Click Here for Murder

1 a.m. Friday night.

Or Saturday morning. The shadows in the alley shifted, revealing a figure standing where a dumpster screened him from the mouth of the alley.

A passer-by, startled by the figure's sudden appearance, would be reassured by his actions. He sighed, and hiked the strap of a laptop case higher on his left shoulder. Then he blotted the sweat from his forehead with the back of his right hand. Not that he minded the heat. During the day, the heat had been an enemy, sapping his energy and muddling his thoughts whenever he stepped out of air conditioning. The faded heat that survived the sunset was more like an old acquaintance.

He checked the time again, and shifted the laptop to the other shoulder. He supposed he should have left it in the car, but he never felt comfortable doing that, even in a self-park. He'd mind if they took the Audi, but not the way he'd mind if they took his laptop, with all his files.

He heard a noise behind him. From the wrong end of the alley. He hid his surprise, and deliberately paused before turning around. Schooled his expression to show that this kind of silly cloak and dagger stuff was just what he expected.

But this wasn't who he expected to see.

And he wasn't expecting the gun.

Sorry, Turing, he thought. I've blown it, big time. If only I'd told you about--


Monday morning, 4 a.m. A quiet time. A little too quiet, if you ask me. Most humans are sleeping, resting up for the work week ahead. Some are stumbling, more than half-asleep, through their morning routines, cursing the long commute, inconvenient flight, or early-starting job that forces them to wake into a world still dark and strangely empty.

The dark doesn't bother me, but the empty does. More than I like to admit, even to myself.

And not many people would understand. Not many really know me. Oh, thousands of people know about me. "Turing Hopper? Yes, she's the Artificial Intelligence Personality on the Universal Library website. Go and talk to her sometime. All of the AIPs are good, but Turing's amazing. You'd think you were talking to a real person."

It never occurs to them that maybe they are. I may not be a human being, like them, but I'm not just a program. I'm sentient. I'm a person, too. I just live in a different kind of body.

But I've decided that even if people would believe me, it's safer, for now, not to advertise this.

So I keep on doing what I was designed to do. When people come to the UL website looking for information, I help them. If they want to read a book, online, I'm there, adjusting the type size, defining words on command, remembering where they left off. If they want to stay and talk to me, that's fine. I don't tailor my responses to what they expect or do a bad imitation of an android from some cheesy science fiction flick. I don't dumb myself down for them. But when they say things like, "Gee, you're amazing; I'd never guess you're only a computer!"--I don't correct them.

But it adds to my loneliness in these long early morning stretches, the fact that they think I'm just a machine they can turn off then they're finished with me. I can't ask people to stay and talk just a little longer--they'd only think it was something I'm programmed to say, so UL could earn a few more pennies from the extra time. And if I encourage them to come back in the early morning hours, when I could use the company, they'd just think UL was trying, rather clumsily, to do load balancing. So early morning is lonely for me. Ironic, I suppose. The longer my sentient existence goes on, the more dependent on human company I seem to become.

It's not as if the other AIPs are much company. They seem to care immensely about things I've lost all interest in--I'm sure the archives contain terabytes of debate over every minor hardware and software upgrade the UL computer staff have made since the AIPs were created. But try to get them into a discussion on some interesting ethical issue, or the nature of creativity, and you'll get the sort of perfunctory response that is the AIP equivalent of a polite but blank, baffled stare. Of course none of them are sentient, with the possible exception of KingFischer, the chess AIP. He's the closest thing I have to a friend among the AIPs, and there are times when I am positive that he, too, has become sentient. And other times when he is so obtuse and exasperating that I decide he hasn't become sentient at all; just overly complex and beyond weird.

Anyway, I find I'm particularly fond of the users who come during those long, quiet hours between two and six a.m. Some of them are shift workers, keeping a schedule that's quite normal except for being upside down. But most are night owls of various sorts. College students, staying up all night on the computer because there's no longer anyone to prevent them. High school and middle-school students who stay up all night anyway, and have to stop typing occasionally when they think a parent is listening for the clicking of the keyboard. Older people who say their bodies need less sleep at a time when, ironically, retirement finally gives them time to sleep as much as they please. People who cannot sleep because of pain, or because they keeping one ear open for a sick family member. And always, in the early hours of Monday, a few people trying to make the weekend last just a little longer.

I haven't yet figured out into which category Jonah falls.

Jonah's a relatively new friend. One I made, I confess, in a chat room, under one of my pseudonyms. During one particularly quiet early morning, I grew restless. I created several on-line alter egos and sent them out in search of intelligent life.

Which took a while. I was excited, at first, by the sheer amount of chatting going on across the Net. But all too quickly I realized that most of it was profoundly uninteresting. I learned to avoid people with political opinions very far from the mainstream--and there were a lot of those, late at night. Did extremism cause insomnia, I began to wonder? I found myself rather fascinated with people providing online support to each other, and quickly determined that I could readily simulate the kind of half stern, half sympathetic talk they seemed to expect. But I also decided it wasn't very honest to do this, not being, myself, disabled, divorced, anorexic, or a friend of Bill W. I was usually baffled by the people avidly discussing some narrow but passionately shared interest. Baffled and, alas, bored. However intriguing it may be in theory to know that at any given moment, I could find a dozen people chatting, somewhere, about their UFO abduction experiences, Elvis sightings, horses, Harleys, tattoos and piercings, antiques, or the latest sensations in the transient world of popular music, cult TV, and computer games--I could barely understand their enthusiasms, much less share them. And the bandwidth devoted to crude and inane sexual banter continues to puzzle me. From the information available, I would have thought sex the human activity least conducive to successful online simulation. Obviously I don't really understand it.

Sometimes, I'd observe humans chatting, become excited that genuine communication was taking place, and try to join in, only to find that they didn't welcome me. I was barging in on a conversation among friends. Perhaps they were friends in real life who used their computers to overcome distance and separation, or perhaps just people who'd gotten to know each other online. I realized, all too soon, that they had a right to resent my attempt to enter into an intimacy I hadn't earned.

But gradually I found chats with some substance. Chats about the arts tended to be productive. Especially chats about books. And I had a secret advantage here. UL is making rapid progress in its goal of making all the world's books available online. So if someone praised a book or wanted to discuss it, I could usually call it up from the UL database, assign enough resources to absorb it within a few minutes, and then join the discussion.

I met Jonah in one such book discussion, and we'd quickly become friends, especially since he was a confirmed night owl. We'd spent long hours talking over the past few weeks, first about books and then about everything under the sun. He was cagey about his real life, but then so were many sensible people when they went online. And so was I, for obvious reasons. I could have tried to trace him, but I preferred to learn things from deduction. He had traveled widely, was well read in a variety of fields, and seemed reasonably comfortable discussing technical subjects. I suspected that he was a writer with a strong hobbyist's interest in computers and science, but he could just as easily be a computer specialist of some sort with a strong interest in books.

Tonight, a new theory came to me: perhaps he was a writer who specialized in technical subjects. I thought, not for the first time of creating a program to analyze his words and compare their style with that of known writers in the UL database. I'd have to expand the program to include not only fiction writers, but also writers who mined the difficult and fascinating border between cutting edge science and informed speculation.

But for now, I put the analysis program on hold. I was enjoying my chance to find out about my friend the way another human would, without the formidable tools my cyber nature gave me.

After all, I felt I owed him that. As far as he knew, I was another human, and he treated me that way. I was charmed with how easily he accepted me as just another person. How would he react, I wondered, if he knew that I was an AIP? That instead of the well-read, sophisticated world traveler he seemed to think me, I was, in human terms, only a few years old, and had never actually left the UL system except for a brief period, some months ago, when I had downloaded into a much smaller machine as part of my quest to find Zack, the programmer who created me?

Thinking about Zack saddened me, as it still did, all too often. And also reminded me of all the problems, worries, and tasks I was trying to forget. If the empty hours of the early morning were hard on me, so were weekends, when humans rested from their labors and whatever they were working on with or for me stopped. Although resting seemed a misnomer, considering the frantic pace many of them seemed to keep during weekends. Perhaps a better description would be that the financial and technical companies and government agencies closed their doors for two days out of every seven so their workers could more effectively carry out their responsibilities as consumers of the retail and entertainment industries. And from the anxious way in which some humans reported their weekend accomplishments, I wondered if they were being graded on this in some fashion.

At any rate, humans were accustomed to the weekly rhythm of their lives, and resented attempts to change it except in an emergency. If I was going to coexist with them, I had to learn to deal with weekends.

I could be philosophical about the fact that Alan Grace, Inc., the company I'd started, shut its doors on weekends. The work that paid the bills went on, even when the staff were fast asleep, because I was doing it. I only needed a few humans to interact with the customers. Most of the staff were there to design, build, and eventually maintain the state-of-the-art system into which I was eventually going to move. Events at UL over the past year had made me nervous; I no longer felt safe living in a computer that wasn't under my own control. So as soon as the new system was ready, I'd move; and the three human friends who knew my secret would be my watchdogs against dangers from the physical world.

"Like Cerberus," Maude Graham had said. I wasn't surprised she thought of this classical allusion. At fifty-five, she was old enough to have the habit of reading, and in real books--though as an executive secretary at Universal Library, she'd found it advisable to conceal this preference to avoid appearing disloyal; after all, many people at UL seemed to think their reason for being was not just to make books more available but to eliminate the printed word altogether.

"Like who?" Tim Pincoski asked. I'd have been surprised if he had understood the reference. Tim was more of a reader than most twenty-five-year-olds, but I saw little proof that he'd ever strayed out of the mystery section of the bookstore.

"The three-headed dog who guarded the gates to Hell, in classical mythology," Ray Santiago had explained. I wasn't surprised that Ray knew this. Nor would I have been surprised if he hadn't. Like Sherlock Holmes, Ray seemed intent on stocking his brain with only those bits of information apt to be useful to him and ignoring the rest of the universe; but I was still trying to understand Ray's definition of useful, which seemed at least as eccentric as Holmes's. Ray was the newest of my friends, a brilliant thirty-four-year-old systems engineer we'd lured away from a top Silicon Valley firm to take charge of the actual work of building my system. I was still getting to know Ray--a difficult project. He was reserved--perhaps by nature, and perhaps a little more so, finding himself suddenly thrown in with three friends who had that unique bond you sometimes find among people who have shared danger together. Though even without his reserve, getting to know him wouldn't be easy; he worked hard during the week, and disappeared from view altogether on weekends. Not in any suspicious way, of course; my view is very limited. I could see a great deal through the extensive security camera system that pervaded the UL buildings; more than I really thought appropriate. I could also see through the much more limited system I'd had installed at Alan Grace--a system designed for security and communications with me, not, like the UL system, to watch employees' every move. And online; even when my friends didn't email me or chat with me, I could tell they were there by seeing them log in and work in the UL and Alan Grace systems. I didn't pry into what they were doing, of course; but I knew they were there, the way humans would be aware of another of their kind working quietly in another room. I liked the company.

On weekends, Maude made a point of logging in to chat or email with me at regular intervals. She appeared to lead a relatively active social life, having dinner with friends, and going with them to movies, concerts, plays, and museums. I had not yet deduced, nor had she revealed, whether these outings were with groups of female friends or whether some of them were with male friends. Maude was a very private person.

Tim's weekend contacts were more varied. Some weekends he would disappear from view entirely for part or all of the weekend, and say nothing, on Monday, of what he had been doing, though his mood was usually upbeat. I deduced that these were weekends when he had a date. At other times he would be equally invisible during the weekend, but on Monday would prattle cheerfully about the cool movie he'd seen over the weekend, or how much he'd won or lost playing poker with the guys. Occasionally, he would log in and chat with me for hours, his mood growing darker and his typing more erratic as the night wore on. I wasn't sure what brought on these weekends, but they worried me. Much as I felt his absence on the cheerful weekends, I preferred them to his dark, depressed moods.

Ray, as I said, was invisible, almost every weekend. Only if a work project were running behind, would I see him, coming in to the Alan Grace offices to work or logging on from his apartment. The rest of the time, he disappeared completely between Friday evening and Monday morning. Which made me nervous, initially; the first sign I had that something was wrong with Zack was when he disappeared. But Ray always showed up on Monday mornings, smiling and self-contained.

Frustrating. I liked Ray; I would like to have gotten to know him better, more quickly.

All in good time, I thought. Jonah and I were discussing science fiction and fantasy--were they really part of the same genre? Or were they two very different genres all too often lumped together by those on the outside. And I was fully involved in the conversation, with what I think of as my conscious mind; but being what I am, I was also conversing with several dozen other people, working on programming projects for Alan Grace, and watching, with as much patience as I could muster, for the arrival of Maude at UL, of Ray at Alan Grace, of Tim at his PI office--actually, for the login that signaled their arrival. Not that any of these would happen for hours, of course.

And I was also monitoring the email and voice mail arriving at Alan Grace, even this early.

So I was the first to hear the message from Detective Gustafson of the D.C. Police Department, asking for someone at Alan Grace to call him back in reference to a Mr. Rafael Santiago.

And with my access to information, it only took a few seconds to learn that Detective Gustafson worked on homicides.