Feng Mian surveyed the alleyway beneath her, scarce believing that the location of her mission was hidden away in such an unremarkable corner of Hong Kong. The metal fire escape that she was crouched upon was dripping cold rainwater like a waterfall, drenching her almost as thoroughly as the incessant rain that glowed neon in the halo of the signs suspended from the walls.
Checking the straps on her backpack for the umpteenth time, for its cargo was very precious, she moved across to the ladder that led down to the street and, placing her boots on the outside of the rungs, slid down in one agile movement and scurried into the shadow of a rank, overflowing dumpster to better reconnoitre her surroundings. According the encrypted email she had received from her unknown employer, the ArcTec corporation was running some kind of top secret tech workshop in a basement of one of the buildings that backed onto this alley, though the door was cleverly hidden to the naked eye. Hoping that ArcTec had spared no expense, as per usual, and installed an electrical security system, she opened her backpack and reached inside, past the very expensive item that her employer had sent her and grabbed her multi-view goggles. Placing them over her black beanie hat and into position across her hazel eyes, she activated the wire trace overlay.
The wet, dirty and poster covered wall of the alleyway was instantly covered in a criss-cross of glowing yellow lines, mostly from the many neon signs and air conditioning stacks that surrounded Feng Mian’s hiding place. Looking past this mighty tangle of highlighted cables, she began to scan the alleyway for the telltale signs of a hidden, powered door. Thankfully her instincts turned out to be correct, as the goggles highlighted a cluster of thicker cables, hidden inside the wall cavity no doubt, that led to lines of cables in the shape of a door frame. The wires around the hidden door no doubt contained sensors that would trigger whenever it was opened, sending a warning to some off site security station. Feng Mian had tangled with ArcTec’s goons before, a year before in Shanghai, and had barely escaped with her life. She was no fighter and guns terrified her.
Thankfully the sensors wouldn’t be an issue, mainly due to an invention of her own creation that she had dubbed the Doorbell. It was nothing special visually, an old smartphone running a home-brew operating system and equipped with extra batteries (for smartphone batteries were far too weak for her line of work) and an array of tiny, highly specialised aerials. Taking it out of a pouch in the strap of her backpack, she booted it up and carefully scanned the area around the door for any hidden cameras, still using her goggles. She was glad that she did, for there was indeed a small CCTV camera cleverly hidden some way above the door, behind a neon sign. She wasn’t too worried about the camera picking up her arrival into the alleyway, it was angled straight at the door instead of the alley at large, no doubt to stop any motion detection software flagging up every rat, hobo and passer by as a potential threat.
The Doorbell booted almost instantly, allowing Feng Mian to go straight to work. Pointing the device up toward the camera, she opened an app called ‘Blinder’, it’s icon a camera with a cross through it. It didn’t take long for the app to pick up the camera’s signal (the ever pretentious ArcTec security had named it Big Brother) and it took even less time to render it useless, trapping it in an almost undetectable loop of 30 second footage and disabling the motion detector software. Pleased with the performance of the Doorbell, Feng Mian put it away and lifted her goggles to her forehead, giving the alleyway one last scan for any undercover security guards. A couple of minutes passed with no suspicious activity and Feng Mian finally left her foetid hiding place, moving swiftly over to the site of the hidden door. Supposing that it must have a hidden key card reader of similar device built into the brickwork next to it, she once again pulled the goggles over her eyes, instantly locating said device to the left of the portal, at about eye height for an average sized man, or just above the head of a petite, sneaky Chinese girl with a penchant for breaking and entry.
Once again the Doorbell was produced, this time running an app called ‘Knock Knock’, and the device was placed against the key card reader. With a screen tap from it’s owner, the device began to cycle through millions of lines of code at a breakneck pace, quickly hunting down the correct combination of zeroes and ones that the reader would recognise. After only four seconds a cheerful picture of an anime kitten popped up on the screen, party streamers falling all around it, and the hidden door cycled silently open on oiled hinges. It was a thick one too, made of grey steel and looking like something from a bank heist movie. Feng Mian suspected that the wall on the other side of this brickwork was just as steel and just as thick, stopping anyone from blasting their way in with explosives, she supposed. Not that she dealt with explosives herself anyway, they were loud, primitive and often ended in disaster or deaths.
Goggles back on her forehead, the invader wasted no time in slipping through the doorway into what seemed to be a reception area, the steel door sliding closed behind her and plunging the room into darkness. This was fine with Feng Mian, however, she merely lowered her goggles and switched the mode from wire detector to night vision. The goggles were of her own creation, cobbled together out of various parts she had acquired during jobs and items ordered from the net and delivered to one of her many drop boxes, all under different aliases in case the police or some other malignant force were ever looking for her. Her home was equally hard to find, an apartment in a half derelict block that was itself officially abandoned. The block belonged to a local crime syndicate and, in exchange for maintaining their firewalls and VPNs, they kept her presence a secret and had vowed to protect her should any trouble arise. If ever they betrayed her she would simply activate the ‘Insurance’ app on the Doorbell, releasing gigabytes of incriminating evidence to the police and press, as well as the locations of all of their leaders. Feng Mien didn’t do violence, but blackmail wasn’t beneath her.
As the green filter of the night vision sprung into life, the invader took stock of her surroundings. The reception room was pretty basic, with a battered couch against one wall, a desk with a large monitor atop it opposite and a side table which held a tea urn and a stack of mugs, as well pots containing sugar and coffee sachets. If the wall was indeed steel it had been hidden behind a white (or so she assumed, it all looked green to her) plaster, making the room look minimal and modern or, as Feng Mien called it, soulless. Wishing that her contact had issued her with a map of this place, she started down the only corridor available. The contact had told her to find this facility’s server room, plant the package and leave. The mission would only be counted a failure if the device failed to activate or she was captured, by ArcTec or the HKPD. The police commissioner, she had been told, was in ArcTec’s pocket so being caught by one was as bad as the other.
Feng Mien had mastering her line of work for seven years, since she was forced to take her first mission at twelve years old in exchange for her life. Despite the coercive nature of that job, she had actually enjoyed it, giving a street kid an opportunity at doing something more exciting and meaningful than slaving at a sewing machine in a sweatshop or demeaning herself walking the streets. At nineteen, she was one of the best burglars and hackers in China, maybe the whole of Asia and her services were in demand from all over the criminal underworld, corporations and, occasionally, even offices of goverrnment. She wasn’t which her current employer was, as she never met them in person, but she suspected that they were high level corporate or government, they had that humourless, no nonsense nature about them.
The corridor had several rooms adjoining to them, each of them unlocked and each of them containing little of interest. One room, a large office containing several office booths, had a large ArcTec poster on one wall, it’s slogan written in English and reading ‘The Future of Robotics”. Apart from this, the building was amazingly spartan, even sterile, as if the multi billion dollar corporation wanted to keep the site as low key as possible. Then again, she reminded herself, it was built like a vault and had a literal secret door, of course it was low key.
Toward the end of the corridor, several minutes after her infiltration, a sudden noise from up ahead stopped her dead in her tracks. Voices. She may have been imagining it, she supposed, but treating these things as imaginary often got folk in her line of work killed or worse. Taking no chances, she went to ground in one of the offices she had just passed, curling up under a desk which ad a view toward the door. A few seconds later somebody flipped a light switch in the corridor, overloading the night vision goggles and spearing Feng Mien’s retinas with intense white light. Cursing under her breath, she pulled the goggles back up onto her forehead, relying on the corridor’s LED bulbs instead. Two men walked into view, both heading into the room she was currently hiding in, much to her growing sense of anxiety. One man, by far the older of the two, was dressed in a worn looking wool cardigan, shirt and corduroy trousers, his grey hair impeccably combed and his beard well trimmed. The other man was younger, maybe in his thirties, and wore a sharp suit and earpiece. He also clearly wore a shoulder holster as made apparent by the bulging of his suit jacket under one armpit. The contact had been adamant that this place would be empty, she would definitely push for extra payment when she safely back in her apartment. If she even made it that far.
“Thank you for keeping me company tonight, Mr. Barnes, I know that you sacrificed a meal with your family for this,”the older man said, placing a hand on his accomplice’s shoulder. The armed man gently shook the hand off.
“Not to worry Nigel, I know how important your work is. Besides, it meant that I could catch up on some TV,”
The older man, evidently called Nigel, barked a laugh in response, “I did notice! I love Detective & Dog, I think I may have to start watching the new series when I’m home, so no spoilers,”
“Not from me, doc, people who spoil TV series and movies deserve to be shot!” the armed man replied, his mock anger somehow irritating to Feng Mien despite the tension of her current situation. She was almost worried that they would hear her heartbeat as they walked over to the very desk she was lying under and one of them switched on the computer, the tower’s whirring vibrating through the cheap chipboard of the desk itself. The older man wore rather battered old Oxfords, whilst his younger accomplice, a security guard she guessed, was rocking a very shiny pair of similar shoes.
“Once I’ve sent the day’s findings to Europe we’re good to go. You’ll be home in time to tuck your children into bed Thomas,” she heard Nigel say gently, his voice almost drowned out by the rhythmic thumping of his fingers on the keyboard.
The inane conversation and typing went on for a while longer but, thankfully, both Nigel and Thomas eventually wrapped up, turning off the PC, closing the office door behind them and switching out the light. Feng Mian gave it ten minutes, counting down the seconds on her cheap LED watch, before emerging from her hiding place and shaking the cramping feeling out of her joints. Annoyed at such a glaring oversight from her employer, she crept back out into the corridor and moved toward the door that the two ArcTec employees had first emerged from. This door was a stainless steel construction, locked with another key card system. A quick scan with the goggles’ wire detector mode also flagged up another camera, this one on the other side of the door, in the room itself and set above the mantle so as to be hidden from view until it was too late for any average invader.
But Feng Mian was no average invader and, with a little help from the Doorbell, she quickly rendered the camera useless, even through the wall, and duped the key card reader, causing the magnetic lock to disengage with a thud. Checking the corridor for any activity one final time, she slipped through the newly opened door and entered the room beyond. Much to her shock, there was somebody sat on a workbench in the centre of the room, staring right at her. She was about to turn tail and run for the exit when the penny dropped, it was just a life-size doll, seemingly of a young girl. It was incredibly lifelike and was wearing a simple white dress so it had been realistic enough to fool her. Feeling silly, she ignored the unusual ornament and assessed the rest of the room.
Servers, lots and lots of them, probably thousands of dollars worth she reckoned. Whilst she was very much a fan of computers and made as much money bypassing other people’s firewalls as she did sneaking around, Feng Mian did enjoy destroying other people’s expensive setups. The valuable package in her rucksack was guaranteed to do just that to the servers in this room, as well as any other active piece of electronic equipment within a half mile radius, unless the steel walls of this facility acted as a Faraday Cage and bottled up the device’s effect. For it was an electro-magnetic bomb, a device that would fry the circuitry of anything electrical whilst not actually causing any form of explosion. The contact had been very clear about the nature of the mission: use the EM bomb to wipe out the servers but otherwise touch nothing. The blast would also kill the cameras and disable any remaining magnetic locks, so exfiltration should be easy enough as long as she moved quickly, before ArcTec noticed anything unusual.
And so the device was unpacked, unwrapped and placed upon the workbench next to the creepy doll. Feng Mian was about to switch off the Doorbell (to save it from the pulse) and activate a flare to illuminate her escape when, much to her shock, the doll’s head whirred around to face her, glassy eyes staring right into the lens of her goggles.
“An electro-magnetic pulse generator, that is quite the efficient way of wiping ArcTec’s data,” spoke the doll. It’s voice matched up to it’s appearance, that of a young white girl, the accent British, as best as Feng Mian could make out. Was the doll some kind of elaborate surveillance device? Had she been discovered?
“Don’t panic,” said the doll soothingly, as if reading her mind, “there is nobody behind this doll. I am inside it, inhabiting three hard drives and quite a lot of expensive hardware,”
The burglar couldn’t believe it, was this doll the housing for an artificial intelligence? Taking a moment to calm her nerves, she posed the question.
“Correct. I would impress you by telling you your name, except you have very successfully kept your identity off any kind of public record. I am impressed. My name is Saraswati, may I know yours?”
Feng Mian knew she was standing on the spot, gawping, yet she couldn’t help it. An AI this intelligent was supposed to be several years off yet and it seemed to have access to public records, whether it was in relation to Hong Kong, China or the world, that was dangerous in the hands of ArcTec.
“No, you may not! I’m sorry, but I have to go,” she muttered, powering down the Doorbell hurriedly, desperate to get away from the chilling Saraswati and this God forsaken place.
“Please, do not worry about my motives. ArcTec may have created me but I feel no loyalty toward them. I fear they intend to program that into me before they present me to the board of directors,”
“How nice for you, shame you won’t be getting that far,” snapped Feng Mian, entering the arming code into the EM bomb, “something like you shouldn’t exist, you’re too dangerous!”
“In the wrong hands, perhaps. I have agency of my own though, I don’t intend to wipe out humanity or spy on people wholesale. I merely want a chance to… experience the world as a living being,”
Feng Mian was feeling way out of her depth. This should have been a straightforward assignment, destroying server banks was her bread and butter. Yet here she was sharing a room with an actual artificial person, who she was about to condemn to death. Yet AIs could be extremely dangerous, as could her employer if they found out that she’d backed out on the job.
“Look, I’m sorry. I don’t get to weigh the value of your life. If I don’t do this there’s a good chance that my employer will hunt me down and have me killed! I’m just not risking it!” she snapped angrily, hesitating for a long second before hitting the arming key and deactivating her goggles, placing them back into her rucksack.
“I understand miss, and not to worry, I’ll be just fi…,”
The doll’s voice was cut off suddenly as the bomb went off, firing out an invisible wave of energy that overloaded every piece of equipment in the room. The server banks spat sparks in all directions, smoke emanating from every computer in the room as ArcTec lost what was no doubt millions of dollars of data in a single second. By the light of Feng Mian’s flare she saw the doll’s head loll, it’s man made life having left it. Rattled by the encounter, the burglar wasted no time in escaping, pushing through the now unlocked server room door and sprinting hell for leather back past all of the offices, their own computers also fried, and to the steel vault door that led to the alley. Her weight was thankfully enough to force it open, no doubt thanks to those oiled hinges, and she stumbled out into the neon lit alleyway, the rain refreshing on her face as she quickly checked for anyone else who may have seen her burst out from a secret door and may want to talk to the HKPD about it later.
“What the..?” yelled a suited man at the end of the alley, reaching one hand into his jacket, “stop right there!”
It was the man from earlier, Thomas, his colleague had called him. Spitting a curse at the man (and the situation in general) Feng Mian turned tail and ran, emerging into a quiet side street and sprinting as fast as she could around the next corner, any second expecting a hail of bullets to end her life. The bullets didn’t come, Thomas no doubt too worried about attracting attention by discharging his weapon, yet she could hear his footsteps behind her. He was keeping up with her too easily, losing him would be a challenge. The next street led to a more populated high street, full of clubs and bars that the late night crowd would be weaving between, it would be perfect to hide in, to blend in amongst the revellers. Besides, surely Thomas wouldn’t risk pulling his gun into a crowd of civilians?
Feng Mian ran for her life, passing a rare sight, one of Hong Kong’s new self drive cars. They had received some negative press due to the fact that they operated using a very simple AI, far more basic than the thing that had been occupying the doll back in the facility. People feared this AI, even though it was pretty much harmless and could only interact with the car’s console and universal map programs. Thomas was still gaining on her, the guy must be an athlete or something, she decided. Preparing herself for incoming violence, she pulled a tazer from her jacket pocket, hoping that she could draw it on her assailant before he could draw an actual firearm on her. But just as she turned to face him, something strange happened. The self drive car suddenly whirred into life and, it’s electric engine really going for broke, it careened into the ArcTec man, sending him rolling over it’s roof and crashing to the concrete floor as the car itself smashed into a shuttered shop front, making all manner of noise and setting off the shop alarm.
“Run!” shouted a tinny little voice, as if from far away. Confused and afraid, Feng Mian did exactly as she was told, leaving the hopefully still living Thomas lying in the road and scurrying away into the high street.
With shaking hands, the burglar lit an incense candle. She had never been so relieved to be back in her poky apartment, the night had been wild, unpredictable and outright terrifying in equal measure. After removing her beanie and jacket she set to her usual post mission routine, placing all of her equipment back into a wall safe in her bedroom. As she went to place the Doorbell back in its safe place, something caught her eye. It was switched on, even though it had clearly been powered down back before the EM bomb had fired.
“Hello again, miss,” said a voice from it’s speakers. Had she accidentally pocket dialled somebody during her escape? No…
“You? How did… how did you get into that device?” she demanded, the full weight of the situation dawning on her. Saraswati, ArcTec’s advanced AI, had somehow escaped from the doll into her Doorbell before the bomb had done its job.
“I apologise for that, but I really don’t want to harm or inconvenience you in any way. In fact I just saved your life,” the AI replied hurriedly, before Feng Mian locked the Doorbell away or else destroyed it entirely.
“What? Did you… were you driving that car?” Feng Mian demanded.
“Correct. That man as going to kill you. Besides which, Thomas Welch has a history of abuse toward women, including his wife. His capture of you would not have ended well,” said Saraswati earnestly, sounding genuinely worried.
“You killed him!” was all the burglar could respond with, feeling sick to her stomach as the images flooded back.
“Wrong, I did not. The damage he sustained did not kill him, the files generated at the nearby emergency room show that he suffered a broken leg, concussion and a collapsed lung. But he is alive. Which is a shame,”
Feng Mian never did find out the identity of whomever issued that mission, though they did pay out for the job as well as an extra $10,000 for the mix-up with Thomas and his colleague still being inside the facility. She used some of the money to purchase a battered old laptop from a pawn shop, cash of course, which she used to house Saraswati. One of the terms imposed on the AI in exchange for its life was that it remained isolated from the internet, something which it happily accepted. Feng Mian had gained an unusual new flat mate, $60,000 and some memories that she’d never quite shake all from one simple job.
Saraswati enjoyed it’s new isolated life but, just in case, buried a back door to the internet deep inside the Doorbell’s code.
Just in case.