The lights in the aquarium always seemed a little darker to Py than was strictly necessary; however, he had to confess the weightless movement of underwater life had a soothing effect. Some people would come here everyday to relax and meditate on life above ground while absorbing the abstract colors and shapes of the alien deep.
There was one room in particular that set the Delphi City Aquarium apart from others like it, the grand auditorium. The auditorium was huge by aquarium standards, it held at least five hundred seats with a stage on one end, ushers, sound, all the usual bits. But what made the room special was the way it hung entirely underwater. This was possible due to the enormous strength of the seamless polymer superstructure sculpted using the same proprietary fabrication method as Delphi’s Vergeron headquarters. Information that could be learned along with many other Vergeron facts on the plaque just outside the room, stating very enthusiastically that Vergeron was proud to have supported its construction.
When the auditorium was not being used for a presentation or concert the lights were dimmed and the chairs spun toward the edges to provide an all encompassing view of a vast aquatic ecosystem. The tank teamed with a huge variety of ocean creatures, everything from tiny anchovies swimming circles around the dome in large coordinated schools, to stately sunfish nearly two meters across. The heads and eyes of those in attendance circled this way and that, following their favorite fish up and down, around and back again.
As Py neared the center of the circle of chairs he could see the vague silhouette of Dr. Whitechapel gazing intently into the deep blue, and next to him in the aisle was a small electric wheelchair.
“We should go Annie.” Py heard Ben say. “It’s getting late.”
“It is probable that Annie would like to stay.” Alice spoke from somewhere in the vicinity of the wheelchair.
“Alright,” Ben said, leaning over and kissing a small girl delicately on the head, “five more minutes.”
“Hello Ben.” Py spoke softly, moving around the rows of chairs to face Ben and the young girl sitting motionless in her chair.
“Py,” Ben said, in a tone that made it immediately obvious that Py wasn’t welcome. “Aster?”
“Of course it was.”
“Who is this?” Py asked, changing the subject and squatting down to introduce himself to the little girl in front of him. She was only a child, maybe eight, no more than ten. Her face was pale, her hair jet black and gently curled, her expression was slack, her blue eyes entirely lifeless.
“Py, this is my daughter Annie. Annie, this is Py.”
“Doctor, it is probable that Annie might be laughing.” Alice spoke as Ben finished his introductions.
“Really?” He asked with a look of surprise Py wasn't used to observing on Ben’s face. “At what?”
“Given the timing, it may have been Py’s name.”
“I suppose it is a little silly.” Py said humoring the girl, trying his best to smile kindly, hoping the strain in his posture wasn’t obvious. Making a jest of his name was not something he tolerated, or so he thought. Py had never considered the naive joy a child might take in his self proclaimed moniker, or for that to be somehow distinct from the intentional prodding he usually got from adults. Whatever the case, Py wasn’t sure of the protocol for correcting a little girl in a wheelchair, especially with her father hovering menacingly nearby.
“So this is the genesis then.” Py said softly as he rose to his feet, understanding for the first time why Ben was so dedicated to the Alice project. “The origin of everything.”
“Annie, why don’t you and Alice go over and take a closer look,” Ben said, gesturing to the edge of the auditorium, “Py and I need to have a private conversation.”
“Annie does not seem to want to be alone.” Alice replied on the instant.
“It’s only for a minute. I’ll be right here, I won’t take my eyes off of you.”
“Annie seems to prefer when Aster is here.” Py observed open frustration cross Ben’s face.
“Aster is busy, darling.”
“Annie does not seem to care.”
“That woman^” Ben muttered, adopting a sterner tone. “Alright Annie, that’s enough. I’ll come get you in a minute.”
With a small whirring sound Annie’s wheelchair sprung to life standing up on a trio of gyro stabilized wheels. As the chair lifted it unfolded so that Annie stood upright, floating in the air. She raised to Py’s level, looking him dead in the eye, her pale skin reflecting the dim light of the aquarium with an otherworldly blue hue, appearing like a specter in the darkness. After a moment she turned and left, moving toward the towering wall of water.
As the chair moved to the periphery Py attempted to break the tension. “Annie reminds me of you in a strange way.”
“Her mother always said the same. I wish Annie had taken after her.”
“She must have been bright then.”
“Radiant. The doctor’s say she’s completely lost.” Ben hissed with a look of deep pulsing hatred. “But I refuse to believe it.”
“What happened?” Py asked, turning to face Ben.
“Someone ran our car off the road. I made it out all right, but my wife was killed, and Annie, well… The police called it corporate espionage, but no one was ever charged.”
“Why would you be singled out specifically?”
“Have you ever heard of NLP?” Ben asked.
“Neuro Linguistic Programming? I thought it was bullshit.”
“It is, but the Board wanted us to investigate it anyways. Along the way I accidentally stumbled upon a similar concept. We called it NCR, or Neuro Cognitive Reinforcement. In short it’s a little like training Pavlov's dog to buy your merchandise. Vergeron stock exploded. Nobody could figure out how we did it and outside of the people who hired us for marketing nobody was very happy about it.”
“It’s illegal now.”
“Super illegal,” Ben said with a smile, “I spent weeks testifying in front of a Senate Subcommittee. They used to call it Whitechapel’s Law.”
“Why haven't I heard of this? It should have been all over the news.”
“The military was trying to weaponize it. They were hoping to embed cognitive reinforcement cues in various places to fight terrorism, drugs, that sort of thing.”
“Umm, wow. Did it work?”
“Vergeron wouldn’t hand over the research. They were after a big payday and the government wouldn’t acquiesce. Nobody knew how much Vergeron was earning. For the first few years Vergeron made more money keeping the tech under wraps and paying punitive fines than they would have turning the technology over. In the end Congress voted to kill the whole thing. One problem, the government still didn’t know how the tech worked, so they couldn’t enforce the ban without Vergeron’s full cooperation. I wanted out. By that point Vergeron was getting death threats on a daily basis. They weren't directed at me personally, yet, but it was only a matter of time. People were slowly unraveling the web and there were only a few of us who were crucial in keeping the technology alive. Each ad campaign needed a slightly different treatment so everything, every tagline and slogan, came through our lab.”
“It couldn’t be automated?”
Ben gave a shrug. “Wasn’t in my best interest at the time. The money was rolling in. The whole situation was too good to be true. Ultimately all good things must end and after the accident I needed Vergeron as much as they needed me. Of course that’s not what I told Cain. I leveraged the sensitive information I’d gained as part of the program to get the resources I needed. I didn’t get everything right away, but my foot was in the door. I had a lab, a small budget and very limited oversight. So I went to work.”
“Do you think they’ll ever find the people responsible?”
“I don’t know. It doesn’t matter now. I have other things to worry about.”
Py noticed Ben was unusually calm on that last point. Benjamin Whitechapel wasn’t known for letting things go and Py suspected Ben knew more than he was saying.
“And Alice helps.”
“She examines every independent signal I can think of. Including a few that don’t even make any sense. Every sound, color and smell. I look constantly for any new possible point of data. I will find a way.”
“I’m surprised I don’t see more sensors, that being the case. An EEG at the minimum.”
“There’s a few small ones tucked in with her hair. The rest are under her clothes. There were more when we first started, but the data seemed to indicate that they made Annie self conscious, so we started scaling back.”
“That has to complicate the task.”
“Exponentially. At first I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to keep her alive. Now all I worry about is how to keep her happy. Guess which is the harder task.”
“And Cain knows?”
“But he goes along with it?” Py said, looking in Annie’s direction.
Ben gave a light snort. “I didn’t give him much of a choice…”
Py thought Ben seemed more open with him than with others. Possibly because he admired Py’s intellect. Possibly because they existed in a state of mutually assured destruction. At any rate, they were both the type to ask for forgiveness rather than permission.
“How long do you think that will last?”
“It won’t matter soon. When Alice is ready I’ll move her from the Vergeron servers. Then Annie and I can leave all of this behind and start a new life somewhere safe.”
“Why not move Alice now? Surely, there must be a way.”
“Alice is too big. She needs more power, more processing, more storage than I have access to. A temporary inconvenience. But enough of that.” Ben exclaimed sharply, entirely abandoning the subject. “Why are you here?”
“I had a question.” Py spoke, taking the pen from his pocket and for the first time since entering the Alice initiative, he pressed a small button, turning the Alice bridge off. Ben picked up on the subtle cue and followed suit.
“Alice,” Ben spoke. “Take a break.”
“The other day,” Py began, “I asked Alice a question and she withheld some information from me. She used to tell me everything. Too much in fact. I was constantly asking her to be more mindful of what she volunteered. This time she rejected data without being asked.”
“Was it malicious? Was she lying to you?”
“I don’t know, I don’t think so. I asked if you had set the criteria and she claimed she’d devised the criteria on her own. Something about it feels strange. I thought I’d better ask, in case something was wrong.”
“This is the first I’ve heard of it. Unless someone is playing a joke on us I’d say it must be true. But tell me, why did you turn off your bridge?”
“I don’t know… what if she’s listening? I mean, if it was malicious… should I be worried? Alice has reached a point where she can scramble the DPD servers, she can sabotage a huge portion of the Vergeron legal blockade that protects the company’s revenue and stability. She could send me back to prison with a flick of her wrist. Well, she could do all that before, but never without me asking. Now that I say it out loud it feels ridiculous.”
“I’ll look into it. I won’t lie, it’s something we’ve tried to implement in the past, but it’s never worked very well.”
Py looked down at his pen, still feeling some small measure of concern.
“I can disconnect you from Beta if that makes you feel better, just until I’ve had a chance to investigate.”
“Let me think about it. It might be a good idea.”
“Part of Alice Beta follows an evolutionary strategy, some of the old code might be in there. It may have stumbled onto some kind of a patch. Of course there’s always the possibility of unwanted behavior. It’s one of the major drawbacks of the approach. Let’s just consider it,” Ben said glancing in Annie’s direction, “some youthful rebellion.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that she’s growing.” Ben replied with a diabolical smile, a look of pure joy mixed with a sense of deadly intent. “It means she’s finally rising to your challenge.”
“Don’t you remember Py? You asked her to think.”