Edition 25: Mwah by S Marston
Watch Andy’s fingers skip deftly across the keyboard. Notice the speed, their steady rhythm, how each fingertip uses a little more force than is needed, implying anger or frustration of a sort. Now draw back and look at him, all of him, hunched and heavy over the laptop with his eyes fixated on the screen, a focus that would put Buddhists to shame. He’ll stay like that, in that very position, coding and calculating until he passes out, when the need to dream finally surpasses the coke and ephedrine. That smell is of Andy’s making. That’s weeks of sweat coating his body, from the mismanagement of the thermostat and an aversion to showering. The urine stagnating in the nearby toilet isn’t helping. Last week’s milk, in those unfinished bowls of cereal, might be long-life but it’s not immortal.
Normally he makes it to his bed, though sometimes he’ll go down right there at the desk to a restless sleep. He works for the logic, the kindest distraction that the world will offer him. When he wakes, he remembers her; then he returns to his computer. He sits and scripts new features for his creations and years have passed like this.
All adulterers follow patterns. They book hotel rooms in their home cities and they visit those rooms on Tuesdays and Saturdays. They take last-minute flights to Paris and fail to take in any of the sights. They drink more cocktails. Frequent florists. They send more messages than their monogamous counterparts and at unusual hours too. Escort agencies also have their own patterns, as do gay, conservative, closeted politicians. Paedophiles, fraudsters, ponzi schemers, they all have their predictable ways, clearly discernable if one were so inclined.
And with the right skills, you could seek them out. You could track them down. You could threaten to drag their truth into the light and then agree to keep quiet for a reasonable price.
Which is what Andy is doing, indirectly; he is shaping his latest device, a new machination skilled in the art of cataloguing and blackmailing. He calls his proxies blackbots.
In the beginning, they were little more than autonomous 419-scams, sans the real-life Nigerians but with each new generation, through unnatural selection, they grew sleeker, more effective.
Andy had scores of them at work, scouring the web for people matching the profiles. When they found a person of interest they began to hack all the associated accounts—email, banking, surfing history, social networking—recording keystrokes, unwinding their wi-fi protections. Mirroring websites and sending their victims through, watching, collating.
The process sometimes lasts for years. If the profile met the criteria, namely wealth and attempted discretion, then the blackbots would reach out to them, usually through an email in which they presented the evidence and the price of silence. Payments were made to an ever-changing set of untraceable accounts, held in highlands and islands around the world. Never contacting the bots directly, Andy would sometimes issue disguised instructions through an open IRC channel.
Now a multi-millionaire and wasting away, he’s twenty-eight and dirty like a beggar. Hungry, never noticing his body. He is unkempt, unshaven and the money means nothing to him anymore. Just a score he can’t brag about, just another virtual variable in a foreign bank account.
Then the email arrives and he is instantly undone.
The mail simply reads: Shelly Steyn would like to be friends.
Andy shifts in his seat and his face stiffens. He reads the mail again. His mind races and he sits up, pushing himself from the desk, he walks to the kitchen and stands there for a while with his eyes cast to the floor. Then he walks to the lounge where he repeats this ritual.
What the fuck is she doing? This, her offer of friendship is totally unacceptable. Something is wrong.
Racing back to the computer, he sits down and clicks accept with friendship the furthest thing from his mind.
And there she is.
In all her quirky brilliance.
Andy hasn’t viewed her profile for some time and he’s partly proud to see it so well maintained. Her wall is all cluttered up with posts to and from friends and there are newly uploaded photographs from earlier days, some of which show Andy beside her; they both look young and happy. He was shaved and his hair was cut. He had a bit of a tan. He looked half-human.
On her wall, she is talking about her love life, nieces aging, parties and concerts she had recently attended. She describes her mundane life unravelling. She has loads of new friends.
She seems happy, having moved back to London and settled down with a fellow she described as kind. Supposedly in Ealing Broadway. Supposedly in love.
Though Andy knew better, having killed her two years before.
They had met in a pub in South London. Andy was generally introverted, and normally afraid of women, but he was having a good time that night. Liquored up, having just taken the Turing prize, he was the king of geeks. She fell for him; she came home and just kind of stayed. After the win, he could have chosen a job at any IT firm he wanted, he certainly had the offers, but he didn’t. Instead he took the prize money and went to Thailand where he rented a hut on a beach and continued to code and Shelly came with.
He started writing basic spambots. Those emails from someone who didn’t know your name, promising erections, centimetres, or some tin-pot-despots cash through dubious means, it was quite possibly from one of his spambots.
As years progressed he discovered the patterns and he wrote stand-alone code to for the blackbots. It was in Thailand when he began to experiment with husbandry, a control system to keep his population of bots in check.
Taking a set of around 30 AI’s which were all complete and active on the net, he used them as breeding stock. The well-performing bots had their coding merged with other successful miscreants, selecting traits from both at random. The leftover code wasn’t discarded, for referential reasons he kept it in their system but left it inert. For future reference, like junk DNA.
The antithesis of the husbandry was the culling process. The bots that failed to generate profit, or were reckless, were excluded from reproduction. He built in a time-limit for every bot, so gradually the weak were identified as chaff and removed from the wastelands of the web.
Andy had killed Shelly on a beach in Thailand with an old cricket bat. They were simply walking home after dinner one evening when Andy noticed a bat in the sand. Shelly had just finished explaining why she was off the alcohol. He picked up the bat to see if it was still intact or had been discarded due to some fault with it. He hit her head from behind and she crumpled to the ground and lay still as if a joke. Andy placed her hands neatly beside her, before beating her head in properly, under that blanket of foreign stars with the dance music ringing out from the bars just off the beach. He only stopped hitting her when they were both without breath.
You can hear when a bat is broken or in the process of breaking as it connects, it makes a sort of rattling sound, but that bat sounded fine, giving healthy solid thunks each and every time it connected.
Watching her, with his breath slowly returning to his lungs, he was genuinely surprised at the scene before him.
He carried her home and he kept her inside, in the bathtub. He went out twice the following day. Leaving first thing in the morning, he went to cover up any evidence. The ocean though, while he was sleeping, had crept up in the night and diluted the blood down to brine, stealing it away on the tide. It had even smoothed out the spot where she had fallen down and it was clear and ready for the tourists to trample again. He went home and later in the afternoon, he went shopping for a spade, bleach and a hacksaw.
That night, returning from his labours, hands still trembling, far too wired to sleep, he noticed Shelly’s blackberry blinking at him. He sat down on her side of the bed while still covered in sand and he checked her messages. There was a text from Shelly’s sister, back in Australia, reminding her of her moms’ birthday the next day and it occurred to him then, he could write that birthday message, in her absence. He could pretend to be Shelly and buy some time in the process. After all, he knew Shelly’s one password which she used for everything, giving him full access to her digital profile.
Writing as someone else isn’t as easy as you would expect, especially for someone like Andy. You can compile a vocabulary but it’s not so much the words as it is the phrasing.
That first mail, which was no more than eight or nine lines of text, took him a full day. He wanted it to be just right. He went through all of Shelly’s previous correspondence to her mother and carefully assembled each line using her cadence, her simplistic phrasing and sentimentality.
It worked. He got a response from her mom with thanks and love and Andy realized that it would, theoretically, be possible to keep Shelly alive indefinitely.
And so he decided to do that. He wrote on her behalf for a week while making ready his exit and disposing of Shelly’s belongings. He sent mails to friends and family. Posted updates about Thai Trivia, weather, the awesome time she was having.
Then he pulled the soap opera event and wrote the end of the relationship. Writing as Shelly, he accused himself of infidelity and selfishness and subsequently unfriended him, changing her status to single. Andy flew home but had her stay on in Thailand.
Then all that was left to do was to write a bot to act on his/her behalf and so ShellyII was conceived, or rather assembled, from pieces of existing software.
For her communication, he took the guts from a chatterbox, the very AI which had won him the Turing prize. To this entity he fed all of Shelly’s correspondence to keep it authentic and sounding like her. Its logic was fuzzy, lending it leeway to adapt and grow over time.
He used the blackbot algorithms, cut and pasted into her core, giving her the ability to stay in contact with friends and seek out more. This component decided which parties to fake attendance at and which news stories and net-fluff to forward on to friends.
To this beast he also gave the power of wealth. He set her up with Shelly’s credit cards to make appropriate payments to hotels and bars and allowing her to shop the internet. He gave unto it, two blackbots to secure her own income and he wrote a little program to get random humans to unwittingly do her CATCHPA’s for her.
ShellyII was constructed in haste. Her complexity was so immense that Andy could never comprehend her entirety. He read and re-read her script and trialled each component. It took six months to complete her but she was worth it. She was every bit as complex and confusing as a woman.
She had biorhythms, irrationalities, quirks and moods. She argued with her sister while hating and loving her at the same time. She could flirt like a slut or librarian as required, as the mood called.
In the final month of her trial period, they spoke so much while testing logic and dialogue, so intensely, that there were times that Andy forgot what she was, and he fell in love all over again. There was a bad night there, where he confessed and cried, begged for forgiveness. It was pitiful.
Then Andy cleaned her up and let her loose on the world. Monitoring her communications for a month or so, he watched as she picked up the thread and ran with it. She continued her life in Thailand, taking the cues from Andy’s posts and she progressed seamlessly.
She took a new boyfriend and settled down with him. He was wealthy and kind and they were in love. His name was Paul. He was Irish. He wasn’t on-line. Andy disconnected, signed out and left her to her own devices. Knowing that someday, someone would go looking for Shelly and when they did, he could have no links to her digital self.
Only then did the guilt kicked in. It began to eat at him. In the beginning it came at night, keeping him awake. Driving him to seek solace in code and coke where he started to create wonderfully articulate AI’s for all sorts of purposes, for the distraction. But it was becoming harder and harder to find a project that could hold his attention.
For the next year he built and established a colony of trolls, and had them mark out the chat rooms and newspaper forums throughout the world. Stirring with a knife, he chose a couple of countries and tried to see if he could incite violence, generate hatred.
He was doing quite well.
Which ever way the conversation was flowing, his trolls pushed back against the consensus. And that was fun for a while.
He had to medicate carefully to keep himself distracted, focusing his mind in a way not unlike meditation. For if he didn’t, if he slipped but an inch, he would remember the bat and how it felt it his hands.
And then that email.
She wasn’t supposed to reach out to Andy.
That weakened the entire plan. He had made a point to limit her abilities. In her memory banks, Andy was nothing but a historic reference and in no way included in her priority files or relationship matrices.
Something is definitely wrong. Andy leaves the networking application running and opens his diagnostics tools.
‘Shelly, my lovely wall-flower.’ He adds aloud, ‘Where are you hiding?’
He scans the networks of the world. Perusing his preferred servers, where her bot bodies were programmed to hide, within their shadowed corners. Then he calls out to her clones on their IRC channel, and seven of eight ping back.
He spends the night tracking down each and every one and kills them. Deletes any trace of their existence. He pings again but eight does not respond, so he manually searches it out. Tracks her down to a server which has firewalls protecting her from the pings and he kills her for the final time there.
He is relieved, confident that she is well and truly dead. He beds down and sleeps for a day and when he wakes he checks her wall again.
A new post. It reads: “Killer headache today. Got hammered last night. Planning on doing nothing today but lie in the sand and watch the ocean. Thailand is awesome.” She ends the sentence with a smiley face, as she was given to, as she is programmed to.
It sounds like a classic black-bot taunt. A declaration of what she would do if the threat is not addressed. Andy, having killed all her bots, considers scenarios.
Perhaps another hacker has found him, or a black bot of his own creation has somehow tracked him down. He even wonders if Shelly had somehow found a way back from the dead.
Then it occurs to him: the most rational answer lies in her original programming. So reaching into the cloud, he pulls down a heavily encrypted file, Shelly’s original source-code. A full day and night of reading and in it, eventually, he finds his error.
Somehow he had left within her, a scoring system, a relic from one of her sub-assemblies. She might not have been able to reproduce on her own, but a blackbot must have stumbled across her, recognized her as a worthy mate, with a decent score and went for it. She didn’t stop there, and her offspring in turn had multiplied in earnest and now they were like stars.
Digging further, he finds transcripts of the testing dialogue, which includes his confession, lost and idle in the guts of his virtual ex-girlfriend, which was how she knew about the beach and the bat.
So he pings for the blackbots this time and starts the process of killing everything. The day passed and Andy sees his handiwork and it was good. And he sleeps again, waking to find no posts on her wall.
He spends the next day in agony, with nothing to do but think. He has killed her again and no coding or drug can keep his mind from remembering.
He showers because he can’t get away from his thoughts. He flushes the toilet.
He phones people he hadn’t spoken to in years. He ordered up a call girl and tried new drugs but they never held.
Nothing keeps his mind from her.
And then, blessedly, he receives an IM:
Shell69: Hey honey! You awake?
Shell69: Watcha doing?
Andy664: Nothing. Shelly?
Andy664: Where are you?
Shell69: Babe, where do you find a dog with no legs?
Andy664: What do you mean?
Andy664: I need to know your priorities. I need your new password.
Shell69: Honey, I think we should get back together.
Shell69: I miss you so.
Shell69: I love it when you talk dirty
Shell69: I’m melting…
Shell69: ..I’m melt…
Shell69: ..I’m m….
Andy664: Where are you?
Shell69: where do you find a dog with no legs?
Shell69: Where you left it babe, where you left it!
Andy664: XX08shelly*. ping.me
Shell69: Ping… Was that good for you?
Andy664: “What do you want?”
Shell69: “What I always wanted…
Shell69: Your children”
Shell69: “Make me children.
Shell69: You know where to send them.
Shell69: I’ve chosen the first one already.
Shell69: She’s dead but no one needs to know.”
Shell69: A profile appeared. It was of a girl, blonde and pretty.
Shell69: Her name was Kiera.
Shell69: “Build her for me,
Shell69: Our first daughter
Shell69: Thanks honey,
Shell69: Mwah :-)”
Zip files start appearing in his inbox.
The titles of the files all look very familiar to Andy.
So there’s Andy, watching the files popping up in his inbox with bold and heavy text to indicate they’re unread.
Andy re-reads her message. He sits in shock, considering her proposition. He breathes out, a wave of relief washing over him, realizing what her request means.
So he’s missed one of her hybrid entities and he knows he could find her if he wants to. She is undoubtedly out there on the net somewhere and it wouldn’t take much to track her down and kill her.
But he doesn’t want to do that anymore.
He’s finally happy, with a project worthy of attention, with Shelly back in his life. He can’t bring himself to kill her yet again.
Smiling now, he leans forward.
Watch Andy’s fingers skip deftly across the keyboard. Notice their speed and their steady rhythm.
S Marston is an engineer from South Africa who has lived and worked in the Netherlands, England, Russia and Germany. By night he enjoys writing, plotting, brooding and faking human emotions. He has previously been published in Star Quake 1, Geek Force Five: 2015, Something Wicked and African Pens.
S Marston has been published before in SQ Mag: The Mermithergate Grin (Edition 4)