NOTE: I apologize in advance for the length of this post. For some reason WordPress is not allowing me to insert a “Read More” break, so here’s the chapter in its entirety. I hope you will find it worth the read. 🙂
TITLE: “It’s a Cold and It’s a Broken Hallelujah”
SERIES: One Degree of Separation
FANDOM: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
PAIRING: Allen Hobby/Gigolo Joe, Allen Hobby/OFC (past)
WORD COUNT (ENTIRE FIC): 32,443
SUMMARY: Pamela Cunningham swore that she was done with Allen Hobby after coming out on the losing end of a love triangle that never should have existed — but now Allen needs her in the face of the very real possibility that he’s lost Joe forever, and she finds herself willing to face the existence of the love she’s tried so hard to deny rather than leaving him alone in his struggle to save the mecha’s mind.
CHAPTER 16 of 17
The day dawned with sullen red fire that quickly faded to shadowy grey gloom, casting heavy rain down upon the shattered city in the sea. It pounded the workshop windows with a constant sibilant hiss punctuated by occasional distant murmurs of thunder, and the spot lighting never went off.
The hours of what might well be Joe’s final day ran past with terrible swiftness. Nevertheless at noon Allen banished everyone else to the waiting room, ostensibly to fortify themselves with a quick bite of food and a half hour’s mental break before the final push, but Pamela perceived the unspoken truth behind the request: he wanted an interval alone with Joe, in case it should prove to be their last. The doors of frosted glass were closed but she could picture him clearly, standing over the mecha with its right hand clasped in both of his own, perhaps gracing its dialed-down mind with a few final words of tenderness and devotion, or simply gazing into its face to capture a final image of what little presence remained before it was destroyed forever.
But she had not been invited to share in that communion, so she pulled up a chair around the waiting room’s central table along with Allen’s grad students and sat with her eyes downcast, picking at her food without eating more than a few mouthfuls. She had little appetite, a condition that seemed to be afflicting April and Brian as well. Not Tamara, however: she had put away two sandwiches and a sizeable salad when Brian finally broke the oppressive silence with an aggrieved sigh.
“When this is over,” he muttered, almost throwing down his fork before leaning back in his chair, “I’m going to sleep for a bloody week.”
Tamara washed down her latest bite of greens with a swallow of milk before replying: “And so shall we all — except, I strongly suspect, the good Professor.”
April’s eyes, turning to her, widened. “Why not?”
“Because he will too busy either covering Joe in kisses,” Tamara smirked, “or else arranging for some form of respectful disposal of whatever remains.”
Brian tipped his head back and closed his eyes. “He won’t be getting many kisses back: we’ll likely have to shut down his sensuality simulation suite, at least temporarily, to avoid overclocking the process paths.”
Pamela scowled at him. “A lover-robot without sensuality simulation capabilities? That’s…”
“Pointless,” Tamara agreed.
“Joe’s a lot more than that,” April contended stoutly. She looked to Brian again. “How temporarily?”
The olive-skinned specialist shrugged, his eyes still closed. “Could be a week, could be a couple of months. It all depends on the day-to-day neuronal scans after the Professor starts using the inducer on him.” He gave another slow loosening-stiff-back-muscles twist of his shoulders before continuing in a tone of conversational weariness: “God, this sucks. I never want to see another track remnant as long as I live! It’s like going through a huge medieval tapestry and picking out all the white threads while leaving the body of the work intact — and the worst part is knowing that I’m missing some of them… but if Joe survives restart, the inducer will hopefully take care of the outliers later.”
Pamela was startled to realize that he was most likely talking to her — and she leaped to take advantage of his communicativeness. “How does the inducer work”
April set down her sandwich at once. “It’s meant to be run at least once a day, to put Joe into partial cognitive shutdown and initiate a 1280x memory scan, looking for track remnants and eliminating them on the fly. It’ll also clean up any track remnants that have auto-generated from the archive traces during Joe’s normal functioning in that twenty-four hour period. The Professor figures that if he runs it daily for a month to six weeks following the restart Joe should be clean enough to step back to running the inducer only once a month or so, but he’ll probably never be completely free of track remnants — not after an experience like that.”
“We could have done a global hunt-and-kill instead,” Brian added, opening his eyes to fix Pamela with a look less hostile than usual, “but that would be like using a shotgun on the tapestry in question instead of a pair of tweezers. It would have worked, and his basic functionality would remain intact, but there wouldn’t be a whole lot left of Joe’s personality afterwards.”
“So we had to do a piece by piece search,” Tamara scowled, “using up time that we really did not have. And now we have run out of time entirely.”
April was looking down at her hands. “It would kill him,” she said in a low voice, then glanced up quickly. “The Professor, I mean.”
“The Professor will not die,” Tamara said lightly, spearing another forkful of salad. “He has endured three tragedies in his life already, and has not been diminished by them.”
“That’s just it,” April said with quiet vehemence. “He’s been through so much! If he loses Joe… it wouldn’t be fair!”
Brian barked a harsh little cough of laughter. “Whoever told you that life was fair, April?”
Tamara sighed and put down her fork to turn to April and lay an admonishing hand on the girl’s arm, waiting until April turned moist brown eyes towards her face to speak in gentle tones. “I know — you lost your father young, and you view Allen Hobby in that light, yes? And he cares for you also, I think, almost as a daughter.” She glanced up to include Brian in her assessment. “He cares for all of us, and if Joe does not survive this procedure, we will still be here to stand by him. And to remember for the rest of our lives, because what they shared does not deserve to be forgotten.”
April sniffled softly, raising one hand to wipe at the tears that had finally slipped free. “We’ve got to save him,” she whispered, but now there was steel underlying her quavering voice. “We can’t fail the Professor!”
Brian sighed in his turn, leaning forward to rest his elbows on the tabletop and running both hands slowly through his short hair from back to front, making it stand up in even more emphatic spikes. “We may not have a choice,” he said wearily. “Sometimes the best you can do… just isn’t enough.”
“It will be,” Pamela said, surprising nobody more than herself.
There was a moment of silence as the eyes of the three grad students turned to her and widened simultaneously. She took that moment to have an unhurried sip of her coffee, watching the sequence of conclusions fall into place in her own mind with no less amazement — and when she spoke again, it was with quiet but certain conviction: “You’re all the top students in your field, and Allen has inspired you to perform even beyond your own expectations.” Her throat tightened afresh and she wondered at her own apostasy, but she managed to speak through it. “His love has inspired you, and you love him enough in return that that mecha has become almost as important to you as it is to him.”
She looked at Brian, who was staring back at her with his mouth slightly open. “You said it yourself, Brian: if Allen’s desire alone could bring Joe through this, you’d guarantee that he would recover. But he doesn’t just have Allen pulling for him — he has all of you, almost as brilliant and equally driven. And I believe that while science has many of the answers, it has nowhere near all of them.” She nodded back toward the workshop, where a machine lay awaiting their final intervention with the world’s top roboticist gazing down upon him from on high, lost in adoration. “You’re young, but that’s a vital lesson to learn at any age: when love is involved, all bets are off. if Joe’s cube fails, his final moments will be spent surrounded by people who genuinely care about him. That’s a gift that many orga never receive, and it’s something that I know Allen will never forget — and that he’ll always be grateful for, even in the depths of his grief.”
She unfolded herself from her chair and put aside her coffee, placing it exactly three inches from the right side of her plate with great care. “Excuse me,” she said politely before crossing to the door that led out into the common hallway. The thoroughfare was deserted, and she was dimly grateful for that small mercy as she closed the door behind her and leaned back against the wall beside it and covered her face with her hands and finally burst into copious tears, managing to confine the worst noise of her weeping to the occasional choke of harshly indrawn breath.
Allen, her heart wailed like fire in her breast, oh Allen! Allen! But for the first time she did not mourn her own shattered connection alone. For the first time she truly felt the full force of the gravity drawing together two great celestial bodies and knew that she was but a satellite: existing in conjunction, connected to them both with invisible ties, but ultimately a minor star whose own light was lost in the splendour of their combined radiance.
Was he ever really mine?
She closed her eyes hard against the consuming waves of misery, but could not ignore the wisdom of the serpent that had awakened within her, its venom conferring both death and rebirth. And had she not reached for the apple it offered herself, and tasted it willingly?
“Allen,” she moaned against her hands, “please…” But he was far away and did not hear her crying helplessly for what could never be hers again.
Nous aurons pour nous l’éternité dans le bleu de toute l’immensité
Dans le ciel plus de problèmes… mon amour crois-tu qu’on s’aime?…
Dieu réunit ceux qui s’aiment…
And thus it came full circle.
She stood on the upper level in front of her usual point of surveillance, clasping the railing in both hands as the clock counted down the final minutes. The team had set up a rank of three small monitors and a keyboard behind Joe’s head and to his right, and Allen had drawn a stool into position beside Joe’s right hip. He sat there now intently studying the code flow that his students were feeding to his temporary station, his face set with such tension that Pamela wanted to go to him and comfort him in her embrace. She tightened her grip on the railing to hold herself in place.
Thirty seconds to three, and Allen commanded tersely: “Discontinue playlist and commence primary process path initialization.” At once the background stream of music faded to silence, which descended on the workshop like the chill of winter’s snow; only the lash and hiss of rain against the nearly black windows remained. It was as fine a case of pathetic fallacy as Pamela had ever seen manifested in real life.
“Initializing,” Brian confirmed, tapping at his interfaces. At their own stations April and Tamara watched their screens with unwavering diligence and Pamela, even knowing as little as she did about mecha code visualization protocols, could see that the flowing lines of green symbols were beginning to move more swiftly.
“Initialization in progress,” Brian half-chanted. “Primary path online at six percent… twelve percent… twenty percent…”
“I’m getting resonance activity on the secondary path,” April chimed in, her hands dancing over her keyboard.
“Initialize,” Allen ordered, his own gaze never wavering from his monitors.
April took up the litany: “Secondary path online at three percent…”
And Brian: “Forty-one percent…”
“Eleven percent… thirteen percent…”
Tamara interjected evenly: “He is servicing the prompts. Track remnants at one point three percent and holding.”
Allen had taken Joe’s right hand in his own, and now he spared a glance for the mecha’s face, which remained as impassive as the grave. “Joe? Joe, can you hear me?”
“Forty-three point five percent,” Brian said, and there was strain in his voice that sent a chill of dread down Pamela’s spine. “Forty three point three… forty-two point eight…”
April’s tone likewise carried a frisson of alarm: “Thirteen point two percent… Thirteen point one…”
Tamara’s hands flew across her interface. “Imminent process stall,” she announced briskly. “Initiating compensation protocol A-3.”
Allen’s grip on Joe’s hand had tightened convulsively, and now he was gazing down at the robot’s mask with raw desperation surging in his eyes. His murmured command was so agonized that Pamela almost left her post: “Come on, Joe… come back to me…”
“Forty-one point six,” Brian said quietly. “Thirty-nine percent… thirty-eight…”
“Twelve percent… eleven…”
“No.” It was only a whisper, but nevertheless it amounted to a cry of despair that flayed Pamela’s heart to the quick. Allen was paying no attention whatsoever to the monitors now: he was utterly focussed on the dying form before him, and as she watched he slipped his left hand around the back of the mecha’s neck to grasp it with pleading power. “Joe —”
“Thirty-five percent,” Brian intoned, and April shook her head once, savagely. Pamela’s vision started to blur with the sting of tears —
— but she could still clearly see the sudden determination that filled Allen’s eyes, as strong as death itself. He lifted Joe’s head by the nape of that slender neck and leaned forward to press a long, tender, hungry kiss to the unresponsive lips of the object of his desire. For almost three heartbeats time itself seemed to stand still; even the sibilance of the rain faded as everyone else present held their collective breath.
Then a fine tremor wracked Joe’s entire body, flowing from his head to his heels. His eyes flew open, full of electric intensity; for an instant he gazed up into Allen’s face with what almost seemed to be surprise, before his tinted eyelids drifted closed again and he leaned up a little and parted his lips ever so slightly in a lover-robot’s unspoken invitation. His left hand twitched again, then his whole arm, but the damage to his left shoulder had rendered him incapable of responding with an embrace and Allen’s right hand still held his own fast.
It was Brian who first intruded upon the breathless silence: “Primary process path at seventy-four percent and rising on a Norwich vector.”
April all but sang: “Secondary processing path at seventy-two percent and rising on the vector!”
“Process flow at ninety-seven percent,” Tamara concluded with a note of smug satisfaction. “And rising.”
Pamela had no attention to spare for them: her eyes were fixed on the reunited lovers, and on the reborn passion that bloomed between them and filled the cold dark room with the perfume of undying devotion. When their lips at last reluctantly parted Joe’s eyes remained closed for a second longer before opening to unleash his cool green gaze, intelligently parsing every detail of the face of the man above him. “Allen…?”
“Welcome back, Joe.” His voice was hoarse, but his eyes were shining with exultation.
Unblinking, Joe scanned to his left, above him, and to his right, making as complete a circuit of the environment as he could, although his head never shifted from its direction alignment with Allen’s. “We’re in your workshop. What happened? I ran away…”
“And I found you.” A radiant smile warmed his face, but he subdued it and subtly tightened his grip on the back of Joe’s neck in a way that was both admonishing and adoring. “Did you really think that I wouldn’t search to the ends of the earth, as soon as I realized you were missing?”
“The letter I left behind…”
“Told me everything I needed to know.” His unwavering gaze traced the lines of the mecha’s eyebrows, his cheeks, his lips, drinking in every fine detail of vital movement even as his tone grew commanding again: “Joe… never, ever do anything like that again — not without talking to me about it first. That’s a direct order. Will you promise to obey it?”
A tiny frown tightened his flawless forehead. “Yes, of course I will… but I don’t understand…”
The smile flickered to the surface again, although he was still trying to be stern. “Go on.”
His gaze shifted to his left again — the briefest redirection of attention, but his eyes met Pamela’s for an instant that left her both warmed and chilled. “Pamela Cunningham… you still love her. You said so yourself.”
This time the smile lit up his entire face, although there was a trace of undeniable sadness underlying it. “Yes, I do love her. But I love you far, far more.”
“That’s not possible,” Joe responded at once. “I am neither —”
“— neither flesh nor blood, yes, I’m well aware of that.” He tasted the mecha’s lips again with a kiss lighter and briefer but no less poignant. “And no, it isn’t possible, according to conventional wisdom. But it’s true nonetheless. I only wish I’d told you the moment I realized it, instead of keeping it to myself. That’s a mistake I never intend make again.”
He was studying Allen’s face with that tiny frown again. “But… I was dead. The ground swallowed me up.”
Allen shook his head ever so slightly. “No — not dead. Merely sleeping.”
“And you awakened me with a kiss.” A radiant smile touched his lips and brightened his eyes to an amazing degree, before his expression clouded with wariness as solemn as a child’s. “Are you very angry with me?”
A soft incredulous laugh. “Yes, I suppose I am — and so much in love with you that it doesn’t matter.” He leaned in to press his forehead to Joe’s, to meet the mecha’s clear-eyed gaze and to whisper against his parted lips: “And I promise you that I’ll tell you so every night and every day from now on, until you have no choice but to believe me.”
Brian’s voice interrupted their conversation with a low respectful murmur: “He’s overclocking on both process paths and his sensubs are three point six percent over recommended maximum flow…”
Allen raised his head just enough to glance over the readouts in front of him. “Shut down everything but his Level One sensuality subroutines,” he ordered, before returning his undivided attention to the mecha’s face and once more pitching his voice to that caressing inflection. “Joe, I’m going to deactivate you now so we can —”
“No!” His eyes widened even more. “Don’t, please…”
“I’ll be right here with you the whole time, I promise you, and I’ll be waiting for you when you wake up again. But we need to make further repairs, and I don’t want you to be conscious during the procedures.”
“I want to stay with you,” Joe insisted.
“I know you do.” He laid Joe back in the chair again, guiding the mecha’s head gently to rest with his left hand still curved around the nape of his neck. “And you will be with me, for the rest of our lives. But first I need to finish repairing your wounds. Now close your eyes, and don’t be afraid… ”
“How could I possibly be afraid?” He lay back obediently and let Allen sit upright without protest, but his right hand still clasped the human’s tightly. “You’ll be with me, won’t you?”
“Always, and I’ll never let anybody hurt you again.” His eyes were so bright that Pamela could barely look upon them as he slipped his left hand from behind the mecha’s head and laid it to his cheek, taking care not to disturb the cables emerging from his right temple. “Goodnight, Joe.”
“Goodnight, Allen.” He closed his eyes, and Allen glanced up in Brian’s direction and nodded once. The Cognitive Engineering student input another command and Pamela could see all the tiny cues of Joe’s body go still again as his cube functions were temporarily suspended.
Silence fell again, but this time it was had the quality of the joyous hush of dawn after a long and terrible darkness. Allen tore his gaze away from Joe to glance round at his students: Brian, then Tamara, and at last April. He slipped his hand from Joe’s and rose to his feet, and when April leaped from her chair and came running to him he turned to meet her, laughing as she embraced him enthusiastically and wrapping one arm around her shoulders to hold her warmly close, extending his other hand to Brian as the younger man came out from behind his own work station. Only Tamara sat apart, but she leaned back in her chair and steepled her fingers in front of her, and even though her back was to Pamela she fancied the European was smiling herself as Brian shook Allen’s hand heartily, wearing a grin broader than any Pamela had ever seen him sport before.
Celebrating their shared triumph, the trio standing beside Joe didn’t notice when Tamara turned to glance up at Pamela and nodded, once.
Pamela nodded in return and turned away toward the walk-in closet. Her work here was done, save for one final self-imposed act of duty, of recognition — and of personal devotion.