Episode 6: Tian (Part 3)


September 27, Midday


As the CID autocar cruised to a stop, Jeb stared through ornate iron gates at the palatial estate of Doctor Huan Xu, Ph.D: one of the richest and most well connected women in the state of California. Her algorithms might be looping in the PBAs of his simjunkies.

“Remember,” Sarisa said, as they waited for Xu’s estate VI to vet and admit them. “Doctor Xu agreed to answer our questions about joyrides as a personal favor to me. Treat her like a criminal, and she’ll never speak to me again.”

“I’ll remain a perfect gentleman,” Jeb said, as the gates swung open. “But if you’re so friendly with Xu, why do you think she’s distributing Tian?” Thanks to Cowan, he now knew that was the algorithmic orgasm looping in Pavel Marco and Gavin Sykes’s PBAs.

“It’s the scripting similarities,” Sarisa said, as the autocar cruised down a long driveway bordered by cloned pine trees. “We’ve reverse engineered a few of the joyrides with the highest recidivism rates, like Tian, and compared them to algorithmic scripting samples in the public domain.”

“And Xu’s work is a match?”

“Not close enough to get us a warrant.” A tall white mansion came into view, probably ten bedrooms and who knew how many baths. “With her own scripting examples cited so often in academic journals, and those journals in the public domain, anyone could use her patterns as a template.”

“So by making samples of her work public, she inoculates herself against similarity arguments in court.” Jeb smiled. “And that’s the difference between your average simlord and one with a Ph.D.” Assuming Xu was the mastermind behind Tian, of course. Jeb couldn’t be sure until he interviewed her.

The sprawling lawn was all TruGrass, living on almost no water and 500 US per square meter. Doctor Xu wanted you to know she was filthy rich. Could Jeb use her ego?

A synthetic butler greeted them when they stepped out of the autocar, covered in synthflesh and wearing a dark gray suit. Its incredibly detailed face sprinted right into the uncanny valley, with a full mouth containing replica teeth and an actual tongue. From anything other than right up close, it would be easy to mistake it for a person.

“Welcome, Detective Forrester, and Counselor Bassa,” the butler said. “Madam has requested you await her in the study. She must conclude a business call.” It paused and smiled, stretching its pink wet lips just a bit too far. “I’ve brewed tea.”

“We’d be happy to wait,” Jeb said, because he suspected Xu watched them through the synthetic’s eyes. Best to get the supplication started early. Would she buy it?

They followed the butler inside. Doctor Huan Xu was a respected authority on joyrides, having written a number of best-selling e-books on the subject. Those books led to a lecture circuit including heads of state, heads of corporations, and universities across the globe, and giving all of those lectures had made Xu very rich.

Her works included the most popular self-help manual for those already addicted, Ten Steps to Freeing Yourself from the Sim, a history on groundbreaking addictive algorithms, and several influential treatises on the difficulties designers encountered when creating pleasureboxes. Straddling the line between fun and addictive was a challenge, one that dated all the way back to the online games of the Internet Age. As a frequent guest on San Diego University’s lecturing circuit, Xu’s presentations on the subject were packed every time. People the world over followed her.

There was no financial reason for Xu to script joyrides, so if she did it, why do it? Was she proving her mastery of the subject? What would drive a successful author and respected academic to compete for simjunkies?

Xu’s “study” was as big as the master bedroom in Jeb and David’s stackhome. Wooden shelves holding ancient and expensive hardcover books covered one wall, and a thick crimson rug covered the hardwood floor. Two brown leather couches sprawled across that. Windows looked over the brilliant green lawn, and natural light flooded the room.

An oil painting of two blond-haired women and a baby hung beside the windows, likely an original. An augmented reality tag generated by Jeb’s headdesk tagged it as Sacred and Profane Love, by Titian. A personal statement, or an impulse buy?

“Let’s sit,” Jeb said. “Might as well be comfortable while we wait.” Xu’s butler was certainly eavesdropping, and sitting wasn’t interesting to anyone.

Sarisa settled herself on one couch while Jeb took the other, facing the synthetic. The butler lacked weapons, but Jeb didn’t trust anything online at the moment. Not even butlers. Especially not butlers. Two steaming china cups sat on the table between them.

 “Does she always make you wait?” Jeb asked Sarisa over the wireless. He picked up the cup and experimentally sipped the tea. It was shockingly good.

“Every time,” Sarisa said. “So we remember these meetings happen only with her consent.” She left her tea alone.

Jeb took another sip. “Are you talking as a person being trolled, or in your professional capacity as an OMH counselor?”

“Just offering my experience. Not all of us can work off gut feelings.”

Jeb’s almost spit his next sip down his front, and smiled before he could stop himself. This was why he didn’t spar with psychiatrists.

“Thank you for waiting.” The butler’s too wet pupils focused. “Madam is on her way.”

Heels clicked on hardwood. Jeb regretfully set down his half-empty tea cup and stood as Sarisa did the same. A lanky Chinese woman with straight black hair, a pointed chin, and piercing black eyes strode into the study.

Doctor Huan Xu was easily Jeb’s height even without her heels, which meant she was taller than him at the moment. She wore a blazer and a pencil skirt to her knees, red and white. Good fortune and death.

“Sarisa!” A smile split Xu’s face. “How wonderful to see you again, my dear.” She clasped Sarisa’s hands and kissed her briefly on both cheeks. Though Xu’s profile tagged her as Chinese, that greeting might as well be an Italian woman on a public street.

Xu stepped back and eyed Jeb. “And you would be Detective Forrester, of the Cybercrimes Investigation Division.”

Jeb bowed his head. “Ma’am.”

“I’m honestly surprised that your agency has never asked me to consult. I understand we’ve had quite the uptick in cybercrime. Should I be worried?”

“That’s why I’m come to talk to you.” Jeb would start with flattery and see where that took them. “I believe your expertise could be valuable regarding a recent case.”

“Wonderful.” Doctor Xu patted Sarisa’s hand. “Please sit, dear.”

“Thank you.” Sarisa settled again.

“Detective?” Xu watched him expectantly.

Jeb sat, and wasn’t surprised to see Xu remain standing. She was putting her above them both, figuratively and literally. If she enjoyed obedience, and she had scripted Tian, perhaps her distribution was a way to control many people at once.

Xu walked to the large windows overlooking her lawn and stared out over it. She clasped her hands at the small of her back. “So, detective.” She spoke without looking at them. “In your opinion, how should we handle addictive algorithms? Regulate, or forbid?”

“I think we shouldn’t script them, ma’am.” Jeb would present himself as inflexible and see how she reacted. “We should forbid joyrides to ensure people don’t get addicted.” He activated his facial analyzer, and an augmented reality panel appeared beside Xu’s head.

“And has limiting access to consumables people crave worked for governments in the past?” Xu asked, still facing away from him.

She had him there. “I think we can simply provide experiences that are pleasurable, not addictive.”

“And how does one define addictive?” He couldn’t get a good read on her while she was facing away from him. “What is and is not addictive is considerably subjective, after all.”

Xu was delving deep into Simulation Law, the field of legal thought governing what was and was not legal in pleasureboxes. “If a plurality of authorities on the subject agree an experience is overly addictive, then we you have your answer, don’t you?”

At last Xu turned on him, a small smile creasing her face. “Yet couldn’t it be termed reckless to allow those with no experience in a subject to judge its addictiveness?”

Jeb considered where she might be going. “You think the only people qualified to judge the addictiveness of joyrides are those who’ve experienced one themselves?”

“I’m simply asking the question, detective.” Xu’s vitals remained unchanged, almost unnaturally consistent. “Have you ever experienced a joyride?”

“No,” he said, and he saw the trap before he walked into it. Was she trying to steer him into asking if she had? No. Xu wanted to see how far he’d go not to accuse her of anything. She knew he couldn’t touch her, so should he roll over or double down?

“And if you have, ma’am, that’s none of my business.” Sidestepping was his best option. “I’m here to learn more about a very popular joyride, more addicting than any that’s come before.” Playing to her ego again. “Have you heard of an algorithm called Tian?”

Xu’s smile grew. “The rough Chinese translation is ‘Heaven’. I am familiar.” True (97%)

Finally, a statement his analyzer could interpret. “Do you know of any methods to force someone running it to disconnect?”

“Most who joyride set an automatic disengage timer on their PBA. When that timer expires, their PBA automatically terminates the joyride.” True (98%)

“What if someone fails to set a timer, or sets their timer for too long?”

“You’re referring to suicide by simulation?”

“Not intentionally, ma’am. But perhaps an accidental overdose.”

Xu shrugged. “Eventually, those locked in addictive simulations are overwhelmed by their body’s natural needs. Agony surpasses pleasure, and they disconnect.” True (97%)

“Would it be possible to override even that survival instinct?”

“Theoretically.” Xu’s vitals remained as flat as if she were asleep, which suggested emotional firewalling. “If the pleasure were intense enough, one might remain looped until death. Yet none I know have ever successfully scripted such a joyride.” True (99%)

By CID standards, those answers exonerated Xu from any involvement in Tian, but Jeb’s gut disagreed with his analyzer. If Xu was running emotional firewalls, why do that for a cursory interview? An abundance of caution was one answer, but not one he liked.

“So other than starving them,” Jeb asked, even though he knew she had him beat, “the only way to get them out is by shutting down their PBA and reinstalling its firmware?”

“I’m afraid so, detective.” True (99%)

Jeb shut down his analyzer. He wasn’t going to find a way to stop Tian here. People were going to continue to down it, continue to get stuck and, eventually, continue to die.

He had once read that some of the best academics in the world were high-functioning sociopaths, and sociopaths were notoriously difficult to read. He wanted to say Xu was involved, but investigation wasn’t about what he wanted. He needed evidence, and he had absolutely none of that. Unless…

“Say someone did manage to create an algorithm like we’ve discussed,” Jeb said, “an algorithm that was so pleasurable that anyone running it would die rather than terminate that experience. Would that make the scripter a mass murderer?”

“That’s a question for our philosophy departments, detective.” Xu turned back to her lawn. “Were those who produced alcohol or weaponry in the Internet Age responsible when people misused their products? Or does the responsibility lie with those who caused harm to themselves and others? Is a creator responsible for user mistakes?”

Xu was asking a question, not stating her opinion, which left him, again, with no reading. Despite his frustration, Jeb respected her discipline. Unfortunately, this left him with no more than he’d had earlier today, but he had one last card to play.

“Thank you for your time, ma’am.” Jeb rose and offered his hand, rather than bowing. “We’re actually making progress on Tian. We flipped a high-level distributor recently, and working up the chain should lead us to Tian’s scripter soon.”

Xu cocked an eyebrow at him. “Is this a subject on which you require my expertise?”

“Well, no.” Jeb made himself look befuddled. “But once the distributor tells us who scripted it, I’ll notify you. If it is as impressive an algorithm as you suspect, perhaps you’d enjoy taking it apart. Doesn’t an artist appreciate art?”

She shook her head. “I have no interest in the dalliances of criminal minds.”

“Of course. And again, I appreciate your time.” Jeb emphasized his next words. “I hope I see you again soon.”

“Well, that wasn’t subtle at all.” Sarisa stood and bowed deep. “Thank you again.”

Xu ignored Jeb’s extended hand and offered Sarisa a shallow bow. “I do wish we’d had more time to talk, my dear. I miss our tete-a-tetes. Perhaps next week?”

“Any time I’m free from duty.” Sarisa straightened. “We’ve been busy.”

Xu waved her hand. “Show my guests to the door, Booi.”

“At once, madam.” Booi the butler synthetic approached. “Please follow me.”

As Jeb walked out, he saw Xu staring at her lawn. If Xu was the scripter behind Tian, Jeb had just revealed that one of her distributors planned to sell her out. No matter how calm or smart she was, that might make her paranoid enough to do something stupid.

And if she wasn’t Tian’s scripter, at least her butler made good tea.

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