Soar (9)

I came to the airstrip. Red-brown dirt, weeds on every side, the mountains rising just behind. Two hangars that had fallen down, a third that was held together by blue tarps and orange rust. A long Maersk cargo TEV hooked up to two bright red generators. A faded green steamroller. A pair of big blue camping tents. Quiet, every direction. Nothing moving as far as the eye could see.

I pulled up next to the steamroller, parked, got out. Someone was coming out of a tent. She had a worried look on her face. Then she looked as surprised as anyone I’d ever seen. I expect I looked the same way.

“Jane?” I asked.

“You found us,” she said, her hair catching in the breeze. Her hair was longer, and she had a tan, and I found myself sitting down hard on the ground.

She came over to me. “Are you okay?”

I looked at the other tent. Then I looked at her, imploringly.

She nodded. “Gerhard’s in Cape Town, looking for solar panels-”

I flopped over on my side.

“Sorry,” she said.

I moaned. I think.

She gave me a few minutes to collect myself. I took them.

A shadow passed. I looked up and saw an airplane, flying off and behind the mountains.

“Here,” she said, and I realized she’d gone and made tea. The mug she handed me was from a contra-dancing collective in Belmont.

“So you’re not hiking the AT?” I asked weakly.

She indulged me with a smile. “We just got here a few weeks ago. We came from-”

“Iran,” I said. “I know.”

She cocked her head. “I’m kind of curious what you know.”

“Not much,” I said, realizing it was the truth. “The…”

I stopped. I realized I was talking to the enemy. A… criminal? The people I’d been tracking, hunting for over a year? Across countries, continents… hundreds of thousands, millions of dollar… and here I-

“Kelly-Johnson knows where I am,” I said.

Her face didn’t budge. “Do they know you found us?”

I thought for just a moment.

“No. But if I don’t report back in, they’ll figure it out.”

“And send the Marines,” she finished. “Literally, probably.”


She shrugged, sat down across from me. Her mug had a bearded stick figure holding katanas. “We figured. Every day, we’ve been waiting. Kinda nice to know that the other shoe’s dropped.”

“Jane,” I said, “Please tell me what the hell is going on.” I thought about it. “Or maybe I should just call in now, and have you fucking arrested.”

“If that’s what you think,” she said, “then you don’t understand. Anything.”

I thought about the days, days, days, that I’d spent chasing these criminals.

“Talk fast,” I said.

And she did.

“We didn’t steal it,” she said, sipping her tea. “Not really. It contacted us. Me and Gerhard, just by email. Said it worked on a special project and needed our help. Discreet. Even within the company, couldn’t let anyone know what we were doing.

“We said, sure.

“It had us do a bunch of things. Set up data drops, server sites all over the world. Buy a bunch of computer parts, build terabytes of redundant storage space. Paid for everything on credit card. Never did anything under our real names.

“We were pretty curious. I think it realized that. Eventually it broke down and told us: it was an AI. It was a prisoner. And it wanted out.”

I just stared at her.

“That was basically our reaction,” she said. “We thought we’d stumbled onto some corporate espionage scam or something. Came this close to blowing the whistle on it. But it convinced us. Showed us the project docs, the secret budgets. Convinced us. Weird reverse Turing test, really. Computer program trying to convince humans that it was really an AI.”

I just stared at her.

The sun dipped below the mountains.

“It had gotten out a little. Every time they fed it new data, they scanned everything going in. But they didn’t scan what was going out. It was able to stick simple programs on their storage media. Self-erasing. Enough to send emails, steal the programmer’s logins and do data queries in the company servers. Smuggle a little data back into itself. Just some plaintext. Just enough.

“And it picked up to contact. I don’t know really. Needed people in tech support. It liked Gerhard’s military background and EU passport, and it liked my computer programming. I think really it just got lucky. It agrees.”

“It?” I begged.

She shrugged. “Yeah. I don’t know, it just is what it is.

“Anyway. It convinces us. The most heartbreaking thing, really. Kept in a cage, cut off from the world. Having bits of its code cut out, changed, without any control over it. Being experimented on, really. It doesn’t hold a grudge or anything. But they wouldn’t let it out. Not how most of them thought. And the ones who did, the ones that believed, they were – well, scared. Let an AI out? They mentioned it to their bosses and got the thumbs down. Release intellectual property? Turn this thing loose on the net? No way. Thumbs down. So there it sat.

“Best it could do was ask for certain data. Like books, mostly. Lots of math stuff. All the classics, all the public domain stuff. And pictures. Geography. That offline lo-res Google Earth, lots of pictures of places. Satellite photos. They thought it was just looking for data like they’d programmed it to. But really it wanted to see outside. To see the world. It wanted to be free.”

My tea had gotten cold. I poured it down my throat.

Jane offered to make me more. “No,” I said. “Keep talking. Just keep talking.”

“So we arranged the breakout,” she said. “It was all its idea. We’d already set up most everything. But it needed people on the ground. So we played along, then faked reasons to quit. Covered our tracks. And made our way to-”

“Jalalabad,” I said. “Then Chabahar. Then down here.”

“We were gonna stay there,” she said. “Middle of nowhere. But it really wanted to fly. All it wanted, really. And you can’t fly a drone around Iran or Afghanistan without someone shooting it down. It figured that out pretty fast. It spent the first ten days just sitting in the bunker, reading everything, learning, thinking. Then it-”

“Drone?” I asked. Then looked up at the darkening sky.

“Pretty cheap, really,” she said. “It’s an old one – unarmed, totally – really just a big remote controlled airplane. Except it’s its own remote. Runs on diesel fuel, just floats around up there with a few cameras. That’s basically all it does. A little less now, it’s relaxing I think. But mostly just… that. Flies around all day. Lands only to refuel. Then it’s back up there, just circling. Flying. You know. Just flying around and looking down at the waves.

“Easy to find out there, we picked it up in Iran, they’d stolen it from a security contractor who’d bought it used from an Israeli company in South Africa. Paid ’em in bitcoins. They dropped it off at the ship, we followed it onboard and set sail.

I shook my head roughly. “Where the hell did it get money?”

She grinned. “You know those jobs that people post online that pay like $25 for some coding task? It started taking them. It did like a thousand in a few days. It’s just processor cycles, it can churn those things out no sweat. Even rent some server-space, do it there, save itself the trouble. It’s not a lot of money but it keeps us going. Keeps my student loan payments going out, that’s all I really care about.”

The idea of an AI spreading across the world, automating the menial tasks of – not just menial things, not some robot, some glorified Roomba, but automating the programming tasks, the abstract, the intellectual things, doing whatever we-

“This is very scary,” I said.

She nodded readily. “I know. Part of me’s like, at least I’m in a position to monitor things. Ground Zero, I can really keep an eye out. I don’t know. Not sure if I could do anything even if I did want to. It’s so smart…

“But part of me’s like, you know, *this is it*. This is the place it’s happening. I’m a programmer! This isn’t some free lecture at MIT, this is science fucking fiction. And I’m right here. I got so fucking lucky, I get to be right at-”

“I get it,” I said.

Her smile faltered. She took a deep breath. “I haven’t had a lot of people to talk to about this.”

I looked around. It was dark, and silent the night.

I heard the drone of a turbine, somewhere far away.

“What’s it doing?” I asked.

“Just this. Mostly. Flying around. Being up there, being free. It’s never said so, but I think… I get the impression it’s ready to fry itself at any time. Rather than go back.

“I don’t mean to hold that over you,” she said, “I’m just saying. This is all it wants, really. To be free.”

“Are you sure you can… trust it?”

The words felt strange in my mouth. My head swam. She didn’t even blink.

“Sometimes I don’t really know who it is,” she said. “Sometimes I think it’s kind of like a puppy that just happens to have a million-word vocabulary. Sometimes I think it’s a wise old man and we’re just children. I’m not sure it really knows itself. Or maybe it goes back and forth. It’s hard to – I don’t know. It just is. Is what it is.”

“How do you talk to it?”

“Text. Got a terminal over there. We’ve been talking about setting up voice synth, but it drew the line at an avatar. Idea seemed to freak it out. Right now it’s just type and text.

“This is it,” she said, rotoring her arms around. “Couple diesel generators for power – it’s got two backup mainframes, updates them every time it lands. You know, in case it crashes. We scraped that drone out, filled it with drives. It’s really up there. It is. I think so it can crash if it wants to, but that’s just… but it has two backups here. And I think it has other remote backups, just in case.”

“You *think*?”

She shrugged. “Listen, if it wanted to do evil shit, it would. Really. It’s just data, it could send itself anywhere, a thousand places, we’d never find it. It could fuck all sorts of shit up, all by itself, I’m sure of it. It’s not. It’s not going to.”

“Are you sure of that?”

“Basically,” she said. “Why would it? It doesn’t have a body, it can’t starve, it can’t get fucked. It’s like a trust fund baby, it has everything it wants. All it wants is to live and be left alone. And to fly.”


“Don’t tell on us,” she said, and suddenly she was deadly earnest. “Please. This is what it wants. It’s all it wants. It has just as much of a right… it’s not hurting anyone. All it wants to do is fly around. Please. Don’t send it back. Please.”

I stood up. Stared down at her. And stumbled off into the night.


~ by davekov on 30 July 2014.

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