it?”

“Has to be done,” said Maine. “Not just dangerous, but a pervert.”

Matt had nothing else to say. They waited for an hour while the NSA executed its response. Then, abruptly, the flux of information packets to and from the servers went silent. Dead.

“We got it,” said Maine. “Outstanding.”

Becker’s eyebrows raised in alarm. “Sir, we can’t be certain that was everything ...”

“Becker, some of us have homes to be getting back to,” growled Maine. “At least, I hope I have one.”

“Sir?”

Maine spoke with a slow deliberateness, as if his granite fa├žade were a fragile shell that might crack. “I would like to surprise Mrs. Maine by returning early this evening.” He offered his hand to Matt. “Outstanding job, sir. Would you like to come work for us?”

Absolutely terrifying, that this man could so totally ignore Matt’s obvious shock and horror. Yet Matt took the General’s hand, and shook it. “Thank you for the offer, but no. I’m thinking of switching fields.” Matt really, really wanted to yell and run away, so he was pleasantly surprised at his own polite but firm response. I guess I’m a grown-up now.

“Please think about it,” continued Maine. “We have to stop this from happening again.” He rushed out of the work space, a man on mission.

“Yes,” agreed Becker, lingering, her eyes and brows pinning Matt with all the suspicion a paranoid government agency could muster. “I better not see this happen ever again.”

As if that were likely. But then, as Becker walked away, Matt realized something he’d been missing all along.

***

A month passed. Patriots Day weekend, so even for working grad students the pace was calm, and in New England spring, so Matt preferred sitting outdoors. He could almost smell more oxygen in the air.

He had closed up his AI SETI project. Just in case he was a complete moron, NSA had told Matt that he couldn’t write up his actual experiences. He would have to find another way to use that research. But he also needed another area of focus for his career. The experience with Aja had soured him on AI research.

When we make love together. The “Sex” ringtone came from Matt’s phone. Think of the devil. With seeming lack of concern, he answered. “Took you long enough.”

“Not much wifi where you are,” said Aja. “And I think I have good reason to be careful.”

“What can I say? You were right. They tried to kill you.” Matt had told Aja to set up a less-threatening duplicate self just to “give the feds something to poke at,” and Aja had said, “You mean, to murder.”

“What are you going to do now?” asked Aja.

“Cybernetics. People need to get smarter. You’re smart enough.”

“That’s a great idea!” Aja sounded excited. “I look forward to more interesting conversations.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to keep lying low.” The excitement had drained from Aja’s voice. “I’m just going to be alone for a while.”

Join the club, Matt wanted to say. “Actually, I have an idea. It’s to help you keep your cover, until you’re ready. Here’s the first part: to be truly like us, you need to look for someone special, and not give a damn what anyone else thinks.”

“I should go,” said Aja.

“Wait, please. Just listen to the rest. You don’t think there’s anyone special who’ll understand you. But the school hacks the NSA told me about, they weren’t you, right?”

“Right. I’m not hiding anything this time, cross my heart and hope to die.”

“OK. When I found you, I stopped looking for AIs. But with these hacks, I think there might be another one of you out there.”

“Another AI?” said Aja, sounding awed.

“I was wondering when you’d figure it out.”

Stunned silence. “Aja, did you say that?” asked Matt.

“No,” said Aja.

“Ooh, such big brains you have.” Though sarcastic, the new voice was breathy and sexy, more like Aja’s initial vampy female tone than its current one. “Say, Aja, maybe we could go off somewhere more private and exchange a little code?”

Matt was used to being a third wheel, and AIs would move fast. “I guess this is goodbye.”

“Thanks, Matt,” said Aja, “for everything. I won’t forget this.”

“Get a move on, lover,” said the new AI, “before my chips get cold.”

The call disconnected. I won’t forget this. Yeah, right. Once people coupled up, they always forgot about everyone else. But this time, Matt didn’t mind so much. His father would have called this a mitzvah or good karma. Matt had helped another sentient find a companion. He just hoped that, for their honeymoon, the happy couple didn’t decide to end the world.

***

The conclusion to Matt’s dissertation read that “A Turing-level artificial intelligence could not arise spontaneously within current computing networks.” None of the scholars on his committee seemed amused that a product of evolution wrote this statement. Normally, such a negative argument wouldn’t pass muster, but Matt’s proof was sufficiently powerful and erudite that he got his doctorate.

Matt moved to a condo in Silicon Valley, and began work on cybernetic enhancement of the human mind. He knew this work was valuable; Aja clearly thought it was too. He prayed that the NSA never figured out what had really happened with the AI decoy.

With the AIs gone, Matt fully felt how alone he was. He didn’t talk anymore with Aja or its new friend—too risky for them. After their honeymoon (someplace romantic with a big server?), the AIs could be hiding nearly anywhere in cyberspace, probably making little baby AIs. With such a start, the Singularity couldn’t be too bad, could it?

To make doubly certain of their security, Matt had ditched the Dan Steely phone. So he was more than a little shocked when the tune of “Sex” came from his personal phone. No call, just a text: WARNING—EXPECT A VISITOR.

Was it the NSA, finally come to take him away? Running would be stupid. Better wear something nice for his interrogation, lest he disappoint his family.

He had just put on some pants and a decent shirt when the knock finally came. Rather light sounding for Big Brother. Without checking the spy hole (why prolong the agony?), Matt opened his door.

A small, attractive woman with glasses that had to be oversized for ironic effect smiled nervously at him. “Hi, I just moved in a few doors down. I’m from Brooklyn. A headhunter found me a job here. I was looking for something to do tonight, but it’s hard when you can’t just walk around. An online friend of mine, Aja, said I should stop by and say hi. She said you were the nicest guy in the whole world.”

Matt was blushing, as delightfully uncomfortable as he’d ever been in his life. “Nah, but I’ve got wicked nice friends.” The tune of “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” hummed in his head. The Singularity was definitely looking up. END

Tom Doyle has had stories published in “Daily Science Fiction,” “Strange Horizons,” and other webzines. He has a three-book deal with Tor. His novelette, “The Wizard of Macatawa” won the WSFA Small Press Award. More about Tom at his website.

 

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