The crowd swirls under neon lights like a slow lazy tide. Round and round, people move from person to person, conversation to conversation, topic to topic. Glasses clink under the muted sounds of a recorded piano.
A cool breeze blows across the roof terrace.
Viktor looks up over the dark skyline of the Capitol, glass in hand. It's a familiar sight from where he stands, grey rooftops packed close together, and in the distance, a looming monolith covered in glittering hexagonal screens. The headquarters of the Bodypolitik is truly a thing of magnificence. The screens project the symbol of an eye, blinking slowly and pensively as it overlooks the city in its entirety.
“— you? Have you settled on a job yet?”
Viktor starts, and returns his attention to the young man opposite him. They had been queuing together at the buffet table and had struck up a casual conversation. His conversation partner had been elated to discover that they had been in high school together, Viktor a lot less so. Luckily, they are from different batches. This man does not remember him. He is still an undergraduate.
“Not yet,” Viktor replies stiffly, “I’ve interviewed and had several offers come back, but I'm still deciding between all of them.”
He peers down the line at the buffet table, but they are still a considerable distance away. It doesn't look like he’ll be escaping the queue anytime soon. Beside him, his temporary companion is nodding emphatically.
“I’ve already accepted a position, but lately I've been looking to get married, and I’ve been matched up with so many women on the State Relationship Bank that it's just so hard to choose! Some choices last a lifetime, you know?”
The man laughs. Viktor just nods blankly. He scans the roof terrace for something, anything he can use to escape the conversation. Instead, he spots a familiar face — another old classmate, from across the rooftop.
He quickly averts his gaze. This is why he so rarely joins university events.
“And what about you?” the young man asks, “Are you planning on getting married now that we’re graduating and all?”
Viktor is hit by a sudden sense of exhaustion. He really doesn't want to talk.
“Artificial intelligence programming,” he says, shortly, “Please excuse me. I just realized I left something of mine in the bathroom earlier.”
“Oh,” the man says, looking slightly taken aback, “I hope you find it.”
Viktor scrams. Mild chatter envelopes him as he makes his way through the crowd. He sees a few familiar faces, ex-classmates, but that's no big surprise. St. Peter’s School for Boys has always had a good record for getting its boys into top universities. He hasn’t made any special effort to know anyone since the big fiasco he’d caused in school, which had ultimately led to him being withdrawn from St. Peter’s. He'd not had much of a social life after that, by virtue of being homeschooled, and had not regained any inclination to be social over the course of his undergraduate, and now post-graduate, life.
He remembers back when he'd been the center of every party, when he’d loved the attention and the popularity. Now, the idea just tires him. Perhaps it's just part of growing older. At twenty-seven, he is significantly older than most of the party-goers here. They are still undergraduates, still young. More than anything, he does not want to meet anyone who might remember him from his teenage years.
As he pulls open the door to the stairwell that will take him down from the rooftop, a woman speaks up from beside it.
“Skipping your own graduation party, Vitya?” she asks, and tuts.
He jumps a little, surprised at being addressed directly, before easing as he recognizes her. It's Lilia. He can't help the smile that comes onto his face at the sight of his supervisor.
“I’m tired already,” he says, “I thought I’d head home early and rest. I have another job interview tomorrow, you see.”
“Another?” Lilia asks, “Haven’t you got multiple offers already?”
“I don't like any of them enough to decide yet,” Viktor admits, “I thought it was better to have a wide variety to choose from than a narrow one. I'm still shopping around.”
The truth is he really doesn't like any of his options at the moment. He sighs. Lilia’s hard gaze softens a little.
“Your dissertation has been very well-received,” she says, proud, “I’ve had several companies call me to ask you to take up projects. None align with your interests, however. I know your tastes. You've always been a picky boy.”
She sighs, long-suffering, and Viktor grins sheepishly in response.
“Goodnight Lilia,” he says fondly, “Are we still on for tomorrow?”
“Yes. Rest well, child."
Viktor pushes open the door to the stairwell and begins to clatter down the stairs, footsteps echoing around the narrow space. Behind him, the door to the rooftop begins to swing slowly closed, but right before it shuts, he hears Lilia’s voice, in an undertone.
“The Bodypolitik called to ask about you.”
Viktor's eyes widen as the door clicks shut.
As he walks from the university campus towards the shuttle station, he looks up. There is a camera fixed to the street lamp above him. He looks into the dark glass of it for a long moment, before biting his lip, and continuing on his way.
They’d already cleared that up, hadn’t they?
There’s absolutely no reason for them to be calling about St. Peter’s again. Shaking his head, he sticks his hands in his coat pockets, huddles down, and walks a little faster.
He’s worrying for nothing.
He has nothing to be afraid of.
Up above, surveillance cameras watch darkly from every streetlamp.
As usual, the shuttle takes a while to depart, puttering and clanking as makes its ascent up above the rooftops of the Capitol. Viktor is immediately pressed into the aluminum wall of the shuttle by the peak hour crowd. He manages to raise his wrist in the narrow space between him and the next passenger, and taps on the face of his watch. A glittering eye opens on the screen, and blinks once, twice. He leans close as the radio host begins to monotonously read out the news for the day.
By the time he gets home, the first floor of the house is already dark, but upstairs, he can see that the light is still turned on in the room beside his. He climbs the old wooden steps to the front door and unlocks it, before entering.
The foyer is dark, but there is light shining from one of the parlor doors. Wood creaks quietly under each step. As he passes the parlor, a voice rumbles softly from it.
“Vitya. You’re back early.”
Viktor stops in the doorway, and turns to face his godfather. Yakov is sitting reclined in an plush armchair, book in his lap and reading glasses perched on his nose.
“I decided to leave early to rest. I have a job interview tomorrow.”
“Another?” Yakov asks, faintly disapproving, “With who?”
“A company that specializes in designing droid blueprints for logistical purposes,” Viktor says, “You know, those dumb scuttling things that run around carrying boxes. Not exactly high end AI technology."
“If you're not interested, then why go for it?”
“It’d be rude to cancel now! It's tomorrow morning. Besides, I don't like any of the others either.” Viktor grins cheekily. “Maybe I should become a professor after all.”
Yakov’s mouth hardens immediately, face shuttering. He puts his book aside and slips his glasses off, then winces a little as he takes his feet of the foot stool, rubbing gingerly at his right knee.
“You won’t like it Vitya,” he grumbles, “Go work for the private sector.”
“You say that about the public sector too,” Viktor complains, leaning back against the doorway and folding his arms, “Maybe I just don't like how commercial the private sector is. They have little use for the more intelligent AIs. They just need dumb scuttling androids to do all the dirty work. That's not my area of interest.”
“Sometimes you have to settle, Vitya.”
With a small grunt, Yakov pushes to his feet and leans on his walking cane. Viktor knows not to help him by now. It'll just frustrate him. Still, he watches carefully over his godfather as the old man comes slowly towards him, one painful-looking step at a time.
“You won't enjoy working in the Bodypolitik,” Yakov grumbles.
“Did you enjoy working in the Bodypolitik?”
Yakov does not answer.
“You should get a knee replacement,” Viktor says, as Yakov passes him.
“You go to a hospital these days for a knee-replacement,” he says, “And you come out with a prosthetic leg, arm, and heart. You know they’ll replace everything that isn't working like it used to, and I’ll be damned before I let that happen.”
Up in the study, the ancient grandfather clock chimes on the hour.
“Goodnight, Vitya,” Yakov rumbles, before he closes his bedroom door behind him.
With a sigh, Viktor shakes his head. Yakov is Yakov, and he’ll always be too stubborn for his own good.
Viktor takes the stairs up two at a time, before padding down the hallway on quiet feet. As he passes the room beside his, he hears the faint sound of strumming. The guitar is hopelessly, hopelessly out of tune.
He muffles his snicker as he ducks into his room.
In the morning, he is woken by the sound of rigorous stomping. The old wooden house crunches under each loud, angry footfall.
The forceful footsteps fade slowly down the stairs.
Viktor rolls over and taps on the screen of his watch. He winces at the sudden glare as a holographic screen opens up in front of him, and quickly lowers the brightness of it. Yawning, he scrolls through the new emails in his inbox.
He has two new job offers and an invitation to speak at a conference on machine intelligence. He flags each of them for consideration, and then rolls out of bed, yanking the curtains open. The sun shines sepia over the garden. On the street running past their house, a boy is rushing to school on a hoverboard.
Turning around, Viktor opens his closet and picks out a dress shirt, pants, and a matching tie.
When he arrives downstairs, Yakov and Yuri are already at the dining table. Yakov has his glasses on, squinting at the holographic screen in front of him as he scrolls gingerly through the news. Until a few years ago, Yakov had insisted on having an actual newspaper delivered every morning, but he had been forced to make the switch after the State Press had finished phasing print newspapers out. On the opposite end of the table, Yuri is complaining loudly and to no one in particular about school.
“— and then she said, the school rules state that your hair cannot be more than two shades lighter than your eyebrows at any point in time, so I was like, how on earth can that be an actual school rule? But she took out the school handbook and that rule was actually in it!?”
Yuri downs his orange juice in one gulp, and then slams it angrily down on the table.
“It’s not my fault my hair is naturally lighter than my eyebrows!”
Viktor clears his throat to hide his laughter, and sits down at the table. Their service droid lays a plate of waffles down in front of him.
“Thank you,” he says absently, and the droid beeps once in acknowledgement, before it wheels silently back to the kitchen.
“The other boys are really stuck up too,” Yuri continues, “They are always all my father or mother or uncle or whoever is so-and-so of the what-and-what, and once I graduate St. Peter’s I want to work in blah-blah high-ranking position, and that’s literally all they talk about. Like, does it not get old? Do you know how boring it is boarding with these people?”
Viktor rests his chin in his hand as he waits for the ever-predictable why did Viktor get to be homeschooled! and the inevitable homeschool me, Yakov! but somehow, it doesn't come.
“The only good thing about St. Peter’s,” Yuri announces to the room at large, “Is Beka!”
Viktor blinks, surprised, and straightens up. Yakov is still absorbed in reading the news.
“What is a Beka?” Viktor asks, extremely curious.
“Beka isn't a what, Beka is a who!” Yuri snaps, “And Beka is the coolest person in the whole of St. Peter’s. He’s not like the other boys. He’s actually cool. He has a really cool haircut that the teachers are always ragging on him for, and he DJs, and he also rides a motorbike! He took me on a joyride once and it was so cool.”
“Sounds like a delinquent,” Viktor comments.
“He’s badass, is what he is!”
“And unless the rules have changed since I was at St. Peter’s,” Viktor continues mildly, “It is extremely against school rules to leave the campus during the school term — so what is this I hear again about joyrides?”
“Just don't get caught,” he grumbles, through Yuri’s scandalized protests.
He’d been a lot more frantic about Viktor’s rule-breaking when Viktor had been a teen. It's a little unfair how much he's mellowed over the years.
Yuri hmphs .
“Not everyone can be the golden boy like you, Viktor,” he accuses, “I bet you broke plenty of rules. You just managed to get away with them.”
As Yuri continues with his tirade, Viktor smiles. Despite a rough start, Viktor had quickly learnt how to be liked, and had always been surrounded by friends as a teen. Yuri, on the other hand, has always had problems fitting in. He’s just glad Yuri’s finally found a friend, especially because he still remembers how much fitting in had mattered to him when he'd still been in school. Viktor’s friends had disappeared very quickly in the... events leading up to his withdrawal from St. Peter’s, but honestly, he hadn't remembered any of them with much fondness.
They had stuck to him because he’d been good-looking, smart, and well-liked, and he’d allowed them to stick around because things like that had mattered to him then. The relationships with his school friends had never been true friendships. Now he doesn't have any friends at all — unless he counts his family and the chatbots he’s programmed, but that is just an incredibly sad thought.
He looks up at Yuri, still ranting loudly to the room, and smiles fondly. Maybe they’re more alike than Viktor likes to admit.
The old grandfather clock chimes from the parlor. Viktor stands as his watch beeps in reminder, picking up the apple on his plate and taking a bite out of it.
“And now it's time for me to head out,” he says, and drops a kiss on Yuri’s head, just to rile him up further, “I’m glad you've found a friend.”
He ducks out of the house quickly as Yuri begins hurling insults at him, laughing. A glint catches his eye as he comes down the stairs, and he looks up.
There's a camera on the streetlamp.
It’s always been there, of course, but now he can't help but feel vaguely uneasy.
I have nothing to be afraid of, he thinks firmly to himself again.
Pushing the unease forcefully from his mind, he sets off for the nearest shuttle station. If he doesn't make haste, he will be late for his interview.
He boards a shuttle to the Central State University complex once his interview ends.
The way through the sciences wing and up into Lilia’s office is familiar after all these years. He raps on the doorway, just to be polite, and smiles as Lilia looks up from her book. Despite her stern expression, he catches the way her eyes soften at the sight of him.
“Good morning,” he greets cheerily.
“Good morning,” she returns, “Come in and take a seat. Don't hover there in the doorway.”
Viktor draws up a chair beside her, taps once on his watch to open up his computer screen, and starts pulling up his work, chatting absently about Yuri and his new friend. Lilia just listens patiently, seeming even a little amused, while he sets up.
“Here we go,” he says, opening up his chatbot program, “The chatbots have developed even further since the last time you saw them. It's quite fascinating. This chatbot in particular has developed a penchant for writing bad poetry. I call him Shakespeare. I must admit that I've been guilty of enabling his terrible poetry.”
Good morning! he types into the program.
A moment later, he gets a response.
Good morning to you too! How’s your day been?
Good. I had a job interview this morning.
Did it go well?
I guess I should congratulate you on your new job then.
Oh, but I'm not sure I will take this offer.
It's not in my usual interests.
Have you been writing while I was away?
A little. I'm stuck, to be honest. I'm lacking inspiration.
Why don't you show me what you've been working on?
Lonely mushroom full
Deep in rain and sun it melts
Flesh symphony noise
Viktor bursts out laughing.
“I looked at the code after the first time, and how it works is that it just cobbles together a bunch of randomized words, cycling through different sequences until all the words fit in a haiku format, and then it just stops there,” he tells Lilia, “But the poems don't often make any sense at all.”
He turns back to the screen.
That sounds amazing to me! he replies dutifully, smiling to himself. Far be it for him to crush the budding dreams of a developing AI.
Really? I've been really stuck, so I'm glad to hear you liked it.
You're going to be an amazing writer one day.
Thank you! I feel a little more motivated to write now.
Go ahead and write more then! I won't disturb you.
Sure. Talk to you later!
“Save for the bad haiku ,” Lilia comments, “The bot does sound even more human now. It will be interesting to see how they develop going forward.”
Viktor shakes his head, still chuckling at the terrible poem as he taps on the face of his watch again, the screen disappearing.
“I think they are only going to sound more and more human the longer they learn,” he says, “But they definitely aren't sentient, no matter how human they sound. There are still limitations in my coding. Though hopefully, with the preliminary methods I've developed, someone will take what I have and make it better.”
He grins, excited. “I daresay we’re the closest we’ve ever been to developing sentient AI,” he declares happily.
Lilia smiles fondly, and reaches forward to tuck away a lock that's fallen in his face in his enthusiasm. Viktor flushes a little at the affectionate gesture.
“That’s always been your dream since you were a little boy,” Lilia notes.
He laughs sheepishly. “I think we can attribute that to your presence in my life as a child.”
“You were a big nuisance,” Lilia says flatly, “Always trailing after me and getting underfoot while I was trying to work, asking so many questions and pleading to see what I was working on. You are an even bigger nuisance now. I'm surprised my hair hasn't gone completely grey with how long I spent worrying about you and your completely novel methods. I didn't know whether they would even work, but somehow here we are.”
“I'm sorry for worrying you,” he placates.
Lilia just shakes her head.
“I'm proud of the man you've grown up to be,” she says, and then pats him once on the shoulder, “Good work.”
The kettle in the corner dings, and Lilia gets up to fetch it. She pours the water into a teapot, throws in two teabags, and then brings the teapot over.
“So tell me more about the job-hunting.”
“I don't like any of the jobs,” he complains, “The State Job Bank generated a bunch of options for me, but most of them involve droids rather than real machine intelligence. Is no one interested in developing sentient AI?”
Viktor takes the teapot from Lilia and pours them each a cup.
“Most companies are interested in developing machines to fulfill menial labor tasks,” Lilia says, “There’s no commercial value in producing a sentient AI. If you want to continue working on that, you’d probably do better in a research institute.”
Viktor sips gingerly at his tea — it’s very hot, and sighs.
“Maybe I could become a professor like you.”
“You wouldn't like it,” she says immediately, and Viktor groans.
“That's what Yakov says as well!” he complains, “He says I wouldn't like being a professor, and I wouldn't like working in the government.”
“He’s right,” Lilia says firmly, “There are many things you can’t do. You have to get approval for everything . It’s also an extremely secretive environment. It's not the sort of place you would enjoy.”
Viktor scrunches his nose. That does sound like a place he would hate to work in. Which really just puts him firmly back at square one. He doesn't know which job to accept. He doesn't know of a job that would let him continue to further his work in machine sentience.
He sighs, and picks up his tea cup, sipping at it slowly. When he puts it down, Lilia refills his cup.
“And how is Yakov?” she asks grudgingly.
“He's good,” he says.
Viktor chuckles. The two of them really are alike. Despite being estranged, they’ve continued asking after each other through him, while continuing to pretend that they are still on bad terms. Viktor sobers a little at the thought.
He remembers hoping that they would get back together as a boy. As an adult, he's learnt to be content with the situation. They all live in the same house, but somehow the two of them manage somewhat awkwardly to avoid contact with each other. It's not perfect, but it's peace. They don't spend all day shouting the house down any longer.
Lilia narrows her eyes a little when she catches him smiling to himself, but seems to let it go with a sigh. They sit in comfortable silence, drinking tea, and quietly enjoying each other's company.
When his watch begins to ring, they both jump.
“Sorry,” Viktor says, tapping on it to bring up the call screen, “I could have sworn I put it on silent—”
He trails off.
There is no number or ID on the call screen. The screen is ominously blank, save for the symbol of an eye. With barely constrained dread, he accepts the call, and clears his throat.
“Hello?” he asks, hoarsely.
There's a moment of silence, before—
“ Good afternoon ,” a deep voice says, smooth and rich, “ This is the Bodypolitik. ”
His heart begins to hammer. When he looks up at Lilia, she’s gone pale.
In the white hallway, a clock beeps on the hour behind the gleaming metal counter.
Viktor peers up at the clock — five o’ clock in the afternoon, and then looks to the receptionist. She does not look away from her computer for even an instant, just continues to type steadily away, the light from the screen lighting up the lenses of her spectacles and obscuring her eyes.
Looking down into his lap, Viktor is confronted with a lapful of tissue scraps. He resumes tearing the napkin in his hand into bits, biting anxiously at his bottom lip. The paper is flimsy between his fingers, damp from nervous sweat, and his hands tremble with nerves.
It is so quiet, and so white here. Somehow that just makes him tremble more. It isn't everyday one gets summoned to the Bodypolitik. Fisting his hands in the fabric of his pants, Viktor closes his eyes and takes a deep breath.
Footsteps echo down the hall, and he looks up. A researcher in a lab coat is coming down the hall towards him. Viktor quickly gathers all the tissue scraps in one fist and stands. After some consideration, he transfers the scraps into his left hand, and sticks out his right.
“Mr. Feltsman?” the researcher asks, clinically, taking Viktor’s hand.
Viktor winces, but nods, giving the man’s hand a brisk shake.
The researcher turns away.
“Follow me please.”
Discreetly, Viktor discards the tissue scraps in the bin by the counter as he passes, before following the man down the hallway. The researcher stops by a door, scanning the pass hanging around his neck on the keypad, before pushing it open.
Inside, an officer looks up from his desk. He is dressed in a black suit, black tie, unsmiling as the researcher sits down in a corner.
Viktor swallows, and sits in the chair opposite the suited officer.
“Viktor Feltsman?” the officer asks.
“Nikiforov actually,” Viktor says, “Ex-Commissioner Feltsman is my maternal uncle, and I decided to keep my father’s name after he adopted me.”
He can hear typing from the researcher sitting behind him. The officer makes a note on the screen projected in front of him.
Viktor begins to chew nervously on his bottom lip. What on earth could they want from him? Is he being investigated?
The officer clears his throat, and Viktor straightens up quickly.
“You studied in St. Peter’s School for Boys up till the age of—”
The officer leans forward over the screen, frowning, and Viktor’s heart jumps up into his throat.
“Sixteen,” he manages, voice calm, “After which the Ex-Commissioner and I agreed that I would be better off homeschooled.”
The officer nods, and makes another note.
“And you graduated from Central State University?”
Viktor exhales, slowly. For a few moments, he is so overcome with relief, numb, that he can’t even respond. So it’s not about St. Peter’s. It’s not about St. Peter’s. He inhales quietly, controlled.
“Yes,” he says evenly, “I've finished my doctoral dissertation and am waiting on my degree from the university.”
The officer makes another note.
His hands unclench from his pants, and he takes another slow breath in. Impressive?
The officer looks up at him, setting his stylus down.
“The Bodypolitik is looking for a programmer to take over a classified project,” he says, “I understand your dissertation was about the development of artificial intelligence. Would you speak a little about it?”
A classified project?
Luckily, talking about his dissertation is something he can do in his sleep, and so despite the confusion, Viktor takes a deep breath, and begins to talk on auto-pilot.
“My dissertation discusses a method of developing chatbots through structured one-on-one conversations. There has been much difficulty in the field when it comes to programming social behavior, and this method seeks to address that. It's very difficult to come up with a list of rules, you see, that governs human behavior. Empirical research has shown that humans rarely behave in ways that are consistent or rational.”
The officer is nodding attentively. Encouraged, Viktor continues on a little less technical note.
“It really began a few years ago. I had been finishing up my Masters thesis when an organization released a chatbot app. Through talking to their chatbots, which were programmed to determine users’ interests and cater to that, users could develop it into a personalized companion. Being in the field myself, I downloaded the app, and joined a community of other users who’d talk about their chatbots. After a couple of months, I noticed that vast differences arose in the capacities of the chatbots. Some could offer profound opinions and sound exceedingly human, but others would get confused if you spoke more than one simple sentence at a time.”
He shakes his head, chuckling.
“The difference was the learning environment. Creating a good AI is really a lot like raising a child. It's a very complex process. If we were to count how many parenting books there are on the market, we’d be sitting here for a long time.”
“I have two children,” the officer notes, “I can attest to the complexity of the process.”
Nodding, Viktor gestures towards him.
“Exactly!” he agrees, “It’s really not as simple as just having the child memorize a set of rules. So, to delineate what a good environment for machine learning was, I created a chatbot app, and released it to about two hundred participants. By analyzing the conversation logs and comparing it to how functional the bot was by the end, I was able to identify factors that contributed to development of the bots. From there, I delineated a structured method of developing advanced chatbots through one-on-one conversations — as structured as such a process can be, at the least — which I then tested by developing a few of my own chatbots.”
A large part of the process had still been left to spontaneity, which was what he had enjoyed most about developing his chatbots. That, however, had been the least well-received aspect of his work during his dissertation defense. Viktor winces at the memory of it.
High possibility of error and not easily replicable , had been the biggest criticisms.
“The primary limitation of the method is that it's hard to ensure consistent results,” Viktor admits, “The programmer’s personality is inevitably going to affect the way the chatbot develops, the same way human children reflect their upbringing. However , the chatbots I've developed have passed multiple trials of the Turing test, all conducted by independent parties. I also compared them to the best of the bots on the market now, and they were significantly better. So really, it's a trade-off between consistency and results.”
The officer nods slowly to himself, making another note on the screen, before he finally puts down the stylus and looks up at Viktor.
“And you also have a background in programming?”
Viktor blinks. The method developed in his post-doctoral dissertation, he knows, does not touch on the coding and may seem qualitative, but he’d thought it would seem obvious that it had to be built upon a solid background in programming.
“This method assumes a solid program underlying all the development work. Good development means nothing if layered over faulty coding,” he qualifies, “The coding elements of developing machine sentience was the subject of my Masters thesis. In summary, the best way to optimize the code for possible development of machine sentience is really to…”
He talks about the coding at length until he realizes, some minutes in, that the officer’s eyes have glazed over a little. There's still typing going on behind him, which means the researcher is following his explanation, but he realizes that the officer may not have a programming background.
Well, he thinks to himself. At least he’s established that he knows how to code, for goodness’ sake. He’s still vaguely insulted about that.
The officer’s eyes refocus on him as he stops talking. Clearing his throat, the man leans over the screen in front of him again, scrolling through it quickly with one finger.
“Madam Baranovskaya was your supervisor?” he asks, and Viktor nods, “All of our AI researchers have come from her.”
“She is the biggest AI expert in the Capitol,” Viktor says, “I deeply admire her for her contributions to the field.”
“She spoke very highly of you when we called her at the university,” the officer adds, “She seemed almost offended to have to defend you.”
“I didn't know that,” he says.
The officer smiles briefly.
“She said that you were her most promising student and that your research is daring, groundbreaking, novel, and has already begun revolutionizing the field. It was a glowing appraisal.”
Viktor’s heart clenches in his chest, and he smiles fondly. Despite her aloof front, he’s always seen through Lilia’s soft interior, but even so, she has never offered him such high praise directly.
“That was really the reason why we contacted you, Mr. Nikiforov,” the officer continues.
“Ah,” Viktor says, and laughs nervously, “I had been confused why I was summoned to be interviewed for a position I hadn't applied for. In fact, up till just now, I hadn't even known that I was being interviewed for a position.”
At least he isn't being investigated.
“It wasn't our intention to startle you, but you’re currently the best fit we have for this project,” the officer says, “We would really like for you to join this project. You will be generously remunerated for your expertise of course, if you're interested in taking up this position.”
Viktor blinks, and then clears his throat.
“Well, uh,” he stammers, “May I ask what the project scope—”
“I’m afraid this project is very classified, Mr. Nikiforov. We cannot disclose the scope unless you are planning on taking up the project.”
Lilia had been right about the secrecy of it. She had also been right that he wouldn't enjoy it. He already doesn't enjoy it.
“I’ll need some time to consider,” is what he says aloud.
The officer’s mouth hardens, but he nods.
“I hope you will consider seriously.”
When he gets home that night, Yakov is waiting in the foyer. He stands up as Viktor comes in through the door, a worried look on his face.
“Lilia said you were summoned by the Bodypolitik?” he asks quietly.
“Don't worry,” he replies, “It wasn’t about St. Peter’s. It was because they wanted me to work on a classified project.”
Yakov immediately sags in relief, but then frowns after a moment, looking conflicted.
“Did you say yes?”
Viktor shakes his head.
“I told them I would consider.” He bites his lip briefly. “I’m not planning to accept the position.”
Yakov nods, but he still looks troubled.
“Turn the job down respectfully,” he says.
Viktor nods, and Yakov’s eyes soften. Clapping Viktor on the shoulder, he leans on his cane, and begins to shuffle off towards the parlor.
“Please go and tell Lilia that you're home,” he mutters, “She’s been a wreck all afternoon.”
Viktors rolls his eyes good-naturedly, long resigned to his role as a proxy, and heads past the kitchen towards the gardens. He peeks into the parlor, and though he sees Lilia’s reading glasses on an embroidered cushion, the woman herself is nowhere in sight. The door to Lilia’s bedroom is closed, but when he knocks on it, there is no reply. That just leaves the gardens.
He walks to the end of the hallway and slides open the glass door to the gardens. Sure enough, Lilia is seated on the patio, tapping away at the screen projected in front of her.
“Hey Lilia,” he greets quietly, “I’m home.”
Lilia snaps around immediately. Her shoulders ease with relief at the sight of him, but the lines on her face remain, evidence of the weight of the worry she had carried throughout the day.
“Was it about—”
“No,” Viktor says, “There was a classified AI project they wanted me to take over.”
Lilia nods, the rest of the tension draining from her.
“What are you working on?” Viktor changes the subject, disliking the exhaustion in her features.
“The garden,” she says, “I’m trying to program some mechanical butterflies for the flowers. I got some new schematics for orchids from a colleague, and I thought it would be nice to have some butterflies to go with them.”
Viktor looks up. He can see the unfurling wire mesh of the orchids, planted neatly around the patio. He touches one gently, and the grey mesh bends delicately under his finger.
“Shouldn't they be purple?” Viktor asks.
Lilia taps away at the screen.
“Done,” she says, and the mesh turns purple. She frowns thoughtfully, “I originally wanted to have the flowers change throughout the day. Morning glories in the morning, roses in the afternoon, orchids in the evening, and lilies at night. Yura thought it was too much.”
“Yura also wanted you to make the roses animal printed.”
Lilia winces at the memory.
“He wanted spots,” she agrees.
His watch beeps on the hour. From inside the house, the old grandfather clock chimes. Lilia dismisses her screen with a sigh. Her knees creak as she stands.
“Come on,” she says, “We should both be in bed.”
He spends the next couple of days scouring the State Job Bank. Still nothing that suits his interests, but he applies for the closest ones anyway. He goes for some interviews and even accepts an invitation to speak at an AI conference, just for something to do.
The questions he gets at the conference are all from excited academics. The corporates, on the other hand, seem bored. It's not hard to imagine why. As Lilia had pointed out, machine sentience has little commercial value. Academia is just looking more and more promising.
The call comes on the night of the third day.
He’s in his room, chatting with his bots, when it comes. Recognizing the number as Lilia’s, he minimizes the chatbot program and answers it.
“Hey Lilia!” he greets.
For a moment, there is only silence.
“Viktor,” Lilia says tersely, and Viktor stiffens, immediately put on guard by the tension in her voice, “Someone is looking for you at my office. It's... best that you come right away.”
“Who?” Viktor asks.
“Come right away,” she just says again, after a moment, and hangs up.
He stares down at the call screen for a moment, before he bursts into action. Cursing, he opens his closet, throws a black turtleneck on, and then shrugs untidily into his coat as he tears out his room and down the stairs.
“I'm going out!” he shouts as he runs past the parlor.
He’s out the door before Yakov can reply.
When he gets to her office, Lilia is sitting on the couch, drinking tea. All the lights are turned off save for the dim tungsten lamp above her head, and opposite from her, there’s a man in a black suit and black tie. There’s a black briefcase on the floor beside him, and a teacup in front of him that looks untouched.
“Mr. Nikiforov,” the man says pleasantly as Viktor clatters through the door, “We’ve been waiting on you.”
Viktor slows to a walk, still panting from his mad dash from the shuttle station. The man stands and offers his hand. Viktor automatically shakes it. Lilia’s expression is stoic, but he can see the worry in the crease of her brow.
“I’m an officer of the Bodypolitik,” the man continues, “And I’m here to check on the status of our offer to you.”
Lilia sets her cup down and stands.
“There's a meeting room here where you can speak in private,” she says, gesturing with one hand, and the officer nods graciously to her.
“Thank you,” he says, and then to Viktor, “Please come with me, Mr. Nikiforov.”
Lilia catches his eyes as he passes. He squeezes her arm briefly in comfort. She sits back down on the couch as Viktor closes the meeting room door behind him. When he turns around, the officer is already seated, eyes shadowed in the dim tungsten lighting. Viktor swallows nervously, and sits down opposite the man.
In the soundproofing of the room, he can hear his heart beating frantically in his ears. He flinches as he hears a click, before he realizes that it was just the officer opening his briefcase. The man takes out a small device, and opens up a holographic screen between them.
It's some kind of project file.
The officer clears his throat, and Viktor’s eyes flick up from the screen to him.
“This is a project that requires a very niche skill set,” he begins, “ Your very niche skill set, to be exact. The officer who interviewed you was unable to reveal the details, but I managed to get clearance to disclose some key information to you. I do believe that this is an offer you will find difficult to refuse — once you know the full story.”
Viktor’s estimation of the officer goes up immediately. He's clearly someone — but who? The officer swipes the screen, which brings up the opening paragraphs of the file.
“Five years ago, the Bodypolitik acquired a project from a start-up that had been developing androids for use in the Capitol.”
Viktor blushes a little as his eyes catch on the name of the company in question. Blissbots.
Seeming to guess his thoughts, the officer smiles.
“They had been trying to create an upgraded companion-bot, or — if you’ll excuse me being crude — an upgraded sex-bot . The sex-bot industry at the time had been struggling with realism. They had been experimenting with synthetic materials for hair, skin, and how to develop realistic movements in android bodies. A medical-engineering graduate of the Central State University began developing a prototype for a hyper realistic companion-bot. He had specialized in prosthetics, and decided to apply that to his prototype after graduating.”
He swipes again, and a new page pops up. There's a photo of a expressionless woman against a white backdrop in the corner, her long black hair held back by a purple headband.
“We eventually acquired the project from the man,” the officer continues, “Even before the skin had been applied, we could tell that the prototype would be visibly indistinguishable from a human once completed, and thus feared that it could be purchased and misused for nefarious purposes. We eventually decided that we could use it in treatment of mental illnesses, creating a perfect caretaker to manage our inpatients — calm, composed, unaffected . We then put one of our AI experts on the job. Dr. Katsuki had already been working on therapeutic chatbots for several years. The original creator worked with her to complete the prototype’s exterior. However, once that was finished, he left the project, and Dr. Katsuki took over completely.”
The officer sighs, and pinches the bridge of his nose, shaking his head.
“She was, perhaps, too competent at her job,” he says, smiling wryly, “The prototype flourished under her, becoming so self-aware that when she died in a lab accident four years into the project, it wiped its memory in grief and shut down.”
Viktor’s eyes widen.
“A bot that had loved its creator so much,” he begins, with amazement, “that it shut itself down after she died?”
To his knowledge, the bots he had programmed had already far outstripped all pre-existing technology on machine sentience. It had not been mere arrogance. Lilia had confirmed it, and she knew the industry inside and out. To hear of such advanced technology — to hear that it had been already in progress for four years — it was something beyond his wildest imaginings.
The officer laughs.
“Well, I don't know if love is the right word,” he says, “It is just a bot after all. It was definitely programmed to behave as if it loved her, but would you truly call that love? I'm no expert, but I doubt a bot can experience love in the same way a human can.”
“I—” Viktor begins, reluctantly, “I guess.”
The officer swipes again, and a new page appears. Viktor’s face is in the corner now, and from the text on the page — it seems to be an employment contract, his employment contract.
“Because AI is such a specialized field, we’ve had no one to take over the project — until now,” the officer smiles, “The project has been orphaned for almost a year now. We were quite excited when we heard about you.”
Viktor bites his lip. Being able to work with such an advanced AI— it's a dream come true . It's everything that he’s ever wanted. But—
“My specialty is machine sentience,” Viktor admits reluctantly, “But it sounds like what you're looking for is a treatment bot, not a sentient one. I don't know anything about mental illnesses.”
“Forget about the old project,” the officer dismisses immediately, almost brashly, and Viktor leans back, surprised. The officer seems to sense his confusion, because he smiles. “The old project was something we came up with to make use of the technology collecting dust in our storeroom,” he explains, “but the brilliant Dr. Katsuki made much progress in the field of AI while working on the prototype.”
With the results she had achieved in the prototype, Viktor could well imagine the sort of frontiers she had paved in her work.
“— All of which were lost with the prototype’s memory bank.” The officer sighs. “As you can imagine, there's a lot of very valuable information on that prototype that's now inaccessible to us. Dr. Katsuki recorded her only research logs in the prototype, you see, who she treated as something of a confidant.”
The officer leans forward, and begins to scroll down the contract until it reaches the section on project outcomes. It's really a very short list.
“What we really need you to do is develop the bot and try to recover its memories in the process,” he summarizes bluntly, “In return, we’re willing to let you continue your work on machine sentience using the prototype. In fact, once the memories are recovered, we will have no further need for the prototype.” He smiles. “Because you seem very interested in the prototype, we are willing to gift it to you upon completion of the task. As we are hiring you on a project basis, you will be free to use the prototype in any research you pursue after that. How about that?”
It's— extremely generous. In fact, it’s so generous that Viktor can't help but feel a little bewildered. It seems almost dreamlike.
“It's a very tempting offer,” is what he says aloud.
“I did say it would be an offer you can’t refuse,” the officer says, laughing.
Viktor bites his lip, looking down at the contract. It's everything he could have dreamed of. To work with such advanced technology — he skims briefly over the terms of his employment again — and with so much autonomy to work on own research during the project, it's really almost too good to be true. Furthermore, to be gifted with the prototype itself as a completion bonus, and to be allowed to use it in future endeavors, is something he would never have thought possible.
He thinks back to the prototype. The story is astounding. The fact that it had wiped its memory banks, erased its own personality completely — his chest clenches unexpectedly, and pity wells up suddenly within him. Thinking seriously about it, it had been akin to suicide, and Viktor can't help but imagine the sheer devastation that must have led to it, the unbearable sense of aloneness it must have felt in the aftermath of its creator’s death.
“I’ll do it,” he blurts out.
Yakov is going to kill him. And yet, despite the thought of Yakov’s disappointment, he can't help but picture the prototype, a lonely little android sitting alone in a dark office, waiting vainly for its creator to return.
The officer smiles.
“I’m glad to hear that,” he says, and swipes the screen again. The next page is more of his contract. Viktor’s eyes almost pop out of his skull at the pay stated in the contract.
“You will of course, be generously remunerated for your work,” the officer says.
It's three times the amount of the highest offer he’d received. It's not just generous. It's exorbitant. The officer swipes over to the next page. It’s some kind of confidentiality agreement, which seems to be several pages long.
“Please read this carefully and sign on the dotted line at the end.”
Viktor reads it carefully, eyebrows creeping gradually up as he progresses.
The level of secrecy surrounding the project is insane. No one is supposed to know what he's working on, the purpose of the project, or about his progress. He would understand not being able to tell anyone outside of work, but he’s restricted from sharing with even with people inside the Defense Section. He is to report only to the First Assistant Commissioner for Defense, whom he will apparently have monthly progress meetings with.
He frowns, and quickly rereads that last bit.
“Ah,” he says, “I had expected that I would be assigned to the Health Section, not the—”
The officer smiles.
“The Defense Section has put mental health on the agenda due to the rising number of suicide attacks being committed outside the Capitol in Sector Blue and Sector Green. We’re partnered with the Health Section on most of those projects, but we do have some projects that we work on independently.”
“Right,” Viktor says, “And if I need to speak to someone urgently regarding the project, who should I—”
“You would also report to the First Assistant Commissioner,” the officer says, and smiles. “That would be me. You can ask for me at the Central Desk.”
Viktor reels a little at that. He had known that this man had to be someone important— but the First Assistant Commissioner? Yakov is going to have a field day.
“Any other questions?”
He looks back down at the contract. The rest of it is pretty reasonable. Anything he may learn about the projects his colleagues are working on, he is not allowed to share outside of work. That's a clause common even in the private sector. At the bottom, there's a space for his signature.
Well, he really can't figure why so much secrecy is needed, but secrecy seems to be the standard for the Bodypolitik.
He signs on the dotted line.
The officer— the First Assistant Commissioner— dismisses the screen, slots the device back into his briefcase, and stands, looking extremely pleased.
“Welcome to the service,” he says warmly, “The Head of Research expects to see you in office starting next Monday. Once you reach the Bodypolitik compound, the Defense Section lift lobby is on the left side of the building. The receptionist on the ground floor will provide your access pass and tell you where to go from there.”
He sticks out his hand, and Viktor quickly rises to accept the handshake.
“Have a good night.”
“You too,” Viktor returns.
As they exit the meeting room, Viktor startles at the sight of two suited men he hadn't seen when he’d come in, likely because they are standing in the corners adjacent to the entrance. They are wearing sunglasses despite the dim lighting, carrying—
— carrying guns.
Viktor’s hands immediately begin to shake, his body going cold. Rationally, he knows that they must be the Assistant Commissioner’s bodyguards, but with how strict gun control is, he has never actually seen a real gun in his life, let alone one pointed at him . Not even Yakov’s bodyguards had carried guns, back when Yakov had still been Commissioner of Infrastructure.
Lilia turns around from where she's seated on the couch, face drawn.
“Thank you so much for your hospitality, Madam Baranovskaya,” the Assistant Commissioner says smoothly, and then makes a sharp gesture at the two men, “Let’s go.”
The door closes behind them, and Viktor puts a hand against the wall, shaken. Lilia stands up and turns to him. She looks deeply unsettled as well.
“What did he want?” she demands.
“Exactly what he said he wanted,” Viktor assures her, “They just wanted me to work on a classified project. He was very nice about it, really. They are also willing to pay very well.”
Lilia still looks tense.
“Did you accept the offer?”
Viktor bites his lip, and nods.
“Yes,” he admits reluctantly, and somehow feels compelled to justify himself to her, “It really is an amazing opportunity.”
Lilia lets out a slow exhale. She closes her eyes, nodding a little, as if to herself.
“Alright,” she says, and turns away to pick up the tea-tray from the coffee table.
Slightly confused, Viktor watches her carry the set over to the sink, pour the tea out, and refill the kettle. She bends to shuffle through the different teas in the cabinet as the water starts to boil.
“What's wrong?” he asks.
Lilia continues to shuffle silently through her teas.
“Nothing,” she says, after a moment, “It’s just not everyday that the First Assistant Commissioner for Defense shows up at your office.”
When he gets home, the lights are turned off on the second floor. He opens the door and walks with Lilia to her rooms, wishing her goodnight at her door, before heading out into the garden.
On the patio, Yuri is curled up on the sofa, fast asleep.
He can't help the fondness that fills him at the sight. He shrugs off his jacket and drapes it carefully over Yuri, trying not to wake him, but Yuri stirs at the gentle touch. Green eyes blink slowly open, fixing on Viktor for a moment, before the boy yawns.
“Why are you home so late?” he grumbles.
Viktor sits down beside him.
“Someone from the Bodypolitik came looking for me at the university.”
“Oh.” Yuri says, and sits up, rubbing at his eyes. “What for?”
Grinning, Viktor reaches over and musses Yuri’s hair, snatching his hand back when Yuri snarls and tries to bite him.
“They wanted to offer me a position.”
Yuri makes a face.
“Did you take it?”
Yuri scrunches up his nose, half-haughty and half-disgusted.
“You're going to turn out just like Yakov,” he scoffs, “Constantly angry and balding from the stress.”
Viktor bursts out laughing.
“It was an offer I couldn't resist,” he admits, grinning, “The project was too interesting to pass up on, and it's project-based anyway. Once I'm done with the project, the contract ends. I can work somewhere else after that.”
“Right,” Yuri says, sounding skeptical, “And what is this project anyway?”
The excitement that had been building in Viktor at the mention of the project dies a little. He had actually been excited to talk about it with Yuri, but— his confidentiality agreement. It's a shame. He sighs. Yuri would definitely have shared his excitement.
“It's confidential,” he says.
Yuri rolls his eyes.
“See?” he jabs, “You’re already starting to sound like Yakov.”
Viktor reaches over to muss his hair again in retaliation. With a yelp, Yuri escapes to the other end of the couch, scowling, and re-arranges his hair. Viktor scoots down until he's lying down on the couch, attempts to lay his legs over Yuri’s lap, and after a small struggle, ends up with Yuri’s legs over his shins instead. They settle into a comfortable silence.
Without him willing it, his thoughts gravitate back to the project he's been assigned to. He’s been a little jittery since he’d left Lilia’s office, and now, he finally recognizes the emotion for what it is. Excitement. He’s excited to get started. He genuinely can't wait for Monday, can’t wait to meet the prototype for real. Inexplicably, there's something like hope spreading inside his chest, even though he doesn’t know what he’s hopeful about or why.
“Hey Yuri,” he murmurs.
Yuri makes a grudging sound of acknowledgment. He's got a screen open and seems to be playing some kind of video game.
“Do you think AI can truly have feelings?”
“Not right now,” Yuri mutters, still half-occupied with his game, “You said yourself that the field hasn't reached that stage. But if someone were to create the right technology for it, it's definitely possible.”
“Right?” Viktor agrees, and laughs, “I’ve always dreamed of meeting a sentient AI.”
“One day,” Yuri says, and then curses as his avatar seemingly dies. A little tune plays, and the Game Over screen appears. Rolling his eyes, Yuri closes the app, and sits up.
“Do you want to see how the chatbots have developed?” Viktor asks.
“What happened to Shakespeare?” he asks, and Viktor laughs.
“His poetry hasn't improved.”
“I developed a prototype gaming bot to fill the other roles when I play team games, but the damn thing is dumber than a potato,” Yuri admits, and scowls, “I’m trying to program it to take some fucking initiative for once.”
“Language,” Viktor chides automatically, and then thinks about the coding mechanics of it for a few moments, before adding, “If you send me the code, I can help you think of a way. I already have a vague idea of how the program might look.”
Yuri shoots upright, scowl disappearing immediately. He jabs roughly at his watch as he scoots over to Viktor’s side, and a screen pops up with his program on it.
“So what I did,” he begins, with an excited grin, “was I started with a basic code often used to generate combative non-playing characters—”
Viktor leans in with an indulgent smile.
. . . . .
A morning in August. Dust motes, gilded in sunlight, float lazily to the ground as outside, mechanical birds chirp in gentle silence.
In the corner of the attic, a boy sniffles behind a chest of books.
Yakov sighs from the doorway.
“Vitya,” he coaxes, “Please. We need to go.”
“No! I don't want to go back there! I hate it! I want to stay here!”
“It’s only your first year. Give it another chance. I'm sure you’ll grow to like it.”
The boy breaks into heartrending sobs, and Yakov winces. He’s never been good at dealing with tears. Outside, his wife exhales, and shakes her head slightly.
“Let me deal with it,” she murmurs, and nods towards the stairs.
Sighing, Yakov ambles slowly down the stairs to wait in the car. Lilia takes a deep breath, and enters the attic. Their young godson continues to sniffle, hidden away in the corner as she approaches him. She’s holding his favorite stuffed toy, but to her surprise, he turns his face away when she offers it to him.
“Everyone says I'm too old for stuffed toys,” he says bitterly.
“Do you want to leave her here then?”
“No,” Viktor sobs, and then begins to cry again.
With another sigh, Lilia sits on the chest behind him, and gently threads her fingers through his long, silver hair.
“The other boys won't talk to me,” Viktor cries, “They think I talk funny and act funny. I don't want to go back. I don't have anyone to talk to.”
She offers the stuffed rhino to him again.
“You can talk to Makkachin,” she tries, but Viktor just shakes his head.
“It's not enough,” he sobs, “Makkachin can't talk back. Makkachin can't tell me what I'm doing wrong.”
“That’s not true!” a high pitched voice cries immediately, “I can talk back!”
Viktor straightens up, and then whips around, surprised.
This time, when Lilia offers him the stuffed toy, he takes it. His face is streaked with tears and snot, but he’s no longer frowning. His face is open with wonderment.
“Hello Viktor!” the voice issues from the toy, “I’m Makkachin! I love you!”
Viktor lets out a surprised squeal, and then begins to laugh. Lilia tenderly pushes his hair out of his messy face, smiling.
“I programmed a little AI friend for you. Now you’ll have someone to talk to when you need a friend.”
“Hello Viktor!” the toy squeaks, “I’ll be your friend!”
Viktor bursts out laughing again, delighted.
When Lilia pulls gently on his arm, he allows her to lead him out of the attic and down the stairs. His blue eyes do not leave the stuffed toy’s even once, little mouth open in a little ‘o’. Yakov shoots her a grateful look when Viktor gets into the car with no further complaint, with no more tears.
Lilia smiles bittersweetly as Viktor begins to chatter animatedly to Makkachin in the backseat.
Where AI were endlessly patient and inherently nonjudgmental, human children, she knew, could be unexpectedly cruel at times. Viktor had always had difficulty coming out of his shell, and had always preferred to tinker with gadgets instead of playing with other children. He was different. He’d always been different. Even the way he dressed, his long hair and long lashes— he was an exceptionally pretty boy, with an exceptionally gentle heart, and she'd long suspected that he might not fit in with his peers.
She sighs again, but as she watches him beam at every one of Makkachin’s adoring responses, as she watches him chatter away in the backseat the way he's never chattered with any human, she can't help but hope.
Perhaps all he really needed was to be accepted, blindly and without condition.
Perhaps all he really needed was to be loved.
The road to St. Peter's stretches long and winding, but with their little boy laughing in the backseat, they can only smile.