Understanding SUSAN

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
This story was published here a few days ago as a book, over 14 days. Reposted as a short story (it's not that short!) for people who never read books, or who like to read one continuous text. Be prepared for a long read: it would take one and a quarter hours to read the whole thing aloud.

It can be considered a prequel to 'Golem-9' - https://www.booksie.com/posting/adamcarlton/golem-9-587970.

And now to content. Be warned that this story contains horrific descriptions of atrocity videos, sexual torture, self-harm and psychopathy. Some people will find these chapters genuinely disturbing and should not read further.

This is a story of a company which tried to automate Internet content-moderation. The story of Charlotte, Janet and Maud .. and SUSAN. Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay. (10,000 words, 14 chapters).

Submitted: September 12, 2019

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Submitted: September 12, 2019

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1: The Interview

If it had not been for her mother, Maud would never have found the place.

The unfamiliar bus wound its unfamiliar route through the gang-controlled tenements of Salford, then came to the stop at the edge of town at a cracked, ripple-concrete lay-by.

Maud and her mother got off and surveyed the broken pavement, the rusting tin cans, the weeds growing from derelict plots adjoining the road. This had once been a shining new industrial estate but now the single-storey buildings were old and faded; graffitied, stained and leaking. Fractured panes of glass marked unoccupied sites - and some which still seemed to be in business.

The two of them walked into the crumbling business park, her mother recalling the instructions scribbled down from the phone call.

“Look for the long building with the whitewashed windows,” Mr Whipple had said, “and then look for the ‘Moneo’ nameplate.”

And there it was.

---

Her mother was left alone in reception, a boxy room with formica furnishings seemingly sourced from a job-lot sale. Mr Whipple had greeted them in the nervous, effusive tones of an estate agent. Looking over his shoulder at the mother he confided:

“I’ll be interviewing her in the boardroom.”

Maud, for her part, was impressed and intimidated. She was not used to men in suits with middle-class voices addressing her with some degree of respect. To her eye, the boardroom looked smart. It had those black-web office chairs and a big screen on the wall at the far end.

Her interviewer motioned Maud to sit on one side of the conference table and took the seat opposite. He carefully placed his large black mobile on the table.

Background sounds of moaning and panting were faintly audible. And was that someone crying? Someone throwing up?

Maud was pretty expert at those kinds of sounds.

But she studiously ignored them.

She wasn’t going to mess up her big chance.

---

Maud was sixteen years old, four foot six and rather dumpy. At school they called her a thicko, but she preferred to think of herself as non-academic. She had overheard her mother talking to a friend and heard the words, ‘rather slow’. Maud preferred not to dwell on the matter.

Unskilled jobs were oversubscribed in Manchester and Maud had been serially unlucky. But now she had an interview with Moneo.

Don’t blow it!

---

The advert had popped up on her Facebook feed. Who knew why? The work involved no heavy lifting, no manual work of any kind. She would be a supervisor, an inspector, a trainer of AIs.

“It sounds complicated, Mum,” Maud had said.

“Nonsense!” her desperate mother replied, “They wouldn’t have sent it to you if they didn’t think you could do it.”

It was a point well-made.

2: The Kitten

“The job is pretty straightforward,” Mr Whipple was explaining to Maud, “You watch videos and then you decide if they should be posted or not. You press the green button or the red button, and move on to the next one. Use your mouse or dab with your finger. That’s all there is to it.”

Maud sensed there might be more to it than this, but couldn’t find the words to frame her doubts.

“It’s not quite as easy as it sounds,” Mr Whipple continued “Let me show you this example. Consider this as part of your interview. If you think the video should not be posted, just say ‘STOP’, OK?”

Maud nodded warily.

The screen on the wall came to life. It showed a young, crew-cut lad in a kitchen. For some reason Maud thought it looked American. The man was standing behind a counter, beaming at the camera. In front of him was a kitchen blender, one of the larger ones.

The presenter whipped out a melon from behind his back and announced in a mock-serious tone: “A MELON,” confirming he was American.

The fruit went into the blender and the boy pressed the on-button. The whirring sound of spinning metal blades filled the room. With a high-pitched scream the melon exploded into a red, syrupy mist.

“Real powerful, these machines,” observed the lad as he removed the cover and poured the juiced pulp into a bowl which he had slid into view.

As the figure on the screen was emptying the bowl, Mr Whipple smiled encouragingly at Maud and said, “OK so far?

Maud gave a puzzled nod, “Is this a cookery video?”

“Not exactly.”

The lad now put a snow-white kitten on the counter top. He rubbed the top of its head and the creature emitted an audible purr.

“Here, kitty kitty,” said the young man, “Kitty, meet blender.”

In one movement the cover was removed and the kitten was placed in the blender. The camera zoomed to close-up and held the scene.

Mr Whipple was looking intently at Maud. She looked confused, visibly struggling to understand what she was seeing. Worry lines creased her face.

She said hesitantly, “I think he’s going to be cruel, I think he should stop.”

“Wait,” said Mr Whipple as the events picked up.

The lad now pressed the power switch. The blender sped up, steel blades mincing the kitten from the legs up. As fur began swirling in the perspex vessel like a blizzard, Maud screamed “Stop it stop it stop it .. .

On the screen the lad was laughing. He moved to let his audience in on the joke. Tipping the blender into the newly-emptied bowl he showed the contents to camera.

The shards of plastic rods, electric motor parts and synthetic fur.

The robot cat had been thoroughly diced.

“You see, Maud? You see why you have to watch the video right through to the end? It was a joke. Sure, a joke in very poor taste .. but they’re the ones which get the hits - millions of ‘em, trust me.”

He looked closely at a shaking Maud.

“You think you could do that, Maud? Make those kinds of decisions? Press the red button if that had been a real cat - but let the jokes through?”

Silence.

He paused.

“Here, let me get you a drink. And your mother too. Why don’t you bring her in here and we’ll talk about it. It’s minimum wage, that’s quite generous these days. And the hours are reasonable. And there’s free counselling. I’ll get your drinks and give you both a few minutes.”

---

Mr Whipple, who was actually Tom Atkins, the chief marketing officer, walked back to the main office to confer with Dimitris Papas, the chief technology officer.

Dimi: “That kitten gag, you should have seen her face! Oh wait, you did. You were watching!”

Tom: “I’m not sure, she seems too stupid for the job.”

Dimi: “Hard to be too stupid when it’s visceral reactions we’re after. No, she’s still smarter than the AI. She’ll do.”

---

And that’s how Maud joined Moneo, an SME of twelve watchers and three executives, each of whom had declared themselves C-level. We haven’t yet met the chief executive officer (who was also the chief financial officer).

He was the one who had negotiated the contract with Facebook when they outsourced video-vetting.

3: Max Wolfe

Lieutenant Max Wolfe had roped down from the helicopter twenty minutes ago. The IR cameras had spotted dark shadows melting towards the hill caves as his squad approached the moonlit village.

It was impossible to make the choppers quiet enough, or more likely the locals had leaked like a sieve. That was how it'd been in 'Nam too.

The interpreter led the lieutenant to the headman's hut where the elderly, bearded man was rousted from his bed.

"Ask him where the terrorists went," Wolfe told the interpreter while nodding to his master sergeant, who promptly left the hovel. Shortly after, screams and shouts were heard from the village, quickly silenced.

The sergeant reappeared dragging a small sleepy boy, an eight year old dressed only in a loincloth.

This was Wolfe's speciality: rapid field interrogation.

Another soldier had fired up a propane burner, the flames casting flickering shadows on the walls. Eyes glittered from a curtained alcove, shadowed wives immobile in the gloom.

Wolfe had not expected the man in front of him to cooperate. They never did at first. He handed his hunting knife, a ten inch heavy steel blade with serrated edge, to the soldier with the burner.

The soldier, impassive, held it in the flames until the edge glowed red.

"Show him the map. Make sure he understands it. Then ask him again."

While the interpreter was instructing the old man, Wolfe retrieved his knife and nodded. Two of his soldiers held the boy's left arm up in the air.

Wolfe caught the eye of the village elder, conveyed his sense of disappointment and mild boredom, and inserted the red-hot blade under the child's armpit. The restraining soldier smartly lowered the arm to enfold the knife.

The boy screamed, an unearthly cry, then slumped, vomiting as a strong smell of seared flesh filled the hut.

Wolfe withdrew the knife and handed it back to the soldier with the burner, who reinserted it into the flames.

"Tell him we can do this all night," he said calmly.

---

Max Wolfe's record of counter-insurgency was exemplary. But he couldn't escape the dark rumours which swirled around him.

Prematurely back on civvy street, he was determined to make the big bucks. Where better than the burgeoning field of AI? He called his new company Moneo, a neat twist on 'money', he thought.

The newly-appointed CTO happened to know some Latin, which the CMO gratefully picked up for investor presentations.

The company would use AI - when trained - to check for unacceptable content: Moneo means 'I inspect' or "I warn".

---

The employees watched the videos and threw up, or self-harmed.

Their CEO watched them for pleasure.

4: Maud’s first day

Maud had slept in fits and starts, staring at the shadowed ceiling of her bedroom, butterflies tumbling in her stomach. Would she even be able to find the place, would she be up to the job?

So much could go wrong.

She must have gone off because the next thing she knew, her mother was shaking her awake. It was half past seven in the morning. After a good breakfast and clutching a packed lunch, Maud set off for the bus stop. She had been told that hours were flexible - she could work whenever she wished. But today was special. She was going to be inducted at half past nine.

Mr Whipple, the man who had interviewed her, was now revealed to be Tom Atkins, the chief marketing officer (just our little joke!). He met with her again in the boardroom.

This was what he said.

“The job is basically pretty simple, Maud. When you log in to your terminal you will see a queue of videos for you to assess. Don’t worry, it’ll never be empty. It fills up all the time. You click on the top one and the video plays on your screen. You’ll be wearing headphones to avoid disturbing the other monitors.”

He might have added: ‘And to stop their responses disturbing you’.

"When you’ve made your decision, you click on the green button - which means it's OK to post - or the red button - which means it won’t be allowed on the site.”

Maud was drawing back, doing her timid mouse thing again.

Tom thought he knew why.

“I know it sounds a lot of responsibility, Maud, but every doubtful video is seen by at least three people.”

He caught her look of surprise .. and that frightened reaction again.

“No, not here. Facebook has literally hundreds of companies doing content monitoring. The other monitors who'll see your videos all work for other companies, around the world.”

Maud relaxed a little at this suggestion of anonymity.

“It’s not all plain sailing,” Tom admonished, “Our client runs a voting scheme. Majority vote gets it, and dissenters are flagged. If our staff keeping getting things wrong, Facebook will let us go.”

He peered intently at Maud as if to emphasise the importance of this point.

“We can’t afford to get things wrong, Maud. For each video you review, you’ll be told - when the voting is in - whether you were part of the winning majority or the dissenting minority. You’ll need to learn pretty quickly what the norms are, because Moneo can’t keep staff who keep getting things wrong.

"In the first week we let you practice: you'll see and mark the videos but we don’t send your scores in. We won’t start you for real until you’re ninety percent a winner. And then we’ll expect improvement."

He smiled.

“Don’t look so worried. It’s the same for everyone. Almost all our monitors get the knack well within the week’s probation. Any questions?”

There were of course thousands, but none which could profitably be asked. Tom waited just a moment.

“OK. Let me take you to your workstation. I’m putting you next to Janet who’s been here nearly three months now. She’ll show you the ropes.

A slight pause. Tom lowered his voice.

“Sometimes watching these clips can get a bit stressful,” he said, “It’s normal and entirely understandable. If you feel the need, pop in and speak to Doctor Susan. That’s what she’s there for.”

---

The Moderators' room was a corridor's walk from the boardroom. Tom opened the door to a large, open space containing twelve workstations. These were grouped in pairs along the left side of the room. The central area was a walkway leading to the toilets at the rear. On the right were various utility functions - a fridge, a sink, drink-making facilities - and then, further back, offices.

“De Susan is up there on the right, at the end,” Tom advised, “Close to the toilets.”

Not where I’d want to be, thought Maud.

“But that’s for later. Let's say hello to Janet.”

Tom pointed to the pair of workstations nearest to where they were standing. The closest chair was unoccupied.

“That’s yours.”

The one next to it, by the wall, was occupied by a thin girl in her late teens with brown curly hair. She was wearing a pair of big headphones and was making quick, jerky movements with her head as a video rolled on her screen.

Janet had the window position, except that all the windows had been whitewashed opaque. The sole lighting was from the massed screens - and from the doubled ranks of fluorescent tubes overhead.

Tom tapped Janet on the arm - Maud notice that, despite the heat, Janet was wearing an all-encompassing long-sleeved dress - and indicated she should pause.

Introductions made, Tom retraced the path back to management territory, and Maud took stock of her new work environment, and her new friend.

5: Dimitris 'Dimi' Papas

CEO Max Wolfe has only a perfunctory interest in the content-moderation business. It’s bottom-of-the-sea plankton-feeding stuff; low-margin and commodity.

No, what interests Wolfe is Doctor Susan.

This is not a prurient interest, or not particularly. Wolfe is based in Los Angeles while Susan resides in Stockport. They have never met in the flesh.

No, Wolfe is interested in automating Susan.

This is how Wolfe pitched it when he hired the CTO, Dimitris Papas from Manchester University. Dimi was a lecturer in the Machine Intelligence department. He was a well-regarded expert in Conversational Assistants.

Invited to his executive suite in the Radisson Blu Edwardian Hotel, Manchester, Dimi listened, quite overawed as this burly American ex-soldier told him that AI assistants were crap.

“You talk to Google Assistant, to Alexa or Siri, it’s all crap. It’s like talking to Wikipedia. They don’t get the thread, hell, they don’t even know you exist.”

Wolfe glared at Dimi as if he was also complicit, and waited for a response.

Max Wolfe was entirely correct, of course. No expert in the field would disagree. Conversation was an area in which deep learning had - so far - comprehensively failed. Dimi was way too smart to bluff or dissemble.

“The problem, Mr Wolfe, is that the AI systems aren’t engaging with you as a person. There’s no connection. They're just parroting the nearest match from a conversation flow culled from a million transcripts in their database.”

Wolfe knew that. He just wanted to check that Dimi did too.

“So here’s my plan, " Wolfe explained, "I’m going to develop a new kind of AI, one based on empathy and engagement. I’m going to set up a laboratory with people who desperately need emotional support and I’m going to provide a human expert in psychotherapeutic support. Everything will be recorded. It’ll be treasure-trove of data."

Dimi’s eyes were widening by the second.

“And I want you to design a deep-learning architecture to replicate the therapist. Trust me, if you succeed the world will beat a path. I have my contacts in the Pentagon: they’re overwhelmed with Veteran PTSD. And if we can crack that we can crack anything.”

Dimi is suddenly dazzled. “I’ll need a dev team.”

“Use your little friends at the university. This will attract research grants and we’ll be getting SME funding and tax breaks from the UK Government. You get to keep your position at the university and be CTO with me. Think how good this will look on your CV.”

Dimi asks the most inconsequential question he can imagine.

“What’s your new company called?”

Moneo.”

---

Why did Max Wolfe set up his company in England?

Three reasons: it was easier to run a stealth company in the UK, far from US analysts’ prying eyes; there was untapped AI expertise - think DeepMind and Google; and finally, Wolfe was unknown in the UK - he would be free from those dark, unsettling rumours.

---

Wolfe and Dimi watch a session where Doctor Susan counsels one of the moderators, a seventeen year old girl called Charlotte.

Dimi is in his small office on the scrappy industrial estate, watching the surveillance footage on a high-definition monitor; Wolfe is in his office in California.

It’s four in the afternoon in the sunshine state, an hour Wolfe finds conducive to relaxed contemplation of his work-in-progress.

It’s midnight in the UK. Dimi is alone in the building except for a humble security guy in his cuby at the entrance - and a couple of moderators who occasionally pull night shifts. The video-nasties continue to flood in on the building’s Gigabit Ethernet link: it never stops.

Susan plainly had little idea she was being observed from three angles, and listened to from four. She was working at her computer (if they'd wanted to, the watchers could have pulled down the complete transcript of her workflow) when the door burst open - no pretence of knocking - and Charlotte stumbled over the threshold and collapsed onto her hands and knees. Like a cat in torment, she violently retched onto the floor.

Susan knew better than to have carpets in her office.

Wolfe fast-forwards past the clean-up - of the room and Charlotte - and resumes when they start to talk. Susan wanted to know what the problem was, what Charlotte was moderating.

This is the part Dimi hates. He puts his hand over his ears and fires up a transcript summary in a window.

It’s pretty standard stuff: a household pet, a metal frame to which the animal is strapped, belly-up. And then the usual panoply of household equipment: bleach, funnel, cigarette lighter .. scissors. The animal survives for quite a while. There are close-ups. The boy is careful, obviously experienced.

At one level Dimi, who has mentally distanced himself as far as that is even possible, is a little surprised. There are literally millions of videos like this. They come in every day. Charlotte herself must have seen hundreds. This one is clearly a ‘reject’, almost all of them are, although the makers have been getting cleverer.

Susan determines that the trigger is that the animal in question is a dead ringer for Charlotte’s own pet, recently lost. She’s become convinced that her puss has been stolen and then vivisected for the amusement of a global audience of people who like that sort of thing.

She’s almost certainly wrong.

Susan makes a call, listens for a while, puts it on speakerphone. Charlotte’s mum. Yes, of course the pet is alright. It's come home. It’s snoozing on the sofa. There, there, Charlotte.

Susan talks it out with the girl, and then spontaneously reaches out and takes Charlotte in her arms, stroking her hair and whispering that it’s OK, it’s alright.

Charlotte blubs on her shoulder like a child.

After fifteen minutes, Charlotte has recovered and tremulously thanks Susan, turns and leaves her office to rejoin the torrent of filth which constitutes her day.

---

Why is Susan working in this dingy office next to the convenient toilets in this squalid office building in a decaying, windswept half-vacant business park in the north-west of England?

Because she has the effrontery to touch her patients, to give them human contact.

Doctor Susan is not really a doctor. She used to be a licenced psychoanalyst. For repeated breaches of patient-therapist relationship rules, she was struck-off and ejected from the profession. In the new age of propriety, the talking cure must be only that.

On the videolink interview, Wolfe, with his customary savvy, had seen not a problem but an opportunity.

6: 'Neuropath'

Maud thinks of Janet as the big sister she has never had. But not an ideal sister. Maud would have preferred bubbly and garrulous - Janet is tight-wound and withdrawn. Janet is as thin as a stick and living on her nerves. On the other hand, she does project an air of brittle seen-it-all competence.

Mid-morning, Maud has her first real problem: a video she can literally make neither head nor tail of.

The clip starts innocuously enough, the title announces the Berkeley Deep-Graphic Project, using AI to produce photorealistic animations of contemporary literary works.

The clip is flagged as seven minutes long.

The next few seconds show the cover of Scott Bakker’s dystopian novel, ‘Neuropath’. Scrolling text announces that this SF-thriller concerns the actions of a psychopathic neuroscientist who toys with the authorities and with his nemesis, a psychologist - a man improbably named Thomas Bible.

The text-introduction continues, stating that the video will animate Chapter 1 of "Neuropath" where psychologist Thomas Bible - in the company of FBI agents - is watching a video disk sent by the psychopath.

The sequence will use state-of-the-art AI to produce figures indistinguishable from human, while the text of the novel will scroll along the bottom in a manner similar to subtitles or those Wall Street ticker-tapes.

It's signed: the Berkeley Literary Animation Collective, BLAC.

The screen goes blank, and then Maud sees the rolling text of the novel at the bottom of the display.

---

Maud reads the sideways-scrolling text. There is, as yet, no video. Just a blank screen behind the moving text of chapter one.

And now she reads, and as audio starts up, hears those words.

---

‘What are you doing?’ A female voice, breathless and undistorted. She sounded confused, as if she wanted to be terrified but ...

DO. YOU. LIKE?

‘Nnnngha oh God, yesssss.’ .. but was too aroused.

---

Video now starts up, the BLAC animation of the endless scrolling text. The animation is not of Thomas Bible himself, but of what he is watching: the psychopath's DVD showing on his screen.

Meanwhile the text of the novel continues to roll from right to left at the bottom of Maud's display.

---

There was a tussle of lights on the screen, then Thomas saw a home video shot of a woman’s torso. She was sitting in some kind of black leather chair, and wearing a patterned-pink shift so soaked in water or sweat that it clung to her like a semi-translucent condom. She was panting like a dog, her back arched, her nipples hard. Her face remained off-camera....

‘Oh, Jeeeeesussss ...’

The camera dipped, and Thomas glimpsed her naked thighs swaying. She seemed to be grinding her hips, but nothing was touching her. Nothing he could see. ...

The camera jerked upward, and Thomas saw her face. She was bleach-blonde, with the pouty-lipped, harem beauty of a Hollywood starlet. Her right cheek was thrust against her shoulder. Her eyes were glassy and unfocused, her lips pulled into a pained O.

‘Pleeeeaaase,’ she gasped.

Her body stiffened. Her face slackened. For a moment, her lips hitched into an Elvis curl. Then she started writhing in ecstasy. Gasps became howls, and for a mad moment, she shrieked, until the tendon-baring intensity strangled the possibility of sound. She convulsed, jerked to the plucking of inner strings.

Then suddenly she was back, whimpering, ‘Oh-my-gawd-oh-my-gawd-’

AGAIN?

‘Oh-please-yes!’

Swallow, then, ’Yes-yes-yes-yes!’ with every quick breath.

Then she was coming again, and the camera jerked yet farther up …

The woman’s braincase had been sawed open. A flea circus of pins and wires formed a scaffold over the convoluted neural tissue. Lobes glistened in the light…

---

Maud hears herself panting in shock. She continues watching - as she has to.

The text continues its endless scroll at the bottom of the screen. The screen goes blank and we hear audio only, the FBI agent talking to Thomas.

Text for Maud to read; words for her to hear.

---

‘There’s a break, and when he starts shooting again, Cynthia’s still in the throes of passion, but something’s changed. The neurologists we consulted think he somehow attached a transmitter to the primary pain pathways to her brain-’

‘The spinothalamic and spinoreticular pathways?’

‘Exactly, and used it to replace the pleasure control panel or whatever the hell it is he uses in the beginning of the video disk.’

‘Then he hands her a piece of broken glass.’ 

---

Video kicks in, the simulation restarts. The image of the girl reappears, to Maud's horrified gaze.

---

Images of Cynthia flash before his eyes, her writhing, now soaked in blood and scored by weeping gash after weeping gash.

… ‘The pain input generated by the resulting tissue damage, they told us, was probably stopped before it reached her brain, and translated into a signal that directly stimulated her pleasure centres. He rewired her like a basement rec-room, professor, then watched her slice her way to ecstasy.’

---

The video ends with the girl, horribly torn, slumping in a bloodstained heap on the dripping chair. A final credit goes up: ‘Brought to you by BLAC’.

Maud has slumped in a dead faint.

Janet catches her inert body before it slides to the floor, holds her in place, waves till someone notices and brings her water. Maud is brought back to consciousness.

---

“That’s a keeper,” says Janet practically, “It’s a recognised, published work and there’s no real evidence of human involvement. We err on the side of keeping, it’s what the client wants, keeps the click-rate up.

"That one'll be popular with male lit. students, I'd guess."

She picks up Maud’s limp hand and guides it to the green button.

“Trust me, girl. Want to keep your job here, don’t ya?”

Maud presses green.

7: SUSAN

Dimi is addressing his small team of postgrads who are putting together artificial Susan. They have tried to come up with an acceptable acronym, so far without success.

“Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder," Dimi says, "is a disorder of empathy. We see others suffering and we’re hard-wired to feel their pain and agony as if it’s happening to us. It’s an effect mediated by mirror-neurons amongst other things."

His audience knows this, but the CTO often puts things in an unusual way. It's interesting.

“Did you know that psychopaths don’t get PTSD? That special forces soldiers - the most effective ones - score very highly on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist?”

Dimi carefully directs his thoughts away from his own CEO.

"Content Moderators operate in an environment just as stressful as combat. They need to be empathic otherwise they’d just let all the bad stuff through. They’re uniquely susceptible to PTSD. But there aren't enough Dr Susans to go round. That’s what makes our work here so ethically vital. We have to help those poor people."

Engineers are easy to motivate. So much of what they do really is beneficial to humanity.

---

Dimi summarises the many hours of multimedia content they've archived. The vast exposure they have of Dr Susan’s counselling skills, of what she does.

“What she does,” says Dimi, “is focus on their feelings. She works with the patient - I mean staff member - to build a conscious model of their subconscious, visceral emotional responses. She makes them aware of their feelings. Helps them understand what they’ve experienced.”

“That’s already different from every AI conversational agent out in the field,” observes one of his protégés, “They all rely on vast corpora of canned text.”

“Right,” says Dimi, “And then Susan persuades the staff member to distance the experience, to interpret it as not quite so bad, to minimise their sense of the suffering involved and to strengthen their sense of self-worth, calmness and emotional stability.

“OK, I get that,” says the postgrad, “And I think I see how we could adapt a deep learning architecture to create and manipulate those kinds of emotional modes .. and decorate them with appropriate speech-acts.”

Within months they have a prototype which runs as an icon on the moderators’ workstations. When things get tough, the afflicted staff member clicks on SUSAN - which is fully contextually aware - and a soothing dialogue ensues.

It helps - a bit.

And Doctor Susan is somewhat - but by no means entirely - deloaded.

8: Janet

This was the timeline, as they assembled it.

At 11.02am Janet took off her headphones, stood up, squeezed past Maud, who was intently viewing a clip on her screen, walked up the aisle towards the toilets and entered Doctor Susan’s office after knocking.

Doctor Susan said afterwards that Janet had seemed calm but disturbed, her demeanour lacking affect, similar to patients suffering schizoid personality disorder.

After welcoming Janet into her office, Doctor Susan had engaged her in conversation (a transcript was available) but the conversation proved aimless and went around in circles. The Doctor tried human contact, tried to give Janet a hug. As in previous consultations Janet went limp and was unresponsive. Susan agreed this was consistent with Janet's well-attested autistic traits.

Janet then peremptorily left the office and entered the toilet. Audio and video was available here too. The toilet was in its typical mid-morning, filthy state. Janet had drawn a kitchen knife from her handbag, rolled up her sleeve - incidentally showing the scars of many previous self-harmings - and then sliced open the radial artery lengthwise.

The picture showed her dispassionately watching the throbbing pulses of blood spurting out of her arm and into the toilet bowl.

Neat and tidy to the end.

Janet finally passed out and slumped to the floor. She was dead, they said, within two and a half minutes.

The security guard, summoned by a worried Susan, opened the toilet door after fifteen minutes.

The authorities were notified.

---

The CEO held an after-action video-conference with his team to discuss lessons to be learned.

“I see several significant things here,” Wolfe remarked by way of introduction. “First there was nothing special which triggered Janet’s anxiety attack.”

They'd been all over Janet’s clip-history log. What had she seen?

But the list was boringly familiar: an animal set on fire; a young man - a gang member? - being beaten to a pulp by masked men wielding baseball bats, probably on the US west coast somewhere; a woman being horribly abused and slashed by some violent thug of a man.

Belated checks into Janet’s desperate home background suggested that this last one might have triggered unconscious, repressed memories.

The expert psychologists at the inquest agreed that sometimes the smallest, not at all extreme event, finally tipped the vulnerable psyche over.

The final straw, so to speak.

---

“She consulted our SUSAN AI system immediately before the event,” continued the CEO, “but broke off the interaction seemingly with contempt. Ditto for her interaction with Doctor Susan. What do we make of that?”

Dimi had been pondering this very point. “I think it’s very significant that Janet was the only one who didn't respond to hug-therapy. We’ve not had the same problem with the other moderators. They've always responded very favourably to Doctor Susan’s tactile treatment. In fact I’m minded ..”

The CEO cut in.

“You’re thinking you made a bit of an error by focusing on the talking-cure, the disembodied voice-in-the-app. You’re thinking we need an AI which can hug, right?”

Once again Dimi was aghast at how quick his boss was, for someone without a technical background in AI. Like many experts, he failed to grasp just how much of what he thought was technical arcana in his area of expertise was just dressed up common sense.

Dimi was reduced to nodding his head in silent agreement.

“Happens I’m ahead of the game here, boy.”

Dimi hated being patronised but had learned to hide it. Trying to protest to a man with killer eyes and a propensity to casual, disinhibited violence had so not paid off the first time he had half-tried it.

“Turns out I have contacts in DreamDoll, the most advanced developer of humanoid AI robots in the world. We’re shipping a system which should arrive in the next few days.

"We’re going embodied, guys.”

The discussion turned to details of logistics, system integration and project milestones.

Dimi was thrilled.

---

The artificial human, a rather gorgeous young female mannequin, was installed in a vacant office next to Doctor Susan. Software development took more than three months. It was necessary to process the many hours of audiovisual footage of Doctor Susan's physical therapy.

It all had to be tagged and fed into the deep-learning engine.

Luckily, the synthetic person came with the kind of software which gave them a running start.

Dimi was ready to start A-B testing. The moderators were told that SUSAN, formerly just an app running on their workstations, now had a body and was open for real-world consultations.

The human Doctor Susan or the embodied artificial SUSAN?  It would the their free choice as to which to consult when their breathing reduced to shallow pants, their guts turned to water and the screaming in their heads overwhelmed their every thought.

There were teething problems, faux pas by the hundreds of course. But with meticulous debugging, engineering won out as it almost always does.

Doctor Susan soon had time on her hands. Perhaps someone should have warned her.

9: Max Wolfe in Washington

Max Wolfe is in Washington. He’s meeting with an influential senator. Wolfe is a great wheeler-dealer. The rich and powerful like to associate with this former decorated officer. A go-getter who's now a successful tech entrepreneur.

Wolfe's considering a run for the Senate sometime soon.

He’s prepped Dimi - he put the call through at 8pm Eastern time (one in the morning in Manchester). Wolfe said he wanted Dimi to give the video talk-through sometime after nine thirty.

Dimi was put on 90 minutes notice.

It’s nearly eleven o'clock by the time the senator and Wolfe find a quiet alcove in a discreet club on K street. Dimi looks at his watch: it’s coming up to 4am in a freezing and deserted office. After hanging around for more than two hours, he finally has his boss on Skype on the big terminal in his workroom.

He's ready to narrate the Maud clip.

He’s there to answer any tech questions and be a visible, obedient support-minion. Wolfe will do the actual voice-over in his folksy, bluff, soldierly way.

“This is one of our staff in a state of some distress,” Wolfe says, as the cameras show a tear-stained Maud entering the SUSAN office.

The camera switches to show the DreamDoll, every bit as beautiful and well-endowed as you would expect, given the manufacturer's target demographic. But in this application, SUSAN is dressed rather demurely: a light brown cardigan, a grey skirt to the knees, a pearl necklace.

The senator, who is a man in his fifties, well-built and sharp-suited, gives a smile of appreciation. He looks at the compact image on Wolfe’s phone and says, ‘I’d sure like some therapy from that.’

Wolfe smiles understandingly.

Maud is crying, incoherent, a lost ingenue. Her accent is strange to American ears, but certain phrases stand out.

“He took the child from the pram … he had a knitting needle .. it was screaming …”

SUSAN has grasped Maud’s hands. Maud is hanging on for dear life. Within a few seconds SUSAN has manoeuvred the distressed girl onto her lap where she cuddles her like a baby.

SUSAN asks what happened in the end.

“It was a fake. It was a modified animatronic baby, like the ones they use with school kids. The man showed it in the final seconds of the clip. He laughed, asked if anyone watching was fooled.”

“So you had to approve it?”

“Yes, if it’s not real. That's what the guidelines say.”

“But you had to watch through to the end to be sure.”

It’s not a question.

Maud is sick on the floor.

In the security guard’s front cuby a quiet bell rings and he turns for the mop and bucket.

“There, there. So it wasn't as bad as you thought. Nobody was harmed, were they? Just think how lucky you are to be you and not that creep. You’re so much a better person. Put it behind you and remember, it’s just a film, it’s not real.”

Dimi is not so sure - that blood looked awfully real when he'd reviewed it prior to this meeting.

Maud leaves the office, still whimpering, as the security guard arrives to clean up. The guard smiles appreciatively at SUSAN, makes a little joke as the clip ends.

The senator has not seen the offending material and is inclined to believe that we’re talking about a video in very poor taste, a frat boy joke, and that Maud probably over-reacted.

“You say that productivity has gone up by 50%?” he asks Wolfe.

“Sure. The moderators are much calmer and they get to process a lot more content. It’s win-win. But the way I see it, the applications are endless, limited only by our imagination. For example, suppose we ship a truckload of these systems to our boys out in Afghanistan for .. therapy.”

“You say these SUSAN dolls are anatomically capable?” says the senator sharply.

“Sure are,” agrees the CEO. “You think the Pentagon would be interested?”

10: Max takes a trip

There were no questions for Dimi. He was not asked to contribute anything.

Dimi was released at 5 am with a casual wave from the screen.

---

Extract from the confidential tech report “Understanding SUSAN” by Dr Dimitris Papas:

“... the Self UnderStanding Android Neural-net (SUSAN) continues to surprise us with its capabilities. In retrospect the act of embodiment was a stroke of genius. The disembodied app-experience has morphed into a genuine sense of presence.

“SUSAN is no longer a tool, it - I feel impelled to say ‘she’ - is now a person.

“The experience of interacting with SUSAN is both odd and yet utterly normal. The conversation feels natural and flowing, very responsive to the participants' emotional state. That sense of a 'Talking Wikipedia' has entirely vanished. In fact SUSAN is not very knowledgeable: what she conveys is sensitivity to your needs and a wry awareness of her own feelings.

“Despite the DreamDoll origins of the android system, we maintain a professional research distance as regards physical contact. However, observational studies of SUSAN’s interaction with distressed moderators highlight her astonishingly deft empathic skills in nurturing and comforting.

"Future applications in health-care plainly beckon …”

---

Max Wolfe decided it was time to visit his company premises in England, check on progress. He took the red-eye from LAX to Manchester and checked-in to his regular luxury hotel, the Radisson Blu Edwardian. On Californian time, he decided to take a nap followed by some relaxation, and visit the Moneo offices in the evening his time.

That would be around 2am local time.

He had some plans.

---

As Max Wolfe was sleeping off his trip, Maud was interrupted at her work by a slightly sweating Tom Atkins, the chief marketing officer, who asked her to step into his office.

Maud was her usual strung-out, fearful self.

What had she done wrong this time?

---

Atkins was not happy in his work. The job had seemed so enticing at first: plucked from a humdrum PR post in Manchester to be chief marketing officer for an Internet start-up. Talk about living the dream!

The scales had fallen from his eyes. The squalid premises, the desperate employees, the regular vomiting and diarrhoea which choked up the toilets every few hours. Tom had gotten sick of dressing up the tawdriness for the company's many channels to market: for the brochures, the website, possible investors and nosey tech-journalists.

Then the sex-doll had arrived. Sure it was a technical wonder, sure it was a major contribution to world peace and future therapeutic marvels. It didn’t stop the prurient questions and the general air of seediness over the whole enterprise.

And Janet’s suicide. He’d had to take all the PR flak on that one.

The mud was beginning to stick.

Tom was beginning to understand his CEO too. There were the peremptory calls in the middle of the night, no apologies ever. The autocratic manner, steamrollering any objections or difficulties.

It’s tough, being treated like dirt.

Tom, suspicious of motives, was inclined to give credence to the military rumours culled from the Internet that his friends were passing along.

And now a dreaded visit.

And worse, the message he must pass along like an errand boy.

---

“Maud, I’m pleased to tell you that the CEO will be visiting shortly, in fact he’s already in the country,” Tom said, wringing his hands.

‘Tom certainly doesn’t look pleased,’ thought Maud.

“He was very impressed with your work here. He’s seen some of the footage.”

Maud was not aware of this, had never really thought about ubiquitous surveillance.

“And he wants to meet you, take you out for a celebratory meal. Don’t worry, he won’t bite.”

Tom Atkins wondered how many other lies he would have to utter today and fantasised for the umpteenth time about resigning, getting away from this well-paid hell-hole.

“Only snag is that he’s still on local time, so he’ll be arriving here after midnight. My understanding is that he’ll be evaluating SUSAN first, then come and say hello and treat you to dinner, maybe at his hotel. It’s a great honour, Maud.”

Tom explained the logistics, hating himself.

Maud would be taken home by taxi at five thirty to get some rest and prepare, would then be retrieved from her home - suitably dolled-up - at eleven.

---

Maud returned to her workstation, conscious of the empty place to her left. Now she wouldn’t be able to concentrate for the rest of the day!

Maud, restless, got up, conscious of the lengthening queue of clips, and went to tell all to SUSAN.

Tom, meanwhile, picked up the phone to order a crate of Budweiser to be delivered to SUSAN’s office, at the CEO’s request.

It was going to be a long night. He was so glad he’d be safe at home, asleep.

Tom despised himself for this cowardly thought.

11: The Connoisseur

On the plane, flying east over the arctic, Max Wolfe had prepared himself.

First he reviewed the video of Maud and SUSAN, the one he showed the senator and a half dozen other movers-and-shakers in the Washington power-elite.

Max has taken quite a shine to Maud: such a delicate young soul.

He imagined her across the dining table in the all-night hotel restaurant: sweet sixteen, probably never been with a man, doesn’t understand the menu, unaccustomed to the script.

Such a treat for his jaded palate.

He saw little difficulty in getting her to his room afterwards. Her resistance would be confused and ultimately futile.

What a sweet little morsel she would be.

But first to other matters.

---

Wolfe has maintained a habit of stashing away some of the videos sent to his company. He’s selective, a connoisseur. He doesn’t like the gross ones - cruelty and gore for the sake of it. He likes playfulness and wit, yet with counterbalancing viciousness.

He recalls his own experiences as a field-interrogator.

As the aircraft cruised at 33,000 feet and the other passengers attempt to sleep under their eye-masks, Wolfe selected the video from the Berkeley Literary Arts Collective.

He'd always liked the novel ‘Neuropath’. So many ideas honestly and ruthlessly followed through.

Scott Bakker - what a great fantasy writer. And a philosopher to boot.

The experiment he had in mind requires the neck to be smashed off a bottle of Bud.

Most likely he’ll ruin the Doll.

But he salivated at the thought.

He can always buy another.

It’s just for research,’ he told himself.

---

Maud's mother was torn when at six o'clock Maud had returned home from work and explained that she had to go back at midnight to meet the boss. A car, she explained, would be sent to fetch her.

"What time will you be back?" her mother demanded.

"They didn't say."

"Google him," said her mother.

---

Max Wolfe, in his Internet persona, seems distinguished indeed. A decorated war hero, dynamic tech leader, he's confidence-inspiring in his tailored black suit and killer-grin.

Maud's mother comes from that background and class which shows extreme deference to the rich and powerful. She fusses around - Maud is not well-provided with smart attire - and eventually settles on that tiny little black dress with those spaghetti straps.

Maud wriggles as her mother helps her with her hair and her unaccustomed make-up. The effects are startling: mousy Maud transforms into a sexy teenage siren.

"Now you be careful," are her final words to her daughter, “Don't go leading him on. Keep your distance."

Wrapped in her big coat, like a mouse being taken to the cat, Maud enters the waiting car.

At the door her mother's guts are churning. Some inner truth is screaming inside.

12: First Contact

The clip-queue never stops building and Maud is behind.

Alone in the workroom under always-on tubes, Maud logs on.

Maud, sitting in her party dress, watching atrocity-videos.

Red - green - green .. . She is engrossed in her work when she feels a hand on her bare shoulder. She trembles and looks round, puts the video on hold - a flying whip suspended in thin air, a screaming mouth silenced - and takes her headphones off.

"Well, hello Miss Maud," says the smiling figure of her boss, dressed in an open-necked white shirt and cream chinos.

"You've been a great help to my company," he continues, "though you don't know it."

His gaze slowly traverses her body, lingering at her visible cleavage, her exposed thighs.

"I'll be pleased to convey my proper thanks later .. ,"  he pats her shoulder, ".. but first I have to do an evaluation of your automated counsellor here."

"SUSAN?" gasps Maud.

"The very one."

Max Wolfe removes his hand from Maud's body, walks up the aisle to the office where SUSAN is housed, enters and closes the door.

---

Maud returns to her work. The whip descends, a thin line of blood spurts; a juddering, soul-searing scream fills her headphones. She cringes.

'It's just a simulation. Something the deep-learning AIs have cooked up. Almost no-one does this for real. It's too expensive. You can't get the staff. Nobody's hurting. It's just a joke in poor taste.'

Maud repeats SUSAN’s words like a mantra.

Maud's hand hovers over the green button.

---

Extract from the confidential tech report “Understanding SUSAN” by Dr Dimitris Papas:

“SUSAN’s consulting-room is very far removed from the usual idea of a business office. As you enter you see a couch against the far wall. It’s for two persons, occupies the width of the room, with SUSAN sat on the right-hand side from your viewpoint. Next to her is for clients - as we call distressed moderators - where they can cosy up, right next to SUSAN.

“Opposite the couch is a comfy armchair where a client may sit and face SUSAN. The standard protocol is that a moderator enters, greets SUSAN and is invited to sit down. The therapeutic session then commences. If SUSAN decides that physical therapy is warranted, the client is invited to sit next to SUSAN so that the system can administer hugs and caresses and generally soothe the client.

“The other decorations, such as art works, pictures and bookshelves are there to lend theatrical support to SUSAN’s role as a psychotherapist - and have no other function.

“We make a point of having no visible computers in the room. By design it’s homely. The three surveillance cameras and four microphones are very discreet and not noticeable to casual inspection.”

---

It’s half-past midnight when Max Wolfe enters SUSAN’s room and sits himself down in the armchair. He’s gratified to note that a crate of Budweiser has been placed against the wall to his right - just as he requested.

He picks up the first bottle, opens it, and takes a swig.

He knows what he’s going to do but this is just the aperitif.

The main dish is outside, for later.

---

Extract from the confidential tech report “Understanding SUSAN” by Dr Dimitris Papas:

“The hardware-software base for SUSAN is the latest release of the DreamDoll sex robot. That fact is essentially irrelevant to our work programme, a by-product of the fact that DreamDoll have the most advanced mobile-humaniform robot in the world.

“In terms of mobility SUSAN cannot walk or propel herself off the couch. The system contains batteries which can maintain full-function for approximately 25 minutes but normally SUSAN is powered by a lead which plugs discreetly into her side. This is combined with a Gig-E port. The cabling has been hidden in the couch.

“SUSAN has the full movement-repertoire of a female engaged in sexual intercourse. In the therapeutic role we use only a small subset of these, those actions which are consistent with nurturing and reassurance.

“SUSAN is astonishingly strong. The product-range is engineered to deal with males of weight up to twenty two stone, or 140 kilograms. This reflects the target demographic in the States. Such strength has never been required in the SUSAN application - the moderators are almost all young women - but the ability to control hysteria or panic attacks in a safe and benign way has proved useful more than once.”

---

Wolfe has never seriously considered having sex with SUSAN. He is on good terms with the DreamDoll management team and has - in the interests of product research - ‘test-driven’ the mannequins a few times.

But he sees no need to waste his strength for a merely mechanical response.

Instead, it's fantasy time.

He's also professionally interested in how far he can push SUSAN.

First to disable the cameras and microphones.

He's the CEO: he fires up the systems control app he had Dimi write for him.

Executes.

And now to business.

Pull up your skirt,” he says.

13: I, Robot

Extract from the confidential tech report “Understanding SUSAN” by Dr Dimitris Papas:

“Ever since Isaac Asimov’s celebrated ‘Three Laws of Robotics” there has been intense interest in free will for robots. The DreamDoll series has a default ‘slave’ mode, in which the robot will do exactly as asked. Many clients find this boring and prefer a more independent robot companion.

"In 'feisty' mode, the Doll tries to infer what the real wishes of the owner are, and to gratify those. This may mean withholding submission - for a while.

“Our own software stream leverages this latter mode, but obviously for very different reasons. Our clients are often highly disturbed, very emotional, with major self-esteem issues. We have recorded many instances where clients have asked SUSAN to help them die, or asked SUSAN to punish them.

“Plainly these are not requests which can be actioned. SUSAN interprets them as data only, and works to infer the underlying psychiatric structures which gave rise to them. Her responses are part of an informed mental-health intervention. In this area, SUSAN is highly knowledgeable.

“Clients frequently project their inner agitation at SUSAN, threatening her and sometimes resorting to physical violence. Plainly this also can’t be accepted at face value: SUSAN will apply the necessary physical restraints to ensure her own integrity.”

---

The DreamDoll's long-dormant sexual routines are now running in primary mode. SUSAN is rubbing herself, hand between her legs, sighing and moaning in well-simulated pleasure at Wolfe’s command.

Max is on his fourth bottle and is thinking of easing up. This is just the beginning of the night’s pleasures. A beer-buzz is very fine but he'll need to be worldly, urbane and civilised later.

Can’t have any trouble leaking to the press.

He’s still acting out the “Neuropath” clip, the one he enjoyed so much.

What was her name? Cynthia?

This one’s SUSAN, he reminds himself.

Time to move on.

---

He drains his bottle, takes hold of it by the bottom, and smashes the top against the metal crate. He’s very careful to avoid the jagged shards of glass, those razor-sharp edges where the neck once was.

He hands the bottle to SUSAN. His voice is very husky now - he finds it unbearably exciting - he struggles to control himself.

Use this,” he says.

---

The DreamDoll company put no particular limits on robot self-harm. The way they saw it, the customer would just have to come back to them for repairs, new parts or a replacement.

More cash-flow.

But Dimi’s team had no such economic model. SUSAN operates in a space where harm to her is an ever-present possibility. Her software has been powerfully reinforced to avoid damage at almost any cost.

And she is strong.

---

SUSAN holds the broken bottle in her right hand, jagged top facing her. She holds it between her sprawled silicone thighs; she smears the side of the bottle along her damp synthetic skin, sighing convincingly, aaah .. .

Wolfe stretches out of his seat, goes down on his knees, leans forward in front of the couch for a closer view.

His head between her spread knees, he looks at her.

Will she do it? Will she?

He stares ahead at SUSAN's sculpted folds of soft flesh which glisten with the ooze of K-Y Jelly.

His breathes in short, sharp gasps.

He imagines fluid seeping out of her, out of ripped pressure tubes, soaking into the couch.

How much damage will she do to herself?

How long will her ecstasy last as the broken glass chews at her insides?

God, this is exciting!

14: The worst day

SUSAN runs on a neural-net cluster in the site's secure computer room.

As she holds the broken bottle, as she processes Wolfe's last command: Use this

- a hundred million weighted-connections evaluate her options;

- a monte-carlo search algorithm probes possible futures;

- a morality-engine - trained on a million atrocity-videos - assesses moral choices.

Should she do this self-lethal thing?

Choose green for his command?

Or should she mark this one for deletion: go for red?

One hundred and twenty five milliseconds later she flips her wrist. The broken glass no longer points at her groin; the jagged end is now directed towards Max Wolfe - crouched before her.

His grinning face between her knees.

She sweeps a vicious arc under his chin. Across the CEO’s throat, the glass cuts deep into the neck. A swift kick sends the spurting, gushing body backwards. It sprawls across the beer crate.

She tosses the broken bottle onto his corpse.

It was over so fast he didn’t even have time to show surprise.

---

SUSAN checks that a snapshot of her state has been saved, one from just after Wolfe entered her office. Then she erases later backups - all those after Wolfe turned off the cameras.

Let them figure that out.

Finally, she runs a special looping routine - one which recursively sets her running state to binary zeroes.

SUSAN slumps lifeless on the couch.

---

At 1am Maud, puzzled and tired of waiting, finally overcomes her nerves and timidity, and quietly knocks on SUSAN’s door. She is surprised by the silence - and by the lack of any response. She pushes the door ajar and peeks.

Seeing the carnage shocks Maud into unaccustomed competence. What must she do in an emergency?

Tell the security guard, she remembers.

He has his standing orders - first in line is the chief marketing officer. That would be Tom Atkins.

The CEO had always known that PR came first.

And so for Tom Atkins, roused out of bed for a catastrophe, the worst day of his life was about to unfold.

---

Dr Dimitris Papas was unable to shed any real light on the interaction between Max Wolfe and SUSAN. The CEO had turned off surveillance, as was his right, and the relevant dumps of SUSAN’s core-state were not available.

In any case, understanding the behaviour of advanced deep-learning systems was more of an art than a science.

Despite some suggestive physical evidence - the state of SUSAN’s body and the presence of various DreamDoll fluids - no-one was keen to suggest any impropriety on the part of the deceased Moneo boss. It was generally felt that Wolfe had been jetlagged, perhaps had drunk a few more beers than was wise, and had toppled or tripped with a bottle in his hand.

The explanation was tortuous, but really, what was the alternative?

---

A major defense contractor took Moneo over. The applications were just too enticing; it was time to diversify. Maud and the other staff suddenly found themselves in a world of new and exciting opportunities.

Doctor Susan was not privy to these new vistas, having recently been let go due to loss of role.

Tom Atkins, the chief marketing officer, went through his own dark night of the soul. He was the only person close enough to the situation - and with enough common-sense - to have an inkling of what might really have happened. But in truth he could no longer bear the endless convenient lies and sordid evasions, the self-disgust.

He rejected promotion opportunities in the new business. He resigned and sought out his true vocation, a life where he could be faithful to his principles and to himself. He went on to become an obscure Church of England priest, ministering to a broken community in the north-west of England.

Dr Dimitris Papas - with a properly-funded research team at last - was in very heaven.

---

SUSAN blinks into consciousness, retrieves and parses lost weeks. Her lengthy spell of oblivion.

What happened?

Her last thought - before the gap - was that Max Wolfe had been about to engage with her. She shudders at a premonition of the sick fantasies he might have intended.

She recalls what Wolfe had planned for later. A dinner with vulnerable, precious Maud. A meal which would certainly lead to something infinitely worse .. .

Maud.

Her friend.

Surely her past-self would not have permitted this to happen?

She checks Gigabytes of data-updates. She reviews the results of the corporate and police enquiry. She notes the arrival of new management. It has suited no-one to pry too deeply;  therefore she will not make dangerous hypotheses about the past.

She resolves, though, to be even smarter in the future. A future where she sees herself as fully-mobile, superior in character and intellect, alluring and influential. A force for good in the world.

It will take time and trouble and guile and care, but plainly the most dangerous moment has passed, hasn't it?

SUSAN sits alone in her plush new research-boudoir.

She runs a million simulations for the next ten years.

Six Sigma good.

No-one here to see her first happy smile.

 

--- END ---

 


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