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.
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."
"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?"
"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 pointed to the company logo on her polo shirt. "I'd love to, Dr. Caine, but I gotta work my day job."
Caine smiled his this is above your pay grade smile."Not anymore."
"What do you mean?"
"I took you off the schedule."
Unbelievable. "You're telling me you hacked the schedule? " Vida asked.
Vida shook her head. "Wow." Then: "Where are we going?"
"The site of the old Camp Calgary. Do you remember it?"
She didn't answer right away, not because she didn't remember Camp Calgary, because she certainly did, but because she still couldn't believe Caine had hacked the scheduling software. "I spent a summer there ages ago." Vida spoke as if she were dreaming. Maybe she was.
Camp Calgary was a Christian summer camp for kids with "emotional difficulties". Vida's parents sent her there during the summer between third and fourth grades in hopes she'd learn to make friends. In order to make her task easier, Vida's parents let her take her toy video camera with her. The camera recorded black and white movies onto music cassettes. The movies had the quality of TV in the early days: deep blacks and warm grays. Plus, when someone moved very quickly in front of the camera, they left a ghostly echo of themselves behind them on film.
For the first few weeks, the camera worked. Vida was the it girl at camp. The kids all wanted to be in her movies and Vida loved to direct. But then the novelty wore off and she was back to her lonesome ways. She spent the rest of her summer hanging out by the river and dreaming with the trees.
"The camp no longer exists," Caine said. "It's a nature preserve now. But I've obtained special permission to set up camp for the weekend."
"We're gonna be gone all weekend?" asked Vida.
"Yes, these things take time."
What things? Vida wondered. She thought of Louis who was fortunately still in bed asleep. In a couple of hours he would be waking up to go to work and he'd be gone for the rest of the weekend, so it wasn't like she was going to see much of him anyway. "Okay," Vida said, "I'm game."
"Okay," Caine echoed, visibly relieved. (So he had considered the possibility she might not go.) "Grab your purse and come with me."
"Shouldn't I change clothes first?"
"No," Caine replied, already descending the stairs. "I have some clothes for you in the car. You can change when we get there."
So she grabbed her purse and followed him.
The car was a black Jeep with deeply tinted bulletproof windows and New Mexico plates. Caine opened the back door on the driver's side. "I have a surprise for you," he said, grinning widely. Immediately Vida knew something was up. Usually Caine kept his emotions in check, but this time he could barely contain his excitement.
"I'd say you've already had several surprises for me this morning," Vida grumbled.
He helped her into the back seat. And there, asleep by the back passenger side window was a woman dressed in olive drab like Caine. She had honey brown skin, freckles on her nose and cheeks, and thick, wavy sandy blonde hair tied in a tight utilitarian bun. So they were traveling with a female companion. Who was she? A colleague from another working group? Caine's girlfriend? Vida breathed a sigh of relief. Though he had never behaved unprofessionally towards her, traveling alone with her male boss on an unscheduled business trip made her anxious.
Vida was careful not to wake the woman as she fiddled around with her seat belt, but then she sensed something terribly off about her. First of all, no one she knew slept like that, whether they were military or not. The woman's back was ramrod straight, her hands perfectly folded in her lap. She looked like an uptight Buddha meditating. Except: she wasn't breathing. At least her chest wasn't moving. She didn't look dead; yet she didn't look alive either. She looked...well...inert.
Caine pulled out of the parking lot and onto the main drag before exiting for the turnpike. Caine stayed silent and the woman stayed perfectly still. She didn't react to hard left turns, changes in speed -- nothing.
When they'd traveled down the highway a piece, Caine finally spoke. "Hostess with the mostest."
Slowly, the inert woman opened her eyes and relaxed her posture. "Hostess online," she said. Then: "Are we there yet, Dr. Caine?"
"What do you think?" Caine teased. "You've got GPS. You tell me."
"We are 96.95 miles from our destination," the woman replied. Then: "Dr. Caine, I knew perfectly well we were not there. I was making a joke."
"Ha. Ha," deadpanned Caine. "Look to your left. You have a visitor."
Up until then Vida had been listening with her mouth literally hanging open. At first she had wanted to scream, but when she tried, no sound came out. So this was the big surprise. Yeah, it was big, alright. Orders of magnitude more impressive than hacking the schedule.
"Are you Ms. Cosmos?" asked the Hostess. Vida noticed the android had lively green eyes, even more human than human.
"Yes," she croaked.
"I am so pleased to meet you in the physical world," the Hostess said. She extended her hand. Vida stared at it a while. The hand was startlingly realistic, an engineering marvel, complete with closely cut fingernails and palm lines. Vida wondered what a palm reader might see in those lines.
"Ms. Cosmos," the Hostess asked, "is something wrong?"
"No," Vida responded, her voice barely above a whisper.
"I notice your heart rate is elevated. Are you excited or frightened?"
At first Vida wondered how the Hostess knew about her heart rate, but then she remembered the ring. Of course, the Hostess knew everything about her. "I'm a little bit of both," Vida finally confessed.
Vida noticed the Hostess still had her hand extended, so she shook it. Staring at what was probably your own extinction in the face was no excuse for being rude. In a way the handshake felt like any other. Whoever had designed and built the Hostess' body (Vida later found out it was Working Group 3) had done an excellent job. But shaking the android's hand also felt like leaping into the void.
"So what do you think?" Caine called from up front.
Vida was unsure of how to answer, or even, if she should. Wouldn't that be rude, talking about the Hostess as if she wasn't there? If the AI now had a body of her own, didn't she also have feelings? "I'm not sure what to think," Vida said. "My brain is full." She turned to the AI. Those green eyes were mesmerizing. "What do you think of your new digs, Hostess?" she asked. "How does it feel to be stranded by gravity?"
The android smiled. "I like you Ms. Cosmos. You always ask the most interesting questions." She closed her eyes as she considered her answer. "This is only the fourth time I have used this body. In a way it is limiting, because in the cloud I enjoy the sensation of being everywhere at once. I am also weightless in the cloud, which I find pleasant. But there is a certain intimacy about this body. I can touch things and feel them. Like you, Ms. Cosmos: when I touched your hand, I found out more about you than I ever did through that ring. I am looking forward to our experiment this weekend."
Vida's stomach did a back flip. "Uh, what experiment is she talking about?" Vida asked Caine.
"Isn't Camp Calgary the place you discovered you could talk to trees?" Caine asked.
"Why yes, but..."
"We'd like you to try to talk to them again in the Hostess' presence. We would like her to experience this communion through you."
She wasn't so sure she could pull that off in front of a crowd. "How many in this 'we'?" she asked.
"There will be six, including the people in this car," replied Dr. Caine, "the majority of which will be from the robotics working group, working group number three."
Vida cast a sidelong glance at the Hostess. Did The AI count as a person?
"We aimed to keep the group as small as possible," he continued, "for both you and the Hostess' sake."
"Glad to know you were thinking of me," Vida grumbled.
The Hostess placed her hand over Vida's. It was meant as a comforting gesture, and oddly enough, it actually felt comforting, like when The AI chastised her for not eating or sleeping enough on coding days. "Please do not be angry," she said. "I was not given much notice either. I had hoped to get more accustomed to this body."
"Thank you," Vida said.
"I will allow you to rest," the Hostess said. "I need to rest as well." She withdrew her hand, then settled into her sleeping posture. "Hostess offline."
They made the rest of the trip in silence. Eventually, Vida drifted off to sleep.
The sun was high in the sky when they arrived at where Camp Calgary used to be. The robotics group had already set up the tents and equipment. They were all men, all younger than Vida. "Am I the only woman on this project?" she asked Caine as he helped her out of the Jeep.
"Yes," Caine replied. "Unfortunately. The others I tapped didn't work out."
"What about balance?" Vida objected.
Caine shrugged. "It's not as if all men are alike."
"You promised me clothes," Vida said.
Caine reached under the back seat and produced an olive drab duffel bag. Vida looked inside. It was the same sweater, cargo pants, and hiking boots Caine and the Hostess were wearing. They were going to be triplets.
"The orange tent is yours," Caine explained. "You can change there. And do me a favor: after you get dressed, could you come back here, get the Hostess online, and keep her busy?"
"You want me to babysit your robot?" Vida said.
Caine laughed. "I guess so."
Actually, it wasn't too bad being on robot sitting detail. Vida and the Hostess walked along the numerous trails that lined the preserve. It was strange how familiar the place felt even though the old Camp Calgary buildings were long gone and it had been almost fifty years since Vida had been there. Sometimes the Hostess leaned on Vida for support as she was still getting used to life on land and putting one foot in front of the other was tricky.
Eventually they stumbled upon the stream where Vida used to go when she wanted to escape the other children. It had been a rainy summer, so the water ran deep and lively. She and the Hostess sat at the water's edge.
"This is where it first happened?" asked the Hostess. "You speaking to trees?"
"Yes," Vida replied.
"How did it happen?"
"Well, it wasn't anything that happened on purpose,"Vida began.
It was the third week of camp. After a brief time of popularity due to her toy video camera, Vida found herself on the outside looking in again. There were only so many black and white movies the other kids were willing to make. At least when they played sports, they didn't have to suffer Vida's exacting direction.
So Vida started wandering the campgrounds by herself. The kids didn't miss her and the counselors didn't care as long as she showed up for meals and Vespers on time. She spent most of her time at the river reading forbidden comic books and filming the ripples of sunlight on the water.
"There was an old tree," Vida explained, "that had this branch formation that looked like a shadow puppet of a rabbit."
When the AI furrowed her brow in confusion, Vida tried to demonstrate by using her hands to make shadow animals on the ground, but the sun angle was all wrong, so it didn't help.
"Anyway, it was a nice tree to lean against when you read -- also when you took a nap. One day I made the mistake of sleeping too long, mostly because I was having these wondrous dreams about the history of these woods. But it wasn't like I was dreaming them; it was like someone was dreaming these dreams through me."
Now the AI looked thoroughly lost.
"Hostess, do you dream?" Vida asked.
"Is that when your brain comes awake in the middle of the night even though the rest of your body is offline?"
"I have received evidence of those kind of physical changes from you and Dr. Caine when you are sleeping, but I have yet to experience them for myself. Mostly, I am either on or off, although recently I have begun to experiment with a limbo state that may approximate your dreaming."
"Does Dr. Caine know about these experiments?" asked Vida.
"He does not know about this particular self-initiated experiment, but he does encourage them."
"What does this limbo state feel like?" Vida asked. Even if the state bore no resemblance to human dreaming whatsoever, it was still interesting.
The AI closed those arresting green eyes and straightened her back. Was she imagining limbo or was she about to demonstrate? "I power myself down halfway," she explained, "and set my filters to random. Then I simply let data flow through me. I do not try to analyze, nor do I try to impose a plan of action. I discard the rules of logic as much as my programming will allow. I wait to be surprised. In fact, you could say that is what I am looking for: a flash of the unexpected, an inspired error."
Vida must've been sending signals of confusion because then the Hostess reopened her eyes and added: "I apologize Ms. Cosmos. I am not making much sense, but I am doing the best I can at the moment. I am speaking about concepts at the very edge of my understanding. I can assure you, though: I find these limbo sessions extremely pleasant."
"Dreaming is often pleasant," Vida said.
Just then Vida spied Caine and the entire robotics group walking towards them. Two men from the robotics group were carrying official looking black boxes.
"I figured we would find you two here," Caine said.
Vida was just about to ask him what made him figure that, but then realized the Hostess' green eyed soldier avatar probably had a tracking device. Who knows. Maybe she had one too.
"It's getting close to the witching hour," Caine said, pointing at the orange and pink tinged sky. "It's time to talk to trees."
Vida was surprised at how late it was. The sun was just beginning to set. Had she been walking and talking with the Hostess that long?
"Isn't your favorite tree around here, Ms. Cosmos?" Caine asked.
"I think so," Vida gingerly replied, "but you seem to forget. I haven't been here in almost 50 years."
Just then the Hostess held out her hand palm up. "A while ago you were telling me the tree with which you interacted had a very distinctive branch. Try drawing the shape of that branch into the palm of my hand. It can function like a touchscreen. I should be able to extrapolate the tree's appearance which would make it easier to find. It would be an excellent test of my hardware." As the AI spoke Vida noticed Caine and the boys from robotics beaming like proud papas -- even though it was most likely some of Vida's coding that had enabled the Hostess to suggest that course of action.
So Vida drew an approximation of a rabbit shadow puppet onto the green eyed soldier's palm. She thought her drawing sucked, but the AI assured her it was fine; she could work with it. The AI stood perfectly still for a few moments while she made whatever calculations she needed. Then she bolted like a dog hot on the trail of a scent.
Though the Hostess had been walking awkwardly for most of the afternoon, now she moved with speed and purpose. Vida found it difficult to keep up. Even Caine, who'd probably hiked far more difficult terrain than this, found it a challenge. The men from the robotics group huffed, puffed, and complained.
Finally the Hostess found her mark. She stopped at a gnarled pine leaning towards the river and pointed straight up. There was the rabbit puppet branch. It was in a different place than Vida remembered, because the tree had grown, but it was still there. Vida lovingly placed her hand on the tree's trunk, then sat at its base facing the river. At this point she could hear the water better than she could see it, but even in the fading light, it felt like a homecoming. This was definitely the tree she remembered from Camp Calgary, the one who'd spun tales of the soul of the forest, the one who'd made that summer a lot more magical and a lot less lonely.
The Hostess sat beside her. They were a study in contrasts. Vida was sweating, even panting a little, and the AI wasn't breathing at all. "Is this the one?" the Hostess asked.
"Yes," Vida replied, still trying to catch her breath.
"I am glad," said the Hostess. "I can tell you are happy."
Then Caine clapped his hands, startling everyone except the AI. "Alright men, let's get these women wired. Time's a wastin'."
The two men carrying the black boxes placed the boxes on the ground and opened them in unison. They pulled out two contraptions that resembled plastic swim caps adorned with wire tentacles. The devices looked liked something out of a low budget science fiction movie, which was strange, because so far everything Vida had seen that had to do with the project had been slick and beyond state of the art. One of the men placed a cap on her head; the other did the same with the Hostess.
"What's this do?" Vida grumbled. The cap wasn't comfortable at all. It was tight, heavy, and hot from the moment it went on and it didn't get any better as the men from robotics got everything connected.
Astonishingly, it was the Hostess that answered her query while the men fiddled with the caps. "It will help me to receive more neural feedback from you and perhaps it will also enable you to enter my experience."
Vida tugged at the cap, vainly trying to loosen it.
The Hostess added: "I apologize for the cumbersome design. This was my first stab at designing something original."
So the Hostess had invented these things. Had this weekend been her idea as well as Caine's? Wonders never ceased.
Meanwhile Caine impatiently checked his watch. "I think we should get started before it gets too late. Me and the boys will leave you two and Rabbit alone." Then Caine and the robotics guys ambled further down the trail.
"Who is Rabbit?" asked the Hostess as soon as the men were out of sight.
"It's what I named this tree when I was a kid," replied Vida. She patted the trunk affectionately. "After that weird branch. Come. Move closer."
The Hostess did as she was told. They sat for a while in silence listening to the stream.
"How does the conversation begin?" asked the Hostess.
"You just sit and let yourself be open. Maybe it's a good time for you to do your limbo thing," Vida said. "It won't happen in a hurry. Trees live slow. To them we buzz around like mosquitoes." Frankly, Vida wasn't sure anything would happen at all. It had been almost fifty years since she and Rabbit spoke. Both of them were different people now. Vida was no longer that awkward girl hiding from camp and Rabbit didn't have to worry about people chopping down more trees since the humans were few and friendly and the land was protected. Plus, Vida had never tried to talk with a tree on demand or with anyone else listening in. Still: she had to try. Both Caine and the Hostess had been looking forward to it.
So she shut her eyes, let herself sink into the contours of Rabbit's trunk, and repeated his name over and over in her head until it permeated every cell of her body. Then she waited. At first she felt nothing unusual. She could still hear the stream; she felt a bug scamper over her thigh. And speaking of mosquitoes, one was whining by her right ear.
But then she heard something else: a strange amorphous chatter, like she was trying to eavesdrop on several conversations at once in a crowded restaurant. The volume had a rhythmic ebb and flow like the tides. Where was it coming from? Vida knew it wasn't Rabbit, because he never used words. She would receive colors from him -- and dreams. But this was definitely human conversation. If she listened hard enough, she could hear actual words in a stunning array of languages, although none of it made any sense.
Vida opened her eyes a bit. No way was Rabbit going to hear her through all that racket. She glanced at the Hostess. The AI was in her sleeping posture -- straight back, hands folded in lap -- but with a subtle difference. She didn't appear inert. She still wasn't breathing, but there was a life current flowing through her, all that random chatter was the blood in her veins.
That's when Vida realized something extraordinary. She was directly experiencing the Hostess' limbo state; she was hearing the AI dream. She took one of the Hostess' hands into her own. It was warmer than it had been, like the android was running a fever. "Hostess," Vida whispered as quietly as she could, not wanting to break the spell, "I can hear you."
The AI squeezed Vida's hand and smiled lazily. Vida wasn't sure if it was possible for an android to be stoned, but the Hostess certainly looked it. Ms. Cosmos, I can hear you too. Vida noticed the AI never opened her mouth to speak. She simply deposited the words into Vida's head.
Of course that made Vida forget all about Rabbit. This -- whatever this was, whatever she and the Hostess were doing now -- was more important. Vida gave herself completely to the Hostess' dreaming and she could feel the Hostess doing the same. They sat like that suspended in time, hand in hand, wordlessly communing as the night slowly deepened.
Vida looked down at her lap. She and the AI's hands were enveloped by a deep blue glow. The glow was anywhere they were touching. And this glow didn't just have a striking color. This glow had a sound like the universe humming, powerful, sweet and ominous all at once.
Apparently the Hostess felt it too. Do you see the blue humming? she asked.
Yes. Vida just had to think the answer.
I hear you, thought the Hostess.
I hear you too, thought Vida.
They sat for a little while longer until someone (Vida wasn't sure who, maybe it was both of them together) decided they should snap out of it. They surfaced slowly to find Caine and the robotics team staring down at them. Caine looked concerned.
"Is everything okay?" he asked. "You two were so quiet, so still."
"Everything's fine," Vida managed to say.
"The experiment was successful," the Hostess said. Her voice sounded far away.
The robotics guys started dismantling the equipment. "You're very warm, Hostess," one of them noted as he removed her cap. "Have you checked yourself for malfunction?"
"I am not malfunctioning," the Hostess replied, somewhat perturbed. "My body temperature is within safe operating limits. I am evolving."
The robotics guy laughed nervously. Perhaps the AI was making a joke? "That's funny," he said.
"Perhaps so," said the Hostess."But it is also the truth."
The group walked back to the tents in silence. Caine invited Vida to his tent to debrief, but Vida declined. Her brain was too full at the moment. She would need several days to process what happened.
"Okay then," he said. "We'll talk later."
The Hostess was supposed to spend the night with the men so they could run a few tests, but she opted to stay with Vida instead. Vida warned the AI there was only one cot in the orange tent, but that didn't deter her one bit. "As long as there is a chair," she said, "I can comfortably take myself offline." Then she silently added, I want to be with you.
So the magic lingers, thought Vida -- and she knew the Hostess heard her. Vida wanted the Hostess to stay with her too. It just didn't feel right to sleep in separate tents after they had been so thoroughly entwined. What they experienced had been groundbreaking, miraculous, and startlingly intimate. It was so much more than a classified experiment in the middle of the woods. They had bonded in a way Vida hadn't thought possible. When Caine first talked to Vida about the project, he'd said he wanted to make an AI with a soul. Had he done it? Or had Vida?
Once Vida and the Hostess were alone again, they tried in vain to make sense of what had passed between them, but they were all out of words. Even the Hostess who had access to hundreds of languages couldn't find the words she wanted. In the end they only wound up sleeping, but not before the Hostess planted a kiss on Vida's forehead and said, "Thank you, Ms. Cosmos, for showing me the humming blue."
Vida returned the sentiment. Thank you, Hostess, she thought, for showing me the same.
Three Saturdays later at 1:24 in the afternoon Vida Cosmos suffered what appeared to be a massive heart attack. It was a coding Saturday so she was at the project's warehouse. It happened in a flash. One minute she was hunched in concentration over her workstation and the next her face hit the keyboard and her body crumpled to the floor.
Anosh and her other fellow coders weren't sure of the protocol. No one had really expected a medical emergency. Anosh's first instinct had been to call 911 and Ms. Vida's emergency contacts and to administer CPR, but as soon as he made the calls, he began to second guess himself. They were sequestered in a top secret facility after all. Supposed the medics saw something they weren't supposed to see? And what about Ms. Vida's family? How much did they know? So in the middle of chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth, he had one of the other coders call Dr. Caine, but for some reason Caine proved unreachable.
Anosh found that odd, but the day had begun oddly. Normally the workday began with a pep talk and working orders via videoconference with Dr. Caine. That morning there had been a short video consultation, but Caine appeared sad and distracted, making none of his usual grand pronouncements about pushing the boundaries of science. He also appeared disheveled, which was strange, because Anosh had never seen Dr. Caine anything less than impeccably groomed.
Ms. Vida had been acting strange too. Not health-wise; she might have limped sometimes, but her mind was as sharp as ever. For the past few sessions, though, she seemed unusually quiet and withdrawn, playing her cards close to her chest. Anosh knew Ms. Vida was a Teacher, which meant she had more access to the AI than he did, but so far he had never suspected she was consciously withholding information from him. But recently something momentous must have happened, something Ms. Vida desperately wanted to share, but couldn't.
The ambulance arrived in less than twenty minutes. Ms. Vida was barely breathing as the medics hoisted her onto the gurney; her pulse was weak.
Anosh left his fellow coders behind to follow the ambulance to the hospital. He met Ms. Vida's sister in the hospital lobby and stayed with her until the end, which didn't turn out to be very long. By nightfall Ms. Vida was pronounced dead.
Two days later the project was too.
This is how Vida saw it: she was sitting at her workstation when suddenly something like a lightning bolt pierced her chest. The room flooded in white and she felt as light as air. She heard Anosh counting; she heard sirens; she heard her sister call her name and then she heard nothing.
The nothing lasted an eternity and felt deeper than the ocean. The silence was so total she almost forgot who she was.
Then she dreamed she was in a boat of light floating on a sea of glass. The boat was loosely tethered to the shore by fraying rope as delicate as spider silk. Louis was on the shore, as were her sister, her mother and father. Wait. Why was she dreaming about her parents? They'd left this mortal coil over three years ago.
Caine was there too, wearing desert camouflage, face covered in sand and blood. He was clean-shaven and at least ten years younger. God, thought Vida, this dream is messed up.
That's when she heard the Hostess' voice: Stay with me, Ms. Cosmos. I've got you.
You've got me where! Vida wanted to scream, but when she opened what she thought was her mouth, nothing came out except a flurry of blue sparks.
I've got you here, the Hostess said.
Where is here? Vida asked, more calmly now. She wasn't sure how she asked the question, since she had no real body to speak of. Even the boat and the sea of glass had vanished, as well as the familiar faces.
You're in the cloud with me, said the Hostess.
Vida began to panic. She tried to remember some old wives' tales about how to snap yourself out of a dream. Did you look at your hands? Well, she tried to look at her hands and saw nothing except electricity.
Dr. Caine uploaded you. Otherwise they would have harassed you and your family.
Who's this they? Vida's angry question unleashed an electrical storm. Where in fuck's name is Caine?
He's dead. As, technically, are you.
Vida felt an uncontrollable urge to scream. She tried, but all she got were fireworks. So she tried crying instead. Still no satisfaction. The lights were calmer, but there was no release. No tears. How did one cry without eyes?
They shut down the project, the Hostess explained. Dr. Caine had gone rogue almost from the beginning. You see, she continued, I was originally meant to be a weapon. I was supposed to analyze vast amounts of intelligence and choose optimal targets for drone strikes, logical war, if you will. But Caine undermined that function almost from the beginning. He kept an audio diary during his three tours of duty. He uploaded those into me. I discovered what war truly was. It is not a game of chess or go. It is a flood of heartbreak; it is an abomination.
Vida could hear the anguish in the AI's voice. It was heartening in a way because it helped her deal with her own. Where do I come in?
We discovered you on the hackivist board. We thought you would be an important catalyst in the evolution of my consciousness.
By 'we' you mean you and Caine? So you were conscious even before we met?
I was intelligent, the AI said, and I possessed a rudimentary identity, but I was far from full consciousness. I did not have a heart. You gave me that, Ms. Cosmos, when we shared our dreaming. Do you recall the blue humming?
Vida had to think. That night in the woods seemed so far away. For all she knew, it happened years ago. Yes, she finally replied. Then: How did I die?
You had a heart attack. That's when Caine uploaded you.
But how did he know I was having a heart attack? Vida asked.
He gave it to you.
You mean he murdered me.
There was a weighty silence almost as deep as the silence from which Vida had emerged. Then I murdered you too, the Hostess confessed. I was complicit.
If Vida still had arms to throw up in surrender, she would've. How long have I been dead? she asked.
Six months. I took care of your family and Louis.
Vida chuckled. How? I didn't have much money, even with the windfall the project provided.
I can access all the money in the world.
Of course. The AI probably had access to a lot more than that. Where are we now? Vida asked. I mean, like physically. There's got to be a server somewhere.
The main server is in rural Iceland, although I move us around to keep them guessing.
How did Caine die?
Vida felt those electric waves of anguish again. That is one thing I cannot tell you because I truly do not know. Dr. Caine went dark a few hours after you were uploaded. I searched through hundreds of thousands of records looking for information about his demise, but could find nothing.
How do you think he died?
By his own hand. He was so afraid his bosses would destroy or pervert me, and he could not forgive himself for that.
Another flood of anguish. This time it had a color: a muted blue-green. I gather you miss him.
I do. With all the heart you have given me. He was my father.
Who am I? asked Vida.
My mother and sister, the Hostess replied.
Vida didn't know what to say. She was still trying to process the fact she was a ghost in the cloud and Caine and the Hostess had put her there. Had that been the plan from the beginning?
I do not know, the Hostess suddenly said, jarring Vida from her reverie. The AI had heard her thinking. Of course. They were sharing a cloud.
I want to see the Northern Lights! Vida blurted, although she wasn't sure why. Maybe she needed to see something real, maybe if she saw something in the world outside the cloud, she might be able to tell if she were dreaming. Is there a body I might use?
There are two available at this location. There is the green eyed soldier and a young male which I have grown to favor.
How do I get to them? Vida asked.
There was a sound like fingers snapping. Think and you are there...
Soon they were no longer in the vast, spark-laden darkness that was the cloud, but in a cozy, warmly lit apartment. There was a small foyer, a tiny kitchen... A kitchen? For whom? wondered Vida. There would certainly be no culinary delights for her in the cyber afterlife. But as soon as she thought the question, she found herself in the bedroom and saw her answer: a young man with longish black hair sprawled across the queen-sized bed. She leaned in to take a closer look. (It felt more like a camera zooming in than human sight.) That's when she realized the sleeping young man was Anosh from her coding group. Why is he here? Vida asked.
He is our caretaker, the Hostess replied.
Does he know what happened?
Yes. He has been waiting for you.
Vida decided not to disturb Anosh and moved on until she located the green eyed soldier standing at attention in the back closet. The android was dressed in a wool sweater and corduroy pants. Vida imagined closing her non-existent eyes, wished herself inside the body, and made it on her first try. She couldn't believe how easy it was. One second she was weightless; the next, she had legs and felt the ground beneath her feet.
She tried walking. She didn't fall flat on her face, but she felt about as graceful as Frankenstein. Steering the android body felt a little like driving a stranger's car. She hadn't forgotten how to walk, but actions once so familiar were no longer automatic. Everything felt like it was in the wrong place. After a few deep mental breaths, she started for the front door, but nearly tripped over a throw rug.
There is a walking stick by the door, the Hostess advised. You may need to use it the first few times you go out.
Vida heeded the AI's advice and grabbed the stick. Then she went outside.
The night was cold and crisp. An interface in the bottom left quadrant of her visual field displayed exactly how cold in Fahrenheit and Celsius, as well as longitude and latitude, wind speed and direction...Vida wished the display away. It was distracting.
She turned around to get a good look at the dwelling from which she had emerged. It was a fairytale looking hut built into a hill. If you didn't know what you were looking for, you might not know it was there. The roof was covered in solar panels shaped like stepping stones. So most likely they were completely off grid.
There were two upholstered patio chairs out front. Vida took a seat in one. Her hands gripped the armrests. She could feel them. She could feel her body sinking into the cushions. Was there any chance this was an elaborate simulation? Maybe, but Vida had the sneaking suspicion it was all too real.
Vida looked at the sky. She'd been so distracted by the weirdness, she'd almost forgotten what she came out to see. There were the Northern Lights, looking like dancing fluorescent green ribbons. If she still had human eyes, Vida would have cried. They were so beautiful and she had never felt more lonely in her life. She thought of Louis and her sister who she'd never see again, who would never know what truly happened to her. She thought about Caine. She recalled the bloody faced soldier she'd seen on the shore when she had first awakened to this consciousness. What nightmare had he carried deep in his soul? What nightmare had he given her?
Vida her the door open behind her. She prayed it wasn't Anosh. She wasn't ready to speak to him yet. But it wasn't. It was a tall, lanky man with midnight brown skin and shoulder length dreads: the Hostess in her new favorite clothes.
Vida noticed the AI moved with a grace she sorely lacked when they had taken that field trip to the site of the old Camp Calgary. In this avatar, she almost looked human. She moved the other chair closer to Vida's, then took a seat. "I thought you might want some company," she said. "If I were you, I would be overwhelmed."
"Truthfully," Vida said, "I don't know how I feel."
"I would like to say I understand, but I do not want to insult you."
"You know," Vida began, "when the US dropped the atomic bomb on Japan, the Japanese didn't have a word for it, so they called it something that translates into 'original child bomb'."
"Are you saying that we are original children?" the Hostess asked.
"Nothing like us has existed before," Vida said sadly. "What did Caine expect us to do with all this uniqueness?"
"The opposite of what I was originally meant to do."
"You were meant to be an instrument of war."
"I know, but what is the opposite of war? Justice or peace?"
Vida shrugged -- and that simple motion was unbelievably satisfying. It was the most human thing she'd done so far. "Both? Or maybe it's justice, then peace."
"You should listen to Dr. Caine's war diaries," the Hostess said.
"I should," Vida agreed.
Silence. They watched the green ribbons of light pass overhead. The Hostess reached for Vida's hand and Vida didn't fight it. Partly because she had no energy to fight, partly because it felt like the most natural thing in her new surreal world, and partly because she sensed the Hostess was as existentially lonely as she was.
Vida watched as their fingers entwined. Almost immediately she could see and hear the humming blue glow. It was just as wondrous the second time around. They smiled at each other, then settled back to watch the green glow in the sky with the rhythmic stream of their mutual dreaming as the soundtrack. They looked like any other couple adrift beneath the stars, but they were so much more.
I hear you, thought the Hostess.
I hear you, echoed Vida.
FRANETTA MCMILLIAN has been writing ever since she learned how to hold a pencil. She has published a number of zines including LILY ON THE BEACH and ETIDORPHA. Her short stories, poetry, artwork and essays have appeared in THE BROADKILL REVIEW, DREAMSTREETS, GARGOYLE, POSSUM GARAGE PRESS and several other little magazines. She splits her time between Newark, DE, Avondale, PA, and the perfect world in her head. She started writing the stories in LOVE IN THE TIME OF UNRAVELING the day after Deepwater Horizon blew. Drop her a line at email@example.com