“It’s not that I don’t like you,” Brendan said, leaning his head on the very desk that Alice was trying not to hit her head against. “The timing is bad right now. You’re changing, Alice, and I don’t know what to make of it. Plus, I have a lot of responsibility-”
“Stop,” Alice said, cutting him off. “I have two things to say, and then you will let me work. One: If the timing was bad, then you should have told me at the restaurant. Can you imagine how I felt when I realized I had to pay and take all the fancy food back home to Dad? Lucy kept giving me these pitying looks while I waited for you, and Dad thought I was heartbroken. By the way- I wasn’t heartbroken.”
Brendan ran his hands through his sandy hair, making it stand on end. “I really screwed up, didn’t I. At least let me pay you back.”
“Yes- you did really screw up, and no, you don’t have to pay me back. Dad loved the coq au vin. He’s even decided to take a french cooking course at the college.”
Brendan snorted a little at this. “Yeah, that sounds like him.”
“Here’s the second thing I wanted to say: don’t you have class? You’re always in the newsroom, now.”
“I have study hall this period, and Mr. Snyder doesn’t take roll.”
Alice nodded curtly, and turned back to her laptop.
“Alice, I still want-”
“Working,” Alice interrupted.
“Alice! Can’t we be friends?”
“I’m still deciding,” Alice said. “We’ve been friends for a long time, but what you did was humiliating.”
Brendan nodded slowly, head still on the table, to where his chin bumped the surface with a pathetic bump bump. In truth, Alice had already forgiven him, but she thought it was best to leave him in suspense for a while.
“The next time you freak out and leave me to ‘re-evaluate my whole life,’ as you put it, at least send a text.”
Brendan nodded one more time, and stood up to leave. As he reached the door, it flung open and Mr. Johnson, the principal, and a woman with black hair entered the room.
Mr Johnson went to the front of the room and knocked on Mr. Bertram’s desk.
“Attention, please,” he said. “There haven’t been any leads yet in the school hacking case, so I’m going to need all of your cooperation. Ms. Spearman-” he indicated the dark haired woman,”will collect all of your laptops. They will be returned to you as soon as we find the culprit. Don’t worry- we won’t delete any school-related assignments.”
“Wait!” screamed a boy in the back. He snatched his laptop away from Ms. Spearman, who was already starting to collect the laptops. “This isn’t a school laptop. I brought this one from home.”
“No exceptions,” Mr Johnson said. “We’ll get it back to you soon.”
“Please,” he said again. “My dad needs this for work.”
“Then you shouldn’t have brought it to school,” Mr Johnson said.
The boy- Alice recognized him as Charlie, who ran the school website- looked like he was on the brink of tears. Ms. Spearman looked helplessly up at Mr. Johnson, who went to the back of the room and ripped the laptop from Charlie’s hands.
“Two week’s detention, and I’m calling your father,” he said. “Now, sit down.”
Charlie sat down, trembling.
Alice handed her own laptop to Ms. Spearman, and then went to the back of the room. “Hey, Charlie. Are you okay?”
“I don’t know what to do,” he whispered.
Alice crouched down by Charlie so that she could see his face. Tear were already spilling over his cheeks.
“I’m sure we can do something. If you call your dad and explain-”
Charlie shook his head, and looked back at Mr. Johnson. “It’s not my dad,” he said.
“Then what is wrong? Do you-” Alice lowered her voice. “Do you know who Eddy is? Are you Eddy?”
Charlie drew a hiccuping breath, and then jumped up from his seat and fled the room.
Later that afternoon, Alice was called to the principal’s office. She’d never been in the principal’s office before, but it was smaller than she’d imagined it. There was a wooden desk in the center that looked like little more than a lengthened version of an average student’s desk, and the walls and bookshelves were cluttered with various teaching awards. There were two seats in front of his desk; one was empty, and Ms. Spearman sat in the other.
“Have a seat,” Mr. Johnson said, jerking his head toward the empty seat.
Ms. Spearman smiled at Alice as she sat. Mr. Johnson’s expression remained stony.
“Good Afternoon.” Alice spoke first, putting as much confidence in her voice as she could muster. She smiled broadly at Mr. Johnson for good measure.
“Afternoon,” Mr. Johnson responded. He opened Alice’s laptop and dropped it on the desk between them. “We found several conversations on here between you and Eddy. Care to explain?”
Alice winced. She’d known that the teachers would read the IMs when they’d taken her laptop, but it was just dawning on her how personal her conversations with Eddy had been.
Alice’s cheeks turned red. Mr. Johnson’s mouth stretched into a grin.
“You know who he is, don’t you?”
“I don’t,” Alice said. “You know I don’t, if you’ve really read the IM’s. You can check our e-mails too, if you like.”
“We monitor the school e-mail throughout the year,” Ms. Spearman said.
Mr. Johnson shot her a warning look.
“He sent me text messages, too. Go ahead- take my personal phone. He never sent an e-mail to my personal address, but you can have the password.”
“Alice, you need to calm down,” Mr. Johnson said.
“I am perfectly calm. I was trying to find out Eddy’s identity, because Mr. Bertram said he needed my help. I’m a student journalist- not a prankster.”
Mr. Johnson leaned back at his desk and laughed, a startlingly booming sound that seemed too large for the tiny room. Alice frowned down at the rattling desk, trying to keep the tears from her eyes.
“You’re a good kid, Alice,” he finally said. “I’ve never had any trouble from you, and you stay on the honor roll. But really, do you think that you can do what I and Ms. Spearman and the rest of the faculty couldn’t? You’re just a student.”
Alice blinked, and the tears in her eyes seemed disappeared all at once, replaced by hot fury.
“Just stick to what you know, kid. Take pictures of cheerleaders and football players, and leave the investigation to the adults. We’ve already found out who the culprit was, and he’s been expelled.”
Alice turned to Ms. Spearman.
“It’s true,” Ms. Spearman confirmed. “One of our students planted a virus, which sent all of the messages.”
“A virus? But-”
“Eddy was what we call a bot,” Ms. Spearman said slowly, as though explaining to a child. “He was programmed to send e-mails to students in the school network and give scripted responses if the students replied.”
“But I talked to him for hours,” Alice persisted. “He always responded directly to what I said. It wasn’t like talking to a chatbot online. Everything he said made sense.”
“The programmer must have taken over the conversations at some point,” Mr. Johnson said, shrugging. “Don’t worry. He’s being punished for his prank.”
Mr. Johnson shut the laptop and handed it back to Alice.
“Here’s your laptop. You can go, now. If you ever get a strange message in the future, tell a member of faculty right away.”
Alice took her laptop, thanked Mr. Johnson, and stood to go. She couldn’t think of what else to do.
After school, Alice found herself heading straight for the chemistry lab. She didn’t know why she was so certain that Lucy would be there, but then, Lucy seemed to belong to the chemistry lab as much as Alice belonged to the newsroom.
Sure enough, Lucy was in the chemistry lab at her table, surrounded by a small group of students. The students were all crying- Charlie was there, and he was sobbing out loud. No one was speaking, but Lucy held Charlie in her arms, and some other students were holding hands.
Alice turned to go, but Lucy saw her, and said, “I’m sorry, Alice. This isn’t the best time.”
“No- it’s ok,” Charlie said. He untangled himself from Lucy’s arms, and stood up. “Eddy liked Alice. It doesn’t seem right that Alice shouldn’t know.”
“Know what?” Alice asked. “What’s happening? Mr. Johnson called me to the office, and he said-”
“Let me guess; he told you that Eddy was just a virus,” Lucy spat.
“That can’t really be true, can it? A real person was behind Eddy,” Alice said. “Who did I talk to?”
Charlie wiped his eyes. “I’m the programmer. Eddy started out as a computer science project. He was a kind of chatbot, you see. I wanted him to learn from having conversations- to seem more real.
“I gave him everything he needed to learn- he could update his own program based on previous conversations. I wanted him to learn from more advanced conversations, and disregard conversations that had very little new information, so I built in a reward system.”
“What kind of reward system?” Alice asked.
“It’s fairly complicated, but in layman’s terms, he would get a processing boost from better conversations. It helped him streamline his own learning process. Eddy wasn’t just learning- he was motivated to learn.”
“That’s when he got out- right?” a small, blonde girl whispered.
“Yeah- he wasn’t satisfied with talking to us anymore, once his programming had streamlined so much. That was when he accessed the school’s e-mail files and started sending people messages.”
“Eddy did that all on his own?” Alice said.
“Yeah. It was like- it was like he was…” Charlie hiccuped, and buried his face in his hands again.
“It’s like he was alive,” Lucy finished.
“Not alive- sentient,” Charlie said. “But- yeah, maybe it was a little like being alive.”
Alice, without thinking, reached out and grabbed the nearest lab stool and sat down. She looked from one face to another- each one was grave and sallow in the florescent lighting.
“So that whole time, I was talking to a program? How? How did you make something that amazing with just the school computers?”
“I- I’ve seen similar things done with less processing power. Lucy let me examine…”
Charlie slapped his hand over his mouth and stopped speaking.
Lucy sighed. “It’s fine- she knows. Charlie helped my grandfather work on my enhancements. But Charlie- even grandad has never created a true AI before.”
“What happens now?” Alice said. “What’s happening to Eddy?”
No one spoke.
“Tell me, please,” Alice breathed.
“They deleted the ‘virus.’ They wiped out every trace of Eddy that was left. Even the backup that Charlie made-”
“They took my laptop! I had no way of knowing.”
“No one blames you,” another boy said.
“So- he’s gone?” Alice interrupted.
“He must have gotten out- uploaded himself somewhere else,” Lucy said.
“I don’t think there was time,” Charlie said. “We’ve already checked all of our computers…”
Alice stood up, knocking over the stool. A sudden hope blossomed in her chest, and she raced out of the room, back to her locker, where she’d stashed her laptop before she’d come to the chemistry lab.
She opened the laptop, logged in, and smiled to herself in sudden relief. There was a message there from Eddy.
She opened the message, and her blood went cold.
There was only one message. Goodbye, Alice.