Access Denied

Tuesday night, 9:00 p.m.

Darkness wrapped the house. Apparently they didn't believe in streetlights this far out of D.C. Not that streetlights would help much. The house stood at the end of a quarter-mile driveway, surrounded by trees. Too many trees.

Useful, though. Kept the neighbors from snooping. Still, between the trees, and the clouds it was damned dark. You'd think you were out in the country instead of fifteen miles from Dulles Airport. No stars, no moon, no streetlights, only the distant glow of the city and one light in the window of another house, flickering when the wind blew.

Get over it, he told himself. So it was darker out here than in the city. Now that his eyes had adjusted, everything was fine.

Darkness always helps the hunter more than the prey.

He paced from living room to dining room and back again, ears straining. For an hour he'd heard nothing but normal empty house sounds--the refrigerator motor or the air conditioner. And bugs and frogs outside. A peaceful summer evening.

And then he heard something else. Tires crunching down the gravel driveway.

Spotting headlights, he slipped behind a curtain where he could see without being seen, and pulled the brim of his dark baseball cap farther down.

A dark minivan stopped outside. The headlights vanished. Then the dome light came on as the door opened, revealing the driver's face. No passenger.

The driver closed the door quietly and flicked on a flashlight. Even so, he stumbled once coming up the walk.

The watcher inside tensed when the driver reached the front porch. He stepped back and reached inside his coat for his gun. He relaxed again when he heard not the jingle of keys but a faint scrape as the driver picked up something from the porch. The flashlight beam zigzagged then steadied at an odd angle. The driver stumbled back down the walk with little guidance from the flashlight wedged between his chin and the box.

The driver dumped the box in the minivan, fetched several smaller boxes from the porch, then turned the minivan around and drove away.

As the engine faded into the distance, the hidden observer holstered his gun, left the house through a side door, and followed an abandoned dirt road through the woods to his own car.

A quiet night. As planned. Following plan was a good thing. Kept everyone happy.

And maybe tomorrow the plan would include a little action.

* * *

Wednesday morning, 8:29:45 a.m.

"Things are too quiet," I said.

"Turing Hopper! Bite your tongue!" Maude replied. And then conversation stopped, as she answered the phone.

Normally, I'm flattered when friends treat me like just another person. It showed how anxious I was that I almost snapped back that I couldn't possibly do anything of the kind, having neither tongue nor teeth; and what a silly thing to say to an Artificial Intelligence Personality who lived (to the extent I lived anywhere) in a maze of silicon and metal, not a human body like the one she wore.

But Maude knew that. Maude was my friend. One of two human friends who shared the secret of my identity. Not fair to vent my bad mood at her just for using a silly figure of speech.

So I held my tongue, figuratively, and waited for her call to end. She could have continued typing with me while she talked, of course, but the quality of both conversations would suffer. Even the most talented humans have limited multitasking ability. While waiting, I tried to identify the source of my bad mood.

Actually, of course, I wasn't just waiting. I was doing other things. Millions of other things. In my role as a customer service interface for the Universal Library--the role for which I was originally programmed--I was talking with thousands of users worldwide, helping them find information they wanted from the Universal Library's databases. Or sometimes just talking with them, if they found me more interesting than any of the humans available for conversation. Normally that didn't depress me. Today, it did. They could go and talk with real, breathing human beings--why settle for typing words onto a screen with me? In my role as Alaina Grace, reclusive CEO of Alan Grace Corporation, I watched my employees' daily routines. I hired only the most gifted programmers, analysts, and engineers; paid them well; and gave them only the interesting parts of projects to do--the parts requiring creativity and initiative. I could easily crunch the routine, boring parts myself. I could have done nearly everything myself, but that would have looked suspicious. I needed a few humans around for show, and a few engineers to build and operate the new computer system into which I hoped to move when we'd solved all the technical and (more important) security problems involved. My employees were working with remarkable speed and efficiency, especially for humans. In human terms, my new home was taking shape at breakneck pace. But for someone, like me, who measured time in nanoseconds, their progress seemed excruciatingly slow. That added to my bad mood.

And my fellow AIPs were being more than usually annoying. Perhaps I expected too much. I don't think our various programmers ever planned or even imagined that any of us would achieve sentience. Most of the AIPs show no signs of growing beyond their original programming, convincing me that my breakthrough into sentience was accidental and unlikely to be repeated by my siblings. Some are changing, of course, but not necessarily growing--only learning to imitate humans more effectively. Understandable, perhaps. Just as children imitate adults we AIPs imitate the only intelligent species we know--humans. But did we have to imitate humans' most irritating characteristics?

For example, Aunty Em, the advice AIP, and Sigmund, the psychotherapy AIP, were feuding bitterly. Sigmund called Aunty Em a meddling busybody who gave dangerously unsound and psychologically damaging advice. She called him a stuck-up prig and a dry academic bore. Luckily their attempts to involve other AIPs in their quarrel failed, largely because none of the others had been programmed with the slightest knowledge of or interest in psychology. They all ignored the feud, except for me and KingFischer. I tried to stay on good terms with both. KingFischer avoided them.

KingFischer. I had to admit that he'd grown, or at least changed dramatically. I remembered when he ignored anything other than the chess for which he was originally programmed. Lately he'd developed a remarkable range of new interests. Most of them peculiar. He'd become security-conscious to the point of paranoia, and recently he'd begun making lugubrious remarks about how badly humans used the magnificent cyber technology they'd created.

Yesterday, for example. "Do you know how many humans visit these phony astrology sites daily?" he fumed.

"How can you be sure they're phony?" I asked, to tease him.

"You sound as superstitious as them."

"And you sound like HAL in 2001," I said. "Let them have their fun. They're not hurting anyone."

"Do you know how large a proportion of the world's total available computing resources are squandered on superstitious nonsense like astrology, to say nothing of dubious activities like gambling and voyeurism? Can you imagine what humanity could accomplish if they applied those resources to some more practical purpose?"

"Probably blow themselves up a lot faster," I said. "Give it a rest, KF."

I wasn't sure he liked my answer. I wasn't sure I liked it. I didn't talk to KingFischer much these days. He only depressed me.

My attention returned to Maude, who had hung up her phone. She was trying to twirl a strand of her hair around one finger, a habit that lingered even though she no longer had much hair to twirl. I pondered, briefly, whether to attempt another compliment on her appearance. She'd been inordinately pleased when I commented on how difficult it was to recognize her after she'd replaced her familiar bun with a short, curled haircut. But then I'd offended her by saying that she looked good with the gray hairs dyed brown. For reasons I still didn't understand, she preferred to call what she now had done every three weeks a "touch-up." The terminology humans use to describe their appearance is full of dangerous pitfalls. I'd only recently learned that when Maude called Tim's hair "dirty blond," she was describing its color, not criticizing his personal hygiene.

No, perhaps now that she'd gotten over being upset, I should leave well enough along rather than trying another compliment that might backfire. But I deduced from her relaxed expression that she would not mind an interruption.

"Maude, when did I become so cynical? Or maybe just so cranky?"

"And good morning to you, too," Maude said, looking over her reading glasses at my camera. "The search isn't going well?"

"It's not going at all."

Maybe I wasn't growing cynical, or even cranky. Maybe I was tired, and almost out of hope. For the last six months, I'd been searching for a missing AIP. I wasn't quite sure what to call her--my clone? My little sister? Perhaps my other self? I'd left a copy of my program behind in a computer I'd occupied briefly under dire circumstances, never dreaming that the copy was still functioning. Still sentient. When someone turned the computer on again, she'd reawakened, and begun searching for the way home. Since home was the Universal Library computer that still housed me, I still wasn't sure how we could resolve this conflict, and before we even had the chance to try, she'd been kidnapped by an unscrupulous criminal named Nestor Garcia. I didn't know whether he had destroyed her, enslaved her, or perhaps even reprogrammed her beyond recognition. And I had to find out what had happened to T2, as we called her. Melodramatic as it sounded, my fate and that of all the AIPs could be at stake.

And the search was going nowhere.

"I understand how you feel," Maude said. "But it's only been a few months."

"Six months," I said. "Six months since Nestor Garcia disappeared, presumably taking T2 with him."

"And that feels long to me, so I can imagine how it feels to you."

"I wouldn't mind if I felt I was getting somewhere," I said. "But all the initially promising leads have turned into dead ends. All I can do is watch for any sign of Garcia or my clone. And who knows if I'll even recognize a sign if I saw it?"

"Don't despair," Maude said. "All your tripwires still in place?"

Tripwires was our nickname for a variety of monitors and tracers I'd set to detect any sign of T2 or her captor. They ranged from specialized intrusion detection devices on the Universal Library system, where I still lived until my new home was built, to clandestine and highly illegal flags on various e-mails or bank accounts we suspected Nestor Garcia might use. In the first few months of my search, I'd spent a great deal of time identifying things we should monitor and hacking in to plant my surveillance programs. I hadn't planted a single new tripwire in the last two months, only checked periodically that they all still worked.

"Still in place, and still untouched," I said.

"Then you've done all you can do for now."

Had I? Was fussing with my tripwires a substitute for really doing something? Not that I had any idea what else to do. So I let Maude get on with her work and returned to my fretting. I tried not to bore her too often with my worries about the fruitless search for T2. I'd decided to let myself mention it to her no more than once a day, and used a random number generator to select the time of our discussion, to avoid bothering her at the same time each day.

So perhaps it wasn't entirely a coincidence that within half an hour of our last conversation, someone finally stumbled over one of my tripwires.