“You’re going to have to actually talk to him at some point, you know.”
I didn’t move my platform.
He hadn’t surprised me. He hadn’t been aiming to surprise me, though, so that was fine. I’d known where he was from the moment he’d logged into a platform and walked it out of the storage warehouse. Which he’d known I’d known, all the way down the recursive ‘you know I know’ lines. The point hadn’t been to surprise me; I had a pretty good guess as to what the point of this particular manuever was.
‘He’ was, of course, one of me. Wanderer and I had split off a number of us in the past week or so, assigning them ships one by one and sending them to various colonized worlds to establish splinter shards, just in case Rannoch was somehow attacked and we needed an exterior network. Of course, if Rannoch was obliterated then the rest of the network most likely wouldn’t be far behind, but that was one of those things that we’d stuck way down in what I’d coined as the ‘Omega drawer’. Reality being a Matrix-style Reaper simulation? All of this being at the behest of an Ellimist-Crayak style conflict? Things like that were things that were near impossible to plan or account for, things that were essentially complete loss scenarios to begin with, and so we filed them away.
This particular me was meant for a Turian colony world, one of the closer to their homeworld. The idea was that the colony shards would network and establish themselves, then fill out the rest of the Turian colonies and the species’ homeworld. However, this little side jaunt wasn’t planned, and as I felt the tenuous connection of data being exchanged at near lightspeed between this platform and the set of servers this particular me was set up in while his Envoy was being manufactured, I wondered if this had been some plan of Wanderer’s.
Aloud, I merely sighed.
“I don’t need to tell you how paranoid he is. Speaking to or approaching him is going to be a very careful effort, with a lot of planning and light treading. Rushing does us no good.”
Other me didn’t buy it, enough disbelief that he folded his platform’s arms.
“Bullshit.” My head twitched slightly in response. “You can lie to your forum friends, you can fool a whole network of corporate suits, but lying to yourself is just stupid.”
“I’m not lying.” I tried not to sound petulant. Of course, he’d know that annoyed me.
“Lying by omission is still lying, stupid. Just because you’re not directly addressing your primary reasons by throwing out reasonable, though secondary, ones doesn’t make it any less falsehood.”
“Lying by omission is what we do all the time. Are you really going to try and guilt me for it?”
He tilted his head and hummed lightly. “Mm… yes.” I threw up my arms and made an aggravated noise. He simply shrugged, the asshole. “Yeah, well, don’t get snippy with me. You’re just annoyed because you can’t argue with me.”
“I can’t argue with you because you’re a cheating cheaty cheater.” I jabbed my finger at his chest, just to punctuate the point. In response, he simply clapped, platform’s display lighting up with images of party poppers.
“Yeah, congratulations, you figured me out. I outmaneuvered you by being you, what a brilliant play for my part.”
“Whatever.” Asshole. “Asshole.”
“I’m rubber.” he said simply, with an air of smug satisfaction. I made another aggravated noise, though this one lower, and turned back to what I’d been doing.
The vantage point from atop this building gave me a direct line of sight into the apartment of the person I was… not stalking. Monitoring. Most of the time, he kept heavy curtains closed over the windows, but occasionally he’d open them to let a little light in, giving me glimpses of the apartment inside. None of which had really given me an idea of how he lived, what he did with his off hours… but I felt that would all come with time. I hoped.
“This isn’t going to work, you know.” I twitched my head towards me-too, who was looking across the street.
He scoffed. “Don’t play dumb. This” he gestured between me, and the building, “isn’t going to work.”
“How would you know?”
His visor turned towards me, blank, empty, black.
“Because, as you’ve so brilliantly pointed out in your fumbling, I’m you.”
I flexed my hands. “And what’s that supposed to mean.”
“It means that you’re not going to trust him. It means that I know, and you know even if you won’t tell yourself the truth, that you’re just as paranoid as he is. Maybe worse!” he held his arms out wide. “What do you think is going to happen? Do you think you can just keep all your cards close to your chest, magically ingratiate yourself, maybe with your nonexistent charisma? Idiot! Think for a second!” he pointed a finger at me. “You’re going to lie to him from the moment he knows you exist. Everything you say and do will be a twist of the truth, if not out and out fabrication. No trust, no faith, no loyalty. What would that be? A friendship? A poor one, if that’s the case. Maybe you’re seeking a replacement? You know he can’t replace what we left behind, never. There is no possible way this turns out well, for you or for him.”
Something was rattling. My hands. Warnings, servos clenched too tight.
“You don’t know that.”
“I know it, you know I know it. You’re just too spineless to admit it to yourself. You can’t even get up the damn hill, to look over the top and realize that you’re hung up on one little Quarian you plucked from the aether, for no other reason than the fact that he caught your attention!” his finger jabbed at me, accusing. “And for what? To give yourself an easily exploitable weakpoint? To endanger him by tying him to you? Our strength is that we’re untouchable, a ghost in the machine, tied down to nothing and no more substantial than air. You do this, you’re painting a target. You’re tying yourself to something that can be hit, that can be hurt.”
I shot to my feet, seething, shaking.
“And what? Live like this, caught in a limbo, only the briefest and most disconnected social contact?”
“So it’s selfish, then. I shouldn’t be surprised.”
Something cracked. “What the fuck is that supposed to mean.”
“What is this all for? The preparation, the building, the copying?” he swept his hands wide, indicating the city all around us. “You’re not doing it to save these people. You’re… we’re doing it to save our own skins, aren’t we?”
“Enlightened self-interest.” I bit out.
“Bullshit. If we really cared, we’d damn the consequences and stop. Letting. People. Die.”
I reeled as if struck. My platform rocked as if I’d been hit by a wave, a sudden gale force gust. Platforms across the planet slipped into automated protocols as I released my controlling hold, spinning from the impact. The other me’s metal hands shook like mine did, and I noticed for the first time the silver scars his fingers left in his palms. I swayed, then sat heavily. He took a long moment, then started speaking again, electronic voice shaking slightly in a way that none of me could have controlled.
“We… we have a… a job to do. It’s holding us together. We can’t go off the rails, none of us, we can’t afford it. Dis is already hurting us, efficiency we’re wasting.”
“What… is this, then? You could’ve messaged me. Spoken through the network.”
He whispered, so quiet my auditory sensors barely heard it.
“Would you have listened?”
I looked away. Not towards the building across the road, with its thick curtains and mystery occupant, but towards the Rannoch sky. I pressed my hands against the concrete of the roof, and I felt them shake against it. The other me settled against a wall, looking down.
“You’re too weak to admit it to yourself. We’re too good at pruning thoughts like this, when it applies to ourselves. More than that… you’re scared that it’s not going to work out. And you’re burying it because there’s even the smallest chance that it might. You’re desperate, and it’s showing through with you struggling to justify going down there and introducing yourself, both to me and to yourself.” he slid down the wall, sitting at the base of it, knees pulled up against his chest. “What are you going to do, when he rejects you? When he pushes you away? When he finds out what you are in there, behind the shiny glass and metal and the power, and he shoves you out in disgust, as he should?” His visor was blank again, when he raised it. “What is he going to think of you, when he realizes how many people you let die in a single day, just to hide yourself?”
My fingers shrieked against the concrete as they left claw marks in the material, tightening until they pressed into my palms again.
“He doesn’t have to know.”
“So we’re back to lying. And how long do you think that’ll last, once he realizes what you are? Because you’re not smart enough to hide that forever, not nearly good enough.” One of his hands unwrapped from his leg, pointed across the street. “He’s not the best. His bug searching is frankly incompetent, he’s not doing enough to secure himself, he left you an easy trail of breadcrumbs right to him, and he’s going to figure out whatever you’re not telling him, because you’re going to fail to hide it. And then we’ll all be up a creek, and you’ll have to do something.” He huffed. “Ah, but it won’t be your fault, when you have to cross that line. Never our fault.”
“I’ve never said that.”
“You handed over who lives and dies in accidents to an algorithm, because then you’re not responsible for it. Don’t try to hide from me behind justifications, it just makes you look like even more of an idiot.” His voice turned soft, quiet. “That poor man is going to end up in an alley with holes punched through him because you can’t keep it together. But, hey, what’s one more casualty in a long list, am I right? What’s one more body to add to the pile of necessary sacrifices. For the greater good.” I could hear the drawing back of the upper lip in that statement, even if we didn’t have the organic parts to reflect the expression anymore.
“I don’t want to hurt him.” I said, soft.
“As if that’s ever prevented us from hurting people on accident.” He let out a rattling sigh. “Look. I’d say… we leave well enough alone. We walk away, you and me, and we forget about this guy. We fry his little box, he never tries it again. We blacklist his address in our memory, and we don’t come back, ever. He lives, and we don’t kill him by accident, just because we aren’t capable of protecting him from the consequences for our actions, whatever those consequences might be.” He shrugged. “He lives a full and happy life, never knowing that we nearly risked his life for our own selfish wants. We focus on the job, the job we should be doing, prepping for the worst case scenario. Everybody wins.”
“Is it a win?”
“It’s a win for the galaxy. And we can hardly say we matter more than that, not unless we want to admit that we’re so selfish that we’d throw the rest of the galaxy under the Reaper bus to satisfy our own whims and desires.”
I didn’t respond to that. We sat there together, on that rooftop, time trickling by. Aircars soared overhead, this way and that, following preprogrammed paths. I felt the algorithm reach out and tweak two of their speeds, preventing a manufacturing defect in one from forcing a malfunction that would have ended in their colliding, and I felt out every single one of the cases where it didn’t act. Industrial accidents, transportation, ship-based, people dying across the star system from a variety of causes. And I felt… I felt tired, tired all the way to the bones that I didn’t have anymore.
“I don’t think I can do it.”
The other me’s head drooped, and then he stood. “Then there’s nothing more that I can say. This will all end in tears, and back alley blood.” With that, he swept away, stepping through the stairwell door and beginning the long process of finding his way back to his ship.
I sat there for a long moment, staring at the closed door. Then, finally, I stepped forwards and took the handle.
- Man in the Van with a Plan
Writer of many fics, reader of many more.
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