Chapter Fourteen

After the hologram disappeared, Milo remained in his seat, wondering what it all meant. Even more than before, he wondered whether he was really human at all. He had never really felt human. All the bizarre social cues that characterized human interaction were never a part of his programming. He tried to adapt but generally came across as distant, despite his best efforts. It was comforting, in an odd sort of way, to be affirmed as not really human. He was a machine. It made sense.

It was more difficult to understand the fragmenting part, but could that ever be understandable? How could anyone know what it’s like to be a fraction of themselves? He accepted it because he trusted Marvin. Always had. Probably part of his programming, he realized.

Besides, it would be a ludicrous story to make up, especially given current events. And assuming that he could find these fragments, then what was he supposed to do? Eat them? Or would they merge into his body in some weird way, like a power-up in a video game? Milo laughed.

About the only thing that made sense was his experience with the drone. From fiddling with computers, he knew that by overclocking the central processor you could get bursts of speed. Well, if he was like that, it would probably look like the world was slowing down around him.

“It’s a lot to take in,” Lisa said, sounding sad and consoling at the same time.

“Yes, it is. It feels like I’m living my life backwards, like Merlin or something. I’ve forgotten the most important parts of me and am just a helpless kid.”

“But you have us,” Lisa said, trying to sound reassuring. “Inu and I are here to help you.”

At the mention of her name, Inu trotted over to Milo and sat at his feet, resting her head on his right foot. This instantly calmed Milo.

“What we need to do is get to Teller’s house and recover that keyboard. We know that will help. We also need to find out what Progenitor is up to. I’m feeling a bit disconnected out here in the woods, even with the few things you pulled off the wire. All that matters is putting the pieces together, getting more information, more power, and then making a new decision when we can.”

Lisa was conspicuously silent.

“Wait, what did I say wrong?” Milo asked.

“Be careful about the whole power thing, okay? It’s difficult for people like us to turn back from that road once we’ve gone down it,” Lisa said.

“But I’m not like Progenitor, right? I wouldn’t hurt people.”

“I believe you, Milo.”

Milo needed a moment alone, so he took Lisa off his necklace and attached her to Inu. It was at that moment that he wondered whether what he said was true.

Then he climbed the ladder, double checked his supplies, and sat on the couch. There wasn’t really anything to do until the analysis was complete and he needed a break from trying to figure things out. Milo fell asleep in seconds.

He awoke to find himself standing on a familiar computer-generated grid, glowing with a gentle green light. Nothing stretched in every direction, just like the nightmare always began. Only this time, the usual nothingness was disrupted by one object in his field of view.

There on the ground in front of him was the keyboard. He picked it up and tried to remove one of the keys, but found the whole keyboard to be a low resolution version of the real thing, made of a bunch of blocky pixels. Suddenly the keyboard slipped from his grasp and fell onto the sparse ground, shattering into hundreds of blocks. There, in the midst of all the pieces, one pulsed blue.

Just then, the trembling ground opened up beneath him and he began to fall. Instinctually, Milo made a desperate lunge for the blue piece of the keyboard. His hand bounced uselessly off the side of one of the cubes, unable to reach the keyboard in time. Pinwheeling in the darkness, Milo fell.

He woke up, scared by his dream. Only then did he notice that Inu was curled up next to him on the couch, Lisa still attached and looking concerned towards him.

“Sounded like the nightmare again. I’m sorry, Milo,” Lisa said.

“Falling. I’m always falling. I just stand there in an empty field and the earth gives way underneath me and I fall and fall until I finally wake up. It’s horrible.”

“Sounds terrible, do you want to talk about it?”

“Thanks, Lisa, but I’m not sure it can ever make sense.” Milo was quiet for a few seconds before he said, “Got any news to take my mind off of it?”

Lisa proceeded to explain everything she had found out about the drone. Milo was surprised at the breadth and depth of information, but struggled to make sense of any of it.

“Okay, so given all that, can we do it?” Milo bluffed.

“Oh, yeah, of course we can. I’ve already programmed the construction routine to embed a transponder in your new vehicle so you can pretend to be a drone. Your clothes have been updated too. The drone’s builder didn’t think humans could reverse engineer the tech — which, of course, is true — so it had a very weak encryption routine. I think it’s about time you traded your bike in for a car anyway,” Lisa said.

“What? There’s a car? And I’ve been fiddling around on a bike?”

“We didn’t know how old you were going to be when all of this happened, and thought you would prefer the bike over being a passenger in a self-driving car. Because of your age and stuff,” Lisa mumbled.

Milo laughed and said, “I appreciate the thought, but let’s rig the car with an active transponder and hit the road. Ideally we’d want it to look like one of those vehicles that Progenitor used for shipping stuff around, so we can blend in—”

“A step ahead of you. Believe it or not, this facility can make almost anything, and your extra-long nap gave me time to get creative. Externally it looks identical to one of the transports we saw out on the road, internally it’s more comfortable. I think you’ll like it,” Lisa said.

“Where did you hide a car in this place?” Milo asked.

“I’ll show you. Most of these walls are filled with computers, but we’ve got a few rooms you haven’t seen yet.”

Milo put on the necklace as Lisa gave him directions down the curving hall. Milo was again impressed when a blank spot on the wall opened at his touch, revealing a large room with a number of instruments suspended from the ceiling and a few flexible tubes coming from the walls feeding a particularly large arm-like instrument in the very center. The strong smell of electricity and burnt plastic was accompanied by the soothing noise of humming fans. The room was below him, the door opening on a landing with stairs headed down.

Under all this equipment was the commercial van Lisa had described. Milo noticed the mostly black external styling and thought it looked pretty cool. He could only imagine how the van was made on the spot.

“It’s just like 3D printing,” Lisa said, “not really that fancy when you think about it.”

As he approached, the van’s wing doors swung open to reveal a spacious interior equipped more like a limousine than a commercial van. A comfortable black leather couch wrapped around the inside, a supply of various beverages — all age appropriate — were up front in a little cooler and a tablet rested on the couch.

“I loaded up the tablet with some things you might want to know: science stuff, some pictures from your childhood, and a backup of the Game which I got off the cluster when we first met. Now that you’re starting to manifest some aspects of your former self, maybe it’s time to revisit the Game,” Lisa said.

She tried to sound calm and easygoing as she said that last bit, but she knew it was one of the more important pieces to the whole plan. If Milo regained all of his fragments but still acted like the bad AI, they’d be trading one reign of terror with another. But she didn’t want to worry Milo with that. He had enough on his mind already.

“Heck yeah! I thought I’d lost all that work.” Milo let out a whoop and jumped into the van, sliding across the couch as he did so. Inu followed along, though she sniffed the van suspiciously. Evidently its new car smell was offensive to her sensibilities. Then the wing door closed smoothly behind them, emitting a sort of subtle hissing sound. Once closed, it became clear that the interior decor wrapped around all the walls. Wall-to-wall comfort, nice. Milo could feel the van accelerate in the direction of the far wall which slid out of the way as they drove up the steady incline. Incredible the amount of preparation that Marvin had put into this.

Milo popped a Dr. Pepper and fiddled with the tablet, touching, swiping, and turning it over and over looking for a button or depressible surface.

“It’s not that kind of computer, Milo,” Lisa said.

Just then, the tablet began flashing. Slowly at first but eventually at such a high rate that Milo thought he was going to have a seizure. Then he remembered this was designed for him and suddenly his world slowed to a crawl, his overclocking clearly triggered by the tablet.

The flicker disappeared as a montage of text and pictures scrolled across the display. Over the hour that it took for the van to go from the cabin to Teller’s house, Milo guessed that he experienced a month and a half of virtual time. Whatever work had gone into this device, it felt like a personalized learning system made for him. He learned more in that hour than any year at school. Maybe even several.

Without any dead time, the program gave him an undergraduate foundation in computer science and related fields. Rather than having to work through problems for retention, he found it just went into his brain and was resident there. Perfectly stored. There was no fatigue, no loss of attention, and no daydreaming.

While it laid the foundation for future study, it also pushed the limits of what he thought he could learn at his age. Though maybe calling it learning wasn’t quite right. As a machine, clearly his age and his former approach to learning didn’t matter that much. His tech specs were probably fixed from day one. It probably made more sense to think of it as loading data.

CPU and memory. Like a computer.

The van pulled up to Teller’s house, easily recognized from its gaudy exterior. Milo snapped out of his educational trance.

“Welcome back, Milo. Ready to storm the castle?”