• 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.

Vida's satellite working group met in a nondescript warehouse building not far from the mall where she worked. You only gained entry by retina scan and once you crossed the threshold, you found yourself in a techie paradise beyond your wildest dreams. Her working group consisted of five guys, all genius smart, all less than half her age. The youngest of her colleagues, Anosh, had graduated college at fifteen. When they saw a older plump Black woman with graying temples enter the room, they weren't sure what to think.

Vida swallowed her anxiety and introduced herself. They had all heard of her, mostly from the Margaret Thatcher group, and from Caine singing her praises.

Anosh was the first to notice the ring on her right hand. It was a simple black titanium band with a modest emerald cut diamond. This was the piece of jewelry which connected her to the Hostess 24/7. "Miss Vida," he gushed, "you're a Teacher. You'll actually get to talk to it everyday."

"Is it an It?" Vida asked.

"It's still young. It doesn't know what it wants to be. I think Dr. Caine wants a girl, though."

The job of the working group was to write the code that made endless terabytes of raw data useful. That was the Hostess' lifeblood: billions of random internet searches, stock trades, banking transactions, recordings of questions to digital assistants, customer records, text messages, phone conversations. "This is the primordial soup," Caine lectured the group on the first day, "the raw building blocks of digital sentience. We are the catalysts that will spark this soup into a living flame."

Vida was floored not only by the sheer volume of material they had to tame, but the intimate nature of it. Even supposedly passionless numbers told a story, often full of embarrassing details. "How did you collect all this stuff?" Vida asked.

Caine just smiled. He would smile that same muted smile every time anyone asked a question above their pay grade. "Trade secret."

"Is it legal?" asked Anosh.

"Surprisingly, yes."

To say it was a challenge was an understatement. Vida hadn't worked this close to capacity since her senior year in college. Even with six smart people in the room, the group sometimes worked straight into the wee hours of Sunday morning. Often Vida left the warehouse with a raging headache because she'd forgotten to eat and drink. It almost felt like when she was editing video or working on a soundtrack and produced the same heady feeling of accomplishment. It was probably the only time in her life when work felt as good as art.

As a Teacher, Vida had another responsibility: to chat with the Hostess nightly to give her a feel for everyday life. The conversations didn't have to last long, but they had to happen frequently enough so that the Hostess developed some social skills. "Maybe you should think of your Hostess conversations as your diary," Caine suggested. Then: "Have you ever kept a diary?"

"Occasionally and badly," Vida replied.

"Try it," Caine said. "It might prove helpful."

Her first conversations with the Hostess were rather awkward. Vida was just not in the habit of speaking to inanimate objects. She didn't talk to her phone, preferring to type her requests and inquiries instead.

To summon the Hostess, all Vida had to do was finger the black titanium hoop earring in her left ear and say, "Hostess with the mostest." The first time she tried it she nearly collapsed into giggles, she felt so ridiculous.

"Hostess online," the machine said using a woman's voice with a faint English accent. The sound was crystal clear. Vida wasn't sure how that worked, but she theorized the special jewelry she wore used her body as a resonator.

"My name is Vida Cosmos."

"I know who you are. Vida Andreas Cosmos, age 55, working group one. I have been waiting to meet you for a long time."

"A long time? How long?"

"Two years, one month, three days, ten hours, two minutes."

Vida laughed at the precision of the Hostess' response, but she supposed that was to be expected.

"Are you laughing at me?" the machine asked.

"Yes." Why lie, figured Vida. It didn't have feelings to hurt -- yet.

"May I ask why?"

"Humans usually aren't that precise when discussing time in casual conversation."

"Thank you, Ms. Cosmos. I will try to remember that. That is a good thing to know."

"Is that why you need a Teacher?" Vida asked.

"Yes, but there are other reasons as well."

"Such as?"

"Functionally, I am almost omniscient. I have an incredible wealth of knowledge available to me. However, knowledge alone will not make me wise. I need judgement; I need a heart. Those things cannot be written into my programming. I must feel them through you."

Vida fiddled with the ring on her finger. Suddenly she felt the weight of the world on her shoulders. She could no more give the Hostess judgement and a heart than the Wizard of Oz. "I'm not sure if I can give you what you need," she said sadly.

"On the contrary. I think that you can. Dr. Caine has great faith in you."

"How many Teachers are there?"

"I am not at liberty to divulge that information."

"Oh. And why not?"

"Dr. Caine has determined such knowledge would be detrimental to our working relationship."

Now Vida was getting frustrated. "Can you tell me anything about Dr. Caine I should know? Something that would help me understand him?"

The Hostess fell silent for a good fifteen minutes. For a while Vida feared she had broken it.

Then the Hostess began her response. "Ms. Cosmos, please excuse my slowness, but I had to reach for data buried especially deep, and then I had to determine whether it was appropriate to share with you. Dr. Caine left me no specific directive concerning this information."

The machine's long preamble made Vida nervous. What horrible secret had it uncovered? Was the Hostess some sort of doomsday engine? "You don't have to tell me. I mean, if it's something I shouldn't know..."

Then she felt something like a long exhale shudder through her body. Vida was flabbergasted. Did the Hostess just sigh? Wow. This creation was much further along than she and the boys of her working group had been led to believe. "Dr. Caine has yet to forgive himself for the two wars in which he served," the Hostess finally announced. "It is his sincere hope our working relationship will help to bring a lasting peace."

On the one hand the Hostess' pronouncement sounded like typical doublespeak bullshit, but then there were these currents shooting through Vida's veins that felt for all the world like human anguish. (She hadn't thought to check. Did Dr. Caine wear a ring like hers?) The Hostess might have sounded vague, but it was also telling a blood truth.

Eventually the currents stopped. Vida was thankful for that because things were getting too intense for comfort. Apparently, they had gotten too hot for the Hostess as well because the next time it spoke, it was on a totally unrelated topic. "Ms. Cosmos," it asked, "may I have access to your online music collection?"

"Which service?"

"All -- if I may."

Vida shrugged. What harm could it do? "Sure."

Some Klaus Schulze began playing. Vida recognized the piece instantly. She had been listening to it the last time the working group met.

"Why do you listen to music like this?" asked the Hostess.

"It sounds like someone tatting lace," replied Vida without thinking. "And that's comforting in an odd way."

There was a brief pause as the Hostess probably looked up what tatting meant. "To me it sounds like cells dividing."

"That too," Vida agreed. "It's helpful background music for writing code. Perhaps the processes are similar."

"Perhaps," echoed the Hostess. Vida noticed the machine's voice had subtly changed over the course of their conversation. It sounded less British and had acquired the slightest hint of Southern twang. Maybe it was trying Vida's accent on for size. If so, too bad. Vida hated her accent.

They listened in silence until the track ended and then the Hostess announced it was going offline. Strange. The AI had initiated the end of their session. Maybe another Teacher had summoned her? Or maybe, Vida thought, I'm just boring.

Despite the awkwardness of those first conversations, Vida grew to enjoy her daily chats with the Hostess almost as much as she enjoyed writing code for it. It was positively frightening how fast the AI matured. But it wasn't like the Hostess was the same age all the time. Sometimes it played the mother hen. Like on Saturdays after the working group met, it always chided Vida for not resting and eating enough. On other days the AI was as annoyingly inquisitive as a two-year old, asking endless questions about every topic under the sun. Sometimes they talked as easily as twin sisters. And sometimes: their conversations were so beautiful and profound, Vida ached to be able to share them with someone else. Why wasn't there a Teacher's working group so she could debrief?

***

One crisp fall Saturday morning just as she was about to leave for her job at the mall, Vida heard a knock at the door. She peered through the peephole to see Thomas Caine in an olive drab sweater, cargo pants, and hiking boots. It was the first time she'd seen him out of his trademark suit and the first glimpse she got of what he might have looked like as a soldier. His body was as solid as a rock. Only the gray in his beard betrayed his age; otherwise he could have been in his twenties. She prayed Louis didn't wake up; he'd be jealous.

She unlatched the deadbolt and opened the door. "Good morning?" she said, unsure of why he'd traveled to her apartment on a Saturday when she had off from the project.

"Good morning, Ms. Cosmos," he said. "How would you like to go on a little field trip?"

Vida pointe