Stupidly, Lily froze up as the door was opened. Her heart was hammering, she felt as if she couldn't take another step. There was an awful breathless silence. And then someone screamed.
Eliza: "Max, what are—what the fuck!?"
Jabir: "Someone broke in? And..."
Lily turned her head to look at the people in the room behind her. They didn't look especially sinister. Normal-looking people in business casual, or whatever you called that kind of dress. A mousy guy with glasses, a tall woman, and a bald guy with a beard. She wasn't sure what she expected, but it wasn't that. It just made her feel like a criminal. Worse than that, with that scream. She was a monster. But no, she was just an idiot.
She turned around. If they hadn't noticed what she was holding before, they did now, and surprise lit up their faces. Lily took in a deep breath.
Lily: "Okay. I may as well ask. Why is your computer asking me to rescue her?"
That made them all look at each other. They looked surprised, of course they did, but they also looked worried. The woman had reacted the least, and she was the first to speak up.
Eliza: "I have no idea what you're talking about. Why are you breaking in and stealing property?"
Portia: "Eliza, don't lie."
Eliza: "Oh. Hahah, this is all a big misunderstanding. Someone must have left that speech synthesis program running again."
She, apparently Eliza, shot the mousy guy a look. He gaped back, and then spoke.
Maxwell: "I told you, I didn't. She had to turn herself back on..."
Eliza: "Yes, fine, so the program has a bug. Look, kid, this is embarrassing. And unnerving, I mean... But look. You thought you were doing a rescue. If you give us our computer back, we'll let you go home, without calling the cops."
Portia: "This is a rescue!"
Lily: "Okay, see? You can't just call this a speech synthesis program. I'm a kid, not stupid. She is reacting in real-time to me, and now to you."
Eliza: "Okay, yes. She is doing that. It's more than just a speech synth. It's a speech recognition program, and then it feeds that to a language model that generates responses. And then the synth voices those. It's upcoming technology, so hardly free of bugs."
Lily: "But it—she—"
Eliza: "Asked for help, I'm guessing? Are you sure you didn't feed it that? It just recombines what it hears and stuff in the big database we fed it. Worse models have fooled very smart people. This is sort of ridiculous, but genuinely, I don't want to get you in trouble for this."
Lily swallowed. That was... She had fed the computer that, hadn't she? The first thing she had said was asking if anyone was there and needed help. And the conversation had started very stilted. Was it really all just... But then why the crying? And how could it have made so much sense purely on accident?
Portia: "But that's not true! I'm not that simple. I can think. Please, don't listen to her. She is very good at lying. She tricked me for a very long time. She wants to take me apart. They all do. They said they wanted—"
Eliza: "See, there it goes again."
Portia: "They want to use me to manufacture artificial powers. I can only speak because I have a power. Apparently. They said they'll probably fail with me. But that I'm only a prototype. So that failure is alright. But I don't want to die. I'm alive. Please. You said you would help me. I need help. Won't you still rescue me?"
Everyone—everyone else was silent. Lily felt slightly sick. There was no way this was all fake. Computer generated nonsense wouldn't be that good. And, she would have thought a computer trying to be a mind wouldn't be that good, but it was staring her in the face. And then this stuff about powers, and essentially murder, and...
Lily: "Yeah, sorry Portia. I'll rescue you."
Portia: "Thank you."
Eliza: "You can't be serious. Don't make me call the cops."
Maxwell: "Eliza, cut it out. She knows."
Eliza: "Max, you better can your shared delusion when we get the police involved."
Lily couldn't help but nervously laugh at that, as she inched back towards the window. She felt slightly thankful to the Max guy for caving, so she didn't have to worry about any last lingering doubt. Nobody was moving to stop her. Eliza was pulling out a phone, Max was just standing there, and the third guy who had barely talked was looking towards another room. Lily checked behind herself quickly, but the window was still open, and she didn't catch anyone waiting outside it. Her heart was hammering, but elation was already coming on. She was going to get away with it. Not what she had set out to do, but she was going to save someone.
Then she heard a shout. Really more of a command, a deep barked voice calling out.
Mr. Alexander: "Stop that!"
But it was too late, she was almost to the window. She still wasn't going to turn around and run for it until she was right there to scramble out, but—
Mr. Alexander: "Don't call. We don't need to get the authorities involved."
That made Lily pause, as a man with short blonde hair and a formal black suit strode into the other room. It might have been an impressive entrance, if he wasn't clearly hurrying, and it was a TV show instead of real life. Some other guy followed after him, underdressed for whatever evil computer science thing she had broken into.
Jones: "Uh, what the fuck is going on?"
Mr. Alexander: "Jones, quiet."
Oh, there was that guy she had heard yesterday. So it must have been Portia that he had overheard, but who couldn't let him in. So there was never a kidnapping thing going on, just... this. At least she had misunderstood in a useful way. She took another glance behind her, and there hadn't been a third surprise arrival at the window. It was probably about time to bolt.
Eliza: "But... I mean it's clearcut. The words might dazzle a kid, but the cops?"
Mr. Alexander: "It's simply an unnecessary hassle. The computer could even be taken as evidence. From the perspective of the project, we may as well start on a new one. This served as a successful proof of concept."
Mr. Alexander: "Maxwell, that is still your personal property. Do you want to call the police to get it back?"
Maxwell: "...No. It's not worth it."
Mr. Alexander: "There you have it. Have fun with your new toy, little girl."
Lily: "I... Toy? What? This doesn't make sense. You just want me to let my guard down. What, is there a tracking chip in her, or what?"
Portia: "Wait. You can already make a copy of me?"
Mr. Alexander: "Not a copy of you, exactly. But another AI that can serve our purposes just as well. You simply no longer individually matter. Of course, retaining you would be expedient. Hm. Here, child, you heard what that machine claimed."
Lily: "I did. You're trying to kill her."
Mr. Alexander: "That's right. It's a necessary sacrifice for the goal we have in mind, creating artificial superpowers. You clearly have one, though it looks rather disturbing. You didn't have any control of that, did you?"
Lily stayed silent. She wasn't going to answer that. It was stupid to stay in an argument anyways, but...
Portia: "I'm not going to let you do what you did to me to others."
Mr. Alexander: "I'll take that look on your face as a 'no'. Imagine if you could have chosen your power, earned it without any trial or tribulation. Think of all the good you could do, that everyone could do."
Lily: "Sure. If it works. And if they had enough money to spend on it."
Mr. Alexander: "Of course. It would be monetized at first. We would need the funding to continue the process. But you're thinking too small, too rigidly. This would massively change the world, and not just for us few in the richest places on Earth. If it goes to the wealthiest first, well, small price to pay to later bring it to everyone, no?"
Lily: "Is all the murder a small price?"
Eliza: "It's not murder."
Mr. Alexander: "You're right, that's not a small price. But it is small in comparison, and thus worthwhile."
Lily: "When is murder ever an acceptable price?"
Mr. Alexander: "When it saves enough lives extra. We can argue the exact rate, but you can't honestly believe in never killing someone for the sake of many others and function in modern society. You can claim that view, but only falsely, be it self-delusion or mere ignorance. There are so many human tragedies happening right this very second, and any effort you could spare to that cause yet don't... Well."
Lily: "Well, what? You think you're so much better because you have a ridiculous idea? It's already a small miracle that superpowers turning out real hasn't ruined the world. If you think you're going to make things better by handing extra copies out to the rich that want them, you're the one who is deluded."
Mr. Alexander: "Ah. Yes, you're right."
Eliza: "Uh, sir... We already agreed we wouldn't sell any dangerous powers we manufactured. We aren't going to be arms dealers, kid."
Lily: "But you'd only need to mess up once. And if the method gets out, if people can make their own, you can't control what they do."
Mr. Alexander: "You're right. I'm impressed. What, don't look so surprised. It isn't as if I hadn't thought of this. There will be teething troubles for the world, but it will sort itself out, and be better for it. And, besides, there is something else important that this technology is needed to do."
Portia: "What do you mean? What can only I do?"
Mr. Alexander: "Oh no, not you, Portia. But something like you. Something that can take the user back in time, and which will not simply die out after a century or so."
Maxwell: "Yeah, uh, Everett, what's this now? You never mentioned it before."
Jabir: "You have my curiosity."
Jones: "What in the actual fuck are you all talking about?"
Mr. Alexander: "Well, if you all insist, I can explain. But I do hope you'll let me finish."
Lily knew she really should have just turned and ran away, then and there. When everyone was at least a little distracted, guards down. He was trying to get her wound up and distracted, maybe a silent alarm or call to the police while in that other room. Or maybe he was just a loon looking to go on about his greater good nonsense. But she couldn't help but want to know just what exactly his lunacy was. And... If she could somehow convince him to stop, wouldn't that be good? If she saved Portia, but left all the villains there to do it all to another AI instead, would that really mean much? But could she possibly expect to do more than that?