XVII: Collapse

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 compliment, 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 with 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 na├»ve, 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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