The sound of running footsteps grew increasingly closer. I picked up my pace through the dimly lit street. It's probably nothing. Somebody running to catch the bus or something, I told myself. I heard the stranger pant and trip, prompting me to whirl around, heart racing. The figure quickly got up and ran past me, ducking behind a dumpster. Against my better judgement, I stepped towards him.
Instantly, he grabbed my hand and pulled me near him, covering my mouth with his other hand. I briefly caught sight of something metallic and glistening on his forearm in the moonlight, before we were both in the shadows. "Please, please, be quiet." His voice sounded desparate and terrified. What the hell? If anyone has the right to be scared right now, it's me!
But then I heard more footsteps.
"Spread out and search the area! But don't attract attention!", a deep voice sounded. There was nothing to do but to hear the approaching figures get closer and closer to where we were. Until a police car drove slowly past, and the mysterious men seemed to have quickly retreated. This was my chance to break away, yell for help. I didn't. The silent plea in his eyes had me petrified. There was something... Familiar...
Oh, of course! Eastworld! The advertising had been omnipresent in the past months: finally, there seemed to have been a major breakthrough in robotics - the exact details were corporate secret, but Le Vont Industries claimed to have achieved the holy grail of AI - completely life-like androids, practically indistinguishable from humans, at least on the outside. The commercials, posters, and ads of all sorts were hardly even necessary considering the sensation it posed. Everybody was talking about the soon-opening Eastworld - an obvious attempt at the fictional Westworld - which was to have an oriental theme. And one of the poster-faces, a young handsome Japanese man, was face-to-face with me in a dark alley.
He slowly let go of me. "I need your help.", he said, sounding somewhat more composed. I blinked. "Please, I need to get out of here, now." Was this some sort of advanced marketing strategy? They certainly got my attention.
He cradled his arm, wincing, and I realised the metal was bone-deep. No... It was the bone. "What the...?" I took a step back. His eyes flicked to his arm and back to me.
"I know how this looks. But I'll explain everything, somewhere else. Just- Just trust me."
I shook my head. "Explain now." It was surprising how calm I sounded.
He looked ready to argue but thought better of it, apparently having calculated that would take more time. He started talking rapidly: "Le Vont is lying to everyone. Technology is nowhere near advanced enough to simulate human consciousness. All the computers in the world could barely run a simulation of a mouse's brain."
"How would you know?"
"Because I'm a programmer. Or at least I was."
"No. No, you're just an AI, an android." I kept my eyes on the metal, visible under the ripped fabric drenched in a dark liquid.
"There are none of those." His voice was strained. "I used to work for them. Nowhere near the top, though. I figured if I could find out what the breakthrough was, sell it to the competition - it would be a nice retirement plan. Also, professional curiosity. So I disabled some security, got inside. And I saw - and heard - what I shouldn't have." He was breathing quickly.
"Rubbish. How would they maintain the illusion? Eastworld opens in a few days time."
He looked shocked for a moment. "Has... It been that long?" Then he shook his head and continued, a bitter note to his voice: "I'm sure you know your history. What did rich bastards use for fun before the idea of androids existed?"
It took me a moment. "Slaves?"
"But human-trafficking is illegal... So you claim they're not humans."
I frowned. "That's ridiculous. One can differentiate between a person and a robot."
"Isn't the gist of their campaign that you can't?", he asked dryly.
"But there must be checks. Heartbeats, breathing, metabolism -"
"Every tissue, every organ in the human body can be synthetically replaced. Everything but the central nervous system. That's... All that's left of us." He took a deep breath. "They caught me, in case you haven't figured that out yet. Made me disappear without a trace. Hiding in plain site, really. As one of those. So called androids."
I still didn't want to believe it. "Wouldn't the people you knew recognise you?" After all, I had, from all the ads.
"Plastic surgery was quick work for people who regularly replace entire organ systems." His face was blank for a moment before he added quietly: "God, even my vocal chords - I don't sound like me anymore."
Another question bothered me, but before I could ask, he was answering it:
"Memories are a problem. They use mixture of drugs that damage synapses, creating a simulation of what life-long addicts experience, and combine it with electric shocks to amplify it. I'm not sure - I didn't manage to catch it all before they - ", he swallowed. "Anyway, it results in semi-functional individuals at best, but they can pass it off as janky software. At least in the begging phases. That's what they were debating before they realised I was there."
"Well they seemed to have found a solution because they promise their 'products' to have personalities now..."
"What date is it?"
"February 28th. 2024."
"It's been weeks..." He looked stricken.
"Hang on. How are you not a brain-dead plant by now?"
"The others have been in the program for years. I suppose it takes longer to fully work."
"Years?! They've been planning this for years?" To get away with slavery, in the 21st century, right under the public's nose...
"Can we get out of here already, it's a miracle they haven't found me yet. Where's your car?"
I didn't reply, my eyes trained on the ground as another sinister thought came to mind. One far more terrifying than what I had heard thus far...
What if they had in fact been telling the truth...
If they created an AI so intelligent and imaginative... That it could lie... And manipulate... Counting on empathy...
And what if it escaped?
My eyes snapped back to him.
An android so convincingly human-like, that it could pass off as a human being passed off as android?
Is he going to kill me in my sleep?