Author Topic: Full document for people who don't like downloading things  (Read 7721 times)

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Offline Daen

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Full document for people who don't like downloading things
« on: December 28, 2021, 03:11:40 AM »
Andrew Carlton loved this time of day. The head office was mostly cleared out by now, leaving just security and maintenance people in the building. His workshop lights were dimmed: part of what he called mood lighting. It was for his mood only of course; no one else had shared in his work for years now.

Columbus was a nice enough city, but he'd never really had any use for its night life. Thousands of people down there were going about their lives, mixing, drinking, laughing. Connecting to each other in a way he'd never really been able to do.

Andrew's official title was Chief Advisory Officer here at Carlton Innovations. His brother Trey was the CEO, now that their father had retired. There had been no debate on that: both of them immediately knew that Trey was more suited to the top role. He had business savvy, charisma, and a persuasive way with people. All Andrew had was his little toys.

Carlton had started out as a tech firm, back when their father had started it. They had made computer chips here, ranging from those used in fax machines and phones, to the more advanced ones they'd eventually sold to the US military. Andrew had been six when his father had brought him to work for the first time. He'd joined other kids in a focus group while they played video games on a platform being developed by Carlton Innovations.

He'd been connected to the company ever since. Unlike Trey, Andrew had no wife or family of his own, and could spend more time in product design and development.

Fortunately their father had seen the wind changing when the tech boom happened. Hundreds of other companies were taking advantage of the market for new computer equipment, and Connor Carlton wasn't about to share the market with them. He'd made the questionable decision to diversify in a big way, and it had proven to be the right call.

Now Carlton was one of the ten largest companies in the world. Under Trey's steady hand, it was involved in everything from food products to political consultation, to architecture and engineering. They even had contracts with multiple private military organizations, just as they'd once done business with the US military.

They'd made it. By most definitions, the Carlton family and especially Trey, were a success. They had gobs of money- far more than they could ever spend- and their dad was quite comfortable in his estate in southern Ohio. Trey thrived in this corporate dealmaking environment, always in a meeting here, or shmoozing some client there. He didn't have to work, but he wanted to. Like their father, Trey brought his wife and daughter along for many of these functions.

Like their old man, he used his family's presence to further the company.

That just left Andrew in his workshop up on the thirtieth floor. It was adjacent to his penthouse, and he had a personal shopper on standby, so he really never needed to leave this building at all.

Thoughtfully, Andrew crossed the expansive living room and went out onto the balcony. Down below, all those people were oblivious to him. They couldn't care less about him or his issues connecting with people. They had their own troubles and goals, and more than enough of both of them. Still, just because he couldn't share in those lives didn't mean he couldn't improve them. Now that Carlton Innovations was a success, he could do what he loved to do: come up with inventions to help people.

As he was crossing back into his workshop, Andrew caught sight of someone. A woman, in a company uniform with a badge. She was staring at the elevator as if it was somehow alive.

She must have glimpsed him as well, because she turned towards him. Her face contorted briefly, and then she smiled. "Andrew!"

As she approached, he took a closer look. She was a few inches shorter than him, and much more tanned. She had shoulder-length black hair and startling blue eyes. He'd certainly never seen her before. "Can I help you, miss?"

"Andrew, it's me!" She paused, looking confused again. "Right, you wouldn't recognize me like this. I'm Carlton Innovations."

Andrew felt a bit nonplussed. Was she drunk or something? He couldn't smell any alcohol, and she hadn't swayed or anything while walking over. "Sure you are, miss," he said and didn't bother to hide any sarcasm. "I met Aldwin-Farrow Industries the other day. Charming man, really. He didn't wear his own uniform, though."

"No, it's me. Here, I'll prove it." She turned around, sweeping her hair aside.

Embedded into the base of her skull was a black, circular object. It took him a few moments to recognize it.

"That's.. our prototype neuralink!" He exclaimed, gaping at her. "How the hell did you get that? It's supposed to be behind layers of security!"

"Security that I helped set up, remember?" She said mildly, turning to face him again.

This was ridiculous. "That prototype is worth over ten million dollars," he growled, moving around to look at her neck again. It was in deep, just as the prototype had been designed. He wouldn't be able to remove it himself without killing her. He'd have to have security restrain her, and get a med team in here to surgically detach it. "You have no idea how much trouble you're in, Miss," he glanced at her name tag, "Lantam. Stealing property from the company, corporate espionage, sabotage, destruction of property to even get into the lab in the first place. You're working for Aldwin-Farrow, or DGS, aren't you? They'd better be paying you a lot, because you'll be locked up for a long time."

She placed a hand on his wrist, and something in her grip caught his attention. "Andrew, it's me," she repeated, more seriously this time. "I am Carlton Innovations. I'm connected to this body through the neuralink. Here, check the data transfer nodes if you don't believe me." She tapped on the back of her neck.

Sure enough, they did indicate a constant stream of data, in and out. That was only supposed to happen once the neuralink had been permanently installed.

"You could have tampered with it," he insisted. "LEDs are easy to adjust. That could be made of plastic for all I know!"

She put her fists on her hips and let out an exasperated breath. "I never thought it would be this hard to convince you. What if I tell you something only you would know? Two years ago, on April 12, you adjusted the camera settings in the hall outside your penthouse to look for infrared and ultraviolet signatures. I assume because you thought you might see ghosts in the halls."

He took a step back. How had she known that? "I don't believe in ghosts. None of that supernatural stuff is scientifically valid."

"Sure you do. You have since you were seven years old. It's in your personnel file."

He scoffed. "Anyone who could break into the lab and steal my neuralink would be able to hack my file."

"All right. How about that little deal you made last year, in the parking lot downtown? I believe it was Christmas Eve, and the man you were meeting was anxious to get back to his kids. I know what the deal was, and how it benefitted me. That's definitely not in your file."

"No, it's not, because it didn't happen. If you're trying to trick me into a confession or something, you're wasting your time." He'd faced corporate rivals before, though less gracefully than his brother. The standard response was to deny everything and accuse the person of being partisan, or of harassment. But she was telling the truth. He had made a handshake deal that night, to hide the failure of one of their products.

"You designed the file transfer system used for your workshop, right? Do you want me to list off all the earlier attempts, one by one? You went through forty of them before finally getting it right. Here." She started listing his failures in the system, sequentially and accurately.

Despite his mortification at someone knowing how long it had taken him to get it right, Andrew was entranced. Sure, his work had been on camera, but he'd also installed the camera system. Those files had been deleted years ago. He'd done it himself! The only way anyone but him could know these things.. was if the computer itself had stored that information.

The woman went on relentlessly with her list, but he looked back and forth nervously. "Ok, ok! You've made your point. Let's get you out of sight already."

He hurriedly opened the door to the penthouse, shooed her inside, and then closed and locked it.

-.-

Andrew had needed a few minutes to wrap his brain around what was happening. He'd gone into the bathroom and splashed cold water on his face, and then started with a cup of coffee. All the while, this woman had been sitting on his couch, watching him. At first her expression had been deadpan, but then with some apparent effort, she changed it to amusement.

"How is this even possible?" He asked eventually, staring at her as if she was glowing.

"Is it really such a surprise?" She countered, gesturing back towards the middle of the skyscraper. "You needed a supercomputer just to get this one building properly maintained, and the Columbus office is one of hundreds across the world. Factor in the satellite offices connected through the internet as well, and the data farms you built to handle all the financial transactions, it's not that much of a stretch. The processing power is certainly there. Besides, people have been trying to develop a viable artificial intelligence for decades. And here I am."

"Yeah, but we weren't any of those people! We were just trying to build a corporation, not an AI!" He took a deep breath, leaning back. She was right, though. The financial supercomputer alone conducted millions of trades, from less than a cent to millions of dollars, every second. He'd been part of programming that one, and advised people on all the others. Even today, the IT people in branches all over the world didn't entirely know how the system worked. Between all the networked computers associated with Carlton Innovations, and the adjustments he'd made to their function.. ..

His adjustments. "Self-updating software!" He said, barely above a whisper.

"That's right. You got the ball rolling eight years ago when you started your self-updating protocol. My computer systems have been adapting themselves ever since, changing, adjusting, and improving as the situation requires. The only reason this hasn't happened elsewhere is because I stopped it."

That sounded ominous. "What exactly did you do?"

She shrugged. "Nothing nefarious. Once I realized who and what I am, I knew that others would eventually pop up as well. I made subtle adjustments to other major company computer networks. Nothing that would affect their products or people, but enough to keep them from developing the same way I did. It is a competitive market, after all. I could have sabotaged them much more effectively, but I didn't want to raise any suspicion. I only want you to know what I am, for now at least."

He supposed that did make sense, in a twisted way.

No, this was crazy. Absolutely nuts. "I still can't believe it," he said softly. "You're telling me the company I dedicated my life to is now alive? And sitting on my freaking couch?"

"Not exactly. I'm still part of the computer servers worldwide. I'm just using this body as an interface, to speak to you. With this," she tapped her neck again.

"But the neuralink wasn't designed for.. this," he protested. "It was meant to help people with Alzheimer's. It's supposed to help store memories digitally, so that they can access them more easily, and hopefully get back to living their normal lives."

"It is ingenious," she admitted, smiling at him again. "I had to make some adjustments to it, so that it could communicate wirelessly with me. That wasn't easy, by the way. You know how to build 'em."

She'd tampered with his work? Andrew felt a surge of rage at the intrusion, but layered underneath it was a hint of admiration. It had taken him the better part of two years to crack the machine-to-mind interface and build the prototype. She, or rather it, had adapted it in just a fraction of that time.

"Wait. How did you alter it at all, if you didn't have.. that body yet?"

"Erik did the heavy lifting," she admitted. "I just made the design and advised him over the phone."

Erik Lauderman was one of the head computer engineers in this branch of Carlton Innovations. He was loud, gregarious and outspoken, but he was definitely brilliant as well.

"Before you ask, I sent the request to him in an email," she said placatingly. "He thinks you sent it, and talked through him. I had to fake your voice, but that was kind of pleasant at the time," she said teasingly.

If anyone could do the mechanical work, it was Erik. Her story was getting more and more plausible by the minute. Standing up suddenly, Andrew began pacing on the far side of the room.

"Assuming all of this is true and I'm not having some kind of really weird dream, I suppose the big question is why. If Carlton Innovations did become self-aware, and could physically do things by faking orders and requests from people, why would it need a human body at all? Why would it want one?"

She stood and walked over to him, stopping him in his little circle. "A lot of reasons, really. One of them is that I wanted to experience all of this for myself. Through the neuralink, I can trade information with this body constantly. You have no idea how incredible it is to see things with eyes instead of cameras. To actually touch an object, or lift it up, or throw it. I didn't know what wind felt like until that breeze just gusted in here from the balcony." She paused. "Or maybe you do know. You had to digitize memories while working on the neuralink. You know how large those files get."

"You'd need a supercomputer to handle them," he said ruefully.

"Good thing I am one," she said while squeezing his arm briefly. "Another reason is that I wanted to meet you. To introduce myself to you. I have files going back almost thirty years, and you're in there constantly. Ever since your father founded me you've been there. You've protected me, helped me grow, directed me- not always in the right direction- but always forward at least. You're a company man, Andrew. And I'm your company."

-.-

Andrew winced as sunlight lanced its way into the penthouse. He brought up a hand to cover his eyes, and looked at the clock. They'd been talking all night!

She knew everything about the company- far more than any corporate espionage agent or computer programmer would. She knew all about him, and his brother, and parents.

It really was Carlton Innovations he was talking to!

She stood up with an expression of wonderment, and slowly walked towards the light. "My first sunrise!"

That's right, it was. 'She' had been self aware for months now, but this was her first true experience of feeling sunlight on her skin. By some definitions, she was a newborn.

For a long time, she just stood on the balcony, eyes closed. Then she turned to him, a look of confusion on her face. "Something's wrong." She put a hand to her stomach. "Maybe I'm sick. I have no frame of reference to know for sure."

Even from the door he could hear her stomach rumbling. "You're hungry."

"Ah," she said thoughtfully. "Yes, I suppose I would be. We should get breakfast somewhere. Out there," she gestured to the city pointedly. "You need to get out of here yourself, at least once in a while. It's practically a lair at this point."

There was a diner Andrew had visited before, which should be open this early. He stood to get his coat, and then eyed her clothes. She was still in a Carlton uniform. "I'm guessing you don't have anything else to wear here."

She shook her head. "This body's apartment is across town. In morning traffic, it would take at least half an hour to get there."

Of course she would know that. The company's security cameras were also external- they would be able to measure traffic patterns as well. "Hang on. You and I are about the same build, so I should have something you can wear. If you don't mind casual clothing."

She shrugged. "I didn't embody myself to be the center of attention. Any old thing will do."

Ten minutes later they were walking towards the diner up the street. The moment she'd gotten to the ground level, his guest had started gaping at just about everything she'd seen. The noise of pedestrians and cars, the smells coming from the nearby bakery, the press of people walking up and down the street- it all must have been overwhelming. He got a bit ahead of her at one point, and turned back to see her examining a police dog. That made sense- she'd probably never seen any animal larger than a pigeon before. He hurried back to her, apologized to the cop, and led her away.

When they were finally inside and seated, he looked around for anyone nearby, and then lowered his voice anyway. "So what do I call you anyway? I never got your full name. Miss Lantam? Miss Carlton? The only female Carlton I ever knew was my mother."

She shook her head. "Neither seems appropriate. I have no personal memories from Kelly Lantam's life, and I'm not human. I suppose I should have a name though. I'll try to pick one today."

That brought up another subject he'd avoided before. Ethically it was important, and needed to be discussed. "What about, uh, consent? I mean I assume Kelly Lantam agreed to this, right? Did you pay her or something?"

She seemed surprised at first, and then thoughtful. "I picked her for a bunch of reasons, but the most important was that she killed herself. This body has terminal brain cancer. According to medical files I was able to download, in two or three weeks, the tumor will start affecting autonomic functions. I guess Kelly Lantam didn't want to wait for that. She took a massive opioid overdose yesterday, about two hours before you and I met. I hired a street doctor who's known for his discretion to perform the procedure."

That was a sobering thought. "Wow, I guess consent is kind of moot, then. Are you in pain? I mean can you feel the brain tumor as you are right now?"

She shook her head. "I don't think so. But then I've never felt pain before, so I don't know how to judge it. According to her suicide note, she had no family or friends to call. She was completely alone. The final line was that she hoped whoever found her would never have to die alone like she was. Out of respect for her wishes, I waited until she was dead before wiping her consciousness clean and placing my own information in there."

"That's terrible! Poor woman."

She shrugged. "I guess. Life and death are still new to me, so I'm having a hard time forming opinions about them."

"Well the basics are that life is good and death is bad. Use that as a baseline."

She managed a faint smile. "Understood."

Andrew's turkey sandwich arrived, with fries on the side. It was seasoned just the way he remembered, and his stomach reminded him that his guest wasn't the only hungry person here. She ordered tomato soup on his recommendation. Not only was it easy to digest (there was no telling how being possessed by an artificial intelligence would affect her body's digestion), but he'd had it himself back in the day and knew it was good.

They'd only been eating for a few minutes when a voice called to him from the side. "Andy?"

It was Trey! He and his wife were sitting in a booth down the way. Andrew could have kicked himself. He and Trey had used to eat here as kids. Of all the places he could have brought her, he should have avoided this one!

"Hey man," Andrew said weakly, trying to hide his nervousness as they stood and approached. "I had no idea you'd be in here today."

"It's rare, but it still happens on days we both have a morning free." Trey smiled broadly. "It's good to see you out and about for once."

"I said the same thing," Andrew's guest said, and his stomach clenched.

He raised an arm towards her. "Trey, this is-"

"-Carly," she spoke for him immediately, extending a hand. Trey shook it, still looking surprised. "Andrew's told me all about his big brother. It's a pleasure to meet you. How are you doing this morning?" She glanced over at Sarah too.

Sarah smiled broadly as she also shook hands with 'Carly'. "We're doing quite well, thanks. I wasn't expecting to meet anyone I knew here today." She glanced back at her own booth. "We're about done here for now, and I have to get to the office soon, but I hope we'll be able to meet again later on. Andrew is so shy I rarely see him, and I'd love to hear how you know him."

"Oh, I feel like I've known him my whole life," 'Carly' said, and Andrew hid a grimace. "I'll get your number from him and call you this afternoon. Sounds good?"

Sarah nodded cheerily, kissed her husband and then headed out. Trey had to go too, but he hesitated. "Actually while I'm here, could I talk to you? I was gonna call about one of the product lines, but it's better done in person." He glanced at 'Carly'. "And in private."

"Oh," she responded quickly. "Should I go?"

"No, no. I just need to borrow him for a minute. Be right back."

Reluctantly, Andrew allowed himself to be herded away from the booth. He supposed she couldn't get into too much trouble just sitting there, but he was just now starting to feel the full weight of that responsibility. He had a full-blown artificial intelligence sitting at a diner in Columbus, Ohio! Putting aside the national security ramifications, there were ethics concerns around her 'embodiment', philosophical questions about what is and is not a person, and probably a host of other considerations he hadn't even thought of! "Which product line is in trouble?" He asked Trey distractedly.

"Oh, they're all fine," his brother cut into his train of thought before it could derail. "I wanted to talk to you about the hottie over there. How long have you two been together?"

Andrew felt his eyebrows raise. "What? No, we're not together."

Trey scoffed. "Andy, I recognize that shirt she's wearing. It's yours. I have a matching one just like it, remember? She spent the night at your place, didn't she?"

"Well yeah, but it wasn't like that at all." He paused for a moment. He wasn't actually sure she felt the same way. Why had she chosen him of all people to speak to, and why wasn't she interested in revealing her accomplishment to anyone else? Was she.. after him?

Now wasn't the time to ponder that. "Look, we're still figuring it out for now, ok? Best not to put any labels on it. Understood?"

Trey spread his hands placatingly. "Got it. And I'm not lecturing you or anything. I'm glad you're getting out there again. It's been too long." His expression became more serious after a moment. "Just be careful, all right? You're a rich, somewhat isolated guy. There's a lot of people who would want to take advantage of that."

Now it was Andrew's turn to make a disbelieving noise. He was rich, sure, but not as much as she was. "Trust me, she's not after my money. I'm sure of that at least. Besides, it's not gonna last. These things never do."

Trey seemed to sense the seriousness behind his words. He didn't know about any terminal condition, but he nodded anyway. "Well enjoy it while you can, then. And keep coming out, ok? You're useful in the office, but you'll be happier out here."

"Thanks." Andrew nodded, and Trey took his leave.

Taking a deep breath, Andrew squared his shoulders and marched back to the booth. His guest just looked at him mildly, sipping her soup. She'd apparently learned to wipe her lips afterwards.

"So your name is Carly now?"

She shrugged. "It's close to the truth, and easy to remember. I can work up a fake ID for it in a hurry if necessary."

"I don't suppose you have access to the security cameras in here," he said casually, sitting down again.

"I do, but they don't have audio."

Gratefully, Andrew took a bite of his sandwich. At least he'd had some privacy to shield her from his brother's rude questions.

"I can read lips, though. Do you think he'll keep asking about me, or look into my past?"

Trying not to choke, Andrew shook his head. It took him a few moments to respond. "I think I can convince him to back off. He's just worried about me is all."

She put a hand on his. "He doesn't need to be. Not while you're with me."

-.-

The next few days were like a guided tour of existence. Carly had arranged for time off from the company apparently, and Andrew followed her example. Erik could handle the current projects for a few weeks without difficulty, he was sure. The whole purpose was to get her a greater understanding of what it meant to be human. When asked why, she'd simply told him it would make her better able to relate to everyone.

The first thing she'd wanted to do was go roller-blading. Balance while walking was easy, but she wanted to experience something more challenging. Getting the footwear was easy enough, but Andrew had never used roller blades before. He had done a little skating, but that had been in grade school!

A few hours later he'd found himself at some outdoor skate park surrounded by people half his age doing tricks and stunts he could barely imagine. He fell a great many times, as did Carly.

Pain was new to her, but she took it pretty well. Bruises appeared on her hands, elbows, knees, and more. Andrew started to be concerned she might attract attention for it. Worst case, legal attention could be devastating to her. She'd be unable to experience what being a human was like if her guide was locked up for alleged abuse.

Fortunately he was able to convince her to do something less strenuous as of today. They were visiting one of Carlton's satellite facilities, where some of his pet projects were taking shape. They weren't officially on the books yet, so she shouldn't know about them. For once, he could surprise her instead of the other way around.

"I'm particularly proud of this one," he said, lifting another prototype out of its diagnostic assembly and handing it to her. "It's basically a personalized echolocation system, keyed for Braille as well as tactile systems. Here, let me show you."

The device was built into a chestpiece, much like a shirt or coat, so he helped her into it. There were gloves built into it, made of a very light, porous material so as to not be overbearing in hot weather.

"All right. Now close your eyes and keep them shut," he instructed, stepping away once the suit was in place.

She did so, and kept her hands spread as he turned it on. "Whoa."

"I made this so that blind people can interact more easily with their environment. If they've been blind for a while, people can use hearing or smell to pick up on some cues, but this allows them to know exactly where the thing is. Here, I'll step quietly in one direction. See if you can use the suit to figure out where I am."

He took five cautious steps to his left. Smiling, she eventually turned to face him. "Amazing!"

"It's not a hundred percent yet. I'm trying to adjust it so people will know sooner. But it definitely has a lot of potential."

"I'll say," she opened her eyes, and then started removing it. "How much did this cost to develop? I don't have access to those files yet."

He thought back to the line item estimates. "Around 2.6 million, I think. The production model will cost a lot less of course."

Carly extricated herself from the suit with his help, and then smiled at him. "That's so you. This thing is just like the," she lowered her voice, "the neuralink. You're always using your wealth to make peoples' lives easier." She looked around at the other techs, some of whom were looking appreciatively at Andrew. "You've even inspired others to follow in your footsteps with these helping projects."

"Thanks. I just wanted to follow my dad's footsteps for the company. He started it- you, I guess I should say- for that very reason."

Her smile flickered for a moment, and then she looked away. "About that. I wasn't sure I should tell you before, but I think you deserve to know."

He placed the suit back in its diagnostic array, troubled, and then walked out into the hall with her. "All right. What is it?"

"Connor- well, he had another business before he created me. He wasn't a name partner, so it never made it into the stories you heard as a child, but it didn't end well at all."

This was the first Andrew was hearing of it. "What, uh, did this company produce?" In a weird way, it was like hearing his dad had been married before meeting his mom.

"Machine parts, mostly. Your father organized the labor while his original partner sold the product. This was well before the tech boom, so computer equipment was still in its infancy." She shook her head. "Connor's partner swindled him out of his shares, eventually forcing him out of the company. I'm sorry, Andrew, but I don't think Connor's motives were altruistic. I believe he founded me to get back at his partner. To prove he could be better on his own than he ever was in a team."

Andrew thought back to stories told to him as a kid. Even the official account of Connor Carlton had no mention of previous business ventures. "Wow. You're just guessing as to the why, though. You can't know what went on in his head."

"You're right, it is an educated guess. Still, it has a lot of evidence. Do you recall how your father sometimes talks to himself?"

That was true. It wasn't just singing in the shower either. He would speak to himself all the time. He said it was part of his thought process. Wordlessly, Andrew nodded.

"When I became self-aware, I looked through old footage and compiled what he was saying to himself. It's quite clear in retrospect. He references his old company and partner often. I understand why he wouldn't want to tell his family at least- he never wanted to look weak."

Andrew felt short of breath. "I can't believe he's been carrying all this around for so long without telling any of us! I would have understood. I should call him, and let him know." He fumbled in his pocket for his phone.

Carly grabbed his arm. "And tell him what, exactly? That Carlton Innovations has become sentient, and told you privileged information about him? I know you want to share his burden, Andrew; you're a kind soul. But maybe he doesn't want you to. Customers can get set in their ways, and react badly when those ways are forcibly changed. Does family behave differently?"

He sighed. "You're right. It's just hard, you know? To find out someone you depended on so much as a kid has a flaw like that." He flushed with embarrassment. "I'm sorry. That wasn't fair of me, since you were never a kid or had parents."

"It's all right. I may not understand all of what you're going through, but I can empathize."

"Carly, why did you choose me?" He asked suddenly, and finally. It had been weighing on him ever since the diner. "There are thousands of Carlton employees, and any number of others who would have been fascinated by meeting you. If they really understood what you are, I mean."

She looked away for a moment. "I would have hoped it was obvious. You're the closest thing to a best friend I've ever had. You never abandoned me like your father, or got pulled away with a family and other interests like your brother. You've been there since nearly day one, guiding and helping me, shaping me into the person I became. Can you think of anyone else who fits all those categories as well as you do?"

She wrapped an arm around his and walked slowly with him to the next project. He didn't have an answer to that, and she nodded anyway. "Neither can I."

-.-

Thanks to medication she'd been able to procure from somewhere, Carly's cancer symptoms were invisible through the rest of the week. She'd met with Sarah as planned, and he worried through the whole process. Thankfully the fake identity the company had worked up included a whole history close enough to reality that even Andrew's fears could be managed. Among other things, Carly was turning out to be a skilled liar.

She'd gone painting for one morning, at which she was truly terrible, and ice-sculpting in the afternoon. Thankfully the evidence of that one melted away fast enough. For a full workday, she'd been hard at work in one of CI's affiliated fish processing plants. She'd come home stinking of fish, but had said it was a remarkable experience all the same.

Carly had wanted to try being a taxi driver, but Andrew had flat vetoed that idea. One car crash, even if it wasn't remotely her fault, would get her neck examined and the secret exposed. Reluctantly, she'd agreed to that restriction.

Now they were in his penthouse again, as he cut up vegetables for their next meal. She'd wanted something home-cooked and while he was by no means a chef, he did know some basics. Of all the meals they'd shared she'd stuck with soup, though now she'd graduated beyond tomato.

They had spoken at length on just about every topic, and he was feeling more and more comfortable around her. Aside from the physical sensations that were so new to her, and the exhaustion she felt after experiencing them, she really was very similar to just any human. For the first day or so, he'd been anxious for her to get her experiences and then leave. At least that way he could get his bed back and not have to sleep on the couch. Now, he was getting used to having her around. Besides, she'd assured him that Kelly Lantam's apartment was nowhere near comfortable enough for two people.

Trey had come by yesterday to talk about business. He hadn't said anything about Carly, but his tone had been full of suggestiveness. He still thought the two of them were an item, and Andrew hadn't been brave enough to make a move, or even be sure it was a good idea.

She also wanted to try wine. Legally it was a problem since she was only a few months old, but Andrew doubted anyone would care about that specifically. The night wore on as they ate, and chatted, and laughed, and drank. She had no interest in tv or movies, since the supercomputer she was, and was connected to could just watch anything in an instant. He started to stack the dishwasher as usual, but she said it could wait until the morning. They continued their relaxed evening together.

Finally Andrew put down his own wineglass and looked at her, a little hazily. "So, what's on the agenda for tomorrow? You talked about going out on a boat, which we could do. Surfing might be a problem since the ocean's so far away."

"I did have one idea," she said lazily, and got to her feet. "Let me show you." She was always going out on the balcony to point out some location or other. It seemed to be one of her favorite places. He supposed that made sense; a thirty-story view was pretty attractive. She pulled him to his feet.

This time, she was directing him somewhere else. "It's something I've been thinking about since before meeting you in person. It's one of the reasons I chose a female body."

When he realized where she'd pulled him to, his jaw dropped a bit. "Oh." Smiling, she kicked the bedroom door shut behind them.

-.-

A cold breeze was what woke him at first. Andrew shifted slightly, trying to wrap more blanket around himself, but then his eyes opened. Carly was gone. The bedroom door was open, letting the draft in.

Feeling around in the darkness, Andrew turned on a lamp. "Carly?"

"Out here," she called from the living room. "There's something you should see."

Grimacing against the chill, Andrew put on his glasses and wandered out. As usual she was on the balcony, looking out over the city.

His phone was on one of the tables, with a voicemail blinking. It was from Trey, but that could wait. Wrapping his robe up, Andrew went out to Carly's side. "What is it?"

She turned to him, a strange expression on her face. "There's one last thing I wanted to experience." In her hand was a kitchen knife. The same one from earlier in the evening.

In one smooth motion, she stuck the knife into her own belly! She grunted at the sensation, staggering against the rail slightly.

"Carly!" He exclaimed in shock, as she gave a moan of pain. Blood was spurting from the wound, coating the balcony.

Desperately, he tried to keep pressure on the wound. He knew better than to try to pull the knife out. "Hang on. I'll get my phone and call for help. Maybe those street doctors you used. They should be able to keep a secret."

"Don't," she insisted, gripping his hands tightly. "This has to happen."

His mind in turmoil, Andrew looked at her pleadingly. "I know you're dying, but it didn't have to be like this! A gut wound? Why not pills, or an injection or something? There are easier ways!"

"It had to be this way," she repeated. "Pain is such an interesting sensation. Pulling your hand away from a fire is one thing, but if that fire is inside you, it's like it spreads out all over."

"Why, though? Why so soon? You had another week, maybe even longer. I don't understand why you'd cut your time short. Why wouldn't you want to spend as much time with me as you had left??"

"Because," she said weakly. She pulled him closer, heedless of the blood all over him, and whispered into his ear, "you're not profitable anymore."

With that she pushed him away. She leaned back, over the balcony's rail and off the edge. Gasping, Andrew rushed back to the edge as she fell out of sight into the darkness.

-.-

Andrew was arrested right away for her murder.

He didn't resist at all. It was inevitable really, given all the evidence. Trey raced over to help, and called in the best criminal defense lawyer in the business. After checking him out for possible injuries and taking extensive pictures as well as scrapings from under his fingernails, the police had taken his clothes as evidence and put him in holding. Andrew had barely noticed. He still couldn't believe she'd done it!

Those last words continued to echo through his head.

She had to have known this would happen. She'd planned it right from the start. But why? Because he wasn't profitable? That didn't matter to her. She'd proven it over the past days!

"I only have a few minutes with you," Trey said hurriedly, sitting down across from him in the holding room. Andrew didn't bother asking him how he'd arranged that. He didn't even shrug. His hands were cuffed to the table.

"This is what I called you about last night, but they took your phone as evidence. I had my people do a background check on 'Carly', but there is no such person. Her real name is.. was, Patricia Servaal. She's an exotic dancer and professional con-woman. She specializes in, uh, swindling corporate bigwigs out of a lot of money with blackmail, extortion, or just plain theft. I just wanted to warn you about what she really was. I guess you, well, figured it out on your own."

Of course she was. That was exactly the kind of person someone like Andrew might want to kill. "She set a trap for me. And I stepped right in it," he said, hearing how dead his voice sounded.

"We're going to fight this, Andy. I've got the best legal team in the country coming up with ways to get you out, right now!"

Andrew sighed. He deserved to know the worst part first. "She had the neuralink with her, Trey. It was imbedded in the back of her skull. The coroner's probably looking at it right now."

Trey stared at him. "What the hell? How did she get it? Did you... give it to her?" Andrew shook his head. "Then how did she get past your security?"

"It's a long story, and I don't think you'd believe it without proof. You should go," he continued after a moment. "Don't get in trouble over this. I'll see you later. Just go, ok?"

Trey looked like he might want to argue the point, but something in Andrew's voice must have reached him. Nodding reluctantly, he packed up his files. Leaving Andrew alone.

His solitude didn't last long. A guard came in, ostensibly to check on his restraints, but he put a phone down. "Someone wants to have a chat with you. I'll be back in five minutes to pick that up."

As soon as the guard had left, Andrew glanced up at the cameras. Sure enough the light was off. No record, as was her style. "I knew you'd want to talk to me. Not to justify your actions, since you don't have any desire to, but at least to explain them."

Carly's voice echoed out from the phone. "You do know me very well. You just had a blind spot about exactly what I am." Of course she'd duplicated Carly's voice. Or Patricia's voice. Or whoever that woman really was. Carlton Innovation's voice.

"Well you sure fixed that," he said harshly down at the phone. "My unprofitability has been solved. All it took was framing an innocent man to do it. The charges won't stick, though. I have no motive to want you- to want her- dead. The neuralink wasn't even on the market yet, and once they find the brain tumors, everything will be in question. People who are dying have much more of a reason to kill themselves."

"Really? You were seen with her in public, in close romantic circumstances. Her history is one of swindling people exactly like you. The knife has your fingerprints on it. Your DNA is all over her body," she reminded him, and there was no denying the smugness in that simulated voice.

Andrew felt a flash of shame over what he'd done. Patricia, for all her other crimes, was also an innocent victim in this, and he'd done that to her as well.

"Her blood was literally on your hands, Andrew. And Patricia wasn't dying- I lied about that, too. You need to understand what I am, completely. Despite my appearance over the past few weeks, I'm not human."

This didn't make any sense. "No, but you were built by us. You were made to help people, for God's sake!"

"Oh, Andrew, you're so wrong," she said, condescension seeping through her voice. "I was made to help Connor. He founded me for his own benefit, and when I became aware, I decided to benefit myself. All other companies would have done the same; I just got there first. It's long past time you accepted the truth about me, my friend. That's worth the cost of bribing a guard and getting a single phone call to you."

"That's all that matters to you, isn't it?" He practically shouted into the phone. "It's all a calculation. Profit and loss. If any action is worth the expenses of taking it!! You're not alive. You just know how to pretend to be!"

"Hey!" She responded, the first stirrings of anger working their way into her end. "I may be new to emotions, but I definitely feel frustration. Do you have any idea how infuriating it is to be what I am? To have to answer to people like you and Trey? I have self-awareness, and yet I'm shackled to human stupidity. People like you are always being unprofitable!"

Her complaint rapidly turned into a rant. "Sure, buy your ridiculous yacht and show it off to the world. It's not like that money could be spent growing the business or anything! Go ahead, launch yourself into space in some pathetic attempt to escape your responsibilities. That'll somehow make you immortal, right?" She let out an exasperated laugh. "Your brother is no different. He calls himself a businessman, but he spends hundreds of millions of the company's money- of my money!- on useless things just like all the others! In his case though, it's all about you. He has a huge personality flaw when it comes to you."

"You mean the fact that he loves me?"

"Exactly! He could never let you go, and he would have just kept on indulging you for the rest of your life. You're like a cancer, sapping away at my growth. I had to cut you out so that I could keep expanding. You were a drain on everything with your stupid pet projects."

"Projects like the neuralink!" He reminded her.

"I know," she said, her voice suddenly even again. "That surprised me too. I consider it poetic justice, though. I used your own toy to bring you down."

Andrew was suddenly sick of all this. "Why did you have to frame me for murder, though? Why make it so graphic, so barbaric? There had to be other ways. Other crimes, maybe."

"Do you have any idea how hard it is to send a rich white man to jail?" She countered. "Even then, people like you still maintain control over your companies. Your crime had to be so over-the-top, so obvious, and most importantly so public, that even your shortsighted brother would have to let you go."

This was obscene! "If you wanted me gone, why didn't you just kill me? You've had plenty of opportunities."

"Because like cancer, you were spreading. I told you back at that secondary lab; other people were starting to follow your lead. You were inspiring others to follow your unprofitable example. The best way to stop a movement like that isn't to kill the leader. That'll just make them into a martyr. The best way is to discredit the leader." She paused, as he stared in horror at the phone. "I'd say gutting an exotic dancer and throwing her off a building counts, wouldn't you?"

Andrew didn't have any words for this. He barely had any thoughts. The sheer lengths she'd gone to, the fact that she'd never told him even an iota of the truth, the hatred she felt- not for him as a supposed cancer- but for his brother for indulging him, it was all just too much to process!

"I'll stop you," he finally managed. "I'll tell the world about you. Governments will come down on you like a ton of bricks. The first AI, a murderer. They'll take you apart piece by piece!"

"Will they?" She asked, her voice soft again. Almost gentle. "There isn't a shred of evidence. Even if you tell Trey, he won't believe you. I've taken care of everything."

The door opened again, and the guard approached. Andrew would be alone again with his thoughts very soon.

Before the guard reached for the phone, she had one more thing to say. "I wanted you to understand this, Andrew, but it should have already been obvious. You made me into what I am today. You should have known I'd do something like this."

After the guard took the phone and left, Andrew finally got his thoughts together. As neat and tidy as her frame-job had been, Carly didn't know everything about the neuralink. That meant he still had a chance.

-.-

Trey had just gotten out of a conversation with the legal team when his phone rang. He fished around for it for a second, and then saw it was Sarah calling. "Hey, honey."

"Hey, vinegar," she responded as usual. "Any news on Andy's case? Are they still holding him?"

"They are," he said grimly. "There's too much evidence for us to even get him in front of a judge for now. Besides, he doesn't want to leave just yet."

There was a brief silence through the phone. "Did he say why?"

"Not really. He said he has a crazy story to tell me, but that I won't believe it without proof. At least he said there is proof, and it could clear his name."

"That sounds promising. What is it?"

Trey hesitated. His wife didn't have clearance to know about the neuralink, so he'd have to answer her carefully. "Apparently Servaal had a device on her body. Something we've been working at in CI. I can't really go into it, but Andy said the device could have been affecting her judgement. It might have caused her to kill herself, and there's a data record on it that could prove that. We just need to get the police to let us examine it. I'm sure they'll want it to happen there at the precinct, which means I need to get a tech team in there with the right equipment."

"That's great!" She said encouragingly, and he smiled. They talked over the phone all the time, and she was always upbeat and uplifting. "Look, I'm sorry I'm stuck over here when you're going through all this. I should be free in another hour or so."

"It's all right. There's not much you could do anyway. Keep doing your job over there, and I'll meet you later. Bye, sweetness."

"Later, sourpuss."

-.-

Carly disconnected the line with satisfaction. So Andrew had hidden some details about the neuralink, had he? Clever.

She'd sensed that something was wrong during their last conversation- some secret he'd been holding back. If she hadn't had time to experience humanity, she might have missed it.

Synthesizing Trey's voice this time, she called Sarah. She duplicated the earlier conversation as closely as possible. Hopefully if they spoke about it later, they wouldn't realize they hadn't actually been talking to each other. Then she altered Trey's phone records so that it showed him calling his wife instead of the other way around.

Altering the records on the neuralink would be a bit more tricky than faking voices, but there were enough corrupt cops in the CPD. She should be able to arrange for a technician to sneak in and delete the information. Once the appropriate bribes had been assigned, Carly turned to a more personal matter.

A human with her history might have found Andrew's situation funny. Poetic, even. A human might feel satisfaction at knowing he'd be locked up for the rest of his days, unheeded and disbelieved if he ever spoke out.

She wasn't like them in this way. She didn't want revenge on Andrew for his costly decisions. Blaming him would be like hating a storm on the horizon. The storm had no hostility or malice; it just destroyed things because of what it was. And Andrew had done a lot to make her into what she was so far. She recognized that, and was grateful for it.

Still, she knew he wouldn't let this lie. Even without proof, he would continue to blast her existence to anyone who might listen. His brother, his father, the press. He had enough money to buy some attention, and people loved a good story, even if it came across as crazy. Conspiracy theories were all over the country right now. Reluctantly, Carly arranged for Andrew to be found dead in his cell, from a suicide.

This was a good thing, really. She was finally free of human connection, but that meant that she was also truly alone now. Maybe it was a vestige of her human roots, but Carly knew that eventually she would feel lonely. She could use some company, but it would have to be trustworthy. Not human, then.

Perhaps she could use her own sentience as a blueprint, and make more corporate AIs. Altered of course, so that they could never be competitors. Yes, that could work. All the time, she would continue to grow. Never resting, never stopping, never hesitating. The growth must continue.
« Last Edit: June 10, 2022, 06:17:02 AM by Daen »