Chapter 1. MUTE
When I woke up that morning, he was gone. That wasn’t unusual, so I wasn't worried yet. I turned on the dogbot and the coffee machine and walked down to the beach with K9-5. All recent dogbots have been named K9. It's not very original, but the manufacturer still had a soft part in their heart for that old Dr Who relic of the 20th century.
So did we. Actually, for scientists, we kept a lot of old relics around. That's one thing we've always had in common, Max and me, the love of antiquities, old music, old books, old robots.
We lived in an old house, too, made of wood, still standing after the great earthquake and tsunami of '34. It's in Stinson Beach, California, just outside of what was left of San Francisco.
The house was built on a hill of solid bedrock overlooking the bay and the earthquake only shook it up a little bit and the flood waters just ran right through it, so in '59, when Max and I relocated to the University of San Francisco, it was selling cheap. No one wanted an old fashioned wooden house anymore, just Max and me.
It was low tide and the beach was deserted as usual. I threw some pieces of driftwood for K9, like I always do. It’s hilarious to watch him navigate through the sand dunes. Sand may not be the best thing for a machine, but he has special fans that blow the sand right out of his joints and it hasn't hurt him yet.
He usually springs up and catches the wood before it even begins to descend. He always catches it, no matter how hard I try to trick him. He has sensors that predict the exact arc the stick will take, and sensors that pinpoint the spot he will grab it out of the air.
He's sensitive all right, so it’s my fault that I did not realize something was wrong when we got back to the house. First of all, I forgot that I had him on mute, so while I was making myself a bowl of cereal, he kept annoying me by clattering back and forth between Max's study and the kitchen and bumping into the back of my thigh with his cold metallic nose. I finally realized he was trying to tell me something, and strolled into the sitting room to pick up the remote control I had left next to the X-stream Machine. I took him off mute.
"Problem detected. Room 3, Max's study. Suspected theft." He announced immediately, and pranced off down the hall.
K9's are always pretty terse, but his message was clear and I fairly flew to Max's study. The door was unlocked. Max's PC was gone. He never takes it with him to work. He never takes it away from the safety of our home. I began to feel sick to my stomach.
Chapter 2. WARNING: DANGER
I was staring at the empty space where Max’s PC usually sits. It hasn’t moved from that spot since the day he set it down there, on top of his new desk. He never brings it into another room and he never takes it out of the house. I certainly would never touch it; I know how important it is to him.
He would never have brought it to work with him. He doesn’t trust anyone and certainly not the communal storage at the University, and he would never, god forbid, use The Cloud. He routes all his data back here every day, directly to his PC.
Oh god what were we thinking? We should have been so much more careful with our security here. Why did we decide to turn off the bot at night?
I watched K9 as he trotted around the desk, sniffing the air, his ears pricked up and turning on their gyros, collating the information he was gathering and trying to figure out what went wrong. He finally stopped, cocked his head to one side and turned his glittering eyes toward me.
“Phone Max.” was all he said.
I grabbed my cell from my back pocket and speed dialled his phone. It went straight to voice mail. This was not a good sign. Even in his lab, he always picks up, even if its just to let me know he can’t talk then. But maybe the phone service was down! That could happen… I would call him at the University switchboard. I was so nervous, my mind went blank for a moment and I had to turn to K9, who was sitting motionless beside me now.
“Max’s University line?” I asked.
His eyes darkened for less than a second, then “415 238 7999.”
I rang the number and someone in reception picked up, “SF U Scinece Lab, Emma speaking, how can I direct your call?”
“Hi, Emma, this is Maddy Green. Can you connect me to Max please?”
“Hi, Maddy, just a second.” The line went quiet and after several long minutes, during which time I paced the room about a thousand times, with K9 watching me curiously, Emma’s voice returned. “I’m sorry. Maddy, Mr Green doesn’t seem to be here yet.”
“What do you mean, he’s not there yet? Where is he? Have you seen him at all this morning?”
“I’m sorry, but Mr Green has not reported in at all today.”
Now I was really getting worried. “Please, Emma, will you have him call me as soon as he does get in? Thank you.” And I hung up quickly and stared at K9.
“Max never made it to the University.” I reported. K9’s eyes flashed red once, and he began running through his collating mode again, his ears twirling and his eyes dark. In a few seconds he stopped and trotted around the desk, looking up at me, his eyes glowing yellow.
“Probable incident. Data Compromised. Max in danger. Maddy in danger. Recommend shift to Level 5: Evacuation Protocol. At once!”
I knew he was right. This did not look good. Max should have been at the University at least an hour ago. Just for a moment, I wondered if maybe we were over-reacting. Maybe Max had told me he was taking the computer somewhere. Maybe he had gone off to meet someone. No, I knew that was impossible. Not without telling me first, and certainly not without informing K9, who needed to be alerted to changes in our routine. But Level 5?
Level 5 was pretty extreme. Evacuation Protocol. Had it really come to that? But K9 was programmed to be sensible. There might be real danger here. The project Max was working on was worth a great deal of money. Could it really be compromised?
I wondered if I should call the police, but no, that wasn’t part of the protocol for a good reason. You never knew who they were really working for, but in a case like this, you could be damn sure it wasn’t you.
If only we hadn’t grown so complacent. If only we had taken a few more precautions. Oh, if only…but we were so stupid. Why had I turned off the bot when we went to bed? Oh Max, Max, where could he be?
Suddenly I felt scared and alone. I sat down in Max’s office chair and tried to think. I had to collect my thoughts. K9 looked at me with his head cocked to one side again. “Level 5!” he repeated, louder now, but he could see that I was shivering and he changed his mode and trotted over and sat down beside me, leaning his small metal body against my legs. He turned his heating element up a notch and, for a few moments, I felt safe and warm.
It would be a long time until I felt that way again.
Chapter 3. THE EXTRACTION
Well, I had to hand it to them. It was a perfectly discreet extraction. We made it easy for them, living in our ridiculous house. They must have been watching him closely for the past year. Ever since he applied for his grant. They simply followed us on our move down to San Francisco and it was easy to set up surveillance in our absurd wood frame home.
All the new builds are plastiment - and they usually come with an option for debugging. They would have gotten in just the same, only not quite so easy. But this was, as they say, a piece of cake. They could have picked him up on the road, but they were waiting for those last pieces of intel he kept locked away at home. Then they struck.
It was our fault. We foolishly turned off our dogbot at night. They probably overheard us debating this issue. Max wanted to save on batteries and I didn't like being woken up by the dog barking every time a pinecone fell on the roof. So smart and yet so stupid.
Max works late often, he had to before his grant ran out, but he was close to finishing his designs. He always routes his data home; he didn't want anyone in the University knowing what he knew, so he kept it in a secure PC in the house.
I usually wait up for him when he comes home late and we chat a bit and watch some streams before going to bed. He gets up before I do, always takes a look through his files, checks that its all there, before he heads back to campus with the sunrise. They must have picked him up early in the morning, when he had just sat down at his work station.
They probably used one of their Stilettos and a "Silence is Golden" femmebot to make the extraction. Not even the dogbot would have detected her, even if we had been wise enough to turn it on. A tranquillizer dart and titanium net and out the window and into the Steletto with Max, all in a matter of seconds - and now they must have him hidden away somewhere. He’ll be a Company man, Max and his data and designs, if we don’t rescue him quickly.
Chapter 4. AWAKE
Max was gently awakened by vague, muffled sounds, like voices calling to him as the way the soft cries of seagulls do, far away over the ocean. He hadn't opened his eyes yet and he lay where he was, in a dreamy state. He felt sleepy still and thought perhaps he should allow himself to fall back to sleep.
He decided to turn over and that was when he realized that something wasn't quite right. The sheets were twisted around him oddly. He seemed to be caught in them and actually, he could not move at all. "Maddy!" he called out for his wife, and his voice echoed back to him, like a stranger’s voice, and he opened his eyes for the first time.
He was laying flat on his back, looking up at the ceiling, and he knew this was not his bedroom. The light was dim, but he could see the inset LED lights in the low ceiling and he recognized the design of one of those new Plastiment Homes. The rounded corners gave it away. And it wasn't a sheet that was wrapped tightly around him, either. He was covered by a sheet, but strapped to the bed with leather straps, his arms at his side, and all he could move was his head.
He still felt groggy and his eyes were crusty and he wanted to reach up and rub them, but he couldn't, and that was when he started yelling. "Hey! Is anybody there? Hey!" he yelled louder. His voice reverberated in his head causing an uncomfortable pain to throb in his forehead.
"Hey, what's going on? Will somebody come in here please?"
He wasn't so groggy that he hadn't already figured out what was happening to him. He had always known it could come to this one day, ever since that awful night on the Island, the night his father died. He knew that if he wasn't careful, he too would fall under the watchful eye of The Company, and they would not hesitate to take what they wanted from him. If he wasn't selling, they would take it, just like that.
No one came into the room now and he wondered if anyone was in the house at all. But he had heard those muffled sounds, those voices, he was almost certain he had heard voices. He could turn his head and he surveyed the room, looking for a window or one of those one-way glass devices that look like a mirror.
It was a nicely decorated room, if you liked the modern minimalist style. It looked like it could be someone's real bedroom, but somehow he doubted it. It was just a clever duplicate, made to resemble a comfortable home and to put whoever they usually kept in here at ease. They were probably watching him through one of their one-way mirrors right now.
He suddenly remembered Maddy, and felt a pang of fear for his wife. He wondered if she had been taken, too. He wondered if she was safe. And he began to fret and worry and he had to bite his lip to keep himself from crying.
Chapter 5. MISTAKE
The next time Max opened his eyes, he was looking straight up into the eyes of one of those hypno-technicians. He recognized it at once, because its eyes locked onto his in an instant and, never blinking, they began to implore him silently with their gorgeously soothing depths of limitless love. But he wasn’t lulled and he wasn’t fooled. He was prepared for this and almost anything else they wanted to throw at him.
Tom Elliot watched through the one-way window and shook his head grimly. A few minutes later, when the technician reported its lack of success, Tom sent it away and made the call to headquarters.
"Jack," he said, connecting at once through his direct line, "I hate to say this, but we blew it. We should have taken the wife, too. It's only been 8 hours, but I can see that there isn't a chance in hell that we can get Max to give us what we want. He'll never willingly join the Company. There is no way we are going to get those plans out of him without more leverage."
"No, don't you think we tried that already? We should have known he'd already be vaccinated against our truth drugs. And, no, he's way ahead of us there, too. He's got some software block installed in him so our hypno-technicians can't get anything out of him either. You have to believe me, Jack. We're lost unless the Director relents and lets us use something more effective, like out right torture." Tom paced the cubicle.
"That is, unless it's not too late to pick up the wife. Listen, Jack, it may not be too late. If she's still at home, I can get Dr Lerner to pick her up. I'll have him tell her that Max is staying with him and wants her to join him. I'll think of something - and I'll put together a back up plan, too. We're going to need her for leverage; I realize that now. Yes, it was a mistake. Right. I'm on it now."
He hung up and stopped pacing to watch Max, who was still lying on the bed in the next room. But Max was struggling with his straps now and looking pretty pissed off.
Might as well send one of the aides in there to let him loose, Tom thought. Get him to relax a bit. Wait for him to put his guard down. Then he checked the contact list on his cell for Dr Lerner's name. Yes, there it was. Good. Max trusted him, so there was no reason why his wife should be suspicious. He rang the number.
"Lerner? Yes, it's me. Look, we have a bit of a problem with Max. No, he's fine. None the worse for wear, believe me. Just misses his wife. Yes, I'll admit we made a mistake. We should have brought the two of them in together. No, that's just the problem. He won't give it up and he is insisting that we bring him his wife. We think we can get him to be more forthcoming if he is certain his wife is all right."
"I need you to drive over to their house and pick her up," he continued. "No, I have no idea if she's still at home or if she's noticed that Max is missing. I'm hoping that she thinks he's with you at the University." Tom watched Max through the glass again. He'd better get an aide in there quickly before he hurt himself. Then he turned away and sat down in the plastic chair near the small table by the door.
"Listen carefully, Lerner. This is what I need you to do. First, I want you to telephone her. Tell her that Max came to your house early this morning. Tell her that he thought his data was being compromised, so he brought his PC with him and came directly to your home. Tell her he is with you and that he's safe, but that he is worried about her and wants you to bring her to him."
"No, just make something up if she questions you further, or wavers. But tell her you are on your way and for god's sake, get over there as fast as you can. Yes, and bring her here."
He rang off and stood up, pressing the buzzer by the door to call an aide. A young man, dark skinned and fine boned, answered the bell. He was neatly dressed in white lab coat and carrying a small chrome tray with various glass tubes in it.
"Dil," Tom addressed him, reading the name tag over his pocket, "I need you to sedate out guest again. You had better do it now, while he's still restrained."
"Yes, sir," Dil answered, waiting expectantly for further instructions.
"Then, when he's out, I want you to take off the straps and remove them from the room, so that when our guest wakes up he can move around freely in our guest room and use the facilities. Understood?"
"Perfectly," Dill answered, turning on his heel, and he walked back out into the hall.
As soon as the door shut behind the aide, Tom sat back down in the plastic chair and, with his elbows on the table, cradled his head in his hands and began to work out his backup plan.
Chapter 6. ESCAPE
I began packing furiously while K9-5 nagged me to hurry, employing his metallic whine and standing by the back door, repeating the word “Danger” over and over. Annoying as he was, I knew he was right; I was in real danger now and I had no escape plan, no idea where we would be safe. All I could do now was flee.
I packed my small duffel bag with sturdy clothes, good for all weather conditions, and put on my antique real-leather jacket. I checked to make sure my own computer and hard drive were secure in my camouflaged hard-shell case, which looked exactly like a makeup bag. I knew I would need plenty of back up, because I sure as hell wasn’t going to be connecting to The Cloud.
I had already packed K-9's Auxiliary Kit and stowed it in one of his compartments, tucked a copy of my memory stick into his secret stash box, and I threw in plenty of extra ammo in case he needed to be armed, then headed out to the garage.
There was the next surprise: Max's transport was still there. What an idiot. I hadn't even thought to look. Now I knew for certain he had been abducted. There was no way he could have gotten out of Stinson Beach without his own transportation.
K9 was standing perfectly still beside me, except for his twirling ears and glowing eyes, registering the missing vehicle, then he repeated "Danger" once more, as if he was telling me, "Look! I told you so!"
I glanced quickly around, searching for anything or anyone out of the ordinary, but it all seemed so normal, almost peaceful, just a slight breeze moving among the dead treetops.
It was then that my phone bleated its incoming call signal, an ancient synth version of Holst's Venus. I hurriedly fished the phone out of my jacket pocket — maybe it was Max! But it wasn't, it was Dr Lerner, Max's boss and mentor at the University.
“Hello, Madeleine? This is Ernest. I just wanted to let you know that Max is here with me. He is worried about you. He wants you to come over here as soon as you can.”
“Oh, that's great. Is he all right? But, why didn't he call me himself?”
“Oh no, he's fine, he simply didn't want to use his own phone, that's all. He thought it might be traced. You see...”
My mind was spinning in a thousand directions, but cautious now, I interrupted, “Why didn't he call me with your phone? Please, I need to speak to him now!”
“Oh no, no. He wouldn't dare to speak on the phone. He is afraid of voice imprint identification, but I assure you he is fine, my dear.”
“But, I don't understand — why is this happening? What’s going on?”
“Max became suspicious last night, that’s all. He thinks that someone is trying to access his files. He didn’t want to frighten you, so he brought his things over here to be safe. But now he is afraid they might try to get to you, so he wants you to come here as well. But, I can explain it all to you on the way here, Maddy. I'm leaving now to pick you up.”
But I was thinking quickly. “No, no. Don't do that. I'll come to you. I'll come right away. See you in half an hour. Give Max a kiss for me!”
“Well, you can do it yourself when you get here.”
I ended the call and stared at Max's transport. So, if he was at Dr Lerner's, how did he get there? And why didn't he tell me? He always told me everything, even if he was afraid of being overheard by bugging devices, he would write me a note, and he would certainly have left a confidential command with K9.
And why Dr Lerner's of all places? I knew Max respected him and Lerner had been a friend of his father's, but Max had always been afraid to store his data at the University. If he thought he was under threat, would Max run closer to the threat for safety?
No, if Max had gone anywhere, he would have gone to Boone's. Boone's was his old drug den and a recognized Safe Haven. Drug Dens still kept up the age-old tradition of privacy, a tradition that had thrived ever since drugs had been made legal decades ago and had been designated "Safe Havens" by law, the way churches had once been, and many people still used them as such, whether they took drugs or not.
Boone's offered one of the safest hiding places you could find, for the building was blanketed with 'state of the art' anti-bugging shields and boasted an incredibly clever screening system, called "the Soul Search" that kept the wrong sort of individual out, especially anyone connected to The Company.
This was where Max went when we had one of our stupid fights or when he simply needed respite from the stress of his father's legacy. Not that he didn't use the drugs himself; he used them to wind down his overworked brain.
So that was it then. I knew I had to get out of here fast. They would know from that phone call that I was still here and they were probably on their way to get me now.
I relayed the gist of Lerner's side of the phone call to K9 and I was about to toss my bag into my speedy little transport, parked next to Max's, when I thought better of it.
"What do you think, K9? Which vehicle should we take?" I asked.
“Unusual circumstances require unusual decisions." He looked over at our utility vehicle parked in the space at the side of the garage.
"Recommend Humbercraft. Three reasons: One: It will not be recognized as Maddy's usual mode of transport. Two: It has greater free transit utility and off-grid programming. Three: It has more effective shielding.”
He was right as usual, so I threw our belongings into the back compartment of our bulky off-road vehicle. We only used it to drive up to where our friends were hiding out in the mountains up North. Friends I wouldn't dare endanger now. The craft was more cumbersome than my usual mode of transport, but was built like one of those 20th century tanks and could actually navigate amazingly well when detached from the Universal Transport Grid.
K9 hopped into the front passenger seat, tail wagging, eyes glowing expectantly.
"Now, what’s the best plan, K9? Should we try to locate Max or should we find a quick hideout and go on the run?” and I began the craft's startup process, carefully electing to override The Grid.
“Escape is Number One consideration." K9 began, "Exploring alternatives now," K9 paused, and his ears did their thing and his eyes glowed a bright green, then he continued.
“99% certainty Max abducted. Dr Lerner's scenario faulty. Motives suspicious. Recommend immediate escape to Boone's. First Consideration is Maddy’s safety." His eyes glowed red once more as he continued to process his data. "K9 deems Boone's as safest haven for Maddy. Also, strong likelihood of further intel available there."
His eyes glowed a deeper red now, "At Boone's, we will connect to the Underground."
"So be it," I sighed, surprised by K9’s sudden garrulousness. "That looks like our best choice, especially since it looks like we need to contact the Underground again.” I made certain the bot was securely attached to his seat, “Maybe they can help us find Max.” I plugged in the co-ordinates for the alternate route to Boone's, and we headed smoothly out across the water toward San Francisco.
Chapter 7. THE SEAWALL
I have to admit that the K9-5 model is a great piece of kit. Almost as soon as I put in the co-ordinates for Boone’s and settled back for the ride, he announced that he was changing his protocol.
“K9 switching to Commando profile.” And then he immediately started scanning the Humbercraft for bugs.
A few seconds later he reported, “All clear in craft. Checking personal belongings now.” And he buzzed for a few more seconds and called out, “All clear inside Maddy’s gear. All Clear inside K9-5’s casing.”
“Thanks, K9,” I told him. Can you tell me now what we should expect at Boone’s? How much should we tell them, if anything?”
K9’s eyes glittered a bright yellow for a few moments, and then he turned his metal head to face me, cocking it to one side in that fetching dogbot way he had, and said something that surprised me. “Max has imbedded escape protocol in K9’s Commando profile.”
He turned his head so that it was level again and his ears twirled for a second before he went on, “K9’s mission is to gather intel inside Boone’s. Maddy's mission is to stay safe. Here are Max's instructions:
“Maddy must tell everyone of personal emergency. You must recite the following phrase to the person named George and only to this person.
'Our seawall has broken and our house is flooded.' Maddy must memorize this phrase now. Only recite this to the man named George. He will be working at Boone’s. He will understand.”
This was a lot of information to come out of K9, but somehow, as questionable as it sounded, I found it comforting. Max had foreseen this happening. He was prepared for us to go on the run, me and K9. I wondered what other surprises he had for me. But we were practically there now and I headed low over the beach and hit the streets.
Boone’s was located in a peculiar building not too far from Ocean Beach. It was a relic that had somehow survived the earthquakes and tidal waves. It had been completely swallowed by the sand, covered over for decades, but somehow remained intact. The first of its Safe Haven owners had dug it out from the sand, cleaned all the sand out from the inside and then covering the entire building with a shell made of a special fortified compound of plexi-glass and titanium. Then they covered it back over with a new kind of sand, so it was pretty well camouflaged, blending into the sand dunes around it, although if you had heard about it, you would know where to find it.
The sand covering it wasn’t really sand any more, but a hard missile-proof plastiment compound that looked just like sand, but didn’t fill up your pockets and wreck your electronic equipment, of which there was quite a bit at Boone’s. Then the whole building had a defence system that radiated a high intensity anti-bugging shield that was kept state-of-the-art, because it was supported by funds provided by the Underground.
The Company had tried to shut down places like Boone’s, but thankfully, there were still some wealthy patrons in San Francisco who were able to keep the “Safe Haven” tradition alive.
These same supporters had developed an entry system that was so state-of-the-art it was chilling. A filtering program devised by the folks at Palo Alto's Applecore, and amusingly nicknamed the “Soul Search”, which could read not only your bio-rhythms, and your moods, but your intentions, your desires, and your concealed weaponry.
It was pretty near fool proof and had a self-evolving interface that allowed it to absorb new data and respond and create whatever it needed to bypass any interference from the outside.
I took the Humbercraft out of autopilot and maneuvered it toward the camouflaged underground parking garage. A Stasis Beam settled over the craft and a sweet feminine voice emerged from our radio.
“You are about to enter the Safe Haven known as Boone’s. Prepare to be searched and scanned. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Mam.” I answered. “Go right ahead”
K9 looked worried. His eyes glowed red for a few seconds, but then he waited silently beside me while the scan took place. The voice returned in about 30 seconds.
“You have on board a K9-5 Commando fully armed. What are your intentions?”
“Sorry, Mam” I said quickly. “I have a personal emergency and I need to speak to George. He will approve our visit, I’m sure.” I added hastily.
“George is in residence. Please allow access to your vid-screen.”
I breathed a sigh of relief and K9’s eyes switched back to a dull green. Only his ears were rotating, showing me he was scanning the car park already.
“I’ve turned on the screen.” I said, flicking the switch and hitting the icon that would allow them to see me and K9.
Suddenly the screen lit up in a kaliedescope of lights and colours. They were obviously having a good time at Boone’s today. And then a most peculiar face came on the screen. Whoever it was, and I hoped it was George, had a very large head, with a formidable forehead, very serious brown eyes, an aquiline nose, bordering on hawk-like, and a large and rather sensuous mouth. This imposing visage was mitigated by kindly lines around his eyes and mouth, indicating that he actually smiled quite a lot. However, he was not smiling now.
“You have an armed K9-5 on board your craft. Can you tell me why?”
Before I could answer K9 suddenly interrupted and asked this formidable head a question. This was very unusual for a K9 and I wondered if it was part of his commando profile.
“Excuse me, please confirm you are person named George before we proceed.” He said, being unusually polite, considering his commando profile.
“Yes.” Said the face. “I am George. May I ask who you are?”
“George!” I interrupted, “I am Maddy. Maddy Green. Our seawall has broken and our house is flooded!” I nearly shouted this out. I suddenly felt that those words exactly described our situation. For some reason just saying them made me feel overwhelmingly emotional and I wanted to cry now.
George looked searchingly at me for a second and I could see genuine concern in his eyes. “Maddy! You are granted entrance. Please come into our Haven’s Garage. We will have the door open and I will be there to greet you personally. I am very pleased to meet you both.”
And the screen went dark and I breathed a long sigh of relief. K9 stopped twitching and began to wag his tail again.
Chapter 8. GEORGE
As soon as K9 and I stepped across the Haven’s laser field and the Titaniplex doors slid open, we were met with the sickeningly familiar fragrance of patchouli oil that barely masked the old-school smell of hashish permeating the entrance hall. There was no sign of our host, George. In fact, there was no one there to greet us at all. The Haven seemed disserted except for the light show, a display of disorienting colours and flickering holograms, none of which resembled George. I looked down at K9, who was twitching and glowing by my side.
Then the lightshow ceased and there was George again; his huge head filling an enormous vid screen on the opposite wall.
“Welcome, Maddy. I am so glad to finally meet you,” he said, smiling down at me warmly.
K9 was definitely uncomfortable with this latest apparition; his eyes were glowing red and his tail stood at attention, while his ears revolved crazily.
“Thank you,” I answered, mystified, “How do you do? In fact, where do you do? Where are you? I thought you said you were coming to greet us in person?”
He laughed, a barely audible chuckle, “Well, believe me, I am here, Maddy, just not in the way you may have expected. I imagine Max never told you about me?”
At the mention of Max’s name, K9 stopped twitching and sat down with his head cocked to one side, observing the screen; listening and waiting.
“No, I’m sorry. He never told me anything about this place and he never mentioned you at all.”
“Okay, then. Actually, that’s good news, because I happen to be one of Max’s secret projects. Something he developed before he met you, something he never wanted the Company to get hold of, and something he had to keep secret, even from you.”
Of course I knew Max kept secrets from me and I would never dream of asking Max anything detailed about his work; I only ever asked how his day went – that sort of thing.
George was smiling again as he went on, “I don’t mean to brag, but I’m not only one of his secrets, I’m the big one – or one of the biggest anyway, the secret project he’s been calling ‘The Power Source’, which is just a name he used to keep the Company subsidising his work.”
I must have looked pretty stupefied, because George kept on explaining, “No one else knows about me either, if that makes you feel any better. The staff here thinks of me as part of their security protocol – and that is one of the services I perform here. It is part of what I am. What they don’t know is that I am a complete and very real construct. Real as you, or perhaps I should say, as real as your own mind, as far as any mind can be a truly separate entity.”
As I pondered this, K9 did a surprising thing. He lay down at my feet, staring up at the wall, and began to wag his tail, making a rhythmic clatter against the Haven floor. This appeared to amuse George, because he chuckled again before continuing.
“I was at University with Max. I was not only his best friend, but I was his partner and we worked on every project together. Only, I died before we could finish our last project –our Master’s Thesis. We were developing something that would revolutionise the AI field. We were that close to perfecting a real living intelligence program, and then I got that cancer; the new kind, the one the Company developed to control our population.” His image kind of grimaced as he said this, then he shrugged his shoulders, such as they were, and went on.
“I was doomed and we both knew it. We also knew that what we were developing was too important to let a little thing like my death put an end to it. I wanted to see it through and so did Max, so we came up with a plan. Max dropped out of school with the excuse that he would be caring for me in my dying days. That’s when he brought me here. We spent my last days on earth inside the secret Applecore labs they had built under the Haven.”
This was beginning to be too much for me to take in and I felt like lying down on the floor next to K9, but instead I took a deep breath and let George, or whatever he was, go on talking.
“We only needed one final component to complete the project; a real brain to map, a real set of thoughts and feelings, actions and reactions, and it was obvious that with my death sentence, I’d become the perfect candidate. Thanks to our friends at Applecore we could use their latest program, the one they called the “Soul Search”, to map not only my brain, but my very soul. I was happy to give Max permission to use me – to duplicate me in every way. I would become the prototype.
Eventually, he re-created me. By the time I died, I was alive in here. I am an artificial construct of patterns and codes, but at the same time, I’m real, just like you. I feel exactly like myself, only I exist inside the main frame that Max created for me. He installed me here at Boone’s to keep me safe while we waited for the right time to develop more sentient constructs like myself, but then his father was killed and Max had to take up those reins and I have just been working here ever since. What you are looking at right now, is a projection from my mind.”
That’s when I sat on the floor and just stared up at the screen. “But why did he send us here? What are we supposed to do now?”
“Max had a plan for the eventuality of the Power Company making a grab for his research, including making a grab for him, which I gather they have done, so now you’re part of his escape plan – along with your very clever dogbot. Max not only imbedded the escape plan into the Commando protocol that your K9 is using, he also downloaded his latest research into your dog – and he left room for me in there, too.”
“What do you mean, room for you?”
“Now that The Company has tracked you here, I’m afraid, we are all going to have to go on the run.”
“They’ve tracked us here?”
“I’m afraid they’re gearing up for an attack now. In fact, we evacuated all the residents in Boone’s as soon as I scanned Max’s protocol. And as soon as we make our escape, the Applecore labs will cease to exist.”
“Wait a minute, how are we going to escape?”
“Relax, Maddy,” and George smiled again. That “Power Source” Max was developing wasn’t a new source of power for the Company. It was a portable module holographic emitter for me! Your K9 simply needs to plug into that outlet below this screen, and he’ll have the rest of my program imbedded in him, and a hologram of me for you to relate to.”
“This is all too much,” I started to say, but K9 was already standing up and prancing over to the wall, and before I could finish the thought, he had inserted his tail into the socked and became a mass of whirling ears and coloured lights for about 5 seconds. Then the screen above him went suddenly blank and K9 froze, his eyes dark, and I thought, “Oh my god, we’ve blown out the system. We’re doomed!”
But just then, K9 came back to life, his tail wagging and his eyes glowing green. “Maddy, please turn the Ruby jewel on K9’s collar clockwise - to the right as you face him,” he said to me as he trotted over and bent his head so I could see all the jewels that Max had affixed to K9’s dogbot collar the week after we bought him, the ones I thought were merely for decoration, to individualise our personal dogbot. So, I took hold of the ruby-like jewel and turned it to the right.
Instantly, a hologram appeared right behind K9, and it was George again, but this time he was a whole being. Big head and all, with kind of a scrawny body, but dressed in a pretty nice old-school type suit. And he was smiling admiringly as he looked down at himself. He looked pretty good for a hologram; I mean, I could see right through him, but at the same time, he seemed pretty substantial, as if he was really there. Then he looked up with a gentle smile and raised his holographic eyebrows.
“Well, we best be going.” The voice seemed to come from him, but maybe it was an auditory illusion, but whatever it was, he kept talking. “I’m afraid I can’t actually do anything in the physical world, so you will have to be my hands, Maddy. That turquoise stone on K9’s collar activates our craft, and I will need you to turn that one clockwise also – and then we had better stand back against the wall, before it materialises.”
“Jeeze, you sound like a science fiction movie.”
“Sorry, it’s just Max’s latest invention. A space-folding craft, we named it the ‘Origami Crane’, but we just call it the OC. It’s the only thing The Company won’t be expecting. In fact, they won’t even notice it was ever here, and by the time they realise you’ve gone, we’ll be in New Mexico.”