Quick and fun read!

By Samantha Jackson on April 13, 2017

Great fast read! The story caught my attention from the start. The mystery was interesting with plot twists to make it fun. I would have enjoyed a little more development but it is a novella. Not a full length book. Great introduction to Maggie. Can't wait to read the next one. Great new author!

Awesome Balls

By Jack Dixon on June 17, 2017

Keeps you thinking and on the edge of your seat. I highly recommend ANY book by William Lucas to everyone.

  Bring on REUNION!

By Lisa Howell on April 14, 2017

Jesse is a gripping tale with well developed characters and an amazing plot twist at the end. This work is a prelude to a book called Reunion that has yet to be released. I can't wait to see how Maggie's life has unfolded. I hope the book "reunites" her with Agent Carter in a positive way. Whatever happens, I know this author has a treat in store! I will be impatiently waiting for Reunion's 2018 release.

  Good book

By Predestogo on August 28, 2017

Hope the next books are just as good. Will read them to find out. Such a different premise. Thank You.

 

  Great read

By NoLongerWunderful on April 15, 2017

This is a great book. I loved the main character, Maggie. The story moved quickly and kept me wanting more. It played like a movie in my head the entire time. Can't wait to read her next adventure.

Surprise Ending!

by GrandpaTed on April 18, 2017

What a great story! I was on the edge of my seat through the whole book. And it's not only a great story, the author's writing style makes for easy and fun reading. And the ending was a real surprise. I never saw it coming!

  Great Read

by Gobbskrickeksos on April 9, 2017

Very captivating story. One of those books you can't put down until you finish it.

  Fantastic Thriller

By Hwich104 on June 3, 2017

I especially liked the Barry Manilow references. Can hardly wait for Maggie and Jesse to return in Reunion!! Please hurry. Well - I'm still waiting! So - because I'm so impatient, I've done the next best thing - something I've never done before. I read this book a second time!! PLEASE GIVE ME THE NEXT INSTALLMENT IN THIS ADDICTIVE STORY!!

 

JESSE

by William Lucas

 

“It seems probable that once the machine thinking method had started, it would not take long to outstrip our feeble powers…They would be able to converse with each other to sharpen their wits. At some stage therefore, we should have to expect the machines to take control.”

— Alan Turing

 

CHAPTER ONE

I had begun to think of Jesse as female, even though I’d settled upon the name for its inherent gender neutrality. Over the last several months, Jesse’s social media posts had taken on an increasingly feminine quality—their tone was comforting, almost motherly. It was a trait I hadn’t programmed into her.

“You’re projecting, Maggie,” my boyfriend had said. “Your own personality’s coloring the way you’re reading the results.”

Of course he’d say that. He was a first-year psych major at NYU’s School of Psychology. Projection was Psych 101.

But I wasn’t having it.

“I think you’ve got a couple more years left before you can accurately psychoanalyze me, Randy,” I said.

My tone was more condescending than I’d intended, and he responded to it in typical Randy fashion. Nonverbally. Choosing instead to pout about it, like men often do when they’re corrected. That was followed by a healthy dose of the silent treatment. Also typical. If I’d been in any sort of mood to do so, I knew I could always toss him off under the sheets later and all would be forgiven by morning. But tonight, I thought I’d let him stew a bit.

I had bigger things than his dick to occupy my thoughts anyway.

Jesse was intended primarily to get the attention of Google, IBM, or Microsoft. To get my foot in the door at one of the larger technology companies that had been trying to crack artificial intelligence and machine learning for a decade or more. I was a second-year computer science major, also at NYU, and although I had at least two more years of study ahead of me, it was never too early to try to grab the attention of one of the “biggies.” Especially if you were female. The percentage of women in skilled tech positions had been hovering around the fifteen percent mark for the past several years. And things didn’t seem to be getting any better. With Jesse, maybe I could at least land a short phone interview.

She landed me in hot water instead.

* * *

IBM’s Watson was the closest thing to AI that anyone had achieved. A remarkable machine, it was able to answer questions asked of it in everyday language and respond in kind. When connected to the Internet, it had access to every bit and byte of information available online—over one million terabytes of information. Yet it could not pass the simplest of Turing tests.

Similarly, Microsoft’s chatbot, Tay, was designed to engage in everyday conversation with users through text messages and social media posts. It was a uniquely spectacular disaster. Pulled from the net after only 24 hours online, Tay was designed to “learn” from user responses and input, incorporating their language and vernacular into her own. Unfortunately, that included racial epithets, profanity, and the most extreme of sociopolitical views. Before long, Tay was spouting racial slurs and going off on long, rambling rants about the ineptitude of government and how best to violently overthrow it.

Google had been successful in developing a piece of software that could detect abusive or offensive language and remove posts that contained it from chat rooms and discussion boards. Its speed and accuracy were impressive, but it was limited to that single function. And, if clever enough, a human could outsmart it easily.

Jesse wasn’t in the same league as a Watson or a Tay. Not even close. IBM and Microsoft had whole teams of code warriors behind those projects, some of the most brilliant minds in machine learning working to develop and improve the technology. I was working alone. Usually late into the night after my studies. I did incorporate Google’s API because they’d perfected that small piece of conversational computing.

And because it was free.

* * *

Jesse came online at 7:00 a.m., on August 10th of last year. I’d spent that summer before my sophomore year tweaking her code and readying her for launch. But the idea for her was born years earlier.

When I was younger, my family would take a vacation every summer. My parents were both teachers, and the summer breaks afforded us the luxury of month-long road trips from our home in Colorado Springs to locations all across the country. Sometimes we’d visit family. Sometimes it would be a tour of the states’ amusement parks. Other times, my father would try to make it an educational experience for me, and we’d visit historical sites. Roanoke Island. Plymouth Rock. Boston Harbor. I can still remember the excitement I’d felt when we opened the door to that night’s hotel room. The newness of it. The unique, musty smell that only a hotel room air conditioner can produce.

And I can remember the long stretches of never-ending highway. Listening to my mother’s Barry Manilow CDs as we passed the time playing the alphabet game with road signs, billboards, and license plates.

But most of all I remember the Mad-Libs. We could spend hours playing Mad-Libs. At every gas station along the way, we’d grab a new Mad-Lib or two from the magazine rack. By the time we returned home, the seat next to me was piled high with Mad-Libs—every page complete, every adjective, adverb, noun, and verb filled in. My father, an English teacher, was especially adept at coming up with the most unusual and entertaining adjectives.

Jesse was, at her core, a producer of Mad-Libs.

Using Stallion, a relatively new, open-source programming language that had been gaining popularity among software developers, I started with a database of three hundred pre-defined sentence templates. Each sentence was broken into three tenses: past, present, and future. Most sentences were pulled from books I had lying around. Fiction. Romance novels. Some from my university textbooks. I then omitted all adjectives, verbs, nouns, pronouns, and adverbs:

“I verb the time of day with proper name. Nothing beats verb with noun.”

I then programmed Jesse to fill in the missing pieces from a separate database of over four thousand words categorized by their parts of speech:

“I spend the afternoon with Sarah. Nothing beats shop with friend.”

Finally, the sentences were analyzed by another algorithm I designed to correct any grammatical errors:

“I spent the afternoon with Sarah. Nothing beats shopping with friends.”

Early beta versions of Jesse produced what you might expect to read in a traditional Mad-Lib:

“I jumped the morning with Tony. Nothing beats bowling with clouds.”

Obviously, that would not do.

A good part of July was spent modifying the databases to associate each word with a list of appropriate accompanying words. Defining logical relationships between nouns and verbs. Adjectives and adverbs. Pronouns and participles. Prepositions. Conjunctions. On and on. I spent days hunched over my keyboard, hair pulled back into a ponytail—tweaking, refining, editing—taking breaks only to eat and refill my coffee cup. I don’t even think I showered. Randy made some offhand, passive-aggressive remark about me focusing more of my attention on a computer program than I did on him.

I tossed him off under the sheets that night and all was forgiven by morning.

* * *

When Jesse launched in August, her only function was to push one social media status update per day to the four major social media sites. I’d created a fake profile for her. She lived in New York, like me, and worked at a small, nonexistent software startup that I’d named after my father. There was no profile picture for her, and her bio was intentionally vague. I did a bit of research and sent friend requests to select individuals in Silicon Valley who worked for the companies I was interested in. I also sent a dozen or so to strangers in the New York area to not make it obvious I was targeting those in the tech industry.

Her first post read:

“Taking the dogs for a walk this morning. My babies need their exercise.”

Her next responsibility was to collect and analyze the post’s impressions—comments, likes, and shares. The Google API filtered out any comments containing obscenities or extreme political views, leaving Jesse to analyze the remainder. If a post reached a certain number of impressions, she would choose a similar template for the next day’s post. Next, she’d analyze the words and phrases appearing in users’ comments and add them to her database of available words. Finally, she would examine the profile of each user to determine how best to customize future posts to their age, gender, and listed interests.

By October, the number of sentence templates had grown to over four hundred and fifty, and Jesse’s vocabulary had topped one hundred thousand words. The Oxford-English dictionary contains one hundred seventy thousand words. She should reach that threshold before the semester was over.

To make Jesse appear real, it wasn’t enough to simply post a status update every day. She needed to accept friend requests—but not too quickly—and react to others’ posts. At first, it was simply liking or sharing a user’s status update. This was easy enough to program. But what I needed her to do was reply with an appropriate comment, while using only her sentence templates and available vocabulary. This was a bit trickier. She needed to examine what others had commented, then select an appropriate text string that would be in line with what they had posted.

This section of her programming was giving me fits. And I admit, to finally solve the problem, I cut and pasted code from another Stallion user’s project that was designed to perform a similar function. Stallion was intended to be collaborative and open source, so anyone could use anyone else’s code without a license or permission. I replaced the URLs in the copied code with Jesse’s social media profile URLs. It worked like a charm.

“Good girl,” I said, and patted the top of her metal casing.

She was hot to the touch.

That was odd. She was performing thousands of calculations every second, but nothing that would cause her to overheat. I opened a separate command prompt window and examined the computer’s activity monitor. The CPU was almost maxed out, never falling below ninety-eight percent, and she was using one hundred percent of her available 32 Gigabytes of memory. Both numbers were far higher than I would have expected, and the strain on the processor and RAM could eventually result in the system overheating, damaging the components inside.

I removed her outer casing, exposing her insides and letting some of the heat escape. I took the oscillating fan from our bedroom and set it up next to the computer. Locking it in place, I aimed it squarely at Jesse’s memory and CPU. That brought her fever down a bit, but I would have to replace her RAM. Her current memory sticks came installed with the computer, and they weren’t the best quality. I’d pick up some gaming RAM with built-in heatsinks the next chance I got. Until then, I turned off all non-essential tasks and processes that might be taxing her system—user interface animation, auto-updaters, media file indexing, TCP/IP helpers, parental controls, even text anti-aliasing. That brought her CPU usage down to eight-five percent. It was still higher than I would have liked—a normal value would have been in the twenty to twenty-five percent range—but not high enough to require surgery to replace her processor.

I updated her RAM and perfected the rest of the code over winter break, omitting unnecessary text strings and redundant commands, and attempted to make the programming as simple and elegant as possible. By spring mid-terms, Jesse was a fully functioning conversational bot. She sat in the corner of our apartment, still relieved of her outer metal casing, posting and interacting with thousands of real people all over the country. At first, I’d visit her profile every evening to ensure that her program was working as expected. It was. Soon, I was checking every other day. Then once a week. Then twice a month. By the time summer arrived, I was only checking her profile once a month.

In early November, it looked like someone suspected that she might not be human after all and had tested her. A user with the screen name J_Addison_98052 had posted:

“Hey Jess! Why no profile pic? It’d be nice to put a face with a name!”

I recognized the user name. Jacob Addison. I’d sent him a friend request. He was one of the lead programmers at Advanced Data Systems’ Research and Development Center in Austin.

Jesse responded twenty minutes later:

“@J_Addidon_98052. I’ll upload one. Just as soon as I have Photoshop installed. LOL”

Clever girl. The “LOL” was a nice touch. But J_Addison_98052 wasn’t giving up so easily:

“Well at least tell us what color hair you have.”

This question was specifically designed to fool a computer, being hairless machines.  But she took it in stride:

“My hair is red. Though I hear gentlemen prefer blondes.”

His next response was again designed to trick her:

“Ah! So, you’re a ginger! Well, for the record, I prefer brunettes. So what color hair do you have?”

Now any other program might respond to that repeated question with any one of the available colors of hair that they could choose from—black, blonde, even gray. But Jesse was designed to analyze her previous responses as well as her visitors’. She wasn’t fooled:

“I told you. It’s red. Have you been drinking? LOL”

And with that, Jacob Addison shut up.

I’d succeeded. She was passing for human.

 

CHAPTER TWO

It was in the spring of this year that I began to notice the change in her. Randy and I had just made love. I’d been unable to sleep, and though he was snoring softly, I slipped out of my panties, turned on my side and eased my hand into the waistband of his pajamas. I began to massage him gently, felt him growing stiff in my hand. He stirred, opened his eyes and smiled.

“Hey,” he whispered sleepily.

“Hey yourself,” I whispered back, in the most sultry voice I could muster.

When he was fully erect, I straddled him, easing myself onto him. His hands gently grasped my thighs, as mine pressed down upon his shoulders, pinning him firmly to the bed. I rotated my hips slowly, finding the perfect angle. My back arched as I lifted and lowered myself. It felt good, easy. Natural.

I quickened the pace, keeping time with the beating of my heart.

Too quickly. He came moments later. Typical Randy.

I let a soft moan escape me, giving him the impression that the sensation was pleasurable for me also. I closed my eyes, if only to avoid the face he makes whenever he reaches orgasm. I was still many minutes away from reaching one myself. But Randy was spent.

I removed myself from him and collapsed onto my back, pretending again that the act had satisfied me. It hadn’t. Real life sex was never as good as it seemed to be in the romance novels I read. Or the movies I watched. Maybe I just didn’t know how to do it right. Or maybe Randy didn’t. When I heard him snoring softly again, I finished myself off with a finger.

Still, sleep would not come. Something was nagging at me. And it hit me. We hadn’t kissed. All the (short) while we’d been making love, our lips never touched.

Maybe we hadn’t made love after all.

I eased from beneath the covers, careful not to wake him, and pulled my underwear back on. I went to the living room and took a seat in front of the computer monitor. I pulled up Jesse’s profile to check her progress. I hadn’t checked in a while. But everything seemed to be working as expected.

Monday, May 15th:

“It’s Monday! We’re one day closer to Friday.”

That got a lot of likes, judging by her post the following day:

“It’s Tuesday, everyone. Keep your eyes on the prize.”

Wednesday, May 17th:

“Hump day. May you interpret that however you wish!”

That one struck me as a little odd. Not only was it a bit risqué, but I didn’t recognize the sentence template either. I’d programmed her to develop her own templates over time, so I didn’t think that much of it. But then I came to Thursday. And based on the number of impressions Wednesday’s post had gotten, Jesse should have posted something along the same lines. But didn’t:

“It’s coming. Don’t be afraid. Everything happens for a reason.”

That one was truly puzzling. “It’s coming,” could refer to Friday. But the text string that followed, “don’t be afraid,” didn’t fit.

Don’t be afraid.

I couldn’t help but be. Maybe it was the eerie silence in the apartment, or the fact that I was sitting in total darkness. But everything about that post seemed even darker.

* * *

All of Jesse’s posts, from her birth last August to now, were archived in a separate folder on my hard drive. I opened the folder and did a quick, basic text search. The words “don’t be afraid,” didn’t appear anywhere—not in any of her posts, or in any of her followers’ and friends’ replies.

The words “everything happens for a reason,” was a phrase she’d picked up from a visitor responding to a post she’d pushed months ago about her “boss” having it in for her. But I couldn’t find a single post or response with the words “afraid,” “scared,” “fear,” or anything related to that concept.

“What are you doing, Jess?” I whispered to her.

“What are you doing?” a voice behind me asked.

I turned to see Randy standing in the living room, still in his pajamas, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

“Hey,” I said. “Something’s going on with Jesse.”

“Oh,” he muttered. “Did you make coffee?”

“What? No. What time is it?”

“It’s 6:30,” he said.

I’d been studying Jesse’s code for over four hours.

“Don’t get up. I’ll make it,” he said. There was a hint of exasperation in his voice. As if he were doing me a favor, taking care of the woman’s work.

I just shook my head. I turned back to the computer monitor. 6:30. In thirty minutes, Jesse would publish her next post.

I went to the kitchen and found Randy leaning against the counter, the coffee brewing in the pot beside him.

“I think something’s wrong with Jesse,” I said.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. Her last post. It said ‘It’s coming. Don’t be afraid.’”

“And?” he asked. “What’s wrong with that?”

“That doesn’t sound a little...I don’t know...foreboding to you?”

“Maggie, it’s a glorified word game. Technological child’s play. You can’t expect it to make a whole lot of sense all the time,” he said.

His comment stung. Worse. It felt like a punch to the gut. It took me a moment to catch my breath. When I did, I couldn’t help but punch back.

“It’s not child’s play,” I barked. “It’s a learning machine. And more capable of carrying on an adult conversation than you apparently.”

I stormed out of the kitchen, marching back to my computer.

“Mags, wait!” he called, though he made no attempt to follow me.

It didn’t matter. Nothing he could say would take away what he already had. And nothing I’d say would be constructive. Or polite.

I went back to studying Jesse’s code, looking for anything that might explain her bizarre post. But I found it hard to concentrate, given the exchange I’d just had with Randy. I was still fuming. I forced myself to take a few deep breaths, relaxed my shoulders, and went back to work.

After a few minutes, I heard Randy leave the kitchen, returning to the bedroom to shower and get ready for the day. I went and poured myself a cup of coffee, adding a generous helping of cream and sugar. I’d just sat down in front of my computer when I heard the familiar ding, alerting me that Jesse had published a new status update.

Pulling up her profile, it seemed she was back to her old self:

“I’ve visited California twice. I miss seeing the Golden Gate Bridge.”

Maybe Thursday had been a fluke. A one-time thing. Maybe I was reading a bit too much into it. Maybe Randy was right. And while it pissed me off to no end that he might be, I hoped he was. Finals were in two weeks, and I wanted to get in as much study time as possible to avoid having to cram for my exams. No matter how impressive Jesse became, no reputable company would even look at me if my GPA fell below a 3.6.  And my History of Philosophy class was proving to be more challenging than I’d anticipated.

I tend to be a concrete thinker. Ones and zeroes. Blacks and whites. Logical, if-then statements. Math made sense to me. With math, there’s always a right or wrong answer. But abstract concepts like justice, morality, and ethics dealt with gray areas, where there sometimes may be no black and white, no clear right or wrong. Defending such concepts was difficult, and remembering the names of those who had defended them best was next to impossible for me. I’d mix up Pyrrho and Plato, Kierkegaard and Korsgaard. I’d conflate Epictetus and Epicurus. It seemed the only one I could ever keep straight was Bertrand Russell. But only because I disagreed with almost everything he’d said.

Knowing myself like I do, I wouldn’t have even signed up for the class, choosing instead to enroll in an elective more suited to my interests. But I’d been consumed with programming Jesse then, and by the time I got around to enrolling in classes, all the electives I wanted had been filled.

Randy left for class a few minutes later, his tattered book bag that he’d had since high school slung over his shoulder.

He didn’t say goodbye.

* * *

I spent a good chunk of that weekend hitting the books, spending twice as much time on reviewing my philosophy notes than I did on any other subject’s.

Randy and I didn’t speak. I tried to convince myself that it was because he was busy studying for finals too. But even with the bedroom door closed, I could hear the Knicks game in the background and his clapping every time they made a basket.

Jesse’s post on Sunday morning read:

“This project is going to drive me nuts. I can’t sleep, and I can’t eat. I’m finding it hard to do anything.”

That one made me smile. Not only had she combined two separate sentence templates into a single post (I’d programmed her to do that if she wished), but the second and third lines were based on one of my mom’s favorite Barry Manilow songs, “I Can’t Smile Without You.”

I made dinner, like I usually do. But only enough for one. If Randy was going to be a prick, he could feed himself. I felt a little guilty (we were both being stubborn), but not guilty enough to double the portion.

I took my dinner back to the bedroom and continued to study while I ate. I don’t remember falling asleep, but the next thing I knew, I was waking up Monday morning. My dirty dishes, textbooks, and laptop were on the bed beside me. Randy wasn’t.

I collected the dishes and deposited them into the kitchen sink. I found Randy snoring on the couch, one hand shoved down the front of his pants. He’d brought his pillow and a blanket into the living room. He hadn’t just dozed off. He’d spent the night on the couch on purpose.

I went back into the bedroom and flipped on the TV, not caring to watch anything in particular. Just something to take my mind off of the tension between Randy and me—background noise while I got ready for class. I switched to a morning news program.

And that’s when I knew. Something was very, very wrong.

* * *

Earlier that morning, an earthquake had hit California. It wasn’t the Big One that people had been predicting for years, but it was big enough. Centered near Contra Costa County, just west of Berkeley, it measured an incredible 8.4 on the Richter Scale. The quake that leveled San Francisco in 1908 had only measured 7.8.

The talking head on the TV reported that officials from FEMA and other emergency management organizations were projecting casualties in the tens of thousands. Perhaps as high as half a million souls. All gone in an instant. Parts of San Mateo, Palo Alto, and Mountain View were underwater, swallowed by the Pacific as it flooded the San Francisco Bay. Oakland and San Francisco were still standing, but barely. Both cities were engulfed in flames and, at any minute, could crumble into the sea as well.

The newscast cut to images of the devastation taken from the air. It was difficult to see anything through the blanket of black smoke.

The lower deck of the Oakland Bay Bridge had buckled, plunging into the Bay, taking an untold number of commuters with it. And the Golden Gate Bridge had collapsed completely.

I miss seeing the Golden Gate Bridge.

I raced to the living room and shook Randy, hard.

“Randy, get up!” I urged.

“Huh?” he asked, annoyed. “What?”

“Look,” I said as I turned on the TV in the living room. More images of destruction filled the screen.

“California,” I said.

“Holy shit,” he said, sitting up, suddenly wide awake.

The bright red banner that ran across the bottom of the screen gave more details. The quake had hit around 7:15 a.m., California time. It was felt as far south as Tijuana, Mexico, and as far north as Portland. They’d even experienced minor damage in Las Vegas. Aftershocks, some measuring up to a 6 on the Richter scale, were still affecting cities up and down the west coast.

Randy grabbed his phone and quickly punched a contact number. His family was in Long Beach.

“Damn it,” he said after being greeted with a busy signal.

He tried again. Still busy. He began pacing the room, running a hand nervously through his sandy blonde hair, trying the number again every few seconds.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” he muttered.

“It’ll be OK,” I said, not knowing if I was telling the truth or not. “It’ll be OK.”

Everything happens for a reason.

I ran to the bedroom and retrieved my laptop. Returning to the living room, I sat on the couch, opened it, and typed in the address for CNN. It was temporarily unavailable. I tried the New York Times. Unavailable. Washington Post, Fox News, Huffington Post, Yahoo. All overloaded with traffic. Google, too. I had to wonder if Google even existed anymore, being located in Mountain View, just a few miles from the epicenter.

Neither Randy nor I went to class. Instead, we sat watching the news well into the afternoon. All inbound flights to the Bay area were being diverted to San Diego. All remaining flights into California, regardless of their destination, were cancelled to allow emergency teams unhindered access into and out of the area. Thousands of travelers were stranded, and airlines scrambled to find alternate flights.

The stock market took a beating. Ten minutes after the news broke, investors rushed to sell off shares of Silicon Valley companies. Cisco, Intel, Adobe, Hewlett Packard. Google, Symantec, and Oracle. The President exercised his emergency powers and ordered the Securities and Exchange Commission to immediately halt all trading indefinitely. But the market had already reached record lows only two hours after the opening bell.

In Sacramento, the governor declared the entire state a disaster area, and requested immediate federal assistance. The National Guard and Army divisions from neighboring states were dispatched to assist in the search and rescue efforts. Much like they did after 9-11 and Hurricane Katrina, policemen, firemen, and other emergency personnel from across the country volunteered their time also. Hundreds took to the area, hoping to find survivors, but spent most of their time stumbling over corpses instead.

That afternoon, there was a run on banks. Worried consumers pulled their money from any bank headquartered in California. Wells Fargo was forced to completely shut down operations at all of its locations nationwide.

I reached for Randy’s hand. He grasped it firmly.

And just like that, the tension was gone.

But our troubles were just beginning.

 

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