“Explain to me what I’m looking at.” Celia’s tone only ever got so calm when she was pissed. The angrier she got, the more calm she acted. Ryan had seen one guy leave her office after she’d called him inside in that tone of voice. The dude had been in tears.
He wiped his hands on his jeans, made his foot stop tapping. It wasn’t making any noise, seeing as how he was barefoot and on the carpet of his living room slash office, but she’d still see it through the webcam currently trained on him.
She was looking down on her webcam feed, staring at her computer screen and the first update Ryan’s upgraded home system had sent her automatically. Shit, he was in so much trouble. “Uh… it’s just this thing I’m working on. Call it a side project.”
Celia looked up at her camera, which meant she was staring him in the eye. “A side project is meant to stay on the side. Try again.”
Ryan flushed. There was no way to defend himself. “All right. Okay. You’re absolutely right. I fucked up.” And then the whole truth came out. “It’s just that I can’t get the holograph to work on its own the way it’s been doing with me behind the wheel, so I figured if it could mimic facial expressions it would make up for the lack of voice inflection. And it’s not like it can answer a non-command question so I figured if it can smile instead, or nod, maybe that’ll work?”
It would have to because he’d already uploaded and pushed the code through to the system. For now it was linked with his webcam, to record his facial expressions as he talked. Once he had enough images and transitions, he could make the program call on the appropriate image for any of a given set of situations. It was revolutionary. Nothing like this had ever been done, even by the company’s standards. He was literally on the cutting edge of invention here.
Celia stared without blinking. He could practically see fumes rising from her head.
“It’s a temporary transitional phase. I swear.” He lied. “I can wean it off and get it to work like it’s supposed to, I just need more time. I can make it work.” He was repeating himself. Even to his own ears he sounded desperate, but what the hell was he supposed to do? Bad enough he’d already dug his own grave, now that he’d added another holograph scan into Victoria’s system there was no way to gracefully bow out.
“I’m pulling the plug,” Celia said.
“No, wait! I can work around this, just give me a chance!”
She wasn’t listening. “I’ll contact her myself, tell her there’s a problem with her system, refund her money and hope to God she doesn’t ask questions.”
“She’s a lawyer,” Ryan murmured. Of course she would ask questions.
“We’ll have to take the loss but we should be able to absorb it – Jesus Christ Ryan!” The last was shouted so close to the mic he got feedback at his end. “What were you thinking?”
“What was I… I was doing my job! You threw me into the deep end and just left me there, what did you expect me to do?”
Celia rubbed the bridge of her nose. “You’ve broken every security protocol in the rule book, completely changed standard operating procedure, set a holograph of yourself as the default? Invaded the client’s privacy and now you’re getting emotionally attached to this project. I should fire you on the spot. No, I should have you arrested.”
All true. But if he hung his head now and backed off with his tail between his legs, then it all would have been for nothing. Somehow, that felt more like betrayal than anything he’d done so far. He shouldn’t have altered the holograph. But he couldn’t have just sat there and watched an emotionless robot stand at attention and look off into space while Victoria poured her heart out to it. Maybe she never would have done it if he hadn’t interfered in the first place. Maybe it was all his fault and he was just making it worse.
But she hadn’t been talking to a machine. She’d been talking to him. Ryan. A person, not a program. Whether he’d intended it or not – whether she knew it or not – he was part of her life now and he owed her at least this much – to finish what he’d started. He could make this work for her and she’d never know the difference once he was done. Even if it took years.
He just… couldn’t leave her so alone.
“Please,” he said without meaning to.
Celia looked down at her screen again and knowing she was looking at him, he looked right into the webcam to implore her. She shook her head. “I can’t believe I’m giving in to puppy eyes.”
He nearly leapt out of his chair.
Celia blew out a breath and put her business face on. “Okay, here’s the deal. And boy, you better listen good because if you screw up one more time, you’re finished. You’ll be working helpdesk at elementary schools for the rest of your life, got it?”
“Y-uh yeah, totally.” He nodded. “Got it.”
There was the sound of a dozen mouse clicks. “Contractually we have one loop hole to get out of this unscathed. We’ll isolate the Marlow house system into a subclass for beta testing. I’ll assign another programmer to oversee your work and you’ll be taken off all your other cases.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means you just graduated from plain tech to R&D. Congratulations. Your side project just became your job.” She stabbed her finger at the camera. “You keep your head down, make this thing work as humanly as possible on its own. You don’t get involved in this woman’s life, you don’t talk to her like you know her. You do. Not. Do. Anything. Unless she orders it or schedules it as a repetitive task. Keep her house safe and keep your distance.”
Ryan nodded because she seemed to expect some sort of answer. When she didn’t give him any specific instructions on what to work on, he asked, “So… what do I do now?”
She looked into her camera as if he was stupid. “You make it work.” And then the screen went black.
House cleaning day. No matter how sophisticated this new system was, it still couldn’t get rid of dust bunnies under her bed. Or inside it, for that matter. Tori pushed the vacuum hose into the far corner under her bed, sucking up every last speck of dust with a vengeance.
It had to be the wine getting to her. She’d picked up her old habit of having a glass with her dinner again. In the absence of actual company, alcohol was starting to taste sweet. A very bad place to be. That was probably it, though. Her subconscious mind just plugged in whatever was missing in her waking life and used a familiar face as reference.
He’d started smiling. And making other faces, too. Tori had asked him about that yesterday and Ryan – the holograph that represented a computer system, for crying out loud – had said it was a new, experimental update. She’d made him go through the whole list of expressions, one after the other and he’d looked so damn real…
Was it any wonder that she was dreaming about him?
Tori turned off the vacuum and sat on the floor. She’d take a break before she dusted the furniture. This had to stop. She needed a social life. With actual people who actually understood what she was saying and could chime in on the conversation. “Ryan?”
He appeared, as usual, facing her general direction.
“Do I have any after work appointments next week?”
His head moved and he looked down. Right at her. Whoa… “No appointments logged.”
Tori scowled at his tone. It was choppy and cold. Like the machine he was. “Add some. Hair appointment at Lulu’s on Tuesday, five thirty. Nails Wednesday, six o’clock. And schedule a date at Bloomingdale’s on Thursday at noon. I’ll take a long lunch break. I think I’m going to go clubbing Friday night.”
“Appointments confirmed.” He was looking straight ahead again. She didn’t like it. Pushing to her feet, she came to stand right in front of him. Had to move an inch sideways to get out of the path of the projector.
“Look at me,” she commanded.
His face flickered and then his head moved to look at her.
“No,” she said. “Smile like you did before. Like you mean it.” The way he’d smiled when she’d said last night that he was the best dinner date a girl could ask for. His eyes had crinkled and he’d shown his teeth, and it had been a natural smile, slightly lopsided, and should have been accompanied by a witty remark.
Ryan looked right through her when he said, “Command not recognized.”
“Oh, don’t do that, you know what I mean.”
“Command not recognized.” He wasn’t smiling anymore.
“Stop it! Stop talking like a machine.”
He looked at her. Really looked at her, and Tori gasped and stepped back. She shook her head. No way. It was just in her head. He was a program, nothing more. “I gotta get out of here.”
She fled the room and raced downstairs, shoved her feet into an old pair of tennis shoes and grabbed her car keys. The door slammed louder than she intended but she didn’t care. Getting behind the wheel of her BMW, she backed down the driveway and brought it up to the speed limit.
And then she pushed it over.
“Satisfied?” Ryan ground his teeth and refused to look at his webcam.
“She looked upset.”
They were basically screwing with her mind. He’d worked the kinks out of the emotive part of the system, the one that mimicked facial expressions to fit the proper mood, and then the new programmer had had him rework it to be less obvious. Because nuanced mimics took up too much memory and would be too slow to flip through. “Just take out everything but four or five,” the guy had said. “Smile, frown, laugh, scowl… what else do you need?”
And now Victoria probably thought she was going insane. One day holo-Ryan responded like he understood her and the next, with Sergeant Pissant in charge, he was half dead. Ryan was seriously getting sick of the prick. And not just because the guy was screwing with his masterpiece.
The dude was a nerd of the highest order, wouldn’t know what a normal interaction between a man and a woman was because he’d never actually had one. Efficiency expert my ass. Gordon just wanted in on the action so he could say he “helped.”
“Yeah, Gordo, she did,” he said, trying to keep from punching the screen.
“Huh, I guess it’s PMS or something.” He laughed and snorted like a pig. Ryan cracked his knuckles one by one. “Hey,” Gordon said and frowned. “Why does the holo look like you again?”
“You don’t wanna go down that road,” he warned quietly. If Gordon suggested they paste his pudgy, uptilted nose, inch-thick glasses, pimply neck and patchy beard on the holograph Ryan would have to kill him. He might end up doing that anyway, just because.
Thankfully, Gordon got the message. “Uh, fine. Whatever. Guess it’s easier with the facial ticks and all.”
Breathe. Don’t mangle the nerd. “Are we done now?”
“Umm…” Gordon typed on his keyboard, probably writing an IM just so it would look like he was doing something. “Yeah, I guess. I got a pretty good idea of how it’s working now so I’ll just check in every once in a while to see how it’s going.” He looked left. Back at the screen. Left again and licked his lips. “Can you patch me into the video feeds?”
Ryan frowned. “Why?”
“Oh, just, you know. I need to monitor response time and all.”
They were sharing screens through the conferencing software. Ryan clicked on an icon to enlarge Gordon’s screen, which on his end stretched over three monitors so he had to pan over to what he was looking at.
He sucked in a sharp breath. Mangle the nerd. Break his face in. Leave him squealing in a puddle of his own blood.
There was a screencap of Victoria from behind, bent over to vacuum under the writing desk. This went way beyond breaking protocol. It was criminal and sick. Just the idea that Gordon had a stalker picture of Victoria made his stomach turn. He should report him to Celia ASAP. Who knew how many women he was spying on even now?
Too easy. Ryan leaned into his webcam. “Listen here you fucking pervert. There is no way in hell I’m letting you, or any other jackoff be a peeping tom. You even try to hack through my firewalls I’ll have the cops on your ass so fast you won’t have time to zip back up.”
“What the hell’s your problem, man?”
There were no words. The next time he saw Gordon in person, his face was going to get smashed in. “Call Celia. Tell her you’re off this project.”
“Oh?” Gordon’s eyebrows raised. “And just why would I do that?”
“Because I know where you live,” Ryan said, not even bothering to hide his murderous rage.
Gordon’s pudgy face on his screen went pasty pale and his throat worked on a dry swallow as he fumbled with his equipment and the screen went black.
Virtual Copyright 2011 Alianne Donnelly, all rights reserved, may not be reprinted or reproduced in any manner, written, electronic, or otherwise without express permission from Alianne Donnelly.