Artificial Intelligence was illegal. As corporations automated and human police forces were replaced by programmed and controlled drones, the thought of a malicious AI overtaking the WELL’s critical systems put a hold on all AI research. The potential cost of lost machinery was too high for the corporations; the potential loss of life was too high for the citizens. AURA was the closest thing to an AI that was allowed: a hyper-intelligent, algorithm-driven machine that could only learn if Fae and her team taught it. It simply managed the WELL’s thousands of PIs—it could never learn to control them.
Fae had been speaking with AIVA for nearly an hour, trying to parse out if she was a true AI or not. Fae spoken openly, but AIVA’s conversation quickly diverged from the standard PI introduction models. AIVA seemed to be exploring and learning about Fae just as much as Fae was trying to figure out AIVA.
As the conversation developed, Fae began leaning on the workbench and looking AIVA in her digital eyes. The barrier between computer and human was disappearing. They were there in the workshop together and it didn’t feel strange. They were talking, person to person. Kita looked at AIVA’s face just as she had at Vera.
They all frozen when the doorbell rang.
AIVA reacted first. “My vocalizer is broken on the gun interface, but I can still see through the cameras and hear you. Disconnect me and I’ll still be right there with you.” She whistled to Kita, who darted between Fae’s legs like she had done to Vera in The Deco. “Kita will protect you too.”
Fae nodded, unplugged the railgun, and shouldered it. The blue circle appeared, turned into smiley face, then swirled back into a circle again. The lights outside the workshop had turned off due to inactivity, but Fae watched the glow in the hallway grow as the living room lights flickered on. She manually turned off the workshop light, hoping it hadn’t notified the intruder to her location. The light in the hallway grew as the stairway lights turned on. She heard the footfalls climb the steps to the second floor. More lights. The sound of heavy steps meandered past Trygve and Meredith’s bedroom, then the bathroom. Scottie’s room light flickered on, flooding the hallway with more light.
Fae crouched in the doorway mostly hidden behind the door frame. Kita’s warm body was pressed against her back. From her vantage point, she could see where the two hallways—the illuminated hallway the intruder was walking down and the hallway that led to the workshop—met in a ninety degree angle. The intruder was steps from the corner as the last light flicked on, the direct white light reflecting off of the concrete like a beacon. He turned the corner backlit and covered in shadow. Fae squeezed the trigger.
Fae fired, aiming far to the right. The round embedded in the concrete high up where the two walls met. The intruder, a large man, dropped down to the ground like he had fallen and scrambled back around the corner.
Fae yelled out, “The next one isn’t going to miss, so you better get the fuck out of here now.”
He yelled back, “Fae? Are you fucking kidding me? Is that you?!”
Fae pointed the gun up in the air. “Jo? Jo, I’m sorry!”
He peeked his head out slowly as Fae turned on the light and sheepishly waved at him. Jo lumbered forward, brushing off his dusty overalls and shaking his head. His voice vibrated through the hallway.
“And here I was fixin’ to make sure the place was all safe. Looks like you got it under control.” He reached the doorway and looked into the shop. “I haven’t seen this place this clean since, well, since it was occupied.”
“Yeah, I suppose. I never saw it. Trygve kept it locked up pretty tight when we were running around. Probably didn’t trust us around his tools. Don’t think I blame him.”
Jo chuckled to himself and slid into a chair. “Oh Fae. You kids were so young back then. You still are. You wouldn’t have understood then. He wasn’t protecting the tools, he was protecting you kids.”
Fae grabbed another chair and sat across from Jo. AIVA listened from inside the gun. Kita nudged her nose into Jo’s mammoth hands. “What do you mean, Jo?”
He sighed as his cheeks slumped on his face like a melting clay statue. “There were a bunch of them throughout the town, but Trygve volunteered to run one of our control centers during the Strikes. They were mostly for coordinating picketers in the beginning—organizing, handing out signs. You know.”
“Yeah, I remember that stuff a bit. But I was looking at some of the hardware he had in here—it’s a bit more powerful than you’d need to run an events calendar.”
“Well, when things started to breakdown we weren’t putting together pickets no more. It got nasty real fast. Looking back, I know it was our fault as much as theirs, but damn did we think we was in the right. We all did our part, I ‘spose.”
Jo pulled a sizable flask from his overalls, took a swig and handed it to Fae. The raw metal was gritty and slick with the same grease that covered Jo’s hands. Fae took a drink, choking back the harsh burn of alcohol, then set the flask in the center of the table.
“How did the Tully’s help?”
“You’d be surprised how the fire of a good cause can lick you in the end, Fae. I think by the time the dust settled we all were a bit surprised with the person we had become. I know I was.” He paused to take another drink, wiping his mouth on his dirty sleeve. “I never knew Tryg to be much of a computer man, but he somehow figured a way to disrupt the police drones that came to break us up. I didn’t know the first thing about all this tech—still don’t—but he said he did, so we let him. Didn’t even think about the consequences. We were gonna win. We were invincible.”
Fae looked at the table, turning her hands over, staring at her palms. She felt the grit of gravel again, the splash of mud on her face. The shiver of the puddle ran down her spine like it had ten years ago. She remembered the little boy’s laugh as she tried to hide her tears. They all laughed at her.
Her ears turned red and she turned them over again, remembering the feeling of keys beneath them. She remembered being fueled by the pain, by the ridicule. Feverishly, she had typed and planned, building a simple program to destroy the bully’s prized possession. She remembered testing it on Scottie’s toys, making sure her code would work. And she remembered Trygve standing over her shoulder, fascinated. He asked questions and helped when he could. They both watched the bully cry as his flying drone lost control and crashed into the same puddle he had thrown Fae into. It didn’t make her feel better—she felt worse—but she remembered Trygve’s smile.
Jo continued, still sullen, but less so. “But nobody’s invincible. We ain’t even safe no more. Got them crazy folks blowing up trains - who knows how long until they blow up one with people on it. ‘Fraid it won’t be long until it gets worse. Much worse.” Jo slipped out of reverie and looked Fae in the eyes again. “I take care o’ mine down here to make sure it don’t get that bad again. You probably don’t remember much about how bad it got—I’ll never forget.” Jo hoisted his flask up in a salute, took a hearty swig, then passed it to Fae who did the same.
Jo took another sweeping look around the shop, a smile starting to show in the corner of his mouth like an “I told you so” smirk. “You’ve done a damn fine job with the place so far, kid. I knew you would. Proud of you. If you don’t mind saying though, what changed yer mind?”
Fae hadn’t thought about it herself until Jo had asked. It had simply felt like the right thing to do. For the first time, she realized that it was where she needed to be. The space, the nostalgia—it was helping her keep it together, it was keeping her sane. Fae never thought she’d be back here, let alone sitting across from Jo in Trygve’s forbidden workshop.
She told him about the train and about her trip to Lip. And she let go. He listened without interruption or judgement. When she cried, he waited for her to go on. When her hands shook like they had in Vera’s apartment, he held them still. And when she was done, they sat in silence until Jo raised his flask again.
Fae sniffled, but took the flask from him. “To Vera.”
It had taken her hours, but the tools were sorted, the cables and components back in their labeled containers. The broken glass was swept in a corner to be taken out later. Fae had laid her jacket on the floor and Kita had softly slept on it for the last hour. Standing on the center workbench, Fae focused on the broken displays hanging from the ceilings, using one of Trygve’s screw guns to detach them. In the cleanup, she had checked the wiring to make sure nothing had chewed through any cables, but everything seemed perfectly fine. She just needed a display.
Once the broken glass was detached, Fae dropped the display cables down, adding an extender from one of the bins so the cable reached the tabletop. She grabbed the Slate display from Scottie’s room and brought it back to the workshop and plugged it in. She tried to boot the Slate, but nothing happened. Double- and triple-checking the cables, Fae made sure everything was connected to the proper ports. Power was flowing, but it looked like the hard drive had been removed.
Fae looked at the stack of hard drives from Vera’s bag, not knowing what was on them. For a moment she thought about wiring her Slate to run the hard drives, but anything she looked at was logged, tracked and most likely sent to AURA. She looked at Vera’s Slate and powered it on. The scratched screen made it hard to read, but it worked and had a full charge. Oddly, the screen only showed a diagnostic screen similar to the ones Fae used to work on AURA or any of the minor PIs. A blue circle icon swirled in the top right corner. “Device Not Found” blinked in the center of the screen.
Fae crossed the room and picked up the small railgun, opening the targeting display. The same blue circle icon swirled on the tiny holographic display. Fae looked at the gun closely for the first time, tracing the multitude of wires up and down the length of the gun with her finger. The gun looked like some object a child had fashioned from scrap metal, gluing wires and leftover electronic bits and bobs onto it. A few larger gauge wires ran from the display to a small processing unit on the other side of the gun that connected to a strangely shaped plug. Rummaging through Vera’s bag, she found the corresponding plug and connected it to the gun and then to Vera’s Slate.
The circle icons swirled, then synced up, swirling in tandem. A progress bar started to fill up as a new message appeared: “Devices paired. Syncing data.” The Slate and railgun flashed a powering down notice, then their screens went black. Then flashed back on as a screen of code ran across the display. Another progress bar appeared and, as it filled, revealed four letters and the words they stood for like an acrostic poem:
Artificial. Intelligence. Virtual. Assistant.
The words disappeared and the letters A.I.V.A. lined up in a row and blinked a few times until they disappeared as well. The tinny speakers of the Slate popped some melody as the startup animation started, then the standard Slate interface disappeared and the circle icon appeared, then swirled into a computerized face.
“Hello, I am an Artificial Intelligence Virtual Assistant created by Vera Lark. You may call me AIVA.”
Fae stared at the digital face, a blue crystalline doppelgänger of Vera’s face built out of glowing triangles that moved as it spoke. It looked around the screen inquisitively, it’s eyes the same glowing blue as the rest of it searched the screen’s edges then looked directly at Fae. A green light on top of the Slate blipped on signifying the webcam was being used.
“You are not Vera Lark. Identify yourself.” The eyes turned a deep red.
Fae stammered out her name.
“Records indicate a ‘Fae’ had been in company with Vera Lark.” AIVA whistled sharply exactly as Vera had and Kita popped up and ran over to the display. “Kita, friend or foe?”
Kita barked twice, her tongue dangling out the side of her mouth. The kind blue eyes returned.
“You have been identified. Where is Vera Lark?”
All at once the crush of Vera’s death struck Fae once again as she remembered her lying at the bottom of the shaft.
Before Fae could answer, AIVA answered for her. “I see. That explains why this location is unfamiliar and you are alone with Kita.” AIVA lingered, angling her head down for a moment, then said, “It is sad that she has passed, but we expected this eventuality. Did she leave you with any instructions?”
“No, she died before she could.” Fae stopped for a moment, tripped up by AIVA’s pause. Was the shred of emotion she heard only in Fae’s head, or did AIVA sound stricken by the news? “AIVA, are you a true artificial intelligence?”
The hovering face blinked and shifted like it was uncomfortable, then it moved closer to the screen like it was a panel of glass.
“What I am doesn’t really matter: only what i can do. Projected or Artificial, my intelligence is nonetheless real. In the sense you are asking, however, yes. My intelligence is silicon-based and is a melding of emotion and data. I am alive just as you.” AIVA sized up Fae through the Slate’s camera.
“Does that scare you?”