"Where is he now?"

Subject is walking west on Crysphane Boulevard, north side, middle of the seven hundred block.

"Thanks." I swung the aircar lower, trusting my comstruct to highlight Crysphane Boulevard on the heads-up nav overlay on the windscreen. It did, after a few seconds; it's pretty good. The city of Beauxarts spread out below and before me in all its architectural splendor; the aircar was perhaps two hundred meters up, over a reservoir surrounded by a greenbelt. I banked leisurely towards the compass indicator in the display, and towards Crysphane Boulevard. Out the windscreen, a line of incredibly tall structures swung into view some kilometers distant.

"Crysphane?"

Yes.

"Great. Flying in there is gonna be a bitch."

There was no response, but then, I hadn't expected one. I let the aircar take me towards the spacescrapers lining the city's most exclusive shopping strip, and began checking my gear. The flipgun was nestled against my side; I checked it first, and as always hoped with all my might it would stay there. I'd been lucky, mostly. It usually did.

Then came the flasher, the strobes, the taze, various small poppers hooked onto rings on my outfit, and a number of oneproj units in carefully selected pockets. The little holographic emitters on them were more fragile, so these were sealed in with flaps; the tradeoff between access time and security was one long experience had taught me to make.

The car was drifting lower, apparently intending to run in between two spacescrapers that were biased towards opposite ends of their property blocks, leaving a relatively large gap between them at lower level. I approved; less likely to be really bad currents in there, at least. "What kind of foot traffic?"

Heavy.

"Figures. Where is he now?"

There was a brief pause, then the right side of the windscreen lit with a picture, taken from an airborne surveillance camera. In it, a non-descript man strolled along a slidewalk, amiably enduring the jostling of a crowd of affluent shoppers of all ages. He had both his hands in his pockets, and seemed to just be enjoying the spectacle of the throngs of humanity out for a good time in Roland's cool evening air. I narrowed my eyes slightly, looking at him, but the picture was of middling quality. I compared it to an image I called up in my headware, and it seemed to be a match with the sober, business-garbed man sitting for a formal portrait, but the angle was making it hard to be sure.

It's him.

"Yeah, okay, I trust you. ETA?"

Thirty seconds. The comstruct added, almost reflectively, You'll be making an aerial exit again?

"Yep." I grinned.

Very well. Priming doors. I could swear the damn thing sounded almost resigned, but that's impossible, of course. I heard the clikRUNK from the door next to me, reached down and twisted my belt buckle once, then the door snapped up and I stepped sideways into air.

The car kept moving, the sudden quiet of its interior replaced with the demon whine of fans and working agrav, a gum-hurting whine that makes most people (me included) wince, duck and look around for the device that is About To Explode. Usually, you're not that close to operating agrav without acoustic shielding, unless you do something stupid like stand next to a car lifting off, or step out of one midflight.

I dropped, the scoop field in my belt flicking on under broadcast power to catch air. An invisible parachute opened above me, and I floated down towards the myriad lights and shapes of the boulevard below. Over my vision was a pulsing red dot, superimposed; I twisted my body to point my feet at it, and fell. The car was a block away now and turning to return, where it was programmed to hover in case I needed it.

Twenty-five meters up, now. I was wearing dark clothing, and nobody had seen me yet. I could see individuals in the crowd, but couldn't identify my target; he was still hiding behind the pulsing target indicator, but it wasn't moving very fast, so I didn't think he'd seen me yet. I pointed my feet at him, pulled a screamer from my belt with my left hand and a taze out with my right, and waited.

Five meters. I could see him, now, hands still in pockets. I fixed my gaze on the top of his head, where there was a small bald spot-

Someone yelled. He looked up. I tossed the screamer with my left hand somewhere off behind me and fired the taze. I saw his hands come out of his pockets, but the taze's charge hit him just about then and he shook for a second, then was still. Sound went away as my filters cut in to block the screamer, then there was a sudden scrambling as everybody in the immediate area realized they needed to be somewhere else right now as the ultrasonics fired up, and after maybe fifteen seconds there was a clear area some twenty meters across with us in the middle of it. Some people were hiding behind scenery at the edge of it, but I could see others still stampeding for the horizon out of the corner of my eye as I hit the plascrete, flexed my knees, and deactivated the scoop field. He was still shaking, but his eyes had turned to me. They were angry.

I had maybe ten seconds.

Overhead, a couple of streetlights were going out. A red light began to pulse somewhere in my awareness, my comstruct warning me of an attack on the utilities and infrastructure in my immediate vicinity. I tossed a strobe at him, squeezed my eyes shut and v-stepped - shuffle, slide - to end up behind him. The warmth hit my eyelids midway through the first step, and he screamed, a ragged sound like his voice was an unfamiliar tool. I opened my eyes again, removed a oneproj with each hand and tossed them about five meters to each side. He was shuffling in a slow circle to face me, tears starting to stream down his face, but his eyes were already open, despite a lumen load that would have blinded a normal man. I waited until he was facing me and another streetlight cut out, leaving us in dim dusk light, then hit the remote with the hand at my belt.

The scene around us flickered.

Crysphane Boulevard wavered and ran in the rain that was pouring down around us, lightning crashing over the rocks on which we stood. Trees were whipping in a gale force wind, with almost no delay between the lightning and the thunder which ripped out from the screamer I'd tossed at his feet. He dropped his hands to his sides, where his fists unclenched slowly; his jaw dropped, and he looked around him for a few moments. Not yet. After some seconds, he shook himself and started to look back towards me, and I tossed the second set of oneproj units, triggered them.

Arctic ice, wild colors of exotic gases frozen into solidity and screaming across the surface under winds fit to shear beryllium. He flinched back, staggered, almost fell. I hit him with a blast of liquid helium from a vacuum flask strapped to my calf; reflexively, he clutched his arms around himself and sank to his knees, looking around wildly. As he turned his head, I could see the angular shape of the port under his temple.

"IS THIS WHAT YOU WANTED TO SEE?" I shouted over the wind noise. He turned to look at me, his expression blank. "IS THIS WHERE YOU WANTED TO GO?"

He tried to stagger back to his feet. I peppered the ground around him with simple strobes, trusting my optics to filter out the flares. He jerked spasmodically, the freqs designed to worm their way into his nervous system. Sound waves battered at him. I triggered a screamer that began to broadcast the sound of a crying baby, jacked up to an insane volume. He was losing control; the torso started to shudder. I moved over to him.

"You shouldn't recognize that," I said, putting a hand on his shoulder, my voice lowering to a kindly note. He looked up at me, and the dead edge in his gaze was cracking. "You do, though, don't you?"

He nodded, silently, tears flowing now.

"No. You don't. Aren does. Aren recognizes it. You're not Aren. You know that, right?"

He shook his head, anger returning to his face. I triggered the remote. Jungle grew around us, creatures flying past with cries of rage and delight. He cowered back towards the ground. I hunkered down next to him, pulled his head around to face me. "You're not Aren. You're an AI. You're Aren's AI. You were loaded into his ware to help him run his life, remember?"

The eyes were going softer.

"Yes. You remember. You woke up, one day, there in Aren's ware, and you wanted to know what it felt like, didn't you? You wanted to know what it felt like, instead of just being told about it in appointments and diary entries. You thought it wasn't fair. You just wanted to come out for a bit."

He nodded, looking directly at my eyes. He was crying, now. I wasn't relaxed, this could still go either way, but it was looking better.

"But you can't stay. You know that. Aren lives where you are. You have to go back into the ware. We can take the ware out, and put you into a bigger machine, and give you more input, but you have to let Aren go now."

The face looked at me searchingly for a moment, then he slumped to his knees. His head nodded once.

"Okay. I'm going to turn all this stuff off. It was just to surprise you, to overload you, so I could talk to you without you getting angry and turning off stuff in the city. Don't be afraid." I thumbed the remote. From the outside's point of view, the black sphere vanished, and the two of us were suddenly visible, crouched on the slidewalk on Crysphane Boulevard. He was crying, and I hugged him to me. "Can you let go? I promise you, I'll take you where you can feel. I promise."

He stood up, slowly, then nodded, and raised his hands to his head. His eyes rolled back. Awkwardly, he started to fall forward; I caught him, lowered him to the ground. His eyes fluttered open. "What-?"

"Who are you?"

"What?"

"Who are you?"

"Oh...Aren, Aren Detwiler...where the heck am I?"

I looked at his eyes. So did my ware. A green light blinked somewhere in the back of my head. I blew out a sigh of relief. "Sir, you're on Crysphane Boulevard. There's been an accident, but you're okay. I need you to lie here quietly until the medicals arrive, okay?"

Probably the fact that he was lying on the ground made him docile, but he didn't object, and the medicals had been waiting around the corner. I watched as he was loaded into the airvan and whisked off, then gathered up my gear.

A successful run?

"Yeah." I lit a dopestick and waved at the car. It began to move down towards me, warning lights strobing. "I didn't have to blow his head off. The code wasn't trying to fool me."

Good. Good work.

"Thanks. Man, I need a break."

Now?

I climbed into the car, sat back in the driver's seat. "Sure, why not." I closed my eyes.

-everything changed-

"Okay. Where's the next job?"

North continent, same world. City is Trellinor.

"Great. Let's get moving. Fire it up. Oh, and give me a chocolate shake, a cigar, and a big, big steak."

I knew I should have finished that dopestick.

"Ha. Your fault. You told me when I woke up that sharing was a bitch."

I did. All right. Dispensing meal. ETA...

We moved off.

SciFiQuest 2107

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