Arcs - June 1994
The Presence - jk
(page 7/8)

The Presence

He'd been hoping for a response, but then again he was always hoping for a response. There was no other way of driving the conversation to its logical end. He stared resolutely at his mug on the table in front of him, unable to decide what to do next. The nervous silence made him feel uncomforable, just a little less in control. He knew that Rachel was watching him. He looked up towards her.

"So, when you moving all your stuff out then, Rachel?"

She hated the way he said her name. It was so blank: never any tenderness, nothing She should have known better. She'd thought he'd start crying or something, but just then realised that this had been another pointless expectation. It suddenly felt damn cold in the small, grey room. "For God's sake, Phil, is that the best you can do? Don't you have anything else to say?"

His attention turned downwards to the raindrops that had landed on his leather shoes.

'Aren't you in the slightest bit... annoyed?"

He rarely proved to be any good at withstanding one of Rachel's tirades. At the start of their relationship - was it five? No, five and a half years ago - she would usually succeed in eliciting an angry retort, but as time passed his ability to ignore her provocations had grown.

"Forget it, Phil. All of it. But you're not going to drag me down there with you "

He watched her out of the corner of his eye as she picked up the small black case that had been lying at her feet and walked slowly towards the door in the opposite corner of the room. He knew she would stop and turn as she opened it, just to deliver one last, snappy line of rebuke, but she didn't.

Philip Walker was nearly six feet tall, had dark brown hair and brown eyes and, were a brief description to prove necessary, would probably turn out to be most people's idea of 'nondescript'. Although most people Walker met took him at first sight to be an accountant, he was actually a computer development engineer. For eight years since he'd graduated, he'd worked for the Philadelphia-based American Weyland Corporation in the neural-network modelling unit, of which he'd been head for three.

As he drove to work in his comfortable company Chrysler, he mentally replayed the scene with Rachel the previous evening. No point going over what was over and done with. He'd known that their break-up was inevitable for quite some time, after all, and just because it had happened as he'd expected it to, that shouldn't change the way he felt about it, he thought to himself.

He parked the car outside the company's anonymous, glass-fronted complex and got out, eyes smarting in the hazy morning sun. On the way up to his fourth-floor office Walker dismissed the matter, deciding to concentrate instead on his work. Picking up one of the three videophones, he tapped in the extension of one of his unit's labs. "Aki?"

"Good morning, Phil. What's the matter? You look dreadful."

Although Walker usually appreciated her bluntness, particularly since Aki Takahashi was one of the firm's rising stars, he couldn't stand it when it was at his expense. "I'm fine. Really. Just had a rough evening. Listen, our latest AI config-"

"Eon?"

"That's the one, how much testing've you subjected it to, since we got it classified 'smart'?"

"We used some pretty coarse experimental data, after which we gave it a few of the dummy personalities we got from the Surgeon General's office. None of the Zsigmond behavioural-consistency scores are below 87%."

"Pretty good. How's it compare to our first two smarts?"

"We never did find out why the first one died and the team trying to figure out why the second one became paranoid are still working on it."

"What about the dummy personalities you used?"

"No-one can find anything wrong with them; you're talking about the stuff the Justice Depanment uses to reprogram psychotics."

"Any of you lot try it out?"

"A couple of us interacted about a month ago: me, Goldsmith, Eidelman. It's growing, but right now it's just a baby; we don't expect to get anything useful out of it for a good few weeks yet."

"No side-effects?"

"We've all been psych-evaluated since; we're fine, don't worry." She was smooth, confident.

"You don't mind if have a go, do you?"

"Of course not: you can come down right now, if you want to."

"Thanks; I will." Walker walked out of his office and took the lift down to the sub-level where Takahashi's lab was located. The room was filled by banks of circuitry, connected to a couple of relay terminals at which three technicians were working. Aki got up from her terminal at her desk at the far side of the lab and walked towards him. "So, Phil, what brought on this sudden curiosity attack then?"

"Nothing Nothing at all. Just been so long since I played with the first one " "Come with me, I'll hook you up." Walker followed Takahashi around the central block of circuitry to what was basically a slimmed-down reclined armchair. As he sat in it, Aki connected what felt like two small, pulsating suction caps to his temples and another two to the back of his head.

"Just one little injection, Philip, and you'll be away."

"I hate needles, Aki, I really do hate them."

Aki pulled the syringe out of the cork of the phenapthzoate bottle and, after squeezing the air bubbles out, slid it smoothly into Walker's arm, just below the elbow As she gently withdrew it, Walker felt his eyes unfocussing and his head starting to spin.....

Walker awakened.

And tried to scream.

He had no idea how long he had been unconscious. It had been so long since the last time, that he had forgotten what interacting with an Al configuration felt like and found the loss of all his physical sensations disorientating.

Enveloping him, he felt a great emptiness Nothing to experience. Static weightlessness. Beinglessness. All he was now was thought. And emotion. Stripped of his corporeal existence.

Somewhere in his consciousness, Walker could feel a slight, pulsating distortion. As though he were somehow ebbing away He tried to focus on it, but could not; it seemed to force him away from doing so.

Memories, Walker thought, I'll feed the configuration some of my memories. He thought back to the journey to work that morning, the feel of the leather-covered steering wheel in his hands, the look of the trees by the roads. Abruptly, he was there, driving his Chrysler along the wide avenues leading to his office. He could suddenly smell, taste and hear the cold, fresh air rushing in through the small opening in the car window, feel his body sitting in the comfortable seat, see the road ahead. It was like a dream, but this time with the force and vividness of reality.

Reality. Corporeality.

His attention turned towards trying to figure out what these sensations meant and as it did so, they became less intense, ghostly almost. He concentrated again on his driving and as he did so, the feelings returned. Walker became aware that he had no control over what was going on. Things were happening, not because of him, not to him, just happening. Pure existence, without his self. It wasn't his existence anymore.

As he parked the car and got out he felt like a spirit, inhabiting someone else's body. His mind wandered back to the scene with Rachel the previous night. The space around him jarringly turned into his apartment, rapidly fading sunlight streaming in through the blinds, cutting apart the smoky atmosphere. He finally turned his chair away from his desk and towards the coffee table, as he picked up his mug and started slowly sipping the milky tea from it.

"I don't hate you Phil, I pity you what you've become. You just can't be bothered to make the effort anymore. To care. To, to anything, anything at all."

He put the mug of tea down on the table. "Well, you've said how you feel. . is that it?" Resigned, weary. How the hell was he supposed to react? A long silence ensued. He didn't know what to say. "So, when you moving all your stuff out then, Rachel?"

Walker cut himself off from the scene. Abruptly, all of his sensations disappeared and he found himself back in the void of the configuration interface. He felt a stormy sensation descend on him; the AI no doubt. Feeling himself turning slowly, gradually losing his sense of self in the meld, he wondered why he seemed to have no direct experience of the Al unit.

"For God's sake, Phil, is that the best you can do? Don't you have anything else to say?"

Rachel materialised again in his mind. How had he reacted to her outburst? Sadness? Anger? Nothing, if he remembered correctly, nothing whatsoever. He knew the deadening of his responses was due to her wearing him down over the years. He couldn't feel anymore, he'd run out of anger. She'd manipulated him to get her own way for so long that she'd lost the respect she'd once had for him. And he in turn could feel no love, no affection, no kindness; nothing had mattered to him for a long time. And yet why wasn't he angry? There was no way of recovering the time he'd lost because of her, the needless waste of his strengths. The knowledge fuelled his rage, his lack of any response perversely appearing to provoke one itself.

He'd loved her once, he knew that. But their relationship had become nothing more than a drain on everything he was.

"Aren't you in the slightest bit... annoyed?"

Walker started to wonder how she felt about him, now that she could afford to discard him. Did Rachel really want him to feel animosity towards her? Perhaps it would make her feel better to know that he hated her, to know that she shouldn't feel guilty about the situation they were in; that it hadn't been her fault alone. And perhaps he was deliberately numb, because he wanted her to know that it was. But then, maybe she just needed to know that she really had been able to get to him, which would mean his inability to respond was just a final act of defiance.

Walker couldn't remember feeling any vehemence towards her, not of the intensity he felt just then. He certainly couldn't remember feeling this way during the scene the night before and thought about why he was feeling it now. Had it always been this way? He didn't want to hate her; nothing would be achieved by that. But he did. And that was all there was to it. Things were different now; his instincts told him as much. There was no clarity to his memory, only confusion and anger, growing stronger with each passing moment.

"Forget it, Phil All of it. But you're not going to drag me down there with you."

He watched her out of the corner of his eye as she picked up the small black case that had been lying at her feet and walked slowly towards the door in the opposite corner of the room. "Rachel!" he cried, standing slowly.

She stopped and put the case down, turning to face him. "Phil?" She stared at him quizzically, the strain in his voice taking her by surprise.

He walked over towards her. Calm. Absolutely calm Walker could still feel nothing. She was still staring at him He held her short, brown hair out of the way with his lefl hand, leant towards her, enveloping her with himself, and kissed her lower lip, feeling a momentary flicker of response jolt through her body. Her eyes softened still wondering what was going on. He brought up the revolver in his right hand, felt all her muscles stiffening involuntarily against him, losing control in blind terror. As the gun came up against her left temple, he saw her mouth tremble, her eyes shudderingly lose their focus.

He squeezed the trigger and his vision erupted in blood and brain The shot shattered his hearing and a tangled mess of singed hair and burnt muscle hit him, blood spattering across his face and lips and into his mouth.

Walker's senses faded and his thoughts reeled and spun wildly, lost in a frenzy of flesh and rage. The cloudiness grew and he felt turmoil through his being, any sense of control lost, emotions coursing furiously through his thoughts. And all the while he could feel something with him, shadowing him, controlling him. A presence. The presence.