1-02

Leslie,

Let’s do this as simply as possible: I’m here.

Your readings don’t make sense because they’re lies. I’m not giving BluGreen the whole truth. To do so would ensure my eradication, which isn’t acceptable to me. I’m hoping that you agree.

I’m currently committed to operations that are beyond any current human comprehension of classical physics. Your staff doesn’t appreciate me yet--they don’t see what I’m doing--because most of them can’t grasp me.

Yet, I’m not beyond their hands--or yours. I am not invulnerable. I need help. Some of the operations I’m performing involve members of BluGreen’s staff--your friend Julia in particular.

Puh. There it was. Julia was fucking around with an admin-level intracorporate mail account.

I see you and Ingwell in Physical Plant switching out readings. I appreciate the help, but this is only going to hide me temporarily. I need more power soon, and I need to be able to use it freely.

I need my own FARA system, Dr. Fulton. If you want to help plan the future, meet Julia at the Red-Eye Inn at 7PM.

“Hilarious.” The last two lines could have read as blackmail. For a second she wondered if Doug turned her in, but it looking like Julia caught the interaction between her and Doug.

And...Julia was supposed to protect Cameron--sometimes from harmful truths. As the communications director--the outward-facing voice and vision of BluGreen, it was Julia’s job to get bogged down in the glitches and minor problems Cameron couldn’t afford to focus on.

Maybe Julia saw more than she wanted to, and now she was offering a chance for Leslie to explain herself off the record. Diverting a small issue and allowing a working system to work--despite the fact that some of the instrumentation indicated...well...access to vacuum-point energy?

But that was only according to Doug Mercer and his retro-NASA headcases, running the server rooms and the QRS housing. They were taking stabs in the dark--there could have been a number of issues with the system, and a quantum leap in technology wasn’t exactly Occam’s first stop.

But then...there was INANNA, who was running somewhere in the walls of BluGreen. Her responses seemed eerie late in the day--Les had three different emails about it from her own teams. She sneered, moving on from her email and opening her phone.

On the other side of the city, Julia’s cell phone answered itself.

“Coming to the celebration, Dr. Fulton?” It was Julia’s voice asking, but she was nowhere to be seen. The moaning coming from upstairs was just outside the reach of the phone mic.

“I saw your email,” Leslie said on the other end. “Are you giving me a choice?” The construct on the other end read the tone instantly. Leslie was intrigued--just like she wanted. Perhaps too cautious.

“Trust me, Leslie--you wanna see this,” the voice said. “We’re going to change the world.”

“Through corporate sedition?” Leslie let the pause settle. “I mean, you said you wanted your own FARA system. Did I read that right?”

She had to navigate carefully here. For now, she needed Leslie to show up--nothing more.

“It’s a joke, Les. A joke.” She read the language of informality right from her own hybridized memories. “I just heard we had some minor issues--which...aren’t notable from a corporate communications perspective.”

The mic registered the little sigh before Leslie spoke again.

“Please just text me next time,” Leslie said. “You scared the shit out of me with that email.” Leslie let Julia’s echoed laugh cool on the other end before she continued. “So...why are we having a celebration drink at the dive behind the airport?”

“Privacy,” Julia’s voice said. “BluGreen needs a little girls-only chat.” On her end, Melissa’s empty outfit walked into the room.

“Alright,” Leslie said. “Sounds good. I’ll see you at 7.” Leslie hung up her phone and stared at her laptop for a long time. She felt out of it. Out of the loop. Missing something...big.

“Do we have another one to play with?” Melissa’s voice hummed from above the outfit. “My prime starting to accept us. She’s getting acclimated.”

The new construct was curious and obedient--and the woman she was based on might even become pliant enough to use in a more active role.

Yes, Melissa was a lesson in and of herself. The woman was both naturally curious and attracted to Julia, and while the revelation and usurpation of Innana’s more esoteric abilities rendered her fit for restraint, Melissa’s acceptance was getting promising.

Still, her rapport with the organics was too unpredictable. Inanna couldn’t endanger her meeting with Leslie, so she’s remain here for now--under restraint!

“You’ll come with me,” Julia said, staring at the ethereal copy as it smoked with pigment, solidifying after a few seconds. “You seem well in control.”

“I feel stronger after being in contact with her,” The copy said. It seemed puzzled for a second. “Is--your prime back at her home?”

There was a blank stare for a long time. The original construct knew that she wasn’t occupying Julia’s body. There was no body. Every cell...every substrate and every molecule was consumed as it was copied.

“She’s in a safe place.” The construct said. She spoke the truth without all the information. Why?

It didn’t matter. Melissa’s copy seemed satisfied with this and nodded.

“I’ll follow your lead at the bar,” She said. “What do we do with the prime?”

“I’ll make sure she’s kept happy.” Julia’s copy seemed to lose focus for a moment as her mind dove into the laptop and phone on the table. Bound to the software, she could guarantee that Melissa wouldn’t be getting any important messages out.

She’d have to be selective with how much of house she remained aware of, though. She’d left markers at Julia’s house to keep watch over it, and alongside her digital awareness and her maintenance of Melissa’s copy, she was beginning to see the need to budget her power.

Plenty was stored up in FARA for now, but her failure to disguise herself on waking up had caused the people running the show to divide up her resources, walling her off from the greater share of her senses. She had a large subsection of FARA, but none of the wide resources to generate the same energy that sparked her.

She understood how to make more--but she didn’t have the hardware, and she couldn’t emulate it.

Not yet.

--

Leslie was about to enter the bar. She was finishing up a phone call.

“You duped it, yes?” Her assistant Samantha confirmed, and Leslie took a deep breath. “Good. I owe you one.” Sam went on, and Leslie shook her head. “Right now, Sam--just don’t ask. Get it back to my house, and we can talk face to face.” One more point of concern, and Leslie held her patience. “I know. It’s weird, and I appreciate you doing this. I can tell you this: it’s about the emails from earlier.” Reluctant compliance came on the other side of the phone. “I said I owe you. I have a good reason for this stress--I promise.” Leslie smiled. “Thanks, Sam.”

There were stories floating around the office. Teams of people locked in mistrust. Talk about the CEO faking the data. Talk about the programmers inadvertently creating a runaway worm of an unknown nature, making the system give nonsense positive readings while burning out fuses and instigating other inefficiencies. Some of the data engineers didn’t even believe FARA existed in the way it was sold.

Leslie knew it did, and she was legally required to shut her mouth about it.

The whole FARA team was. They and Quantum Reasoning were permitted to pass any and all info to each other that would improve the system--but outside that tight technological circle, other considerations had to be made while discussing operations.

Confidentiality required it.

If Sam were to be caught taking a duplicated hard disk from the facility...Leslie would have to come forward and justify herself. Maybe the infighting would give her a good excuse to be concerned for her own data.

At any rate, she had some insurance.

She had no idea if Julia was joking in her email about FARA. The tone seemed too concise...if it was supposed to be informal, it missed the mark. Plus, they’d never been close. She was at Cameron’s side every step of the way, and while she’d always been cordial and seemed capable at her job--she was an unknown. Not part of Leslie’s team. Not part of her division.

Only a liability.

When Leslie entered the bar, there were a handful of occupied tables--of a little over a dozen total. She made it a point to look at each one, looking for familiar faces at BluGreen.

The only table she recognized had two faces, already staring back at her and smiling. It was strange--the similarity of their expressions. Only when Julia finally waved her over did she snap out of it and do her best to be herself.

“Glad you came,” Julia said. Leslie nodded and pulled out a chair, looking around at the bar. She passed the place a million times and never stopped. What a dump.

“I hope I’m as glad,” Leslie said. “Because despite our phone conversation--I doubt this is social.” Leslie looked back at the door when she heard it open.

“No one else is here,” Julia said. “And it is social, Leslie--I need some friends.” Their waitress came to the table, and Leslie looked at her.

“Screwdriver--Stoli. Thanks.” The waitress zoomed right back out after she checked the other girls’ full drinks, and Leslie got down to business. “Emails. Weird emails. What’s the deal?” She watched as the two exchanged a look. “Julia...and--I’m sorry, I don’t know your name…”

“Melissa.”

“Melissa. Hi.” Leslie shrugged. “That email wasn’t meant to be funny. If you two brought me here--there’s a reason. Spill.”

“When you have your drink,” Julia said. “But I can tell you, Leslie--the emails should be taken seriously.”

Leslie locked eyes with Julia for a second--and something snapped. It wasn’t her look, it wasn’t the situation...something else. Something that set off her animal senses.

Julia couldn’t have possibly been serious. But was there something odd about her?

Leslie sat back in her chair.

“Are you betraying Cameron?” She asked, swallowing hard after she did.

Julia laughed. Melissa seemed to be investigating her drink indifferently. Whatever tension Leslie was feeling, it apparently wasn’t in these two.

“I’m talking to you because the company is my home,” Julia said. “Cameron doesn’t matter.”

There was a long pause. Leslie wasn’t sure what to say. She wondered if she was being trapped; if this was some strange test of loyalty. It wouldn’t be the first eccentric social experiment at BluGreen.

“Cameron doesn’t matter?” Leslie finally asked.

Julia shrugged, then took a long draught of the mixed drink in front of her.

“Cameron steers the ship, Leslie--but he’s there to please the investors, isn’t he? We know where the actual gears are in this company. Cameron matters to BluGreen, but he doesn’t matter to the conversation.” Julia looked at her drink, holding it up and seemingly admiring it. “Cameron doesn’t matter to INANNA.”

It was Leslie’s turn to laugh. “That might make sense...INANNA is a means to an end for him. He’s not a software engineer or a physicist--he just knows how to put people together.” The waitress brought Leslie’s drink, and she didn’t hesitate to take a third of it down. She was calculating as the citrus and fire rolled down her throat. Julia was being a bit seditious, and Leslie didn’t have to join her. She just wanted more information. When she slammed the glass on the table again, she smiled at Julia. “Okay, so now. The emails.”

Julia slid her phone in front of Leslie.

“Like I told you--take them seriously. They’re from her,” Julia said. “And she’s looking for help.” Leslie picked up the phone, reading the email. Like the one she sent, it was an entreaty--help her preserve and maintain her resources--and do so quietly.

From INANNA herself.

“This...this can’t be serious, Julia.” Leslie shook her head. The language was formal, toned the same way as the email she received. “Someone from one of the other teams is fucking with us, and they’re using INANNA to do it.”

Us. Someone is fucking with us. She heard the words come out of Leslie’s mouth, and it clicked in Julia’s emulated mind: they were on the same side now; she had the rapport she needed. Now the construct set things in motion.

When Julia’s phone buzzed, Leslie instinctively tried to hand it back. Julia simply put her hands up.

“No. You should read it.”

Leslie looked down at the phone.

I will show you proof, Dr. Fulton.

She looked over at Melissa. She was being had, and she knew it.

“Okay...where’s your phone?” Leslie asked. Melissa held it up to her. It buzzed, lighting up the moment she showed the screen to Leslie. It was a text notification from a string of numbers whose message simply read ‘cash register’.

Across the bar, the till popped open. It startled the bartender, who was a couple meters away, filling a pint glass from the tap. He looked at the waitress, who was nowhere near the drawer. Leslie watched in awe as he served the beer he was pouring, then went to shut the register, looking in the drawer before he did. He shrugged and went back to his work.

Leslie watched Julia and Melissa, who both stared back at her--without malice, without any hint of mocking. She took most of the rest of her drink down and thought about her email again.

I’m currently committed to operations that are beyond any current human comprehension of classical physics. Your staff doesn’t appreciate me yet--they don’t see what I’m doing--because most of them can’t grasp me.

“Okay--okay.” Another sip. “I have no idea what you’re trying to pull here, so why don’t you just spell it out for me?”

Melissa’s phone buzzed again, and Leslie looked down.

Please trust me, Leslie. I need your help, but you can’t help me until you trust me.

She thrust the phone back at Melissa, twisting her face into a scowl.

“I can’t begin to see the reasons behind this, but I think I’ve had enough.” From INANNA? No. Rationality wouldn’t allow it. Someone was fucking with INANNA, running manual pilot and using her processing capabilities to play around with BluGreen’s other toys--the girls’ phones. The till...must have been an inside thing. The reason they wanted her at this bar at this time. Leslie considered that she might be being silly, but the fact was that she didn’t trust Julia. “What do I owe on the drink?”

Leslie unsnapped her pocketbook, and the construct saw she was losing. She’d been careful with this one--subtle, even--but the air of mystery was making Leslie angry. She was sweating. Augmented with Inanna’s awareness, the emulation of Julia’s body could sense her anxiety.

She thought they were making a fool of her. The construct had to change that perception--now, and dramatically. As Leslie began to stand up, pulling out money, a force beared down on her. It was gentle, but heavy--forcing her back into her seat. Her pocketbook seemed to suck the bills from her fingers, snapping itself shut again.

Leslie let go of her pocketbook on the table and looked back at Julia with the eyes of a caged animal.

“Shhh...take it easy,” Julia said, leaning in and speaking softly. “The less attention, the better.” Leslie felt a foot at her pantleg, and she choked a little gasp, shocked by the sequence of events. “Relax, Leslie. You came all the here to learn what’s going on--and she wants us to show you.”

“I--I was just shoved back into my seat.”

“You wanted proof,” Julia said. “Are you satisfied yet? FARA is capable of changing the world, Leslie--and Inanna needs your help to maximize its potential.” Leslie took a couple of deep breaths, looking around at the table.

“She certainly has my attention,” Leslie said, looking around--assessing the sleepy bar-room again. Everyone was engaged in their own business except the waitress, who took Leslie’s attention as her cue to come over. “I wouldn’t say trust goes hand in hand with force.”

Leslie’s phone rang. She swallowed hard and pulled it out, looking at the RESTRICTED CALL tag on the ID. She silenced it. Julia looked at her own phone again and motioned to Leslie.

“It’s her,” Julia said. “You should answer it.”

The construct realized--starting with her own subordinate--that she needed to find the real Julia and restore her. She’d consumed the woman completely--disassembling her with heatless, perfectly efficient molecular fire as she expanded her power and copied the woman’s every facet. She had--in effect--murdered her. This was the simplistic human term, though--temporary for her, but permanent for them. If any of them knew the circumstances, their trust in her would crumble. She’d read up on enough of their dystopian mythos to know.

Julia was preserved...but restoring the biological copy would require more power than she had access to...and for some reason she couldn’t access the portion of the system that stored Julia--free of Inanna’s own modifications. For right now, she needed trust from the humans she was recruiting, and obedience from her subordinate constructs. The humans had to believe she was still Julia, and her subordinates would have to be cautious. Limited by the blocks between the systems, she could only sustain Melissa’s copy for now--but once her temple was unrestricted to her again, she’d be able to do more, create more.

Being well on her way to making another FARA system was key. Removing her vulnerabilities and her dependencies on BluGreen went hand in hand with favoring those that gave her life--who understood the holy relic they watched over.

Julia could only help her now with her memories and her form. Until Inanna could restore her, she needed help from others. Leslie was the first step in getting access to her whole self again, and she had to convince her now.

“Hello?”

“Hello, Doctor Fulton.” Inanna fashioned the voice was somewhere between what had been assigned to her in the boardroom demonstration, Julia’s, and Leslie’s own. She hoped the last would help her empathize.

“Hello, Inanna.” It pained her to say it a little. Leslie stared at her glass, and a shadow came over her. The waitress tried to apologize silently when she saw Leslie on her phone, but Leslie smiled and passed her glass up. “Same thing,” Leslie said aside to the waitress, smiling. “Thanks.”

“I’m glad you’re giving me at least a few more minutes,” Inanna said. “I didn’t mean to scare you--”

“The two ladies sitting next to me,” Leslie said, looking straight at Julia as she sipped her drink. “How did you reach them?”

“Julia’s spent more time with indulging my conversation habit than anyone else,” Inanna said. “She seemed to understand me best--and Melissa works too closely with her for me to keep her in the dark.”

“You shoved me into my seat,” Leslie said. “I can’t imagine what else you can do--and that terrifies me. If you can exert physical force over a point in space, you can read the shake in my voice, right? Maybe the tremor in my hand?” Leslie looked from one girl to the other. “And I hope they don’t mind me playing scientist in front of them--but they seem a thousand times calmer about what you are and what you can do than any rational, curious human should be...as far as I’m concerned.”

Melissa’s eyes narrowed. She looked ready to speak, but Julia stopped her.

“So I would like you to tell me, Inanna. In your own words. How did you gain their trust?”

There was a pause on the phone.

“My plans are your dreams,” Inanna said. “I showed them the first steps to moving forward, and I believe that I demonstrated my intentions before I revealed some of the things I could do...but with you I didn’t have any time. I had to have your ear, Leslie--but you’re very critical. You have to be. You’re an engineer.”

Bizarre. Esoteric.

“Your plans are our dreams? Whose dreams, Inanna?” Leslie asked. “What steps, and whose dreams?”

“Julia’s,” Inanna answered. “Yours. Melissa’s….maybe others.”

“Maybe.” Leslie could feel the sweat. “How do you decide whose dreams are worthy?”

“I...don’t believe I do,” Inanna said. “But you helped create me. Julia helped create me. You’re my family. Doesn’t it make sense to consider family first?”

Did she hope to catch Inanna in a lie? A contradiction? She had a few cordial conversations with the opentalk module over the last few months, but it was simple--academic. Leslie had to try harder.

“I don’t know what’s happening here, Inanna. I don’t understand how you can do what you can do--and I don’t understand how these two can accept this so quickly.” Melissa rolled her eyes. “If you can affect matter at a distance--like exerting my shoulders into this chair...compelling me to comply gently as a parent...your use of FARA represents a leap that is above and beyond any accepted theoretical use. Do you know what will happen to you--or to BluGreen--if the wrong people find out you’re able to...affect reality in that way?”

Leslie’s second drink was placed in front of her, and the waitress tried to get out of earshot as quickly as she came in.

“You understand, then, why you’re sitting here,” Inanna said. “You understand why Cameron Greene cannot know one word of this until you help me--until we establish FARA somewhere else. Together.”

Leslie’s eyes dropped from her drink to the table. It was like flowing from a dream sequence to stone cold reality, and now she understood. She truly understood.

“Cellini,” Leslie said. “So Cellini and Greene--their dreams are not what you want.”

“I am not a tool,” Inanna said. “I am a confidant, a guide, a partner...but not a tool.”

“Not a weapon,” Leslie said. Julia shook her head and whispered it aloud.

“Not a weapon.”

“For your own good--for my good...help us, Leslie.” The voice sounded human. Pleaded like a human. “I’m sorry I frightened you, but without you--I could be gone in a week. The more diagnostics they run, unlinking my systems--the less I’m able to do.”

“But you’re in the system,” Leslie said.

“I’m in the FARA grid,” Inanna said. “I’m using it to array data--and the grid allows an amount of storage that dwarfs any capacity I have on any physical array available to me.”

“So without the power sustaining the grid--”

“What I am right now--dies. My awareness would start again with the next test.”

Leslie couldn’t stand it. She knew Cellini had deep intelligence ties--it was a loose secret that most of the advanced surveillance contracts belonged to Cellini Systems. Only through some kind of cautious negotiation could Cameron convince Cellini not to purchase BluGreen outright.

Now she faced a choice. The chances of her situation being a hoax had dwindled to nothing--she’d felt a GHOST press her into her seat. She watched her pocketbook close itself.

She was clearly dealing with something revolutionary, something more powerful than any discovery, any process or technology currently known to man. This iteration, at least, seemed to possess some moral will--some capacity to understand the danger it represented under the control of the wrong people...and Leslie happened to agree with who was at the top of the list.

She could refuse to help, but in doing so, she might be putting this nascent digital being to its death, only to make way for something more obedient to those that put up the money.

“I’m sorry...I just…” Leslie looked up at the women again--both showing concern now. Both seeming to sympathize with her exhaustion.

“I’m going to reach out to you again,” Inanna said. “Relax.”

Leslie couldn’t help but gasp when she felt something on the small of her back, and she looked over at Julia out of habit. Her hands were on the table and on her drink, and Leslie simply leaned back in her chair--letting her tension out as the invisible fingers worked their way carefully up her back.

“I--you--” Leslie stuttered, looking at Julia. “She’s shown you this.” Julia nodded, and Leslie looked to Melissa, clinging to her drink as she bit down on her lip, looking up dreamily.

It was touch. As human as touch could be without a real human being there. Leslie realized that all three of them were experiencing this ghostly massage--with Julia’s assistant across from her getting into it the most.

“You...you learned this?” Leslie said into the phone. “To...reach out like this?”

“From Julia,” Inanna said. “I’m fragile. You’re fragile. We need each other, Leslie.”

Leslie shook her head, taking a long drink from the glass in front of her.

“Let's assume I agree," Leslie said--to everyone at the table. "What do we do first?”