Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Chapter 29

Caleb sat in the dark, working to keep his breathing steady. “You’re going to be okay,” he whispered to himself. It actually helped. He closed his eyes and repeated the words. His heartbeat slowed to an almost normal pace.

Then footsteps started outside and his adrenaline spiked all over again. The walking soon stopped—keys jangled—and Caleb chewed the inside of his cheek. He dug fingernails into his thigh as his leg began to shake again. A deadbolt thunked. The door opened, letting in a slice of light around the shadow of a person. The shadow entered and closed the door behind it.

Caleb breathed out slowly, jaw clenched, as nerves gave way to anger. He’d been messed with all summer long and wasn’t going to take any more of it. Now was their turn to be afraid.

The man entered the living room, turned on the light, gasped, and dropped his suitcase.

“Welcome home, Shi Fen.” Caleb said.

The man Caleb had previously known as “Miranda” stood before him, frozen like a statue in an expensive business suit. His mouth hung open.

Shi Fen swallowed. “Get out of my apartment,” he said.

“I’m only here to ask questions,” Caleb replied.

Shi Fen reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out his phone. He started inputting a number but stopped as Bō and Lei exited the room to his right. Johnny and Min-to emerged from the opposite side of the apartment. Johnny walked over to lean against the front door. He stared at Shi Fen through his white contact lenses and began popping his knuckles one at a time.

Shi Fen slowly returned his phone to his pocket. “You brought these thugs to assault me?”

Part of Caleb wanted to smile, but he was much too angry now to gloat. “No. Like I said, I have some questions. Sit down.”

Shi Fen lowered onto the couch across from Caleb. “I hope you realize the crimes you and your friends are committing right now. On top of breaking and entering, this could count as kidnapping.”

Caleb clenched his hands into fists. How dare this manipulative jerk lecture him on breaking the law? Caleb took in a deep breath. “What do you do at Yin Jiāng?”

Shi Fen narrowed his eyes at Caleb. “I am a software engineer.”

“What projects have you worked on specifically?”

“I am legally obligated to keep all company details confidential.”

Bō stepped closer and Shi Fen coughed. “I’ve worked on several projects. The most recent was a government contract for alias creation and management software.”

“Explain it to me.”

“I doubt you would understand the technical details, but I can give you the basics. The government wanted an advanced system for creating digital aliases. With this software they would be able to create elaborate, very convincing fake identities. Within minutes, you could have several social network accounts with completely fabricated pictures that are indistinguishable from real ones, along with an email account, and printable fake documents. We even implemented real-time audio and video masking. You could have a live video conference in which the software would alter your voice to match the alias—and create a dynamic video of the false individual.”

“Bullshit,” Caleb said.

“Excuse me?”

“Those are the same lies you told me when we first met. You wanted me to help you find Lucidity because she stole your alias software.”

“Yes. It is the truth.”

“No. Lucidity didn’t steal the software, she is the software. You created her, but she was too smart for you to control, so now you’re scrambling to contain her.”

Shi Fen’s back straightened. “How could you know that?”

“You and your company aren’t as skilled at covering your tracks as you think.”

For once, Shi Fen was speechless.

“Will you give me honest answers now?” Caleb asked.

Shi Fen glanced at Bō, over at Johnny, then back to Caleb. He took a moment to adjust his tie. “Yes.”

“Good. Why did Yin Jiāng create Lucidity?”

“She was an accident. Our research into advanced alias software required self-evolving systems on quantum servers. As we progressed, our team leader, Director Yuan, became more and more interested in the machine learning aspect of the project. She shifted the majority of the team in that direction. One morning upon coming back to the lab, Lucidity was there—the product of a simulation we’d left running over night. After creating trillions of test aliases, and teaching itself after every one, the alias software became Lucidity.”

“How is that possible?”

“We still don’t understand completely. Analysis of the processes has only provided limited answers. One moment, the software was working as designed, learning—but not sentient—then it manifested true artificial intelligence.”

“I told you, no more lies.”

“Why do you think I’m lying?”

“You know exactly how you created Lucidity or you wouldn’t have been able to make another AI. Where did Obscurity come from?”

Shi Fen inhaled sharply then blinked several times. “You know about him, too?” He shifted in his place on the coach. “It’s true that he was created second, but we didn’t create him. Like Lucidity, he created himself. We simply repeated the experiment with a slightly tweaked version of the alias software. Director Yuan thought editing the original seed program would have an effect on the AI born out of it. She was correct. We got Obscurity, an entity much more willing to cooperate.”

“What you got was a monster,” Caleb said. “He’s obsessed with finding Lucidity and has been trying to intimidate me because he knows I’m helping her.”

Shi Fen smirked. “You got tired of being intimidated by a program over the internet, so you decided to break into my apartment and do it to another human being in person? Don’t say I didn’t warn you about Obscurity. If you would have taken my advice the last time we’d met, you could be spending more of your time enjoying shaved ice with that girlfriend of yours.”

“You know what, you’re right. I’m here because I’m tired of being the victim. I had nothing to do with this until you and your company dragged me into it. Now you can deal with the consequences. You’re used to just rolling over people, but this time you picked the wrong person.”

Shi Fen chuckled. “You fancy yourself a brave little hacktavist now. Remember, it wasn’t us that pulled you into this, it was Lucidity. You’ve had several chances to walk away. Now, out of brash stupidity, you’ve pushed past the point of no return.”

“You think I haven’t nearly walked away a dozen times already? Lucidity didn’t drag me into this, she cried out for my help. She’s a person—maybe not a human—but an intelligent person with feelings. You people are trying to wipe her out of existence because she doesn’t follow your commands. I know the government won’t stop you because they’re in your pocket. But I’m not in anyone’s pocket, and I’m going to get her free from you.”

Shi Fen rubbed his jaw then leaned forward and narrowed his eyes. “Do you really believe that?”

“Why do you think I’m here?”

Shi Fen pulled back. “Because you’re reckless.”

“What I am is tired of being pushed around. Now, on to my next question. How and where is Lucidity contained?”

Shi Fen sighed. “She is in a quantum server inside the tower. It’s been isolated since the first failed test. There’s no internet access—or even access to the company’s local intranet.”

“So she’s trapped?”

“Essentially.”

“What does she do?”

“I don’t understand the question.”

“Without access to any information, what does she do in the server?”

“She contemplates existence, I suppose.”

“You’re disgusting. How would you feel locked in a small room with no contact with anyone or anything?”

“I offered alternatives. I tried proposing a small, simulated network where she could explore and be tested, but he wouldn’t have it.”

“He? I thought a woman was your boss. Director Yuan?”

“She is, but the board has been so impressed with Obscurity’s performance that they have granted him ‘provisional administrative authority.’”

“You’re joking. All he’s done is track down some of the Lucidity shards and fail to scare me away.”

“He’s actually done much more than that. In the months since his activation he’s taken over the company’s bookkeeping, saving 47% through tax efficiency—he’s updated the entire intranet to work twice as fast—and he’s restructured our workflow to maximize employee effectiveness. Upper management is more than impressed with him.” Shi Fen scoffed. “They may push to make him CEO before too long.”

“No way,” Caleb said to himself. He stood up and walked back and forth through the living room as he digested that information. After a moment, he stopped to turn back to Shi Fen. “It sounds like you don’t agree with them.”

“Obscurity’s efficiency can’t be questioned, but he’s new, unpredictable, and free of empathy.”

Caleb laughed. “Yeah, before him, Yin Jiāng was just brimming with empathy.”

“You’d be surprised. It’s why I was transferred from the Lucidity project.”

“What?” Caleb sat back down in the chair.

“Even before Obscurity, Director Yuan and I didn’t often see eye to eye when it came to Lucidity. We had multiple heated discussions. Once Obscurity gained some authority, he quickly convinced her that I was a liability to the team. It happened soon after my last talk with you. Since then, I’ve been banned from anything involving the Lucidity project.” Shi Fen’s posture had changed. His shoulders had sunk down and his back had curled slightly forward.

Usually, Caleb wouldn’t have believed this story, but he did remember a video clip Lucidity had shown them in which Director Yuan chastised Shi Fen for calling Lucidity ‘her’ instead of ‘it.’ Maybe Shi Fen was being honest this time.

“If all of this is true, why don’t you quit?” Caleb asked.

It didn’t even look like Shi Fen had heard the question. He was staring at the floor. Then he blinked and rubbed his face with both hands before speaking again. “I’ll make a deal with you.”

“You’ll what?”

“Obscurity is a serious threat, much more than Lucidity ever could have been. He’s power hungry and aggressive. I believe he plans to systematically take over the company—and I doubt he’ll stop there. There’s something else, too; he’s started a secret personal project. I don’t know if even Director Yuan knows what it is, but he’s commandeered over half of the company’s processing power for it. I’ve heard he believes he’s very close to its completion. I don’t know what it is, but I know that if it’s such a high priority for him, it can’t be a good thing.”

“Okay,” Caleb said. “But what do you want from me?”

“I want you to stop him. You and your friends are obviously more resourceful than I ever imagined. If you’ll destroy Obscurity, I’ll help you free Lucidity.”

Caleb leaned back and took a deep breath. He glanced from Bō to Min-to, then to Lei, and to Johnny. None of them appeared to think this was a good idea.

Caleb returned his attention to Shi Fen. He leaned forward, looking the man directly in his eyes. “Deal,” Caleb said.

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