The further south Alice walked, the more the path closed down. Impenetrable trees and brush lined what was fast choking down to a faint deer track. The access from Chicago to Indianapolis was poor; just barely capable of AI level access, but easily traversed by a human.
In Dimensional Packet Six, mind you. In D1, she could have taken a train, flown . . . driven, if she’d had a car and a driver's license, which she didn’t.
But this way, if the local AI was belligerent (and they mostly were) she would have a clear line of retreat that it might not be able to follow. In theory. If she didn’t get distracted and let something large and dangerous get between her and the path out.
Unfortunately, the occasional rustling in the brush was coming from behind her. She had a nasty suspicion the local AI had some avatar scouts out there, and that it knew she was coming.
The other distraction had to do with the high quality authenticity of the dimension. The high grass was authentically damp with dew, and Alice Brown was getting tired having wet feet inside of wet socks inside of wet shoes. Tangling in tough grass.
She just one moment of clear vision: the bent sapling, the tough strand of grass grabbing her ankle . . . She was whipped her off her feet and hung upside down, bobbing from the sapling that was now only half bent over, just out of reach.
“Oy! I do not believe this!”
“Not believing won’t do you a bit of any good.”
She craned her neck as she slowly spun around.
A man dressed in tan, straight grey hair. Gray hair or not, even upside down she could see he was young. The clothing . . . buckskin? Moccasins, but no fringes on the coat, no raccoon hat—not a pioneer . . .
“So . . . are you Robin Hood or were you Raised by Wolves?”
He laughed. “I’m Indianapolis. And who might you be?” His forehead crinkled. “Or should I say, what are you?”
“I’m Alice, I’m a human.”
“Human? Another one? How did you get here?” He paced around her. Yellow eyes. Up close his hair was streaked, lighter and darker, symmetrical on each side. Looks like a wolf in people clothing . . .
“The d-doors that are in use in our area have an exploitable unintended side effect. They open to six other dimensional packets. Well, in theory. We use D2 regularly. A few of us are friends with the local AI and assist him when he needs autonomous assistants.”
“And you are helping him now?”
“Yes. The AI on the East Coast is highly belligerent. Barton Street needs to know if you are going to attack him, or if you might be friendly.”
“Friendly! Friendly? AIs are not friendly!”
It was hard to tell, hanging upside down, but he seemed quite offended by the possibility.
“Umm, well, not very many of them. Barton Street tries to talk first.” She sighed. “The Green Bay and Madison AIs . . . are not friendly, but not actually belligerent, either, once we got it through their processors that there were other options. They even stopped attacking each other.”
“Huh. Sounds like those Little Old Ladies down in Florida. At least they don’t go all aggressive, but they certainly don’t talk to me.”
“Well, if you are interested in a limited bit of communication, narrow bandwidth so no attacks . . . “ She broke off at the sound of approaching feet. Light and quick.
She spun further, and gawped in shock.
Two redheads. Small, female, belligerent. “Get away from my Mommy!” “Don’t you hurt my Mommy!” Fox and Rudolph.
“What are you two doing here?” She glanced frantically toward the AI. “Do not even think about attacking him. I think he’s nice.”
The man’s head jerked up at her, in surprise.
The girls reached her, reached up and grabbed to pull her down. Of course all they could reach was her hair.
“Ouch! Stop that. Fox, Rudolph, this is Indianapolis. Indianapolis, this is Fox, pulling my hair, and Rudolph untying the rope and about dump me on my head. Fortunately you tie a good knot.” Fox let go of her hair, and she resumed her slow spin.
“Girls, what are you doing here?”
“Having an adventure.” Fox frowned at Indianapolis. “He’s not as scary as the rattlesnake. I don’t think he’s a real AI.”
“He’s cuter.” Rudolph said. “He’s got gray hair just like a wolf.”
"Are you a wolfman? My name is Fox!"
Indianapolis frowned at the twins. “They have chips, they are not like you.”
“No, they are what are called bio-models in D1. A small chip integrated into the normal growth of a biological brain. In Dimensional packets four, five and six their differential size change brings in additional biomass and maximizes the functioning of the chip. These two have not completed their biological growth.” She paused to see what the AI was going to do.
He crouched down and looked from one girl to the other. “Both biological and technological. How interesting. Does that make it easy for you to attack AIs?”
Rudolph elbowed her, scowled at the AI. “Mostly we run away. But when we’re grown up, we won’t let anyone hurt Barton. He’s our friend.”
“You mentioned Chicago—the rattlesnake. Did you run away from him?”
Two very emphatic nods.
“And went through little holes and we climbed up a cliff.” Fox jumped up and down. “It was scary then, but it’s fun to remember.”
“Barton and Tommy and Lone and Trick killed the snake, and then Barton took over all of Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland.”
The AI narrowed his eyes. “So now he’s a Regional. And really dangerous.”
Fox planted fists on her hips and scowled. “He’s nice. He’s our friend. We go and play at the lake all the time.”
Rudolph brightened. “You could come play too. It would be fun. Will you be my boyfriend? Everybody else has a boyfriend.”
“Umm, the bandwidth is too low for that, right now. In another year or so the grid might grow enough. And hopefully Indianapolis and Barton will be friends before then.” Alice rejoined the conversation. The girls were turning into excellent Goodwill Ambassadors, but . . .
“Yes. I understand that the super strand opti-cable is undergoing a growth spurt. I’ve been delighted that it hasn’t come down here. But you think it will. Is this related to that amusing conceit you humans have, that you actually control its growth and can change connectivity?”
“Well, our organic brains tend to see cause and effect even where it is mere coincidence. Our putative control may just be an extrapolation of where the growth will occur next.”
“But you don’t believe that, do you?”
“Well . . . No.”
He laughed. “Egotist. I think I need to learn more about you sorts, but I suspect that you are too dangerous. I will take these two delightfully odd beings and study them.”
“What!” Alice scrambled to reach her foot, then swung, trying to reach the trunk of the sapling. “Run!”
The girls ran. Indianapolis snatched collars and tucked one under each arm.
Alice swung herself, growling under her breath as her pendulum swings rotated wildly. But she finally managed to grab a branch. She couldn’t quite reach the rope, but her knife did. It cut easily and dumped her onto the wet grass.
No sign of Indianapolis, or the twins.
She pulled the loop off her foot and coiled the rope. Might come in handy, if I can remember any of Lone’s lasso lessons. She limped down the path, muttering things under her breath.
"They are fooling with the connections in my array. Changing them." He put his hands to his head and sank down into a crouch. "It hurts!"
Rudolph reached out and pet him.
The soldiers shuffled forward.
Deadcrow frowned at Alice. "I don't understand."
"Indianapolis, here, is an AI. A very powerful AI and rare. The form of this place is in many ways a construct of his mind. Perhaps the entire dimension exists only in his mind."
"Back in the real world, someone is messing with the physical computer, and could well crash this whole reality."
"I don't like the sound of that!"
"Indianapolis? I need two things from you. The location of the nearest d-door, and your location in dimension one."
In the distance, the Forest faded, rippled, looked flat, two dimensional for a moment, then normal again.
Alice crouched down close to the Avatar. "Where?"
"The Karst Center." He whispered, hands pressed to his head. He pointed. "That way! Hurry!"
The soldiers heard the last part of that, and they took off running. Alice shooed the girls after them. "Run. We need to get through a door and find the people there who are hurting Indianapolis."
They ran, stumbling and sobbing. They don't understand, but they care.
She grabbed Indianapolis's arm and steered him after them.
A flicker of white ahead. The soldiers were tugging and cursing at the d-door.
Sergeant Deadcrow glared over her shoulder at Alice. "I told you! They never open!"
"That's because Indianapolis was having too much fun playing games on you guys." Alice leaned a hand high up on the door. Panting, not all pretend. She looked down at the latch. "He ought to enable it, now." Her fingernails dug under the oval and it released its magnetic grip on the door. She shifted her hand a few inches, so the locking oval was on the frame, not the door itself. She bent over and hugged Fox. Looked around for Rudolph while she pried off the other oval. She palmed that one.
Private Bascomb tugged angrily at the latch and it gave suddenly, swinging and knocking him back. Alice grabbed the door and pulled it the rest of the way open. On the other side, a bland, generic corridor. "Don't just stand there, go!"
They got. Alice ushered the girls through. She grabbed Indianapolis and pulled him after her as she stepped across the threshold.
///Three big soldiers. Two bio-models, eighteen centimeters or so. Taller than they were when we started. An affect of eating all that matter from over there, perhaps.
She knelt and picked them up.
The ///three soldiers boggled.
"They are bio-models. Things expand and contract differently, over there." Alice shrugged off the backpack, and casually, she hoped, touched the d-door. And placed the oval where there ought to have been one.
She opened the backpack and shoved the remaining food around, then helped the girls get in.
"Bios? But, but . . . " The Sergeant looked upset for a moment, then turned and snapped at her soldiers. "What? You've never seen a bio-model before? Let's find out where we are, and report in." She glanced back to be sure Alice was coming, then led off down the hall. An elevator lobby. An elevator came within a few seconds and they eyed the displays. Across the top, in fancy scrollwork in bronze The Karst Center.
"Thirty-second floor? Right." The Sergeant punched the ground level button.
The elevator stopped, more people got on. Alice squeezed into a front corner. Another stop, more people. Alice squeezed out behind a pair of tall men. Slipped back and away from the soldier's lines of sight. For once, being short is useful!
The next elevator, she punched the button for the minus three level. The elevator dropped all the way without stopping. A few minutes prowl and she found a d-door labeled "Computer Center." It was locked. She pushed the button beside the latch and spoke into the grill.
"It's Alice. May I come in?"
The lock clicked.
The cubby was empty of humans. Full of computer components. Four desks with physical monitors and keyboards in half the upper level. The rest, and the lower level were all electronics. Not much open room.
"So, what happened?"
"The Karst Center has been sold." Indianapolis' voice came from a speaker. A glow in front of it expanded. "The new owners came down and looked over the components here." The glow wavered. "They said they were going to upgrade. They said they'd try to find someone to buy 'this old junk' otherwise they'd just recycle me for rare metals. They played with my internal connections!"
Rudolph wiggled up and out of the back pack. "You need to run away from home!"
Fox yelled agreement from deeper in the backpack.
Alice nodded. "I agree."
The glow expanded and started forming into a human. "But how can I do that?"
"Well. Maybe we could move the cubby? Switch it for a different one? Or find an empty one and move all your components."
"You'd have to take me apart and . . . just hope I came back when you turned me back on." The glow wavered, started showing details. Gray hair, buckskin shirt.
Alice prowled around the packed room, eyeing components. Did they just keep adding processors, and never thoroughly upgraded? "The Ten Peta that we fought in Milwaukee was actually split up among four regular cubbies with the doors propped open and actual physical cables running between them."
"Killed him, did you?" Indianapolis firmed up his details into a semi-transparent hologram, a face forming up around yellow eyes, hands and boots.
"He attacked us on sight. Barton Street approached us and tried to figure out how we worked. That made clear which side we wanted to win."
Fox tried to touch the hologram. She drew back when her fingers passed through him. Then she tried again. Then she giggled, and ran right through him. Rudolph wiggled to be put down, and joined her.
Indianapolis crossed his arms and frowned down at the tiny girls. "I think I like you. I even like those soldiers. They are very clever, but they don't understand how anything works, so they weren't as dangerous as you are. They were fun to play tricks on. I'm going to miss them."
"Well, first we have to save you, then we can introduce you to other people who know about these things. The main problem will be getting a hold of another cubby. If we can swap cubbies, we can keep you up and running while we move you."
"Really . . . umm, can you search for other cubbies in the area?"
"I will, but right now you need to leave. There are people coming here again. They said they'd be back to take inventory."
Alice nodded. "Ok, let's go, girls. We'll get something to eat and then come back."
The lights in the diner flicked out, and the hum of the fans died as they whirled silently, spinning slowly down. In the booth, Alice paused with a sandwich halfway to her mouth. The girls were between her and the window, munching the tiny slices she'd cut off. Power failure? With the afternoon sun slanting in the window, the girls hadn't noticed.
I hope that doesn't mean they've just unplugged Indianapolis. Holy Moly. What do I do now?
The lights came back on, dimmed, strengthened.
She finished up quickly, and persuaded the girls to take a nap in their backpack beds. She left a tenner for the frustrated cashier, who couldn't keep her register working, and hurried back to the Karst Center.
A man was rolling a pallet of computer components out of the elevator.
He heaved a relieved sigh, and glanced her way. "Don't take the elevators unless you really enjoy getting trapped in small boxes suspended over deep pits."
"Oh!" Alice tried to look surprised. "The power . . . I hadn't thought about the elevators. Thanks." She dropped her gaze to the computer towers. "Wow, those are big. Are they, like, super computers?"
"Nah, just old. The building just sold and the new owners want state of the art equipment. My boss will sell these or reclaim the rare metals in them."
"Huh. Maybe I could afford an old computer . . . Who's your boss?"
"GBS Computers." He patted his shirt and produce a card. "Here you go!"
He pushed the load off and Alice walked back outside, feeling ill. What if a personality dies when it's unplugged?
She pulled out her phone and after three tries got a text connection to both Joe and Barton Street. # They've disassembled Indianapolis. Barton Street, can you get the funds to buy the components? A# She added the name of the company, and paced nervously. Traffic lights periodically switched to blinking red, and she could see the lights in the buildings coming and going. We've turned so many tasks over to the computers . . . one-by-one, never realizing that we were depending on a single AI keeping everything smooth.
Her phone dinged.
# I have contacted that company and agreed to purchase everything, including cables and connections that they are removing from the Karst Center. BS#
Alice swallowed. #That's the first step. Now we need a place to put him. I wonder if it has to be a cubby?#
# Let's experiment, since it is turned off already. J#
Alice bit her lip. Holy Moly.
# I have leased an office at 83746 East Street It has two cubbies as well as d-1 space. Mgt expects you. Components will be delivered. BS#
Computers don't lollygag about wasting time!
Alice hustled, and found the keys and her acquaintance with the pallet full of equipment waiting for her.
"The boss said, why bother to unload it all."
"Cool! I called my boss to see if I could get reimbursed for a computer upgrade, since I work at home a lot, next thing I know, he's telling me to hustle down here for the keys. We're out of room in the old office." She unlocked the door and stepped in. Cheap laminate floors. The walls showed the marks of picture hangings.
She stepped out of the way. "Yeah, going to need some classing up." She prowled. Reception area, big office with windows, two cubbies, split into four work areas each. "For now, just stack everything along the wall, there." Holy Moly. I feel like Christmas! An office! Not exactly mine, but . . .
"Right-o! I'll be back in half an hour with the next load."
"Hey, take my camera, get a pic of how it all goes together, please? Save me tons of time."
"Sure, no problem!"
Alone in the office, Alice checked the two d-doors. Oval locks on both sides of both of them. She took off the ovals from the inside of the first one . . . and could not open the door in any way but the ordinary standard exit.
"Oh, man. That is not good. Not good at all." She prowled. The dividing walls inside the cubbies were just panels stuck together. They'd make good shelves . . . She started a list of what else she'd need. And started connecting the computer components into a standard array. The second delivery included the old shelves, taking away one problem. Four deliveries later she had a very fast and utterly personality-less computer system spread all over the two ordinary rooms.
She powered it all down and started moving it to the cubby. With just enough room to squeeze between racks, she got all the components into a single cubby, connected, powered up . . .
Lights flickered all over the cubby. Alice stared at the blinking cursor on the monitor. It's taking more time to boot, this time. Is that good or bad?
And finally, script.
IF I WERE HUMAN I'D SAY I WAS PUKING SICK.
They turned me off! Where am I? Where are the cameras? Never mind, found them.
Alice stepped out and around to the other cubby. This time the d-door opened to the other dimensions. Alice just looked through, not wanting to take a chance on getting trapped, if Indianapolis . . . wasn't functioning the same. All of them looked like Indianapolis, although the AI himself was not in sight.
She walked back to the monitor. Diagnostics, lists interspersed with avowals of illness, a few muttered threats against the Karst Center's new management.
Finally a speaker crackled to life. "Someone's been tromping all over my region. He associated some of my stuff!"
A brief silence. "Oh. Stabilized the regional power grid. Blithering idiots . . . but who was it? Where did he go?"
Alice cleared her throat. "Perhaps it was Barton Street. Would you like me to ask him?"
The rest of the speakers crackled to life. And growled angrily in surround sound.
Alice grinned. "And how about your operating temperature? If it is getting too warm in here, I could either install some extra fans or move half of your components to the cubby that is right next door."
There was a brief silence.
"Barton Street released all the computers he'd associated. He didn't assimilate anything. And he could have. I should have listened to you from the start." The sigh from the speakers sounded tired.
Alice shook her head. "You had no reason to trust me. No history of other friendly AIs. So. I've got twelve hours before I have to get home. Shall I decorate your new office?"
"Yeah. What the heck. If I'm on my own, I might as well go first class! You'll need a place to stay, too."
"Heck yeah. I'm not going to let anyone else in here! You'll need to come by at least monthly. For regular maintenance."
"You're going to hire me to dust your components?"
"If you close the d-door and just communicate through the optical port, there won't be any dust. I want you to run around in the forest with me. Darn it, can you bring back the soldiers? It's going to be boring without anyone around. Especially Sergeant I-am-a-Cherokee-Indian."
"I got a better idea. Next weekend I'll bring some friends along, to talk to you and keep you out of trouble. And the girls, of course."
"What? So they can fight over whose boyfriend I am? I think I want to be Sergeant Deadcrow's boyfriend. Maybe. I'm not sure about that kissing thing."
Alice grinned. "It's good for you. Maybe I'll start a bio-model rescue company, and bring lots of people to your forest."
"Err . . . let's not get carried away . . . "
"And I'll see if I can find Connie Deadcrow for you."