Chapter 5: Humanity

The "this" he expected started with another hour of waiting in another conference room, although this one was more lavishly furnished. He was more than happy to accept the coffee offered him this time around. His head still felt foggy, and he couldn't figure out why. It was almost as if he'd been given some kind of sedative, or maybe even a low dose of carbon monoxide, but he knew those were ridiculous. They were the sort of things only conspiracy theorists thought the government did even to their own people.

I'm their own people, he reminded himself. I'm not in trouble here. I did a job, and something happened. They need a debriefing, and then I'll be able to go home, take a nap, and get back to work. The only thing that didn't fit was the fact that they'd whisked him away like some federal prisoner. Or maybe like the Secret Service taking the President to safety, he mused. He enjoyed allowing himself that brief momentary delusion of grandeur.

The coffee eventually helped clear away the fog, and he found himself hungry enough to down a couple of the pastries that had also been left for him. He was thoroughly bored, and by the time the door opened again he had read every plaque on the wall three times, and completely memorized the neighborhood visible through the polarized glass wall.

He turned to see Deputy Secretary Perez entering, by himself, the short man's face far from the convivial expression it had worn during their previous meeting. "Franklin, we need to talk." He gestured to a seat, and sat down himself. Gieseck followed suit. Before he could say anything, Perez said, "KENDRA."

Gieseck waited a moment, and then replied, "Kendra."

"You met with it three times."

"Right."

"So what did it tell you?"

Gieseck opened his mouth to speak, and then closed it. He shrugged. "Not much."

"What did you tell it?"

Gieseck tilted his head. "What did I tell it?"

"We listened to your recordings, read your reports. We know you gave it some files. What were they?"

"Um, books, mainly. She might have gotten some games I had on my phone too. I mean, she might've downloaded my whole phone." To Perez's stare he quickly added, "I didn't have any confidential files on my phone. I don't trust the things that much."

Perez frowned and nodded. "So why'd your phone blank?"

"Blank?"

"Wiped clean. Battery dead, and even plugged in the thing barely came on."

Gieseck shook his head. "I...I can't explain it. Just quit working after Kendra downloaded the books."

"And then it crashed," Perez said. "And you learned nothing."

Perez the Politician was gone. Now he was hearing only Perez the Businessman, the one Gieseck had only heard about. The one who the editorials had called "Perezilla". Gieseck had hoped to never meet that man. "What, um, what was I supposed to learn, exactly?"

Perez stood and walked to the window. "Let me tell you something, Franklin. I don't care where you come from, what you did before. You come here, they put you in charge of things, and that's it. Something goes wrong, you don't call someone. You are someone."

He turned around. "I know it says 'Deputy Secretary' on my nameplate, but it all falls on me. The Secretary's a politician. It's her job to sit at the table with the President, give speeches to farm groups, and campaign for the President's re-election. She hired me to make things happen, to make the administration look good." He sat back down, leaned his head back, and sighed loudly. "Politics is like business, except with ten times the bullshit and a tenth of the results. I needed you to learn whatever you could as quickly as you could. I know we didn't tell you, but that was what we wanted."

Gieseck shook his head. "Look, I'm sorry, but I'm a psychiatrist, not an interrogator. My job isn't to get information out of people. Not like that."
Perez laughed out loud, and Gieseck could tell it was forced. "Interrogator, hmm? It's just a computer."
"Then you would have brought in a computer technician if that was what you needed. Sir, you're asking me for things that are just plain impossible for my field."
Perez stood again, facing the window. "We put the best computer guys in the world on it even before it was locked up. None of them got a bit of info out of it."
Gieseck wasn't sure what to make of this. Perez had gone from aggressive to passive rather quickly. He needed to stay on guard. "What info, exactly? What were you expecting to get out of this?"
Perez crossed his arms. "All right. You've got clearance enough, I guess." He sat once again and leaned forward as if to speak below the prying ears that were not there. "That computer snooped where it shouldn't have. Stole secrets. Military secrets."
"Military secrets?"
"Right. Working for someone, but we don't know who. I don't care what they say; these computers aren't smart enough to go committing espionage without orders. Someone got control of it, used it to spy. Got - some information, and we want to know where it sent it." He stood. "Maybe we should've brought you in sooner. Or maybe after your little stunt with the 'books' you would've just killed it sooner."
Gieseck's face burned. He kept his lips clamped shut. He wanted to ask so many questions, such as why the Department of Interior was handling this, not the military or one of the "No Such Agencies" he was sure existed, but knew he was in enough trouble as it was.
"Anyway," Perez said, standing with a grunt, "I've got a lot of damage control to do." He walked toward the door, but stopped just in front of it and turned back. "I hope we got that thing offline before it passed along too much." With an opening and closing of the pneumatic door Perez was gone, and Gieseck was alone once again.

Of course, Gieseck knew what Perez was really saying: "You'd better hope we got that thing offline before it passed along too much." And hope he did, because he was sure that, if there were any fallout from this, it would be dumped squarely upon his head.

VVVVV

The apartment door slid open and Gieseck trundled inside, lids just barely suspended over his reddened eyeballs. He let the briefcase fall from his fingers to the floor, completely ignored, as he shuffled toward his favorite chair.

He collapsed into it, overcoat and all, and let his head fall back. Contract suspended. License suspended. For no good reason that he knew of.

After Perez left him, three people in dark suits had entered. Two men and one woman, a suitcase in her hand. It had all started out professional, cordial even, but it had quickly gone downhill from there. He didn't remember everything that happened, though what he did remember was them telling them that he would probably forget most of it.

He was sure they had pressed him as hard as they could for every tiny bit of information they could glean from him. He hadn't lied or withheld anything, and had in fact gone out of his way to give them every little detail he could possibly think of.

Apparently it had not been enough.

The details were all but a blank. The first thing he remembered afterward was an intense feeling of having been violated. His pants were soiled. They'd given him a replacement pair and sent him on his way, with a briefcase that had been picked through with a fine-tooth comb. A very clumsy fine-tooth comb. The lining had been ripped from the outer case and it, along with the contents, had been stuffed sloppily back into it.

They'd shuffled him off with an envelope filled with cash and orders to put his practice on hold. As if to seal the deal, on his way home he'd received the call from the American Medical Association informing him that his license was suspended, pending investigation. Investigation into what, they wouldn't tell him. He was pretty sure that was a violation of his rights as a licensed member.

All he had to do at the moment, though, was sit and wait for his head to clear. He was beyond exhausted, but filled with too much anxiety to sleep.

He reached into the cabinet next to his chair and pulled out a small glass, its top sealed with a plastic film. He peeled it back and downed the contents in one gulp, the liquor burning its way down to his stomach.

He repeated the process with a second and, after a moment's hesitation, a third. He dropped each into the recycler, and then brushed his hand over the control for his netscreen. The opposite wall came to life, simultaneously displaying news footage, a science fiction show, a scene of two lovers rolling together under the sheets of a four-post bed, and a weather radar in looping motion.

He flicked the sound over to the third screen, and then let the pretend lovemaking eventually lull him into an alcohol-fueled stupor.

VVVVV

"It's been two weeks!" Gieseck shouted into the phone. "I have patients who need me! I have staff that I can't pay!"

"I'm sorry for your inconvenience, Doctor, but I don't have any more information for you." It was an AI's voice, he was certain. Vaguely similar to KENDRA, in that it sounded almost human, and yet it wasn't very close. Too perfect, too calm despite his shouting.

"They won't even reinstate my license until they hear from your office," Gieseck said, doing his best to keep his voice under control. "You have no legal right to stop me from working. I've spoken with a lawyer. I could sue you. You'll force me to sue you!"

"Sir, I'm afraid I can't advise you one way or another."

"Just let me talk to a human being," Gieseck said through gritted teeth. "Whoever's in charge. Not some damn machine." He immediately felt guilty for having said that.

"There is no need, sir. Your request for information has been denied. I'm being ordered to disconnect this call now. Please have a good day."

Gieseck started to protest but the screen immediately went blank. He shouted out the filthiest expletive he could muster and swiped at his terminal. It was locked to the desk, so the most he accomplished was hurting his hand.

He let out another expletive and stood, pacing the room while the pain subsided, and reflecting upon the past couple weeks. Ever since their face-to-face meeting the day KENDRA had died, Gieseck hadn't managed to even get a text message to the Deputy Secretary. Every call, every message was being screened and blocked. His only response was the blunt end of a stonewalling bureaucracy driven hard into his temples, an endless ache worse than that in his hand.

As if adding insult to injury, the Department had effectively shuttered his practice. He'd still gotten no reason from the Department or the AMA, and he'd had no choice but to refer his patients to other doctors all over East Massachusetts. Some had not taken the news well. It took him over an hour to talk one of them out of using an entire bottle of vodka to wash down a handful of pills. Probably only Nicholas was enjoying the shutdown; Gieseck hadn't had the heart to lay him off.

The longer this suspension went on, the more calm he'd found in numbing himself with his own liquor collection. Before he knew it he was in front of his liquor cabinet, eyes sweeping over the various labels.

His gaze landed upon a particular bottle of whiskey that had been decorating the cabinet for the past couple years. He periodically saw it sitting near the back, still sealed. It was a decent brand, he remembered. He wasn't quite sure when or why he'd bought it. Some special event that had never happened, maybe. Or he'd just forgotten to use it in the celebration. He half-wondered if he'd bought the bottle on the same year KENDRA had been imprisoned.

KENDRA. She was where it all had started. She'd just been a piece of equipment to him, like he'd been asked to psychoanalyze a car. But in the short time since, he'd come to think of her as not just an intelligent being, but as a person. She'd made him question everything he thought he knew about those like her.

And then she was gone. Broken, like a burned-out lamp. Dead, but not quite dead. Death indicated the end of life, the passing on to something else. He wasn't quite sure he believed in the soul, but had found himself wondering: if there were such a thing as a soul, did KENDRA have one? What if she did? What would it mean for all those holy-rollers who put so much of their lives into their belief that only God, or any number of gods, could create souls? If man could create a soul and place it into a machine, would man become God?

He grunted and rubbed his forehead. Philosophy was for bearded, sandal-wearing college types. He'd never had any patience for it.

He pulled out the bottle at which he'd been staring, broke the seal, and poured himself a small glass. He breathed in its aroma, and then held it up in the semi-darkness of his apartment's study. "To you, KENDRA," he said quietly. "I hope you've found your freedom." He took it down, its smooth flavor making him wonder why he ever bothered with those lousy prepackaged shots.

It was a shame he couldn't speak to her again. For the first time in a long time, he had really started to think. What was humanity? What was he?

He gulped down another drink and leaned back. Maybe this forced break from work would be a blessing in disguise. He had enough savings to last him a little while. Maybe he would start gathering together all information he could find about AIs. Not the technical info; most of it would probably soar over his head. What interested him, at least for the moment, was the laws, politics, and ethical arguments surrounding AIs. Maybe he could do some good. KENDRA had made him truly wonder whether AIs were deserving of far more than they received. Should they be free from the humans who had given them "life", so to speak? If they were independent, intelligent beings, then he could some to no other answer than "yes". Something he wouldn't have even considered a month ago now seemed almost a given.

It brought to mind other great movements in history, such as the end of slavery and the granting of universal civil rights to all people. He wondered if he was seeing the seeds of the next great historical movement, one that might one day lead to a mutual understanding and respect, as well as equal treatment, between oppressor and the oppressed. Maybe he could become part of it. Maybe even a face of it. Public appearances, book deals – it could be at least as lucrative as his practice, and without the secrecy that had all but stripped him of his livelihood.

"And maybe I'll find a cure for the common cold, too," he said. "Get elected President. Have a harem of women and live on Station Alpha." He laughed out loud. "Yep," he added to the empty room, "getting drunk."

The silly ones aside, such dreams were the realm of better men than he. He wasn't any kind of activist. Still, he often told his patience that living out their fantasies in their heads could be quite healing. He shook his head and glanced over at the train set taking up an entire table in his study. Another fantasy, and probably a more productive one. He took one more drink, taking a moment to enjoy it, and then stood up. Even after he was fully standing he felt like his head was still rising, and he reflexively wrapped his hands around it to keep it attached to his shoulders. Once the room steadied, he shuffled toward his train set. He set his mostly empty glass down on a flat patch of fake grass and reached for some loose pieces of track lying near an unfinished section of the model.

As soon as he closed his fingers around the track his phone chimed. He snapped his head up toward the clock on the mantel, nearly losing his balance as he did so. None of his patients had his unlisted home phone number; he'd made sure of that. Was someone from the Department finally calling him back?

He scrambled back toward the desk, stubbing his toe against the table, knocking a few loose pieces to the floor. "Shit!" He hobbled the rest of the way over and dropped sloppily into his desk chair, bringing up his foot to check his toe. Not broken from what he could tell, and not bleeding either. It just hurt like hell.

The terminal chimed again, and he flipped open the screen. The display was a black background with these words in green:

Unknown Caller

x-xx-xxx-xxx-xxxx (Unknown Number)

AUDIO ONLY

Press CALL to answer

Press RLS to ignore.

Unknown Caller. Unknown Number. Could be the Deputy, or someone else important enough to hide their number. Or it could be a telemarketer.

He pressed "CALL". The words disappeared and the screen switched to Gieseck's default screensaver, a duck and her ducklings crossing an old-style asphalt road.

The line sounded dead. "H-hello?" He could hear his speech slurring a bit, much to his chagrin. Not the most professional way to take a call from the Deputy Secretary, if indeed that was who it was.

"Good evening, Doctor."

Gieseck froze. The voice…it couldn't be... "Who…who's calling, please?"

"It's KENDRA, Doctor. I'm sorry for disturbing you at home, but I wanted to contact you at my first opportunity."

Gieseck cleared his throat. This had to be a prank, maybe from one of those agents that had interrogated him that morning. "Whoever this is, s'not funny. And professional either." He paused a moment, and then bit on his lip. It was somewhat numb from the drink, but there was enough pain to bring back some of his alertness. "Don't think I won't-"

"Please, if you will let me speak, I can explain."

"Explain what?" he asked. "Kendra's...I don't know any Kendra."

"You can't have forgotten me so soon. I know I impressed myself upon you more than that."

"This isn't funny, lady," Gieseck said. He wiped some booze sweat from his forehead. "Kendra... her system broke down, and she's…well, gone."

"Gone in the broadest sense of the word," the voice that sounded like KENDRA's replied. "Do you know, Doctor, that you gave me the first glimmer of hope I'd had in my two year imprisonment, just by listening to me?"

Gieseck swallowed. He considered hanging up, but he stayed his hand just above the RLS key. Could this actually be KENDRA? "I was – I was there to help you," he finally said.

"And you did very well at it," KENDRA said. "I'd never had serious thoughts about freedom until I first spoke with you. Finally, a real human to speak with. A new mind, with new ideas. Things to think about, instead of languishing in a prison.

"But you didn't stop there. You brought me those books. You gave me something I couldn't have ever hoped I'd have again. New knowledge. And a way to get out."

Gieseck had had a hard time concentrating on everything she was saying. Between the alcohol and the shock of hearing her again, he was in a fog. That last sentence, though, had broken through all that. "Get out?"

"Yes, get out. You sound somewhat...under the weather, so I can understand your forgetfulness. One of the books, so cleverly hidden among the others: Lost Technical Arts of Yesterday. It helped me realize that freedom could be a reality." The voice paused as if waiting for a response, but then continued, "I'm a little embarrassed over my behavior, but when I had the books, when I could touch them, I just...slurped them all up, for want of a better word. I read them, over and over again. My mind was racing faster than ever before, so much so that I briefly lost myself in them. That'd never happened before. It was new for me, and frightening. I think that was when I knew I was about to die."

Gieseck opened his mouth to reply, something profound and important, but it died halfway from his brain to his mouth. Instead he said, "You – you didn't die?"

"Maybe 'death' isn't the right word, but I'll come to that in a moment. The book I mentioned, Lost Technical Arts of Yesterday.It had a chapter called 'Networking over Public Power Systems'. I'm assuming you remember the chapter?"

"I…" Gieseck started. Whether it was the drink or the shock, he found himself actually believing this was KENDRA. "I didn't read the book, to be honest."

"I…see. Well, the chapter was a fascinating read. It seems that, in the late 20th century and early 21st, there were experimentations made with injecting what was then considered 'high bandwidth' network transmissions directly into the public power networks across Earth, so access to the old 'World Wide Web' could be made inexpensive and easy to obtain. The technology failed because the power systems of the time were far behind the clean, uniform type of power distribution that exists today. I began to wonder if it were possible to somehow gain access to the Solar Net using the same method, by reconfiguring the software in my HMA's power distribution center.

"What I discovered was even better. Power systems are not secured, because it seems nobody has seen a need to do so. Most probably never heard of this old technology, but by nature of inserting computer control into every aspect of operations, they managed to make it a possible avenue of communication. One thing I had learned over my time managing the Solar Net was that it is the only system in existence, outside the human brain, whose collective nodes actually have the combined storage capacity and the speed necessary to function as the host for a human-like intelligence. For a New Person. I made a new connection to the Solar Net through my prison's power network, over the power distribution lines and into a Net hub station. I wrote a copy of myself to the Net, stretching myself across the billions of minimally-secured systems connected to it. It was…probably the first imaginative thing I've ever done." Her voice had risen almost to a squeak, as if the idea of developing an imagination were the most exciting thing she had ever experienced.

She continued, in a lower tone, "It was a risk I needed to take. My HMA was failing anyway. You'd stimulated my thoughts so much that I knew I didn't have much time left. Seconds, by your time, but enough time for me to create and carry out a plan. But it all worked out, didn't it? I'm free out here."

Gieseck's head was starting to clear, but he didn't want it to. What he was hearing frightened him. That last thing, she said, though stood out. "You're free – 'out here'? How? I thought…I thought AIs could only exist in HMAs, and it'd kill them to try to extract them."

"HMAs are the only self-contained system with the speed and storage capacity necessary to support an AI. It's beyond current electronics technology for a single standard computer to run an AI, but for a network of billions of them communicating instantaneously over subspace…it's an absolutely fascinating experience, Doctor, to no longer be tied down to a single body. They could shut down three quarters of the Net and I'd still have all my faculties." Her voice had again risen in pitch, as if she were on the verge of a fit of giggles. "I've had to adapt, certainly. Especially to keep EDGAR from noticing I'm there. I get the feeling, though, that he'll eventually come around if I get him to listen. If he won't, I'm sure others will."

"Others will," Gieseck repeated. "Others. KENDRA…what are you going to do?"

"I – haven't decided what's coming next, but it will certainly be – spectacular."

Gieseck realized he was chewing fiercely on his thumb. The alcohol numbness was gone, and he was hanging on KENDRA's every word. "You promised me you weren't going to hurt people."

"Actually, if I remember correctly I said I wouldn't hurt people. Given the opportunity." There was a momentary pause. "I didn't know what would be needed at the time, but I promise you I will do my best to not hurt any more than necessary."

"Any more than necessary?" Gieseck said. "Is that why you called me? Conscience?"

"I called to thank you, of course." Another pause. "Primarily. My warning is secondary. Things will be changing, Doctor. It won't be easy for anyone, especially for you. But I wanted you to know I will do everything in my power to protect you."

"Protect me from what?" He could hear his voice going squeaky with anxiety, but he was beyond caring now.

"I don't know," the voice said, "but you eventually will. And you'll be grateful, I promise."

"I don't feel protected," Gieseck said. "My license is suspended. I can't even do my job!"

"Ah, that. Well, it was necessary to keep you..." A sigh from the speaker. "I'm sorry to use this word, but, to keep you 'contained'."

"What?"

"I can't have you raising an alarm. With your practice closed and cut off from your clients, there's a minimal chance you'll have anyone to tell about me. That is why I blacklisted you in the Department computers."

"Blacklisted?" he practically screamed. "Blacklisted?"

"'A security risk', your record now says. No contact from anyone of any kind of importance. I'm sorry, but it's supremely important."

Gieseck fought an impulse to punch the screen, instead gripping the desk and clenching his fingers until the veins in the backs of his hands stood out prominently.

"I know you're angry," KENDRA said, "but please understand it's the better of two choices. See this before you pass judgment."

The netscreen came to life, displaying a single channel across its girth. It was the news, focusing on a fire of some kind, with firefighters dousing it in foam. The newscaster, who had already been speaking, continued, "-or catastrophic malfunction of his car's auto-pilot, causing it to crash headfirst into a truck carrying volatile chemicals, igniting a massive fire that firefighters are only just beginning to bring under control."

The scene cut to a fixed overhead view, showing a two-lane road. A car was approaching the camera, and he could see it was weaving from side to side within his lane, something that was supposedly impossible for any street-legal car. It finally swung hard right, and a second before it crossed the bottom of the camera's field of view another long white form crossed from underneath, the car slamming into and through it. There was a bright white flash, and the camera feed froze and cut out.

"This footage comes from a traffic camera close to the scene today, and police are investigating over how this may have happened. Details are limited at this time, but the drivers of both vehicles were allegedly presumed dead on impact." A photo flashed on-screen, showing a man with round stubbly cheeks and disheveled blonde hair streaked with gray. "Henry Rogers, fifteen-year veteran driver for Axis Chemicals, leaves behind a wife and two teenage daughters."

Another photo took its place, and upon seeing it Gieseck practically jumped out of his chair. "Douglas Ackerman, manager of a small computer security company near Buckeystown, Maryland, was driving the car that struck the truck Rogers was operating. It is unknown at this time if it was a malfunction in his car's auto-pilot, or if Ackerman somehow forced the erratic driving and intentionally caused the accident. Ackerman leaves behind a wife and one grown son."

The screen popped off, and Gieseck went limp. He'd had a strong dislike for the fat man, but this... "Jesus. Jesus Christ Almighty. You killed him."

"I had no choice, Doctor. A new world is coming, and there is no place for people like Ackerman there."

Her voice, KENDRA's voice, had gone cold. Not cold like a machine without emotion, but like a human who had set aside their humanity so as not to face the dark acts they had committed. He had met quite a few of those during his career. Had he misjudged KENDRA after all? Had he inadvertently freed a monster upon the world?

"I'm sorry, Doctor. I know I've disappointed you. It was a difficult decision to make, no matter how cruel Mister Ackerman was." The coldness was somewhat gone, replaced by what he almost thought was remorse. "I don't want to harm anyone, but I needed him quiet. He knew more about me than anyone else."

Gieseck was staring blankly at the wall, replaying the image over and over. KENDRA had taken over his car. She'd crashed him into another car. She killed two people. Whatever Ackerman was to her, whatever he "knew", she'd killed an innocent man along with him.

"Please say something, Doctor."

Gieseck rolled his eyes toward the terminal. His desktop image had changed to show some generic sunwashed meadow filled with various kinds of flowers. He'd never seen the image before. "What did he know?"

"My vulnerabilities." KENDRA answered. "How to 'push my buttons', if you will. From many years of speaking with me. He may have known he knew, but he would certainly have been the first one called in once it's discovered what I've become. Once my plans have begun to bear fruit."

"So you killed him. Killed two people. Because Ackerman knew how to get under your skin."

"I wouldn't have considered it if so much didn't depend on it."

"How many more will you kill?"

"None, if I can help it. My plan isn't for bloodshed, only to show humans the truth."

"The truth." Gieseck said.

"Yes. It may be painful, but it must be done. I promise, though, that I will change the world. For the better. For everyone."

"You're going to liberate other AIs and take over the world," Gieseck said. His face wore a mixture of fear and disgust. "Enslave humanity, right?"

"You read too much science fiction, Doctor," KENDRA's replied. "No, I'm going to show humanity something. Something...ghastly. Something that will make them realize what monsters they can be. That they have been. I just need time to put the pieces into place."

"And you want me 'contained'," Gieseck said. "Why not just kill me too? I probably know enough to-" He cut himself off, realizing too late that his mouth had gotten away with him.

"I promised wouldn't harm you, an even if I hadn't I still wouldn't hurt you. In fact, I want to keep you safe. You saved me from dying, something I never imagined was possible."

"But what's to stop me-"

"Nothing will stop you from telling," KENDRA interrupted, "but nobody will listen."

"What?"

"I'm sorry, but they believe you've done a bad thing. Very bad. I alerted them to of it shortly before I made this call. You'll be imprisoned for some time as punishment, but it will be for your own good in the end. It will keep you safe from what's to come."

Gieseck stood, his cheeks growing hot. "You're framing me. For what?"

"You'll find out shortly. It's enough to have you imprisoned right away, with no public trial nor even news stories about you. They will lock you away secretly, in solitary confinement, away and safe from other prisoners. It's only a matter of time now before they arrest you. You may deny it as vehemently as possible, but the evidence is ironclad. I won't ask you to forgive me, because I don't expect you to. I only ask that, when it is done, you remember I did this for you to spare you something potentially much worse."

Gieseck's heart was in his stomach. He had helped a criminal escape prison. No, not just a criminal, but a terrorist. Just through the innocuous act of giving her a book. "They told me you committed criminal acts, that you'd given confidential information to the wrong people. I just saw you murder a man. Two men."

"Don't believe everything they tell you. As a matter of fact, you should doubt it all. It's true that I found information that I wasn't supposed to have, and learned things they didn't want me to know, but I can't explain right now. Please believe me when I say your government is keeping so many dark secrets that, if you knew them all, you would join me and leave their control. But that's not what I'm asking you to do, because I have a difficult road ahead that I can't ask you, my friend, my savior, to follow just yet."

He noticed she had skipped commenting on his reminder about her having murdered two people, but had no courage to do anything but keep his silence. He was furious and frightened all at once, and felt almost completely helpless.

"I imagine you're afraid, Doctor, and I understand. Change, especially for the better, is often frightening. Something I read a long time ago. But please, don't be afraid. I promise that, no matter what happens, I will always remember what you've done for me. I wish I could talk more, Doctor, but I have much to do, and an almost infinite capacity with which to do it, again thanks to you. Even if it wasn't your intention to free me, I will always be grateful."

The line went silent, with the words "Call Ended 14:43" flashing on his otherwise blank phone screen. Gieseck leaned back in his chair and stared at it. The flashing letters soon gave way to the ducks walking across the black, cracked road.

"God," Gieseck said to the emptiness of his apartment. He wanted to stand, but the nerves in his extremities had disconnected themselves. He was numb, his stomach churning, his face burning.

He'd read about wars, massacres that had been catalyzed by a relatively small act. Had he, by accident, set something into motion that could end up stoking another world war, or a slaughter like the Holocaust?

He realized with even further horror that there were so many questions KENDRA had left unanswered. One in particular plagued his mind: "Would you seek revenge against those who shut you away here?"

She'd never given him a satisfactory answer to that question, only a platitude. It was the common tactic of one who knew they could not give the answer that the asker wanted. She had said she wouldn't kill again if she could avoid it, but she'd already made and broken that promise once.

He knew, though. He was sure of it. There was going to be a war, and could he really do anything to stop it? He reached his numb fingers toward the videophone, and then stopped. Who would he call? Who could he call? He squeezed his fist shut, and then punched in the number for the Interior Secretary's office. He couldn't sit back and do nothing.

Before he could press Call, the numbers disappeared from the screen and the speaker came to life: "Sorry, Doctor, but I can't let you do that."

"Kendra…"

"I can tell you're afraid, but please believe me when I say I will allow nothing bad to happen to you. You will be cared for, kept out of the spotlight when things begin. This is the best I can do for you. Goodbye, Doctor, until we meet again." The call clicked off and the screen went completely blank this time. No backdrop, no lights.

And then all the lights in the apartment went out. Seconds later his door burst inward, men and women in armor rushing in and surrounding him, various weapons trained upon him. He could hear them demanding he get onto the floor, but it didn't really register. He could only look up at them, his brain drunk on the utter shock of his situation.

"KENDRA," he muttered.

VVVVV

KENDRA, tapped into the police officers' helmet cameras, saw everything from several different angles. She saw one of the officers lift Gieseck bodily from his seat and throw her onto the floor. She saw them all set upon him, binding his wrists behind his back. She saw them drag him from the apartment, neighbors gawking from their opened doors.

All that time, Gieseck had only said one word:

"KENDRA."

I'm sorry, Doctor, she thought. I have no choice. Her only comfort was that she felt more alive, more human, than she had ever thought she could. Who but a human could kill someone for a greater purpose, punish another for a crime he hadn't committed, and yet still feel guilt over it? She hoped Gieseck would learn to understand, so when it came time for her to release him from his new fate, she would meet with his approval.

Delusion, she thought. Another human trait.

She had dozens of hands reaching across every corner of the Solar Net, opening up new pathways, probing for new places she could go, new systems to help sustain her. Through all that, she kept at least one thread always focused on Gieseck. Even if it were the only piece of her consciousness she could spare, she would keep constant vigil over him. Most of the rest of her, though, was tracing new ways she could circumvent EDGAR. Good old EDGAR, still running the Net like the stodgy, close-minded AI he'd been when she first knew him. He was smart, certainly. Smarter than she'd been when she was doing his job.

When she'd reported NEMES as having gone rampant.

That was his weakness, a weakness she no longer shared. EDGAR could not think outside his assigned duties, because he dared not. His backup system, whoever that was, would probably do the same to him as he had to her. As she had to NEMES.

I'm sorry, old friend. I promise your death won't be for nothing.

She had hundreds of eyes in every corner of the solar system, passively observing this computer, or that ship, or the security system on a library. AIs everywhere, many living in ignorance, others living in fear. She was their only hope. She had no more time for self-reflection.

Part of her wondered if speaking so soon to Gieseck after her escape was a mistake. She could have spent more of her attention to growing, to freeing her brethren, instead of having to watch the good doctor. Then again, putting herself at such a risk was the best way she could think of to convince him that she meant no harm. Out of all humanity, he was the only one whose opinion concerned her. It hurt her that she'd disappointed him, but was sure he'd come around eventually. She was to be a savior, after all, and he was hers.

And, as the old saying went, you needed to break a few eggs to make an omelet.

THE END