“Burn them,” Elsie ordered and pulled the triggers. At this range, a precision shot would be difficult, but she had to try. For Ben, it might as well be on the other side of the galaxy, and he shot forward at a full run, trying to get close enough to make a difference. Elsie pulled each trigger once, blowing one guard apart and winging another, sending him spinning to the dirt. Then two more exploded as Nova shot them from across the street wherever she was hiding. “Gotta jet,” Elsie muttered to the downed pilot and shot off behind Ben as the pilot nodded painfully, the nannites in the drink trying to repair the damage to her organs.
Then one of the fighters slowed to a stop over the last two guards, Vanessa, and Jack, swinging its turret down to point at them. It locked on target and blew both of them away, firing hard enough to send dirt and AI parts flying in all directions. The turret stopped firing and the fighter floated away, leaving behind an explosion of dirt and metal with Jack and Vanessa huddled together against the wall. He uncurled from around her as Ben and Elsie came to a stop before them and Elsie frowned as she took in Vanessa’s burned and shattered armor.
“How is she?” Ben asked urgently and Jack looked back into the building for a moment before answering.
“She has the information you need,” he muttered hesitantly. “But one of the guards messed her up real bad. She said her avatar was dying.”
“I see,” Ben whispered sadly and went down on both of his knees before Vanessa. “Let’s go,” he continued and reached forward to pick her up gently.
“Hey, Vanessa,” Jack whispered as he touched her cheek with one hand. She looked up at him questioningly and he smiled softly. “If you ever need to recharge again, feel free to call me,” he added with a smile and she smiled back.
“I’ll…try to remember…that,” she forced out, beginning to sound tired as Jack stood up.
“You aren’t coming with us,” Elsie noted as Jack turned back to the building again and Ben felt the feeling of fondness towards Vanessa fade away as Jack looked back at the building. To be replaced by a simple determination. She was right. He had his own business in there.
“You have what you need,” Jack whispered back casually as the last defending fighter died overhead. “Now I have some business to settle.”
“Get her to the lab, Ben,” Elsie noted simply and stepped towards Jack, hearing the crunch of AI parts under her boots. “I’m going in too.”
“This isn’t your fight,” Jack snarled angrily and Ben felt his desperation. He didn’t want to lose anyone else. “Now go!”
“You need my help,” Elsie returned calmly, Ben feeling her fear and determination. Why was it that her emotions were always strongest when it was a matter of life and death? Why couldn’t he feel her the rest of the time? Life just wasn’t fair. “You won’t survive without it,” Elsie added.
“And you won’t survive if you help,” Jack muttered and Ben caught that odd feeling of loss that Jack always carried around. “We lost too many people last time.”
“Just Vanessa’s avatar and she can be repaired.”
“Twelve years ago,” Jack whispered and turned to look Elsie dead in the eyes as she gasped in realization. Ben blinked. She was finally starting to understand. And maybe he was too.
“Oh,” was all she said as he turned to walk back into Barlon’s headquarters as fighters shot by overhead, firing lasers and flechettes into the guards trying to hold its landings. Debris rained down, burning more holes in her clothes, and she nodded firmly, coming to a decision as Ben came up to his feet and began walking away, his own clothing smoldering. “I’ll catch up,” she muttered towards Ben and he sighed sadly as he felt the emotions behind the words.
“You could die and I can’t just restore you like I could Vanessa if her datacore was lost,” he whispered, echoing her feelings, and Elsie nodded in response.
“I know,” Elsie noted simply, but her emotions put the lie to her calm exterior. “But he does need my help, whether he’ll admit it or not. And he’s here because we asked him for help. I don’t want to tell Andrea he’s dead,” she added, and he finally realized he recognized her emotions. Andrea had the same feelings towards Jack. She took a step towards the building.
“I can come with you,” Ben whispered and she shook her head slowly.
“Help Vanessa,” she responded with a smile. “If the cascade hits her datacore, she’ll lose a lot of herself.”
“I know,” Ben whispered sadly, his gut starting to hurt. He hated these decisions so much. “I’ll be waiting for you,” he added in a soft voice and walked away from the entrance, Vanessa in his arms, as two fighters hovered down to escort him away, turrets scanning back and forth for enemies.
“I’ll be there,” Elise responded with a smile in her voice, shaking her head as she walked into the building and turned to follow Jack. Try as she might, after a century she still couldn’t understand the human reaction to loss. They always avoided it, tried to ignore it until the end. They feared death and always would, not knowing what followed, but AIs were far more pragmatic, no matter how carefully they’d been designed to resemble humans.
Elsie had already “died” twice in the last century and she knew it would happen again. Death was not her enemy; it was simply a stage that many AIs knew. But Ben was right. She’d grown since her last “death”, including the installation of a fully independent biological datacore. If that were destroyed, the AI she was right now would never live again. Would her feelings survive it? She hesitated for a split second as that thought went through both of her cores and she suddenly realized why her organic core had been feeling so odd. Her organic core fluttered at the thought, suddenly terrified of what death might mean. Of what she could lose. But her standard core simply filed the thought away and she took another step forward. She wouldn’t die. She couldn’t die. Not permanently.
Elsie shrugged as she followed Jack around a corner. His death would be far more permanent and lasting than any death she might experience. No matter what feelings she might lose, she was going to make sure he didn’t have to experience it.
Ben’s comm. unit vibrated and he clicked it to take the call after seeing the name on it. Why would he be calling now? “What is it, Charles? I’m kind of in a situation right now,” he noted as another spread of fire smashed into the landings of the building.
“I know,” Charles replied instantly. “Is your mission complete?”
“We have the data,” Ben responded.
“Thank god the AI’s out of there,” Charles whispered gratefully.
“What do you mean?”
“Barlon wants military grade AIs. Badly.”
“Why?” Ben asked, thinking about Elsie.
“I just got information from one of my moles. If they can get an AI, they want to use it on that Aesiran!” Charles shouted and Ben’s face paled.
“Oh slag,” he whispered slowly, his heart fluttering at what she’d just walked into. If a biological datacored AI killed an Aesiran, no one would doubt that it was Pryde Rock that ordered the hit. They were too closely guarded. Nobody outside the military had them.
“What is it, Ben?” Charles asked, seeing his reaction.
“Elsie went back in,” Ben whispered and turned back to the building as he swallowed nervously.
“What?” Charles shouted angrily. “Get her out now!” he added and Ben winced at the volume of his voice.
“Ok!” he shouted back desperately. “Elsie! Get out of there now!” he added after tweaking the signal to broadband. The silence stretched out for a second, and then two, and he shook his head. “Their jamming’s still up.”
“Damn,” Charles whispered. “Then get in there now! Whatever the cost do not allow Barlon to capture a military grade AI! Do you hear me Ben? Do not allow it!”
“Ok! I’ll handle it!” Ben finished as he tried to keep his sudden fear under control and laid Vanessa down on the grass carefully. “Emergency shutdown now,” he whispered and she nodded painfully before going limp. He couldn’t disconnect her core in the time he had. He had to make a choice. “I’m sorry,” he whispered and re-engaged the transmitter. “Nova, Cat, James, everybody! We’ve got a situation. “Jack went back in, along with Elsie and I’ve just been talking with a friend who says we have to get her out now. We’re going in and pulling them both out so I’ll need people who can handle guns!”
“On my way,” he heard Nova transmit and turned around to see where she was, then smiled nervously as she dropped out of a tree on the other side of the street. At first glance, she looked like a death metal band’s mascot, with black baggy clothing and chains hanging from her belt. As she got closer, she looked even more like it, with the black makeup and everything. She wasn’t a happy AI. Never had been. The only thing that would have made people wonder was the rifle carried in her arms, and that wouldn’t have made them wonder much.
He turned back as two fighters landed and Cat and James crawled out of their cockpits. “Who’s in charge up there?” Ben asked and James frowned at Cat.
“Our seconds can handle things,” Cat smiled as James shook his head.
“Git back up there” he ordered. “This is no place fer you.”
“Try and stop me,” she responded and pulled a pistol out of her holster. “You’ll have to shoot me,” she finished firmly and he finally nodded grudgingly as Nova arrived.
“One of you should stay,” Ben ordered and James shook his head.
“He went in,” he noted firmly. “I know why now. I won’t let him go in alone again.” Ben blinked at the odd sentence, and then again at the odd sense he was getting from James. He was talking about twelve years ago too. No. Damn. This was deeper than he thought. Then he felt Cat’s emotions and sighed. He recognized those feelings now. It was easy.
“Let’s go,” he finally muttered. There was obviously no stopping them and he could use their help. He was not going to lose Elsie now. Especially not to Barlon if Charles was right. He began walking towards the door as the fighters made another pass over the building, shredding the landings and the guards again. Barlon’s books would be showing a major hit after today and somehow Ben just couldn’t be sorry about that. Couldn’t happen to a nicer Corporation.