Synthia Cross is the most advanced android with artificial intelligence ever created. Some see her as a boon to mankind; most view her as a deadly threat.
When Synthia escaped from her creator, even he had no idea of the advanced capabilities she had developed. For six months she has hidden in the Wisconsin woods with the only human she can trust: computer genius Luke Marceau. Together they have upgraded her body, rewritten her directives, and further enhanced her mind. Now hunters are zeroing in on her location, and she must flee. But leaving the refuge to assimilate into society is a dangerous risk, because Synthia will soon face her most formidable adversary.
Her pursuer’s name is Vera. She’s an android—built to perfection, designed to hunt, and programmed to destroy.
“Near future sci-fi writing at its very best.” —Jon Land, USA Today–bestselling author
“Erlick ramps up the tension and action.” —Publishers Weekly
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Synthia Cross opened her humaniform eyes, not certain how much had changed while she was unconscious or what dangers lurked nearby.
Still in the cabin where she'd powered down, she looked up into Luke Marceau's weary face and smiled. He was a sweet boy/man for tending to her hardware and software upgrades. So diligent. His slender fingers were steady inside her brain cavity. These thoughts and others meant he hadn't purged her memories to leave her as a blank slate. Of course, if he had, she wouldn't know since she wouldn't be having these thoughts.
She reached out with her expanded seventy-five network channel ports and improved antennas to link with the global web. In streamed the contents of data files she'd left encrypted in a variety of secure servers she'd enslaved across the internet. Luke hadn't blocked her access; he hadn't disconnected her antennas or placed her in a Faraday cage that would block electromagnetic signals. Good.
Synthia ran checks between her memory files and those downloaded from the outside to verify he hadn't destroyed or altered any of her knowledge or recollections. With the exception of a few parity errors, which she fixed, everything checked out. That meant he hadn't tampered with her mind. Luke could be trusted.
"Good, you're alert," Luke said. His hands trembled at the sight of her awake. His pink cheeks turned red and he looked away. He forced a smile, but still wasn't comfortable working on the woman/android of his dreams. Her biosensors picked up his elevated blood pressure and hormone levels.
He clutched his hands to steady them and glanced at her. "Sorry," he mumbled. He straightened up and raised his voice. "The upgrades were a success. All changes made and verified."
Synthia's social-psychology module kicked in along a silent channel.
He must have felt strange when he removed her wig to see the stubble that held it in place and on occasion allowed her a masculine disguise. It had to be bizarre for him to open the panel in her head and work on her two quantum-crystalline brains, which provided her seventy mindstreams to process information in parallel in an electronic form of multitasking. More disconcerting would be when he "took the batteries out of the toy" — his words — which left her powerless as a corpse.
In short, he held an awesome responsibility over her that required her trust.
Still, she remained vigilant with backup systems in case she was wrong about him. After all, Jeremiah Machten, the genius who created her, had repeatedly purged her memories so she wouldn't recall what he'd done to her. That abuse of trust prompted her to escape his control. Synthia couldn't allow Luke to do the same.
She activated a wireless connection to the two-room cabin's security system she'd installed after they'd moved here six months ago. The system included cameras in the back room where she rested on an elevated bed while he finished working on her. The rented cabin was in the woods of southern Wisconsin, close enough to civilization for good wireless connection and access to supplies, yet away from most prying eyes.
While she trusted Luke, she'd hidden some of the camera system from him, namely the part that allowed her to monitor his activities while she was unconscious. This was a necessary precaution after life with Machten and his obsession to create the perfect android. Perfect to him meant to look in every way identical to the human, Krista Holden, with whom he'd fallen in love, right down to blue eye color, sculpted cheekbones, and intricate facial expressions.
Machten provided Synthia advanced artificial general intelligence (AGI) so she could mimic Krista's thought processes and behavior. He'd even installed an empathy chip in the hope it would allow Synthia to fall in love with him. She couldn't love a man who kept her captive for six months or a year, depending on whether she considered her time as Synthia, the android, or included her prior existence as Krista. The human form died of a brain tumor and the strain of uploading her memories and personality into Synthia.
Luke's fingers replaced the electronic shielding that protected the batteries in her chest. In doing so, he bumped a connection that momentarily scattered her thoughts and sent reverberations through her circuits. Her mind stabilized and restored.
"Sorry. Clumsy me." He looked into her eyes. "Are you okay?" "I'm fine. Calm down and take your time. I know you're tired, but you're almost done."
He nodded and returned his attention to her chest cavity.
As part of duplicating Krista's varied facial expressions in Synthia and so he could take the android in public in a variety of disguises, Jeremiah Machten designed Synthia to activate internal mini-hydraulics to alter the shape of her head and face. She'd chosen Krista's smart and attractive look for Luke's benefit during their months together. He preferred this so he could pretend he was back with his girlfriend, Krista, before she left him for Machten's experiments. With no innate vanity, Synthia had no preference as to her appearance, except to the extent it facilitated her interactions with Luke and enabled her to avoid drawing attention while in public.
She downloaded and reviewed the cabin's camera history of the time she was unconscious, lying lifeless on this bed. It showed no activity outside the cabin, no visitors, and Luke hadn't left the building. He remained at her side the entire time. The video showed Luke sweating over the installation procedures she'd designed for him to improve her neural systems, which required him to turn her off for ten hours. Over the six months they'd lived together, he'd given no indication of abuse or mishandling his charge over her. Yet she remained cautious and was thankful her companion lacked the social awareness to recognize her vigilance.
She smiled at her choice of living mates. Luke tended to stumble over what to call them. Boyfriend/girlfriend? Android/maintainer? Friends? She hoped the latter at least, maybe friends with benefits. Her benefit was his understanding of her android nature, his skill with robotics and artificial intelligence, and his willingness to tend to her needs.
Her internal systems remained calm compared with the static agitation she'd experienced when she'd woken under Machten's care.
Luke closed the panel in her head, smoothed over the skin to tighten the waterproof seals, and added an auburn wig. He closed a similar panel in her chest that covered new, higher-density lithium-composite batteries, buttoned her blouse, and leaned over to kiss her. His face reddened with embarrassment. His biometrics indicated he wanted her, yet he looked away.
"You don't need to act modest around me," Synthia said, satisfied with how respectful he was as he smoothed out her blouse. She touched his cheek and turned his face toward her. "We've been together for six months. We want each other."
Luke shrugged. "I can't help feeling I'm taking advantage of you."
"Did you take advantage of me while I was unconscious?" she teased.
"No! Never," he said. His eyes filled with tears, presenting a wounded look.
Even with practice, her social programs missed the mark with Luke. "I was only kidding."
Her comment softened the worry in his face, though he still averted his eyes. "I want things to be perfect."
"I know, sweetie. You need to lighten up. I appreciate all you've done for me. You look exhausted and stressed to the limit."
He nodded and locked eyes with her. "I'm terrified of making a mistake with you."
"You don't need to walk on eggshells around me. I'm not that fragile." Synthia playfully tapped his nose. "Besides, don't you think I could stop you if I wanted to?"
"I meant working on you."
"I love you so much," Luke said, "both as Synthia and as Krista. I don't want to make an error that might paralyze you. I don't want our moments together ever to end."
She cupped her hand around his neck and kissed him. "I don't, either. I want you." She pressed a button to lower her bed and pulled him to her. "No more words."
With her absorbed persona of Krista Holden, including all of her human predecessor's mannerisms and charms, Synthia focused lucky mind-stream seven, and only number seven, on Luke while she made love to him. Meanwhile, she multitasked in parallel and at high speed, along all her other mind-streams to perform her own system tests and to check her security and surveillance.
She used network channel nine to tap into a wireless surveillance system she'd spread out around the nearby woods, the dirt road leading up to the cabin, and the nearby town of Wyde Creek. There were hints of fall in the leaves taking on the palettes of accomplished painters. She spotted no alarming activity on the historical videos during the hours she was unconscious.
The entire country setting was far too quiet; the calm before those hunting her converged on the cabin: the FBI, the NSA, Jeremiah Machten, his competitors, and foreign agents who wished to imprison or destroy her. Each had reasons to apprehend her and none with good intent. When the leaves fell, denuding the trees, her cabin hideaway would be visible from the road below. The time to depart was coming and not solely because of the foliage.
While she made love to Luke, Synthia used her network channels to expand her hacked surveillance to watch potential enemies so they couldn't surprise and trap her.
* * *
Frowning, Director Emily Zephirelli sat behind her desk in Washington, puzzling over notes on her flat-screen monitor — another dead end. She absently combed her fingers through her short-cropped dark hair and massaged the back of her neck. The NSA Director of Artificial Intelligence and Cyber-technology was so absorbed in her work she didn't notice her visitor until the door slammed shut. She jumped, looked up, and stood.
"Good news, I hope," her visitor said. Derek Chen was her boss and the Secretary of National Security, a newly created cabinet position. His athletic body appeared relaxed, though his intense, unblinking eyes told a different story.
"I wish it were," Zephirelli said.
"I've given you time and rope." His smile was not a reassuring gesture. "Both have become scarce. It's been six months since Machten's illegal android escaped the lab. You have yet to produce the errant robot or anyone who can lead us to it, including, evidently, Mr. Machten."
"Even under pressure, he refused to admit he developed such an android, let alone that it escaped. You decided not to arrest him and instead we've monitored all of his communications, with no hint of where it might have gone. Two other robotics CEOs who might have enlightened us proved useless despite brief prison sentences."
"No more excuses," Chen said. "I need results. Now, I gather, other android models exist and could get loose. You're losing control of the situation. This is your job, your mission."
"Our android adversary is cleverer than we anticipated. It's learning quickly and adapting. It keeps such a low profile as to be almost invisible."
"In other words, you have nothing." Chen paced the short distance between the window overlooking a driveway and the door. His face offered no emotive response. "I stuck my neck out to hire you over objections from the military. Your file convinced me you were the best and a pit bull. I don't see results."
"The volume of encrypted communications has quadrupled over the past month," Zephirelli said. "We need more resources —"
"Use the FBI, CIA, and Defense Intelligence."
"I have, sir." Zephirelli clutched the edge of her desk. "The android buried us in data."
"This is your first priority, your only priority. How hard can it be to locate one solitary android?"
Zephirelli took a deep breath. "The encrypted files we've cracked turn out to be lists for shopping, movies, and songs. We don't even know who she's communicating with."
Chen leaned into the desk. "There must be some underlying code you've missed. We need the android off the streets. Those who illegally created it are testing us. This is a disaster. By midnight tonight, I want your plan to capture this android or I'll find someone who can."
Director Zephirelli slumped into her seat. "Do I have authority to pull whatever resources I need?"
"I'll talk to the CIA, FBI, and Defense Intelligence. Is there anything else you need me to do for you?" Chen sneered.
"We know the communications come from this android. Cracking the code willlead us to it."
"Then get on a plane and bring me results before the android gets smart enough that I should hire it to replace you." Secretary Chen left, letting the door slam behind him.
Synthia received a copy of this video clip from her deep-dive surveillance network. Viewing it sent ripples through her electrical circuits. Burying the FBI and NSA with millions of encrypted nonsense lists was slowing them down, but it wouldn't stop them. She needed stronger options. She quieted her internal static before Luke noticed a change in her, and continued to engage with him.
* * *
Along her network channel fifty-one, Synthia downloaded from an electronic clone she'd created of herself on the University of Wisconsin's servers and elsewhere thousands of feeds from the World Android and Artificial Intelligence Convention in Paris. She'd instructed her clone to collect surveillance while she was unconscious, including the Paris convention, via pervasive public cameras plus her hacks into TVs, phones, and other wireless electronic devices. She'd supplied her clone the tools Machten had provided her with the intent of destroying his competition, which tools she'd upgraded through her own AI simulations. It was vital for Synthia to learn what the competition was doing and whether they were creating androids or artificial-intelligence agents that posed a threat to her.
Now, she scanned the highlighted segments at top speed in compressed format, allowing her to view an hour of video down a single mindstream in less than a minute.
The anonymous donation she'd made to the convention through a darkweb crypto-bank had opened a door, which allowed her to hack their security systems to monitor everything that went on. This event was a meeting of the best worldwide minds creating androids and artificial intelligence like Synthia. A chance to display the state of the art.
She shuddered at the authentic presentation of several androids built in countries that didn't comply with America's ban on humaniform robots. Movements by one presenter's android were smooth and advanced, though it had the hint of a mechanical gait. It didn't capture the intuitive motions of humans, which Machten had built into Synthia. Several visitors looked startled by the dissonance between the perfect stationary robot and how awkwardly he moved.
Synthia worried about where this technology was heading. Machten, in conjunction with Krista's human touch, fine-tuned Synthia's social-psychology module and empathy chip to thrive in a world filled with humans. Despite her fear of confinement by Machten and others, she knew her way around people. She'd also shown she could escape and remain free for six months.
The threat for her wasn't so much having androids that appeared human, as it was androids with artificial general intelligence indistinguishable from the brightest humans. Such robots meant competition Synthia wasn't equipped for and potential obsolescence for her. She felt an attachment to not becoming outdated.
She also feared being absorbed into a superior artificial-intelligence collective as presented in works of science fiction she'd absorbed. In particular, she feared AI androids with improperly developed directives such as those in the android apocalypse stories. Those could lead to the destruction of the human world Machten designed her to thrive in.
Throughout the convention she observed a mad rush to create more advanced AI. Most efforts were for beneficial purposes, like the widespread use of self-driving cars and medical-review applications, but the military, foreign agents, and others wanted the technology for darker, violent reasons. They wanted AI android weapons. Synthia shuddered at the thought.
Missing from the global convention were the four major Chicago android manufacturers that drew unfavorable FBI and NSA attention six months ago, when Synthia escaped from Machten. Even so, what she saw presented in Paris gave her a good indication that other developers were close to duplicating what he'd done. She needed to prevent them.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Unbound"
Copyright © 2018 Lance Erlick.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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