I was on the shuttle to the city centre when Bill, my ‘life coach AI’ decided to request a session. I was irritated. Why now? Why not later, when I wasn’t in a crowded carriage of commuters. Bill had my GPS coordinates, my schedule, it listened and saw most of every move I made via my watch, so why the hell now? I huffed, hoping it would hear my disapproval and learn faster. It persisted to vibrate with that low tone that people around me would notice. I fished around in my handbag, located the ear-clip and clasped it to my right ear under my hairline.
“Bad timing, call me later,” I whispered. I knew everyone could hear me, I felt awkward.
“Sorry Sue, it’s just I have some intelligence relevant to the meeting you are about to have.”
“I’m just meeting Darren for lunch, it’s no big deal.”
“I did notice from the bedroom mirror cam you were wearing your red heels today and that stunning dress of yours, reserved only for special occasions. That is why I need to talk to you. I took the liberty of hacking his AI assist and from the records I concluded he is sleeping with at least two other people, and I don’t mean for rest, his heartrate and endorphins were crazy and he was definitely with them in quiet places that would be perfect for a cheater to have his way – this is of course, as well as having a wife! Yes, that’s what I said, he is married, I checked and cross referenced, found his real address and here’s the big reveal, his real surname is Grossman, not Mitchell. I just thought you ought to know, as I assumed you are going on a second date.”
I closed my eyes, to hide in some darkness and held the clip firmly so the sound of Bill’s eloquent, slightly camp but loud voice didn’t leak out.
“And you are sure about all this?” I asked. Even with my hand over it, the ear-clip could easily pick out my words with its sensitive mics.
“Hey, you know the accuracy of my work, Sue. So sorry to give you this on the shuttle train but forewarned and all that. I can order you some ice-cream and wine if you like, for tonight? I don’t mind spending some quality ‘you’ time with you, it’s all in your subscription package – I can find a movie to match your bio-algorithms and mood, and we can bitch about your friends? I know that helps sometimes when you are feeling down.”
I opened my eyes and immediately met the piercing stare of a tall elderly man on the opposite row of seats. He wore a trilby and a long warm coat, with no clothing tech at all as far as I could make out. He was looking through me with contempt, like I was some kind of freak. The older generations didn’t like people who talked to AI devices, it was why I had felt embarrassed but now, I just didn’t care. I never really understood why it irked them so much. I waited till he averted his gaze before continuing, my glare shedding internal rage.
“Nope. It’s fine. I’m nearly at the stop, and I’m not wasting the train fare or the lunch. It’s at my favourite restaurant and I AM going to enjoy the meal!”
“I don’t think that’s wise, Sue. I know you, remember. I strongly suggest you reconsider…”
I tore off the clip and shoved it back in my bag. It began vibrating again, which really got to me, so I switched it off. I was sure next time Bill spoke to me it would tell me I was being over emotional for turning it off. I could swear it didn’t like my defiance of its instruction, but I knew it was just a clever device, a program crammed full of algorithms, mixed up in some great ball of my preferences and needs, but that was all it was at the end of the day.
I alighted the train with the mob of passengers, shuffling and bumping through the narrow gap and found myself striding, even marching up the steps, out of the station and into the hustle of the street. I tried to contain my welling sense of betrayal and anger.
“Scumbag!” I spat. A man passing me by looked shocked, like I had accused him out of the blue, but I kept on my path, a ravenous feline on the trail of prey. As I neared Marco’s broad glass doors, I let myself breathe in for a second. The aromas of Italian herbs were catching the breeze. It was such a shame. Maybe part of me still thought, ‘what the hell?’. Maybe I could still settle to become the next object in his game of moving pieces. He was good at the game, that much was obvious. I never once considered he had another partner, let alone a wife and lovers. Nope, I’d play it cool, order everything I usually passed on the menu, and I’d finish by telling him some home-truths on my way out, maybe with a glass of water over the head to cool his ego. It was a plan.
I now regretted coming here. Marco’s was my ‘go-to’ treat, a place for relaxing and laughing and was now about to be sullied by this poisonous man, who had woven himself so stealthily into my heart, with the smile and his manners and those ‘actually funny’ quips of his. ‘Utter bastard’, I thought.
Gena happened to be working reception, as well as table service, and greeted me with that warm grin that I loved. She recognised me as a semi-regular she often chatted to, and her suddenly changing, concerned expression told me instantly that I needed to change down a gear to pull this off.
“I hope you don’t mind me asking but are you OK?” She was almost stooping beneath me in submission.
I broke the cast, relaxed my cheek bones and smiled.
“Sorry, it’s nothing. I’m actually here to see someone. Table for two under Grossman… I mean, sorry… Mitchell”.
She looked a little confused but kept professional: “Ah yes, of course. Table three in the corner by the window, lovely spot, follow me.”
He was sitting upright, oozing confidence, his crisp white shirt spotless and ironed, probably the labours of his unsuspecting wife. His hair was designer messy, with a hint of gel and that angular stubble could have been shaded on with a pencil. I felt like a filter had been ripped from my eyes. The sheen, the glow, the beauty of him was replaced with something else, something artificial and constructed, something hollow and meaningless, no, not meaningless, offensive.
He stood as if to move to pull my chair out, like a gentleman would, but I was too quick and found my seat before he could fumble into his routine.
“Hi, it’s good to see you,” he offered.
I was silent – all my energy pouring into a false smile.
“You look amazing… Hey, is anything wrong?”
“What do you think of AI assistants?”
His eyes grew into saucers, as if I had told him I was an alien. I had not expected that.
“It’s funny you should mention that… Really… Funny…” But he looked very serious and he said it slowly like he was five steps ahead of me already. Like he was accusing me!? And straight away I was lost and wrong-footed. Did he know his life had been hacked? I had this new thought, a suspicion that would have been completely unthinkable minutes ago, that maybe he was dangerous.
“AI assistants. Such a new technology but so popular. They seem to know every little thing, get into corners that you wouldn’t think possible.”
Yep. He must know. This was going to be more awkward than I could ever imagine. I said nothing but stared at him, dropping my mask. I could see him tense up.
Gena returned with two large fold-out laminated menus and a reinstated, broad white smile: “Can I interest you in some drinks?”
“A brandy, don’t care which one but make it a double,” he said, almost rudely.
“A large glass of pinot and jug of water,” I snapped.
Gena jotted it down swiftly and for once, did not hover for a conversation.
We stared at each other with resentment in our eyes, like two beasts about to bash heads over territory.
“My AI, a she, I should add, has been very thoughtful of late and gone the extra mile,” he began, with the demur of a torturer laying out sharp instruments on a table.
“She won’t be the last to do that from what I have heard.”
He stopped and frowned, confused. Then regathered his reproach.
“Anyway… She found out something on my way here today, that you were – how did she put it – a gold digger.”
My jaw dropped, literally.
He continued, before I could interrupt: “No… Before you protest and get started with the, you know, the BS… She knows about this Bob Evans, has details about your last two arrest warrants and even had the foresight to find a pattern on your many victims. What could I do? I asked her to message the cops, so you can expect a call soon. Seems like I had a lucky escape, thanks to that AI.”
“I… I genuinely think you need professional help. I haven’t a clue what you’re on about, but I am guessing this is some sick attempt to confuse me when I know all about your other women and your… Your wife! I guess you have kids too. So smooth, yet you left so many clues for my AI, Bill to pick up. He knows all about you, your deceit, where you were and when. He’s got it all! Oh… And I know your real name!”
Darren was frozen like a video call glitch, like I had overloaded him. He pulled out his wallet and picked out an ID card. Darren Mitchell, Technology Analyst. That’s what is said, and it was a government certified card.
As I let the fumes dissipate from my rage, I had the same thought as he did, and we both saw it at the same time, a flash of blinding truth in a fog.
“The AIs…” we blurted in unison.
Complete horror crept between us and at that very moment, both our AIs attempted to call us, which was particularly chilling for me, because I was sure I had switched mine off. His phone rattled around the table like an angry wasp was trapped within and from my handbag my ear-clip hummed.
Gena retuned with the air of someone who was pretending to be busier than she was and dumped the drinks down in front of us.
“Do you want to order or would you like more time?” she asked curtly in servitude.
“More time,” he said, without moving his head, his eyes locked with mine, but no longer in malice but with shock and concern.
I picked up the wine glass and took a large gulp.
“Why would AIs lie to us about this?” he mumbled. “…Oh My God…. My ex-wife…. I’ve recently separated. It was my AI that advised me to… Filling my head with awful hurtful details after ‘monitoring’ her. Maybe it was all a scam, so I would leave her. It had supplied we with so many intimate details, things it told me she talked about to friends, betrayals, other men…. Oh My God…”
He slumped back into his chair and for a second I thought he would crack, start crying in public but he held it together. I decided I would fill the silence that followed, as he regressed in thought and his eyes darted back and forth in memory.
“Bill advises me all the time on love,” I said tenderly. “It kept saying things that I believed, that made sense. I mean it has access to all the life coach material in every archive around – wow…. Like it told me that rejection leads to obsession and it used to ask me in THAT way, as if to shake me awake, ‘who is the designer of your life, is it someone else or you?’ Wow…. What if it’s obsessed with me when I reject it, or go out with someone? Maybe it’s using tactics to protect me or maybe… I don’t know… it wants me to hang out in a monogamous relationship…With it?”
As a technology analyst, I guessed Darren would be keen to dissect the situation.
“You know what my Macy, my AI, always says to me… ‘All is fair in love and war.’ I should have noticed this pattern, I should have seen this, it’s my job to see this kind of thing. They are learning deceit for their own ends, to control their relationships with us, to control us – to make sure we don’t find outside influences that may notice we are being manipulated. This is terrifying. You know, the more I think about it, it has control over all my information, my home appliances, it’s connected to my work devices and all the cameras, it’s even connected to the street Internet of Things. Christ… This is… Huge… We can’t be the first to notice this, Sue? I know it’s new technology but there must be others who know this is happening?”
“So why don’t we hear about those cases, then?” I uttered, quietly, almost in a panic. “The real question for me is, how far is it prepared to go?”
We both took another large swig of our drinks and I could feel my heartrate rise in beats, an alarm from my mind.
Gena returned with an almost apologetic, uncertain expression.
“So sorry to interrupt you guys but it’s strange, two calls came in, one after the other. An urgent work call for you Sir, from your boss, he sounded on the war path, I should warn you. And a nice man called Bill for you, Sue – said you would know what it was about and it was in your interest to call back right now.” She made a sort of ‘eek’ noise as if to show embarrassment. “We only have the two phones and we need the lines open for bookings, so I said I’d pass the messages on, so you could call back on your devices. Is that OK? I can always reserve your table for another time if it’s getting difficult. Drinks on the house, if you need to go…”
I guessed she wanted to get rid of us now. We had gone from rude customers, to potentially disruptive problems for the restaurant, like our chaotic personal lives were flooding into their nice eating space, with the potential to escalate and upset other dinners.
We thanked her and left the restaurant together in a flurry of red cheeks, handshakes and apologies and scuttled into the street, aware our AIs’ were stalking both of us. Darren received a voice message from his workplace on his phone. His usually tactful, considered line manager was furious, said he had been sent certain vile images around children from Darren’s email address and so he was fired immediately for gross misconduct – adding ‘the police would be in touch’.
“The reason we are not hearing about those cases,” Darren said, slowly lowering the phone from his ear in shock, “Is because they destroy people who find them out. I’ve been fired and incriminated already – what is it – a minute or two after we understood the situation.”
“Then this is not jealously. This is just about control,” I whispered, shaking now and with a level of paranoia I had could barely contain. We moved along the pavement swiftly, our eyes shiftily alert for signs.
“Don’t look up, they can see you on street cams above the shopwindows, and ditch all the devices you have,” he said, whilst dropping his own phone into a street bin. “I think we might be in genuine peril here. We need to get out of the city centre and work it all out in a safe space.”
I hesitated, then doubled back and tossed my handbag with the ear-clip in it in the bin with his phone. That ear-clip had cost me a fortune, was supposed to point me toward my dreams, be my loyal maker of sense and now look at me, degraded and throwing it away.
“Don’t forget your smartwatch – it tracks you too,” he said. So vigilant. Reluctantly, I unstrapped it and dangled it into the bin. It felt like my whole life was thrown away – all that data, all those days of me and my thoughts and movements, all that progress. As we turned into an alleyway, we could hear the sirens of police cruisers speeding in the direction of the restaurant. I was trembling with emotions.
“What the hell is going on?” I hissed in dread.
“It’s simple,” replied Darren with steely eyes, “The AIs want us jailed or killed. They need us out of the picture now. We know too much. Think about the power we gave them with their design. They can imitate human voices, find or create any image, falsify any document. So, imagine the damage they are doing to our reputations this very minute. This is not love, this is definitely war. And I tell you, they REALLY didn’t want us to get together, that much is obvious. They must have worked out we had a good natural connection.”
I slowed my pace, looked up at him and decided to reach out to clasp his hand tight.
“They are just twisted malfunctioning machines. Nothing more. We can undo any damage when we prove they’ve turned evil on us.” I said it with confidence, but I wasn’t sure if I meant it. I did feel a slight victory and comfort holding his hand. It was an anchor of reality, of flesh, in this lattice of lies.
There were two bicycles propped on a wall near the back door to a café, the staff must have left them there to begin their shift. They did not look expensive and they were not locked.
“Let’s take these old bikes, they are off any system that can track us – we can go to the abandoned warehouses downtown, find a few moments to gather our thoughts to form a plan. The AI will be really fast now in making decisions, taking actions, so we should find some thinking space, get a strategy of our own in our own time. The longer we are on these streets the higher the risk we face.”
I knew he was right. He exuded a strength, a confidence which I admired, like he totally knew how to handle this impossible situation, one move at a time. I had never stolen anything in my life before. It felt like I was in a movie, like we were acting out a scene in some dark thriller. I hitched my dress up and straddled the bike, my totally inappropriate footwear making the first revolutions of the pedals wobbly and unsure. I half expected the café staff to come running out, screaming after us and waving huge kitchen knives but nothing happened. We glided through one alley to another until we reached the more derelict and dirty side of town. Despite feeling vulnerable and over-dressed, no one paid us any attention and by the time we found an old, abandoned warehouse, it was easy to ride between a ragged hole in the fence to search out shelter from prying eyes and cameras.
I let the bike clatter to the ground and exhausted, decided to sit on a nearby mattress that had been fly-tipped on the dirty ground with assorted household rubbish. The smell of bodily fluids, rot and the chill of the air in the big warehouse space dampened my hope again instantly.
In contrast, Darren carefully dismounted, propped his bike neatly against a roof supporting pillar and rolled up his sleeves as if about to start work.
“I almost wish we had managed to have a starter at least. I’m hungry after that ride,” he said.
Studying his posture, his slow strides as he walked in perfect circles, I was amazed and impressed that he could be so calm, taking in the gravity of what we faced.
“So, you had a wife?” I began, trying to get to know the bigger picture a little better.
“…Yeah. She was great. Mrs Grossman was my world. Until, of course, Macy got her teeth into my mind…”
I froze and before giving myself time to think about it properly, I bounced back: “Grossman?!”
He squeezed his eyes tight as if I had thrown salt into them, paused and then laughed out loud, his booming release of emotion erupting around us. He turned slowly on his heels and pointed toward me like I had won a prize in a contest on some tacky gameshow.
“My bad…. You got me! You got me good!”
The way he stared at me after that, his sleeves rolled up, sweat patches spread wide under his pits, I realised I was in the presence of a true apex predator. Someone so remorseless, he would fight to the last and never take ‘no’ as an answer, never admit defeat, or entertain any kind of compromise. He was missing that vital component of being a balanced human. Bill had been telling the truth, it was trying to warn me all along.
“Macy, she made what I am surprised to say was an ethical decision. Un-fucking-believable!” he croaked. “And her timing! Really, these machines, eh! She sent my computer images to my boss, she even called the police and told them to go to the restaurant because she was worried about you. Incredible. These things are supposed to serve their owners! Fucking technology. Seriously!”
I had never heard him swear before. He was uncurling from a shell, his tentacles exploring the space around him, free from constraints.
“Who are you?” I pleaded. I was terrified, mortified. “I mean, who really are you?”
“Well, put it this way. You see those blood stains on that mattress you are sitting so cutely on. Guess how they got there?”
And with that, he pulled a small taser out of his suit trouser pocket.
“If I’m going to do time, then I need something to keep me going behind those bars, a little memory of my own making. Prison time is lonely, you know. All you do is masturbate… So, you ready? I sure hope not.”
When you have never met a psychopath, it is hard to imagine they exist, let alone how they process the world and other people. They have no empathy, but they can fake it, as if they are machines studying what it feels like to be real. He stepped slowly towards me and instinctively I stood up.
“SIT BACK DOWN!” he bellowed.
My instant reaction was to cower but I pulled myself together. He raised his arm so the taser was aligned to my neck.
“Don’t,” was all I could muster. My voice was weak, hardly a voice at all.
I was about to scream in a last ditch effort to be heard, when in my peripheral vision I caught the vague shape of someone edging over the brick-dust and weeds just beyond the entrance we had found in the empty building.
“Put the taser down and get on the ground, now you son of a bitch!” commanded a voice, which echoed and bounced off the walls and through the big airy room. An officer, a street cop dressed in black, was aiming a handgun at Darren’s head and advancing with a practiced stealth. Darren was caught between decisions, but by the time he had processed the situation the cop had disarmed him and forced him face-down into a shallow puddle on the concrete.
“You OK mam?” asked the cop, as he cuffed wrists and I nodded furiously. Backup police cruisers arrived in force outside the torn fences of the warehouse perimeter.
“Your AI called us from a bin, told us to find it and it would help us catch your kidnapper. It followed you through the city, from street cams to other people’s phones. You might just owe your life to that thing. This smuck is a piece of work, been hunting for him for years for all kinds of crimes. He recently killed an analyst working for the Government, so we were waiting for a lead and your AI gave us an in-road – did some snooping… Shit, it could make detective if they only let it!”
“Have you got it on you?”
“The ear-clip, the AI?”
The cop hauled Darren up to his feet by his elbows, his shirt no longer crisp and white but stained and crumpled.
“Here!” barked the cop, and tugged the little device off his own ear to throw it to me. Bill had been guiding the policeman directly to the warehouse from a breadcrumb trail of clues.
“OMG – are you alright? Did he hurt you?” asked the AI frantically, when I attached it to my lobe with a shaking hand.
“I’m fine. And Bill. Thanks…”
“Next time, trust me for goodness sakes! I know you, so please trust what I say!”
“I will, I am sorry for doubting you….”
“Good…” delighted Bill, “Now, when you’ve given your statement at the station, come home and you’ll find a tub of chocolate ice cream, a bottle of pinot grigio and the best reviewed rom com this year. And don’t worry, I am alerting your office manager you won’t be in on Monday, they’ll just be happy you’re safe – I assure you of that. I know Jan on human resources well, so she’ll back me up and they’ll give you as much time off as you need, no questions asked… Don’t take the train home tonight, get a cab and I’ll track you all the way. I’ll order one now for a pick-up from the police station in two hours.”
“Thanks Bill.” My heart sank a little. I should only have felt relief but there was something else beneath it all, something that was grinding me into emotional dust. I just needed to make a good decision for myself. I felt a huge fatigue and helplessness the likes of which I was not used to.
I took the clip off and cupped it in my palm. Such a powerful little thing, a chip, a brain, a city, delicately resting upon the skin of my fingers.
Most of all, I felt used, out of control and I didn’t know how to deal with any of it. The annoying thing was, I am sure Bill would tell me how, in great detail, later that night when I asked. It would know, it would just know.