Jay and Max made it past all the normal security checks until the turbo-pod to the science labs. Max produced a code from a class he’d had earlier that day, which got them access to the pod ride that took them down four miles beneath the earth’s surface to the science facility. The tricky part was explaining to the security guard why Jay was there. The man looked at their IDs for an excruciatingly long time, then stepped aside and let them onto the pod.
Jay hated the stomach-lurching plummet of the turbo-pod on the best of days, and today he was a bit drunk, never mind scared silly. A four mile drop in ten seconds, and out you stagger into blinding florescent white light. He knew the power down here was fusion generated, as there was absolutely no flicker.
Their combo sneakers squeaked down the hallway, still wet from the street, demodulating under their feet to try and counter the floor’s ultra-shine, but without success.
“Cheer up,” Max said. “It’s going to work out.”
Jay only nodded.
Finally, they entered the lab. “We’ll go into the clean room,” Max said, gesturing toward the far end of the room. “Let me just make sure it’s been decontaminated.” He keyed some commands into the holopad on the wall.
“Isn’t the decontam cycle automatic whenever the room is empty?” Jay asked. He went in once the door opened. Jay was just talking because he was nervous.
“This won’t take long,” Max said. He held a genetic stenciling machine the size of a POD fridge, which he lowered into a sterilizer bath that bubbled and smelled of chlorine.
Once they were both inside the clean room, and Max had set the stenciler on the metal table, the clean room’s door hissed shut. Decontamination blisters emerged from the clean white walls, bathing Max, and Jay in multiple layers of sterilization. The blisters were a little like seeing a particularly ugly orchid blooming. The process was odorless, a little like how he imagined an old X-ray would be. Jay didn’t mind—the process was run by AIs, so it was safe, right? he wasn’t sure anymore.
Finally, Max took the probe out and poked Jay’s upper arm.
“Better to go through all of the rigmarole than get a dirty sample,” Jay said. “I wonder, maybe the samples I take at home are messed up somehow.”
“Could be,” Max said. “We could always hope.”
Jay tried to smile at Max’s attempt at a joke.
“Your place or mine for the results?”
“Mine,” Jay said. “I am bound to have more beer than you do, and I get the feeling I am going to need some.” Jay was thirsty. He stood up and left the clean room.
“All right,” Max said. “So how are things going with Abby?”
Jay felt his cheeks redden, but there was no way he could think of that Max would know that Abby was his stepsister, but it was out of character for Max to ask personal questions. “Good. I might have some hell to pay for ditching her tonight.”
“But you two have been together for a while, haven’t you? So she’ll get over it,” Max said. “I swear, I don’t know what a girl like that sees in you.”
“Last I checked, you were still single,” Jay said. “Women are just people. There’s no secret beyond that Max.”
“OK. You go home, have that beer you want, and relax. I’m really sorry, but I have thirty minutes of stuff to do here, so I’ll meet you there.” Max called over his shoulder as he disappeared back into the lab.
That was Max, Jay thought. He cared enough to come and find Jay while he was out on a date, but when he was doing science, there was nothing that could distract him.
Max sat back in a chair in the clean room and resealed the door. He closed his eyes and called up an astonishing array of background HUD information. He arranged his work in cubic layers. He passed mental commands to his AI, Roddy, to pass him new data from work that had been running today. The URGENT communication icon was blinking in his foreground HUD, and because it was from his sponsors, he couldn’t dismiss or minimize its priority as part of the lengthy contracts they had signed. He used his internal commands to zoom into the X-Clone cube and expanded todays results. What he saw pleased him, and he knew it would please the person on the end of his blinking Communication Request. However, it was with a heavy heart that he eventually cleared his HUD space and with his eyes still closed clicked the link. As he was waiting for Marcus to respond, he thought back through the major events of the day, major advances with his work with Jay and on his X-Clone project, the sponsor part of his degree that was sucking more of his time than he wanted. Marcus answered, only half engaged as always, and half busy elsewhere. Having a video conversation with someone and doing focused tasks elsewhere, had now become common with the help of personal AI. Max could do it but he did not like the sensation at all.
“Max, good to see you. What news for me?” It was odd seeing the flicker of hidden concentration from the other tasks he was involved in run across his face. However hard the AI tried to smooth them out, they were still there.
“Great, good news. With the help of your team there, and the extra processing power they gave me, we have the nano-bot uptakes down to a billion per second.” Max sat back satisfied.
“So, Max, in layman terms, did we meet the goal?” Marcus’s AI attempted to make Marcus look frustrated or sarcastic, it was hard to tell.
“Oh, sorry. Yes, you can get uplinked to the GOO and have your Clone Blank, fully operational within 12 hours. Personality and physical characteristics at the same time. There is room to improve this, I think I can…” Marcus cut him off.
“Yes, next round of updates you can tell me. This is what we needed for now. And Jay, how is he?” As Marcus asked the question he could see Max react and so swung his full attention to the conversation. Max immediately noticed the difference.
“Why do you ask about Jay?” Max asked nervous now, had he made a link somehow through Max the dream work, Max started to prickle sweat.
“Sorry, Probably a little inappropriate of me. Last time we spoke you mentioned in passing that Jay was not feeling well and I am a family friend so I was just checking in.” Marcus fake smiled and Max sweated more. Fuck, he knew there was a connection but not as family friends!
“Ok, no he is fine now. Is that all?” waiting to be dismissed Max asked.
“Are you a religious man Max?” Marcus asked taking Max by surprise.
“No.” He sort of lied, he had been raised religiously so felt a guilt at not practicing but the truth was he didn’t know what he was.
“Good, we can’t afford of any religious or moral code of ethics to stand in front of that brilliant mind of yours. Remember our contract stipulates when it comes to the work your conducting we take full responsibility for all of that, you don’t have to worry. That will be all for now, but please ensure you remember the confidentiality clauses you signed. Not even your close family are to know of our work.” Marcus closed the link.
“Arsehole.” Max said to no one. He instructed Roddy to check the last conversation he had with Marcus and see if he had referred to Jay. He didn’t remember it at all. Then he started to pack up to head to Jay’s POD, breathing deeply and calming himself down.
Shortly after the Max’s call Jay was leaving the campus with a moment of excitement flying through his mind and he mentally started to head back to the bar and Abby. There wasn’t time though, he needed to be home when Max got there and it was already past 7 p.m. however he tapped a quick message to Abby on his e-pad and sent it via his NWI.
Jay let himself out of the lab and nodded to the guard as he left the turbo-pod, then hurried off into the more welcoming interior of the university, some unseen force making him look over his shoulder. He ran over to the hopper bay and jumped into the nearest one, Manchester hadn’t lost its talent for the mundane in some areas, and while spacious and oval inside to maximize people space. The city standard hopper was sill yellow and smelled just as bad some days. He keyed in his own personal code and selected his home address from the drop-down menu. As the hopper ascended into the stream of traffic and calmly accelerated forward, a neutral voice informed him he had a queued call, marked “urgent,” from his father. Already unsettled by the day, this would contribute further towards his anxiety.
“Patch him through,” he told the AI while checking the time. 7:30pm. He must have been at the lab longer than he thought.
A few seconds later a holo video of his parents sitting in the kitchen popped into view. They both had wine glasses in front of them. He would rather have done audio-only, but it was obvious they wanted to see him. He passed a hand over his hair, hoping he didn’t look too disheveled, and told the hopper to switch on his video. Somewhere in the hopper a command received gave way to a green dot floating in the air indicating the hopper space was no longer private and he was being broadcast.
“Jay!” his father said, putting his glass down and moving his hand outside of the frame to adjust the picture. Jay’s holo would have appeared in his parents’ kitchen somewhere.
“Where have you been? You look tired,” his mother said. This was her standard greeting.
“Oh, just out with some friends from school, Max & Abby and a few others, going home now. What’s up?”
“Nothing much, we just needed to talk to you about a few things that we would rather discuss in person,” Xavier said. “Can you come over for dinner On Monday night and bring Abby? she is almost certainly ignoring us at the moment.”
His father seemed to be making a joke, about Abby, but Jay knew there were some sore feelings there on his father’s side. Jay suspected Xavier just missed Abby, but that wasn’t enough of a reason for his parents to summon him and Abby for dinner with only two days’ notice. Jay took his e-pad from his pocket and quickly scanned it for conflicts. He rolled the e-pad, a cube the width of three fingers, between his palms as he decided what to say.
“Err, sure, I guess. What time shall we come? Do I get a clue on the topic? This is all a bit cloak and dagger.”
“Around seven and just some family business to discuss.” The look his dad shot him stifled any further pushing on the topic.
Before he had time to respond, the AI politely told him the call had ended.
This new development was worrying to say the least. He rarely got a formal request from his parents to visit. These days they were more often to stop by his place unannounced on the weekend, nearly catching Abby in bed with him on more than one occasion, not to mention Abby and Jay then having to keep the four of them apart the whole time after their arrival. It would only take one close joint friend to realize they had the same parents and it was all over for the secrecy. Asking him and Abby to come alone meant one of two things. Either there was some news that was bad enough that they had to tell him and Abby in person, or they had found out something Jay was up to that they were not happy with. He was sure it was not about him, so that meant it was bad news. Had some great uncle or aunt died? Had his mother flunked out of flight school? There would be another 48 hours before he found out, and he did not need one more thing to worry about. He loved his parents, but they didn’t seem to understand how busy he was with his studies, never mind his genome secrets and searching the Dreaming Void for clues to help with it. He had tried on numerous occasions over his short life to talk to his mum and dad about his dreaming issues. They always listened sympathetically and without fail would bring it back to lack of sleep. Once he had even tried to tell them about the dream tower he had created only to find out they had called the school counsellor the next day asking if anything seemed wrong at school as he was having odd visions! Then his mind latched on, his heart leapt into over drive and he felt sick all at the same time. They had found out about him and Abby, that had to be it. He steadied himself and coded another message to Abby, asking her not to stay out late and to be sure to pop over before heading home as he has some news. This time he subvocalized the message and sent it as a voicemail. He knew she would listen to this internally over her NJI or have her AI convert it to a text overlay.
As the hopper headed for the public landing bay at the top of his building, he had a sudden urge to call back and ask if they could head over for breakfast tomorrow instead. But they had put up a privacy block. The only way to get through would be to use an emergency code, and he did not want to bother them with that, but the fact they had put it up at all deepened the already very bad feeling he had about all this. He shuddered, and closed his eyes to lean back. He would use the time remaining before landing to check in to his tower and the subconscious world, he checked the exact time via his NWI’s and noted it. Upon closing his eyes though, instead of finding himself in his favorite clearing for a moment of dream time to calm his head he found himself in Abby’s dream scene again. Something had pulled him there directly which was odd. Had he inadvertently witnessed something related during the day?
The crash scene had been cleared of everyone else per the earlier instruction, he checked again to make absolutely sure even though he’d reviewed it 1000’s of times, all he could see left from his restricted view were two droids and two men.
“Make sure the people that were here tonight all meet with some form of unfortunate accident.” The white droid said as it untangled a new apparatus from beneath its casing. Seven-year-old Abby watched in paralyzed despair.
“Any news on Sally? She’s a loose end I don’t like.” asked the man in the dark pants.
“She’s gone dark, hosted on one of the NEST AI’s central processors. We are working on a way to contain it without causing suspicion. However, if she were to try and run we would know.” The grey droid sounded irritated by the questions.
The white droid floated down exposing what had extruded from its body moments before, an arm with many medical instruments on it connected to tubes running back inside it’s casing.
“We will resolve the Sally situation, just take care of the humans. This compound will kill him instantly and it’s only known to the NEST so it won’t be traced.” She said, emotionless. It held a cylindrical object against Abby’s father’s neck and Jay felt Abby’s young heart quicken as he immersed himself into the scene. While she was young, shock was holding her still and the panel from the hopper stopped her physical movements.
“Do it.” The metallic looking Droid said.
There was a click and Abby’s father groaned once and then went limp his eyes rolling open.
Little Abby groaned in fear. It was involuntarily he could tell but it alerted the men and one started to bend at the knees stooping.
“Hello, hello little girl. Abby, isn’t it?”
Jay’s emotions always took over at this point, whoever it was coming down to talk to her was the person who’d been involved in ordering her Fathers’ death and was, potentially at this stage about to hurt her, his Abby.
The scene froze as the neck of the first man came into view.
His eyes flicked open into real world, 2.2 seconds had passed.
He had sent a lot of time investigating Sally when he first joined this all together. He was certain that it was the FBI computer used by D Ford to initially bring the self-learning algorithms that form the base of AI to life. It was the only machine at the time with enough processing power.
He left the hopper and was entering his POD, around the same time Max got the response back he was expecting from Roddy and he felt sick. There had been no mention of Jay being sick on the last call, no mention of Jay at all, on any call. He left the campus and headed for a Hopper.