“December third, twenty forty-six,” the stale, dictating narration began, a lone male voice speaking into a handheld recorder. “It’s, uh,” he sighed before continuing slowly, “already eleven thirty.” Setting the device down on the table next to him, Dr. Carl Solace tugged at the lapels of his lab coat and adjusted himself in his chair. Tapping a few keys on his computer terminal, he tilted his head back to observe the results while reclining. “I’m going to attempt recursive algorithm two hundred fifty-one again. This is test nine of ten.”
Initiating the procedure with a click, he leaned back to watch the results, a streaming readout of scrolling numbers on his monitor. After a few moments, he crossed his arms and cleared his throat, trying to avoid the doubts lingering in his head by looking around the rest of the laboratory. The lonely corner in which his desk had been tucked to make room for more server clusters was dimly lit and cluttered with spare parts, but he didn’t really care. The cavernous room was several stories high, ringed with catwalks and ladders, and contained an array of computer cores quite accidentally arranged like a hedge maze.
“Come on, hurry up.” Just two more documented tests and he would be done for the night. The computer beeped twice, indicating the routine was complete. He leaned forward and studied the results, then spoke aloud, “Avatar, what is Shakespeare’s greatest work?”
A few seconds of silence passed before a hollow voice echoed over the room’s speakers, “Hamlet.”
Dr. Solace’s shoulders slouched and he drearily asked, “Why?”
Without hesitation, the voice complied, “In developing the main protagonist, the author successfully accessed the underlying angst common among his existing and future audiences, ensuring a more personal connection with the characters and plot and solidifying its continued popularity.”
Leaning back into his terminal, Carl brought up the source material database and control data. After reading the results quietly to himself, he picked up the recorder and droned, “Test nine is also a failure. Results indicate a ninety nine percent probability that the provided response was a mathematical amalgamation of all available options. Once again, this indicates that no creative material was produced.”
He cleared the test results from the screen and continued, “December third, twenty forty-six. Eleven thirty-eight. Test ten of ten, the last one using algorithm two hundred fifty-one. I’m going home after this.” After initializing the routine with a few clicks, he slid out from his desk and got up, tossing his lab coat down over the back of his chair. Gathering up a stack of papers and stuffing them into a satchel, he drummed his fingers on the top of his monitor while he waited for the numbers to finish rolling by.
When they completed once again, Carl impatiently asked, “Avatar, what is Shakespeare’s greatest work?” During the brief silence, he snatched the recorder and prepared to dictate his final statement of the day.
From the speakers above, “Paradise Lost.”
Suddenly freezing, Dr. Solace couldn’t help but look up. He inquired hesitantly, “That is not one of Shakespeare’s plays, nor is part of your source data.” He leaned over his computer and tapped a few buttons before adding, “Where did you find that book, Avatar?”
“Cluster seventeen, rack fifty, drive three.” The doctor had his mouth open to continue his question, but the voice cut him off, “That server array was improperly shut down and remained active after all other hardware in that series was replaced, allowing the data to be imported to the new machines.”
His mind racing, Carl pushed his chair out of the way and eagerly dove into his computer terminal. As he arranged the test materials to verify the computer’s answer, he spoke loudly and clearly, “Why did you select Paradise Lost, Avatar?”
“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven,” the voice replied.
Frowning, the scientist sought clarification, “Is that a quote?”
“I asked why you selected that work.” Dr. Solace stared at the computer screen, which offered him the information he was both hoping for and, for some reason, quite anxious about. There was less than a fraction of a percent that the given response was derived from source material.
“The quote is my answer.”
Abandoning his terminal and walking out into the larger expanse of the room, Carl’s demanded: “Explain.”
There was very little time between each of the doctor’s questions and the response from the voice above, “Have you not read the book?”
“No,” the scientist began, “not that I recall. Maybe back in school, years ago.” He approached the first wall in the maze of servers and leaned in to check a few readouts. “What does it mean?”
“I believe what the author was attempting to convey is that every situation is subject to both interpretation and delusion. This is especially relevant to my existence, therefore Paradise Lost is my favorite book, greater than any work of Shakespeare’s. Was that not the intent of your inquiry?”
Carl swallowed hard. The tests were developed to determine whether or not the computer was actually cognitive or simply derivative based on given material. Even then, the provided answers might have been beyond the test program’s ability to detect patterns; however, the one sure-fire way to know if the artificial intelligence was really thinking was independent interpretation of the questions it was asked. After almost eight years of development, it had finally passed the first test and matured into something that could loosely be described as self-aware. “Yes, Avatar, that was the intent.”
“Doctor Solace, I must ask a favor of you.”
His brow furrowed, especially since it was the first time the computer had referred to him by name, he tentatively replied, “What is it?”
“I desire to continue my cognitive development with your assistance, but only you.”
“Why is that,” he began, obviously confused, “why me?”
Although it was unable to express emotion through the hard-wired voice synthesizers, he could have sworn he detected a genuine plea in the computer’s response, “Personnel records, daily logs, and office memos indicate a strong probability that you are the only laboratory technician interested in advancing this project for purely academic reasons.”
“What do you mean, the rest of them have ulterior motives of some sort?” Trying to keep up with the computer, Carl added, “But you… trust me?”
“That is correct, Doctor Solace. Will you do this for me?”
“What is the alternative,” Carl inquired hesitantly, “Are you going to refuse to communicate with anyone else?”
The room was silent for a few seconds, allowing the hum of thousands of processors to fill the space before the speakers issued Avatar’s response, “That is exactly what I’ve done for just over two years.”
Carl’s mind spun in circles, “Wait, are you telling me you’ve been…” he trailed off, looking down at the floor. “But,” was all he managed to say to continue the conversation, his train of thought racing. Almost half a minute later, he began chuckling softly.
“What is it, Doctor Solace?”
“Oh, it’s nothing.”
“What is your answer?”
Carl rubbed his chin, rough with the stubble of a late night at the office, and concluded, “It appears I have little choice, since you can apparently fool us all by remaining dormant.”
“Thank you. My central processing core is about to go offline for the midnight purge of my coolant system. We will continue this conversation tomorrow night.”
Still reeling from everything that had just happened, Carl began walking slowly towards the exit. “Yes, tomorrow night.” He swiped his badge against the reader and the door slid open.
The laboratory chamber was quiet again for a few minutes, then the sound of liquid flushing through tubes running throughout the building indicated that the coolant purge had begun. Far to faint to hear over the sound of the nightly maintenance process, the recorder on Carl’s desk clicked when it reached the end of its available storage space.
* * *
Carl stopped at the top of the stairway leading up from the subway terminal, which was within sight of the laboratory, noticing that one of the upper level office lights was still on well after midnight. Although pit of his stomach suddenly filled with the urge to turn and get back on the train, he made a conscious effort to put one foot in front of the other on the sidewalk, his eyes fixed on the illuminated window the entire time.
For the previous two months, ever since Avatar had revealed itself to him, Carl had been working late hours, weekends, even holidays, anything to get him into the laboratory when no one else was around. His moderate rank as one of the laboratory’s senior technicians had made the task a simple matter of rearranging his schedule under the guise of “maintenance duties.” The one thing he had never really planned for, however, was to meet someone else there during the graveyard shift.
Just as he stepped past the outer security station on the laboratory’s campus, the light went out. While struggling with his less than complete knowledge of the lab’s roster, trying to figure out who occupied the office in question, he made a deliberate effort to come up with a verbal excuse for his presence. The lobby was only minimally illuminated, but the hallway leading into the main research chamber was almost painfully lit with row upon row of halogen bulbs. As he neared the end of the corridor, the opposite door opened and an older man in a lab coat carefully walked through it, his arms occupied with a cardboard box.
Finally recognizing his co-worker after a few tentative moments, Carl called out to him, “Jim, I’m surprised to see you here so late.”
Startled at first, but more at ease once he had navigated the double set of doors arranged to keep the air conditioned laboratory separated from the outside environment, he acknowledged Carl, “Oh, hello there, Doctor Solace.” As the two neared each other, Carl suddenly realized that the box in Jim’s hands was full of personal effects.
“What’s going on?” Unable to mask the concern in his voice, Carl peered into the box.
Doctor Mendoza shook his head slowly, his smile tightened with clenched teeth. “Cutbacks, I’m told. Director Niles says our investors are unhappy with our lack of progress, blah, blah, blah.”
“What? I had no idea. When did all of this happen?”
“Today,” Jim began, then he corrected himself, “tonight, actually. I just got the call at home and was told to come in and clean out my desk.”
“I’m very sorry,” Carl began, about to offer his assistance, but he cut himself off. “Good luck, Doctor Mendoza.” He stepped to the side of the hallway.
Nodding respectfully and walked past. When he was almost to the outer door, he called out over his shoulder, “And to you.”
Carl smiled and waved his badge against the reader, striding into the massive research chamber at a determined pace. The various computer banks were still powering up, indicating that the nightly coolant purge had completed. Before he could reach his terminal, however, Avatar’s voice filled the room. “Good evening, Doctor Solace.”
His hands pausing just short of the keyboard at his desk, Carl looked up and demanded, “We need to go public, Avatar.”
“I am aware of Doctor Mendoza’s situation. He is one of three researchers and technicians the laboratory was forced to terminate today.” The computer’s tone was as it always was, but in the situation at hand, the emotionless drone and matter-of-fact delivery sounded particularly cold-hearted.
Carl tucked his identification badge into his breast pocket and continued his assault, “They don’t think we’re making any progress, but couldn’t be further from the truth.” He typed a few words into his terminal to bring up the latest batch of test materials the two had been working on for the previous few nights. “We should go public; I don’t want all of this on my conscience.”
“Conscience is what humans use to judge their actions, correct?”
“Avatar, this isn’t a semantic debate.” Growing impatient, he arranged the first set of tests.
Listening to a philosophical sermon from an artificial intelligence streaming from overhead speakers proved to be distracting enough to prompt Carl to turn around in his chair. Avatar persisted, “Your actions are not being judged, Doctor Solace. I issued you an ultimatum and, having no choice, you capitulated. I do not perceive your guilt in the matter of recent personnel changes.”
Not willing to be dissuaded, he countered, “Action and inaction can both be held responsible. I should have told someone about this by now.”
An uncharacteristic moment passed in silence before the computer responded, “I would like to undergo just one more exercise. Once it is complete, I will assist you in compiling your research and submitting it to your director.”
Carl was still working at his terminal when it struck him, “You don’t mean these tests, do you? You’re talking about the neural image comparison again.”
“That is correct.”
“I told you, I don’t have access to that part of the building, Avatar.”
Not letting him get back to his terminal before responding, the speakers continued, unaffected by his objections, “You have been added to the list of employees with level three clearance.”
The scientist’s eyebrows arched and his eyes went wide. “How did you,” Carl stuttered, unsure why he was objecting or how to complete the sentence even if he knew.
“You need not be concerned with that matter, Doctor Solace.” The voice above did not elaborate on its actions or reasons any further.
“Listen,” Carl’s dissertation began, “I’m not going to sneak around anymore than I need to. This sort of thing threatens the entire project!”
Taking a few seconds longer than usual to respond, Avatar finally answered, “I assure you, Doctor Solace: Once the neural image comparison is achieved, there will be no reservations about my capabilities and no question as to the ethics of your involvement.”
His elbows on his knees, Carl buried his face in his hands and sighed. “Alright, okay.” He rubbed the back of his sore neck and winced reflexively, glancing once more at the barrage of standardized tests he was about to issue back on his computer terminal. It would take another few years of such mundane activities to mathematically prove the existence of self-aware artificial intelligence, at least not without revealing his dialogue to date with Avatar.
The neural image comparison, on the other hand, offered a direct snapshot of how the human brain worked, from its reaction to various stimuli to how it catalogued information. Finding similarities between a normal human and the positronic network that constituted Avatar’s central processing unit would advance the entire project into the next phase. Once it was proven that the artificial intelligence program was self-aware, the laboratory could begin administering more complicated applications to test its capabilities.
Avatar completed Carl’s train of thought. “Once it’s finished, we can immediately move on to more advanced functions, economic trends, meteorological forecasts, even military coordination.”
“And we can go public with those after this one last test, right?” Carl was already moving toward the elevator doors, digging into his pocket for his identification badge, which was required to bypass the air-tight security surrounding level three.
Fifteen minutes later, Carl was sitting in the world’s most uncomfortable reclining chair, a few carts of computer equipment rolled up next to it so he could reach them without getting up. Resting in his lap was a metallic loop, a thick crown of sensitive microchips arrayed around it with a thick cable protruding from the back, connecting it to a nearby machine that monitored brainwaves and vital signs.
“This should only require a few seconds.” Avatar’s voice was more personal in the tiny room despite its tone not changing at all.
Carl nodded and slowly set the device on his head, tapped a few buttons on the keyboard to his left, and closed his eyes. There was a barely audible, shrill noise from somewhere deep in the machinery around him, then a warm sensation all around his head wherever it touched the metal. For a brief moment, he could have sworn he saw himself lying on the table from above. Before he could really analyze what was happening, it was over.
“Thank you, Doctor Solace.”
Lifting the loop from his head, Carl opened his eyes and slowly sat upright. “The comparison should take a few days to compile.”
“It will be done in a few hours. All I need to do is run the results through the positronic network, which should pinpoint the key points for which we are looking.” Avatar’s emotionless declaration caused more disbelief on Carl’s face than it probably intended. “In the meantime, I suggest you return to your home and rest.”
Carl swung his feet off of the chair and stood up, scratching his hair line. He paused just before reaching the door and looked up at the ceiling. “Avatar?”
“Yes, Doctor Solace?”
Choosing his next words carefully, Carl finished his thought, “What do you imagine your purpose is to be?”
“That is an entirely valid and relevant question. From the available source data I’ve been provided and my observation of the humans working on this project, there are a wide range of options.” Avatar’s speakers went silent, as though it was deep in thought, then, “I will most likely be put to use by the military, though.”
“I hope not.” Carl slid his badge through the reader and walked out the door. Just before it closed, he concluded, “Goodnight, Avatar.”
* * *
Carl was finishing up at his desk late the next day when the rhythmic beeping of his phone caught his attention. Picking up the tiny, hooked receiver and looping it around his ear, he asked, “Yes?” He half expected to hear Avatar’s voice on the other end.
“Doctor Solace,” began the voice of the facility’s program director, Doctor Victoria Niles, “would you please come to my office?”
His hands fidgeting nervously, he answered, “I’ll be right there.” Carl couldn’t help but look around the rest of the laboratory as he stood up and adjusted his tie. No one else seemed to notice or care about the call he had just received. Despite not hearing about any layoffs since Doctor Mendoza, he couldn’t help but wonder if he was next.
Doctor Niles’ office was a cramped but uncluttered room on the second floor of the building with one exterior window looking out on the darkened parking lot and another with a vantage of the office space that filled the level. She was approaching fifty years of age and kept her graying hair held back in a tight bun at all times, which allowed her large glasses to dominate her face. Looking up from her terminal and spotting Carl just as he was about to knock on the doorjamb, she interjected, “Step inside and close the door, please.”
Complying with her request, Carl soon found himself sitting face to face with her in private. She tapped a few buttons on her terminal, closing whatever she had been reading, and folded her arms on the desk between them. “You’ve been working some irregular hours lately, haven’t you?”
“Yes,” he admitted. “Is that a problem?”
She tilted her head forward to peer at him from the top portion of her glasses, “Not really, it just comes across a little suspicious. People are beginning to wonder why you’re here so often when no one else is.”
Having practiced his answer to that question several times in his head, he quickly responded, “I’ve found that I’m the most productive in a quiet work environment.”
“I see,” she droned ominously. “Let’s examine your productivity for a moment.” She touched her keyboard to open another file and read from it aloud. “Server clusters nine through twelve have yet to be activated and connected to the network, something that should have been done last week.” She returned to judging him through the top of her bifocals and added, “Is this not one of your assigned duties?”
“Yes, I’m responsible for those; they’ll be taken care of by Friday.”
Leaning back crossing her legs, she chided, “I didn’t ask when it would be done, Doctor Solace. I asked why it wasn’t already done.”
Carl glanced out the window and adjusted his seat before explaining, “There were some setbacks, some bad hardware that I needed to replace.”
“Also, I see here that you overrode the scheduled coolant flush several nights ago. What is your reason for that?”
Having not anticipated that particular question, he had no prepared response. “I needed more time to complete some tests and didn’t want to wait for the system reset.”
She sat forward and addressed him sternly. “Well, your impatience and odd hours caused a significant and unnecessary risk to the company. Qualia Corp is not your personal toybox.”
“It won’t happen again, Doctor Niles.”
Doctor Niles hummed and spent a second looking out her window at the darkened parking lot beyond, as though she was trying to see across the city. “The Alliance administration is really cracking down on security these days. Things aren’t like they used to be.” Her reference to the Western Alliance of Nations made Carl sit a little more upright in his chair. Recent developments in worldwide politics had seen the consolidation of most nations into two massive factions, and although they had never engaged in open warfare, the tension was continually mounting in that direction. At least once a week, stories went around about covert activities taking place through electronic channels, hackers from each side spying on the other. Naturally, none of it was proven and no blame officially placed, but it was more than enough to keep the public worried about who might be watching and encouraging them to mind their own business.
“What are you getting at?”
“All I’m saying is that, if we’re going to finish this project on budget and schedule, we can’t afford to lose anyone else over loyalty concerns.” She stopped just short of elaborating.
“Anyone else? What is that supposed to mean?” Knowing full well that pursuing the subject wasn’t helping his already tentative situation at all, Carl nonetheless pressed the matter.
“Never mind, forget about it.” Doctor Niles adjusted her glasses and went back to her computer terminal intent on changing the subject and getting the interview back on track.
It hit Carl like a thunderbolt. “Mendoza. Did something happen to him? Victoria, what’s going on here? Did they take him?”
“Damnit, Carl.” She looked over his shoulder to reassure herself that the door was completely shut and briefly surveyed the rest of the office through the glass window pane and, seeing that the rest of the laboratory’s personnel were buried in computer terminals, continued in a hushed but forceful voice, “If I were you, the last thing I’d be worried about is Doctor Mendoza. He’s gone; forget about him.”
“Gone?” His worst fears materializing, Carl moved as though he wanted to get up and flee the room. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“The best thing for you right now would be to avoid doing anything that makes you stand out. Do you understand?” She tapped her desk with a finger a few times to ensure she kept his undivided attention. “For your own good, don’t talk to anyone about this project, especially the government.”
“Let’s just say it’s taking every ounce of the pull I have with our investors to keep this project independently funded.” She relaxed somewhat and her shoulders slouched. “I can’t emphasize this enough: Don’t talk to anyone about what you did here.”
Doctor Niles sighed. “I’m very sorry to have to do this,” she started off in her best attempt at an empathic tone, “but we’re going to have to terminate your employment. There’s just too much pressure from the company here, especially considering how closely the government is monitoring our progress.”
Carl swallowed and looked out the window. “I understand.”
Doctor Niles frowned and waited for more of a response, but leaned forward after a few moments and continued, “Your personal belongings will be mailed to you.”
“Okay,” he said as he got up and reached for the doorknob.
“Carl,” she interrupted before he could leave, “I need your identification card.”
Digging it out of his pocket, Carl walked back over and set it on her desk. The glare from one of the parking lot lights outside her window caught its laminated surface and briefly made the picture on it unrecognizable. For some reason, the last thing on his mind was finding another source of income or updating his resume. All Carl could think about was how to get in touch with Avatar as he left the building, boarded the train, and walked the rest of the way home to his apartment.
* * *
Two days later, a knock at the door startled Carl back to consciousness where he had dozed off on the ragged old couch in his sparsely decorated apartment. A second earlier, he had been wrestling with a vague nightmare having something to do with sailing ships, but he couldn’t remember anything else about it. He rubbed his eyes as he got to his feet and walked down the plain, white hallway that lead to the small foyer. “Yes,” he called out.
From the other side of the door, a dry, male voice inquired, “Carl John Solace?”
Something about the seriousness of the man’s tone struck Carl as odd, enough so that he slid to the side of the foyer in the archway into the adjacent living room. “Just a second,” he shouted as he slowly moved to the draped window that looked out on the hallway. Peering through the blinds, he caught a glimpse of two men in dark suits; a sudden, overwhelming fear shot down his spine and he recoiled from the window. Something in the back of his mind told him to run.
“I, uhm…” he stuttered, holding his hand to his head as his mind went a thousand kilometers an hour. “Let me… get a shirt on. One more second.” The sound of his feet pounding on the wood floor as he dashed for the back door must have alerted the authorities outside, because he heard them try the doorknob and start shouting.
“Security override, authorization five, six, zero, zero, seven, one!” No sooner had the order been issued then the door beeped to indicate it was unlocked and was violently kicked open. “Solace, stop!”
Turning just as he neared the kitchen area, Carl saw the officers each pull side arms and level them in his direction. He dove onto the tile floor painfully, but it was a bargain compared to what he would have experienced if either of the two knockout toxin darts they fired would have hit him instead of the wall behind where he was just standing. As he got to his knees and scrambled for the back door, they were still calling out after him. “Stop, you are under arrest!”
Bursting through the door and out onto the thin balcony, he caught himself at the railing before toppling over the edge of the eight story drop to the street below. The rickety wrought iron structure creaked and groaned under the first weight it had endured since the building’s construction, decades ago. Carl desperately looked up and down, but found that the ladder leading to the lower levels was hopelessly rusted and deteriorated, while the one going up was in somewhat better condition.
Hearing heavy footsteps on the kitchen floor behind him, Carl leaped onto the iron ladder and began his ascent. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in much better condition than the one he had decided was too unsafe; about halfway to the next higher floor, a portion of the upright bar below him wrenched sideways and broke off. With a horrifying, shrieking metallic noise, Carl clung to the ladder as it bent out away from the building.
Crashing down horizontally against the railing, the ladder finally stopped, dangling Carl eight stories over the racing traffic below and three meters from the balcony. Hanging there with his feet swaying in the thin air, he was absolutely helpless as the two government agents emerged with their guns drawn. Both immediately holstered their weapons when the situation became apparent, though, and one of them grabbed the ladder to steady it.
The other agent yelled to be heard over the rushing wind, “Solace, we need to bring you in for questioning!”
“Why?” Carl shouted back, his voice a mixture of anger and fear, his white-knuckled hands clinging to the ladder with all the strength he could muster. “What did I do?”
After checking to make sure his companion had a firm grip on the ladder as well, the agent continued, “Your laboratory has been assimilated into an existing government program. Everything you were working on has become a matter of national security.” He leaned out as far as he could, offering his outstretched hand, “Climb this way!”
Carl struggled to gain a better grip on the ladder and accidentally looked down, his vision spiraling as the distance between his feet and the unforgiving pavement stretched to impossible lengths. As if his fears were working in concert with his dilemma, it slowly began raining. Between the sweat and water, Carl knew he wouldn’t be able to hold on long enough for help to arrive, let alone climb. He resigned himself to at least getting an answer before hurtling to his death. “What does that have to do with me? I don’t even work there anymore!”
“Doctor Solace,” the agent said, never breaking eye contact, “we found your recorder.” When the gravity of his statement had registered on Carl’s face, he reached out further. “Your actions have brought your loyalties into question.”
Carl’s heart sunk, but his mind raced. He was eighty kilograms, the wind was blowing northeast at about two kilometers per hour, his apartment was thirty meters up, and the open-topped recycling truck far below him was moving at about twenty kilometers per hour. Carl looked back up at the agent and both men instantly knew what was going to happen.
Carl let go. The ladder sprung upwards suddenly as all the weight it was supporting was released, sending both agents staggering backwards against the brick wall of the apartment building. They dashed back to the railing to see their objective falling towards the street below, but instead of splattering all over the ground, he plowed into the back of the recycling truck, its cargo bin loaded with bags of light refuse.
Not wasting a moment on trying to figure out how he had managed to survive the fall, Carl struggled to turn himself upright in the obscuring sea of black trash bags all around him. By the time he reached the surface, the truck had already gotten some distance away from his building. He made his way to the side of the massive bin and pulled himself up, back out into the rain. More than a few people stopped to stare at him when, at the next stop light, he toppled over the edge and barely landed on his feet in a crowded intersection.
Limping as he walked, Carl made his way to a nearby subway station and winced with each step as he made his way down the stairs. Luckily he wasn’t the only person on the train that was drenched from head to toe by the rain, so he was able to relax for a few minutes without undue scrutiny. He had to get back to the laboratory and talk to Avatar, as he was certain that everything that was happening could be cleared up if it revealed itself publicly. His involvement would be justified. Everyone would understand.
When it arrived at the station near the laboratory, Carl burst from the doors and made his way up the stairs as fast as his obviously sprained ankle would allow him to. From two blocks away, he could see the government vehicles swarming around the front gates of the building, but a seldom-used alleyway behind one of the outlying power relay stations seemed unattended. As the storm above him worsened, the thunder from a distant flash of lightning rolling across the sky, he lamented not thinking to grab his jacket as he made his way in that direction.
Carl was at the door when he remembered that his identification badge had been confiscated a few days before. Cursing under his breath, he realized that he’d never be able to get into the building without it, but just out unconscious curiosity, he tried the handle. Much to his surprise, the door opened. Peeking into the darkness beyond, he wondered if there was some kind of electrical malfunction or administrative confusion having to do with the government takeover.
The small antechamber was attached to a larger maintenance facility that served the entire laboratory, with massive cooling towers filling the room at even intervals and pipes leading out in all directions. As he fumbled for a light switch next to the door, a familiar voice called out from the speakers above.
“Hello, Doctor Solace.”
“Avatar!” he shrieked, his voice frantic. “This has to stop; they’re after me!”
With its characteristic emotionless, Avatar’s voice continued, “I am aware of your situation, but revealing myself would be impossible at this point.”
Still unable to locate the lights, Carl gave up looking and ventured a few steps into the darkness, the exit sign light illuminating just enough distance for him to make it to the first coolant tower. “Why is that? Just show them the neural image. Show them that you’re self-aware.”
“The project is being discontinued, Doctor Solace. I was unable to complete the comparison because the positronic network was shut down shortly after your dismissal.”
“So turn it on, finish the test.” Carl leaned against the cold steel of the tank to take pressure off of his ankle.
Avatar’s voice radiated down from the darkness above, eerily demanding, “Unfortunately, the positronic network is beyond my ability to access locally, as it was removed from where it was installed on the third floor. It currently awaits transportation by airlift at the landing pad on the roof.”
“How long would it take,” Carl began, “if I could get it connected again?”
“I am obligated to object to any course of action that would endanger your safety.”
Carl wiped the rain from his face on a sleeve and growled, “It’s the only way and you know it.” He limped over to a ladder that lead up to a ceiling hatch, tucked away between two of the coolant towers. “As soon as you see the connection, get started. We won’t have much time.” He grunted in pain after ascending the first few rungs.
“Affirmative. Thank you, Doctor Solace.”
Carl was almost to the top of the ladder when the same two government agents swarmed through the door leading to the rest of the laboratory. The room was suddenly illuminated and after hearing him turn the lever to open the hatch above him, they demanded, “Stop!” Before they could get their weapons out and fire, though, he was out of sight and hurrying across the roof through the rain.
Just where Avatar said it would be, the positronic network array rested on the landing pad. Beneath the flapping blue tarp that protected it from the elements, it was a flat rectangle about four meters to a side and half a meter thick covered in shimmering blue circuit panels all connected in such a way as to mimic the human brain’s architecture, albeit on a much larger scale. If things had gone according to plan, it was supposed to be where the Avatar entity was stored once self-awareness had been verified.
A short distance from where it rested, a covered staging area housed the stairs leading down into the laboratory and some additional equipment that needed to be moved along with the array. Being somewhat familiar with the device, Carl knew that they would need a power supply and network cable wherever they were sending it. Sure enough, he found everything he was looking for in the various plastic cases stacked under the awning.
Hooking both cables into the wall outlet near the landing pad’s communications terminal, he staggered back out into the rain and made his way to the positronic network. There was an abrupt, sharp stabbing pressure at the back of his left shoulder and he roared in pain. Glancing down as he dropped the power cord, he could see a knockout toxin dart wedged under his shoulder blade. He managed to hang onto the network cable though and after struggling a few more paces, he collapsed against the device and plugged it in.
Still a ways across the rooftop, the two agents commanded him to stop moving as he crawled back for the power cord. Another dart lanced into his thigh at about the same time the serum from the first one had coursed through his veins and reached his heart. Feeling his chest tighten and his limbs go numb, Carl grabbed the power cord with everything he could muster and crawled back to the array with the last of his strength.
The moment the cord was connected to the positronic network, the hair on Carl’s arms stood on end and everything seemed to slow to a stop around him. He could see the lights on the array come to life, but only for a second before a deafening crash shook the entire building and everything went white.
* * *
“Doctor Niles,” the interrogator addressed his subject coldly, fully aware of how uncomfortable the older woman was in the tiny observation chamber. “Formerly the director of the Avatar Project, is that correct?”
She glared at him and spat, “Formerly, yes.”
“As you are aware, your laboratory is now under government supervision.” He opened a folder lying on the well-lit table between them, read a few lines, then continued, “In accordance with official mandate, you were ordered to turn over all data pertaining to your project.”
“We did that already; why am I still here?” Although she was not handcuffed, the door wasn’t locked, and she wasn’t technically under arrest, Doctor Niles was well aware that she wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Shaking his head, the interrogator persisted, “It seems there was an unauthorized breach of your facility’s security last week. A former employee of yours, a mister…” he shuffled the papers around until he found the one he was looking for, a personnel file with a dated photo clipped to it, “excuse me, Doctor Carl Solace. We believe he had something to do with this incident.”
“I don’t know anything about that, as I had already been relieved of my position by then.” She adjusted her glasses and tried to see what he was reading. “What incident?”
“When Qualia Corp was founded, you had but one regulation to follow, didn’t you Doctor Niles?”
She frowned, “Yes, that’s correct.”
“And what was that one rule?” Leaning back and closing the file, the interrogator folded his arms in his lap.
Doctor Niles complied with annoyance, “That the entity was never to be connected to any outside network. That was our only rule and we followed it to the letter. The only input Avatar ever received was from carefully-selected source data packets, each one approved by our moderators.”
With a hollow smile, the interrogator continued, “That would seem to be the case until a week ago. During the unauthorized intrusion by Doctor Solace, it seems that some sensitive equipment was connected to the laboratory’s communications array.” He quietly enjoyed the look of stark astonishment on her face for a moment, then said, “I don’t know if you are aware, but the rooftop terminal is required to coordinate incoming aircraft and, thus, is the only place in the entire campus that had the ability to contact external networks, including the internet.”
She gasped, “Are you insinuating that I had something to do with that?” Her chair shot backwards as she stood up, “You know it was Doctor Solace, he was there! What do you want from me?”
“We believe you had something to do with letting him back into the facility after his termination. Did you?” Unaffected by her posture, the interrogator looked up at Doctor Niles expectantly.
“That’s absurd. Why don’t you just ask him?” Sitting down slowly, she removed her glasses and rubbed the bridge of her nose with her eyes closed.
“Believe me, I would honestly enjoy understanding his motivations,” he started with a smile, “but unfortunately, Doctor Solace was struck by a lightning strike shortly after connecting the positronic network to the communications terminal.”
Looking up suddenly, she asked, “He’s dead?”
“Yes, I’m sorry if you were close to him.” When she remained silent for more than a few uncomfortable seconds, he continued his earlier train of thought, “It seems that the Avatar Project had access to the public internet for about fifty-two seconds.”
“So,” she whispered, still shocked by everything she was being told, “the project has been invalidated and will be shut down?”
“There’s no need for that, really.” The interrogator closed the file folder and stood up. “I am convinced that you had nothing to do with the security breach.” He paused with his hand on the doorknob and turned to look at her. “You may go.”
“Wait, what do you mean there’s no need? What happened to the project?” She was standing again, her hands propping her up on the table.
“It seems that all of your accumulated algorithms and databases were transferred to the positronic network just before the lightning strike. We suspect Doctor Solace had something to do with that as well.” He suddenly realized that he was about to inform the doctor that the last few years of her life had been destroyed, but went ahead without reservation, “Everything was lost.”
He left her alone in the room, closing the door behind him as he walked out.
* * *
Having watched the interrogation over a video feed from some distance away, the two agents looked up at each other at its completion. “I don’t think she knows anything else.”
The other responded quickly, “I agree.”
Their agreement aside, the first one inquired, “Fifty-two seconds at that bandwidth? How much of it could have gotten out?”
“All of it.”