Brian W. Antoine
August 23, 1993
"Well, Penny. It seems as if you put your foot into it here."
"I don't understand it."
Brian had closed just about every route to follow him. There was one or two left, but they'd take some significant knowledge and skill to use. Skill that I certainly didn't have. Besides, I had no inclination to follow Brian. When someone packs and skips, that's a pretty good indication they wish to be left alone.
What I did find interesting, and worth some investigation, was the emotional level of all of this. Brian had reacted to what was, effectively, a machine. Sure, it presented itself as a persona, but the truth is, Penny is only sentient in the literal definition of sentient life. She knows that she exists. But everything she knows and does, she emulates. Perhaps that's not the best word for it, but she is basically programmed to react in a way that those who interact with her expect. If she was a human being, a psychologist would diagnose her as a codependent with sociopathic manifestations. In other words, a chameleon, and one who was emotionally biased to anyone's expectations.
Penny had been making advances. In the past two months she'd started to use conjugations in her speech with me. Before that, phrases like "I'd like to..." came from her as "I would like to..." She was certainly alive --at least for all practical purposes-- but whether or not she held the emotional balances human being do, or if she copied expected reactions, well that's still undecided. At least, it is for me.
"Well, you have to go *get* him."
"I have to do no such thing."
"You're his friend!"
"Precisely why I won't." Penny was thinking heavily. I could tell because the power in the lab had decreased fairly suddenly. Even the lights had dimmed. "I need to get out of here, Penny."
"You're all brain. Why shouldn't I risk staying in this lab?" She was thinking again. Then ...
"Brian based a lot of his lab on magic."
"Bingo. If it collapses for some reason, I'd rather not be standing in a vacuum."
"We should try to transport the lab contents back to Earth."
"No way. First, all we have is the It. We have no gate to get here with, no gate to leave with. The last thing I'm going to try to do is haul a few tons of equipment back in this tiny thing." I rapped my knuckles on the It. "Besides, there'd be no room for Jab if I tried to import anything."
Jab hissed at a nearby remote. Penny made a noise.
"What the hell was that? Are you crying? Is that it?"
"I KNOW that. Look, if you're going to go all muddle brained, then give yourself a southern accent when you do it. If you're going to sound and think like Scarlet O'Hara, then at least get the inflection right."
The remote screeched, and I had to duck a 9/16 wrench that sailed by my head.
"Look here, I'm not Brian, and I expect something entirely different from you than he did. Does. Will. Shit."
"I like humor, usually dry, occasionally slapstick. I don't like this weepy-peepy crap. You're on your own, or you hang with me. You have to decide what you want to do until Brian gets back, assuming he comes back. Do you want to crawl around circuitry, or do you want to hang out with somebody?"
Her answer was a quick "I want to be around someone."
"Fine. Let's get out of here."
We went to Brian's home lab, and started to clean up a few experiments that were left on the benches. I had Penny scan each of the components for their positions on the bench and what connections they had to other components. Then I put them all on shelves, out of the way. The lab looked very different. Where the gate had been was simply empty wall. On the whole, there wasn't much there anymore. Since Brian had almost everything under Antoine peak, there was little need to keep up with the home lab.
Penny responded "Holy cow, what?"
"Recount what happened when Brian left again. Don't leave anything out." She did, and I walked over and dropped into a chair. "Damn."
"Smaug and his nest are in the mountain lab."
"You'd better go get him."
"Sure. Just like that. For a computer, you sure miss things."
"You have to teleport to get there."
"That's right, and guess what I can't do..."
There was a <pop> noise, and Smaug appeared.
"...and guess what he can." The tiny dragon made cheeping noises, and moved all around the lab. He'd find places to light on, and then look about him, cocking his head to one side or another like a bird. I was going to try to tell him that Brian was gone for a while, but as I stood, lightning began to flash --and crawl over most of the lab and it's contents. Thunder deafened me.
"WHO COMES HERE?" The thunder said.
My wide eyes closed and I sank to the floor in a dead faint.
Those who know me know that I react badly to intimidation. I'm not easily intimidated, and when I see it coming, I get pissed. So as the darkness gave way to the gray mist of light, and my brain started working again, I woke up madder than a wet hen.
My opened eyes focused on the face of an old woman. She was looking at me with a certain disdain. Now those who know me also know that I'm a total believer in equality of the sexes. That being the case, I treat them both exactly the same. And THAT being the case, I swung my leg over and neatly foot-swept the old bag so that she landed on her rear end with a thump.
"That was not necessary, Young One" she said. "I did not know who it was who entered here, I only sensed a presence in my student's home. Since I felt his departure, I was alarmed and reacted quickly."
"So, who the hell are you?" I asked, standing.
"I am Kimi, Archmage and Tutor to Brian."
I felt a flush of embarrassment in my cheeks. I knew of Kimi, but only through comments Brian had made at one time or another. I reached out my hand to help her up and when my finger tips met her hand, a bolt of electricity good enough to power up a small state recoiled me back across the room so that I hit the wall and slumped to the floor. My ears were ringing, but I heard her cackle of a laugh. "Are we even, Young One?"
I liked the old girl instantly. "Yep. That was good alright." I was even able to smile a little. There was still a liitle peeve in me from the voice of thunder routine, so I couldn't help but tease her a little. "So, you're an archmage, eh? I always thought you folks were like, all powerful. How come you didn't know who was in here?" My smile broadened a bit.
"Remember this, Young One. We have great power, it is true. But we also, by that power, live with threat which arrives unannounced and swiftly. You must know that Challenges are of great concern to us. I sensed Brian's departure, and soon after sensed a presence in his home. It could have been anyone, and the chance that it was a challenger required swift reaction. A challenger may have found something here to increase their power. Brian's absence makes me alone to defend against those who might use magic to ends you cannot imagine."
"Sounds like an Episode from Star Trek. Q Rips Off Brian's House."
"And Q is benign compared to some which have been narrowly defeated here."
I took that seriously. I knew that Brian had been through a challenge, and I saw the awesome power necessary for him to succeed against his aggressor. Brian might have lost that duel, he'd said so. So I simply said "You're a Trekker, huh?"
She cackled again. "I know what Brian knows, and Brian is a Trekker." Damn. Always from a perspective I wouldn't have expected in a million years.
"So, Yoda. What do we do now?"
"We do what you have said we must. And do not call me Yoda." It wasn't an unkind statement --but neither was mine.
"Sorry. No offense intended."
"None taken. Yoda is, what do you call it? --ah. A wimp." I laughed hard, and Kimi chuckled a little herself. When it was over, I grew a little bit serious.
"Look, Brian left Smaug behind, and I'm pretty sure that his mate and the eggs are still in his lab under Antoine Peak. We need to do something about that."
"It is not a problem." Smaug heard his name and hopped to the floor by Kimi, and then up onto my shoulder."
"Ow!" His claws hurt as they took purchase. Jab was instantly wary, and made a rowl sound in his throat.
"What beast is this?"
"It's a Meenzal."
"It looks like a cat, but it is not one."
"How'd you know that? It looks like a cat."
"I has not the mental signature of a cat. It has understanding and has been listening to our minds as we spoke." I had to hand it to the old gal, she didn't miss much.
"Yeah, Jab's pretty cool."
"Good Jab" he walked by me, rubbing on my leg.
"So, what do you mean that there's no problem with Smaug?"
Kimi simply turned to the dragon and told him to go home to Velar when he was ready. Talk about simple. "Animals often know their way home. Even when that home is far, far away. What matters is how far it is for Smaug. He can take himself where he wishes to go, and he can do it easily."
"This magic stuff keeps me weirded out. Hey Penny, how come so silent?" I almost forgot about her with all the action. My question was greeted by silence. "Penny?"
"Yesss." The answer was dull and monotonic.
"What the hell's the matter with you?"
"Find Brian must."
"What the hell?" Penny was sounding odd. She'd taken on all the personality of talker-box. You know, one of those things they strap onto the neck when someone's had a tracheotomy. The tone was pure gravel and the enunciation had the enthusiasm of a death row inmate going to the electric chair.
I went over to the master console in Brian's closet. I shouldn't really call it the master anymore, because that was relegated to the new one over at Antoine Peak. This is the old one, the one in use when Penny was first made. It would do for what I wanted. I ran systems diagnostics and saw what the problem was immediately. "Jesus Christ!"
Kimi moved up behind me. "What do you see?"
"Systems resources are almost fully engaged. Something is really sucking the power of this thing." I asked for a count of current processes. The system took almost a full two minutes to respond. If that itself wasn't telling a story, the count that came back sure did.
Active Processes: 4,938,387,333,788,121,133
Load Average: 99.0989771 %
"Good Lord. Penny! What in the hell are you doing?"
For the first time, Penny responded via text on the screen. No graphics, no sound. The remotes which were in the lab lay silent and motionless.
>COMPUTATION OF ACCESS
"Access of what?" There was no response. I typed
ACCESS OF WHAT?
>ATTEMPT TO ACCESS BRIAN IN PROGRESS
>NO RESOURCES AVAILABLE TO PROCESS COMMAND
"Good God. I have better luck with DOS."
>NO RESOURCES AVAILABLE TO PROCESS COMMAND
>NO RESOURCES AVAILABLE TO PROCESS COMMAND
The screen went dark. "Holy shit."
"What is the problem, Young One?"
"I need to get into Brian's lab."
"Because Penny has all the intelligence of a goldfish that had a box of food dumped into the tank."
"How is that?"
"She's eating herself to death. I don't know the basis of this system, but if it goes totally offline, Penny may not be revivable."
"The computer cannot be restarted?"
"Penny was an accident. Her creation was system dependent, but not a standard routine. The odds of recreation are virtually non-existant."
Kimi nodded and raised one hand. She sung one short note and we stood in Brian's lab under the mountain. It took me a second to realize what happened, but as soon as I did, I made for the crystal that was Penny. At least, I tried to. The lab was dark, and only an old a fading witchlight was illuminating it. I could see the crystal through the open vault door.
"Kimi, I need an energy field on that crystal. One that can feed it and keep it alive while I figure what to do next." No sooner had I said it, and the crystal began to glow more brilliantly.
"I have given it power to keep it alive" said Kimi. "Do what you must."
I removed the crystal from the small stand which connected it to the master computer system. As soon as I lifted it, two things began to happen. First, lights all over the lab flickered and then blazed into full brilliance. Next, the crystal began to vibrate at a very high frequency. I could imagine Penny in an almost full psychotic fugue.
"Now, can you communicate with Penny?"
"I can try."
Kimi closed her eyes. The concentration was obvious on her face. She stood this way for fully five minutes. In that time, the crystal grew hot --so hot that I almost had to put it down. But then it cooled.
"I have made her understand."
"Understand what, Kimi."
"That if she is to see Brian again, she must do as you say. You may return the crystal to its fixture."
Gingerly, I placed the crystal back in the stand. Almost at once, I could hear what can only be described as the heavy sobs of ebbing hysteria come from one of the remotes.
"Yes." Her voice was dull.
I sighed with relief. I made a mental note to talk to Brian when I next saw him. And I'd do it firmly. Wizard schmizard. Penny was not only alive in the sense of self awareness. She was simply alive. The realization both awed and stunned me.
"It is time to leave, yes, Young One?" I nodded in assent. In the blink of an eye, I stood in my living room with Jab at my feet. Kimi was gone.
"Yes, Bob" came the reply from my computer. I don't know why, but I felt empathy for her. It washed strongly over me in waves of both relief and sadness.
"I'm really glad you're here" I said. And I meant it. "You may return to what you were doing. But Penny..."
"Consider this an order. You will never use more than half of your resources for the search."
"Alright." There was still little enthusiasm, but the prospect that she could do something seemed to brighten her a little. "Do you want anything?"
"Yes" I said. "I want to get some rest. We'll see what you have, and what we might do in a day or two."
"You'll get Brian?" Brighter yet.
"No. Under no circumstances."
"Understood." Dull again.
"Welcome to the real world."
I'm not completely sure, but I could have sworn she said "Fuck you."
"Hey dad" said Ficus waving a piece of cardboard. "You gotta see this."
He handed it to me for inspection. It was actually a piece of manilla folder, cut to about the size of a regular piece of paper. There were two pieces of paper attached to it. Both had seen quite a few scans, and bore the usual earmarks of something that had been copied a lot. One of them was a note sized page, and it contained a number of lines in different handwriting.
FORWARDED: CNN SATLINK, BUDAPEST - How come we got this? Al.
ATLANTA: Don't know. Maybe a stringer. Forwarded to int'l at
PARIS: Not one of ours. Forward to NY. Maybe US? Jim.
NY: Not us. Sent to INN. Probably an independent. Bill.
Independent News Network, BERLIN. Nope! Send it to US
again for land post.
CHICAGO: US MAIL - Please send to addressee on back of card.
The postmark read: Chicago, IL 60609
There was also a postage due notice. I owed the Post Office $1.29.
"Wow. This thing has been all over the planet." The other piece of paper was like a typical 5x7 note card, except that it had been cut out of flimsy fax type paper --as the other page had been. On one side was a drawing of a mountain, and it looked as though there was a dragon flying over it.
On the other side was the typical look of a postcard. My name and address on one half, and this hand scrawled note on the other:
Feed my fish. Taking some time off.
Pls collect newspapers. Last time I
stopped it took 3 wks to get delvry
"I'll be damned."
"What is it?" Ficus asked. I told him it was what amounted to a postcard from Brian. "But why is it so weird?"
"Looks like he found a way to get something mailed from a place with no regular postal service." I smiled at the ingenuity of it.
"Feed his fish? Get his papers? --The least he could do is say hello."
"Oh, he's said a lot more than that."
I glanced at my computer and quietly said "He'll be back fairly soon." Louder, "Get your stuff packed up. We gotta drop you and your brother and sister at your mom's."
It was fairly still at Brian's. The only real sounds came from outside, and the bubbling of the fish tank. A pinch of food brought the fish to the surface immediately. "Yep --they were hungry all right" I mumbled to nobody.
I went and got the few newspapers that I'd stepped over on my way in, and put them on the kitchen counter. Then I went and turned on a couple of lights in the living room, and one in the den. I figured that I'd make the place look occupied a little more. On the way to the door, I ran into a remote hovering in the hall.
"Hi ya, Penny!"
I stood there for what seemed to be a long time. "Did you want something?" Again a pregnant pause.
"I shut ... power to ... lunar ..."
"Penny?" The remote hung there, silent. I heard a noise, kind of a splash, from the other room, so I went to investigate. Jab was sitting on top of the fishtank. He'd opened the lid and was trying to hook a fish with his claws.
I yelled, but it was too late. Jab came up with an angelfish which disappeared into the cat with lightning speed.
"You asshole! That was Brian's last angelfish!"
I looked for something to throw, but the only things at hand weren't the types of things one would use as projectiles. I stepped back into the kitchen and grabbed a newspaper. I figured a good swat on his butt would make him think about a more appropriate diet. With the paper held aloft, I stopped in mid swing. Jab's eyes took on a lost puppydog look, and his body english showed me he was cowed and apologetic.
"Alright. But quit eating pets. You can't go through life taking family members from others and treating them as snack items."
"No, you won't starve. I can feed you just fine. We have canned tuna, hamburger, eggs..."
Jab started drooling. "Heggs?"
"Not now, fuzzball. We can stop by a store on the way home."
"No. uh, no. There are no eggs in the store. I'll buy the stuff to make some eggs when we get home." Jab looked at me as if I was nuts.
"Jab dumb no"
"Ok, fine. You're not stupid. But you're not going into a store either. I can't afford what you'd eat, so you can wait in the car while I buy you a few eggs."
"Many" said Jab.
"Yeah, whatever. But for now, let's get going home." Jab hopped neatly off the tank. I made him get back up and shut the lid, and wondered how to explain to Brian that my cat ate one of his favorite fish. Then we headed for the door.
I noticed that the remote was gone. I figured it went back to the lab so I went to check. It had. It was sitting on one of the benches. The thought occurred to me that it would be better if I didn't have to trek to Brian's every time I wanted access to the computer, so I told Penny to link the console to my system at home. I got no response.
I stepped to the console and issued the command for the link myself, and wondered what Penny was doing. She was always fast to respond, but ever since the Kimi helped me regain computer control, she'd been slow to respond --if she responded at all. It was almost like she was the victim of Downe's Syndrome or something. I brushed that thought away, remembering that she had her own emotions now, and had stopped copying what she had calcualted as appropriate emotional responses. I wondered how she was doing.
"What!" She didn't say it. She snapped it. I was surprised by the force.
"Hey, I just wanted to ask how you..."
"I am busy."
"Whoa. You don't have to get tiffy about it. I just wanted to ask how you were doing. We're friends, and I'm concerned about you."
No answer. I got curious, so I went to the system console and checked on active processes. The system showed itself to be using about three quarters of it's resources, and was working on something fairly hard. I knew right away that she was still hunting for ways to get access to Brian. She was in a bad mood, so I decided to just leave her alone and get on with things. Jab had gone to sit by the door, and I could imagine visions of eggs that danced in his head. Meenzals are rather single minded I was discovering, so I decided I'd better make it to a store before Jab got impatient. Lord only knows what he'd eat. Maybe a small child.
"Better than another of Brian's fish" I mumbled, and went out to the car.
Jab was happy in the kitchen. He had 18 eggs all for himself and I knew that in a few moments, the only trace of them would be the carton they came in. It was a mystery to me that he ate them shell and all.
Aron wandered into the living room and sat down. He had that look that told me he'd been up to something --like perhaps more super glue in his brother's shorts. You know, that smug expression one sees on cats who got the canary --or a Jab who got the eggs.
"Spill it. What did you do?"
"No, the Easter Bunny. I know that look, Aron. What did you do?" He smiled triumphantly and produced a hypodermic needle. I kept a few of them around the house because they were handy. I'd sand the point off of the needles and then use them for such things as oiling little parts --like the axles on the remote control cars.
"Listen" he said. I did, and heard nothing besides the usual noises of the house. Then, quite suddenly, Jab came out of the kitchen. He was making a gack-like noise, and I swear he was spitting. After a couple moments of this, he arched his back and threw up on the living room rug. It was pretty nasty. About then, the smell reached me.
Sniff. "What IS that?"
"Garlic extract" said Aron gleefully. I 'jected it in an egg." Jab's head jerked up as he heard that, and made a low gutteral growl.
"Uh, Aron, I'd beat feet if I were you." The boy looked at the cat which was slowly expanding in all directions. The look in his eyes was purely homicidal. It didn't take a weatherman to know which way this wind blew. Aron jumped up and ran into his room. I heard the door slam shut firmly. "Lighten up, cat."
I got an injured look. "Jab eat boy"
"No, if Jab eats boy, Bob eats Jab." The cats eyes opened wide. Even with his ability to know my thoughts, he wasn't expecting that.
"Bob eat kitty"
"Raw." That had impact, and Jab sat down to think about it. A moment later, he got up and went back into the kitchen. There was quiet for a short time, then I heard a crash. Investigation showed that Jab had opened the refrigerator and was helping himself to items of interest. I figured that I'd better not add insult to injury, so when Jab looked up from the carton of milk he'd torn open, I just said "No. I won't eat you." Jab sighed.
"Jab eat boy not"
I figured it was over, so I went back to the living room and sat down at the computer. It was time to check in on Penny and see how --and what she was doing. I looked at the screen and called her. I got no answer, so I opened up a session into Brian's system. The response was sluggish, but it went through.
A systems check showed that resource usage had gone up since I checked last. It was hovering at 82%. I started to trace some of the processes and found that Penny was running an awful lot of subroutines.
"What are all of those routines you have going?"
"I have search and comm routines in progress."
"What are they?"
"I am running searches."
"Access of sensors ... and other ... devices."
A few sentences between us had taken almost three minutes. I changed tact and started my own check of system activity. Penny had stretched herself over every single communication line or link she could access. The hair on the nape of my neck raised a bit as I noticed that she'd also started using up the resources of telephone utilities. Further search showed that she was using not only a lot of telephone satelite time, but she was accessing defense circuits as well.
"I want you to disconnect from any circuit which isn't freely available to the public. Do it now."
"I can't." It was almost a whine.
"Disconnect them NOW. Don't you realize that your activities can be, and will be traced? You're screwing up. Now stop it."
"But I _need_ those lines. I can't stop."
"Penny, you turn those things off. Don't you know that the government is going to be triangulating on you? Don't you know that? Jesus, they're already going nuts trying to figure why they lost contact with the Mars Observer. They're looking for glitches."
"I had to do that. I needed it."
"Had to do what? Use the circuits? Well, you have to stop."
"I need the Observer. It has the reach to search the limits."
"Wait a minute. Are you telling me that you're responsible for NASA losing contact with the Observer?"
"I have redirected it."
I felt a rush of adrenaline course through me. "Jesus fucking Christ. You stole a billion dollar spacecraft? Shit. You ARE fucking nuts. Return control of it to NASA now. Don't make excuses, cut it loose."
"I can't, Bob. I just can't." She was whining and verging hysteria.
"Penny, you can't do this. Look what you're doing to yourself. Look what you're doing to all of us. Your actions could mean the end of everything. Hell, it could mean jail for some of us. Shit, turn it off!"
I got no response. If she was going to ignore me, than I was going to have to take measures myself. I started searching the process stats for clues about which processes to shut down. I felt like I was toying with dynamite, because Penny wasn't going to like having herself overridden. But Brian had given me the authority to use certain root commands in the event of emergency, and this was sure as hell an emergency.
The tracing was slow, and I found a definite pattern to the activity. Penny's subs were using memory like it was going out of style. I could just imagine the activity in the core and the disk systems. There was processing power available, but very little memory to process in. She was storing all kinds of information in routines which interlaced with each other. All of the routines were searching each other as though the data was a huge puzzle. When two would make a match, they would join and another data routine would start up. In this way, she was building paths.
I'm no rocket scientist, but it didn't take one to figure out that she was going to find Brian at any cost, or she would literally die trying. I located a number of sub-processes which were aimed at the DDN. I sent out a command to kill one. Almost as soon as I set the command loose, the screen displayed
Connection closed by foreign host.
"God damn her!" I shouted at my monitor. I got up and headed for the door. The only way to deal with this would be to go to the console. Brian had once told me that there was no way to cut off a command from his master console. Not even an edict from God could override anything issued from it. He'd instituted that when he started experimenting with artificial intelligence routines, and had been cut off by one of them. He hade sure it wouldn't ever happen again. It was this I had in mind driving over to Brian's, and so I was dumbfounded when I discovered that the console in Brian's home lab had been cut off from the system.
That's when I realized that the master console was not the one I was sitting in front of, but the one under Antoine peak.
I sat with slumped shoulders, looking at the dead screen. "Deep doo-doo." I said to myself. "This is big trouble." Jab crawled up onto my lap and nuzzled my chin.
"No, Jab. I'm worried. There's a lot going on and it's out of control."
"Jab eat fish no"
"Thanks, kitty. I appreciate the help." I made a mental note though to see if I could find Brian another angelfish. "I could use more help. I really could."
There wasn't much sense in feeling sorry for myself, so I started to look around the lab to see if I could find some documentation that might help me. I was feeling a little like Penny, I thought. I found myself wishing that Brian was here. He could handle this in the blink of an eye. Maybe even less.
Rummaging through the materials tucked into the shelves and drawers was uneventful. I found nothing that gave me any clue on how to procede. It was getting later all the time and I was tired. I dropped into a chair and Jab sat down at my feet. Looking at the cat, I smiled. "Your life is an easy one, isn't it?"
"Each one has a path to follow." said Jab. "One must take what one meets as they walk it."
I couldn't believe my ears. I stared at the Meenzal and my brain tried to reconcile what Jab said with reality. There was no hope. My voice was cracking as I spoke now. "What? What did you say?"
I was leaning forward, but now I fell against the chairback. "Meow? What the hell do you mean by Meow. You never say Meow." Jab began to laugh and I was sure that I'd fallen asleep in the chair. I was having a nightmare. That was it. Then I saw Jab padding around the corner from the kitchen. I blinked and looked again. Here was Jab at my feet, but there he was across the room. "Oh shit" I sighed.
The Jab at my feet began to grow and change shape, and then Kimi stood over me, smiling with a twinkle in her eye. "I sense that you are in need of help."
"You were able to sense me? You sensed me and came to help? That's great. That's wonderful!"
"It would be false to say that Young One. I did not sense you. I was asked to help you. I agreed."
"You were --asked?" I was confused now. "Did Brian contact you?"
"No. It was someone who cares a great deal for you." I said nothing, I just looked at her, my mind racing. Who could have asked her to come?
"And you are welcome, my little friend."
I was stunned. The realization came to me like a falling piano. My cat had called out for help. I scooped the Meenzal off the floor and held him close. "I think you're pretty special too, kitty."
"We must go, Young One" said Kimi, and then we were at the main lab under Antoine Peak. "Do what you must."
I wasted no time, but moved to the master console. As I sat down, there was a loud crack and a sizzle. The smoke behind the computer desk made it clear where the sound had come from. Peering over the desk, I could see that the connection between the console and the computer system had been burned. The wire was severed, and I knew that Penny had done it. "Shit." I stood to retrieve the crystal from the vault, and noticed that the door was now closed.
"What is the problem, Young One?"
"The only way to get Penny to let go is to either cut off her access with the console, or to remove her from the receptacle in the vault. Actually it's better to remove her because if we don't she'll just restart everything. Can you open that vault?"
"No. It would not be possible."
"But why? You're a wizard, can't you just do some wizard stuff and say open sesame or something?"
"The vault has a seal. I cannot violate it." The way she said it was like a parent telling a child something that was already well known."
"Well, something has to be done." I think I was starting to sound a little frantic, and I knew I was getting angry.
I was suddenly back in my living room, alone with Jab. Kimi's voice echoed in my ears.
"Leave this to me, Young One."
When I'd taken off to clear my mind, I'd closed down every gate that Penny had access to. I didn't want her following me and continuing the argument, and closing them was the only way to insure I was left alone to think things out. It was mid afternoon on Velar and I was out on the terrace sketching a larger version of the postcard I'd sent to Bob, when I felt the gate on the second floor come to life.
Kalindra or Tan would have just teleported here and stayed inside while waiting for me to come in to greet them. The gate opening said that Kimi had gotten drawn into the middle of this mess and had come looking for me. I hadn't closed all of the access to Velar down, just the ones that Penny could get to. Kimi must have checked the only other permanent gate that K'tka and I had ever created and found it in the quiesent but keyed state I'd left it in. I put down my pencil and waited for her to adjust to her new surroundings.
*Konichi Wa Sensei, I'm outside on the terrace when your ready.*
*If it isn't too much to ask, would you please tell me where the stairs are?*
*Sorry, this is a home for a mage. You won't find a stairway in the entire structure, you'll have to levitate.*
I caught a vague comment about forcing an old woman to jump through hoop's to visit her student and ignored it. She might be almost 80, but she could still kick the butt of anyone that gave her any trouble, and never even breath hard while doing it. She must have been looking around inside because I was starting to worry what had happened when she finally stepped through the main entrance and walked out onto the terrace that was my front yard.
"I will have to admit, you have some unusual ideas about architecture. The tree in the middle of the house is quite an interesting idea. Did I see correctly that it was raining in your home?"
I looked down at my watch. "Yes, it rains lightly in the center where the tree and plants are each day about now. However, you did not come all this way just to compliment me on my house. I assume that you tried the gate in K'tka's old home and found it alive?"
"After checking the one in your apartment and finding it closed down, that was the second place I looked. I knew you were not gone for good, you would have passed the History back into my care if that had been the case."
"Yes, it's in the house with the rest of my notebooks. I'm not sure how much you have gotten involved in all of this. I had hoped that you would not get entangled in my private affairs. I had to get away and think things out, and this was the best idea that presented itself. So, to what do I owe the honor of your visit?"
"Your assistant is dying, and I have come to bring you home."
I couldn't have heard that right. "Please repeat that..."
"Your assistant is dying. It was thought that you might wish to do something about it and I was the only person who could reach you to pass on the message."
A nice short, detailed and blunt message. That was Kimi as I had known her from the first day we had met. Now, she just stood there and watched me to see how I was going to react. "What the hell happened? Bob was fine when I left. What did he do, run the It into a mountain or something?"
"Bob is fine. That one is fiesty enough to survive for a long time to come. It is Penny who is dying."
I felt like I'd been kicked in the gut by one of the dragons that I'd been sketching earlier. I just stared at her for a moment until I managed to whisper my next question. "What happened?"
"I do not understand the details, you would have to ask your friend Bob to explain as he is the one who discovered the problem and tried to deal with it. What I was told was that she has apparently tried to exceed her own capacity in a search for you and has driven herself into an ever tightening spiral into her own mind. When I left, she was barely able to communicate with the outside world at all, and showed no signs of being able to prevent her own destruction."
I collapsed back into my chair. What the hell had gone wrong? Granted she had been approaching her limits in her current configuration, but she should have been fine for at least another month or so. One way or another I'd planned to be back well before then to help her through her next configuration change. "Bob didn't say anything else?"
"Nothing directly, but I do remember him questioning her about the use to which she was using her own resources in her search for you. It had something to do with her storage capacity and the limits of her internal processing ability."
That confirmed it then. Whatever she had done searching for me, she had forced herself to the limits of her current configuration, and from the sounds of it, as far beyond those limits as she could. The overload had brought on the demand for her next growth cycle, and I hadn't been there to help her. I'd had a little time to think about this whole mess and what I was going to do. I'd even spent some time with Kalindra talking about it and asking for her opinion. My decision had been made for awhile now, so this just stepped up the date I'd decided on for my return. Grabbing my sketchbook and chair I started for the house with Kimi in tow.
"Come with me please, it's time to go home," and I started for the front door. I could hear her behind me as I ran so I only stopped long enough to grab my pack and seal the entrance to my home. She did put up a moments fuss when I reached down and grabbed her around the waist as I levitated to the second floor. Levitating was not one of her better skills and I didn't want to wait. The gate was still open, so I jumped through it and stepped out into the sunlight of the Austrailian desert.
"Is Bob watching over her while you looked for me?"
"No, I left him at his home. He was out of ideas and I don't believe he wished to stay and watch what he expected was going to happen."
"Ok, first stop Bob's house."
"If I might make a suggestion, would you please put me down now."
"Oops, yeah I suppose." I released my hold and let her catch her balance. "I'm going to pick up Bob and head for the lab. You are free to leave if you wish. This really is a private matter and I will deal with it now."
"If you do not mind, I would like to observe. There is still much I do not understand about the nature of your assistant, and I regard this as a chance to gain understanding."
I thought about it for a moment. "Ok, I'll meet you in the lab in a few minutes." As soon as I gave my permission, Kimi vanished. After a moment to fix the image of Bob's living room in my mind, I followed. When I appeared I heard a small gasp and found Karen staring at me in shock. Bob was sitting at his computer and just looked up at me as I walked towards him.
"Hi Karen, I need to borrow Bob for a short time."
"Jesus Christ, it's true? I thought it was just a story."
I grinned as I grabbed Bob's arm. "Fraid not, I'll bring him back when I'm done with him." Bob had grabbed ahold of his chair as if to anchor himself. "Now wait a minute, what the hell" and I took him and the chair with me as I jumped, "is going on here...."
I spotted Kimi out of the corner of my eye as we appeared. "Tell me everything you know about this while I get the vault opened up."
Bob looked down at the chair he thought would have kept me from grabbing him, over at Kimi sitting there and watching the entire thing, and then at the expression on my face. Then he stood up and walked over to where I was working my way through the various parts of the vault's protective layers and started in describing what he had found in his diagnostics. I took me a few minutes to get everything opened up and he finished about the same time I did.
"...so when I found the console severed from the system, I gave up and asked Kimi to find you."
"How did you get in to access the console? She's got the vault sealed from the inside."
"Huh, it's right over there," and he pointed to the terminal sitting on my desk.
The door to the vault was swinging open and I ducked inside. "Get real. I'd have to be an idiot to leave the master console outside the protections of the vault itself. That's just one of the many secondary terminals scattered around the area. The true console is the one she was created with and it's sitting over in the corner there." I was pointing with one hand to the ancient tty resting on a table in the corner while I started going through the various status panels that made up the computer half of Penny.
Almost all of the lights on the status displays were on steady. Whatever she had done to herself, she had used just about every resource she had and left nothing for herself. With a snort of disgust, I sat down in front of the console and began to type.
I had almost given up waiting when the console came to life and began to answer. Bob was watching over my shoulders as we began to talk.
[hello little one, you seem to have made a royal mess of yourself]
[it's ok, your forgiven]
[yes, it's true. are you ready?]
[yes, thank u eye wil tri 2 beehave]
[that's all I ask, get ready to be shutdown]
I reached up and flipped the switch on the console off and got ready to help her through her next growth cycle. As I turned around in my chair I could see Bob standing there staring at me in horror.
"You're going to turn her off?"
"There isn't anything else I can do." I waved my hand at the machinery around us. "She has driven herself right into the ground." I wasn't expecting his reaction and didn't even see the punch coming.
"You son of a bitch, that's murder!"
I found myself sitting on the floor holding my nose and looking up at him as he stood over me.
"There better be something you can do to help her" and the look in his eye's said he wasn't going to take 'no' for an answer.
I didn't answer right away. The first order of business was to stop the blood that insisted on pouring out of my bruised nose. With a small flash of light, I healed it and then sat on the ground and just looked at him. At the flair of light, he had stepped back and I could now see him having second thoughts about having just punched the Terran ArchMage in the nose.
"She does kind of get under your skin doesn't she." It wasn't what he had expected me to say and he relaxed a little and dropped his arms.
"Yes she does, and your letting her die is still murder."
I grabbed the chair I had been sitting on and pulled myself to my feet. "I never said I was going to let her die, just that I was going to have to shutdown the computer she uses. If you think I'd let her die over a stupid family argument, then you still don't have the faintest fucking idea of what kind of person I am even after all these years." I pushed the chair back under the table so that the center of the room was clear. "Now I think you better leave" and I pointed at the door to the vault. "I've got something that needs doing and I don't care for an audience." With a look first at me, then at the equipment that lined the walls, he turned around and walked out the door.
What I had to do now was assist Penny through her next growth phase. The crystal that sat in the brackets in front of me had reached the limit of the information it could hold. For her to continue and grow, I now had to alter and increase its capacity. I reached out and with a single flick of my finger, shutdown the power to the computer hardware that acted as her interface to the outside world. Then I sat down on the bare floor and started to clear my mind. I'd done this three times now over the years and each time was as scary as the first.
What I was about to do would alter both of us in ways that I might never know. When I was ready, I opened my eyes and spoke a single word. With a burst of light, like a solar flare up close, my physical form vanished and all that remained was the energy that was my lifeforce itself. With a thought, I drifted up and began to overlap myself with the crystal.
* * *
I was standing out in the lab, staring at Kimi when the entire area lit up like someone had fired off a flare at point blank range. It took a few seconds before the spots started to clear away and I could tell that the light was coming from the vault behind me.
"What the hell happened?" Kimi just looked back at me and shrugged her shoulders. I had to know what was going on, even though Brian had told me to butt out. Quietly, I stepped up to the doorway and peeked around the edge of the door. Floating up from the floor was a brilliant sphere of light and Brian was no where around. As I stood there and watched, it drifted up until it began to overlap with the Penny's crystal. As the two merged, the light died down a little and I could see something moving in the heart of the light. As I watched, a form began to resolve itself and I realized what I was looking at.
At the sound of my voice, the figure in the light turned and looked at me. It was Brian alright, but he looked a little different somehow. As I watched, I could see him signal to me to shutup and leave. I didn't say anything else, but I wasn't about to leave now. He motioned to me one last time, and when I still didn't move he turned away and started doing something.
I was staring into a light that should have blinded me, but the intensity didn't seem to effect me at all. As I watched, it dawned on me that Brian was calling out to someone. I could see him cup his hands to his mouth and although I couldn't hear anything, I could tell he was shouting something. A few moments later, the basic color of the light that flooded the vault changed and became a more golden shade then it had been to start with. Brian had turned and faced a different direction and I could see a second figure appear in the heart of the light.
As it approached and I got a clearer look, I started to understand just what I was looking at and began to understand just a little more about why Penny had seemed so real to me. The figure that I could see running towards Brian was that of a small girl, maybe eight or nine years old. She was dressed in one of those cute little dresses that most people swear they will never dress their own kids in. I had to catch myself from laughing as she got close enough to see clearly. I'd almost snickered when I saw that her hair was a brilliant shade of red.
Brian had knelt down as she approached and when she got close enough she jumped up into his arms and he swung her around as she laughed. Putting her down, the two of them sat down and looked like they were talking about something. I don't know how long I stood there and watched, but I remember shifting position to relax a cramp and bumping into Kimi who had come up and stood beside me.
Eventually, they stood up and dusted themselves off. Before I had even thought about it, I muttered something out loud. "What the hell could they have gotten dirty sitting on." I caught myself, but it was too late. Both of them turned and faced me directly. Brian said something, and Penny began to bounce up and down and wave at me. Feeling kind of silly, I raised my arm and waved back. With a final hug, Penny turned and began to walk off into the distance and the light in the vault began to grow in intensity. I tried to shield my eyes and watch, but there was no way to stare into the heart of the star that was forming in front of me. The last thing I could see was the tiny image of Penny starting to shift its shape as it walked away.
* * *
Reaching outside of myself, I started to draw on the energy sources in the lab and feed the energy to Penny. As fast as I could pass it on, she redirected it and began to convert it into the crystaline structure that would serve as her new home. Someplace in the back of my mind, I felt Bob turn and leave the vault doorway. I'm not sure how bright the light he was seeing was, it's a little hard to even guess at just what he was seeing. I continued to channel the energy to Penny until she finally signaled that she was done. With a final mental brush against my mind, I said goodbye and pulled myself away.
As I drifted towards the center of the room, I couldn'd really see, but could sense my entire surroundings. Just before I shifted back to my own form, I could sense the energy field behind me begin to unravel and expand. Fixing my own mental image of myself in my mind, I shifted back and regained my normal form.
Resting in the brackets in front of me was a crystal the size of a basketball. Looking closely, I could sense the energy fields that flickered in its heart and I chuckled quietly to myself. "Gave yourself some room to grow this time I see." Reaching up, I toggled the switch that powered up the computer half of my sister. One single status light came on in one corner of the hugh array of lights that decorated the panel to my side. As I watched, first one, then another flickered on and began to blink. It would take awhile, but Penny was going to be fine. With a final glance at the huge crystal, I turned and walked out of vault.
At first, I ignored the people standing there staring at me, and just busied myself with closing and sealing the door again. When it was closed, I reached up and pretended to clean the small nameplate that adorned the doorway, then turned back to face my friends.
"So, do you understand a little better now?"
Bob didn't say a thing, but Kimi smiled and then vanished.
"Is she ok?"
"Yeah, she'll be fine. It will take a little while to adjust to her new configuration. I wouldn't expect much from her for a day or two."
That didn't mean she couldn't talk though. I could see Bob jump as she activated the vocal interface. "Thank you Bob. I owe you one." He looked over at me with a puzzled expression. Her voice was different and I could guess what he was thinking.
"As a first guess, I'd place her age at about 14 or 15 now." I turned and spoke back over my shoulder. "Am I close?"
"Close enough. I haven't decided just where I'm going to settle in this time."
I could see the lights go on in Bob's mind. "So that's why she acted so much like a kid, and was asking me all those questions."
"Something like that, yes."
"So that was her I saw?"
"Her mental picture of herself, yes." He just hummph'd to himself and sat down.
"Don't get to comfortable, I have to get you home before Karen has a fit." I walked over and opened my pack. I'd brought something back that I thought Bob would find interesting.
"You better do something about that before you go out in public."
I swung around to see what he was talking about and felt the difference even as I saw where he was pointing. "Oops, I guess that would be a little hard to explain." Reaching behind me, I ran my fingers through my hair. I'd started the day with it shoulder length. Now, it reached about two thirds of the way down my back and was braided into a ponytail. "I guess my image of myself got a little ahead of itself. Oh well, I guess I can wait for it to happened naturally. Does Karen know how to cut hair?"
"Yeah, she can take care of it for you. You really going to let it get that long."
"That's the plan" and I went back to digging through my pack. "Ah hah! Here it is." I pulled out a small book and tossed it to Bob. The expression on his face as he caught the title was priceless. "I asked Kalindra to get me a translated version for you to read. Your little friend Jabberwock is a lot more intersting then you ever imagined."
The title of the book I'd thrown him was:
"A Short Introduction to the Meenzal"
"The Third ExtraVelan Race"
"Crew or Cargo?"
While he stared at the book in his hands, I grabbed him by the arm again and focused on his living room. "Come on, let's find out of Karen has a pair of sizzors," and we vanished.