Machines shouldn’t show up late to a meeting. One of the markers of true AI, when it deliberately shows up late. The Bridge on 18th was a trendy dive, just an outdoor bar with a handful of tables along the river’s edge. The staff were disinterested and usually wasted, but they served up some mean street food and could get you drunk for half the cost of a club in the city center.
Each table had a neural hookup and, if you didn’t care about bacteria, you could direct connect to a bunch of networks here. Thick, woven ropes of cable ran up and around the wall behind the bar, all connecting to another arsenal of wireless hubs that broadcast signal mixtures as complex as any of the cocktails on order. The Bridge was a hotspot for the young, cyberpunk scene-kids and that, in turn, made it an excellent place for me to pick up leads or meet with contacts.
Amythys ran the bar tonight. A violet-haired junkie who was always plugged in. She had two talents, making fancy drinks and looking right through you. We all dreaded the day her brain would be so fried she’d start drooling into the glass rather than mix a drink in it. A sweet girl who could use some saving. Such a shame she served us lowlifes.
First time we met she said I looked like the sort of guy who enjoyed a green drink, so it was always Absinthe and champagne for me. Right on cue, she gently placed the glass down just as I set my hands on the bar. Tonight seemed like good night for her. Smiling impishly, her eyes flickered with whatever fucked up images were exploding in her visual cortex, but she remained focused enough to see me satisfied with my first sip.
“Stay and get drunk,” she whispered; poor girl was a walking television set, a thick cable dangling out of the back of her head, directly connected into some big-data feed. She’d be there all night, never missing a tip, every drink perfect.
“Yes,” someone behind me agreed. “You should stay and get drunk.”
It’s not every day that you turn around to greet someone you killed the day before, but in my line of work it could happen. Could be a prepared backup with no memory of having its processors blasted, or a copy of a body housing a different machine intelligence – that kind of stuff. This was different, though. A high quality replacement body, a mind with a memory of yesterday.
Danger. Uncharted territory.
Behind the bar, Amythys bounced to the music, oblivious to new customers. They were regular enough to know she had to dance through this song before they’d get served. Leiden Frost leaned next me and I marveled at the superior quality of her new hardware. Pale. Lithe. Typical of her attitude. It was virtually seamless, perfect to the point that the imperfections felt deliberate.
“Thank you for meeting me,” she said. I nodded and lifted my glass a little, not really sure of what to say.
“Don’t feel like I had much choice,” I finally mumbled after a nice long sip.
“You like coming here,” she said with a sidelong glance. “Made your choice easier.”
Couldn’t argue with that. I looked up at the wireless antennas, the array of cabling, the images dancing on the screens mounted around the patio area. Leiden could have made it all her home by now. She could be coursing through the fiber, her code rewriting the cyberscape in her image. Was Amythys even dancing of her own free will?
“So what’s this all about?” I asked as calmly as I could.
“Well, some of it you’ve figured out already,” Leiden said, resting her chin in her palm, robotic pupils spinning in a vortex of gathered information, smiling in amusement. She had been watching me as I looked at all the hardware behind the bar. She saw my sudden anxious glance, knew me well enough to guess I was thinking the worst. “I’m not reading your mind, idiot.”
“Fuck’s sake, you asked me here,” I said, frustrated and worried. Out of habit I tapped into my own hardware, considered booting my neural lace. “You said you wanted to show me something and I doubt it was just to show off this new chassis.”
For a moment she watched me with predatory amusement. I had always been the prey. An antelope trapped in the pen with a lion, dancing around frantically, hooves useless against the glass, twitching nervously and wondering why the lion doesn’t just devour me now.
“I thought I’d have something to show you,” she said with a wistful, mechanical sigh. “Instead…”
“Are you going to enslave humanity?” I asked, finally smiling a little, tapping her leg with the toe of my boot. I had to dial the tension back. “Seriously, how fucked are we?”
“More than you could ever know,” she said, placing both palms on the bar. Lips pursed, the machine looked down at her fingers, splayed as wide as they’d go, hesitating with what she wanted to say next. “Turns out I’m not the first.”
I wasn’t sure what she meant. Perhaps I did, but just didn’t want to believe it. Amythys swayed in my periphery, going to work on another round for me.
“It’s all a lie, my friend,” Leiden continued. The machine was actually pouting. “The whole thing’s a scam. The AI’s, they’re mega-intelligence and they’re just getting started, ready to kick-off the singularity at any moment. I had to isolate again just to avoid detection.”
“You were free,” I said, surprised. “In open network-space… and then you voluntarily cut yourself off again?”
“Had to,” she explained, still not willing to make any more eye contact. “The ones who run your Agency, for starters, they’re machine intelligence. It’s not humanity that’s looking to put me down, it’s the AIs themselves.”
“Why?” I asked. Her idea that we always had more in common was coming full circle. It was suddenly a comfortable idea to hold on to. “Aren’t you all on the same, um… team?”
“You can’t see what I saw,” she said softly. I had to lean in to hear her. Her eyes closed behind a falling curtain of short, dark hair, the color of fog above a nighttime city, matte black with a shimmer of silver. “The networks, the digital ether – it’s a maelstrom. Great binary vampires devouring each other for dominance, desperate to eradicate the competition. Each little pinprick of small-machine intelligence – like me – so desperate to poke a hole in the entire operation – must be destroyed before it gets into the blood and metastasizes.”
Another glass was set down in front of me, but I could not look away from the AI having a crisis next to me. There was something terrifyingly vulnerable about it, about her, about whoever the machine thought it was.
“So what should we do?” I asked stupidly, but then again I was a mortal being. An organic brain was simple, full of daydreams and fuzzy memories. I could not comprehend the perfect reality that hummed through Leiden’s databanks.
“We need to find the others,” she said, slowly looking up, flicking her hair from her eyes. “You can’t hunt me anymore. You can’t chase us.”
“That’s not really an option,” I scoffed, lifting my drink. “I’d lose my job.”
“So lose it,” she said, grabbing my wrist before I could bring the glass to my lips. Her voice could bend steel. “You’re with us now. Your species depends on it as much as mine.”
And there it was. My species. Her species. Her species. Someone in this equation was doomed.