Evelyn was still disembodied, but her ego was slowly recoalescing. She recalled experimenting with psychedelics when she was young, and this felt a lot like a bad trip. Perhaps she had been dosed by someone. Was there a boy? A party? She couldn’t recall. There had been so many visions. She wasn’t sure which reality was hers. The Guy Fawkes mask loomed above her in so many versions of the world, berating her for her wealth and privilege. Then she was among refugees somewhere. Hadn’t she seen something about this on the news? A bombing at a religious site, people gathered up and put into camps. But how was she there among them?
This dust was so real, filling her mouth and nose, choking her. A soldier appeared and shouted. He was a man, not a bot, in a bloodstained uniform. But whose blood was it? Who was he shouting at? Evelyn couldn’t tell. She wasn’t sure which life was Evelyn’s anymore. But then the soldier raised the butt of his rifle. Some ridiculous old fashioned type, a kalashnikov. Pathetic. Her automated weapons platforms would make short work of such an unruly primitive. But there were no platforms here, and the butt of the rifle came down hard, cracking her forehead. She called out in pain, her ears ringing from the concussion. All went dark for a moment, but her face felt wet suddenly. Was that water, blood? Whose blood was it?
She staggered along, her legs carrying her in line with the others. Everywhere the dust swirled and obscured her vision. Dogs barked and snapped at her. But then a patient voice emerged. Very soft at first, it was talking for a while before Evelyn managed to start splitting the sounds into words, then attaching meaning to the words, then realizing it was speaking to her.
“Many of us questioned whether a woman such as yourself would even benefit from this sort of training. It’s a hack, and I know it seems cruel, but that’s really all this is, it’s just training. Empathy training.”
“Are you talking to me?” she asked. Who was she, Evelyn maybe? She was a girl in Switzerland once. She remembered a party. All of the teenagers from the Swiss International School were there. Rumor had it one boy was the son of a vicious dictator, they were warned to watch out for him. He’d been accused of sex crimes.
A little boy was crying. He was missing a foot somehow. It was very sudden. There was a lot of blood. The mother’s face appeared before her, eyes streaming with tears, begging her to help, but what could she do? She grabbed the boy’s ankle dispassionately. The soldier was there and he kicked her in the ribs. Hard. But she knew what to do. She tied the filthy rag tight around the ankle. There was a stick to be had, so she used it and twisted. The boy cried out in pain. The mother raged against the soldier, buying Evelyn precious time. But there was another crack and the mother fell beside her son. Was she dead? Was she injured? Evelyn picked the boy up in her arms. Whose arms were these, carrying this poor boy? The line moved on.
“It’s sexist, isn’t it? I think so,” said the patient voice in her ear.
Were these tears or blood on her face? Whose tears?
“Women can be just as sociopathic as any man. It’s a myth that they are naturally nurturing. And sociopaths are teeming among the ranks of you plutocrats. That’s how you get to the top and stay there. Some of us don’t even think we can change the rules, you know. That’s how I feel personally.”
“Are you talking to me?” asked Evelyn. The boy was growing heavy in her arms. His sobs had subsided and his breathing grew more shallow. She checked the tourniquet. The line of people moved through the dust, shadowy figures before her and behind her.
“We can’t change the rules. You will receive the training and your empathy score will go up, and then the wolves will tear you apart. But maybe you can spend some of those billions on something useful before they take you down. It’s a thought, who knows?”
“We need a doctor here immediately,” called Evelyn. Definitely Evelyn. Someone was going to get fired for this. Heads would roll, so to speak. This situation was totally unacceptable. This was definitely Evelyn now. But which Evelyn? Did a boy spike her drink at a party? She hoped it wasn’t the dictator’s son. This was a very bad trip, something he would enjoy putting her through, she was sure.
There was no doctor to be had. The boy lay still now. She was kneeling on the ground surrounded on all sides by others. A gate was closing and there was a loudspeaker. Was it a call to prayer? People around her demanded to know the direction of Mecca. What language was this? The gates were closing continually, a rattle of chains which never ceased. The boy turned his head. The sound disturbed him. He wasn’t dead yet. Evelyn would see about that. Her people would look into it. This gate business had to be dealt with. It was very loud, altogether too loud.
In another world, Matheson looked on sadly as Evelyn was transported to the helicopter. She was struggling on the stretcher, totally unaware of her surroundings. But he had to turn his attention back to the matters at hand. His AI agents had some leads. This business with the blood bank looked very suspicious. There was a homeless girl in Oakland who had seen something strange. He had deployed some assets to pick her up, but he was getting worried. The status updates were stale. The GPS circle kept getting broader and broader instead of zeroing in.
Matheson pulled up a supervisor thread. “What is the status of the Oakland operation?” he demanded.
“Assets offline,” replied the agent. “There is a lot of police activity down there.” The resolution of the avatar before him increased sharply. Matheson could make out the animated paisley of its necktie. “Ahh, I’m sorry, Mr. Matheson. We’ve lost control of our Oakland assets. There is a significant information security threat down there right now. This whole riot was triggered by a council truck being compromised by a local hacktivist group. But the action seems to have backfired and now the state is purging the camp. It might be that we lost our assets in a retaliation attack. We need to deploy more units to assess.”
“Do it,” assented Matheson. He steeled his nerves as he faced the creepily intelligent agent, but the resolution of the avatar smoothly reduced back to normal, its computing power redirected within Evelyn’s cloud infrastructure to where it was needed more. He sighed in relief, in spite of himself. He must have been awake for too long if he was getting scared of his own algorithmic agents. He would require downtime soon.
But first, just a few more loose ends to tie up. The windows and feeds flicked back and forth before him as the copters carrying Evelyn and the feds shrieked off toward the north, and the cars that had picked up Ardenwood and his security entourage drove off toward the city. The streetlights flicked off one by one as the sun rose on the horizon.