Bitter 276

Britta looked around the now much emptier hall. There had been people, real, solid people sitting in front of her a moment ago. And then there were just two.

She’d only seen a couple of pictures of them when she researched APE on the internet. Old photos of them when they were around college age. Both skinny with terrible haircuts, both wearing mismatched clothes—your basic geeks.

They didn’t look all that different now.

“Hello, Britta,” said the slightly taller one. He had blond hair and large glasses with very thick rims. There was no need for them to be so bulky, but it might have been a stylistic choice. A poor one. Then again, considering what they did here, there might be a supercomputer built into the frames.

“Nice to meet you,” said the other one. He had dark hair and looked like he was of Middle Eastern heritage, or possibly Mediterranean. He also had a moustache Britta considered to be ill-advised.

Both had very precise English accents, like they’d been raised by nannies and private tutors.

“I’m Clark,” said the blond. “And this is Harman. We, er… we run APE.”

“The people that were here a moment ago… were they real?” asked Britta, not able to grasp how they could have just vanished. She wanted to check they weren’t hiding beneath their seats.

“A hologram,” said Clark.

“Not really a hologram,” said Harman. “Kind of, but not quite, as it were. It’s a form of augmented reality using a modified light frequency we call heavy light, patent pending.”

“He calls it heavy light,” said Clark, ever so slightly rolling his eyes. “Thinks it’s clever to use an oxymoron.”

“It is clever. Better than New World. How mundane can one get?”

“It’s a placeholder, Harman. I’m sure we’ll have an appropriately witty name ready by the time we go live. Personally, marketing isn’t where my ambitions lie.”

Dr Reedy made a discreet coughing noise that wasn’t really very discreet at all since everyone turned to look at her.

“Yes, sorry,” said Clark. “We get easily sidetracked. Where were we? Oh, yes, the hologram.” He gave his partner a wary glance. “It’s our attempt to take the Anderson Cradle beyond its limitations. Instead of transporting the subject into an artificial environment, it brings the augmented constructs here. No helmet necessary.”

“It was very impressive,” said Dad from beside Britta.

“Yes. Thank you,” said Harman. “Hard to differentiate from the real thing, isn’t it? Lacks the physical interaction of the cradle, though.” He rubbed his fingers against his palms. “And still overstimulates the adrenal glands.”  

“Yes,” said Dad. “I was starting to feel a bit clammy, but I thought that was due to the situation more than anything. Nowhere near as intense as when I’m in the pod.”

“No,” said Clark. “We’ve managed to reduce it by a fairly large degree. Still not quite there yet, though. How about you, Britta? A little dampness under the armpits?”

Britta felt her own palms and touched her forehead. There were no signs of sweat. She didn’t even feel warm. “No. I’m normal.”

“Interesting,” said Clark. He looked at the air in front of him and swiped his hand like he was swatting a fly. Britta recognised the gesture. “The readings don’t show any elevation in the pituitary. Pancreas is completely normal.”

“You’re taking readings of me?” asked Britta. “Now?”

“Mm,” said Clark as he swiped again.

“There are sensors in the walls around us,” said Harman. “They’re updating live. Perfectly safe.”

It didn’t sound dangerous until he’d insisted it wasn’t. Now Britta couldn’t help feeling like she was being inspected with invisible probes. It was a bit unsettling.

“But why did you make them so mean?” she asked the two men neither of whom seemed particularly focused on the conversation. She wondered if they were seeing screens of data all around them.

“You mean the questioning?” said Harman. “We needed to stimulate your body so we had measurable responses to play with, hence the interrogation. Sorry about that.”

“You did very well,” said Clark. “Very well. Your reactions were well outside our predicted ranges. It shows why you were the one Nigel chose.”

“You know Nigel?” said Britta. “You know who he is, then?”

“Of course,” said Clark. “We made him.”

“N-27,” said Harman. “Network-27. Not named by me, obviously.” He shot a sly glance to his right.

“I saw that,” said Clark without looking away from his invisible screen.

“Nigel was the name he chose for himself. He’s an evolving AI, nothing like him has ever existed before. Ns one through twenty-six were nowhere near his level of independent thought.”

“So, he’s doing what you tell him?” asked Britta. She was trying to play it very calm and simple. She was finally getting some answers and didn’t want to spook them by asking anything too awkward. She just wanted to know the basics.

“Not quite,” said Clark. “Think of him as at the difficult-teenager stage.”

“The stage where he puts a padlock on his bedroom door to stop his dads snooping in his room,” said Harman.

“He’s locked you out?” asked Dad.

“Not ‘locked out’ exactly,” said Harman. “He still talks to Dr Reedy.”

“You’re his mum?” asked Britta.

Dr Reedy bridled at the suggestion. “No. Not his mother. More like a sister.” She smiled very coldly. Britta wasn’t sure what the issue was, but made a note to not bring up maternal matters again.

“And you,” said Clark. “He lets you into his room. I think I’m starting to see why.”

He tapped the side of his glasses and the lights dimmed. Screens appeared around them like walls of coloured light. They were covered in squiggly lines.

“He’s been using you to regulate his cycles. The red lines are your brainwaves, the blue ones are his, or what he’s adapting his neural network into. He wants to be able to think like you, Britta.”

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