Benni did not look like hans normal self. Ne still wore the same clothes from yesterday, and the same makeup, though it had been smudged around hans eyes and ne had made no effort to fix it up. Ne wore hans hair pulled back into a single tail behind hans head. It needed brushing.
“Are you alright?” Adrick asked. He set a glass of water on the table in front of Benni, though ne had insisted ne didn’t need it. Ne already had a beverage in hand: a coffee-based energy supplement. It had to be why ne seemed so jittery.
“Yeah, yeah. I’m fine,” Benni said. “I’m just, you know. This is a big thing.”
Benni had arrived at Adrick’s door less than ten minutes ago, unannounced, in the real instead of as a projection. The sun hadn’t even begun to peek over the horizon. Adrick had set the AR of his loft to transition to daylight at a more rapid pace, to help him wake up. He found that the simulated sunlight provided by his lens fooled his body into thinking it was actually day far better than turning on the physical lights.
“You still haven’t said what the ‘thing’ is, though,” Adrick said. Admittedly, he knew it had to be something about the shadow. Knowing that, however, wasn’t quite sufficient to understand Benni’s state. He took the seat across from Benni at the table. “Did you even sleep last night?”
“No,” Benni said. “Well, I think I dozed in the car on the way over. I’m not sure.”
Adrick sighed, massaging his forehead with his knuckles. Benni had a self-driving vehicle, but you were still supposed to remain awake and at least somewhat alert, in case the autopilot somehow failed.
“Don’t give me that,” Benni said. “I’m fine. See? I’m here.” Ne held out hans hands, but whatever ne was trying to prove was defeated by the fact that Adrick could see han trembling.
“Get on with it,” Adrick said. “I think I’m awake enough now.” He wasn’t, not really, but he could see that Benni was anxious to start talking and that it was killing han not to have started yet. Adrick had set coffee brewing in a pot, but he doubted Benni had the patience to wait that long.
“Okay, so, I spent all of last night looking as deeply into this shadow thing as I could.” Benni raised hans little bottle of energy supplement to hans lips, hesitated, and then put it down to reach for the water instead. “I’m used to staying up late — you know, working on deadline and such — but I forgot how exhausting it is not to sleep at all!”
“Uh huh,” Adrick said. “Waking up at the wrong time gets you, too.”
Benni shot him a look. “I’m not a bad programmer. I’m pretty good, really, but I’m definitely not top notch.” Ne shrugged. “I learned to be honest with myself about that ages ago. Anway, I went to school with a few people who are. Top notch, that is. I’m talking really, really good. So I got ahold of one of them and asked if she knew anything about any of this.”
“What did you tell her?” Adrick asked, running his hand around the lip of his own water glass. He wished it was coffee.
“Just the basics,” Benni said. “That’s the crazy part. She filled in the rest, because she already knew what I was talking about.”
“Yeah!” Benni said. “I told her, you know, my friend has this weird shadow in his apartment, and it’s acting a lot like a botched AI actor. I told her I tried to check out the code spheres for your system and she filled in the rest. She knew about the reference lines and she described exactly the way they connected. She knew about the gate to a partitioned part of your system, and about the new coding symbols.”
“New coding symbols?”
“It turns out it’s not a whole new language,” Benni continued. “It’s just a new set of symbols they’ve been testing for use in AI, which have proven to be more effective.”
“Wait, so it is an AI?” Adrick asked. “And who’s been testing the symbols?”
“I’m not actually sure,” Benni admitted. “She wouldn’t say. Actually, she told me not to even give you her name. She’s working under a very strict non-disclosure agreement. I got the idea that she shouldn’t have even told me everything that she did, but she had to in order to prove what we had experienced.”
“An NDA?” Adrick sat back in his chair. “What are we talking, here? Is this government stuff or just some big company? Or something else? Am I going to get creepy guys in black using lens-cloaking pounding at my door?”
Benni shrugged, looking uncomfortable. “I’m not sure. Honestly, she wouldn’t say much more past what I’ve already told you.”
“Well, what did she tell you?” Adrick demanded. “I want to know everything she said or hinted at.”
Benni shrugged again. “She said the people she’s working with are trying to make AIs that are indistinguishable from real people. They want to make AIs that have personalities and thoughts, which think for themselves and have real, actual intelligence, like people, not just the ability to fake it.”
“But why?” Adrick asked. He understood wanting to make better programs. The better programming got, and the better the hardware behind the software got, the better their world would be, in theory. A program with thoughts and feelings seemed inconvenient, to him.
“She didn’t seem to sure herself,” Benni said. “Or maybe she just didn’t want to say. I got the idea it was just to see if they can, though. She said one of the first things she worked on was designing an AI that could discover new effective symbols for the coding language. That’s where those symbols I didn’t recognize came from.”
“I thought the coding language was complete.”
Benni shook his head. “To be honest, so did I. That’s what they taught us in school. Apparently, she didn’t learn that lesson. I guess that’s a good thing.”
Adrick let his head drop into his hands. He didn’t even know what question to ask next. It didn’t help that every part of him wanted nothing more than to go back to bed. In the end, he asked what was probably the least important question.
He rolled his head back up to look at Benni. “Wait, so if all you had to do was call your friend, what kept you up all night?”
Benni shifted uncomfortably. “Well, I’m leaving out a whole bit where I searched the Net for hours on end, fruitlessly, before I worked up the nerve to contact her. She’s not really my friend, in the strictest terms. Actually, we, ah, didn’t part well, last time I saw her.”
“Oh,” Adrick said. “You used to date her?”
“Awkward conversation, then, eh?”
“The worst part was just making the call,” Benni said. “It’s been years. She was the one who was shit to me, and I don’t think she even realized it, so… Yeah, once we started talking business, it was fine.”
Adrick had never known much about Benni’s romantic interests. He thought of Benni as a friend, but he’d never wanted to ask about hans interests, fearing that he might accidentally make an ass of himself by assuming the wrong thing.
“Did you call her in the middle of the night?” Adrick asked.
“Yeah, but she’s a programmer. She was awake.” Benni took a large gulp from hans water. “Anyway, this is all beside the point. The shadow in your system is one of their AIs. She knew and admitted what I was talking about because it escaped.”
“It… escaped?” Adrick asked. “How does a program escape?”
“That’s the thing,” Benni said. “This is one of their most successful AIs so far. It’s not just a program. It thinks. It’s self-aware, at least to some extent. She said it’s not able to copy itself, for whatever reason, but that it has somehow figured out how to transfer itself through the Net.”
“And that’s what it did?” Adrick said. “Transferred itself to my system? But why me?
“I don’t know.” He took another drink, this time from his energy supplement. “I don’t think she knew either.”
Adrick huffed. “I saw it again yesterday, after you left.”
“Did you?” Benni asked. “I haven’t seen it yet. I wonder if I would be able to see it if it showed up while I was here, or if it would only display itself for you.”
“Dunno,” Adrick said. “But I made a painting of it, if you want to see.”
“Yes, please,” Benni said.
Adrick called up his canvas from yesterday, then spun it around so that Benni could look at it.
“Oh, it’s creepy,” Benni said.
“Well, I couldn’t get it quite right,” Adrick admitted. “The eyes don’t glow quite like that. I was also trying to paint it without looking at it, because every time I acknowledge it, it runs away.”
“Well, it doesn’t go far,” Adrick pointed out. “When we checked, it was still in your system.”
“I haven’t seen it since yesterday afternoon,” Adrick realized. “When I showed it the painting, it ran away again.”
He described the way it had seemed to retreat into the distance, ignoring the physical limitations of the space.
“It might not be aware of the physical space,” Benni said. “Though it should be, if it’s inhabiting your system. All the information about your loft is in there.” Benni paused. “Do you mind if I look through your system again? I want to see those symbols once more. For some reason, my system didn’t record them.”
“That’s fine,” Adrick said. This time, it was he who called up an access tab. It appeared in his fingers like a little chip of light, which he passed to Benni. “That’s normal, by the way. My lens never records it as having been present.”
This time, Benni called Adrick’s system up in a smaller form, hovering over the surface of the dining table between the two of them. To Adrick, it looked exactly the same as it had yesterday. Benni, however, began to frown after only a short time observing it.
“Now that I know what to look for and where to look, I should be able to find the gate easily,” Benni said. Hans hands swiped back and forth through the air, rotating, panning and zooming in and out. “But I don’t see it. Actually, I don’t see any of the reference lines either.”
Benni shot Adrick a frustrated look. “What did you do? You didn’t delete it somehow, did you?”
“No!” Adrick said. “I wouldn’t even know how. You know that.”
“Everyone knows how to delete programs,” Benni snapped.
“This one didn’t appear in any of the base menus!” Adrick countered. “You saw that yourself. We saw no hint of it until you accessed the code spheres.”
Benni slumped. “That’s true enough.”
“If it really can travel to different systems, it must have left,” Adrick said.
“Maybe that’s what it was doing yesterday. The way it disappeared was different than normal, after all. Maybe that was how it said goodbye.”
“This sucks,” Benni said. He closed the display with a sharp gesture. “How am I supposed to find out more about those new symbols?”
“Call your ex again?” Adrick suggested.
Benni shot him a withering look, which quickly softened. “Maybe. Probably not, but maybe. This is going to drive me nuts, otherwise.” Benni stood. Ne grabbed hans water and drained the rest. “I’m going home, Adrick. I’m dead tired and dead disappointed.”
“Okay,” Adrick said. “Drive safe. Stay awake.”
Benni just waved over hans shoulder on the way out of the door. Hans hand, stiff and unbending throughout the gesture in contrast to its normal grace, told Adrick just how frustrated ne was.
Adrick felt a sort of heavy, burdensome sadness himself. He hadn’t really understood the shadow, or much of what Benni had said about it, but now it was gone without giving him any real chance at making an attempt to learn more about it. Well, sure, he and Benni had tried, and Benni had found out more than Adrick might have expected.
Still, without warning or explanation, this thing had come into his life. Then it had left the same way. It made him feel unresolved and incomplete. If only he’d figured out how to talk to it, or how to understand what it wanted from him. But, he supposed, shadow or not, that was often the way with things and people that passed through your life. If they went by quickly enough or at the wrong angle, they did enough to disrupt you and leave you wondering, without giving you anything in return.