Chapter 3: White Walls, Bloody Hands

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Start from the beginning.

The corporate offices in the upper levels of the tower were well-appointed. As the lift opened, Fae and Matt nearly choked on the sterile smell of chemicals wafting through the hallways. A trim and prickly receptionist behind a minimal glass-topped desk silently waved them to an office at the end of the hallway. They walked slowly toward the door, the soft pad of their footsteps echoing off the concrete floor.

Immediately following the derailment—as per protocol—AURA locked down all Slates being used and cached all relevant data: verbal commands from Fae and Matt, any resources opened at the time, and any video footage. Lift access was locked down until a Sigma Security detail could arrive and escort Fae and Matt to their after-action debriefing.

Fae went through the door first as it recognized her ID embedded in her Slate and clothing. Two straight-backed wooden chairs rested on a thin, dark gray rectangular rug. They moved next to the chairs, both of them lingering for a moment before sitting down—wooden goods of any kind were incredibly expensive and highly sought after. As she sat, each creak of the chair put Fae on edge. Her chair was worth more than she would make in her life - the pair worth more than all the damage done in the past two hours.

Fae and Matt silently stared forward, the creak of the chair as they adjusted their posture spoke for them. Beside the rug and two chairs, a glass-top desk, similar to the receptionist’s, was centered in the room, an elegant steel chair tucked precisely beneath it. The transparent desktop Slate was off, light streaming through it. The glass was unblemished; it seemed to be more a prop than a device used for work. Out the window was a magnificent view of the greenway below. Golden rays of real sunshine touched the railing on this side of the WELL - simulated sun matched the brilliant color on the ceiling above.

Fae went through the derailment, moment by moment. She analyzed each command she gave AURA, ensuring that Matt had worked as efficiently as possible and that AURA had operated as she had been programmed to. Ultimately, all that had happened was on Fae’s shoulders and all of the evidence would be minced for months detailing every inefficient command, foolish decision, or simply wrong analysis of the scene at hand. Fae knew the responsibility would all fall onto her and her creation. She waited impatiently to discover how steep the punishment would be and how little Sigma upper management would do to remedy the problem.

The door behind them beeped then opened. Neither Fae nor Matt turned to see who entered—they didn’t need to. By the time the door had closed, a tall, dark red-haired woman was behind the desk, turning to look at them. She seemed jagged. Sharp cheekbones angled upwards, eyebrows trimmed to points, her lips thin like razors, pursed in a mix of disappointment and annoyance.

“Do I need to give you two an economics lesson, or do you fully understand the full-blown cock-up this situation is for Sigma?” Fae imagined that at some point her voice had had a gentle Irish lilt to it, but it had been crushed into a bitter, flat accent. “Hundreds of millions of dollars vaporized. One of the main railways to Novar Robotics—our largest supplier of police drones—reduced to slag. Billions in repairs needed to rebuild the railway and reinforce the tunnel. Hundred of millions more to seal cracks and reinforce levels of the WELL half a mile away. And to top it all off, we’ve got thirty-five body bags at the Novar terminal because those idiots were loitering on the damned platform.”

The building knot in Fae’s stomach tightened at the mention of casualties. With all that had happened, she had thought no one had been hurt; AURA’s sensors were dead near the terminal, but it appeared no one had been there.

With most of her rage unloaded, the woman’s demeanor settled for a moment, her eyebrows marginally softened their angle. “So. We have a major issue here and I need to blame someone. My fear is that this is AURA’s fault and we’ll have to reset her or restart the project.”

Realizing her statement was a question after a pause, Fae spoke up, “Ma’am, I’d like to make it clear that this was not AURA’s fault. You’ll see in her reports that she followed every command I gave her. Without her, we would not have been able to attempt to reduce the effects of this disaster. I would also like to make it clear that Matthew was only operating at my command and only worked in a secondary role never communicating with AURA.”

“So, AURA did her job, Matthew did his. What did you do to prevent this disaster, Ms. Nils?”

Matt leaned forward and spoke up before Fae could. “If I may, ma’am, Fae did everything she could to mitigate the damage done. In fact, the vulnerabilities in AURA have been mentioned several times to upper management—“

“Matt.” Fae said, trying to speak over him. “This isn’t the time to have this discussion.”

“—and little to nothing has been done.”

“Matthew, are you unhappy with how the corporation has been treating your team?”

“No, ma’am. I’m unhappy with how the AURA Project has unnecessarily been halted knowing that the solutions that Fae had presented, specifically on the point of disaster prevention,  have been thrown to the wayside. This situation could have been stopped or at least managed in a more timely and efficient matter with decreased losses.”

The woman focused her eyes, squinting in anger at Matt. She spoke methodically, choosing each word with precision. “Matthew. Your complete disregard for authority and the decisions made by Sigma is apparent. Listen to Ms. Nils and close your mouth. Return to your desk and remain there as we archive anything and everything related to this incident. Leave.”

Matt’s mouth hung open in shock. Fae looked down at her shoes, her hands on her knees tensing into fists.

“Now.”

He stood up, the chair creaking from the released weight. “We could’ve stopped this. We had the chance to and you took it from us. That blood isn’t on our hands.” Then he left. They heard his angry stomps all the way to the lift.

The woman slumped into the steel chair. She slouched, cradling her head in her hands and rubbed her temples. Fae adjusted in her seat, creaking again.

“Listen. We both know what he said isn’t wrong. I can all but guarantee another disaster like this is avoided if you give my team the go ahead to make AURA what she should’ve been all along. A real intelligence, not just some simulated manager. AURA works, sure. We can create a real artificial intelligence that works for us, not the other way around.”

“Fairweather, I’m not having this conversation. Sigma has been very clear on its views on artificial intelligence.”

“We don’t know what happened on that train. We don’t know what that device was. We don’t know how they gained control. We don’t even know who ‘they’ is. You’re telling me an intelligence with the ability to learn anything in an infinitesimally small amount of time wouldn’t be able to help?”

“Watch yourself, Ms. Nils. You don’t know what you’re playing with. We’re not dabbling in artificial intelligence. And let me clue you in on something, Mr. Peter Monik’s removal had everything to do with the conversation we’re having right now. Sigma isn’t in the business of saving lives - it’s in the business of business. The introduction of an AI we have no possible way of being accountable for is an incalculable risk that could cost us everything. No matter how positive it is for profits, efficiency, even safety, the cost if it goes wrong is too high.”

“We’re talking about human lives here though. Your workers, your family! Or even your profits! Everything in this WELL is run with intelligences: freight, transportation, surveillance, trading, commerce. All of it. And it’s all vulnerable because you can’t be bothered to protect it.”

“You can either stop now or continue this conversation in your exit interview. Your choice. Our position is not changing.”

Fae stood silently looking out the window past the exasperated bureaucrat. The sun had moved back from the railing - it was nearly noon - and people were dispersed throughout the manicured greenway. Families picnicked and small children played. Fae looked further, through the haze of the WELL’s center and saw the continuation of Sigma towers lining this level. The defined glass edges disappeared with the distance - all that remained were the steel and glass cylinders running all the way to the level’s ceiling. They didn’t look like pieces of modern architecture.

They looked like prison bars.

 
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