• Franetta McMillian

The Humming Blue


Vida Cosmos might have helped give birth to the Hostess, but she had never planned on merging with Her. During Vida's all-too-brief life in the flesh she'd always been unassuming, living, at least to the naked eye, far below her potential. She lived to support her art habit, working demanding salt of the earth type jobs: press operator, machinist, waitress, cashier. She only fell back on her computer skills when she needed a lot of money quick.

Vida also possessed another unusual talent, one she only confessed to her priest and a few close friends: she could talk to trees. And it wasn't in a hippie tree-hugging way, she claimed trees were conscious and had their own language.

But someone somewhere must've blabbed about Vida's gift. Because one afternoon during her fifteen minute break, the HR manager called her into the office saying she had an important visitor "from the government". "Am I under arrest?" Vida asked, even though she hadn't done anything to run afoul of the law.

"No," the manager replied, "but the guy's real persistent."

So Vida walked in the office. There was a grandfatherly Black man with an impeccably groomed salt-and-pepper beard and an obviously expensive gray suit sitting in one of the chairs in front of the desk. He looked her up and down and said with a shit eating grin, "Margaret Thatcher is 100% sexy."

"What?!" the HR manager and Vida exclaimed almost in unison.

The sharply dressed man addressed his next question to Vida's manager. "Do you mind if I take her off the premises for a bit? It shouldn't be any longer than a half hour."

The manager looked to Vida, uncertain of how to proceed. "Are you okay with this?"

Vida wasn't sure what to say. She was a little apprehensive, but whatever this man's business with her was, it was certainly more interesting than work. "Yes," she finally replied.

Vida and the man -- he quickly introduced himself as Thomas Caine, PhD, from the NSA, no less -- exited the store and walked to Caine's hulking black SUV. It had DC plates and deeply tinted windows. Those windows looked bulletproof.

Vida surveyed the other shoppers in the parking lot blithely going about their business. Her life was about to take a very surreal turn and nobody cared.

Caine opened the passenger side door and helped Vida into the seat. He climbed in the driver's seat and turned on the air, and something else, too which totally obliterated all sounds from the outside. Maybe some white noise?

The first thing Caine did was congratulate her. "Nice recovery back there in the office, Ms. Cosmos. You'd make someone an excellent spy."

He was referring to the Margaret Thatcher comment. It was actually the name of a secret group on Facebook for white hat computer hackivists. The name came from an Edward Snowden interview. He was suggesting using long pass phrases instead of shorter passwords for better security. He gave the Margaret Thatcher phrase as an example. Snappy enough to remember and long enough not to be easily guessed. Vida might have chosen not to devote her life to code, but that didn't mean she didn't like to geek out on occasion. "So that's what this is about?" Vida asked. "You want me to spy for you?"

"No," Caine replied. "I want you to help me with a pet project of mine."

"It doesn't involve stealing or killing, does it? Because if it does, screw that shit. I'm out."

Caine just laughed. "That doesn't surprise me. Back when the Navy tried to recruit you in high school, you told them pretty much the same thing. You declared you didn't want to be a murderer and then told them about your cousin Fresco who went to Vietnam and never recovered."

Vida shifted uncomfortably in her seat. Now she was spooked. How long had Caine been watching her? How much did he know? "How do you know about that?"

"You've made some astute comments in the Thatcher Group. You don't speak up often, but when you do, it's gold. I've been interested in you for a couple of years now, so I've done some research into your background. Don't worry. I didn't invade your privacy. All the information I accessed was publicly available."

Vida was stunned. "What's the project?" she asked after a long weighty silence.

"It involves artificial intelligence," Caine replied. "I want to make an AI with a soul."

Vida wasn't sure if Thomas Caine was crazy or what. "An AI with a soul," she repeated, trying to get used to the feel of the words in her mouth.

"You see," Caine explained,"computers aren't really smarter than we are. They're faster, have perfect memory, and a significantly larger storage capacity. Computers excel at anything that involves sifting through mountains of information, recognizing patterns, and making decisions. So yes, they can beat us at our own games of strategy and skill; they can out-diagnose doctors and out maneuver our best lawyers. But I have yet to meet an AI that can tell a decent original joke or compose music that doesn't sound derivative."

"So you want me because I'm artsy fartsy?" Vida asked.

Caine laughed again. "That's part of the reason, yes, but I wouldn't refer to you by that term. It's insulting to what you do. I've watched your videos. They're strange, but excellent."

"Thank you," Vida said quietly. "I think."

"We also need more women working on the project," Caine said.

"Yep," quipped Vida, "gotta get those diversity points. And I suppose you want me because I'm a woman of color."

Caine frowned. He didn't appreciate Vida's sarcasm. "Okay, you got me. With you I knock out two birds with one stone. Except -- it's not like that at all."

"What's it like then?"

"It is imperative this AI have a balanced consciousness. Both yin and yang. You can't get that from a bunch of nerdy men who hardly see daylight."

"Some people say I barely see daylight," Vida said.

Caine went on as if he hadn't heard her: "It is also imperative this AI familiarize itself with non-human modes of consciousness."

Vida shifted in her seat. Now the conversation was moving from surreal and mildly annoying to interesting. "How do you propose to do that?" she asked.

"Ms. Cosmos, that's where you come in. I understand you can speak to trees, and more importantly, they can speak to you."

Vida felt like Caine had kicked her in the stomach. Suddenly she couldn't breathe. How the hell did he find out about that? She didn't discuss her strange talent with just anyone.

Caine sensed her shock, so he immediately offered an explanation. "Five years ago you exhibited a video called Funginet. It won you an honorable mention which earned you a short interview. In the space of less than three hundred words you waxed poetic about how trees communicated with each other through an internet of fungi. You claimed to have felt this network yourself."

Vida closed her eyes, trying to remember that interview. Five years ago seemed like ancient history. The gallery that sponsored the exhibit had long since closed; the local entertainment rag in which the interview was printed wasn't publishing anymore. Caine would have had to put some effort into finding it. Vida wasn't even sure if the university library had copies of that paper and they felt it was their duty to save everything.

"Ms. Cosmos," Caine continued, "you do not behave like the stereotypical artist. You hate to sound too mystical in public. So that interview really stood out. I figured you were speaking about something that really happened to you in the most literal way that you could even though I clearly sensed the language you were forced to use made you uncomfortable."

Vida didn't know what to say. She felt totally exposed, like Caine had ripped off all her clothes. She stared at her lap. "Okay. You got me."

"It's nothing to be ashamed of," he said. "Your ability isn't as rare as you think. In fact, it's quite common in cultures we label as primitive. It's only rare in a so-called modern society such as our own."

"But why would a computer need to speak to trees?" Vida asked.

"For perspective," Caine replied.

For the first time since she climbed into Caine's SUV, she looked him straight in the eye. He wasn't making fun of her. He was stone cold serious.

"If I decide to work on your project," Vida asked, "what would that entail?"

"You would keep your day job, but reduce your hours. This is because we want you to live as normal a life as possible. You would meet with the offsite working group a couple Saturdays out of every month. You can tell your employer you're taking a class. You would also wear a discrete piece of jewelry which would allow the Hostess..."

Vida stopped Caine right there. "Whoa, man! Who -- or what -- is this Hostess?"

"The working name I've given to our AI in progress."

"So you're telling me this thing already exists?"

"It is gestating. I'm not sure if it has achieved full self awareness."

Wow. That was more than she could wrap her head around at the moment. Vida reached in her pocket looking for her phone so she could check the time, but remembered she'd left it in the HR manager's office. "So what's this piece of jewelry do?"

"It will allow the Hostess to feel what you feel," Caine replied. "I don't have the time to explain to you exactly how, but it is important the AI has some idea of what it is like to live in a body made of flesh, what it's like to be stranded by gravity."

"You've got all your bases covered," said Vida.

Silence. Caine checked his watch. It was a brassy gold thing with an analog face bordered by diamonds. "Well, we should be getting back inside now..."

Vida slid her hands down her thighs. Her palms were sweaty.

"Ms. Cosmos, are you interested?"

She gulped. "Yes," she replied, and immediately felt like she was diving off a cliff. Then: "How long do I have to make the final decision?"

"A week." Caine handed her his business card.

"You aren't going to use this Hostess thing to kill people, are you?"

"Ms. Cosmos, I will be brutally honest. I cannot guarantee the Hostess will not be used as a weapon. War has been around as long as humans have been on this earth. But I'm disgusted with it myself. I served ten years in the Army with two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. I've seen things that will give me nightmares for the rest of my life. So believe me, I want the killing to stop. And if the Hostess matures in the way I have dreamed, maybe it will."

Caine extended his hand; Vida shook it. He helped her out of his vehicle, but decided at the last minute not to walk her back into work. He claimed he didn't want to create any more of a scene than he already had, but Vida didn't understand why that should suddenly concern him. As she walked away he called, "So I'll be hearing from you then?"

"Yes," Vida called, not turning to look back.

***

Though she had planned to play hard to get, it took Vida less than two days to give Caine an answer. Working with an agency as shadowy as the NSA certainly gave her pause, but the project was too enticing to pass up. Imagine the opportunity to work with artificial intelligence, to be on the cutting edge. That's what had gotten her to major in computer science in the first place. And icing on the cake: the money wasn't bad either.

After she accepted Caine's offer, it was nearly a month before she got started. She needed a high level security clearance, and it took that long to fill out the paperwork and chase down her references for interviews. And though she was beyond excited about starting work on the project, she couldn't tell anyone the truth about what she was doing. Caine's project was so classified, even the President was on a need to know basis. Vida told her on again off again boyfriend, Louis, she'd found a second job, but she couldn't give him any details. She told her family nothing.