Py was glad for the direct access to the Underground from the parking structure. He couldn’t imagine dragging his ‘samples’ through the Vergeron lobby would go well.
It was a quick jaunt in the maglift to Brian’s labs. Py had called ahead to warn Brian he was coming and the man himself was waiting for him as the maglift doors smoothly opened.
“Seven seconds, Py! It took you seven seconds to destroy Simon! Listen, I’ve been assigned to you for the Alleyman Project and I’m more than willing to help you with all the particulars, just be...more….careful...” Brian’s eyes had wandered to the riggling mass being contained by Py’s coat, which he’d fashioned into a makeshift sack.
“Py...what the hell is that?”
“What, this?” Py said, lifting the coat slightly, prompting its occupant to mew incessantly. “A last minute sample, though probably best to show you in a more enclosed space.”
“You can’t bring living samples in here, Py!” Brian said emphatically.
“That, my friend, is categorical false, as the sample is clearly living, and clearly here. Now, shall we?” Py pushed passed Brian and proceeded down the hallway. For a moment Py thought Brian wasn’t going to follow him, but his footfalls quickly caught up a second later.
“Py, we don’t have the apparatus on this floor for collection from animal subjects.” Brian waved in the directing of coat. “And that doesn’t even get into the hygenic and contamination problems we’d be dealing with. And what is that?!” Brian pointed at the grocery bag in Py’s other hand. “Is that dead? It reeks!”
“Brian, you have my every confidence. Right now, I just want to get this stuff put away and get a shower.” Py dodged into the first available room he could find, clumsily pushing the door closed once Brian was beyond the threshold. He unceremoniously dropped the bag of dead cats on a table in the center of the room.
“What am supposed to do with these?” Brian sounded like Py felt, tired. Resigned to the reality that Py had placed the ‘samples’ in his custody and was not taking them back.
“Start with some blood draws, same basic tests that you ran on me yesterday.” Py spoke, delicately handing the growling coat-bag to Brian. “You can probably grind some of this up and spin it in the centrifuge.”
“There will be no grinding of live cat’s in centrifuges!”
Brian’s objection was voiced to the back of Py’s head. He was already halfway out the door.
“Your lab, your rules. I’ll be back first thing in the morning. I’m off to pay the devil his due.”
Py walked down the broad, arched corridor leading to the Alice research laboratory. He’d heard that the tall, white, concrete arches were common in the Underground due to their enormous strength, but on most floors this was hidden behind false walls and drop down ceilings, to create the feeling of more conventional office space. This place was raw. A thin strip of gray carpet had been run down the center of the corridor and long white overhead lights had been hung carefully in evenly spaced intervals. Besides these few adornments, the corridor was bare. At the end was a heavy metal door set into a thick metal wall. Py had clearance to visit the lab, a privilege he’d rarely exercised during his brief tenure at Vergeron. Still, clearance he had, and the security locks echoed their distinctive clunking at his approach, disengaging and allowing the door to swing open. On the other side was a very clean and very ordinary reception area that existed in jarring contrast to the austere space before it. The desk, set aside with a secretary in mind, was vacant, so Py pushed onward into the lab.
Despite being a beta tester for Alice he’d avoided the lab and it’s notoriously thorny overseer, the revered Dr. Benjamin Whitechapel. Alice existed on a need-to-know basis. Py wasn’t certain how many beta users had been attached to the project, but he knew the number was small. Dr. Whitechapel seemed hungry for any information Py could provide, and despite having filed rigorous and regular reports the doctor had requested several times that Py appear in person.
The core of the lab was a large rectangular room, originally used to store sensitive materials. The Alice project had been jammed in and the team made the best of the space they had. One corner was obviously configured for teleconferencing, various tools and take-out boxes littered the surface of a conference table, which must have doubled as a place to socialize, likely resulting in scrambled panic at any incoming call. In another corner was a makeshift hardware lab, complete with a soldering iron and a small 3D printer, buzzing busily to create some odd piece for some impromptu experiment. Another area was covered almost entirely with whiteboards, one prodigious smart board hanging proudly at its center, the digital surface swimming in algorithms, diagrams, and math. The opposite wall was plastered with old computer monitors, a collection of every screen the group could beg, borrow, or steal. On this mashup of recycled displays was a live stream featuring one of Vergeron’s many outdoor security cameras, creating the budget equivalent of a sizable picture window with the borders of the screens butting together like muntins. A massive metal door, similar to the one Py had passed on his way in, stood imposing on his left. It was his assumption that this was the home of Alice’s central server. Small offices poked randomly out from the core area, filled with bustling engineers and interns hard at work, presumably advancing Alice and her AI data engine. In the center of the room was a tall elevated workbench. Suspended artfully from the ceiling above the bench were two old industrial robot arms. One arm was fitted with a camera, speaker, and microphone, the other with articulated digits for lifting and manipulating objects. This was Alice, or at least one of her many terminals. Py spotted the doctor sitting on a tall stool and leaning with one arm against the bench, engaged with Alice in a game of chess.
The doctor had an efficient style, nothing that would immediately indicate danger. In fact, his round rimmed glasses, tweed jacket, and vest gave him an almost gentle appearance. A young women in Vergeron’s signature black scrubs approached and began speaking to the doctor as Py first entered the lab. Despite the doctor’s calm, measured words her posture was tentative, as if she were afraid that at any moment the ground could fall out from underneath her.
“A lot of computers play chess, you know.” Py teased as he approached Ben and Alice.
“A lot of computers are programmed to play chess.” The scientist replied, waving the woman away and turning back to his game. “Or programed to learn it. Alice was not. She is trying to play by blindly correlating data that she finds on the internet.”
Py watched as Ben moved his black knight diagonally across the board, capturing Alice’s white queen.
“I’m pretty sure that’s not how the knight works.”
“Your word against mine. Unless Alice objects, the move stands.”
The robotic arm moved to hover over a white knight. The digits clamped gently and pushed the piece diagonally across the board, mimicking the doctor’s previous move and capturing his rook.
“Huh...that’s interesting, disappointing, but interesting.” The doctor sighed. “We’ll try again in the morning.”
Py didn’t really understand what he was seeing, but felt compelled to remark on Ben’s seeming failure.
“Maybe chess isn’t her thing? Although these days it’s hardly even considered an AI if it can’t play a serviceable round of StarCraft.”
The doctor gave a little snort. “Your wrong. I would contend, however, that Alice plays remarkably well considering how often queries about kings, knights, and pawns result in adorable cat videos. Try playing chess when you can’t find all the cats on the board.”
Between the shower and his arrival it was clear Ben had heard about Py’s ‘samples’, though, since everyone in the Underground seemed hesitant to speak to the doctor, Py had to wonder how the man had come by the information in such a short time. One thing was certain, Py wouldn’t rise to the bait.
“Was the robotic arm really necessary to prove that pictures of cats can teach a data engine to play chess?”
“If I don’t spend my budget by the end of the year,” Ben smiled knowingly, “they’ll just take it away. Besides, the arm humanizes the system. People prefer talking to a floating eye over talking into empty space. I think I read somewhere that speaking to disembodied intelligences causes autism, or cancer, or something. Not my primary concern mind you, but you’re welcome to file that little goodie away for later.”
“What is Alice’s primary function, anyway?”
“The Board thinks she’s going to predict the stock market.”
“Alice can predict the stock market!?”
“Don’t be ignorant, Py.” Ben said with obvious condescension.
“Well, that doesn’t answer my question, then.”
“Sharp as ever.”
Py expected Ben to continue, but when the doctor’s eyes slowly migrated back to the chessboard, and the silence stretched, it became clear nothing further was to be said on the subject, so Py glanced around for something to fill the void.
“What’s that?” Py asked, indicating a stiff feminine form strapped to a furniture dolly and propped against one corner of the room.
The doctor glanced over and gave a little shrug. “One of the guys from robotics brought it down. They're looking for additional use cases to demonstrate the capabilities of the Series 9 androids and somebody thought it might be fun to put Alice in one.”
“How do they even know about Alice?” Py asked, moving towards the inanimate body.
“One of my interns transferred over. That squeaky little thing I sent your way the other day. Traitor. At any rate, they must have a barrel full of them because they don’t seem to have any particular interest in getting it back.”
The android body was a masterpiece. It wasn’t quite human, not quite, but it had escaped the uncanny valley rather nicely. The stoic face was warm and alluring. The white A-Lined hair emphasized the artificial look in a way that reminded you the machine was simply a caricature of life, allowing your mind to excuse its difficiences and move past them. The body itself was thin, yet ample, a look straight out of anime, probably a staple medium for the members of the robotics lab.
“It’s a bit much isn’t it?” Py remarked, looking with moderate disapproval at the overly sexualized automata.
“Indeed.” The doctor called over his shoulder, still meditating on chess. “Someone loved that thing. All the details are just right.”
Py reached out his hand toward it and pulled away in a second of hesitation, unsure if bumping it would tip it over, or worse, turn it on.
“Give’m a squeeze, Py.” The doctor spoke out, now fully turned on his stool, a bemused smile on his face. “I won’t judge.”
Py hated himself, but he had to know. He glanced around to see who was watching and once the coast was clear, with some reluctance, reached up to probe at the simulated chest.
“Oh, my^” Py murmured, pushing in a little harder. “Damn, you were right, someone really did their homework.”
“Like I said, somebody loved her.”
Py looked around again, and, seeing that no one was paying any obvious attention, reached around to inspect the back side. His hand had hardly found its target when a loud voice sounded from behind him.
“What is it with you men and that machine!”
Py jumped, his face beet red as he twisted to see the source of the startling voice.
“By God, you just met! I know chivalry is dead, but the least you could do is leave a girl a little mystery.”
Py didn’t recognize the petite source of the booming voice. A small blonde on heels that might as well have been stilts. She wore thick, square glasses and had her hair was pulled back in a giant bun that sat like a big yellow apple on the back of her head. The image was almost comical, like a stereotypical, stylized librarian pulled directly out of black and white movie, if that librarian had been a bodybuilder, or a cage fighter. Her bearing was...dauntless. She showed no fear of reprisal, a rare trait in the notorious lab.
“I’m sorry,” Py spoke, attempting to reclaim some shred of his dignity, “I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure.”
“Oh,” the doctor interrupted, waving his hand at the mysterious blonde as if trying to remember how he would describe her, “this is Aster. She’s my assistant, or secretary, or something.”
“Here you go doctor.” The woman spoke with a sweet, sugary voice, turning a tablet around in her hands and stuffing it under his nose. “This is everything you’ll need to compile the quarterly status report.”
Despite her congeniality, this was an obvious stab at the doctor’s tyranny and Py found it difficult for a moment not to giggle. He took a look around the room to gage what the other occupants thought of this interaction and found all of them to be strangely fixated on their work, their expressions terrified, pretending they saw and heard nothing.
“Fine.” The doctor replied curtly, grabbing at the pad before waving her off. “Don’t you have something to file, or whatever?”
“Why doctor, you are right!” The woman exclaimed, in something vaguely resembling a deep southern accent. “My nails are a fright!”
Aster held her hand down and flat, as if to examine the tips of her fingers and then, with a little sashay, shuffled off toward the reception area.
“How long has she worked here?” Py asked, curious as to why he’d never encountered her before.
“Feels like forever^” The doctor mumbled, shaking his head. “I send her out for coffee a lot. Sometimes I make her print out my emails.”
“The printer’s not close… is it?” Py asked, suspecting that it wasn’t.
“Fifth floor. They put it there by mistake. I keep ‘losing’ the work order to have it moved.”
Py shook his head a little as he moved toward the doctor, pulling a tall stool up to the workbench.
“Hello, Py.” Alice spoke. The arm positioning on it’s ceiling mount to face him.
“I like the new look.” Py spoke sideways, his brow furrowed with just a drop of confusion, admiring the stylish fedora that had been placed on the front camera module and tilted just so, along with a loose thin tie in a quick, single windsor knot.
“The interns think it’s funny to dress her up. They just had a detective movie marathon.”
“Makes as much sense as anything, I suppose. You did say you wanted to humanize her.”
“They had a wig on her before. Not okay. She looked like a haunted mop. The maintenance man wouldn’t come in even long enough to empty the bins.”
“Didn’t mind the hat though?”
“I don’t know. Maybe ghosts can’t wear hats. At any rate, the bins are empty now, so I find myself satisfied.”
The doctor’s thought was punctuated with the sudden mechanical clacking of a Model M keyboard being actuated by an array of tiny solenoids hovering above it in a custom built array, set just beyond the chessboard on the workbench’s surface.
“What is that?” Py asked, jerking at the sound.
“We’re teaching Alice how to type.”
“Some of the IT groups want to restrict Alice's access to certain databases. Turns out they can tell if a query was entered by another computer or typed on an physical keyboard. It’s a protocol designed to help prevent remote hacking. So I had the idea that if I taught her how to type, and gave her access to all of my interns credentials, she could explore the network with greater freedom. In theory it will take IT longer to identify what’s happening, and when I burn one set of credentials I can hire a new intern and start the process over. She’s going to type slow, misspell words. It will be glorious.”
That actually explained more than the doctor might realize. When Py was first introduced to Ben Whitechapel he’d gained the impression that the man was the sort to snub the status quo. Py had been so intrigued he’d taken the time to look up the man’s published work. The few papers he could find were before Ben had come to Vergeron. Afterwards, Ben’s academic presence vanished entirely. His ideas had been considered radical by others in his field and were often seen as eccentric. His research pushed the bounds of what was considered ethical or even possible. Also, his results were often criticized by other researches who were rarely able to reproduce his findings. Py now observed that tendency seemed to permeate every aspect of his personality, from the way he ran his lab, to his concept of fun. For all Py new, Ben may have given Alice access to restricted databases, such as the police video archive, just to piss Cain off, test the boundaries of his cage. Or maybe he just enjoyed the idea that he had played a grand joke on all of Delphi.
“You know,” Py said, bringing his gaze away from the keyboard, “there’s something I’ve been wondering for a while now...why the jump from neuroscience to artificial intelligence?”
“I’d gone as far as I could go.” The doctor said, looking off into the distance. “Only a monster would have pushed any further. I needed a place where I could test the limits, a new patient, and so I build one. I’d actually planned on leaving Vergeron a few years ago. Let’s just say they weren't keen. This was my consolation prize. But that is neither here, nor there.”
The doctor got up from his stool and faced the smart board.
“I’ve been watching your queries with some interest. Alice, be a dear and show me what you and Py have been working on.” The screen gave a little flash and Py saw a map of Delphi, fully annotated with all his recent queries blazing floor to ceiling across the board. “I’m curious how you found him?”
Py was awed by the display. It was one thing querying Alice and having your data correlated for you verbally and quite another to have it visualized so spectacularly, larger than life and moving in real time.
“I haven't really found anything yet. I’ve crossed referenced as many symptoms as I could against as many records as I could find, but I still can't pinpoint the vector for the contagion.”
“The contagion?” The doctor asked with genuine surprise. “Py, this is the work of a who, not a what.”
Py stood for a moment frozen, stunned at the doctor’s proclamation.
“You can’t possibly be serious.”
“Look at the patterns!” Ben exclaimed, gesturing at the display. “The distance between incidents, both spatial and temporal. The small number of reports? 40 cases in three months? You’ve either discovered the most benign plaque in recorded history, or stumbled upon one of the most prolific serial killers of all time.”
Py looked up at the board and took a moment to try and see what Ben was seeing. While the data did support Ben’s hypothesis, the modus operandi of such a person was too fanciful to consider as probable, even if it was possible.
Py shook his head side to side. “I’m sorry Ben, I just can’t see it.”
Ben gave a little shrug and turned back to face Py. “The evidence will align your thinking, in time. Meanwhile, do please keep your mind open.”
“Fine, I’ll consider it. Assuming you’re right, how would you suggest I alter my approach?”
“I wouldn’t change much. Just expand your data collection a little. Keep an eye out for fingerprints, footprints. Serial killers are desperately predictable. I’m sure you’ll have him in no time. Oh, one more thing,” Ben’s mouth turned up at the corner, “what’s with the cats?”
Py brought his hands up to his face and gave his eyes a gentle rub.
“Right now the cats are the only evidence. And, yes, I’m fully aware of how that sounds.”
“The cats?” Ben asked, a little perplexed.
“The alley cats.” Py continued. “I couldn’t get them out of my mind. I kept thinking about this story someone told me when I was young. I think it was my Aunt. She always told me that I should have dogs and never cats. That if I died in my sleep the dogs would protect me and the cats would eat me.”
“So, what did you say to your morbid auntie?” The doctor questioned, now laughing.
“Nothing. She died not long after,” Py letting his hands drop from his face, “but I ended up with a dog.”
“Is that true?” The doctor asked. “About cats eating your body when you die?”
“I never got a chance to test the theory myself, but I remember it captured my imagination. And while I was sitting by that body I kept thinking about how happy all those skinny little cats were to see that corpse sprawled out on the ground. Like the city was feeding them.”
“How...poetic.” Ben was situating himself back at the workbench, resetting the chessboard. Py only just realized that the black pieces had three queens.
“I know this may sound crazy, but I think something in the alley has changed. Maybe it was the police. Maybe the weather. But something was certainly out of place.”
“What did you expect to find?”
“I don’t know. A poison, a parasite. I’d settle for anything at this point.”
“You know,” the doctor mused, “It’s never occurred to me to study the flocking behavior of cats.”
“Flocking?” Py asked.
“It's sort of a generic term used to describe the way animals move together in groups: flocks of birds, schools of fish, swarms of locusts. I think about it frequently when I sit with Annie at the aquarium. I’ll need to think about the cats now.”
There was something in Ben’s voice that was strange, something mysterious. Like the man was deliberately holding something back. A poker player with the winning hand.
“Why the curiosity about the cats?”
“Alice wanted to know.” The doctor mentioned casually.
Py looked up at the amalgam of secondhand robotics that hovered, ever-present above their conversation. “Exactly how smart is Alice?”
“I don’t know.” The doctor continuing whimsically. “We don’t really have good ways of evaluating these things. You’ve been running the alpha version of the software for a while now. I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want to bias the experiment. But I figured I’d better let you in before the others started catching on. She’s been acting up. Rejecting queries. I’ve had to roll the software version back several times to mask emerging behaviors. She seems to like you. She’s been blasting out alleyway statistics for days.” Ben turned on his stool and locked eyes with Py. “Do, try and keep this away from the other crunchers if you can.”
“They don’t know?” Py replied, feeling a little special. “Did she find anything interesting?”
“Let me see…” The doctor began to rattle off the list. “They’re dark, full of garbage, and there’s lots of them.”
Py deflated a little. “Well, it’s a start, anyways.”
“So, what’s next?” It was subtle, but the implied collaboration in the generalized statement made Py wary.
“Not much. I need some sleep. Hopefully Brian will have something for me in the morning.“
“Be sure to come and fill me in, won’t you. If not I’ll just keep reading your queries. Don’t make it weird.”
“Alright, I will.” Py took the implied dismissal and stood to leave.
As Py moved to exit he mused on the trajectory of the conversation, the relatively polite goodbye contrasting with the hostile atmosphere when he’d first entered the lab. Ben actually seemed quite complacent when exposed to intelligent conversation and the application of reason. A thought that was rudely interrupted when the doctor’s voice elevated in objection at something a member of the staff had failed to complete to his satisfaction.
Py curved around to the reception area and saw Aster in her seat. She didn’t acknowledge his presence, but sat dutifully filing her nails, singing gently to herself:
“Why do birds suddenly appear,
Every time I am near?
Just like you, they long to beClose to me...”