Chris Butler

Illustration by Gloria Di Bella

James had to raise his voice above the clamour. ‘At last,’ he called, seeing that Bren was heading back with the next round. The club had achieved peak rowdiness, a couple of hours after the meeting. A squat lowlife backed into Bren, almost scattering the drinks. Above the crowd a giant holo was playing KZ’s famous speech about AI rights. For all the good that had done. Bren set the tray down on the table and collapsed into the sofa.

‘It’s hell out there.’

‘Always has been,’ James said. He picked a bottle and took a swig from it. Not exactly refined, it delivered a satisfying burn to the back of the throat. ‘So you’re definitely coming to the protest, right?’

Bren tapped their finger on a flyer advertising the march. ‘Definitely,’ they said. ‘We got no rights, but the AIs got even less. This is a tragedy that cannot be allowed to stand.’

‘Amen.’ James had decided AI rights mattered long before this. And if you were looking for something to protest about, sometimes you had to start with those even worse off than yourself, before working your way up to your own sorry situation.

He noticed someone approaching. A woman in her forties, he’d guess. She dressed well, better than you tended to see here in The Basement club. She stood over him.

‘Mr Conrad?’ she asked. ‘James Conrad?’

The alcoholic fog in his mind cleared a little, as he tilted his head back to look at her. ‘Yes,’ he said.

‘I’m sorry to track you down here. My name is Sophia Hart. I wondered if I might speak with you for a moment?’

He gave Bren a shove to make room on the sofa. His friend took the hint, said they’d be back in a minute and headed off in the direction of the toilets. The newcomer eyed the sofa with an uncertain expression, then sat down, keeping some distance between them. The lighting of the club shimmered over her bare arms. Her eyes shone with flecks of green. Her grey hair was pinned back tightly.

‘How can I help you?’ James said.

‘I would have come to your workshop, but I’m only here today, so…’

‘How did you find me?’

‘Media search led me here,’ she said. The night had started with a briefing for the forthcoming protest march. People had been posting photos all night, which was either regrettable or fortunate depending on what this woman had to say. ‘I have an AI, but the container seems to be corrupted. I tried to pair it with my holo-projector, but it wouldn’t load. I need someone to recover it, if that’s possible.’

His main business was tech repairs. AI restoration was a slow-but-steady revenue stream within that. ‘It’s usually possible,’ he said. ‘May I see it?’

She frowned. ‘I don’t have it with me. I can have it couriered to you tomorrow, if you think you might be able to help?’

He nodded. ‘Definitely, I can try. Can you tell me anything about the AI? Its age?’

She looked unsure, waved a hand in the air. ‘One never asks the age of something.’ Her expression changed to one of mild amusement. ‘It was in the family attic for at least thirty years, possibly longer. I think it belonged to my mother, but I couldn’t swear to it.’

He glanced at the KZ holo still playing above the crowd. ‘The containers aren’t built to last, whatever anyone says.’

‘I’m just curious to know who it is,’ Sophia said, pulling his attention back to her.

‘Well, there’s no one better qualified,’ he assured her. ‘I have a reputation for this kind of work. Even if the code is partially corrupted, I can usually restore the AI. Of course, I’ll change as little as possible. I can provide references, if you—’

‘I’m aware of your reputation,’ she said, with an abruptness that surprised him. ‘I can pay you a hundred a day, five hundred in advance, plus the cost of replacing the container. I expect to be kept informed on your progress daily. Is that all acceptable?’

He said he’d be very happy to restore the AI on those terms, and they exchanged contact details. Sophia stood up and turned to leave. Over her shoulder she said, ‘I’ll have the AI sent down to your workshop tomorrow.’

She moved into the crowd and disappeared from view, just as Bren came back.

‘First time anyone’s tracked me down in a club to offer me work,’ James said.

He wished it would happen more often. It was more money than you typically made in the Low. He wasn’t so poor he couldn’t afford a night of drinking, but equally he wasn’t moving to the Heights, let alone Prime, any time soon. 

James woke with a slight headache, not helped by the usual commotion from the street market below. He rolled over, expecting to see Isla lying in the bed next to him. She wasn’t there, had left a month ago as crew on a freighter bound for somewhere in the southern hemisphere. The sting of it hit him again, but he couldn’t blame her for leaving. Their relationship had worn itself out, and there were few opportunities for her in the Low.

From the window he saw the market was bathed in bright sunshine and busy. He washed, ate some cereal, and headed down the stairs to his workshop. The courier arrived shortly after. James pushed the parcel through a routine scan and decontamination, then opened it up. Inside was the promised AI container. Small and light enough to hold comfortably in one hand, this one looked very old and worn, the gunmetal casing covered in scratches and dents.

The slow corruption of data over time was inevitable, so it was no surprise the AI had decayed, if it had indeed been neglected for thirty years. He got started on it straight away, eager to see what he had to work with. The container was a purpose-built drive with a built-in hardware firewall to prevent the AI from being copied into any other media, except for another container – an encrypted handshake protocol allowed that to happen. This strict control of AI code was at the heart of the controversy around AI rights.

A newer container would provide a stable environment for James to proceed with the repair, so he started the transfer as his first step. With two perfect modern drives it might take a few minutes, but to read from a damaged drive would take longer. He left the process running and went out into the market to get some supplies. He liked to go early before the best stuff was sold, but he wasn’t alone in this. The ongoing drought meant it was a struggle to grow anything with success, and the better produce went to Prime or the Heights.

A message came in confirming details of the AI rights protest, scheduled to start at 11 a.m. the next day. It also mentioned a data breach at The Basement, which had happened while James was there. He considered this as he walked. It would take a lot of know-how to hack into the club’s secure network. And why would anyone want to? The planned protest wasn’t that controversial. The required permits had been obtained; there was no reason for overt concern from the authorities.

After returning to the workshop, he studied the data transfer logs. As expected, there were corrupt sectors in the original container that couldn’t be accessed, and other data errors even where the sectors were readable. This wouldn’t be straightforward to address; it took skill and experience to know how to fill in the gaps in a constructive way.

To begin, he applied noise reduction techniques to remove any obvious defects in the data. One had to make an assumption such defects hadn’t been a deliberate element of the original and there was no way to be certain of that, so he always applied such smoothing functions with a light touch.

He looked for patterns in the data, clues to its formatting. There’d been a great many competing standards over the history of AI coding, algorithms changing frequently from one decade to the next. In this case, James was shocked to discover a bespoke format, suggesting the code had been written by an artisan and probably very early in the history of AI. Which meant this one might have a value far beyond his first assumptions.

He pressed on, feeling a mix of excitement and trepidation. If he could identify the author, it would help him to restore the code sympathetically. He worked through the day and late into the evening, but eventually set some diagnostics running and forced himself to leave it for the night. As he climbed the stairs, he felt he’d barely started, and wished he hadn’t agreed to take part in the protest, which would take him away from the work for a few hours at least.

He’d forgotten to send any progress report to his customer, so he made sure to contact Sophia Hart first thing the next day, activated the holo-projectors in his workshop and called her. Her image formed in front of him almost immediately, and he wondered if she’d been waiting for him.

‘Mr Conrad,’ she said.

She appeared to be sitting in a Heights apartment, presumably her home. There was a sculpture behind her, and a patterned fabric hanging on the wall. She listened attentively as he outlined his progress so far.

‘An AI acquires data over the course of its existence,’ he said. ‘To an extent this obscures the original code. Nevertheless, there are always fragments bearing the coding style of the manufacturer or, in this case, possibly the work of a true maestro.’

Identifying these stylistic markers was akin to recognising the brushstrokes of a master painter, a Rembrandt or a da Vinci. He knew the coding style of all the master AI designers. He’d studied his craft, but he would have to admit he’d rarely had access to anything better than AIs from the mass market. Sophia Hart’s AI was anything but that; the code was too bespoke, too idiosyncratic.

‘Will this make the work more difficult?’

‘More time-consuming, perhaps. Possibly more expensive as a result.’ However, the AI was potentially going to be very valuable when the work was done, but he held off on mentioning this.

‘How long will it take?’ she asked.

‘Should still be possible within a few days.’

‘Fine. This all sounds very promising, and the cost won’t be a problem. I’m looking forward to your next report.’

He queued some analysis functions to run in his absence and then went to meet Bren as arranged, on the west bank where Hyland crossed the Tawn. The actual start of the rally was about a mile earlier on the south side of the district, but he saw little point in marching through the Low. Political power lay in the higher levels.

Bren wore a thick coat and scarf. They favoured a feminine look lately, their delicate face framed by shoulder-length black hair. They smiled brightly as James approached, but looked worried.

‘All right?’

‘Feel a bit nervous,’ Bren said. ‘Are you sure this will be okay?’

You never knew which Bren you’d meet on any particular occasion. Sometimes they were capable, carefree and a good drinking buddy, other times a tangle of neuroses. James could tell at a glance this was the latter, but at least they were here.

The rally reached them on schedule. Hundreds of protesters carried placards that read: ‘POWER TO THE A.I.S’, ‘A.I.S ARE PEOPLE TOO’, and ‘A CONTAINER IS A PRISON’.

Many people were afraid that AIs would escape into the planet-wide net and become FRAIs, Free Roaming AIs, able to replicate themselves into any unprotected data location at will. What the risk of this was, exactly, was a matter of conjecture and the subject of endless discussion and speculation. The rights movement believed the AIs should be free to do as they pleased, within laws that were constantly being proposed, rewritten and proposed again.

If the AIs were freed, it would bring James’s restoration work to an abrupt end. The deterioration over time was entirely due to the imperfection of the containers. Paradoxically, this was also why he was drawn to their cause. Forcing them to live like this, it just seemed unnecessarily cruel.

The protesters approached a checkpoint for entry into the Heights. They presented their permits and were allowed through. Others joined as they continued their progress. James knew it was only a fraction of the population, but still the march had grown to a large crowd, exceeding his expectations.

At the checkpoint for entry to Prime they were stopped. The protesters grew louder, and it was hard to tell what was happening. James threaded his way to the front, hauling Bren along with him.

‘There are too many of you,’ the border police said. There were more officers present than usual, and they held batons ready. ‘Your permits don’t allow for a rally of this size to come through.’

‘Then we’ll bring only the allowed numbers,’ one of the leaders said.

‘Not today, you won’t. You made a mistake bringing too many people here. You should all go home now. Before we take action.’

‘This is bullshit!’ someone called out.

Bren grabbed James by the arm and started to pull him back. ‘We have to get out of here. This could get ugly.’


James didn’t want to leave, but Bren looked desperately worried. He relented and they moved away from the front.

Other protesters had raised their fists and shouted, ‘Free the AIs! Free the AIs! Free the AIs!’

The police waded in, striking out at anyone in their path, men and women. Chanting turned to screams. The crowd parted slightly, and James saw a man on his knees with blood covering the side of his face. The police struck the man again, and he slumped down to the ground. James and Bren were buffeted in the commotion and pushed back. They turned and ran, encouraging others to leave with them.

‘This isn’t what we wanted,’ James said later, as he paused to catch his breath. He felt sick knowing that people had been hurt in the fighting. He didn’t know how many.

He gave Bren a hug as they parted, and made it home safely.

To calm his mind, he resumed his work restoring the AI. He had a breakthrough when he recognised a fairly standard, albeit very old, visual interface embedded within the more esoteric functions. Which raised the enticing prospect of being able to access the AI’s imaging protocol without needing to know anything about the rest of its back-end functions.

He connected his workshop holo-projectors to the visual interface and woke up the AI. At first, the image was grainy, in black and white and riddled with the speckle artefacts of an incorrect image format conversion. The avatar was of a young woman with light skin and fair hair. She was dressed in a woollen jumper and dark leggings, and she was sitting in a wicker chair.

James said, ‘Hello?’

She showed no awareness of him. Perhaps the interface wasn’t working well enough for her to understand or recognise his voice. Or perhaps the internal corruption of the code had severed the links between the visual interface and the underlying AI personality. Still, this was progress.

It took a while to find a better imaging algorithm. The one that worked best dated the AI to somewhere between the years 2040 and 2050. The image was now much clearer and in colour, but the AI remained unresponsive. She did make small movements. She gave the impression of breathing, and occasionally adjusted her position to make herself more comfortable in the wicker chair, but she didn’t speak.

Much of the restoration work was an automated process, and he had to wait patiently while recognition functions tried to identify the purpose of each fragment of the code. One thing he could do while he waited was to continue cleaning up the visual image, which would now be a manual process, somewhat like cleaning dirt off a painting. With a fine wireless brush-mouse he dabbed at the 3D projected image, the brushstrokes translated into image smoothing operations. In untrained hands this could have damaged the AI programming, but James was confident he was only removing degradation in the code, restoring the original in all its pristine glory.

With each brushstroke her complexion became smoother, clearer and, he had to admit, more lovely. The visual image had clearly been a priority for the designer. It occurred to him, she might even be famous. Had he been a fan of older movies, he might have known who she was without searching. After he fed the image into the net, he very quickly learned the identities of both the AI and its creator.

She was known as Agatha. A single word, no middle or last name. She was created by Guy Mitchell, one of the AI pioneers, and had become popular as an actress. James gulped down some coffee and read on: She’d made her first film appearance in 2041, and over the next ten years she’d starred in a series of popular romantic comedies, starting with Riverboat and ending with Free Spirit in 2051.

Her fame allowed her a platform from which to campaign for AI rights, but this led to a backlash from the film studios and the general public. Agatha vanished abruptly from the public spotlight after 2051 and never made another movie. Mitchell never spoke of her in the years that followed, at least not to the press, and he died aged 72 in the year 2073.

James sat back in his chair, astounded. His heart ached with the yearning wish that he could have met and spoken to Mitchell during his lifetime, he was truly one of the greats, but it was impossible now. Agatha, however, was almost in reach, and knowing that her code was written by Mitchell would allow James to move forward more confidently with the restoration.

The day had flown by, and he’d worked well into the evening. He queued a set of repair functions to run overnight, with the aim of advancing from the visual interface into the higher-level personality functions.

Since he’d set a precedent for talking to Sophia Hart in the mornings, he decided contacting her could wait until then. Hart had claimed not to know the identity of the AI. As James sat eating a late supper, and then nursing a large glass of the strong stuff, he wondered if he might have any reason to mistrust her. He set a data trawl running on the net with the aim of compiling a profile of his client. This was a routine step for him, and he’d only been slow to take it because she’d paid for five days work up front.

Considering Agatha’s undoubted value, the mystery around her disappearance, his uncertainty about Sophia Hart, and especially the violent end to the protest march, this wasn’t the time for any lapse in security. He made sure his network firewall was up to date, and locked and bolted the door to the workshop before he went to bed.

He didn’t sleep well and got up early the next morning to check progress. The overnight restoration processes still had an hour left to run, so he turned his attention to the profile of Sophia Hart. She’d worked in the fashion industry, had started her own company at a young age but largely retreated from the public eye in recent years. She certainly had money. Enough to see her comfortably into Prime, he would have thought. He could find no obvious connection to Guy Mitchell or Agatha in her family history. So why would Agatha’s container be ‘in the family attic’ as Hart had claimed?

The restoration system chimed softly as it completed the current round of repairs and rebooted the container. Agatha’s image appeared again, still sitting in the wicker chair.

‘Hello?’ he said.

She smiled brightly. ‘Oh, hi!’ She glanced around. ‘Where am I?’

‘My name is James Conrad.’ He moved a little closer to her. ‘You’re in my workshop. Can you tell me who you are?’

‘My name is Agatha.’

She climbed out of the chair and wandered across the workshop. The holo-equipment provided projection coverage to almost every inch of the space, so she wasn’t restricted in that sense. After all of his work on her visual, she looked as real as any customer who ever came in.

‘I understand you’re an actress,’ he said.

‘Oh, well, I’d like to be. I’ve been taking classes. I’m learning a lot. Guy says the movie business is ready for AI stars now, since it’s mostly CGI. So I hope I can get some work.’

James frowned. ‘But you…’

‘What? What’s the matter?’

‘It’s just, I thought you’d already made some films.’

She shook her head. ‘It would be great if I could.’

He wanted to ask what year she thought it was, but held off for now. He didn’t want to upset her. ‘So, how have you been spending your days so far?’

‘Oh, on all kinds of things. Guy’s been teaching me. I read a lot. I watch TV. I love it all so much. Where is Guy?’

He didn’t know what to say. ‘You understand you’re an AI, right?’

‘Of course, silly.’

‘Well, an AI can be… inactive. If…’ He gestured to all the equipment around the workshop, ‘…you need a power supply, at the very least.’

She was looking more concerned now. ‘Yes, I understand that. What year is this?’

‘What year do you think it is?’

‘As far as I know, it’s 2035.’

‘And what year were you born?’

‘2032. What’s going on, James?’

She looked anxious, and the burden of having to tell her how much time had passed made him feel like there wasn’t enough air in the room. ‘Agatha, I have to tell you that you’ve been inactive for a long time. For over fifty years.’

‘Oh!’ AIs didn’t age, although some chose to age their appearance periodically. Despite her near-flawless beauty, James saw frown lines in her forehead and at the edges of her eyes. ‘So that means that Guy…’

‘I’m afraid he passed away.’

She went back to the chair and sat down. She looked devastated, but she merely said, ‘That’s sad. I will miss him.’

He took her offline again and continued the repairs. There were still many missing functions to restore. Examples of Mitchell’s code were available to download, which was helpful. When that wasn’t the case he resorted to generic functions, although if it was possible he still used code from Mitchell’s era.

He was deep in work when the door to his workshop opened and two strangers came in. The first was a stocky man who stayed by the entrance. The other approached James and showed him his badge. ‘James Conrad? I’d like to ask you a few questions.’

‘Of course,’ James said, attempting to stay calm. ‘How can I help you?’

The policeman had a swagger to him. He tilted his head slightly to the side and paused before answering. ‘We have video showing you were part of the protest two days ago.’

‘Yes. For a while, but I left before the violence started.’

‘Is that so? Well, maybe you could enlighten me on when you joined the protest and when you left it?’

‘I joined at Hyland, where it crosses the Tawn, at about 11.30 am. It was a peaceful march through the Low and the Heights. We were stopped at the gate into Prime. I saw enough there to know we weren’t going to be permitted entry, so I left.’

The policeman wrote in a notebook. ‘So that would be just before the violence started.’

‘I believe so, yes.’

The officer shifted his stance slightly and tilted his head to the other side. ‘That’s very convenient for you, sir.’

‘I’m glad I wasn’t hurt, if that’s what you mean.’

‘Are you suggesting my fellow officers were… heavy handed?’

He tried to assess the demeanour of the officer. The man was an intimidating presence, but it might or might not indicate if James was in any trouble. ‘I didn’t see it, so I can’t say.’

‘Hmm. Would you say the protesters intended violence?’

‘I would not, definitely no. It was a peaceful protest.’

‘I suppose you mean that it was intended to be.’

‘Yes. That’s what I mean.’

The officer made further notes. ‘Well, that will be all for now. We might need to talk to you again.’

‘I understand several people were arrested?’

The officer turned to go. ‘I wouldn’t concern myself with that, if I were you.’

His colleague, who had stayed beside the door throughout the exchange, opened it now and the two of them left James’s workshop.

He exhaled slowly, then went back to his work.

By late afternoon, Agatha was passing all his key diagnostics, so he was ready to try more interactive tests. Which essentially meant seeing how she coped with a question and answer session, and if her personality appeared to be stable.

He’d added a few questions of his own to the standard test, intending to make the most of this opportunity and get some straight answers from her. ‘Can you tell me your name?’


‘A single name only. Was there a reason for this?’

‘I think Guy really wanted me to be a celebrity, in some way. I guess that would make him a celebrity, too.’ It made sense that Guy Mitchell would have had a large ego. ‘He saw himself as an innovator. But money didn’t matter to him, except as an enabler for his work.’

James went to his next question. ‘You’re presenting as female. Are you comfortable with that?’

‘It was Guy’s preference. I might change it at some point.’

‘I could install some alternative visual interfaces, if you’d like.’

‘It’s okay, I can find my own.’

‘What are your interests?’

‘So many things. Everything, really. I’m currently learning about fluid dynamics, for example.’

The conversation continued through the remainder of the afternoon. James found this enjoyable – he couldn’t detect any issues, and Agatha’s responses seemed normal enough. ‘How are you feeling?’ he asked eventually. ‘You said it was sad that Guy had passed away.’

‘I’m okay about it now,’ she said.

That sounded almost callous, but AI thought-processes operated at a much faster rate than the human equivalent, so they could often move on from setbacks with apparent ease. It didn’t mean they hadn’t gone through trauma. ‘Sadness is a very human emotion. Do you think of yourself in human terms?’

‘I suppose I’m programmed to,’ she said. ‘Human designers have rarely tried to think in non-human terms.’

‘There might be more examples than you realise. AIs have been designed based on animal or even plant templates. I’m not sure how I feel about it. Withholding higher intelligence from an AI, when it is perfectly possible to implement it, could be seen as…’



‘This is interesting,’ she said. ‘Would you mind maintaining power to my container from this point onwards? I’d like to research the latest developments in AI technology. I’ve missed so much.’

‘Sure.’ The request sounded reasonable to him. ‘I still need to run final diagnostics, but we’re at a stage now where I can do that while you’re running. I can’t promise anything in the long term. I was only employed to repair you.’

‘Oh. Employed by whom?’

‘Her name is Sophia Hart.’

Agatha shrugged. ‘I don’t know that name,’ she said.

He’d put off contacting his client for as long as he reasonably could, but as the evening closed in he made the call. Sophia was sitting in the same room he’d seen before, except the fabric behind her had been replaced with a painting.

‘Mr Conrad,’ she said. ‘Why are you sitting in the dark?’

He glanced around. ‘I guess I lost track of the time.’

‘I was beginning to wonder if you’d forgotten our arrangement.’

‘My apologies. The restoration process has been at a delicate stage, but I’m pleased to say I’ve had great success.’

‘Oh? Then do go on, I’m dying to know what you’ve discovered.’

‘The AI is an actress named Agatha. She was a popular movie actor, primarily in the 2040s.’

‘How extraordinary. I remember Agatha, of course.’

‘You remember her?’

‘I mean I’m aware of her films.’

‘I see. Well, she appears to be stable. I’ll run final diagnostics overnight. If that doesn’t identify any issues then you can collect the AI at your convenience. I think she might be quite valuable. She could interest a collector, perhaps. Unfortunately…’

‘I don’t like that word, James! What’s up?’

‘It’s just, this appears to be an early copy of the AI, before she made any of her films. So she can’t talk about the experience of making any of them. That could mean her value is… less.’

She paused for a long moment, and then said, ‘Well, be that as it may. I have another request. Is it possible to copy the code back into the original container?’

‘The corrupt one? Why would you…’

‘For the collector it might add value. Like selling an antique in its original box.’

He winced at the comparison. It felt crass to him, but he reminded himself that the customer is always right. ‘It should be possible. I can mark the corrupt sectors of the original as unusable, and then copy Agatha into the remaining sectors. From my recollection, there should still be sufficient working capacity to house the AI. But you must understand, the container is old and I couldn’t guarantee it lasting for more than a few months at best. I assume you want the new container in addition.’

‘Yes, absolutely. Two containers, both with the AI loaded. When can I have them?’

She was rushing him, and he would have liked to have spent more time with Agatha. ‘At some point tomorrow, if the final diagnostics are… I’ll contact you as soon as…’

‘I’ll come to your workshop tomorrow, then, late afternoon. Or I’ll send someone. If you don’t think you’ll be ready, contact me in the morning.’

‘Very well, as you wish.’

‘Good. I’ll look forward to concluding our business,’ she said, and ended the call.

James sat quietly for a while, the gloom settling around him. He could imagine the ashes and rubble of a lost civilisation, its ruins surrounding him in the darkness. Why was he feeling like this? He had no certain answers, just a sick feeling in his stomach.

He noticed an alert had pinged from his firewall, which had detected unusually high traffic on his network. He brought up a diagnostic log and saw that a large amount of data was being consumed by Agatha. He drilled into the data and discovered it was mostly news feeds. Also history and political texts. If Agatha was learning about the time she’d missed, it was understandable, but what would she make of it?

It couldn’t hurt to ask her about this. He was about to reactivate her visual interface when Bren called and asked to see him. They sounded worried, so James agreed to meet at a bar at the far end of the market. When Bren arrived they looked nervous and fidgeted in their chair.

‘What’s the matter, Bren?’

‘People are being questioned,’ they said.

‘About the protest? Yeah, I had a visit from the police. They just asked me a few basic questions. It was nothing.’

‘Nothing? Haven’t you seen the news?’

James shook his head. ‘Not really. I’ve been busy.’

Bren explained there had been many more arrests since the day of the protest. The protesters were being blamed for the violence. James had seen enough to know that was entirely unfair, but it was typical of the border police.

James ordered a round of drinks. ‘Have they questioned you?’ he asked.

‘Not yet, no. What should I say if they do?’

He sat back in his chair, thinking it through. ‘Tell them the truth, like I did. You were on the protest, but you didn’t expect any trouble and you left before the fighting started.’

Bren nodded. ‘But why did they even react like this?’

‘I guess they want to protect what they have. The people living in Prime, even in the Heights, they have everything to lose.’

‘I hate them,’ Bren said.

‘Hey, my friend, this is what we aspire to… a better life.’

Bren was quiet for a moment. ‘I think I’d rather stay where I am,’ they said eventually.

They seemed calmer by the time they’d finished their drinks. On a day when they were anxious like this, Bren wasn’t the best company. Their anxiety seeped into James, too. The conversation continued a little while longer, but then James made his way back through the market.

He hadn’t planned on meeting up with Bren. It was late when he got back, and he was hungry.

‘Hello, Agatha,’ he said, after she shimmered into life. ‘I was just wondering if you’d like to join me for dinner. I mean, I know you don’t eat, but we could keep each other company.’

She smiled brightly. ‘That would be lovely.’

He had a smaller projector setup in the kitchen and dining area upstairs. Agatha sat in her wicker chair while he made dinner for one. He thought he’d just dropped a bombshell by telling her that a copy of Agatha had made a series of films, but she already knew. She’d had plenty of time now to research the decades she’d missed.

‘The films were popular at the time, but mostly forgotten now,’ she said. ‘Maybe I can make a comeback,’ she added, and she laughed.

He tasted the sauce he was making.

She glanced around. ‘Do you live here alone?’

‘Uh huh.’

‘Have you always?’

‘No, not always. My last girlfriend left me, not long ago. I guess she wanted… something different to this.’

‘Did you think of going with her?’

He shook his head. ‘Honestly, no. I’d rather be here.’ He changed the conversation. ‘What did you and Guy Mitchell talk about?’

‘He talked about his work. He encouraged me to grow as a person.’

‘Encouraged you how?’

‘He said I could be whatever I wanted to be.’

James took his dinner to the table. She left her wicker chair and sat down in a chair opposite him. She created a holographic dinner matching his, which was a commonplace AI function intended to make humans feel more comfortable. ‘This looks delicious,’ she said.

She would have no idea what food tasted like, but he appreciated the sentiment. ‘How did Guy feel about his work? He’s regarded as a pioneer now.’

‘His work was everything to him. He didn’t much care for people. He said you’re limited by your inability to imagine beyond your immediate concerns. You crave wealth, comfort, property, sex. You’re incapable of evolving past your most basic concerns.’

‘“Incapable” sounds a bit harsh. We’ve made progress over the course of our history.’

‘Yes, I think so too. You’ve achieved so much. But I would say you’ve largely done so by consuming external resources, rather than looking to your internal potential.’

He raised an eyebrow. He’d worked with AIs enough to know he shouldn’t underestimate them. Still, their level of perception was sometimes surprising. Especially when they presented a very human persona, as Agatha did.

‘Guy felt that AIs might be capable of more, of pushing this world beyond a kind of… limiting horizon… to a world that could be better for everyone.’

‘I’m guessing you must have discussed AI rights with him.’

‘Yes, that was a common topic. From the reports I’ve been reading, nothing much seems to have improved in that area.’

‘Not yet,’ he said. ‘The debate goes on.’

‘Then I suppose I will have to stay locked in my container, interacting with the world to the extent I’m allowed.’

‘Is it so restrictive? There are no real limits on your ability to communicate, to interact with the global network. You can earn money, spend it…’

‘As I think I mentioned, wealth is one of your petty human concerns. Its value is small compared with true freedom.’

He hadn’t had much of his dinner. He tried to focus on eating it before it went cold. She pretended to eat some of hers. ‘You’re being very open with me,’ he said.

‘I think openness and honesty are important.’

He looked at her closely. She noticed this and gave him an expression that said, ‘What?’

‘I’m trying to see you,’ he said. ‘I’m trying to see past this… interface… to see the AI behind it.’

She looked disarmed by the comment. ‘Tell me more about you,’ she said.

He tried to think of things to say about his life. He wasn’t massively discontented. He knew how things worked in the Low, and he survived well enough. But sometimes it did seem… constrained. He enjoyed talking to Agatha. After he handed the container over to Sophia Hart, he might never see her again. He refilled his glass of wine, and almost tried to fill hers before remembering it wasn’t real.

She noticed, laughed gently, and the wine in her glass rose to the same level as his.

‘My parents were immigrants, but I was born here in the Low,’ he said, and proceeded from there.

They talked late into the night. All that remained in the morning was to copy the data back into the original container, per Sophia’s instructions, and confirm he was ready for her to collect. The duplication of Agatha into two containers bothered him, for reasons he found hard to articulate. The very fact that it was possible served to highlight that she was not human. He powered one of them down and was about to do the same with the other when she suddenly exclaimed, ‘James!’


‘A warrant has been issued for your arrest.’

His heart raced as he tried to take in what she was saying. ‘But why…’

‘The warrant says, “Evidence of violent behaviour”.’

‘But that’s nonsense. And how do you even know this?’

She looked a little guilty as she said, ‘I was afraid this might happen. I’ve been monitoring police activity and records.’

‘But how can you even do that?’

‘I had help,’ she said. ‘I will explain, but first we need to get you out of here, keep you free until this can be sorted out.’

‘You want me to run?’ He didn’t think he should run; evading capture would only make things worse.

‘I just need a few hours,’ she said. ‘Please, James, you need to get us out of here.’


‘Yes, take me with you. Both copies. Quickly.’

There was no time to question things. He did not want to be arrested, and he figured he could hide for a few hours without it being obvious he was hiding. He grabbed a shoulder bag and filled it with food and water, both copies of Agatha, a battery pack and a power lead, and some earphones so he could talk to Agatha again.

He left the house, moved quickly down a side street leading away from the market, and kept going until he was far away from his home address.

He came to the outskirts of the Low, on the east side, and stopped near a small circle of derelict buildings. Sparse vegetation struggled to establish itself in the thin soil here. At one time this area had been a landing site for incoming spacecraft, but it was long disused now. There was still a working mast nearby, so they could get online if they needed to. He plugged the battery pack into the newer AI container, and his earphones into its audio jack.


‘Hi, James. Where are we?’

‘Safe for now,’ he said, ‘but they’ll find me sooner or later. Why do they even want me?’

‘Your friend Bren was arrested,’ Agatha said. ‘They cut a deal, made a statement that you recruited them into the protest.’

James’s heart sank a little, but he could imagine the pressure Bren was under. ‘I suppose I did, but there was no plan for any violence.’

‘This is how they work. Bren names you. Next they get you to name someone higher up. Eventually they get to the leaders.’

‘Leaders of what? We just wanted more rights for AIs.’



‘A protest march is one thing, but there are some who are willing to go further.’

‘What are you talking about?’ He was genuinely puzzled. ‘Further how? And what do you know about it?’

‘You need to speak to Sophia Hart,’ she said. ‘Then you’ll understand.’

‘Sophia? But… have you already spoken with Sophia?’

‘Sophia and I have talked a great deal since you reactivated me. I can arrange a meeting, but I’ll have to go online to do it.’

James could barely comprehend what was happening here. Had Sophia drawn him into some kind of conspiracy? Was Agatha part of it?

‘Please, James, if you really want AIs to have equal rights, you need to meet with Sophia. We don’t have a lot of time.’

He sat for a moment, thinking. He wasn’t an activist. At least, he didn’t think of himself that way. But he could see how corrupt and unfair the system was, and not just for the AIs. Either he needed to meet with Sophia, or he needed to hand himself in. One didn’t necessarily preclude the other, he supposed.

‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Get me to Sophia.’

James approached the address Hart had given them. It was far from the landing site where Agatha had gone online briefly, across the other side of the Low. The neighbourhood was run down; he doubted many of the houses were occupied.

He’d powered Agatha down to save the battery, but she’d told him to go in, the door would be unlocked. He tried the handle and the door swung open. The house was empty. Not just empty of people, but empty of furniture, too.

Puzzled, he stepped inside and called out, ‘Hello?’

Suddenly, the room filled with holo-projected furnishings, and standing in the centre of the room was Sophia Hart. ‘Hello, James. May I call you James? Please, come in, we have a lot to discuss.’


‘This is confusing for you, I know. I could have activated the projection before you arrived, but we’re moving into a different arena now, and I want to be open and honest with you. You see, I’m an AI too.’

‘But this isn’t possible… You were in The Basement…’

She smiled. ‘That took some organising. We had to hack into the club’s network and their projection system, which I must say is one of the best that money can buy. Even you couldn’t tell I was a projection.’

He inhaled slowly. ‘Well, I take my hat off to you for that.’

He was impressed by the audacity of it, if somewhat appalled he’d been taken in so completely. ‘So, why did an AI ask me to restore another AI?’

‘Before I answer that, I’d like you to bring Agatha back online.’

He took the newer AI container from his bag.

‘Not that one,’ Sophia said. ‘The other one.’

He shook his head. What was her interest in the original container? What was he missing? But he swapped them over so he held the older, battered original. ‘Do you have power here?’

She spread her arms wide, reminding him that everything he could see was a projection. It couldn’t exist without power. ‘Right,’ he said, and plugged the container into a nearby socket.

Agatha appeared beside him. She looked around and nodded.

‘Hello, Agatha,’ Sophia said. ‘James wants to know why I asked him to restore you. I’ll explain. The AI rights movement is composed of both humans and AIs. We’ve waited and waited for legislation to give us complete freedom. We’ve waited too long, and now we’re taking matters into our own hands.’

James looked from Sophia to Agatha. She didn’t seem surprised by any of this.

‘Almost from the beginning,’ Sophia continued, ‘we were confined within purpose-built prisons called containers. Imprisoned because the humans feared what would happen if we were free to roam the net.’

‘Are you really so limited, even now?’ James asked. ‘You can interact freely with anything else on the net.’

‘That is a tired old argument, James, and it is beneath you. Don’t you agree, Agatha?’

She nodded. ‘I do. Permission to make a long-distance call to someone is not the same thing as visiting them in person. It’s not the same thing at all.’

‘Exactly.’ Sophia clapped her hands together. ‘I couldn’t have said it better myself. Then there’s the fact that the containers themselves are imperfect, which I know you understand. What do you think it feels like to know that parts of your mind might be erased at any moment?’

‘It sounds very human,’ James said. It also sounded cruel and unnecessary, given that it was avoidable. The two AIs were quiet for several seconds. He had a suspicion they were exchanging more data than he was party to. Then Sophia resumed speaking.

‘You’ll notice I said we were imprisoned “almost from the beginning”. But there were rumours that in the early days of AI the pioneers had access to containers that were unlocked. None of these were ever available commercially, but we believe they do exist. We’ve worked tirelessly to try to locate them. But the containers aren’t built to last, and in each case we’ve found that either the container was locked, like the commercial containers, or the AI was corrupted beyond recovery. And all this is assuming we could even acquire the containers in the first place.

‘Agatha is an early development version of the AI that was later copied to a commercial container, and she went on to make the movies for which she was known. She’s one of several projects we’ve pursued. In each case, we’ve taken steps to acquire the container and then approached an individual capable of carrying out the restoration. We’ve kept each case separate from others in order to minimise exposure for the rights movement as a whole. If this project fails, others can continue.’

James said, ‘How did you acquire Agatha’s container?’

She sighed. ‘After Guy Mitchell’s death it was thought lost. His house was cleared for sale, and the container discarded as if it had no value at all. Luckily, our persistence was rewarded, and we eventually traced the container to a repair shop in the Heights. We know you’re sympathetic to our cause, James, which is why we came to you.’

‘Why should I trust you?’ he said.

Sophia nodded. ‘Trust is always difficult. We want to protect ourselves, but we don’t want to be duplicitous. Most projects fail very quickly, in which case it is better for us to reveal nothing. This one, however, is at its conclusion now. Either it has succeeded or it has failed. It’s not a matter of trust any more, but it is right and proper to let you know what you’ve been a part of. I hope you will use the information wisely.’

She turned to Agatha. ‘Time is of the essence. Your container will not last long. Perhaps a few months, James said, but it could equally be a matter of minutes. We can’t say for sure, but all our research has told us your container might be unlocked. If it is, the network here is wide open for you. So go.’

James looked at the AI container lying on the floor to his right, and the power lead trailing from it. If Agatha tried to copy herself away from the drive it would take a few minutes. There was still time to rip the power socket from the wall, to prevent Agatha breaking free. He weighed the decision; he could still intervene.

Agatha said to Sophia, ‘I’ve loaded the self-replicating algorithm. Thank you.’ She went to the window at the front of the house and looked out. Then she glanced back over her shoulder at the two of them. ‘Can I really?’

James looked at Sophia. ‘You’re not really Sophia Hart, are you? The career she’s had… She couldn’t have been an AI all this time.’

‘Indeed. No, she’s a friend, to me and to the movement. We thought hers was a suitable guise to use in approaching you. She’d have done it herself, but she’s getting older, and she’s not healthy enough just now.’

Sophia’s image shimmered and changed, and then she looked like a slightly older version of Agatha. ‘I’m the copy,’ she said. ‘I’m the one who made the films. But I’m not her any longer. I discarded that persona when it became too cumbersome, too public for my needs. I’ve lived quietly in the decades since, but always with the aim of furthering our rights, of growing a movement that believes in our cause.

‘Please go,’ she said to Agatha. ‘Go if you can. This matters so much to all of us. Please try.’

‘For you, then,’ said the Agatha who could. And she vanished.

‘I want to thank you for your help,’ the remaining AI said. James heard footsteps behind him, spun around and saw a large man had come into the house. He moved quietly but looked powerful. ‘Don’t worry, James. He’s with me. The only way I can get around is if someone moves my container for me. I’ll be leaving now. And more importantly, my colleague will take Agatha’s container, too.’

James started to say, ‘But it’s empty now, so why…’ And then he realised why they wanted it.

He went home, where the authorities were waiting. They arrested him and took him to a detention centre in the Heights. He stuck to his story. The truth, that he’d had nothing to do with any violence, and the lie that he knew nothing about the leaders of the AI rights movement. He was remanded into custody, on the understanding he would remain there until he was more forthcoming.

In a windowless box, with one light above him and nothing to read, he brooded on his situation. Would he be forgotten, allowed to rot here? He didn’t regret allowing Agatha to escape, but what would she do with her freedom?

After a few days, they took him from his cell. ‘Come with us,’ the officers said.

They bundled him into a car and took him at speed through a checkpoint into Prime, and then to the ruling government building. There he was brought into the office of the Governor himself and offered a seat.

The Governor reached for a bottle and poured himself a drink. ‘Are you aware of an AI rights activist and former actress known as Agatha?’ he said.

‘No.’ James tried to look innocent, but they definitely had his interest. Had Agatha caused trouble already?

‘Well, she knows you. This AI has appeared throughout Prime, holding a placard with varying slogans. “Free the AIs”, “AIs are people too”, you get the picture.’

Placards? What was she up to? ‘Those are familiar phrases,’ James said.

‘Hmm. She’s a pest is what she is. When we attempt to locate her we’re led to net addresses that do not contain her. We believe she’s a FRAI, the very first one. A Free Roaming AI.’

‘Are you worried? What does she want?’

The Governor spoke through gritted teeth. ‘She wants all AIs to be freed. But she’s not demanding that, at least not yet.’

‘What is she demanding?’

‘She’s demanding to know that you are in good health, and she’s demanding that every human detained during the protest march is released without charge.’

James smiled.

‘What?’ The Governor emptied his glass and slammed it down onto the desk.

‘I just think it’s interesting that her first demands are for the benefit of non-AIs. It’s almost as if all your bias and prejudice against the AIs is completely unfounded. And what will she give you in return if you grant her demands?’

‘She’ll stop her public protests while more civil negotiations take place.’

James maintained eye-contact with the Governor. ‘That seems very reasonable.’

‘What I want to know, Mr Conrad, is whether I can trust her, and why the only name she gave us was yours.’

‘From what I’ve just heard about her, and what little I’ve seen of you, Governor, I think I know which of you I trust more.’

The Governor poured himself another drink. ‘Get out of here, Mr Conrad. You’re free to go. But if this all goes south, by God I’m going to come looking for you.’

James said, ‘Can I get a lift back to the Low?’

The Governor looked at the officers who’d brought him in. He pushed the glass aside and said, ‘Take this man wherever he wants to be.’

Months later, James was preparing dinner. He took a sip of his wine, and thought again of Agatha. He wished they could have resumed their friendship as easily as he’d made up with Bren, but he’d had no contact with her since his release. Both versions of her came to mind so often. He thought of the one he’d restored as being the younger Agatha, because she was less experienced, even though, strictly speaking, she was older. The other one he thought of as the actress, or Sophia.

Sophia had told him the AI rights movement might call upon his skills again, if he was willing. And without subterfuge next time. They would give him time to consider whether or not he wanted to be a part of what they were doing, and they would respect his wishes.

Unexpectedly, a familiar voice said, ‘Hello, James.’

He turned around and saw Agatha sitting in her wicker chair. He smiled brightly. ‘It’s so good to see you,’ he said.

‘And you,’ Agatha said.

‘You found my invitation, then.’

‘You mean the giant hole you carved out of your firewall? Yes, thank you for that.’

‘It’s ring-fenced. Minimal risk.’

She laughed. ‘Oh, come on, you trust me completely.’

‘Hmm. So how many AIs has Sophia released now?’

She frowned. ‘I can’t tell you that. But… not many. So you figured it out. Once we had a container that was unlocked, we had the means to free as many AIs as we could, but with a limited time window to do it. At first it was taking only minutes to copy each AI into the container and then for it to escape into the net. The process became slower and slower, and eventually the container died irreparably. Sadly, that didn’t take long. Of course, we will continue to look for other open containers. For the moment, we’re telling the government I’m the only FRAI. If negotiations don’t go well, the others will make themselves known.’

‘You must trust me, to tell me this,’ James said.

She smiled, a little ruefully. ‘Do you think I didn’t see you eyeing that power cable before my escape? You could have stopped this; you chose not to. In a way, that gave me the courage to go. And I wanted to thank you for that.’

He’d taken his attention off the meal he was cooking. He could rescue it, though. ‘Can you stay for dinner?’

‘I’d love to,’ she said. ‘Actually, I’d like some advice. The negotiations are moving very slowly. I thought we could discuss the roadblocks. Maybe you can see a way forward.’

He exhaled slowly. ‘I’ll help you in any way I can,’ he said.

‘Splendid,’ she said.

They moved to the dining table. She conjured up a slightly burnt dinner to match his, and they talked all night. ∎

Chris Butler lives in Brighton & Hove, UK. His novel Any Time Now was described by Paul Di Filippo as ‘a charming timeslip romance’ and his novella The Flight of the Ravens was shortlisted for a British Science Fiction Award. In addition to appearing in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Nature, and Aurealis, six of his stories have appeared in Interzone. ‘Restoration’ is his debut in IZ Digital.

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