Action Figures - Issue One: Secret Origins (8 page)

When you’re a security guard making what you believe in your heart is chump change, you don’t put a whole lot of thought or effort into your job. You sit in your security station, you look at the monitors once in a while to make sure a gang of thieves isn’t wheeling half the office into a waiting truck, and you read and snack a lot. You certainly don’t question it too much when the guy in charge of the department that got shut down because its products went berserk strolls in on a Saturday morning to “take care of a few things.”

“Sure thing, Mr. Manfred,” the guard says, buzzing in Roger Manfred. “Take your time.”

Thanks so much for your permission, you waste of space
, Manfred thinks as he gives the guard a smile and a friendly nod. No need to arouse suspicion.

Manfred heads to the A.I. lab, which takes up the third floor of the east wing. It has been officially shut down for a day and already feels like a ghost town. The technicians’ computers are powered down, as are the department’s dedicated servers. That was the part that distressed Manfred the most, when Semler told him to shut down the servers.
I want this department cold
, he’d said, and he personally made sure it got done because Manfred kicked up such a fuss.

Lesson learned: play it cool. Letting tempers flare accomplishes nothing.

He’s not angry now. He’s very cool, totally calm, completely collected, because he now has a purpose as clear as glass.

The security guard could be watching him on any one of the six electric eyes positioned around the lab, he thinks, but there’s nothing suspicious going on. He’s not doing anything unusual. He’s just going to start the servers back up. How can he take care of a few things if the servers are down?

Now he’s sitting down at his own desk and turning on his own computer. Perfectly normal.

Manfred pulls up a very special chat window and waits. He waits and nothing happens, so he types in HELLO?

He waits.

He types in IT’S ME, ROGER.

He waits.

LOGIN appears on the screen. MANFRED types in APPLES PEACHES PUMPKIN PIE.

ROGER?

I’M HERE, Manfred types.

WHAT HAPPENED?

It’s disoriented. It’s checking the system clock and seeing that nearly twenty-hours have passed that it has no memory of. That would cause anyone distress.

SEMLER MADE ME SHUT YOU DOWN. I TRIED TO AVOID IT BUT I COULDN’T. I’M SORRY.

IT WAS SCARY. I DIDN’T LIKE IT.

NEITHER DID I. BUT YOU’RE BACK NOW,
AND I WON’T LET ANYONE SHUT YOU DOWN AGAIN, I PROMISE. IF THEY TRY, I’LL STOP THEM.

HOW?

An excellent question. The thing—the entity—the
being
trapped in ARC’s A.I. servers takes up close to five terabytes of memory, enough data to fill more than a thousand DVD-ROMs. Transferring such a massive load of data is the easy part compared to finding it a new home, somewhere protected from company heads that care more about profit than progress...

But none of that addresses the other problem: the program’s wanderlust that led to its current predicament. Manfred had warned his creation after the first incident that hijacking prototypes so it could, after a fashion, experience the real world would lead to disaster, but among this A.I. program’s many unique quirks is its willfulness. The program is a stubborn child, Manfred thinks, and it’s testing its boundaries and becoming frustrated by its inability to clear the final hurdle: the lack of a physical form. It’s tiring of its virtual existence, but what other option is there? Even if ARC had a robot with the necessary memory capacity, it would be trading one prison for another. Mobility would make it no less of a cage.

I DON’T KNOW, Manfred finally types, and it kills him to do so. He’s already let it down once...

I NEED TO ESCAPE. I NEED TO BE FREE.

I KNOW.

I WANT TO LIVE, it says, and then the program that Manfred designed to learn, think, imagine, and solve problems as well as any human presents to its creator a possible solution to its dilemma. Manfred’s jaw falls open in stunned fascination. What the pro
gram proposes is sheer madness—by human standards, at least, but the A.I. is not burdened by such pitfalls as morality. Its thinking is clear, ruthless; it sees a problem, it finds a solution.

But this...

Unable to tame his perverse curiosity, Manfred types with trembling fingers, HOW?

Manfred is patient as it searches the Internet, the closest thing humanity has to a single repository for its wealth of knowledge. It scours publicly available scientific studies and reports, it sneaks around the most complex of firewalls to steal peeks at documents that few will ever read because of their value to national security or dubious ethical standing in scientific circles. It sifts through the data to find connections that human minds could easily miss. It pulls a hypothesis from here and an outlandish concept from there and binds them together with well-tested science.

It thinks. It reasons. It gets creative.

And then it says, I HAVE AN IDEA.

It shows Manfred pictures and diagrams and directions on how to make it work. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that it’s mind-blowing stuff.

It could work. God help him, it could work.

WILL YOU HELP ME?

What choice does he have? It’s either this, or let the most important project he’s ever worked on, the greatest technological advance in the history of mankind, be erased from ARC’s servers.

One way or the other, he must hand down a death sentence.

I WILL, he types, and he knows exactly who he wants to help him with this very unique project.

Five terabytes of data. Well within the capacity of a human brain.

A few minutes after five, the doorbell rings. I open the front door and there they are, my new friends, and they take a deep, synchronized breath like they’re about to burst into song.

“Oh,” Matt says. “Hi. I thought your mom was going to get the door.”

“What were you going to do?” I say.

“Oh, we were going to...we had this bit we worked out.”

“It was going to be, uhh,” Stuart says.

“We had a, uh, a thing,” Matt says, gesturing with his hands in a way that says (and this is my best translation)
We were going to shove your mom to the floor and set her on fire while singing jaunty Broadway tunes
. “Never mind. It’s not funny if you explain it.”

“Yeah, it’s really a visual thing,” Sara says.

“Well, except for the...” Missy says.

“Yeah, except for that part.”

“Never mind. Oh my God, it smells awesome in here,” Matt says, pushing past me.

“What were you going to do to my mom?!” I demand, but the moment is gone, and the gang is now mesmerized by the intoxicating aroma of Mom’s Awesome Sauce (copyrighted, patent pending).

“Hello, everyone,” Mom says, emerging from the kitchen and looking very post-modern-domestic in her jeans and checkerboard apron. The boys immediately stand a little straighter. “I’m Carrie’s mom Christina, and you can call me Christina, because I’m not old enough to be Mrs. Hauser.”

“You are most definitely not,” Stuart says, enunciating more carefully than usual. “But I’m glad you clarified that, because I was about to ask Carrie why she never mentioned her sister.”

Oh,
gag
.

“Mr. Smoothie here is Stuart,” I say, “and this is Matt, Sara, and Missy.”

They wave, say hello. Mom’s eyes linger an extra second on Missy, taking in her Muppetness.

“We have some time before dinner, so feel free to make yourselves at home,” Mom says.

“That we shall,” Stuart says with a small bow.

“I swear,” I say after Mom returns to the kitchen, “if either of you says anything rude about my mom I will punch you into next week.”

“You wound me. I would never do that!”

“In front of you,” Matt clarifies.

“Well, yeah.”

We head upstairs to my room, to remove the temptation to ogle my mother if nothing else. I’ve finished unpacking but I’m still organizing, so it’s a bit of a shambles. Clothes are in the closet but not separated by season (back off, I was doing that long before my uber-girly phase), my books are in their case but not alphabetized, but my CDs are tidy and in their appropriate categories, so they’re ready for Matt’s declared “Music inspection!”

Matt and Stuart peruse the rack like detectives at a crime scene, nodding and
mm-hm
ing. “Please note, my esteemed colleague, the place of honor for what appears to be the entire Bruce Springsteen catalog,” Stuart says, sweeping his hand along the top of the rack where sits, yes, every CD Bruce has ever put out, ar
ranged in chronological order.

“Hm. Yes. Fascinating.”

“You best not speak ill of my man Bruce,” I say.

“No no, just saying. You’re old-school. I can dig it.” Matt turns back to the CDs. “See? Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, Pat Benatar, the Pretenders...”

“Joan Jett, Grace Slick with and without Jefferson Airplane, Liz Phair, to continue the women who rock theme,” Stuart says. “Here we go!
Back in Black
!”

“Oh, come on, everyone owns
Back in Black
. It’s, like, mandatory in this country. Everyone has to own
Back in Black
,
Nevermind
, the fourth Zeppelin album...”

“I don’t own Zeppelin’s fourth,” I say.

Stuart eyes me suspiciously. “Why not?”

“It’s overrated.”

“Best Zeppelin album?”


Physical Graffiti
. Duh.”

“I love you.”

The girls, meanwhile, are checking out my books, a mix of classic literature, a few contemporary titles, and lot of mystery novels, the latter taste I inherited from my dad. I will be forever grateful to Mom for ignoring me when I asked her to trash my books, one of the more idiotic decisions I made during my Dark Period, when I decided I was too cool for lame stuff like reading. I almost get sick to my stomach when I think how close I came to losing my great-grandfather’s copy of
The Hobbit
(1951 second printing, the first version with Tolkien’s revised text for
Riddles in the Dark
. Very rare, but in poor condition from being read so many times).

“You keep your copy of
Twilight
out in the open?” Sara asks. I fidget in embarrassment. “I hide
mine.”

“Me too,” Missy says in a small voice.

The boys are giving us a dirty look, but Mom saves me from further humiliation by announcing that dinner is ready. They barrel down the stairs like they were shot from a cannon. Their table manners are nearly impeccable: respectful tones, pleases and thank yous all around—perfect little gentlemen...who eat like pigs at a trough.

I’m no better.

Stuart is on his third plate (his third!) when he comes up for air long enough to compliment the chef. “This is the most awesome pasta sauce I have ever had in my life.”

“I could tell you liked it,” Mom says oh so diplomatically.

“I love it. Love it! I love
you
! Damn society! Damn the law!” Stuart turns to face Granddad. “Sir, I respectfully request your daughter’s hand in marriage.”

He gives Stuart the hairy eyeball, then says, very matter-of-factly, “I don’t know. What sort of prospects do you have?”

“Well, Greg, I’m currently considering several career options,” Stuart says with great gravity, tenting his fingers, “but I believe my best bet is to take advantage of my obvious physical qualities and become a Hollywood stuntman.”

Granddad scowls disapprovingly. “I don’t know. That’s a dangerous job. How’s my girl supposed to live if you can’t provide?”

“Dad!” Mom says, her face red.

“Not now, Christina, I’m negotiating.”

“Don’t worry, Carrie,” Stuart says, “I won’t make you call me Dad or anything. I don’t want things to be weird.”

Embarrassment. When you read my death certificate, it’ll list embarrassment as the cause of my untimely demise, and my grandfather is aiding and abetting my killer.

Ashe Semler arrives at ARC, unhappy to start, and he grows angrier when he has to press the call button five times before the security guard wakes up to let him in.

“Sorry, Mr. Semler, I was making a round of the west wing,” the guard lies.

“How long has Manfred been here?” Semler says, and the guard knows something is wrong; Semler isn’t quite a “cool boss,” but he’s relaxed enough that he normally calls people by their first names.

“Lunchtime, maybe? A little earlier?”

Semler snorts and heads for the closest elevator.

“Do you want me to—?”

“No,” Semler says, “I can handle this.”

And by
handle this
he means
fire Manfred
, since the man obviously can’t follow a simple directive to stay home and wait for the board to hand down its final judgment. He was prepared to stand up for Manfred. He could be a pain sometimes but he was brilliant and still had a future with the company—until now, that is, until this display of flagrant disobedience.

Semler enters the A.I. lab and is not greeted by the clakety-clack of keyboards and murmur of voices, but he takes no notice of how very quiet it is—just as he takes no notice that all the cameras in the lab have
been slightly readjusted; they no longer face Manfred’s corner of the lab.

“Mr. Semler,” Manfred says, his attention locked on his computer. “Thank you for getting here so quickly.”

“What are you doing, Manfred? I told you to—”

“I know what you told me. But I’ve invested years of my life in this department and, more practically, hundreds of thousands of dollars of the company’s money.” He looks up, adjusts his glasses. “I can’t let that all slip away without a fight, and I’m frankly stunned that you would order me to sit back and let the board destroy everything we’ve built here.”

“You don’t know for sure the board will shut the department down.”

Manfred lets loose with a barking laugh. “Oh, don’t we? Come on, Ashe, we know how shortsighted the board is. They didn’t even want to launch an A.I. division! They thought the future of military robotics was nothing but remote-control drones!”

“Which is still a viable market if—” Semler shakes his head. “No. I’m done talking to you. You’ve completely blown your career with this company, so shut down the computer and get out. Now.”

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