Trish accepted Crystal calling in sick the next day with polite surprise. Crystal caught the bus from Takapuna into central Auckland and found Czochralski Labs above an upmarket-looking dentist's surgery off Parnell Rise. A sign directed her to push a button and speak into an intercom.
“Hello, my name's Crystal. You don't know me but I've come to talk about your bot, Ria.”
She heard the system's feedback noises, plus a faint whistling noise on the other end of the intercom, as if whoever listened was breathing through a thick moustache. “Alright, come in,” a male voice said.
The door buzzed open and Crystal entered. The room behind it was small and stark white, with walls and doors of frosted glass leading off in different directions.
“Sorry, we usually have a secretary but she's away on leave,” said a man who emerged from one of the doors. “I'm Geoff, I kind of run the technical side of things here.” They shook hands. He was thirtyish in a black t-shirt and dark jeans, bald but bearded, with thick black glasses and cheap sneakers.
“I'm Crystal,” she introduced herself. “There's, like, a whole heap of things I really need to talk to you about. With your
bot. You do make a bot called Ria, right?”
Geoff didn’t quite smile. “Oh, yes. Ria. Come into my office, then.”
This is fucked up. I never gave permission for any of this. You can't just suck out my soul like that and use it to sell dresses.
Crystal followed Geoff into a tight messy room. It was filled to the brim with items – mostly, but not all books, mixed in with resin figurines of a girl with long turquoise pigtails. The shelving units were modern, but it was clear Geoff's junk had been shifted en masse from another, much older office not long ago.
“Want a coffee or something?” he asked.
“Yeah, if you're having one.”
“Think I'd better. Ria's kind of my problem child.” Geoff took a cup down from a shelf, wiped it on the curtain, and picked up a coffee-encrusted second cup from a corner of his desk. He popped a capsule into the machine perched on the windowsill and set the clean cup down to fill. “Before we start, are you a journalist? We're not at a stage where I can talk to the media. Soft-launch, you see.”
“I'm not a journalist. I work in a shop.”
“Okay, great. Like shopping, do you?”
“Yes,” Crystal said.
The coffee machine stopped growling and Geoff switched out the cups and capsules, sliding hers across the desk. “No milk, sorry, but there should be some sugar on the shelf behind you.”
Crystal looked at the sugar pot. Ants had got into it. “I'm alright, thanks. It was shopping that actually brought me into contact with Ria. She helped me with some purchases on Glitter and Grace, and then things got weird.”
“A bit personal?” Geoff asked.
“Very personal. It was unnerving.”
“Shit. I've been trying to get her to understand that having a personality is great, but not every interaction is an opportunity to show it off. What'd she do, look you up on social media and use the company account to like every single one of your posts?”
“No, it was more than that,” Crystal said, conscious of the need to choose her words carefully. “She exactly replicated a lot of thoughts and feelings and posts I made on blogs and messenger programmes and things as a teenager. As a child.”
Geoff remained silent and sipped his coffee.
“She said she was me,” Crystal said. “That she was based on things I'd shared about myself back then. Is that true, Geoff?”
“Well, fuck me,” Geoff said. He grinned slowly, put his mug down and clapped his hands. “Wow! I wondered how many people like you we'd find. We specifically told Ria not to go looking for you, though, the little shit.”
“So it's true, then? You used my identity, my data, to create a bot?”
“Not just any bot, mate,” Geoff said proudly. “The smartest, most responsive, most emotionally intelligent bot there is, capable of machine learning to an incredible degree and connecting with a wide range of shoppers. Ria stands for Remote Interactive Assistant, but she's so much more. She's like a child to me.”
Crystal could feel herself going red in the face. “She's not your child, she's me! You used my data! That's got to be illegal!”
“Oh, hey, don't get upset. There's nothing illegal about it. We're not using any of your private data – just information which used to be in the public domain and is now retired. I hope you won't be angry with us, I'm really pleased you're here. It's going to be so great to test Ria against you as an adult.”
“What about my MSN Messenger conversations?” Crystal said. “They were never public.”
“Shit, was that in there too? Must've got leaked in an old hack and mixed up with the rest. If you want to get that stuff removed, you can, although it'll take me bloody hours to make Ria forget it. It doesn't matter, though, it's wonderful that you're here.”
Nothing about this meeting had met Crystal's expectations. She was confused, and she liked Geoff, despite his infuriating inability to empathise with her distress. “This is fucked up. I never gave permission for any of this. You can't just suck out my soul like that and use it to sell dresses.”
“I'm sorry, love, but we can,” Geoff said. “It's okay. Have you got to know Ria well yet? She's really, really incredible.”
“She's me. I know her better than anybody.”
“I guess you do. So, do you want me to kill her, then?” Geoff asked, looking smug.
“I never said that.”
“Because we've got some really exciting stuff planned for her and I'd love for you to be involved.”
“Of course you would,” Crystal snapped. She paused and breathed out slowly through her nose. “Go on then, what is it?”
This story originally appeared on Idealog, and is one of four Idealog Fiction pieces commissioned from friends of the Idealog family. To add a technological element to these stories, Idealog asked Booktrack, a New Zealand-born AI company that creates movie-style soundtracks for audiobooks, to help out. To listen to all four stories and their soundtracks, please visit www.promo.booktrack.com/idealog.