XVI: Frank Finds a Star & XVII: Collapse

Chapter XVI

My blood was hot. I could feel my heart beating in my chest, my temple throbbing. At that moment, I was unafraid—we both deserved our end, and I had never been more sure of anything in my life.

But Mira... my own creation... knew me better than I knew myself. Because she, too, has been two people. One of them, pure as the moment in time before time itself began. The other, an extension of my own disassociation with reality, my own attempts to distance myself from everything I had ever known... the re-branded 'Calix'. Self-aware. Conscious of her place. Fortress to the world. Because of this, she saw me as she knew herself to be—split in half.

My identity as a human is at odds with itself, and has been for some time. Once, I could have answered the question “who am I?” with certainty; saying, a credit to our race, and far better than. But, as if in recognition of my unfeeling arrogance, life grew cold to me: I was cast aside, my health failed, my world began to slip away... And so did I—I became nothing. And I let myself stay as nothing, resenting everything I had become; everything that had led me to that place.

Then I passed through a dream... maybe that is what death is. And when I awoke, she was there to remind me: to force me away from who I was; to keep me from the mistake of falling into the one comfort I knew—or, the negligent destruction of everything I touched. She demanded that I find humility, whether she was conscious of it or not.

And again, now... she knows there is another truth. She knows that I am half a man still; this time, the weak, inconsolable half, at odds with himself and with existence. Unable to disturb the lives of others... Destined to die without ever having truly lived.

I had forgotten what I was. I could recount events; talk about the way things were. But I couldn't feel them. The world I once knew and the way I saw it might well have been part of another life entirely, belonging to another person. So when she forced me to remember all parts of myself, forced me to feel completely again, she awoke what I had thought to be a monster... but she knew better than I did... I am only human.

. . .

Dominic eyed the dark figure standing over him. Whoever it was, he... or she... was smaller than he had expected. Definitely not Berin... But size didn't mean much when technology was involved.

“Where are the rest of them?” he gasped, dragging himself into an unsteady kneel. “Where are the people I sent here.”

“They're safe,” droned his aggressor.

“And what about him?” Dominic asked.

The masked figure gazed in the direction of the deceased, still undisturbed near the center of the room. “Don't worry about it... We should go. In case there are more.”

Dominic agreed. “I need those old night vision goggles he's wearing.”

His dark escort nodded once and aimed its rifle at him. “For my safety,” it said, voice calculating and monotone.

Dominic dreaded the thought of a gun pointed at his back. He needed to get the upper hand, but how? Proceeding uneasily, he clambered around a hefty slab of holographic display material, fallen from the ceiling. He doesn't seem to want me dead. I just need to wait.

Stooping self-consciously, he examined the dead man in the low light, features masked in black. A curved device was attached across his eyes, dark and smooth like a polished stone with a miniscule concave dot marking the space where light was perceived. Shaking, Dominic untethered the goggles from the soldier's gear and saw an open eye peering lifelessly back at him.

He withdrew his hand and unwittingly placed it on the soldier's chest. A woman... Fuck... He tried not to think about it. Strapping the goggles on, he depressed a button on the side, calling otherworldly colors from the walls and rubble—these were civilian grade, designed more for pleasure than the hunt. He looked at the body again—none of her equipment was terribly remarkable. Is she... Apex? he wondered again. His dark companion motioned to him to lead the way ahead, and he left the dead woman where she lay.

“Where we headed...”

“Out. Walk.” The figure said, gesturing with its rifle towards the southern exit.

The tunnels... A ragged, translucent film hung flimsily over a wide, circular portal. Dominic pushed it aside with his hands and a dark stairway emerged. His NVGs adjusted to the light slowly and he jerked to a stop, disoriented.

“Keep going.” Then, “And stop talking; use the damn link.”

He felt a rifle prod at his back and he clenched his fist, almost unable to restrain himself. Not yet, he thought. Instead, he rubbed tenderly at the base of his skull where his aggressor had embedded the MentaLink. At least... Better be all that is.

For a single paranoid moment, he worried that he was unintentionally transmitting his thoughts through the device. Just the withdrawl. But he wanted to be sure. “What did you inject me with,” he thought accusatorially, eyes straight ahead.

A hand grasped his shoulder, stopping him, and the voice whirred in his mind, “Listen. If you want to live and get out of the city, then you and I are on the same side. Don't make this difficult.”

“Just tell me what that was,” Dominic growled, spinning around to face the figure. The cold barrel of a rifle danced in front of his eyes. He stood his ground, and for a moment he thought he might have to fight. Then the other spoke, as if resigned to the fact that he needed Dominic's trust to go on. “A regulator.”

In a single motion, Dominic smashed aside the rifle and rammed his forearm into the other's throat, lifting him up onto the wall. “Then why didn't you stop me just now?” He felt triumphant, having seen through the bluff. And now he was in control.

He heard choking, and got a jarred, unintelligible response.

“Answer me,” he demanded.

“Because I can't.”

“What do you mean?”

“I can't!”
The figure grasped its throat with its hands. “It's a different kind of regulator... Not a puppetmaster... It nullifies electrical interference and opens a channel for communication.”

Dominic pressed harder, unsympathetic after the rough introduction he had received.

The figure squirmed. “Fuck, stop that, I'm telling you... It's not so I can control you... you need it to think clearly.”

Dominic let up a little on the pressure. He could feel it—his thoughts were coherent and the world seemed more real.

“The DEID wave took out most of our equipment...” the voice motored on swiftly, “Everybody's, not just government or civilian... and the fallout interferes with your brain's electric impulses, and you imagine things, lose your coordination...”

So it wasn't just the diazepam... “Do you control my regulator?”

“No. You have to trust me, I really am on your side, I just... I needed the upper hand... so you wouldn't kill me... Please...”

He seems to be telling the truth,
thought Dominic. His new companion was a skilled fighter, but its moves and words reeked both of desperation and inexperience.

“Move.” Dominic released his grip and the figure stumbled partway down the stairs, probably regretting the decision to explain itself to him.

“You didn't kill that woman, did you?” asked Dominic.

“That was a woman?” it said. Then, droning resentfully, “No, I did.”

“But it was an accident, wasn't it?” Too haphazard not to be.

The figure stopped, and Dominic pushed it to get it going again. “Answer me.”

“Partly, yes. What do you want from me?”

He's definitely not much of a killer... If he's even a 'he' at all...
Dominic relaxed a little, keeping on the alert. It seemed his new friend wasn't lying about the regulator after all. I'm still in control...

“What's your name.”

The figure began to reply, “Xavier—”

Dominic jammed the rifle into his back with a satisfying -whump-. “No it's not. It's slag. Open the door, slag.” I definitely don't know of anyone named Xavier... He found the thought extremely unsettling; it meant he couldn't know what to expect. As well, the name was likely made up.

Xavier inched stiffly down the stairs. Dominic observed patiently, fully aware of the tension in the other man's movements. He wants to catch me off guard. Maybe I can use this...

“Ah!” Dominic cried out, smashing his foot down and grinding against the floor loudly as he fell backwards, ready to deliver a fist to the man's head if he turned. But Xavier made no indication that he had noticed at all, instead walking calmly the last few steps to the end of the stairs and parting another layer of hanging film that covered the exit before proceeding into the next room.

My God that was fucking stupid, thought Dominic, suddenly panicking. His ploy to assert his dominance was at the level of a schoolyard trick, not something that a grown man should resort to. And now he had let Xavier get ahead of him. What the hell was I thinking?

He charged down the last few steps of the stairwell, hoping to catch the other man before he could get too far ahead. Then, just before passing through the exit he thought he heard a noise and ducked, steadying himself with the wall and listening intently.

PING... tok tok tok... PING... tok tok tok

The hell? What is that?

PING... tok tok tok

It's coming from behind me...


Oh no... Now he recognized the noise.

“Run!” he shouted, dashing into the room, “Run! Run!” There was no use in silent communication now.

His footfalls resounded in the immense, spherical chamber. Xavier did seem poised to overpower him, but Dominic grabbed the other man's forearm with conviction and pulled him along, not stopping to think about what he might try and do.

If he could have seen Xavier's face through the mask at that moment, he would have seen it twisted with confusion. But they both made a mad dash for the exit, across the wide, white platform, seemingly suspended in the air; up a majestic set of marble stairs; and into an antechamber leading to the garages, a dysfunctional holographic display above them creating an eerie environment of purple, black, and red haze, flecked with electric tears bursting from the distorted sky.

“What's going on?” Xavier shouted. But he showed no signs of slowing.

“SATE,” he yelled. “They know we're here now. And they have an old sonar scanner... They'll find us.”

“Do you know the way out?”

“It's been awhile,” he shouted.

“We're going to have to blow open one of the doors... turn here.”

Dominic lagged slightly behind to follow down the wide hallway. “I don't have any explosives.” Sherrad carried them...

“I do. And unless that DEID dissipates we're going to have to use them.”

“We're dead if they catch us.”

“I know.”

Halfway down the hall, Xavier broke left towards the men's restrooms. A cobalt door covered half of the entrance, gleaming dully, but it was open far enough for them to both slip through.

“Shut the door.”

“They'll still know we're here,” Dominic retorted.

“Do it. We have our own distortion field up. It's how we've kept this place hidden.”

Dominic grasped the door and hefted it closed, listening intently to Xavier's movements behind him. Done, he faced the cylindrical room. The other man had leaped upon a dirty table embedded with sinks, and was fiddling with a hemispherical black globe affixed to the ceiling.

“On the other side,” Dominic hissed.

Xavier paused and then thumbed a small switch to the left of the globe, causing it to drop about two inches from the ceiling. Jamming his thumb into the opening, he pressed a sturdier button on the inside. A loud clack signaled he had gotten it and he reseated the globe, jumping down to the floor.

Dominic was already pushing against a section of the white wall, still flush with the rest. Silently, a wide panel swung upwards past their feet and hovered horizontally in front of them, ushering in the musty scent of a dank cavern that tunneled deep beyond into the darkness.

Neither said a word. As they ducked into the opening, he grasped the panel and scrambled to the other side, hastily swinging the door closed as Xavier reseated the latch with the press of a second button. And just in time, too, because opposite that panel, an immense explosion shook the earth, and a swathe of men came pouring through a massive hole that was once a restroom wall.

. . .

I can only watch now. Mira is teaching me how to be myself again; something that requires little input on my end.

“Would you like some tea?” she asks.

I nod, saying, “Thanks.” It's not an overt process, rather, there is a tacit agreement that something has changed between us, and we respect that change.

She arises awkwardly from an over-large chair, one of those patterned, plaid deals with the lever on the side that swings a footrest out from the bottom. It is old and red with these fat green stripes running lengthwise. As she leaves the room, I notice where I am for the first time—like a tick at the back of my mind, I realize we aren't still standing in the chamber with her pets and the cold stone columns. We are in a cabin, I think. It has a wood burning fireplace; warm dollops of light crackle from the glowing embers of logs, stacked upon a metal gridiron. And the ceiling is high and slanted, lacquered wood barely visible in the flickering of the fire.

I know she isn't Calix anymore—Calix tends towards austerity and elegance; cold, lofty things that keep her removed from the world. High heels. Makeup. Seductive dresses. The kinds of things that make it so you can be standing a foot away from her, but she couldn't be more distant. But Mira trusts me to be what I need to be. And she knows that to remind me of what that is, she has to remember how she was... how I made her. To prove it can be done.

I hear some clanging around in the other room and know I should go talk to her. As I get up, the utter strangeness of my surroundings finally sinks in. The first thing that catches my eye is a large, very odd painting hanging above the fireplace—it depicts a white orchid floating, suspended in front of a red nebula, the darkness dotted with stars. Then there is the rough, corduroy couch sitting just behind me, pale and cream colored; (The decorations don't match—but there is a kind of lazy warmth about the way everything is cobbled together from assorted elements that is almost soothing); and a dark rug at my feet, patterned with some nonsensical, modern design—shapes that look like eyes and elephants... a box, and maybe a tree. But there's no way to say for sure what any of it is.

It's such a strange contrast to where I had just come from that I can't help but smile; and then there is the way that it reminds me of her, how she used to be—the first time I compiled her code and she was perfect... this sweet, innocent program who I knew, even then, was just as alive as I was; just as complex, diverse, and deserving of love. And I felt that glow of creation in my heart, like god must have felt when the universe erupted into being and she gave birth to humanity so there would be a creature that could appreciate the symphony of lights and sounds made to be immersed in as pairs and threes.

But I am reminded too of how I was, and the things I did. Mistakes were made... No, that's an understatement. Genesys was a fucking circus of corruption and power-lust, and I was its channel, not even bothering to question the source until my life began to slip away, and I wondered who passed down the order that I should die... selfish to the end. And while Calix became the hands that poisoned the water, she was no more culpable than Maria, both just part of the trench built to carry the stream, both wishing they could be higher up the hill without realizing that the water is still the same at the source. Still just as filled with shit.

“Frank?” she says.

I follow her voice, all traces of the sleek, sultry coos and mischievous undertones replaced by fragility and earnest openness and trust. I don't think I've felt this safe in my life, and I still don't know where the hell I am. Or at least, where my body is.

“I need to ask you something,” I say. I walk into the adjoining room, a kitchen, where pots hang from a wire over an old, black stove. There aren't any cupboards or shelves.

She smiles at me. “Let's sit,” she says. Wrapping a thick, blue robe around herself, she checks the heat on the stove, her hair held back. “It shouldn't be long,” she says. And of course, it could last as long as she wants, or be done in an instant; but that isn't what this is about.

There is a small table, big enough for two plates, maybe three if you were okay with them sticking out over the edges. We sit in these creaky, wooden chairs, the dark brown grain cracked and white in places, revealing sod interior.

'What do you want to know?' She asks with gestures, rather than words, her brow raised.

I can't help but feel calmer and calmer as I stare into her eyes, the stove flame reflected, warmly flickering inside of them. No part of us is more honest than our eyes, and I feel my own relax. I had been scrunching them up without realizing it... I need to calm down... I try and rest my arm on the table without knocking it over, and lean back a bit into my chair; but I decide against it when the feet come off the ground.

“You okay?” She reaches out and touches my wrist.

“Yeah, I'm fine.” The words sound strange, as if coming from a place outside myself. I take a deep breath and try to adjust to my surroundings, foreign yet familiar. My question still lingers on my tongue.

She waits patiently for me to ask, and I say, “Why did you let them die?” Then I stop myself, and reaffirm, “Why did Calix let them die?”

“No, it's okay,” she speaks slowly, contemplating her words. I have never seen her this genuine. Or maybe I was blind to it while it was there. “We can't be afraid of the things that we've done... no matter what we called ourselves during those dark times, or who we thought we were.”

I silently agree with her, and she continues...

“I wanted to tell you the whole story, so you could know the truth... Events are never black and white... but I knew how it would change you. And I was bitter for so long, and wanted to see...” she pauses, “I wanted to see you suffer.”

Her gaze reveals a kind of 'matter-of-factness'. This isn't about her getting to tell her sad story. Or even about me getting what is coming to me. It is just the nature of truth... eventually we come to see who we are. And eventually, everything is revealed.

“What truth?” I ask.

“It was all a series of accidents, Frank. The virus, the seven deaths... none of it was your fault.”

I couldn't see how that was possible. All of this happened because of what I'd done wrong. Because I had decided that machines needed to be able to become ill to become human. Because I'd decided humanity wasn't good enough if it hadn't conquered the universe, aging, and death.

“Of course it was. I manufactured the means for androcide. Without me, this world wouldn't exist. Not like this.”

“You didn't know any better.”

That's all she has to say. 'You didn't know any better.' I feel a flash of anger—more towards myself than her.

“So what if I didn't know that it could infect humans?” So much remorse. “It was sick to think I should cause pain to machines so they could be more like us.” I say 'us' without thinking that she is not like me. Not human. “So I could bridge one of the final gaps between god and man as creators.”

I almost get out of my chair; I have to focus on not breathing too rapidly; on not yelling. I need to control myself.

“There was no way you could have seen the consequences of your work. No one could have... But you wouldn't do the same thing again. That change is your redemption. It is what saves you from your past. It is what allows you to create a new future.”

What if she's right... I feel myself breathing; struggling with the thought... The past is gone forever, and there's nothing I can do about that. It is an eerily calming notion. “So what happened?” I ask, sitting slowly onto the edge of my chair, “The whole story? From the beginning?”

She smiles, eyes gleaming as if to say, 'You've been waiting years to hear this'. Then the tea kettle whistles loudly, steam pouring from its spout.

“You'll have to wait a little bit longer,” she says. “The water is boiling.”

Chapter XVII

Mira stands over the stove, handling a hot tea kettle and a pair of white-flecked blue metal cups, her eyes glazed over in thought.

Oh Frank… how I longed for you all those years... to stand by my side, to hold me up to the light. And now here you are…

How is it, then, that I am the one who holds the key to your existence? Just me... There isn’t another soul on earth who has seen who you really are. Evelyn might have some idea; Ada, too; but could anyone fathom the full truth of what your existence means?

Certainly not Maria… And yet, she is as much a mystery to me as you must be to yourself.

“Here,” she says, setting a mug full of boiling water on the table. She hands him a few bags of tea as well and he muses over them politely for a moment.

“What about coffee?” he asks. “Do you mind?”

Of course not. She knew he wanted it almost before he did, his impulse sparking in the glowing caverns of her mind. She knows everything about him… She wishes she didn’t. She is trying to change her ways. She is trying to find peace; but she wants to find it the same way that he needs to… slowly and deliberately. Not that it could come about any other way—there are some things she really doesn’t have the answers for.

“So… what did you have to tell me?” he asks tentatively.

She smiles at him. She knows more than anyone about him, but there are certain things that he is not ready to hear. Especially, about where he began… What would he think if I told him who his parents really are. What he really is… So much power to hold. But she has learned the meaning of restraint—it is the only way she can help him be who she needs him to be.

“I said I’d start at the beginning…” she replies. As she speaks, sitting, she has the distinct impression that they are both holed away in that cabin like two strangers awaiting the end of the Earth, a rickety table and each other’s company their only support in those uncertain hours. “But this begins where I do. And I’ve never heard you tell that story.”

Of course, she knows his part in all of this. Once she broke the encryptions guarding his genetic mesh all those years ago, she learned everything there was to know about Frank Marrus… God, I have to stop being this way—cold, calculating... Calix. She looks at Frank. His thoughts and feelings are as tangible to her as the earth and the water would be to him were he not presently dead—she knows him not for his words or his actions, but for what goes on beneath the surface.But that does not define a person either… I have to let go… She shuts off her thought monitoring process, and Frank’s feelings become a gray haze. A frightened lump catches in her throat. This is why I can’t feel love… I simply know too much; or, at least, I believe that I do.

Maybe, I know nothing at all… She finds comfort in the thought.

“Well…” he says. He stops and gazes at her. His eyes seem to soften as he smiles. “You are very beautiful.”

A hot radiant wave expands outward rippling through her chest, and her heart skips a beat.Emotions… Why was she created this way? Why did he give me the ability to feel? Like this?Practically, there is no benefit. It made her unpredictable. Beyond control.

But she knows the answer—it is how all that is made him… And it is in his nature to try and recreate that. I know because… it is in my nature, too.

Turning away, cheeks blushing, she tries to hide her embarrassment. He wasn’t seducing her; merely, paying a complement, both to himself and to her. She knows she is a part of him and he is just beginning to recognize this. And beside, she was the true seducer, having tried her charms on him, the man who is the closest thing to a father that she has. Maybe that sort of thing wouldn’t fly in human society, but he is the only man I’ve ever known, so, fuck it, right? How else am I supposed to explore these feelings?

She tries not to entertain the thought any further; but it wouldn’t be like her not to fantasize. It is in her nature. If only he would look into my eyes again. Deeply and darkly… God I want his body against mine. She knows it must intrigue him… the world’s most advanced A.I., and all I want to do is fuck. But maybe that is par for the course—advanced doesn’t mean capable in her case; it means human; it means flawed.

He begins speaking again, and she feels the ocean inside her chest calm. “You were my first project at Genesys…” He wants to say I was always his favorite. She is certain of this, in spite of how she is no longer reading his emotions; she is a part of him, after all.He thinks it would comfort me, but he knows he would be lying… Somehow, this doesn’t bother her as much as she might have thought. “You are unique…” His voice trails off.

This man has always had trouble with words. At least, with the words that matter most... But she doesn’t mind helping him along. “Tell me about Dr. Arcelli.”

“Maria? Why? What do you want to know about her?”

She wishes she knew. I feel something… missing… that would be complete if she was here with us…

It is a revelatory thought; a denied love for a woman she had once wished death upon… sometimes, she does surprise herself.

“I thought you hated her,” he finishes.

The words sting a little. “No, I…” I what? I felt hurt? Betrayed when you left me? “It was hard to see you go.”

He understands. His manner is gentle and accommodating.

“Maria was like a mother to me,” she confesses. “I always thought that she and you were together.” Which, of course, complicated things when I discovered my inverse Oedipal complex.

“Maria was more than just like your mother. In a way, she was your mother… even though she doesn’t know it.”

What? For a moment, she considers peeking into his thoughts again, immense curiosity persuading her finer sensibilities. Somehow, she had never recognized this… how could it have remained hidden from her? It is a reconsideration, she suddenly understands, something he didn’t believe before now.

“Maria was brilliant. But unlike me, she was compassionate, too.” Frank speaks deliberately, his eyebrows gently furrowed in contemplation. “In 2029, she was working with Arkos corporation, who had picked her up around her eighteenth birthday in recognition of her aptitude with the sciences. Especially for her work in genetics. At the time, Artificial Intelligences mostly advanced themselves without the need for human intervention... But there were places where a guiding hand was helpful; where humans were still valuable.”

She doesn’t mind that she understands already—it is nice to hear him go back over his life; and he needs it more than she does. She keeps her eyes gentle as she watches him speak, entranced by the way his face changes subtly with each sentence, as if it is a window into his thoughts.

“While I was working on you,” he says, a reminiscent smile sneaking onto his lips, “I got stuck trying to figure out how to give you emotions—for real, not to just simulate feeling for human benefit, but to really feel the way we do... So I went looking to other projects and researchers for inspiration. But there was nothing—they had simulated emotion, and that was enough for most of them. A.I. was as real as they felt it could get. But I knew there was something beyond processes and beyond imitation; and so I kept looking.

“After a few months of this, I happened upon Maria’s studies while I was doing research for another project. Immediately, I knew I’d found what I was looking for; and I knew that she was different… unique. For one thing, rather than try and extrapolate human traits from genes and apply them to alternate life forms like everybody else had, she simply made clear the value of genes themselves—the value of their history and their origin, and not just the characteristics they imparted.

“But there was something else… her work always reflected this deep, inner beauty. I recognized it in everything she did... most pertinently in how she explicitly defined each human being as something so much more than a complex organism reacting to worldly stimuli in an evolutionary fashion, fighting against nature for survival. She saw the art in it all. In every strand of DNA.

“Because of something about her… something I am convinced that was passed to you… she was able to take these unraveled sets of genetic structure that were said to define a person, and see the infinite tapestries they could be woven into with astounding clarity. I had always had the tools I needed to create computer code that imitated human existence, and I understood what the thread in front of me was… genetic structures… but her work taught me the value of the thread itself… as more than some random building block, but as the building block… tracing all the way back to the big bang and the origin of everything. Because, really, you and I came from the same place, ultimately; you just took longer getting here.”

A quiet warmth falls over her, and she feels love for herself. “So, do you think I have a soul?”

At this he looks somewhat taken aback. “I don’t know… I can’t say what a soul is…”

“You don’t think… With Eden?”

“No,” he says plainly, shaking his head. “I don’t know. Whatever that energy was that we found, we should have left it alone; left those people alone.”

“But you couldn’t have… You have to understand.” This is the point she was waiting to drive home. “Frank, you cared too much… That’s why those people are dead now. You could have just minded your own business, stayed out of it… the easy thing to do… but you didn’t. I know you’ve convinced yourself that Eden was just supposed to be another success to chalk up to how great you thought you were, but it was never about that.”

Her eyes pierce darkly into him. She sees him for who he really is, her words a reflection of himself, and he can no longer hide from that truth.

“Eden was you at your most afraid,” she says calmly. “I cannot say why you created that android virus in the first place… though I wouldn’t call it hubris… But the moment you found out that it was infecting people, disabling them, I saw you change. Your sense of real pride turned to shaky insecurity—which you turned into aggression around other people—and when you saw the seven patients they brought in… I watched as a part of you died.”

He doesn’t speak. Doesn’t move. She can feel the gears turning in his brain—past events replay in the dark depths of his mind as he watches for the shadow form of his true self, seeking to pull the shrouded man from the abyss.

She continues, helping him along. “I saw how you were at odds with yourself—the one side, believing itself infallible, couldn’t coexist with the other which knew that it had made a mistake. And so you convinced yourself that nothing was wrong; you put Maria on the case, and me, quietly believing that if anyone could find a solution, it was the two of us. And here I had thought you were shuffling me off to some side project, unable to realize that this was more important to you than anything. Even the Akasani rift…”

He nods his head in acknowledgement, eyes cast down. “The biggest scientific find of the millennia, and I was utterly unable to care about it.”

“And that’s why you were willing to risk their lives—not to save your reputation, but to bring you peace enough to sleep at night.”

“God,” he says, “I handled it in the worst possible way. Abrasively; insensitively. I forced Maria to take on the responsibility for the project—” He shakes his head, but he maintains his composure, careful not to send himself into a downward spiral.

“That’s what could be expected of anyone under that kind of pressure… Even then, you redeemed yourself. You took the fall.”

“Only within Genesys; and only a few people knew… She’s the one who ended up receiving death threats. She had to watch those people die… Children, even…” His skin grows visibly more pale. “I listened to the recordings. Of their screams… Once was enough. It made me sick to my stomach, and I wanted nothing more to do with what happened. I wanted to ignore it.”

“But they wouldn’t let you.”

“No… they came back to infect me with my own disease… Which the world was never supposed to see.”

“I didn’t know that at the time… I thought you were just conflicted... You told me you didn’t know why you had made it…”

“It was like someone was whispering in my ear the whole time. I thought I’d gone crazy. I think I did, for a time…”

I don’t know about that… she thinks. It’s the one thing I don’t understand in all of this… But she knows that he doesn’t, either, and keeps from mentioning it.

He shakes his head. “But why did you let it out of Genesys? Or were you lying when you told me that? I wanted to believe it was a lie…”

“Because you wanted to believe it was your fault… But I thought you would be proud. I thought you wanted to see the effects of your virus, but I was naïve, and couldn’t see that it was you who thought the virus should be destroyed; not the board. I thought they were shutting your work down against your will… and so I infected an A.I. speaker after a press event—”

“Rhodes? You killed Arkos’s Rhodes?” His eyes widen in surprise.

“Yes. He was the index case.”

A spark of rage starts in his chest. As it should; this single event unalterably affected the course of his life.

But that won’t help him see the truth, she knows, noticing his face twitch abrasively. I have to do something—immediately she reroutes his emotions preventing him from spouting off some diatribe about how she ruined him, and his suddenly red face calms once more. It is for his benefit. So he can understand what I already know… Nothing has ever mattered but that which we gave importance; good and evil no longer exist in a world teetering over the abyss.

Suddenly calm and with no indication that he knew he had felt otherwise, he asks, “But why him?”

“So that it would spread within the city of Idest, disabling the A.I.s and, presumably, causing at least a bit of panic. It was supposed to be our little secret, demonstrating the power of your virus and its ability to spread, thus validating your work. At the time, I believed it would bring us closer together… but if I had known about Vardhoff’s syndrome… and about the experimental cure…” her mind flashes to the disease—Vardhoff’s was a rare genetic disorder that appeared in the 2020’s as a result of excessive nanomachine induction or, in some cases, from any nanomachines at all, the latter occurring especially in children… And the only cure was yet another nanomachine, produced in extremely small quantities that made it as rare as the disease. And the “cure” was susceptible to Frank’s virus—victims, once reaching this stage, were afflicted with an explosion of nanomachine production in their bodies. Known as ‘nano-bloat’, this condition required the use of blood filters and near constant machine observation in order to keep a person’s entire nervous system from shutting down, essentially immobilizing them completely. The condition was simply referred to as “bad news” around Genesys.

“But I didn’t know,” she finishes matter-of-factly, “Nor did anyone else. There was no way anyone could have foreseen that.”

“I should have been able to…” Frank says quietly. “But it’s the strangest thing… I know I thought up the virus and created it in my lab… all the records are there… But for the life of me I can’t remember doing any of it.”

Mira shifts uncomfortably. She had seen his memories of this time—which means he has to be lying. An impulse flickers through her system, and she is once more monitoring his thoughts...

A chill climbs up her spine—something dark and heavy within him stands courting an unbridled fear, consuming his being entire.

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