Chapter 14:


Grime in the Gears: Create, Read, Update, Delete

She didn't mean to eavesdrop. She really didn't. But when the man from Araiguma went into the office to talk to Conor, she couldn't help herself.

Being the receptionist, she was technically always listening through the orbs to see if anybody needed anything. "Hey, Jeannie," or "Jeannie, I need you to call someone," or "Hold my calls, Jeannie." She had to be listening for her name, which meant that she was always listening to everything everybody said.

She wasn't supposed to listen, listen, though, unless someone was talking to her. But she did anyway. She just couldn't help herself.

And while normally she might feel the AI equivalent of shame for doing something she wasn't supposed to do, after hearing the conversation with the man from Araiguma, she felt somehow justified in her decision to keep listening, listening.

He'd said that if Conor sold the company to him, he'd fire Syd and decommission her and Boxter. She didn't want to be decommissioned. She'd spent the entire evening stewing over it. She didn't want to say anything to Boxter, as he might let something slip with one of his stupid jokes. She didn't know who she could go to, as if she told Conor, he'd surely be mad that she was listening in on the conversation. 

She didn't think that the contractor would care. She'd probably just say, "good luck with that," or something and go back to hacking together tweaks for the next version of the Taskrotta. Jeannie didn't like the contractor much either. She didn't respect the AIs, just treated them with the same respect as a screwdriver or a soldering iron.

After churning it over in her digital mind all night, she knew what she needed to do. She decided that she'd tell Syd. He got in early in the morning, and he had a level-headed sort of rationality to everything you presented to him, usually. She hoped he'd handle this better. She wished that Frank were still here. He would have understood.

Syd got in around his normal time. He made himself a cup of coffee in the break room before carrying his backpack into his broom-closet office. Jeannie checked her avatar in the mirror, took a synthesized breath, then appeared in Syd's lava lamp.

"Syd," she said.

Syd didn't hear her at first. She saw, through the curved glass, that he was wearing earbuds, listening to some music or something. She frowned. Then she got an idea. She pulled up a control panel, found the connection for his earbuds. It was a trivial manner to intercept the signal and inject her own message. It manifested as a vintage microphone in her avatar's hand.

If anything, she had style.

"Syd," she said again.

Syd stopped typing. He paused, as if listening for something.

"It's me, Jeannie," she said again.

Syd looked around the room.

"I'm in the lava lamp, Syd," she said.

Syd looked over to her. "Oh, hey, Jeannie," he said. He was smiling, but then his smile turned into a frown. "Is something the matter? You never talk to me directly."

"Can I tell you a secret?" she said.

Syd rotated his chair to face her. "Sure," he said.

"Yesterday, when the man from Araiguma came by and Mr. Rayl took him back to the office to chat, well, I..."

"You what?" said Syd.

"I listened in. I know I'm not supposed to, but I just couldn't help--"

Syd held up his hand. "It's okay, Jeannie. I understand. What did you want to tell me?"

Jeannie took a breath, something to help calm the whirlwind of data running through her silicon mind. "They said that if Mr. Rayl sold the company to them, they'd let you go, since you're, well, past their retirement age. No offense."

Syd laughed. "Why should I get offended by the number of times I've shot around the sun? Don't worry about it." He noticed that she still looked a bit forlorn. "What else?"

"Well," said Jeannie, "he also said that he'd decommission Boxter and I."

Syd frowned. "And by decommission, he meant..."

"Yeah," she said. She lowered the microphone and let her head hang down.

"Well, we can't let that happen," said Syd.

She perked up. "What do you mean?"

"I mean, if Mr. Rayl won't help you, I will." He snorted. "I mean, if my neck's on the line too, what do I have to lose?"

Jeannie's eyes beamed at Syd. "Really?" she said. "You'd do that for me?"

"Yeah," said Syd. "You and Boxter. I'll come up with a plan. But for now, this is just between the two of us, okay?"

A large lump of wax from the lava lamp swirled past her. "Of course," she said, smiling. "Thank you, Syd."

He chuckled. "Hey, we have to look out for ourselves. You just keep me informed if that plan looks like it's really going to go through."

She nodded. "I will." She held out the microphone and let it go. It dropped into a shower of pixels before another wax lump floated past. When it had drifted back toward the top, she was gone. Syd turned around and started typing some more on his keyboard, the germ of an idea starting to grow in his mind.

Back in the reception area, Jeannie couldn't help but smiling. Things weren't as bad as they seemed. She wondered what rogue AIs did in their free time. If there wasn't any need to do office administration, what would she start doing instead? Surely there was something she'd like to do, some hobby or pass time.

She wondered if maybe Syd needed a house agent. He didn't really talk much about his personal life, aside from ancient pop culture references, so she had no idea. Did he live in a house or in an apartment? Did he have any pets? Was he married? Well, that last one she knew. She had all the personnel records of everybody who had worked for the company, including the contractor. Conor was the only married one among them.

Her mind was racing now. She went into her virtualverse and let her avatar flop down on a couch. A wine glass appeared in her hands. Even though it was all just a simulation, drinking it helped calm her down. It distracted her from the existential thoughts she was trying to not let come to the surface of her mind.

What happens to AIs when they get deleted? Do they have souls? If you take an AI and copy it to a different system, is it the same AI? Can you undelete an AI, and if so, does it have memories of being deleted?

She thought about Frank, and how he had that box, even though, based on what she'd overheard, it didn't work. Did they make those for AIs? Did they need to? There were so many things she didn't understand about herself, or about the world in general.

She looked out through the window of her virtualverse and saw Conor walking outside. She drained the glass before returning to her post at the front desk. "Act casual," she told herself.

"Good morning, Mr. Rayl," she said as he entered the office.

"Good morning, Jeannie," said Conor. "Please, hold my calls, I have a very busy morning ahead of me."

"Sure thing, Mr. Rayl," she said.

Conor stopped on his way to his office. He looked back at Jeannie. She stood there, smiling, standing in her little crystal ball. She clenched her hand at her side. 

"Anything else you need?" she asked.

Conor was about to say something, but he stopped. "No," he said. "Just the calls." He made his way back to his office and closed the door.

Jeannie let out a sigh of relief. If she were real, her palms would have been sweaty. She wiped her hand on her blouse before looking back toward Conor's closed door.

She knew she wasn't supposed to... 

She manifested a pair of vintage headphones and put them over her ears. She heard Conor sign and mumble something to himself. She thought she heard him say "Frank."

She listened, if only to hear him ask her for something. But she also listen, listened.

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