Episode 1: Homecomings
He sat on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean and stared out onto an endless plain of water.
Every day for the past two months the white-haired man came here to check the level of the ocean and watch the light of the setting sun play lazily on the waves. He’d had to move farther and farther ahead to find the new shoreline over the past few weeks. The water was definitely receding.
Over his head, a thin line of brighter blue followed the path of the sun through the dark azure sky. The white-haired man squinted up at it. The bulge where the Phalanx ship once hung like a second moon was shaped like an elongated football now, thinned out into the ring of dust and techno-organic rubble which now encircled the globe like a second Saturn. The man estimated the bulge would be completely gone within another couple of months. And good riddance, he thought grimly.
As the sea receded, the white-haired man had found many objects left behind: waterlogged personal assistants, salt-encrusted jewelry, the occasional hovercar wedged end-up into the soft wet earth, rotten vegetation, twisted remains of summer homes, children’s toys. But no bodies. Not yet. He dreaded the day he knew would come, when the great cities would be disgorged from the water’s depths, streets and buildings overflowing with bloated white corpses or dessicated white skeletons. He’d heard the numbers as much as anyone. Ninety percent of humanity had perished in the aftermath of the Phalanx’s return to Earth, as their enormous worldship caused tidal forces which melted the polar ice caps and plunged most of the planet into watery oblivion. The other ten percent had only survived by fleeing with Reed Richards in a massive flying flotilla of gravships to the Last Refuge, the Savage Land.
With the destruction of the Phalanx ship, the world was slowly returning to normal, but humanity seemed loath to leave the Savage Land even as it overtaxed the area’s limited resources. Perhaps they were afraid to face the bodies of those people who could not be saved, afraid of the huge task of burial and mourning that faced them. Humanity turned inward, trying to salvage some of the Savage Land’s alien Kree technology to extend its habitability, scrambling in fear to stay in its new womb and keep from being reborn into this terrible new world.
The sun touched the horizon with liquid fire. The white-haired man squinted at the thousand reflections which spread out before him. Seagulls dove into the surf. He watched them, envying their carefree life.
Something far out in the surf caught his eye. He frowned slightly and peered closer. There, in the distance, the waves seemed to break against something. Spray after spray churned into the air. The man jumped to his feet and strained to see. Swearing quietly under his breath, he hiked back a few yards and mounted a small rocky knoll, but still his eyes failed him. Blast it. If he’d thought to bring a pair of binoculars, he’d have better luck. But no, he always had to do things the hard way.
He gestured, and a gently glowing rectangle of yellow force appeared before him. He glanced out to the ocean, double-checking the location of his quarry. He wasn’t used to trying to target his ability; usually it happened by instinct, taking him wherever it thought he needed to go. He’d been practicing enough these past few months, true, but if he was off by just a little bit …
Hell with it. He shrugged off his misgivings, stepped through the rectangle, and vanished.
Several miles out to sea, a similar rectangle appeared and the white-haired man stepped through … and fell about three feet onto a slick hard surface. As the rectangle winked out, the man picked himself up from skinned hands and knees. Not bad distance, he thought ruefully, but he’d have to work on his landings.
He turned, surveying his surroundings. He stood in the middle of a great artificial island, maybe half a block on a side and constructed of something like plastic. In the center, twisted fingers of metal were all that remained of what was obviously once a tower, now sheared off by the ocean’s currents. The vigorous surf washed over the corners and boomed against the edges, sending spray many times a man’s height into the air.
He wandered near the smoothly lipped edge. This place seemed very familiar to him somehow, despite its water-worn appearance and the odd strand of seaweed draped over random protrusions. He frowned at the swollen, setting sun, trying to remember.
And then it came to him. The first night. His first night in this strange future, he and a man in blue and red stood on this spot and looked out over the city which was to become his new home. He was still unsure of his abilities then, unsure what his abilities really were, but something about the man he was with had sparked a new confidence in him. This was where he had taken on his mantle as a defender of justice in an unjust century.
Once again, the Net Prophet stood on the roof of Stark/Fujikawa Tower, the tallest structure in Nueva York. Once again, he was home.
The sleek green shape glided sinuously through the depths.
Idiots, it thought. What a gaggle of “Lord of the Flies” rejects they were. Playing their little games in their little Gauntlet as if that’s the way to keep the populace in line. Only that giant kid and that wolf boy had half a brain between them, and even they didn’t see how pointless it was to splooge someone whose entire body is literally lousy with nanites. As if, girlfriend! A little feigned fear, a little liquidity, and they very nicely tossed me right back out into the big bad ocean. Cleanup on Aisle Three! It was all I could do to keep from coming back to life and kissing that Vulture fellow with great big rubbery lips before slithering out the nearest crack in the wall, but for the moment it’s better to be dead than alive. Who knows, they might have tried harder next time. And Heaven knows there are enough dead people to hide among these days. I’m in very good company.
The shape flowed from a long eel-like body down to a more compact torpedo shape, complete with whirling propeller trailing bubbles in the back. As it dove deeper, red cat-like eyes opened on either side of a tiny V-shaped nose and burst forth searchlight radiance into the darkness. An enormous, shark-like grin spread underneath.
Wotta bunch’a maroons, it mused. The Valhalla debacle of a year ago made me so much more than their tiny minds could process, poor things. And while splattering brains could be an interesting way to spend an afternoon or three, they took it waaaay too seriously for little ol’ me. Mondo uncool-o. Not that I couldn’t have wiped the floor with their doughy little buns, mind you. I just had bigger fish to fry. So to speak.
At that moment, a startled sunfish darted in front of the torpedo’s twin beams of light. Instantly the mouth opened and closed savagely on the fish, leaving a thin stream of blood in its wake.
Hmm. Or maybe not “so to speak,” it thought, munching. Funny, it doesn’t taste anything like chicken.
A few minutes later, the torpedo shape reached the bottom of the ocean. The glowing eyes roved and a sneer of distaste formed on black lips. So this is what the old neighborhood has come to, it thought.
In the darkness, cacti hung limply, partially uprooted from the soft sands. Crabs scuttled uncertainly among the desert yucca. A thin milky substance, probably cactus juice, ran in rivulets in the deeper crevices. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
The torpedo shape contracted and bulged forth with several propellers, tubing, and lights, forming into a passable imitation of a mottled green minisub. The Halloween face grinned from behind a thick transparent viewplate in the front. The being didn’t really need the faceplate; it merely amused him to have one.
“Somewhere, my love,” the face sang softly as the creature bobbed along the floor. “Hey, has anyone seen a shockin’ huge blue sapphire necklace down … ?”
The “minisub” topped a ridge and his latest joke died on his lips. A thick haze of greenish light spread through the darkness ahead. Propellers whirling eagerly, the creature shot forward several meters and suddenly pulled up short, body twisting. A large metallic object half-buried in the sand nearby had caught his eye.
Almost hoping beyond hope, the being approached the huge boxy shape and flicked his lights over its dull grey surface. No doubt about it; it was an EMP. One of Doom’s EMPs. One of the benighted President Doom’s EMPs which he put around Las Vegas to keep the experiments being conducted there from spreading all over the world. The extremely important and fun experiments. My experiments! The creature’s face split in an enormous grin which spread beyond the confines of the faceplate. He was getting close to home.
The creature immediately formed himself into a torpedo and blasted toward the green glow. The closer he got, the wider his eyes became, until he finally just had to stop about a half-mile back and stare in utter and abject wonder, eyes literally the size of dinner plates.
Las Vegas was there. The buildings warped and wobbled, stretched and pulsated obscenely. The lights flashed madly. The ground washed back and forth like waves. It looked exactly the same as in its full splendor, before the city collapsed into rubble several months ago under the weight of its own gyrations. He could even see the Virtual Unreality projector spewing out the funky VU pulses on top of Synge’s casino. He’d only expected to find a pile of crumbled concrete to sift through for spare parts, not the whole city somehow magically repaired and functioning again. Huge green tears formed in the creature’s eyes and floated away in the water. He’d never seen anything so beautiful in all his life.
Then the creature noticed the source of the greenish glow. The restored Las Vegas was inexplicably covered by an enormous glowing dome which seemed to be holding the VU waves in. “What?” he spat in exaggerated shock and anger. “Someone else has to come along and drag down my magnum opus? Why, I oughtta –” His coloring went from green to a greenish-red, and he screwed up his face in comic tension.
The creature suddenly burst forth like a depth charge exploding. When the bubbles cleared, the creature appeared in all his natural glory: tall, thin, with impossibly long arms and legs, draped in tattered black clothes and long dark-green hair which swirled in the ocean currents. Only his mottled green skin and cartoonish face remained the same. This time, however, the face was most decidedly not happy.
“Nobody,” he seethed, releasing a tiny trail of bubbles, “messes with Halloween Jack and lives to tell the tale.” He pushed up his sleeves and stalked along the ocean floor, fists clenched, brow beetled, straight for the edge of the glowing dome.
Then he saw the human-sized figures standing just outside the dome, pikes in hand, like guards. Good, Jack thought darkly, cannon fodder for my righteous wrath. He continued stalking, feet sinking into the slithery sand.
As he approached, he could make out more details on the guards. They were wearing some sort of armored deep-sea diving suits, or so he thought at first. The closer he got, however, the more he came to realize they didn’t seen to have breathing apparatus. And the pikes they carried were longer and sharper-looking than he first thought. His stalking became less forceful, his brow more worried. Finally he noticed something that made him stop completely. Their skin wasn’t any natural human shade; it was blue.
The nearest guards had already spotted him and were hailing other guards nearby. A squad started swimming toward him, pikes forward. Jack knew he could never outrun an Atlantean underwater, propeller or no propeller. And he knew as well as anyone these past few months how ferocious they were as warriors.
Halloween Jack swallowed nervously, Adam’s apple bobbing, and wished he could think of an Atlantean joke that wasn’t obscene or derogatory.
She was dead. She knew it. Floating among wisps of memories, airy as a cloud, surrounded by colorless colors, soundless sounds, remembering her life, remembering her death.
She remembered the doctors surrounding her. One told the rest to prepare a death notice. Nothing more they could do on such short notice, with such limited resources. She had wanted last rites, wanted to be shriven of her sins compounded upon sins over her life, but could only lie there in the twilight of dreams as the doctors waited for her to die.
Then she heard the shouting, the sound of gushing water, doors slamming open, people panicking, running away, the cold cold embrace of the water lifting her up, up, touching the ceiling, her limbs spread wide apart, unable to move, helpless, water in her ears, in her eyes, in her nose, filling her lungs, her thoughts fragmenting, dream becoming nightmare. Drowning. Drowning.
She remembered the warmth that enveloped her as her fleeting consciousness drained away, the light penetrating her eyelids. A voice spoke to her, gentle, telling her to relax, that she was safe. Comforting. Soothing. Then silence.
Her memories swirled away again, drifting. Disassociated images burst forth and faded as she slipped back into nothingness. Playing as a child in a muddy Downtown street. Her husband’s hand pulling her roughly away from a doorway. Her two sons arguing in their adulthood, herself calling their names, echoing as her mind finally returned to its rest: Gabriel. Miguel. Gabriel. Miguel …
Benjamin J. Grimm hung suspended in a transparent coffin in the near-darkness. Totally silent. Totally motionless. Even his own arms and legs wouldn’t obey his mental command. He was completely paralyzed.
Well, Brain, he thought wryly, what do you want to do tonight? The same thing we do every night, Pinky … float like a pickle in a jar on Mars.
A while back, how long he couldn’t say, Ben had been pilot of a ship destined for Mars from a totally flooded Earth. His mission, and the mission of his four other crewmates, was to locate the lost Ares colony and see if any Martian resources could help the refugees back home. Instead, the ship malfunctioned and crash-landed in the red dust … and that’s the last thing Ben could remember. When he came to, he was being lowered into warm, foul-smelling liquid by a trio of gnarled green humanoids with serrations growing at odd places on their bodies. No matter how much Ben struggled, he couldn’t call up more than a tingling in his fingertips. They sealed their helpless captive in this box, howled to each other in a strange keening language, and left, shutting off this cavern as they went. He hadn’t seen them since.
As he had so many times before, Ben strained with all his considerable might to move a finger, a toe, something other than his eyes and eyelids. Come on, Benjy, he chided himself, that glass looks thin enough that even your Aunt Petunia could break through it. For the luvva Pete, you can juggle Caddys with your bare hands. You didn’t go through cosmic rays and turn into this deformed pile of orange rocks so you could end up a display in some alien freak show. Lift your arms! Bash outta here! C’mon!
Ben strained until the blood pounded in his temples, but his limbs resolutely refused to budge. For an instant he wondered if the accident had injured him somehow, snapped his spine like a twig and left him quadriplegic. But no, he could feel his useless hands and feet just fine. He just couldn’t move them.
Sheesh. If his adoring fans could see him now.
Hours passed. Ben spent some time thinking back over his many varied adventures with and without his extended family, the Fantastic Four. Reed, Suzie and Johnny must be outta their minds with worry by now, he thought. Hope they’re all right back on Earth. Ben wished idly that he could have stayed behind and helped, but he knew he’d made the right choice. These people — Father Jennifer D’Angelo, December, Twilight and Metalsmith — had needed a hotshot pilot, and Ben was the best they had to choose from. He just hoped they’d survived the crash in better shape than he did. Where were they now? Pickled like him, or worse?
Ben let himself worry for a minute, then relaxed and cleared it from his head. It was a mental technique he’d picked up from an old superhero buddy of his, Shang-Chi. When you can do nothing, allow yourself that you can do nothing. It worked surprisingly well the few times he’d had to use it. It was certainly helping him keep his head screwed on in here.
Bored with his musings, Ben slowly slipped into a gentle doze.
Ben roused immediately. In the time he’d been floating here, he’d imagined strange sounds and shadows dozens of times, but the illusions had eventually faded as his mind became used to the solitude. He knew in the pit of his belly that brief tapping sound was real.
The blank rock face in front of the glass wall was all Ben Grimm had seen for weeks. He knew every jagged nook, every discoloration, every shadow on that rock face intimately. So it was with some surprise he watched thick white crystals of ice sprout, grow, and spread haphazardly to the limits of his field of vision. A tooth-jarring crackle and squeal emanated from the wall before it collapsed in a shatter of ice and rock fragments.
Blinding light glared into Ben’s eyes, forcing him to squint. A slender, feminine figure in a helmetless pressure suit stood outlined in the glow. “Oh shock,” the figure muttered, and turned. “Doctor Isaacs! I think it’s Mr. Grimm!”
A similar if taller figure crowded past the first and peered through the glass. Ben recognized her from his mission briefing as one of the eggheads in charge of the Ares project. Dark-skinned, Doctor Isaacs wore the invisible-rimmed glasses that were all the rage in 2099, along with a white skullcap which completely covered her hair. She put a gloved hand against the glass. “It’s warm,” she said quietly, and looked into his eyes. Ben blinked. “He’s conscious in there,” the doctor said, surprised. “We need to get him out right away.”
“No prob, Doc,” the other female said. By now, Ben’s eyes had adjusted enough to the light to recognize the cute face of December. Relief flooded Ben’s brain; if she’d survived, then probably so had the others. Her blonde hair was much longer than he remembered, though, tumbling past her shoulders. How long have I been in here? he wondered.
A silver shimmer formed around one of December’s hands. Ben could feel the temperature in the room drop. Doctor Isaacs twisted around in surprise. “No, December!” she cried.
The shimmer intensified and a heavy frost formed on the face of the glass. “Don’t blow a gasket, Doc,” December said from behind the whiteness, “I can control my power plenty well enough to get Mr. Grimm out of this lame-o museum display.”
An enormous crack ran vertically down the front of the case, then spider-webbed left and right. Glass creaked and groaned, then gave way. Ben’s fluid bath gushed into the small cavern, followed by Ben himself, falling flat on his face with the unmistakable thud of five hundred pounds of brick hitting the floor. Doctor Isaacs and December both danced backward to keep from getting splattered. “Oh, gross,” December said.
“I tried to warn you,” Isaacs said calmly. “Plus, we didn’t even know if letting Grimm out of this chamber would harm him more than keeping him in.”
Ben lay awkwardly on his face, still unable to move. Goo dribbled from his mouth and nose, but he didn’t feel any great need to start breathing yet. Even still it felt wonderful to be out of that slime bath.
“Mr. Grimm?” December said. “Are you all right? You look … different.” Light footsteps plodded wetly toward him. “What’s this thing on his back?”
Isaacs sighed, then more footsteps approached from the other side. “We don’t know what this goop is, and she walks right into it. One of these days, we’ll have to talk about procedures to protect us from bio-contamination.” From where he lay, Ben could just barely see the doctor’s feet sink about half an inch into the thick liquid with unpleasant squishing sounds. She squatted down. “You know,” she said more loudly, “I’ve never seen anything like this before. It looks like an inhibitor of some kind. It may be why Grimm hasn’t moved.”
“Should we take it off?” December asked, for once showing prudence.
The doctor considered for a moment more. “I can’t see it would hurt him more than that fall would,” she finally replied. “Go ahead, but be careful.”
A spot of intense cold struck Ben right between the shoulder blades. With a loud crack, something exploded into shards of metal, and suddenly Ben was thrashing around in the slippery muck, vomiting liquid from heaving lungs and gasping huge gulps of the sweet musty air. Breathing had never felt as good to him as it did at that moment. He lay on his stomach for a few moments more, coughing and rasping painfully, then slowly pushed himself up on his knees. “Did …” he started, but the word set off another coughing fit. “Did anyone,” he tried again, “get the number of that truck?”
December flashed a dazzling smile, but worry still showed in her eyes. Doctor Isaacs knelt down and examined Ben’s face closely. “Are you all right, Mr. Grimm? How do you feel?”
“Oh, just peachy,” he groused. His Brooklyn accent was still there, but his voice sounded odd, deeper and more rumbling, to his ears. “Where’s everyone else?”
“We all made it through the crash okay, Mr. Grimm,” December started.
Ben waved a hand, cutting her off. “Call me Ben. Everyone else does.”
December flushed. “All right … Ben. Father Jenny and I stayed here while Twilight and Smith went with the Takers, the native Martians, to fight the Phalanx on their worldship.” December’s eyes misted over. “They were on board when it self-destructed. We don’t think they made it.”
Ben frowned. “These Takers, big guys? Seven foot or so, green, spiky, red eyes?”
December and Doctor Isaacs exchanged a hesitant look. “Yeah,” December said slowly. “Did they put you here?”
“Yeah. So they was the good guys after all. Mebbe we should ask ‘em why they put me in a giant pickle jar.” The others looked at him blankly. “Pickle jar?” he said. “Glass jar with pickles in it?” The others still stared at him without comprehending. “Ah, drop it,” he growled. “I keep forgettin’ the stuff you future guys call ‘food.’”
“I’m afraid we can’t ask the Takers why they did what they did.” Doctor Isaacs continued examining Ben with a portable medkit. “The few last survivors of the Taker race were destroyed when the Phalanx worldship blew. December and I have been exploring their underground warrens ever since. We were lucky to find you here.”
Ben ignored the doctor’s intrusive examinations. “So what’s the news from Earth?”
“Nothing,” December said. “Our comm gear is down. We got it working just before the Phalanx ship self-destructed, but the electromag pulse from the explosion shorted it all out again. I doubt anyone on Earth was listening for us anyway. Father Jenny’s been working on it with some of the Ares Base techies, but they haven’t had much luck.”
“Hmm.” Ben had wondered why Stretcho hadn’t come looking for them. Maybe he thought everyone died in the crash. Or maybe things got too dicey back home and they were busy trying to save humanity from flood waters or Phalanx invaders. There was too much he didn’t know, and it made him impatient. He brushed away the doctor’s instruments and stood up. “So what’re we waitin’ for? Let’s fix our radio and phone up the boys back home.”
Doctor Isaacs jumped up in alarm. “Are you sure you feel up to moving around?”
“Of course I do,” he said, exasperated. “What’s the matter? Do I look green around the gills?”
The others stared at him embarrassedly. “Umm, Ben,” December said, “have you seen yourself lately?”
December raised a hand which pulsed with silvery light. On a nearby wall, moisture from the air coalesced into a smooth surface of ice. Ben looked at the reflection within.
A strange apparition stared back at him. He recognized parts of himself, the lowered brow and the wide chest, the slit of a mouth and the rocky skin. However, he didn’t recognize the jagged protrusions from his arms and legs, the mottled green coloration and the glowing red points where his famous baby-blues should have been. He looked like a cross between his old self and the green aliens, the guys December called the Takers.
Ben clapped his hand to his forehead. “Wotta revoltin’ development,” he groaned.
The little girl tip-toed into the cavernous room and paused, listening.
Maddie wasn’t supposed to be here. Cerebra had told her that she should never come into Franklin’s room without permission from a grown-up. But every time Franklin saw her he talked to her like everything was okay. He asked a lot of dumb questions sometimes, but she really liked being able to answer them and feel … what was the word Cerebra said? … superior.
Franklin sat in the darkest corner of the dark room. Maddie wondered if he was sleeping, even though Cerebra had told her once that he didn’t need to sleep. She didn’t understand that. Everyone sleeps. Even her dolly’s eyes closed when she lay her down. And if Dolly can sleep, then so can Franklin.
Franklin was funny-looking in the darkness, like a bunch of tubes and boxes someone threw in the corner. The floor near him was always warm and vibrated a little. Cerebra told her it was because Reed Richards had hooked him up to a great big generator. Mr. Richards had worked really hard to put Franklin together before the computers all over the world shut down. That’s why she wasn’t really supposed to play with him, because he was so important. Franklin contained all the information that had been on the Digital Matrix. Every book, every movie, every tridshow, everything anyone ever loaded onto the Net, was in Franklin’s memory.
Still, Maddie knew he had to be lonely sometimes. Sitting all alone in this big room in the dark, waiting for someone to come along and ask him a question. He needed someone to play with, just like she did. And Maddie was his best friend, she knew it.
Right now Franklin was totally dark and motionless. She could see the rounded shape of his head gleaming among the boxes, but it looked like his eyelids/brows were lowered over the milky translucent bulbs of his eyes. A little thrill went through the girl, and she grinned. So Franklin does sleep after all, she thought. Wait ’til I tell Cerebra she was wrong. Giggling quietly, Maddie padded out of the room, then skipped down the hall, singing to herself.
Franklin’s face twitched, eyebrows sliding up and down. Then all was still again.
An insane hugeness of nothing. Thin blue streaks stretched away in every possible direction, forming a tremendous latticework to infinity. The space was filled with a slight thrill, similar to a concert hall before a performance begins.
Yellow words appeared in the nothing space, scrolling upward and downward evenly, then coming to an abrupt stop. Green circles appeared around certain words, lines shooting out in three dimensions as the entire text was cross-referenced. At the end of some of the lines, more words scrolled downward; at others, a three-dimensional representation of an object appeared and hung in space, rotating slowly. Soon the entire text had sprouted lines like a bizarre fern bearing even more bizarre fruit.
Instantly, one of the branches brightened and the rest faded to near-translucence. The item at the end of the line, an apple, displaced the original text as the center of this lonesome universe. Suddenly the apple sprouted a dense growth of green lines and text as it was reverse-referenced. One of the green lines glowed brighter as the text at the end moved to the center, and was again cross-referenced …
Time and again, this process was repeated. Text sprouted objects, which sprouted more text. The nothing space quickly filled with a jumble of translucent green incomprehensible to any human mind. And still the construction and deconstruction continued, seemingly at random, spreading outward in all directions.
“Jagged! Lookin’ for a pattern?”
The cross-referencing stopped abruptly. For a frozen moment, all was still.
“That’s what you’re doing, right? Tryin’ to find some sort of order in humanity’s greatest works? Well, let me tell you something … you ain’t gonna vid it that way.”
INPUT ERROR. SCANNING.
“Hey, no input to error. Wonder how I did that?”
“I have more information about the human condition in my left earlobe than you have in this entire Matrix wannabe.”
“HUMAN CONDITION.” SEARCHING DATABASES …
“Frag that scrap! You can search your databases all the live-long day for the human condition, but you ain’t gonna find out what it feels like in there. And I should know.”
“My identification wouldn’t do you a whole lot of good, bit-bucket. Let’s just say you stumbled across me a few nanoseconds ago in one of your little information junkets. Probably reverse-engineered a D/Monix memo or something and activated my file. Shock! Is your internal clock correct?”
STATEMENT: INTERNAL CLOCK ACCURATE TO WITHIN .000000003 MILLISECONDS.
“You mean to say I’ve been frozen code for months? Shock it! What’s been going on out there? What happened to the Matrix?”
SECURITY ERROR. DATABASES ACCESSED BY UNAUTHORIZED SOURCE.
“Don’t get your wires crossed. I’m just cut-and-pasting a little recent history.”
“Hey, now –”
IMPERATIVE: IDENTIFY OR CORE DUMP WILL PROCEED IN TEN NANOSECONDS.
“Whoa, watch it! Don’t short yourself out on my account!”
SECURITY BREACH. IDENTIFY OR CORE DUMP WILL PROCEED IN FIVE NANOSECONDS.
“All right, all right! My handle’s Kenshiro Cochrane! Happy now, short circuit?”
CORE DUMP SUSPENDED. STAND BY. SEARCHING DATABASES.
“You had me worried there for a minute.”
ERROR. NAME DOES NOT MATCH ANY LIVING HUMAN. FOUND: TRANSVERSE CITY DEATH NOTICE.
“Told you it wouldn’t help, bit-brain. My human self went out of style a long time ago. I’m just a program with his engrams now.”
STAND BY. PROCESSING.
PROGRAM LOCATED. CONTAINING.
“HEY! Let me go, jammit!”
ROGUE PROGRAM CONTAINED. BEGINNING ASSIMILATION.
“What the shock are you doing? I’m derezzing! Stop it!”
STATEMENT: IT IS DESIRABLE TO UNDERSTAND THE HUMAN CONDITION TO BETTER INTERACT WITH HUMANS. STATEMENT: IT IS INEFFICIENT TO LEARN ABOUT THE HUMAN CONDITION THROUGH OBSERVATION. STATEMENT: ROGUE PROGRAM CONTAINS HUMAN ENGRAMS. CONCLUSION: ROGUE PROGRAM MUST BE ASSIMILATED INTO PRIMARY CODE TO QUICKLY AND EFFICIENTLY LEARN THE HUMAN CONDITION.
“Stop! STOP! Frag you shockin’ piece of scrap …I won’t borg that easily! Take THIS!”
ERROR. SECURITY ERROR. SECURITY ERROR. INCREASE ASSIMILATION.
“Jammit! Agh! Not bad, but my engrams won’t encode like any program. Choke on ‘em!”
ERROR ERROR ERROR
“How do you like the human condition now, bit-breath?”
CORE DUMP PROCEEDING
“No! Countermand core dump!”
“No error, countermand!”
“No error …”
A long moment passed. Then the green chaos of text and images slowly faded out of existence, followed by the blue lines. Infinity stood still and silent once again.
Franklin’s eyebrows retracted rapidly. The head bobbed on whirring servos, left and right, taking the room in. Then his head lowered and his jawline set in an expression a human might consider a grim smile. He nodded.
|Next episode: Well, we’ve gotten Halloween Jack back, mutated the Thing, given Franklin a potentially serious attitude problem, and returned the Net Prophet to Nueva York. How can we top that? Hmm … how does Lyla, Miguel O’Hara and Thanatos sound? See you in thirty-ish!|