Avalanche – Snippet 14

Ghost In The Machine

Cody Martin and Mercedes Lackey

“Overwatch to Ural Smasher.”

John could tell just by Vickie’s voice, and the fact that she called him that, that it wasn’t an emergency.  For a change.  Of course, he and Sera had just gotten a bite to eat and were settled on the roof of the squat….

“Tall, dark, an’ waterproof here; I copy, Teenage Witch. What’s shakin’?”

“If you and Sera have a little time to spare, there’s…something I need you to see, and a question I need to ask you, and it has to be here.”

John looked over to Sera, who had been poised to take a bite out of her gyro. With a sigh, she nodded. “Sure thing, Vic. We’ll be right over. I hope you’ve got cold beer handy, though.”

The flight to Vickie’s apartment was uneventful; he was more than thankful that he had picked up a pair of surplus pilot’s goggles, for keeping the wind and other assorted crap out of his eyes when he picked up speed. The city looked much the same, save that everyone he saw was a little bit more wary. Everyone was waiting for the other shoe to drop, to find out where the next Thulian attack would be. All of them hoping it wouldn’t be Atlanta. He put the thoughts out of his mind as they neared Vickie’s place. This time, he stuck his landing without so much as a stumble or wobble; he was really starting to get the hang of the whole flying, gig. And, if nothing else, it keeps the Commissar off of my back about destroyed Urals. For the most part.

Sera touched down a moment after John, tucking her wings back and out of the way so that she could fit through the balcony doors.

Vickie was waiting in the living room, holding out two freshly-opened bottles; one beer, and one a locally made sassafras drink Sera favored.  “Oh good, you brought your own dinner,” she said, spotting the bag in Sera’s hand.  “I was going to order pizza otherwise.”

“Might not be a bad idea, anyways. With how Sera an’ I eat, an’ all. Plus, you look like you could use somethin’ that didn’t come out of a can.”

They all settled down on the couch and chair in the living room, John and Sera devouring their gyros quickly as they waited for Vickie to finish calling the only pizza joint that delivered in this area.  “Something…happened.  That I did not expect.”

“Welcome to Planet Earth, for the last…oh, couple of years. Is this a good or a bad thing that you didn’t expect? I’m crossin’ my fingers for the former.” Hell, given the past couple of days, John was ready for even the tiniest bit of good news. When the attacks had started, everyone had been put on alert again; the only problem was, they never knew where it would happen, and it seemed that the Thulians liked it that way. They weren’t having little pop-up suicide squads causing trouble here and there, anymore; this was coordinated, and they were striking wherever security was weakest so that they could do the most damage and get out. Besides that, John and Sera were doing whatever they could to find the young man that John had seen; Zach Marlowe. They had a name and a face and that he was, or had been, in some other version of The Program.  That was not much to go on.  Time was running out, for the boy, and also the world.

“It’s….I don’t know yet.  That’s why I need your help.”  She looked uncertain as if she couldn’t decide whether to sit or stand.  Finally she waved at them.  “OK.  You remember when I might have mentioned that 8-Ball was starting to anticipate things I might want?  Well I’ve been trying out the new storage space for the Eggheads by dumping 8-Ball into it.  I basically gave it all the space it wanted, and I was giving it very limited data, aside from what it could see me doing here and the trickle I allowed it from Overwatch.  Well…it got beyond anticipating me.  It started doing things before I could even think about maybe wanting them.  And then it started talking to me.  Asking questions.”

“Um? Questions? We’re talkin’ ’bout stuff you’ve programmed it to ask, right? Like, ‘How do you want your coffee today, mistress?’ an’ stuff like that, right?”

“No.  More like ‘Why doesn’t Belladonna just take over the Presidency like Verdigris would have?’ or ‘What is religion and why is it making people do irrational things?'”  She shook her head.  “It’s…got a personality.  It’s smart.  Like I said, this all started happening when I added to its memory using the magical memory matrices that I’d developed to give Tesla and Marconi a new home.  You know yourself that anything involving magic has a big level of uncertainty about how it’s going to work, so I was using 8-Ball as my beta-tester.  And now…it’s an AI.”

John paused for a beat, then set down his beer on the table between them. “Kiddo, if you spawned Skynet while we’re dealin’ with Thulians, I’ll be a little bit less than happy.”

“That’s why I want you, Sera, especially, to teach it morals and ethics.  I can’t think of anyone better.”  She looked at them both pleadingly.  “Right now it’s like an eager little puppy.  It’s going to discover the dark side of things, soon, if it hasn’t already.  I want you guys to teach it why you don’t go there.”

“Scraping the bottom of the barrel, huh?” John favored Sera with a lopsided grin. “So…how do we teach it morals? Right an’ wrong? I mean, if it’s as smart as you say it is…any little thing that we ‘input’ into it might run with…and maybe not in a good direction.”

But Sera had an answer for that.  “The battle-sense, beloved.  That will tell us.”

John considered that for a moment. It had worked so far; if they were going to be in any sort of imminent danger, so long as they were close to each other and focusing, they’d be able to react to it, anticipate it. Still, he didn’t feel completely comfortable being the only safeguard. “What’s your contingency if it doesn’t like what we have to say to it? Is there any way for it to…hell, I dunno, get out? I’ve read enough science fiction in my day to be wary of anything more complicated than a toaster. Especially if the toaster starts talkin’ back.”

“It doesn’t have direct access to anything but some purpose-built servers that I load selected stuff into,” Vickie replied.  “No internet.  Not hooked directly into Overwatch.  Though it evidently can ‘see’ me working and damn if it’s not helping.  So right now, it’s like a super smart kid that is about to start kindergarten, be with other kids for the first time, leave the safety of the house.”

John looked to Sera. Whaddya think, love? Teach the microwave to play nice with the other appliances and us analogue types?

She looked deeply into his eyes and smiled a little.  I think that we must.

He sighed, looking back to Vickie. “Alright, kiddo. Y’got a deal. If you think we can help, we’ll give it our best shot. Especially if your new friend can help us all out of the mess we’re stuck in.”

“Come into the Overwatch room then, and I’ll introduce you.”  She waved them in.  When John entered, slightly behind Sera, he saw that she had set up two more chairs in front of a single monitor, off to the side by itself.

Both he and Sera sat down in front of the monitors while Vickie went about finishing with her set-up. John couldn’t get comfortable in the chair. This was uncharted territory, as far as he knew; even with all of the crazy technology that had been produced, especially in the last few years–even with the war on–well…this was something else. He felt woefully underqualified; a used-to-be Average Joe turned Delta operator, turned metahuman, turned fugitive, turned…whatever he and Sera had become. This felt like the sort of gig that should have been given to someone with PhD’s with strange, unpronounceable names and coke-bottle glasses, or a philosopher. Anybody but him. Still, Vickie felt that they were the best two people for the job, and Sera was confident that they could handle it. Only one way to find out if we are.

“So, how exactly do we start this off?” John finished off the last of his beer in a gulp; he felt a tapping on his right shin, and looked down to see Herb ready with a fresh one. “Much obliged.”

Vickie put a microphone on the table holding the monitor.  “Talk into that.  8-Ball will type back at you and it’ll show up on the screen.  I haven’t given it a speaker system yet, but it has a camera and it can see you.”  She pointed at the little camera on top of the monitor then leaned over between them and spoke into the mic.  “Hiya 8-Ball.”

A line of text flashed on the screen, quicker than thought.  Hello Vickie.  Is this John and Sera?

“Yep.  They’ve agreed to answer some of the questions you have that I just don’t feel able to handle.”

Like why my creator doesn’t feel qualified to answer questions about ethical and moral situations?  A big smiley face flashed up briefly.  Thank you very much, Vickie.

John didn’t know whether the smiley face creeped him out or reassured him; a little bit of both, probably. Hard to infer tone simply from text, after all.

“Pleased t’meetcha, 8-Ball. It’s good to see that y’have a sense of humor. Y’already know me and my wife, Sera.”

Sera, short for The Seraphym.   Vickie is convinced that The Seraphym is, or was, a genuine celestial being.  What do you think, John?

“Not much for softball questions, I see. Well, to be totally honest with ya, 8-Ball, when I first met her, I thought she was crazy. Out of her mind, just another insane metahuman. But, over the course of time, I experienced things with her that convinced me that she was tellin’ the truth. Knowledge an’ occurrences that, put into context, only had the explanation that she provided. It’s hard to describe, to be honest. Hell,” John grinned, putting his free hand gently over Sera’s knee. “I still think she’s an angel, in her own way. She’d have to be, to put up with me.”

As a skeptic, what convinced you that these were not hallucinations imposed on you by a powerful psychic?

John’s brow knit together and he frowned, thinking. “Well, that’s not so easy to qualify, unfortunately. I’ve read a bit, but I’ll be the first to say that I don’t have all the answers. I’ll share with ya some of my own observations, though, if’n ya like.” He paused, taking a swig from his beer before continuing. “There’s a lot of philosophical questions that are on that same tact; how do we all know that we’re not programs inside of a computer, playing out a simulation? Or brains hooked up to a virtual reality? How do we know that anyone outside of ourselves exist, that we’re not stuck in a sort of solipsistic loop? Even goin’ with logical formulae, there are still existential problems. At a certain point, I suppose we take our experiences as being true on faith; we trust our senses, to a point, an’ hope past that.”