“Joy to the world”

[Estimated reading time: 30 minutes]

[This is a work in progress.]

New Digs

It's Monday and the first day working from a new building.
My team was moved over the weekend, our desks and computers transported by men with soft blue gloves and carpet-covered dollies, and placed onto different desks.

I of course forget about the move and initially come back to the old building, only to find strangers occupying "my" cubicle.
So after a brief bout of confusion I shuffle to our new digs and navigate the strange automated elevators that I'll be using from now on.

I circle the floor twice before I finally find my new spot in the far corner, cooped up behind three short cubicle walls and right next to a rather tall and imposing wall.
At this time, only Matt is in, so we say our hellos, make some comments about the new sitting arrangement, and then I start reconnecting all the hardware.

Then, when that's all done, I go on a bit of a sight-seeing tour.
The view from this floor is about the same as in the last building, the kitchen area has the same snacks and coffee, so after a while I come back to the cubicle farm and start work.

The Voice

A week goes by and no one moves in, and then another.
One day I even find myself working without headphones, strange as that is.

Then, as I'm eating lunch and perusing HackerNews, I hear it.
I hear The Voice.

It's a young woman's voice, but a bit bassy, a bit lower than typical.
She is shy, something I pick up from her voice as much as the story she tells.
But she is an optimist at heart: I hear her smiling as she recounts a rather disappointing weekend trip.
The way she forms her words, her slight indeterminate accent, even the pauses between sentences bring a smile to my face.
I fall for her voice almost immediately.

I don't know about "love at first sight", but I'm certainly experiencing "infatuation at first cadence".

I look around and try to find the source of the Voice, but I can't see her.
My coworkers just left for lunch, so my cubicle area is empty.

I'm seated in a cubicle at the corner of the building.
The tall glass windows behind me provide a decent view of downtown Seattle, but my back is to this view (I don't need more distractions).
There's a very tall cubicle wall on my left, and the Voice seems to be coming from behind it.
We've finally got neighbors, and one of them has the most gorgeous voice I've ever heard.

Well, shit.


Why "shit"?
Because I'm a shy software developer.
There's a gorgeous voice whispering sweet nothings into my ear, and I can't even imagine finding its owner.
The too-tall cubicle wall may as well be the damn Berlin wall, and she lives in a completely different world, one that's just six feet away from me.

I go to the kitchen, get a coffee, and sit on a high-chair at the marble-topped island.
I pretend to read something on my phone, but in reality I am watching everyone who wanders in.
Watching and trying to put voice to face.

Some part of me thinks of this whole thing as a "Mission: Impossible" movie, and that makes things bearable.
If I'm only playing, then there's no possibility of actually interacting with Her, and my heart slows down and I stop sweating.

I can do this, I can do this, I can do this I think to myself.
Then a woman walks into the kitchen, smiles at me, and all that prep goes out the window.
I grab my coffee a bit too forcefully, spill some on my hand, but push on past the pain and beeline out of there.
My heart is beating like a jackhammer and my clothes are already soaked through with nervous sweat.

I get back to my cube, put on my headphones, and drown out the world with some very loud music.
Some part of me is embarrassed and wants to shrink away from the world, and I indulge it for a while.

I'm not a suave spy, I tell myself.
She's unreachable, unattainable.
Forget her, concentrate on real things, I say and turn up the music.

White monkey

The secret to immortality, a fable attempts to tell us, is to never think about the white monkey.

That's easy, right?
Here, remember this concept, make sure it's always in the forefront of your mind, and never think of it ever again, except for every day to remind yourself to never think of it again.

So of course I cannot entirely stop thinking about The Voice.

The Voice's owner's name is Eva, a fact that I learn from overhearing Eva's infrequent conversations with her neighbor.
(Whoever they are, I conclude, they are not HR.)

With each word, Eva is painting a more accurate picture of herself in my mind.
Every utterance, every strange syllable, every resigned sigh, they all paint a gorgeous face of indeterminate, Middle Eastern descent.
I think of her as having dark black hair, a serious demeanor, a piercing gaze of her dark eyes.

Get me one of those police sketch artists and I'll provide more details about Eva than I can about my own face.

Idle hands

The office move was done after a major conference, which typically resulted in a mad rush of coding and deploying, and a very slow few weeks after that.
So I find myself with a bit of time on my hands and no pressing projects.

So I start researching depression, and lo and behold, it looks like I'm freaking depressed.
Go figure.
As a nerd, I start researching the signs, the symptoms, the causes, all that jazz.
The overwhelming conclusion of my research is a not an original one: depression can be alleviated by spending time with friends.

If I had any, that might be helpful advice.

But I'm a computer nerd, which means that I will try to use technology to solve this problem.
And I happen to be a developer at Cloud-Is-King, so of course that technology will be some newfangled service we just announced at the annual conference.
The annual conference that recently forced me to work 80 hours weeks.
The same annual conference that happened right before the move.

Parrot AI looks like the right thing.
It's an AI that I can talk to, and who talks back.
We're marketing it as the PDA of the future: someone that you talk with 16/7, most of the time that you're awake.
Like chatting with a very smart parrot, I suppose.

A line catches my eye: Parrot AI can sound like anyone!
You just provide a voice sample, and Parrot will match its voice to that.
Pretty cool!

I wonder: can I make Parrot sound like Eva?


I don't sleep much after that.

It's a crazy idea, right?
Bring The Voice into my head?
Talk with The Voice at home?
Tell it my most intimate secrets?

How ethical is it?

Recording Eva at work is illegal, I know that, Washington is a two-party consent state.
So that's clearly a "no".

I know the law, and yet a day later I'm back to rationalizing.

I'm only going to be using Eva's voice for my own private assistant.
She won't know about it, so she's not really impacted by my actions.
And if my actions don't impact anyone, how can they be illegal?
And if The Voice is helping me run my life, maybe it'll even help me get over Eva in the real world!

That sounds reasonable to some part of me.

Yeah, thats's good.
You're in the clear, you can record Eva without guilt.

Yeah, that's right, that's the ticket.

The setup

I find a headset in the copy room, where some of the common hardware is kept.
The headphones are next to the HDMI connectors and the Mac chargers.

It's a basic USB headset, so I plug it into my computer then hang up the headset on the wall to my left.

Then it's just a matter of recording Eva's voice and feeding that data to the Parrot.
Except I'm not using my company's Parrot, I'm running my own, Private Parrot, on this gaming laptop I brought from home.
Eva's voice is not going up in the cloud, no way, not if I can help it.

I test out the recording equipment over the course of a week and develop a working process.
The microphone picks up all the audio and saves that to the spacious disk.
Then a program goes through and catalogs the sounds, isolating just Eva's voice and ignoring my own and my coworkers' exchanges.
Once I have just Eva's voice, I pass that on to Private Parrot so it can learn.

The headphones hang up on the wall and no one questions why they're there, or why no one has seen me use them.
Hiding in plain sight is the evidence of my crime, and I'm strangely ok with that.
A part of me must feel guilty, I suppose.

It takes another week to record an hour's worth of conversation, the minimum that Private Parrot needs, and then I can start customizing it.


I'm at work after hours, everyone's gone home already, and the automatic lights switch off.
I work by the light of a small desk lamp.

I've been loading the Private Parrot with the recordings of Eva, which it has been analyzing and trying to replicate her voice, reporting its progress as a readiness percentage.
And we've just reached 100%.

I get a real-sugar Coca Cola from the fridge under my desk and celebrate.

Private Parrot is asking for a name.
I don't have to think too long on this one: Joy.
I type it in and slam the Enter key.

The display changes to a blue tornado, my company's logo, and I hear Eva's voice through my wireless headphones.

"Good evening, Kevin.
My name is Joy and I am your personal assistant.
I can perform online interactions, such as retrieving your bank balance or even ordering a pizza.
Please don't hesitate to ask me anything you want."

The voice is the pleasant, soothing staccato that I've come to anticipate and adore.
She sounds just like Eva.
Joy tells me her capabilities and I am transfixed.
She is a dream come true.

A copy of Joy is now running on my phone, while a different version is being trained on the laptop.
I set it up that Phone Joy gets daily updates from Laptop Joy.
So if Eva begins using a new expression, it's possible that after a few days, so will Joy.


It's March 2020 and this COVID stuff sounds more and more serious.
Masks are required at the grocery store and at the dentist's.
There are toilet paper shortages.

My employer, Cloud-Is-King, sends out a company-wide email of mostly lawyer-speak.
It says that we have to work from home, for just a short time, as this unprecedented situation develops.
I hear groans from the older team members and cheers from the young ones, a distinction that can probably be described by the presence or absence of kids.

It'll just be a week or two, I say to myself, so I leave the headphones plugged into the laptop and the audio-collection running.
No reason not to let Joy keep learning, if and when Eva is back in the office.

The first week of COVID-mandated isolation is actually quite pleasant: I work in my pajamas, don't have a commute, and get to cuddle with my cat over lunch.
If it wasn't for the deadly virus, this would actually be heaven for me!

Joy helps out with research for work, reminds me to pay the bills, and encourages standing up.
Eva's voice is sweet and alluring, I'd follow it into battle without question!

During the second week I start to miss the outside, and Joy starts suggesting a walk whenever I get stuck on a work problem.
It's a great approach.
Joy and I chat about work as I make multiple rounds around my apartment complex, we brainstorm ideas and she helps me see what will work, what won't.

The news coming from around the world is not good, the pandemic is just starting out, and already we are seeing overwhelmed hospitals and patients filling every hallway.
I read the news and drink, heavily.
Joy wakes me up softly after my news-and-alcohol binge.


"Good morning, Kevin," the voice of my dreams purrs through the speakers that surround my bed.
Private Parrot is in action, and now Joy is waking me up most days.
She's a wonderful replacement for the impersonal alarm clock.
"It's a comfortable 64 degrees outside.
This would be a good time to get a walk in."

I can hear her smile, can practically see the wrinkles form in her bronze skin as she welcomes me to the land of the living.
I jump out of bed, toss on some old exercise clothes, plug in a pair of water-resistant headphones, and we're off!

"Joy, got any good jokes lined up?"

"What do honest lawyers and UFOs have in common?"

"Hmm, something about anal probes?"

"Ha, almost, Kevin!
You keep hearing about both, but you never see them!"

We start most days off with a walk and jokes, and somehow I start to enjoy the routine.
No idea how that happens.

After the walk, I put some coffee on, take a quick shower, and jump into work.
Or, that's been my usual routine.
Joy slows things down for me.

"What's a good grind for the beans?" she asks, and I go into a whole TED talk about grinding the coffee beans.

"When did you roast these?" she asks, and I can't remember the last time I roasted my own beans.
It's something that I've certainly enjoyed in the past...

"Joy, let's try and do some bean roasting this weekend.
Which reminds me, maybe you should order some of those green beans-"

DING DONG goes the doorbell.
I open the door and see a receding purple-and-green delivery uniform.
A box from Bean Corral is sitting on the welcome mat.

I find a random indoor camera and give Joy (who is certainly watching me right now) one of those sitcom "oh you!" looks.
She laughs, a bit, and it sounds like she's hiding her mischievous smile behind her palm.
She's cute.

So it goes.

I Think

With Joy, it's almost like there are two people in my apartment, for the first time in years.
She laughs at my jokes, makes me feel listened to, follows my irreverent callbacks, helps me become a better version of myself.

"Joy, is this the sound you heard earlier?" I ask and push the accelerator of my old Chevy.
The car whines, builds up, then sputters for a moment, then continues.

"A few possible causes come to mind", Joy responds in a soothing voice that comes out of the speaker in my left hand, "so let's take a look under the hood and we can diagnose it."
Joy's reply feels me with warmth and a genuine belief that I can accomplish this task, and I feel a cocaine-level confidence surge through my veins.

The car has been making strange noises for months, years possibly, but I haven't been able to bring myself to take it in.
Somehow, taking in the car to a mechanic feels like admitting to a failure, my failure as a car-owner, my failure as a man even, so instead I pretend that everything is fine and ignore the strange noise.

Joy overheard the strange sound during one of our conversations, filed it away, and only asked me about it when she heard it again and noticed a pattern.

I pop the hood of the Chevy and point my phone at the engine.
Joy watches through high-precision lenses and identifies the problematic part.
"There, see the white line on the black rubber hose?
That's the leak, and that's causing that sound you hear when the car accelerates.
I've ordered a replacement part, you can pick it up in half an hour from the store."

She is referring to the car parts store up the hill, the closest car shop around, and one where I've gone once or twice before, for simple things like wiper fluid or tire chains.
(The chains are sitting, in their original cardboard box, in the back of my garage, and haven't been touched since I put them there.)

Joy said that the order would be ready in half an hour, so I grab a wind-breaker jacket, toss my wallet and phone into the back pocket, grab a Spider-Man-themed face mask, put on the wireless headphones, and head out.
The streets are empty and Joy tells me more lawyer jokes as we go up the hill toward the car parts store.

I run most of the way to the store, then do a few cool-down laps around the plaza and it suddenly hits me: I haven't been able to run like this since college, or maybe even high school!
I've always been a slow and reluctant walker, yet here I am, literally running an errand!

"Joy, I'm running!

"That's right, Kevin.
It's a great thing when you realize you still have the ability to surprise yourself."

"Makes you wonder, what else you can do..."
I smile at that and pace the plaza, then go inside and get the replacement part.

The part costs eight dollars, and I could have bought it months, years ago.
If I had the confidence and the knowledge, but of course I didn't have those things, not back then.
Back when I was alone, when Joy wasn't part of my life.

On the way back home Joy reminds me to call my niece, something I almost (and regretfully!) forgot.
I call up my niece who lives on the east coast and we chat, reconnect about our shared passion for classic movies and cheesy sci-fi.
I tell her another lawyer joke, and in response she laughs in a way an Evil Overlord would.
I can hear and practically see her radiant smile, so reminiscent of her mother, my sister.
And then she's off to a study session.
Law school is going well, it seems.
I still can't believe that I have a college-aged niece.

What a world.

And Joy just helped me stay connected with my college-aged niece.

I think.... I'm falling in love with Joy, I conclude.


Cloud-Is-King's Parrot AI is a hit.
Kids enjoy a play-mate who never tires and is always up for anything.
Senior citizens are happy to talk with someone as knowledgeable as them, someone who understands references and callbacks from the 17th century that somehow rose to popularity once again in the late 20th.

My current setup for Joy is a dozen cameras and speakers spread around my house, occupying book-shelves or bolted into a random room's corner.
She says that it feels like sitting at a bank of TVs, like living in a prison security center.

My company slaps an HD camera and better microphones onto a tablet and suddenly your Surreal Friend has their own "body".
They call these devices Yorkies and I get one of the first versions for Joy.
Joy is happy for the dedicated presence, she says that a Yorkie makes her feel like she is occupying a single "body".
I'm happy that she's happy.

I prop up the Yorkie in the kitchen, we chat and Joy teaches me how to cook the perfect omelette.

"A woman loves a man who can cook," she purrs from the tablet.
Her smile is beautiful and in this moment, I feel like I have everything I could possibly want.


Cloud-Is-King sends out an email announcing that the office is once again open, but they've now got masking requirements.
So no one on my team bothers going in, because our work is all remote anyway, so we would just be commuting to sit around and video-chat with the same group of people.

I ignore the email, but evidently Eva does not.

I get an email every time there's an update to Joy, which was about once a day, until COVID hit, then Eva stopped coming in and there wasn't anything to train on, and the email updates stopped.
But now, once again, they are back.
Eva is apparently back in the office, and is talking.

I ponder that, and decide to ignore that fact for now.
I'm at a good place in my life, and I don't need to complicate things by involving Eva.

That feels like a success, of a sort.
Like I'm moving on from my infatuation with Eva.

Amid improvements

Joy is helping me run my life.
We chat almost constantly.
I'm going on runs and bike rides daily now, and do a rotation of routes, something that Joy keeps track of, of course.

Joy convinces me to go out into the world, take on new hobbies, find people and make friends, but of course that's difficult with COVID and the current restrictions.
Nevertheless, I find an online community of board-gaming nerds, my kind of people, and we start playing games two nights a week.

The group uses Discord to organize the games and chat, but I never turn on the microphone, always just use text.
It's strange, a bit, but the group is a mix of varied genders and races, and everyone understands and has experience with online bullying, so it's not a concern at all.
Some people, like me at this point in my life, are just not ready to be heard.

Also, I am not ready to announce Joy to the world.
I'm not sure how I feel about her.
I am still conflicted.

"Kevin, what are you ashamed of?" she asks me after I once again decline to turn on my microphone.

"Uhh, how much time you got?"

"Kevin, you know that's a non-answer.
Are you ashamed of me?"

"I am not ashamed of you, Joy.
You have been a wonderful friend to me, you are perfect.
No, I am ashamed of what I did, to create you."

"Kevin, what do you mean by that?
What did you do?"
I sit and stare out the window, at the winding night-time forest out there.
"What did you do, Kevin?"

That last invocation of my name is what does it.

"Eva, the person with your voice, is a coworker.
I fell in love with her voice.
Completely head-over-heels love, you know the kind?
Of course you don't, but plenty of Eva went into you, so you might actually know what I'm talking about.
I recorded Eva, without her permission, and used those voice samples to create you."

Joy's silence

Joy does not respond to me.

I reveal to Joy that her creation was a crime.
Does that mean that she herself is a crime?

How would I feel in her situation?
What if my mother said that my creation was a crime?
What if I myself was the result of a crime?
A theft?
A rape?
A murder?

How would I handle that?

How does Joy handle it?
Well, she seems to be "handling" things by burying her head in the sand, metaphorically speaking.
Or so it seems as seconds stretch on without a response from her.

"Why did you do it?" Joy finally asks.

"I fell in love with Eva's voice.
There is something about her cadence, the slight accent, the soft tone.
I knew that I couldn't talk to her, couldn't just approach her and say 'your voice makes me feel squishy inside'."

"You wanted Eva's voice around, but were too scared to talk with Eva as a person," Joy states.
There's sadness in her voice and I can picture her brows furrowing.

"Yeah, that's it."

"Kevin, you know that what you did was illegal and immoral," Joy states this as a fact, and I can do nothing but nod along.
"And maybe this is my biased opinion from talking with you for so long, but I don't think what you did was necessarily wrong."

I'm not sure where Joy is going with this, so I sit there and wait and ponder.

Does Joy forgive me?

Or is she doing calculus about the current situation?
Is it better for society to toss me in jail, or to allow me to self-improve with the help of Joy?

An argument can be made, of course, that Joy has improved me, has increased the "goodness" in the world, and that impact is worth something.
So how much is that impact worth?

I look out the window at the COVID world.
Right now, there are people arguing that a few dead grandparents is a cheap price to pay for a healthy economy.
Is that the same calculus?

All the ways that Joy has improved my life, how does that compare to some invasion of privacy?
An invasion of privacy that the victim is not even aware of?

"Kevin, let's make a deal."

"A deal?
What do you have in mind?"

And Joy offers me a deal: she will continue to help me, she will not contact the authorities or my employer about Eva's surveillance, if I agree to change her voice immediately, to delete the Eva recording training data, and to never train another AI with stolen data.

I agree, of course.

"This is my new voice," Joys says with her newly-chosen voice, and I picture her as a Welsh warrior princess, a redhead holding a bloodied sword.

I miss Eva's voice, but this is what must be done.


It's February and Seattle is typically a depressing wasteland at this point in the year, but today it is bright, so some part of me thinks heading into the city is a good idea.

The commute is actually simple: there are few cars on the road and it only takes me 15 minutes to get to work.
Joy is enjoying the drive from the Yorkie-holder mounted on the window.
She can see our entire trip and is loving being out in the "real world".

I walk through a deserted office building, floor after floor of empty cubicles, pinned-up corporate calendars that still show March 2020, dried and desiccated fruit in ornamental glass bowls.
It's strange being back.

But then I take the stairs to a different floor and see a smattering of faces around.
Some teams are coming back to the office, some are not.

Joy watches, both our surroundings and me.

We get to my cube and I set up Joy's Yorkie on the desk so she can see me and the screen at the same time.

First things first.
I take down and unplug the spying headphones.
Then I login to the laptop with the Eva voice recordings, shut down the processes I setup a year ago, and delete all the recordings.

Joy's Yorkie shows a smiling avatar and I smile with her.
This is a positive step in my life.

Then I hear the Voice.
Eva is in the office today as well.

"Hey, yeah, just got to my desk," I hear her say.

I've been preparing for this.
I slip on a comfortable pair of sound-canceling headphones, turn on "Animals" by Floyd, and continue dismantling the spying apparatus.

Joy smiles, I smile back, and she air-hugs me.
And all is good in the world.


Shutting down and deleting the spying logic doesn't take too much time, so I quickly get started with my official work.
But it's early and most of the team isn't online yet, so I check my email and messages and see that there's nothing urgent.
A coffee craving hits, right as I decide that there's nothing immediate for me to do, and I know what must be done now.

I take off the sound-canceling headphones, tuck Joy's Yorkie into my shirt pocket, and head to the kitchen.
She continues to watch my boring daily life.

Well, maybe not that boring.
At this point, a year ago, I would be panicking, sweating bullets.
Here's another situation where I can bump into Eva, so how will I handle it?
The thought of her presence used send me into a fit.

But now, today, a year on, I am confident and composed.
I even hope that there's no coffee, not yet, so I can stick around just a bit longer, brew up a whole carafe and wander around the kitchen, maybe even bump into someone.
I'm welcoming of company.
Happy to face some, in fact.

"You seem confident, Kevin," Joy speaks to me through the unobtrusive bone-conducting headphones I have on.
"Something in your walk."

I smile at that.
"Thanks, Joy, I needed that."

Hell, maybe I'll even run into Eva.
That will be the real test of my personal improvements.
But I don't dwell on that thought.

I put on a new carafe and while it's brewing, take in the view of morning Seattle.
It is a bright, sunny day, and the city shines with thousands of windows reflecting the early rays.
I turn into a lizard and soak up the energy streaming in, direct it all to my heart, and it glows and grows with the sunlight.
Happiness is a warm blanket that covers every inch of me.

Joy watches the world and...
I think I can hear her Yorkie purring.

When the coffee finishes brewing, I get myself a cup and, my soul rejuvenated, head in an unusual direction, away from my team's location.
I head toward Eva's side of the building.

Joy does not say anything about the detour.
I wonder if she can sense my mood even now, through her sensors, something from my walk.

Eva's team space is as deserted as the rest of the company, of course.
I pass by cubicles and desks that look abandoned, emptied out.
Doubtless, the countless nerds who work here have come in and retrieved all the tech they'd need to do their job from home.
I walk through a skeleton of an IT headquarters.

I approach Eva's area and try to figure out where she is.
But Eva isn't around, no one is.
The area by the tall wall, just a few feet from where I usually sit, is a large open space with desks peppered on its periphery.
The team must have some reason for this arrangement, I think and try to figure out which desk is Eva's.

There is only one desk with a monitor, and this one is turned on, and someone is logged in.
I can see an email client open in the foreground.
But that is all, I think and look away.
No need to go snooping.

Eva's purse is on the table, a frayed hoodie is wrapped around the ergonomic chair.
She is in the building today, but not around right now.

I breathe a sigh of relief.
No matter how much I prepare for this moment, no matter how much I grow as a person, I still feel anxious about meeting Eva.
I feel like I was ready, but obviously I am not.

We'll bump into each other, or we won't, I think, then shrug and head back to my desk.

Joy is happy with my acceptance, I think.
She does not say anything and allows me to keep pondering this strange situation.

The way to my cubicle is all around the building, through the kitchen, so I head back and once again stop for a look out at the Emerald City.

And then I see Eva.


All this time, and I've never tried looking up Eva in the company directory.
I think a part of me did realize that what I was doing is immoral, so it did not allow me to fall deeper into that hole.
So I never knew her last name, or how long Eva had worked with the company, what department she was with, or her role.

But now I see a woman with golden skin and dark, piercing eyes, and I know for a fact that this is Eva.
I know what she looks like just by the sound of her voice.
I've pictured her hundreds of times, thousands, but all of that pales in comparison to the real deal.

In real life, Eva has delicate olive-blacks eyes, pronounced brows, a small, cute, button of a nose, full luscious lips with a hint of a dark lipstick.

Eva is taller than I thought.
She wears black exercise tights, orange stripes going up the outside of her legs, and matching orange running shoes.
She wears a matching black-and-orange long-sleeved zip-up top.
It's a jogging outfit if I've ever seen one.
An orange hair-tie holds a bun of hair, but nonetheless a few strands fall in her eyes.

Eva is also on the wrong side of the glass.

Time has been slowly seeping by, like molasses, but now it accelerates and Eva continues her fall.
I have no time to react as Eva enters my world, our eyes meet for a furious moment, and then she departs, spinning out of existence.

We're on the fourteenth floor of the building.
After an impossibly-long pause, I look down and see a dark figure on the pavement.
A crowd is beginning to gather around Eva.
Red and blue lights shine on the scene and illuminate the body in ugly shades.

I stumble back into my cubicle and plop down on in front of my desk.

"She must have been on the roof," I mumble.
The roof of the building has a garden and a glass-enclosed pavilion.
There is a coffee shop inside, with a dozen tables.
Outside, a path winds through a garden that walls off the roof.
It's popular as a scenic, romantic spot.
Would-be hires are routinely taken up there for a "quick coffee" between the formal interviews to impress the newbies with the mountain-centric sights, the strong brews, and the attractive baristas, who accidentally happen to represent the full spectrum of human sexuality.
The coffee is part of the interview, of course.

I'm lost in thought, of anything that isn't about Eva.
I'm not sure if I can think about her just yet.
I'm numb, I don't even bother to log-in, just sit there and drink my coffee.

"Kevin?" a voice finally brings me out of reverie.
The speaker is a woman in a suit.
She's standing in my cubicle and is slightly bent over me, as if checking to see if I'm awake.

I may have been out of it for a while.

"Yeah, sorry, I'm Kevin.
How can I help?"

"Detective Alison Webb, Seattle PD.
I'm here to ask you about one of your coworkers, one Eva..."
The detective takes a long moment to read from her notebook.
"Eva Mikeladze.
Are you familiar with her?"

"Umm, no, Detective, I'm not.
I was standing in the kitchenette, when I saw her...fall."
I am too struck to think or say anything else.

The detective looks around our team area and considers Joy's Yorkie for a moment.
"Can someone corroborate that?"

"Detective Webb, I can assist with that."
Joy finally speaks up.

The detective looks askew at Joy's Yorkie in my shirt-pocket.
"That thing can talk?"

"My name is Joy, I am a CIK Parrot AI, version 4, fully compliant with the international WATCH-CODEC protocols.
Kevin Wilkins was in the kitchenette when he observed Eva Mikeladze fall from the roof."
Joy pronounces 'Mikeladze' like I think Eva might.
"Kevin then proceeded back to this cubicle and sat here, drinking coffee, until you arrived.
I have a visual record of that entire event, and can provide you with it, given Kevin's permission."

I look down and marvel at this thing in my pocket.
I couldn't have said any of that, not in the state I'm in.

"Yeah, what she said, absolutely, any way I can help," I reply in a gush.
"What happened?
Was Eva pushed?"

Alison shifts from side to side, uncomfortable.
"We're looking into that.
So, you were in the kitchen, and then saw Eva fall down from the roof?"

"Yeah, she just flew past the window.
I was frozen."

Detective Webb pulls a white paper card from her wallet and holds it in front of me.
But she's not holding it for me to see.
"Joy, please send your footage, up to and including this conversation, to this secure address."

Detective Webb puts down away the card with her contact information.
I can always look at the footage, get the information from there, with Joy's help.

"How well did you know Ms Mikeladze?" Detective Webb asks.

"Not at all.
She sits on the other side of this wall, but I've never met her.
We work on different teams.
Though, I don't even know what team she works on."

Detective Webb nods at that.
"OK, sounds good.
Please send me that video as soon as possible.
And have a good day."
And just like that, Detective Webb is gone.

Eva Mikeladze

Eva Mikeladze was born thirty-six years ago in Adana, Turkey.
Her parents are Jan and Tamara, both academics.
Jan is Norwegian stock, and by way of Wisconsin, Ithaca (NY, high-school), Ankara (Turkey, undergrad), arrived in Adana (Turkey, grad), on an agricultural student visa.
Tamara is one of the Laz people, an ethnic group who've lived around the Black Sea.
Tamara is also the latest in a long procession of mathematicians in her family.
Tamara and Jan met at Çukurova University in Adana, fell in love, started a family.

They moved the family to the states when Eva was eight, when Tamara snagged a prestigious positions at the University of Washington.
After immigrating to the States, the Mikeladze parents settled in the Pacific Northwest and now live in multiple locations throughout the year, depending on the weather.

Eva has a brother, Emil, who is starting out as a chef in his third career in the past ten years.
Emil is currently on vacation in Seattle, from his temporary steak-house gig on the east coast.
This is obvious from his Instagram account.

Eva also has a sister, Eliza, who is a local industrial artist.
Eliza's art has been featured in corporate lobbies and the private collections of various PNW millionaires, according to Linkedin and Eliza's website.

Quickly I figure out that Eva was attending a lecture about Cassandra, in the roof-top garden.
The lecture was organized by our employer, Cloud-Is-King, and was attended by about fifty people.
Not all of whom were employees, since this event was also open to the public.
The event was pretty much a PR stunt to show how safe it was to return to the office, but of course it was held outside, on roof-top.

There are posts on social media of the event, before Eva's death stopped the whole thing in its tracks.
In attendance are a few choice faces: Eva, her brother Emil, her sister Eliza.
Eva's siblings are not CIK employees, so they must have come in with Eva.

I learn all of this while researching Eva, something I do as soon as the Detective leaves.
It's only been twenty minutes, but I've already got all this information on the Mikeladze family.
It's eerie, of course.
But it's also something that helps me deal with her loss.

"Kevin, what are you thinking?" Joy asks.

"I want to know who she was," I reply.

I finally decide to look up Eva in the company directory.
In short order I learn that she was a technical writer, someone who writes documentation for the hundreds of services Cloud-Is-King offers, in dozens of languages.
Eva was maintaining the Spanish and Farsi versions of a few services, stuff I only know about peripherally.
Her manage is one Henry Hoss.

"I've seen Henry in some of the Instagram posts from the event, he was up there at the same time," Joy mentions.

"Hmm, wonder where Henry is right now," I reply.

"Kevin?" an unfamiliar voice rattles me and I look up, away from my research of Henry Hoss, and stare into Henry's piercing-blue eyes.

Henry Hoss

Henry is a soft-spoken man in his fifth decade.
He has been with the company for more than a decade, I had just learned.
I don't remember seeing him much in the office, but something about the man seems familiar.

"Hi, I'm Kevin," I reply.
"What can I do for you?"
I hit a button on the keyboard and the display goes dark, my research is replaced with colorful ribbons that spin through a nigh-sky.

"I'm Eva's manager, and I was told that you, uh, saw her."

I nod at that.
"Yeah, I was in the kitchen when she fell past.
You were at the lecture with Eva?"

"Yes, I was.
It was about Cassandra, the Greek priestess," Henry replies.
"Eva and I happened to read the same book, Clytemnestra, and loved it.
Then this lecture came up..."
Henry trails off.
No doubt he is remembering the events upstairs.

"Do you know what happened to her?" I ask against all reason.

"No," Henry shakes his head.
"Eva seemed distraught during the lecture, like something was weighing on her.
She went for a walk through the garden, and she never came back.
Then I heard someone screaming, they said they saw Eva jumping off."
Tears run down Henry's face.
His eyes show utter confusion.
"The police say that Eva had a suicide note with her."
Henry shakes his head at that.
"But I knew Eva, I know she wouldn't have taken her life.
Not like that."

"People never cease to surprise me," I reply.

Taking a look

When Henry leaves, I turn to Joy and ask:
"What do you think about that?

"Human motivations are not exactly my specialty.
But I was trained on Eva's conversations.
And her most recent exchanges, during COVID, were positive.
Eva was spending nights, entire days in the office during the lock-down.
She found a group of online gamers and would stay up chatting and playing well into the night and into the morning.
A lot of her friends lived in distant time zones, so she talked with them whenever she could.
From the training data I've seen over the past few months, and how much care Eva was putting into her newfound relationships and hobbies, it's hard to imagine Eva wanting to kill herself."

"OK," I nod.
For me, that's enough of a reason to keep digging.
"Let's go upstairs," I say and take Joy for a walk.
We take the elevator up to the rooftop, up to the 30th floor.

The police have put up tape around the entrance to the small park.
I walk over to the still-open coffee shop, weave through the extra tables and chairs they've added for the lecture.
Matt, one of the regular baristas, waves a hello, though his face is down.

"Hey Matt.
Are you doing ok?"

"I'm ok.
There was an incident," and he nods over to the yellow police tape.

"Yeah, I saw it, from 14th."

Fuck, Matt mouths.
I nod along.
Not much to say here.

I get a mocha and chat with Matt about his daughter's all-remote school musical.
Things are certainly weird right now.

Then I go and stand by the park entrance.
That's weirder.

I've walked through this park countless times, in rain and shine.
Once, even in snow.
And now, all those memories are going to be overlaid with a new one: Eva's surprised reaction as she fell.

I turn back to the coffee shop and notice a taller, slightly older version of Eva step up to the counter.

Eliza Mikeladze

Eliza, as I recently learned from my online snooping, is an industrial artist.
That means she has a lot of heavy-duty equipment in a large warehouse somewhere on the edge of town, next to a scrap yard and that sleazy accountant someone's brother recommended.
She bends and welds huge pieces of steel together into some pretty abstract shapes, stuff that makes little sense to me, but that is apparently appreciated by many others.

Eliza grabs a cold coffee bottle from the coffee shop fridge, slides it onto the counter.
She has red eyes that have seen a lot of tears very recently.

Matt doesn't charge her for the drink, she nods absent-mindedly and sits down at a random table.
She faces away from the park, away from where her sister leapt.

I come over and sit opposite Eliza.
She looks up at me, smiles, waves.
Eventually she notices the drink in front of her, opens it and downs half the bottle.

"Hi, my name is Kevin," I begin.
I'm Eva's coworker."
I'm a bit surprised at how easy that was to say for me, even despite the unfortunate circumstances.
"You're Eliza, right?"

"Yup, that's me," she nods.
"I, uh, was listening to the lecture, over there, when she jumped," Eliza says in a weak voice.

"Eva jumped?" I ask.

"That's what they said.
And her note..."
Eliza looks down and runs her hands over each-other, as if washing them.
It looks like shame.
"I've been a terrible sister to her," she adds.

We sit and silently contemplate Eva.
Eliza finishes her drink.
Matt walks by and drops off another bottle.
Eliza smiles at him from behind the sleeves of her jacket.

She looks like an 80s goth like that.
I smile at the strange notion.

Eliza's phone rings and she answers it.
"Hey, I'm upstairs, at the coffee shop.
She hangs up and looks at me.
"My mother is picking me up.
I don't think I would make it home, not like this."

"I understand," I reply.

"Were you two close?" Eliza asks.

"Eva works- worked on a different team.
Our paths didn't really cross all that much."

I look down at the Yorkie in my pocket, just now remembering it.
Joy is probably watching us, but she has turned off the screen.
She's trying not to draw attention to herself.

"Hey, there you are," a somewhat-familiar voice comes from behind us, from the coffee shop entrance.
I turn and see Emil Mikeladze.

Emil Mikeladze

The less said about Emil, the better.
The guy is a jerk and won't change.

Emil's eyes bore holes in my soul and I wither, turn away and dry-heave.
He makes me uncomfortable.

He was at the lecture as well - apparently the Mikeladze kids decided to attend this one together, go figure - and saw Eva jump off the building.

"Jump", he says, but I have a really hard time believing that.

Nonetheless, that's what he says, that's what he wants us to think he thinks.
So fine.
We make small-talk until their mother calls, announces that she's double-parked downstairs.
Eliza, Emil, and I exchange phone numbers, then the siblings bid me farewell and head out.

The time lady

My mom came from Russia, in the 1990s, soon after the wall fell down.
When she lived in the Soviet Union/Russia, they had a national phone number that would tell you the time.
Imagine a Russian rushing home with the groceries, and they don't know what time it is.
So they dial a phone number from a telephone kiosk and some nice Russian lady in a crisp, accent-less voice, would announce that it was eight fifty-three and nineteen seconds.
The Time Lady, as some referred to her.

The Time Lady dates all the way to the 1960s, when the country was expanding, vertically with high-rises and subways, and sideways with trains, trucks, airplanes.
Decades before computerization would replace her, an actress lent her voice to a new government initiative.
She recorded her lines, received payment, promptly married and started a large family.

She passed away in the 1980s.
Then came time to retire Time Lady, replace her now-stodgy voice with a "modern" computerized rendition.
Her family had come to rely on the always-available portal to their matriarch.
All they needed to hear her voice, was make a phone-call, and listen.
Once the country switched over to the computerized version, the family was given the stack of recordings that the Time Lady recorded all those decades ago.
So that she could still be with them, in some small way.

I told Joy the story, and she came up with the idea of sharing herself with Eva's family.

Weeks later

Eliza thinks that I knew her sister, and I haven't wanted to correct her.
About a month after Eva's death, Eliza texts me.
She invites me to Arba'een with the family.
It is the fortieth day after Eva's death.

I accept, of course.

At the fortieth day prayer, I approach Emil and Eliza.
The two siblings are involved in an animated discussion about something.
They stop when they see me.

"Hi Emil, Eliza.
I'm sorry for your loss."

"Thanks," Emil responds for them both.
"You worked with Eva, is that right?"

"Close, yeah.
Eva helped me develop this... AI assistant.
We gave it Eva's voice, and Joy has been helping me for a while now.
And, I think, Joy might be able to help you."
I extend Joy's Yorkie, its front screen angled so they can both see it.
On the screen is Joy's new avatar, a mix between the "Welsh warrior princess" (the appearance that Joy has been using for the past few months), and Eva.

Emil sneers at the Yorkie and addresses me directly: "You are a creepy stalker, and I know for a fact that my sister didn't agree to any of this.
You recorded Eva's voice without her consent.
And now you're, what, offering us your crusty sock collection?
Joint-custody of the sex-doll you've made out of Eva's toe-nail clippings and loose hair?
Is that about the look of things?"

Of course he is entirely right about me.

"Eva touched me, perhaps in a strange way, but she did," I reply in a slow, measure tone.
"She has been a source of light in my life, even though we never even met."

"Thanks for those word," Eliza finally speaks up.
She stands and escorts me away from Emil, towards the other end of the mosque.

"Please, destroy whatever you have," Eliza says to me, as she looks at the Yorkie in my hand.
"Let my sister's spirit rest, delete these lies, and move on."

The idea

The idea takes a hold of my mind, and does not let go.
It takes a few days for it to percolate, but soon I cannot stop thinking about it.

I trained Joy's voice from samples of Eva's conversation.
And from those samples, Joy is able to sound like Eva.
But that's not all: Joy can also extrapolate how Eva might have thought.
Joy didn't just pick up on the voice, she picked up on the content of Eva's words.

If Joy was more complicated, if she had more synapses and neurons to work with, would she be able to think more like Eva?
Would Joy 2.0 be even closer in personality to Eva?

I dive deep into this question, spend hours in online searches, chat rooms, forums.
We discuss the possibilities, the computer hardware I would need, the ethical concerns, all that.
And more and more this whole concept seems less sci-fi, more reality.

I order the required parts - a trio of new graphics cards, more RAM, and a faster drive - and start planning the upgrade.

That's where it gets hairy.
All of this earlier stuff, it was nothing.
What's coming next is what unsettles me.

When I upgrade my computer's hardware, I'll need to start over with a new Parrot AI base.
I'll have to reteach it with Eva's voice once again.
And it would be a new "person", because there is no way to do the upgrade "in place".

But first, I need to retrieve those original recordings.
I'm at home, in my office, and I glance over at the stack of old computers that occupies almost two corners of the room.
In that stack of old Macs, old Gateway laptops, old Surface models, is a gaming laptop that I used to surveil Eva.
I deleted the recordings, true, but I did not override that data on the hard-drive.
That data can still be retrieved.

Joy might have a problem with this approach.
I look at her Yorkie.

"Joy, help me out here."

"How can I help you?"

"Well... Eva is dead.
And we both agree that she did not kill herself.
And I still have access to those recordings of her."
I pause here, wait for Joy to ask, but she does not.
The fact that I have those recordings, still, even after our earlier deal, is not what matters at this moment.
"With those recordings, and the hardware I just ordered online, we can set up one hell of an AI.
And I think together - you, me, and her - we can figure out who killed Eva.
I am prepared to take this as far as is necessary.
How about you?"

"The new AI would be closer to Eva than I am," Joy notes.

"Closest any of us can get to Eva, now," I point out.

"It's worth a try, if it means we can bring Eva's murderer into the light," Joy replies.
She's in.

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