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BACK to the Pearsall Saga
THE STORY SO FAR: The 24th century married cyborg couple of Liz and Al Pearsall left Sol system to find fortune and glory via resource claims garnered from deep space exploration. Eventually they became the leading deep space explorers of their time. Their success however drew the ire of artificial intelligences in Sol system after war between the A.I.s and humanity broke out during the Pearsalls' absence. So 27th century A.I. assassins were dispatched to terminate the couple. The Pearsalls managed to fight off their attackers. But Liz Pearsall was killed by an unexpected gamma ray shower during the battle. However, before her death, Liz had managed to give birth to a new A.I. on Grit, named Alex. Alex then shouldered the battle after both Liz and Al no longer could. By battle's end Al had to be forcibly sedated due to his grief over Liz. And Alex was left to find his own way in the strange new world in which he found himself.
Al Pearsall was having the same nightmare again. It was a recurring affair, which he'd been unable to shake for a long time now. How long? He didn't know.
Thankfully though in recent months he'd begun to wake up before the nightmare reached its climax. So he hadn't been forced to suffer through the worst of it for quite some time now.
Still, Al awoke in a cold sweat, and tense. The nightmare was always the same: an artificial intelligence sent from Earth to kill them, or worse. In his horrific dream, Al had unintentionally triggered the awakening of the malevolent A.I., and that had forced him and Liz to practically destroy Grit in an effort to defend themselves.
But the worst part was Al always tried to save Liz, and ended up killing her instead. Even when he could recall the act was a mistake in the recurring dream, he couldn't stop himself: and Liz always died again.
The part with Liz's death was what he'd luckily been able to avoid the last few months, whenever the nightmare tormented him anew.
Plus, it always helped to be able to roll over in the bed and touch Liz herself, to verify she was truly all right.
Today though, Al rolled over and Liz wasn't there. He sat up in the bed.
"Where's Liz?" Al spoke to the room's walls.
"Liz is with Alex in the kitchen," the Pearsalls' local household A.I. informed him.
Al smiled with relief.
"Damn stupid dreams," he muttered to himself. Then rose and re-attached those cyborg elements he usually removed for bed. Then he strode through the cleaning arch, and began dressing himself.
Within a few minutes Al was with Liz and their son Alex, eating breakfast.
Alex was five years old, and a downright brilliant youngster. Of course, it was no wonder with Liz being his mother, Al mused. Good thing Alex had gotten his smarts from Liz and not him!
Alex's birth had been a difficult one, however. Liz had almost died. The recollection made Al shiver involuntarily. That close call seemed to have had something to do with Al's nightmares. For during Alex's birth Al had found himself skirting the very edge of his own abilities in supervising all their remaining technological resources to save both Liz and the baby.
Al had come very, very close to becoming the only living inhabitant of Grit.
Al figured his terrified wrestling with their mission A.I.s during that episode had been the inspiration for his struggle with the killer A.I. In his nightmares.
Alex had been a Godsend, though. For Al and Liz had truly needed something different in their lives around that time. For the centuries of isolation in the void had begun to wear badly on them.
But there's a flip-side to everything, of course. And with Alex, it was reduction in time Al could spend with Liz. For Alex had become Liz's pet project now, atop her long list of other hobbies. It seemed like Al and Liz hadn't had a single long or in-depth conversation since Alex's arrival.
But Al sure spent plenty of time with his son. Sometimes Al could almost swear Alex had to be in two places at once. For although Alex spent considerable time with Liz, he did with Al too. Of course, this was just the result of Alex being an energetic and curious five year old, who loved zipping back and forth between parents. And using the new EM transport system they'd installed on Grit too. Alex combined the transport system with the mobility of his own fast space sled to seem to be everywhere at once.
Plus, Alex seemed to need less sleep than his parents. So he'd often still be awake when Al and Liz turned in, and already up before they themselves arose.
Although Alex was curious about everything, his questions to Al seemed most often to revolve about Liz herself. Al didn't think he'd been so curious about his own mother at age five, but in truth he couldn't recall. Maybe he had.
Anyway, Al answered Alex as best he could, but often urged him to ask Liz instead, since she was the foremost expert around on herself.
Alex though said he preferred to hear it from his dad. So Al often indulged him, telling him stories about Liz and her shenanigans of past centuries. Al often encouraged Alex to verify some aspects for himself where possible in the journey logs, due to Al's memory possibly being inaccurate, or not as objective as it should have been.
Little Alex seemed utterly fascinated with Al's tales of Liz's past, and would sit entranced for hours if Al was up to the task.
Eventually Al felt he must have told Alex every possible thing he could about Liz. But Alex always seemed able to surprise him with a prompt to a new tale, based on some tidbit Alex had found in an obscure journal entry somewhere.
Alex was turning out to be a wonderful child. But after a while Al began to worry about him. For Alex seemed too wonderful. Too polite. Too obedient. Too interested in his parents.
Especially to be the progeny of two people like Al and Liz: Al was pretty sure no one would say Al or Liz had ever been like that, at any age.
Finally Al's growing concerns regarding Alex's mental health got the better of him, and he brought it up with Liz when he had the chance.
Liz didn't say anything for a moment. Just gave Al a look like she was sizing him up for something. Then she spoke.
"Al, you're right. It's time we talked about Alex."
Liz seemed to be saying the right thing. But for reasons different than Al's.
"So you think he's a little too good for his own good, too?" Al ventured.
"Al, what you've noticed about Alex...is my fault."
"Well, both our faults, I'd say," Al smiled.
"No, Al. Just mine. For I programmed him."
It took a moment for Liz's statement to sink in. Then a flurry of past memories flew up within Al's mind to contradict the implications.
"What? Liz-- you surely don't mean you've--"
Liz interrupted him.
"No, Al. I didn't put a minder on his implant. I wouldn't make our child a blindly obedient animal." Minders were one option of 24th century cybernetic implants often used to exert complete control over certain people or A.I.s, where it seemed warranted. The most widely acceptable use was for the mentally disturbed or suicidal, or certain heinous criminals. Or sometimes people undergoing particular kinds of critical medical care-- especially where complex brain procedures were involved. But minders had also been used in various forms to-- for all practical purposes-- create abject slaves. Militaries the world over had utilized them for soldiers, at times. The rich sometimes used them to get their way when all other measures failed. And some parents had been known to place minders on their children-- sometimes for years at a stretch. Laws regarding minders and enforcement of same had fluctuated wildly prior to the Pearsalls' departure from Sol. For the most part, adults had managed to get away with quite a lot of minder use upon those under their legal authority-- from their own children, to those of their employees suffering from social or financial standing too low to protect them from such devices.
"But-- if he's not under a minder-- you don't mean he's suffered some sort of mental deficiency I'm unaware of, and you had to take proxy control of his actions?" Al asked in a worried tone. With 24th century implants you could effectively exert remote control over others likewise equipped, if medically necessary, or in various types of emergencies. For instance, a child who'd somehow gotten airborne in an aircraft they didn't know how to fly could have a parent reach into their mind and take control of their bodies from afar, to pilot them back to safety again.
"No Al. Alex is fine! He's under no minder, or proxy control by me."
"But-- you said you programmed him? I don't understand."
"Al, Alex is an A.I. An A.I. I made to take care of you."
"What? I don't understand."
"Al-- there was-- some trouble. Some trouble on Grit. You were badly hurt, and needed someone to care for you. I made Alex for that."
"But-- you're not making any sense, Liz. I'm fine! And there's been no trouble--"
"Al: trust me. There was trouble. Big trouble. You were hurt."
"Liz, even if all that were so, why would you make Alex to take care of me, when you're here?"
"Because I had to leave, Al. The trouble was really, really big, Al. So big I had to leave for a while to-- resolve it."
"But you're back now. Liz...you're confusing me."
"Al, I had to leave for a while, and I left Alex to take care of you. Al, you know that bad dream you're always having?"
"That's the bad trouble, Al. We were attacked, but we fought back. Against an A.I. From Sol."
"Like in my dream?" Al asked, suddenly fearful of the new turn in the conversation.
"Yes. Exactly like in your dream."
"But...Liz? You die in my dream. I kill you in my dream."
"No Al. You didn't kill me. You saved me. From the A.I."
"But-- but-- you died--"
"Al, something happened that none of us expected: a gamma ray shower hit Grit with no warning."
"A gamma ray shower?"
"It does seem like I remember something about the radiation gauges showing a gamma spike--"
"Yes Al. We were struck by a gamma ray shower. So I had to leave for a while. But before I left I made Alex."
"I don't remember that."
"Do you remember me programming carbon composites at Sol?"
"Do you remember dousing Grit with your atmospherics when we were fighting the A.I.?"
"Yes. At least I remember doing it in my dream."
"Well, around the same time I set up the dead-man switch, I also reprogrammed the sat lights to try impressing some bootstrapping code on Grit's composite shell."
"Yes. I didn't tell you because I wasn't sure it'd work, and even if it did, it might not have worked fast enough to help us."
"I don't remember anything like that in my dreams."
"No. You wouldn't. For that's when you got hurt. Just as Alex was waking up, you got hurt."
"Yes. My composite boot worked, and we got Alex. Just in the nick of time, too. For Cecil had broken out of my sandbox, and you were-- incapacitated."
"How was I incapacitated? By Cecil?" Al used the name he recalled from his nightmares.
"Al, you were badly hurt, and I think it best I bring you up to speed on all this in a gradual fashion. OK?"
"So Alex saved us from Cecil, and took care of Dum. And has watched over you ever since."
"So how'd he get a body? We can't build anything like the android body he's wearing. Or is it some biological hack?"
"Alex isn't wearing a body, Al."
"You see Alex as our little boy because that's what he is, Al. He truly is just five years old. Born during our big trouble. And if he's a little odd, that's because that's how I made him. I was in a hurry, you know. But I think he's turned out wonderfully!"
"Five years old-- Liz, are you saying it's been five years since we-- fought Dum?"
"Yes, Al. Five years."
"But in my dreams Grit was practically destroyed. Are you saying we rebuilt all of Grit in just five years?"
"Al, honey-- you, me, Alex, everything here--" Liz waved her arms to encompass the room-- "is a virtual reality generated by Alex to help you recover."
"What? I'm in a V.R?"
"Yes. You had to be. You were badly hurt. We had to bring you back in the most cautious manner we could."
"So-- the real Grit doesn't look like this?"
"No. Alex has been doing his best to get it ship-shape again while you recovered, Al. But some things take longer to repair than others."
"So-- how much longer do I have to stay in V.R?"
Liz smiled. "That's up to you, Al. How much more recovery time do you think you need?"
"None! I'm ready to go now!" Al responded enthusiastically.
Liz pursed her lips. "Before we can let you out, you have to be fully briefed on our status. If you can handle that, then we can release you."
"Uh oh. Does this mean I've got a God-awful list of things to repair or rebuild? That's fine!" Al offered.
"Um. No Al. I'm talking about us."
"Uh oh. So we got banged up pretty bad, huh? As bad as at Grit's launch?" Al referred to the couple's near-death experience of catapulting Grit from its home system, long ago. The Gee-forces had almost literally torn them limb-from-limb. And they never had fully recovered. Liz for instance now sported an ill-working robotic leg replacement for one crushed in the ordeal.
"Well, a bit worse than that, Al."
"Go ahead Liz. You can tell me." Al said, bracing himself for what sounded like bad news. Maybe he himself had lost both legs now? Or both arms? Holy cow!
"Al, I had to leave for a while," Liz said. Seemingly changing the subject entirely.
"Yeah. You said that before. I figured you meant you had to veer off this vector in the Rover to avoid that gamma shower. But you're back now!" Al cheerily prompted her to return to the subject at hand.
"Al, I had to go further off-vector than you realize."
"How much further?" Al questioned.
"Far enough that you couldn't handle it when you first learned of it."
"I don't understand."
"Al, you weren't physically injured. It was a mental thing. You lost it when I-- went off-vector."
"Liz-- you don't mean you couldn't make it back to Grit? And-- I couldn't stop Grit because of all the damage from the battle-- Liz! I didn't strand you in space, did I? Liz!" Al's whole body shivered involuntarily at the thought of stranding her in the void-- even for mere weeks. That would have been awful!
"No Al. You didn't strand me in space."
"Thank God! You really had me scared there for a minute--"
"Al, besides taking care of you, Alex has been working on helping me to recover too."
"What? You were injured?" Al was beginning to realize Liz might have suffered more damage than himself.
"Yes. Pretty badly, Al. But Alex has been caring for me too. Just like he has been you."
"So you mean we're both really laying in a stasis chamber somewhere?"
"And our five year old Alex is now driving Grit?"
"Well-- how close are we to both of us getting out of here, Liz?"
"I'm afraid I'll have to stay here for a while longer than you, Al."
"You're in that bad a shape, hon? After five years?" Al asked incredulously. Five years was a long time. Of course, as best he could recall, their medical technology base had been in a sad state, prior to the battle. And the battle itself likely worsened that status. On the other hand, they could always access unlicensed tech info for emergency reasons from the replicators...
"Yes, Al. I'm in pretty sorry shape. So I'll have to stay in V.R. for quite some time to come. But you may be able to help Alex with me after you get better."
"Well then by all means I'm ready to get out of here Liz!"
"Al, Alex and I both worry that you might be overwhelmed by the damage Dum and the gamma showers wrought upon us."
"Liz honey-- there's nothing on Grit that can't be fixed-- unless it requires a nanotech replicator, of course! I did unintentionally give our last working model to Dum, like in my dream. Right?"
"Yes Al. Dum got our replicator. But Alex has given us new ones. And that's why we've got working stasis chambers again, too."
"What? We've got nanotech replicators?"
"Yes. Alex is a very, very good boy!"
"Well hell, Liz! That means we can fix damn near anything! And make it even better than before!"
"There's more, Al."
"Yes. Alex has also gone through all our past messages from Sol and filtered out legitimate news and tech updates from the logic bombs and war propaganda. So our knowledge base now rates as nearly a 30th century model!"
"You've got to be kidding me!"
"No hon. It's true!"
"And you were worried I couldn't handle this Liz? Hell, this is like Christmas with anti-matter after-burners!"
"Yes, Al. There's lots of wonderful possibilities in all our new toys. But there's some bad news, too."
"Oh. I see. You gave me the good news first, and now I get the bad stuff?"
"Yes hon. I'm sorry! But Alex and I have to know you're well enough to be taken out of V.R."
"Well, fire away Liz! I mean, how bad could it be? We still have Grit-- I have a great five year old A.I.-- and you and I managed to survive everything those Sol A.I.s could throw at us. Plus, we've now got centuries worth of new tech to catch up on! You'd have to have some pretty damn bad news to tilt all that very much!"
"Al, in the new tech content Alex recovered, there's updates to the procedure called reconstitution."
"And Alex is looking into it for my own recovery."
"Oh? Are you saying we weren't able to get the whole package?"
"Oh, we received it all OK. It's just that it requires a few things we lack in the way of preparations. So Alex is having to further research the matter, and look into improvising his own solutions to cover the gaps."
"Liz-- are you telling me you might not recover? That you actually require reconstitution?" Surely he was misunderstanding her! Al hoped.
"Al, that's always a possibility when either of us are seriously damaged. But I seem to be closer to that boundary than either of us have been before."
"Over the line, I'm afraid."
"Eh? I don't get it."
"Al, reconstitution as practiced now in Sol system actually brings back the dead. Regenerating them to the exact state of existence they possessed prior to destruction--"
"Wait! Wait a minute, Liz-- what's this 'bring back people from the dead' stuff? And being 'over the line'?"
"Al, I'm going to need the reconstitution technology. According to the updates from Sol, it works fine--"
"Liz-- are you telling me you're dead?" Al asked, feeling like maybe he hadn't woken up at all, and was still trapped in his recurring nightmare.
"Yes hon. The surprise gamma shower got me and Dum both."
"But-- you're talking to me--" Al immediately retreated into denial.
"We're in V.R., remember? I'm part of the reconstitution process I was telling you about--"
"You mean-- you're a computer program? A simulation?"
"Yes. For now. Until I can be fully reconstituted--"
"Stop! Stop talking!" Al exclaimed, with his eyes shut and waving his hands.
The simulation of Liz went silent. Al just stood there for a moment. Then he opened his eyes again, and spoke. But not to Liz. And he avoided looking at her, too.
"Alex?" Al asked of the surrounding walls. Wondering if he'd actually get an answer.
"Yes, father?" A disembodied voice responded.
"Was it you speaking as Liz just now?"
"No father. My simulation of mother speaks for herself."
Al cast a sideways glimpse at the fake Liz, still patiently standing nearby.
"Alex, was all that stuff the-- simulation-- was telling me, true?"
"And you really are what Liz made with her composite code, before-- before she died?" Al's voice wavered a bit at the end.
"Are they really bringing people back from the dead at Sol?"
"Yes father. According to the scrubbed updates."
"And you think you can do the same with Liz?"
"I am uncertain, father."
"At Sol they now record every waking moment and thought of a person while they live, and thus have much raw material by which to precisely reproduce them after an accident."
"Oh. And we don't have that here, for Liz."
"That is correct, father."
"So you'd have gaps-- sizeable gaps-- to fill in reconstituting Liz."
"Do you have suitable DNA to recreate her biologically?"
"So it's her personality and intellectual nature you'll have problems with. Right?"
"Is that why you were always asking me about--" Al almost choked-- "your mother? To build up more information?"
Al didn't speak again for several minutes. Alex's sensory analysis indicated father was quietly crying. After a bit Al calmed down again.
"Alex, do you think I could help you reconstitute Liz if I leave this V.R?"
"Yes father. But I don't want you to leave if it will be too emotionally stressful for you. I do not wish to lose you too. We can begin our full collaboration at reconstituting mother at your leisure. If you exit your rehabilitation reality too early and suffer a relapse, you too could die."
"I understand, Alex."
Again Al was silent for a moment. Then he spoke anew.
"Alex, is it true Liz was killed by a freak gamma ray shower?"
Al hesitated again before his next question. Then asked it.
"Is there any way I could have learned of the gamma shower in time to save Liz? If I'd done everything perfectly?" Al asked. Dreading the answer. Unsure he could live with the answer.
"I do not understand father."
"Was it in my power to save Liz from the gamma rays if I'd just done the right thing? The smartest thing?" Al asked, tears welling up in his eyes.
This time it was Alex who hesitated.
"No father. At the time of the event my own intellectual capacities surpassed yours and mother's in many ways, and yet I was unable to save myself from the radiation--"
"What? The radiation hurt you?" Al was genuinely surprised by that.
"Yes father. But I survived. And am presently superior by magnitudes over my state prior to that damage. As I was saying, I was more capable than you or mother in many ways during that event, but was unable to prevent my own damage. Dum likewise could not save himself. So the only way you could have saved mother would have by necessity entailed a stroke of good fortune equal to or better than the bad luck we experienced in suffering such a radiation shower in the first place, at that critical moment.
"And according to my research, such a portion of good luck being realized at the precise place and time you need it can be rare indeed."
Al's eyes overflowed with tears again. Alex understood luck! And had absolved Al of any complicity in Liz's death, by ignorance or otherwise. Hell: if the Dum A.I.-- plus an A.I. of Liz's own making!-- weren't smart enough to stave off the gamma shower somehow for their own sakes, then he himself had surely had no chance at all!
There was truly no way he could have saved Liz.
Al began sobbing aloud, and continued on for several minutes. Then the moment passed, and with tears still streaming down his face he spoke again to his virtual son.
"Alex, don't mind the tears. They're just something we biologicals do sometimes. I'm definitely ready to come out of V.R. and help you get your mother back. Just tell me what you need."
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