"So what are you going to do now?" Jack asked casually as he ambled down the sidewalk three days later, Benjamin at his side to make certain he made it to his destination.
"Elsie needs help," he whispered sadly. "A lot of it. Vanessa too. She lost a lot of memory when the power surge hit her core."
"I'm sorry," Jack murmured sorrowfully as he turned the last corner between him and his destination.
"It wasn't your fault, Jack."
"Yes it was," Jack noted intensely. “I should have told you earlier about Erik.”
“Yes you should have,” Ben whispered slowly. “But it would have made no difference in the final plan. You couldn’t have told me what Charles told me,” he finished firmly and Jack sighed.
“I just wish so many people hadn’t died because of it. I should have taken care of Erik a long time ago,” he finished and nodded his head towards a man and wife walking their dog. They smiled back in recognition and the dog padded up to him, sniffing his leg before barking happily and wagging his tail in welcome. Jack smiled and squatted down to pet the little mutt, feeling his empty right sleeve brushing past his leg.
"So are you finally coming back for good?" the man asked and Jack nodded as he scratched behind the dog's ear with his left hand.
"That's the plan," he whispered as the dog melted into his chest in pure ecstasy.
"Be careful," the man noted with s smile. "Some young buck tried to hook up with her last week."
"Oh," Jack whispered in surprise as he dug his fingers a little further into the dog's soft spot. "So what did Grinder do to him?"
"Not a thing," the man returned with beatific smile. "He let Andrea take out her frustrations on the poor guy."
"Oh," Jack muttered and his hand stopped moving. “What happened?”
“I hear he finally got out of the hospital this morning,” the man answered with another smile and Jack swallowed slowly as the dog nudged him meaningfully, asking him to get back to his heavenly scratching again.
“Well come on, Sugar,” the man said to his dog and it padded back to its masters quickly. “Let’s leave Jack to go ahead with his plans,” the man finished with a wink, earning a cross look from his wife, and all three of them walked away.
Jack sighed and looked at Ben nervously, then shrugged and started ambling down the sidewalk again, his left hand stuffed in a jacket pocket. “So,” he cleared his throat awkwardly and Ben laughed quietly.
“Jack, I’m glad you went back in,” he finally whispered in a careful tone. “If you hadn’t, we still wouldn’t know that Erik figured out a way to rewrite an AI’s memories.”
“But it was Charles who found that out wasn’t it?” Jack asked in confusion and Ben shrugged.
“Not fully. We didn’t really find out everything until we went over all of Erik’s records with a fine-toothed comb. But Charles’ contacts were only able to find anything out after you started blowing stuff up in there. It freed them up to check things out. The information he got from them simply said Erik could control AIs. We didn’t know how.”
“I see,” Jack whispered sadly.
“We didn’t tell Elsie about it,” Ben responded in a similar voice. “I hoped she could recover first. But she played hacker and figured out what Erik could do.”
“And now she’s not sure she can trust you or anyone else because you tried to hide the truth from her?” Jack asked and Ben nodded sadly.
“It’s going to be really hard on Elsie, and I honestly don’t know if she’ll recover. She’s terrified that her own memories were rewritten when she was shutdown and that she’s still under his control.”
Jack paused at that and cocked his head to the side. “But if she remembers, doesn’t that mean he didn’t rewrite them?”
“Or maybe he just wants her to think he didn’t,” Ben responded and Jack’s shoulders deflated in defeat.
“Just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they aren’t really out to get you.”
“Exactly,” Ben whispered. “She’s going through so many circles of back and forth arguments with herself about this that her processors are running flat out. She can’t trust anyone right now because they could just be some program written by Erik trying to make her believe she isn’t under his control.”
“And she can’t just look at things and realize the truth?”
“AIs have always had problems distinguishing the real world from a sufficiently well-made simulation. To an AI, everything is digital. It’s how they see the world. They don’t see in analog like we do. They see things as ones and zeroes. To us, even the best simulations don’t feel right. Oh, we can ignore the feeling and enjoy it. And often we won’t even notice it if the simulation is good enough. But if we look for it, we can feel the difference. The sharpness of the simulation.”
“But AIs always sees that, the ones and zeroes,” Jack muttered in realization as he took another step forward. “They don’t see it. The difference like we do. But Elsie has an organic datacore. A brain. Can’t she tell the difference?”
“Yes she can. At least I hope she will,” Ben sighed sadly. “Right now she doesn’t trust anyone, least of all herself though. And until she does trust again, she won’t trust her own senses.”
“A vicious circle. She’ll never break out of it until she decides to just trust and pray that trust isn’t betrayed.”
“Exactly,” Ben shivered and put his left hand in his suit jacket’s pocket. “It’s scary that we never had a clue he could do that. That it could even be done.”
“I’ve always heard you couldn’t break the security around an AI’s programming,” Jack whispered and Ben nodded quickly.
“We still haven’t found anybody who can do that, and we constantly run tests too. But this was a work around. Erik found a weakness in the long-term memory code and was able to figure out how to abuse it. I’m just glad James and Cat got there and saved your sorry butts. Otherwise we’d never have known until it was too late.”
“Yeah, it was a close one,” Jack whispered and brought his left hand up to rub his right shoulder where his arm had been. “How are Nova and Vanessa doing by the way?”
“I had to fabricate a new avatar for both of them,” Ben muttered. “Vanessa is still missing a lot of her memories. Pathways that we couldn’t recover after the cascade collapse sent a power surge through her core. I’d like you to spend some time with her. Talk to her. Tell her what she doesn’t remember. You spent more time with her than I did in the last few months. She could really use your help,” he finished plaintively and Jack sighed slowly. Other people were always hurt because of what he did, but he kept on bouncing back. It wasn’t fair.
“I can do that,” he finally whispered slowly and Ben nodded thankfully. “So what about Nova?” he asked, milking Ben for information about the AI he’d never met.
“She left as soon as I was done,” Ben responded simply and Jack nodded. Ben looked tense about the subject. Maybe James had heard correctly after all.
“I heard she wants to kill you. Why?”
“I messed up,” the Engineer whispered. So James was correct. “I made her good at killing. Too good. She enjoys it. But her morality coding stops her from killing just for the pure fun of it.”
“You mean she wants to kill but she can’t?” Jack asked in slack-jawed amazement.
“Exactly. If she ever manages to get past her morality coding, I’ll be first on her hit list,” Ben finished with a shrug.
“So why don’t you just…shut her off?” Jack asked in confusion. Who would leave something willing to kill them online after all? “She couldn’t have stopped you after the damage she took in there.”
“One question,” Ben responded. “Could you kill your child?” he asked and looked Jack in the eyes.
“Oh,” Jack muttered as he blinked rapidly. “I guess not. So what do you think will happen to Barlon?” he asked, trying to change the subject away from what would have become a debate about whether AIs really were alive or not. A few months ago he would have definitely said no. After all his time with Vanessa he wasn’t so sure, but he knew what Ben would say and really didn’t want that conversation.
“I don’t know,” Ben shrugged in response. “All I know is that Vihon has said he will take over when he’s out of the hospital and those who work under him are supporting that claim. But divisions are spiraling off Barlon like mad right now and even Psion Inc is having troubles picking them all off. I personally don’t think Barlon can survive this.”
“Wonderful. The death of another Great Corporation on my head,” Jack muttered and then his eyes narrowed as something else came to mind. “Wait a second. What about Elsie’s primary cores? I assume like other ship AIs the avatar doesn’t have the only set of cores. Doesn’t that give you some leeway?”
“You’re right,” Ben whispered but shook his head. “Her primary organic core is held in one of the AIs’ Memory Citadels. She’s the only organic AI not in service to the military so they really take care of her. But I can’t afford the risk of losing her entire organic core to this paranoia so I don’t want to reincorporate the avatar’s organic core into the primary one.”
“I see,” Jack whispered as he came to a stop and looked at Ben. “She’s doesn’t want to trust because she’s afraid she’s lost. And you don’t want to risk that for fear of losing her. Someone’s going to have to take a risk sometime. Otherwise, destroy the avatar and all her memories and make a new one.”
Ben stopped stock-still and his fists clenched as he thought about simply giving up on her and everything she’d been through since the last backup. “No,” he finally forced out. “I won’t give up like that.”
“Then one of you will have to take a risk,” Jack shrugged and started walking again. “If you never take risks, you’ll never truly live.”
“Take a risk, huh?” Ben whispered as they stopped in front of a gate and turned to look at their destination. The massive white house rose above them, lush green grass filling the lawn before them and Jack let out a long sigh.
“Yeah,” Jack muttered and pulled his left hand out of its pocket to push a button beside the gate. “Life is about taking risks. If you never take them, are you truly alive?”
“Jack,” a voice rumbled out of hidden speakers. “I haven’t decided if you’re stupid or just have a bad memory. The gate’s open,” the voice finished as the lock clicked open.
“Thanks, Grinder,” Jack mumbled back, pushed the gate open, and walked up the driveway towards the house with Ben in tow. Behind them, the gate closed back up and locked itself. They finally reached the main entrance into the house, a massive three-meter tall set of doors designed for the owners, and Jack took in a deep nervous breath before opening them.
The first thing he saw as he walked in was Grinder’s two hundred thirty-centimeter frame that towered over Jack’s lanky two meters like a mountain. “We’ve been expecting you,” Grinder growled in a voice low enough Jack could feel his bones vibrating. “Follow me.”
Andrea’s adopted brother turned and walked towards the other side of the entrance chamber and towards a single three-meter door. He opened it and shouldered his way through, making the door look small until Jack followed him through with plenty of room on either side. They walked down the hallway, through another door, and Jack looked at the simple white paint and the large grandfather clock against one wall, quietly ticking the time away. Then his gaze went to the massive rocking chair on one end creaking in agony with each rocking motion of the grey-haired mountain that was Grinder’s father.
The door shut behind him after Ben walked into the room and Jack turned to glance at him when he saw a streak of green hair running towards him. He barely had time to brace before Andrea smashed into him, wrapping her arms around him tightly and arching her head up to place her lips against his. He was suddenly acutely aware of every one of her curves and he responded to her kiss passionately, brushing his tongue against her’s and losing himself the kiss until pure lack of oxygen forced him to come back up for air.
She stepped away coyly then, fingering the empty right sleeve of his ever-rumpled suit. “Look’s like you came back a little worse for wear,” she whispered with a shy smile. “I hope it was worth it.”
“Oh definitely,” he whispered back in an awed tone.
“Good,” she continued sweetly, and then he blinked as her expression morphed into pure and utter anger. “That means this’ll hurt like a son of bitch!” she snarled as she slapped him hard enough to bring to tears to his eyes. His ears rang and he couldn’t hear or see a thing until after he felt the door slamming shut.
Finally his vision cleared and he rubbed his jaw carefully as he worked his eardrums around. His hand came away with a trickle of blood and he looked around the room wonderingly. Andrea was nowhere to be seen. Then he heard her marching up the stairs loud enough to wake up a hibernating neobear and turned to look at Grinder in confusion.
“Well,” Andrea’s brother finally rumbled out. “At least we don’t have to take you to the hospital. I guess that counts for something. Welcome home.”
“Gee, thanks,” Jack whispered breathlessly and spat a loose tooth into his hand before working his jaw around again. “It’s good to feel welcome,” he finished painfully as his brain tried to figure out how to move his legs again.